A new president at the World Bank

By now, the Paul Wolfowitz saga is all over the news. He has resigned from the Presidency of World Bank over either his own ethical lapses (if you listen to his critics) or because the entrenched bureaucracy hated this anti-corruption crusader (if you listen to his supporters). Either way, his last day is 30 June 2007.

So now, 2 years after nominating Wolfowitz to the job, Bush has another stab at nominating someone to that position. Traditionally, the US President nominates an American for the job. However, the Board of Governors still has to approve the nomination and US does not have enough votes to simply ram the nomination through.

Bush and World Bank are both at crossroads. Bush has 20 months left in office and his time in the White House is now deeply intertwined with the Iraqi mess. He, just as everyone else, wants to leave something positive behind. World Bank, created as a conduit to help western Europe get back on its feet after WW2, is also looking for a mission for the future. During the Cold War, its monies and energies were largely frittered away in unsound projects that helped dictators more than anyone else. As a result, many critics are calling for a world without World Bank.

To break from the past, the two major goals of World Bank these days are fighting poverty and fighting corruption. These two scourges are devastating many poorer countries, hindering their growth and, to make matters worse, fueling large-scale illegal immigration to many richer countries which are unprepared or unwilling to take them. Bush can help on all these fronts and help US reduce illegal immigration by picking the right person to direct the energies and the treasury of World Bank to fight these two problems. Of course, the impact of this policy shall not be evident in the short term but it can create a lasting legacy that George W. Bush can be rightly proud of. Now the question is who to nominate.

Bush has had a troubled 2007 so far. His appointments seem to be ideologues who do not have a good grasp of their responsibilities. The Alberto Gonzales affair has primed many people to automatically suspect any nominee for the World Bank job. In such a hostile climate, Bush does not have a lot of room to maneuver. If his nominee is seen as unacceptable (again, many are already espousing such a position, even before anyone has been announced), there is a good chance that this American-on-top tradition may come to a quick end. While I may be a dyed-in-wool liberal, I also feel that a single misstep should not kill a tradition. So, I hope Bush confounds his critics by doing something audacious. I have a few suggestions.

First, Bush could go with tradition and pick an American but from the other side of the political spectrum. Pick someone who has experience as a leader, had an easy time with international agencies and who can see the long-term positive impact on US and the world by fighting poverty and corruption. After all, this is not an academic position. World Bank needs to become more focused on its goals and deliver some results. Richard Holbrooke comes to mind as do Al Gore and Bill Clinton.

Or, Bush could modify the tradition - Choose a non-American. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, is resigning from his current job on 27 June, so he would be available. Jose Maria Aznar, the ex-prime minister of Spain, has impeccable conservative credentials. If he is keen to tackle poverty and corruption, he can help the Spanish government and people by reducing the influx of desperate illegal immigrants into Spain. Of course, Bush could try to convince Nelson Mandela but he is likely to say no. Shashi Tharoor, the loser in the race for UN Secretary General a few months back, could be a wild and crazy but useful pick. An even more wild pick would be Bono, who has been campaigning for more help to poorer countries.

Whomsoever Bush chooses, he has to ensure that this person would be an effective leader in the multilateral environment of World Bank. A "My way or the highway" person would not only cause a bigger mess and interfere with Bush's legacy, it may provide the right ammo for those who are unhappy with American leadership lately. In today's world of fragmented alliances, it is very important to find someone who can rally the troops at World Bank and focus on the objective at hand.

Having said all this, I am afraid that the Bush advisers would steer him towards a "normal" approach that has all the hallmarks of mediocrity. But this is not the time to be timid. Safe and bland choices do not a statesman make...


Cinemas in the Netflix age

I am sure everyone knows about Netflix, the company that has made a roaring business out of mailing movie DVDs on a subscription basis. For most Americans who do not have a 70,000 title movie rental store nearby (most of us), it is amazing to find just about any movie one would like to see. But getting the DVD in your hand is just the first part of the solution. The movie makers don't imagine viewers watching their movies on a 30-inch screen, with bright lights or the sun washing out some of the more subtle colors, finger ready on the Fast-Forward or Pause to accommodate the phone, the neighbors, the kids and the door-to-door solicitors.

