Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Diplomatic immunity for e-Bay, Baazee.com?


ND Batra

The arrest of Avnish Bajaj, the CEO of e-Bay’s Indian subsidiary Baazee.com, in connection with the posting for auction of a teenage-sex video, should not have become a matter of such grave concern as it has been made out to be in the Indian media. The buck must stop at the CEO’s door. Period. And that’s why so many corporate chairmen, presidents and other top officials in the USA are in jail, some for direct involvement in the abuse of public trust and others for contributory criminal negligence. Ignorance of law, as has been said many times, is no excuse especially when software programmes are available to filter out what is illegal.

It was a failure of imagination on the part of e-Bay-Baazee that its top officials could not foresee this kind of criminal activity taking place on their platform. Despite all the noise about Bajaj’s temporary incarceration, it is important to keep in mind that child pornography, even the possession of it in the privacy of one’s home, is a serious crime in the USA, where Baazee.com’s parent company e-Bay is based. Dissemination of child pornography offline or online, or being a contributory to it, is treated almost at par with murder. Bajaj who went to Harvard and is a US citizen should have known that creating an auction platform would not have given him any immunity in the USA. And he should not have expected it in India either. But being a member of the new Brahmin class that is rising in India, NRIs and Indian-born US citizens returning home to “civilise” their motherland, people like Bajaj think that they are ushering in a new era of not only unprecedented economic growth but also of unbridled freedom, thus unfortunately mimicking the worst of America despite their presumed good intentions.

It is surprising that Infosys chairman NR Narayana Murthy described Bajaj’s arrest in the MMS scandal as “too drastic” an action. No, it was the proper thing to do to prevent India from gradually sliding into cultural anarchy. As India grows economically, it needs more social discipline. Worse than Murthy’s misplaced sympathy was the US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher’s statement that secretary of state Powell was concerned about the case. “I do know this situation is one of concern at the highest levels of the US Government,” Boucher said. “It’s a matter that we have been following.” I thought Powell had better things to do than interfere in a petty law enforcement case in India! Bajaj will get his day in the court but a high-profile case like this would alert other online service providers to watch their corner of cyberspace.

Corporate American leadership, whether e-Bay or Union Carbide (responsible for the Bhopal disaster), must accept responsibility for its actions. Instead of making amends for their criminal negligence, they seek diplomatic immunity based on the false argument that since they are contributing to economic growth, their crimes should be overlooked. It is most shameful when some in the Indian media try to cozy up with global companies doing business in India and ignore their abuses. Consider, for example, a typical response from an India journalist, who wrote, “As India continues its struggle to integrate itself with the global economy and attract more international investments, the experience of Bajaj could turn out to be a serious dampener.” That’s an absurd statement! Should India prostitute itself to attract foreign investment? What India needs is a courageous person like Eliot Spitzer, the New York Attorney General, who has taken upon himself the mission of preventing corporate greed and financial abuse. With the cleaning up of the corporate mess, Americans have begun to trust the market again.

NASSACOM forgets that the Baazee case is not about doing business in India but about trading and auctioning of online child pornography. NASSACOM’s admonition too was misplaced: “As a global, mature and responsible technology industry and the most attractive destination for services, we need to ensure that we do not send out the wrong signals to global customers and investors.” NASSACOM should let foreign investors know that the law of the land must be respected and that like any other “civilised and modern democracy,” India too would take “draconian measures” to protect its citizens, especially children. Listen to what the US Attorney General John Ashcroft said some time ago: “No one should be able to avoid prosecution for contributing to the abuse and exploitation of the nation’s children. The Department of Justice stands side-by-side with our partners in the law enforcement community to pursue those who victimise our children…”

Absence of moral outrage over the behaviour of school teenagers involved in the sex scandal and the lackadaisical attitude of school authorities has been no less shocking. Which makes me wonder where India is heading.

Dealing with your boss

To keep your job, act reasonably dumb before your boss. Why? Read more here.

Monday, December 27, 2004

US foreign policy

"Corporate power is the driving force behind US foreign policy - and the slaughter in Iraq," wrote JK Galbraith in The Guardian. Corporate Power is an expression of free market capitalism, but how does this lead to slaughter anywhere?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Dragon makes a move and Americans are all shook up

ND Batra: From The Statesman

WHAT’S in a name?

A lot.

Brand is the thing, the real thing in the global economy.

Suddenly the old question, “Guess, who is coming to dinner?” has assumed a new meaning.

Chop sticks, please. We’re Chinese.

Although no security alert or red flag went up when it was announced that a most celebrated icon of the US technology, IBM, was selling a part of itself, as it were, its brain, ThinkPad, to a Chinese company, Lenovo Group, for a paltry sum of $1.25 billion, a diffused state of anxiety and discomfort set in. Chinese companies, even when some of them don’t know how to manage themselves — Chinese Aviation Oil (Singapore) is a case in point — are nonetheless so ambitious that they are on an international hunt for acquisitions, especially for global brands.