I remember watching Dances with Wolves at a cinema. I could not only appreciate the wide expanses of the frontier lands, I could also feel the weather, the snow, the winds and the sunsets that can create new philosophers. When I saw Omar Mukhtar: Lion of the Desert at the cinema, the sand and dust choked me and the sun burnt my face. But then again, they are action movies. But what floored me was when I saw Casablanca on the big screen (at Stanford Theatre) after seeing it on the small screen. There is hardly any action, no sweeping vistas, heck there isn't any color either! But, it was amazing.

I think I know why. In a movie theater, you are immersed in the experience. You have to pay attention. No remote to replay a scene, no phones to distract you, no expectations of interruptions, just you and your fellow moviegoers. This immersion is what is missing from the home theater experience.

So, here is an idea. Any entrepreneurs out there who feel like implementing it are more than welcome to it. Heck, you don't even need to credit me for it. I give it to the public domain. Moviegoing by subscription. Just like you make a list of movies to see in the request queue at Netflix and its competing services, you make a list and when there is enough interest, the movie theater gets hold of the movie and shows it. A perfect marriage of the old world and the new. Just imagine, watching Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen. Actually, if you start such a service, my first vote would be for Lawrence. I have seen it on the small screen a few times. I just want to see it in its full splendor.


Victory in Iraq

Well, our soldiers have now spent four years in Iraq. That is longer than we spent during World War II. And while fighting rages on in Iraq, debate continues on the home front. There are many who think we should call it quits in Iraq and bring all the soldiers home. There is even a website bringthemhomenow.org, detailing all the various pitfalls that American soldiers are facing in Iraq.

Then there are those who feel that American soldiers should not be recalled and allowed to win the war. They call the first group various names and accuse them of not supporting the troops.

Now, I may be just an ole farm boy from Iowa but let us look at some facts. More specifically, let us look at facts that would help us determine where we are now.

  • President Bush said that he was sending the troops over to discover, secure and destroy Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). The troops dug through everything and could not find any. Mission SUCCESS.
  • Bush said that he was sending the troops over to topple Saddam Hussein because he had killed Iraqi citizens by gassing them and was an overall bad guy. Saddam Hussein's regime was destroyed and he went into hiding from where our soldiers captured him alive. Mission SUCCESS.
  • Bush said that he was sending the troops over to bring democracy to Iraq. Iraq has had quite a few elections, a new constitution has been drafted and promulgated and many of the structures of democracy have been put in place. Mission SUCCESS.
  • Bush said that he was sending the troops to build a just society. Saddam Hussein and some others close to him were tried in court and sentenced to death and hanged. Mission SUCCESS.
That makes four successes out of four reasons why we invaded Iraq. 100% success. That is amazing. The mission statement had four things in it and all four things got accomplished. So what are we waiting for? Mr Bush, our soldiers have done all you asked them to do four years ago. The entire list has been checked. Why wouldn't you declare victory, Mr Bush?

The US constitution says a lot about who can declare war and who is in charge of our troops but is not very clear about who has the power to declare victory. Maybe, if all the states, cities and people around the country started declaring victory, Mr. Bush just might listen...


Why religious right needs to embrace gay marriage

As we all know, members of the religious right are up in arms about same-sex marriage, pushing most states to amended their constitutions to explicitly forbid the recognition of same-sex marriages. Massachusetts is the only state to buck the trend and recognize same-sex marriages. Many on the right call same-sex marriages as an abomination, a crime against God, a crime against nature and a fundamentally Wrong Idea. Heck, there is even a catchy phrase "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Yet, I feel that the time has come for the religious right to not just tolerate same-sex marriages but even embrace them. Why?

Well, let us go back in history and see what marriages were like 2000 years ago. The poor did not have much and most of them perhaps did not even go through any proper ceremony to get married. The rich and powerful, on the other hand, saw marriages as an instrument to solidify and further their position in society. Kings and princes married wisely, hoping to inherit some lands through their wives. Merchants married off their daughters to potential business partners. In many cultures, marriages were decided long before the bride or the groom could entertain any contrarian thoughts. Love did not figure in the equation. The couple getting married were just pawns in the chess game played by their families.

But as the society has evolved, love has come to play a role in marriages. People are now expected to fall for someone, not simply paired up in a business transaction. That has led to inter-religion as well as inter-racial marriages (perhaps the most famous being between Mr. and Mrs. Loving).

So, what does this have to do with same-sex marriages? Well, the other trend that keeps a lot of priests and other religious leaders up at night is that many young people are foregoing marriage altogether. They have seen love go out of many a marriage and the aftershocks of a divorce scare them. So, people are living together, having children, maintaining a life as close to being married as possible but there is no marriage. If this trend takes hold, who would get married? The 10% who are truly religious? That would lead to another problem...

You see, the federal, state and local governments give many privileges (roughly 1,100!) to married couples that they don't give to unmarried couples, most famous being the ability to inherit from a spouse without paying any inheritance tax (and more importantly, automatically). So, as people start skipping the marriage part, they are going to find themselves in various legal limbos when they want to make medical decisions or trying to enroll their children in school. And so these unmarrieds are going to start demanding the same rights as married couples...

Do you see where I am going? By denying the same-sex couples these "married rights", the religious right is making it more likely that some of these "married rights" shall end up being granted to cohabiting couples as well. The people on the right should try to nip this problem in the bud by ending their opposition to gay marriage to make sure that marriage as an institution (and as a grantor of various rights and privileges) survives. After all, the gays are trying to follow the same process that everyone else has for many generations (be a kid, study hard, grow up, get married, have kids, help them grow up, enjoy grandkids...). Sure, some churches may face a schism much like the one faced by Episcopalians today, but things do work out in the end. After all, slavery, interracial marriages and civil rights have led to schisms in the past...


Help commuters, help everyone

Let us talk about public transportation - subways, trams, buses, local trains, ferries etc. For most part, public transport is a capital intensive setup. The tracks have to be planned and laid out, the rolling stock acquired, a depot to store the rolling stock at night and to repair and maintain it, a schedule to build and advertise etc. By the time a tram or even a bus line (where no new tracks need to be laid) is in operation, it may have taken 2 or 3 years of planning, acquiring and hiring, not to mention advertising. That is why, today in USA, there are very few new lines and each and every one of them require a heavy investment from the federal government (the only one with enough money). As a result, most people drive and cause massive congestion during rush hours.

So? Well, I have a proposal that would please five groups: drivers, public transport riders, environmentalists, employers and taxpayers. You don't believe it? Let me explain:

Decades back, the US government decided to allow people to deduct mortgage interest from their income for the purpose of computing income taxes. The resulting discount has encouraged home buying to such an extent that home ownership has gone from 20% to 70% since the 1940s. True, the governments are losing a lot of tax revenue but it has had a lot of positive impact as well.

Recently, the US government has extended this deductibility to Health Savings Accounts. The thinking was that if people had some tax-free money tucked away to pay for health care, they would not wait for a catastrophe before seeking medical help. And because HSA money is going to come from wages, it helps the working people and it helps the employers (because they don't have to pay the Social Security and Medicaid taxes on the money going to HSA).

So, I propose that there be a similar Commuter Savings Account (CSA). People be allowed to put up to $5,000 each year pre-tax into their CSA from their wages. The CSA money can only be used for buying tickets from public transportation systems in USA. There would be no restrictions on who can use the tickets. This would give people a big discount on public transportation tickets and hopefully spur greater public transportation adoption. This would lead to more people taking the subway or bus to work (thus reducing the need for parking spots at the office) and reducing the number of cars clogging up the roads. This would also lead to reduction in pollution and the best impact of all - It would lead to less wear and tear on the roads and less repairs. The taxpayers would save more on road infrastructure costs than they would lose in the lost tax revenue.

Oh and I forgot. More people would arrive at the office without road-rage. I am sure you would like that...