IBM’s sale of its personal computer business would catapult Lenovo to become the third biggest computer company in the world, after Dell and Hewlett-Packard. “As Chinese companies move from prey to predator, they are also sitting on a powerful advantage: A possible currency revaluation. If the yuan rises 10 per cent, 20 per cent or even 40 per cent analysts expect, overseas acquisitions of household-name companies and properties become that much cheaper. In other words we haven’t seen anything yet from China,” writes Bloomberg’s columnist William Pesek Jr.

The Brits too have become alarmed and wonder whether America will become China-compatible one day, a secondary power at the service of a new superpower that’s sans freedom, sans, democracy, sans human rights. David Smith and Dominic Rushe recently wrote in the Sunday Times: “The sale of IBM’s personal computer business to a Chinese group shows that China is no longer content to be just the world’s workshop. It wants to own global businesses as well, and is using its low-cost advantages to embark on the acquisition trail. The Lenovo-IBM deal represents a coming of age for China. Until recently the economy that will dominate in the 21st century has been content to be the new workshop of the world. Now it has signalled that it wants a big slice of the control, and the boardroom action, as well.”

The fall of the dollar is not only bringing hordes of Europeans to shop and vacation, it is also bringing Chinese investors to buy businesses and industries, much as it happened in the 1980s when the Japanese went on a shopping spree. Of course ThinkPad will look like ThinkPad, which in fact is part of the deal that will allow Lenovo to keep the brand, and IBM, as a junior partner, would stand by it. But eventually ThinkPad would succumb to the Wal-Mart effect: Bring down the price. So would the quality, perhaps. But there are others who think that IBM’s sale of its PC business would have far reaching consequences because it is more than the simple fact that a part of Americana is being nibbled away by a foreign competitor. China’s unprecedented economic growth, galloping international trade and desperate hunt for raw materials, from oil to minerals, would give it a compelling reason for world domination.

Mark Helprin, a Wall Street Journal contributing editor and senior fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, recently wrote that the days of the US dominated unipolar world are over. He contends that China is following the example of the militaristic Japan under the Meiji and plans to dominate the Pacific Ocean. The immense economic growth generated by market economy has made China the world’s second largest economy in purchasing power parity with a total GDP of $6.5 trillion, which is likely to double in eight to 10 years at the present rate of growth. China “harbors major ambitions” and plans to counter the USA in outer space, oceans and in cyberspace (The acquisition of IBM PC business by Lenovo may be a step in that direction).

While the USA is bogged down in fighting Islamic insurgencies and terrorism, China is slowly taking weaker states of South-East Asia (consider, for example, the Asean-China free trade agreement) under its protective wings. Helprin warns: “This century will be not just the century of terrorism: terrorism will fade. It will be a naval century, with the Pacific its centre, and challenges in the remotest places of the world offered not by dervishes and crazy-men but by a great power that is at last and at least America’s equal. Unfortunately, it is in our nature neither to foresee nor prepare for what lies beyond the rim.” Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State designate, and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wouldn’t necessarily agree with that assessment.

All this might seem obsessively alarmist but no one should discount the Chinese goal of ultimately bringing Taiwan into its fold. Its trump card ironically may be the nuclear North Korea, about which the USA is extremely worried, a country over which China has more influence than it admits. But what has this to do with Lenovo buying ThinkPad from IBM? Diplomacy and corporate power work in tandem and China uses both to advance its national interests.

Does advertisement create numbness?

“As corporate interests exert tighter and tighter control over information and even art, critical evaluation is more essential than ever. As advertisements creep onto banana peels, attach themselves to paper cup sleeves, and interrupt our ATM transactions, we urgently need to cultivate forms of self-expression in order to counteract our self-defensive numbness and remember what it is to be human.”

-Rebecca Blood

Saturday, December 18, 2004

That's incredible

That’s incredible, but many people believe that Jesus must have known the teaching of the Buddha and the philosophy of non-violence before he told Israelis, Turn the other cheek. And the three wise men that came to Bethlehem to see Christ when he was born? Did they come from India?

The book titled ”The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of Christ Within You" claims, as reported by The Los Angeles Times, that the three "Indian" wise men named him Isa, or "Lord" in Sanskrit. Isa, Ishwar, Ishu are some of the names by which Indians call their God.

“The book further goes on to claim that Jesus also travelled to India, where he practiced yoga meditation with the great sages during his "lost years" from age 13 to 30, a time of his life scarcely mentioned in the Bible.”

Is that possible? Well, if Alexander the Great could go to India, why not Jesus? The Silk Road was not for conquerors only. Early Buddhists used the Silk Road to spread their teaching to China. Read more.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Eastern wisdom on leadership

There is no such thing as a perfect leader either in the past or present, in China or elsewhere. If there is one, he is only pretending, like a pig inserting scallions into its nose in an effort to look like an elephant. - Liu Shao-ch'i

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Question of the day

Would China use North Korea to blackmail the United States on Taiwan? Do you hear China whispering, Taiwan or us?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

When global corporations go bubble and bust

From The Statesman

ND Batra

Corporations exist to make money, not to spread capitalism, freedom or democracy. One of the best ways of making money is to dominate the market by eliminating competition. So corporations expand through mergers and acquisitions. Or they make unique products that give them unique positions in the marketplace. When they grow big and rich, it becomes difficult to keep their capital bottled up in one place. Some of it flows into the pockets of the people who control them. These people become victims of their own success and meet their hubris. Consider what Arthur Levitt Jr., former chairman of Security and Exchange Commission, said in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Money, Money, Money”. “Exorbitant compensation feeds the worst instincts and egos of powerful CEOs, fuelled by their desire to win at all costs and resulting, too often, in the cutting of ethical corners.”

Could that observation also be true about Raymond V Gilmartin, the CEO of Merck & Co.? In his testimony before the Senate Committee, Gilmartin said that even his wife took Vioxx, the painkiller that for some people became a killer drug. Freudians might say he had a subconscious desire to hasten his wife’s mortality, which of course is ridiculous, but did he care enough for the American patient as much as he did for the shareholders of his company? Cynics might say, wives come and go but a corporation has to go on.

Levitt blames the prevailing corporate boardroom culture of interlocking relationship, of “you scratch my back, and I yours,” for unseemly greed. And he wonders, “How likely is that a board member would challenge the person who invited him to join, and can re-invite him? How likely is it that a board member would stand up to the CEO who directed the company’s foundation to support his favorite charity? Or hired his law firm? Or his wife’s interior decorating shop?”

Greater corporate board independence and accountability, public exposure of excessive executive compensation based on comparative performance of similar work might offer some hope, Levitt says, but I am afraid it won’t be more than a palliative. And thereby hangs the question: In the era of resurgence of America values, if the recent vote for George Bush is really worth something, how much does a company executive deserve? Or what punishment he wouldn’t deserve if he pulled the company down the drain. Did Michael Ovitz, for example, who was fired from Disney, really earn $140 million for 15 months of work in 1995?

Talking of American values and corporate executive greed, where should one draw the map? Is corporate greed limited to the blue states? Are the red states too “red in tooth and claw”? Pardon me for mixing metaphors and cultures, but in the age of globalization shouldn’t our sight extend to the roaring economic giant China? If a Chinese business goes bust, can the USA turn the other cheek? Consider the case of Chen Jiulin, the Chinese entrepreneur who used his country’s mystique of flying dragons and crouching tigers, “Chinese Wisdom and International Expertise,” to turn China Aviation Oil (Singapore) Corp. into a most sought-after investors’ sweetheart. Millions of dollars of investors’ money poured into the company and by October the stock had risen by 80 per cent. But then the truth was out.

On 25 November, Chinese Aviation Oil bent its knees before a Singapore court and sought protection from its creditors. The miracle company had lost $550 million in speculative bets on oil. But the state-owned parent company in Beijing knew the unfolding disaster and tried to stem it by selling 15 per cent of China Aviation Oil (Singapore) to investors to raise money to cover the losses, however, without full disclosures to the investors. In the USA, this kind of hush-hush sale is called inside trading, the kind of illegal activity for which many American CEOs, Martha Stewart et al, are serving jail terms. Of course Chen Jiulin, the East-West business philosopher, the suspended CEO of China Aviation Oil (Singapore), who ran away to his village in China where he grew up as a farm boy, has been brought back to Singapore to facilitate the inquiry in the biggest collapse since the Barings Bank 1995, which suffered a loss of $1.2 billion.

“The scandal has raised questions about corporate governance in China,” wrote Clifford Coonan in The Times. But Coonan isn’t alone in this; Michael Coleman, managing director of Singapore-based Aisling Analytics Pte. was quoted in Bloomberg.com, saying: “It does raise some serious questions about Chinese companies. Can they govern themselves effectively? So far, all the evidence suggests that they can’t.”Which should be a mater of serious global concern and more so when the world is rushing to invest in Chinese companies without knowing how hollow are those outfits. By controlling information and hyping their prospects, they blow bubbles that can’t be sustained. So they bust, but who do you call? China Aviation Oil (Singapore) was simply an arm of the parent Chinese government controlled company, which had created a monopoly over aviation oil supply to China.

Even outside its borders, China tries to create conditions of complete command and control by creating cartels and monopolies. Singapore might convict China Aviation Oil’s Jiulan, but that would be shadow fighting. What can Singapore or any other government do about the Chinese government that spreads its tentacles abroad through private companies?

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A leader has spoken

South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings finally showed the courage to tell the truth about the destructive role of lobbyists’ money and their power over Congress. Talking with Mike Wallace of CBS, the senator said that lobbyists are the real lawmakers because they have not only access to senators but “it's all those K Street lawyers now and lobbyists and interests making up the legislation, and they work with staffs and everything else. The bills, and the special interests overwhelm us with submitted legislation”

What do Senators and Congressmen do? They spend their days and nights raising money for the next election. Speechwriters write their speeches, lobbyists craft bills for them and public relations firms do the thinking for them. What a wonderful life it must be to be a senator!

A leader has spoken

South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings finally showed the courage to tell the truth about the destructive role of lobbyists’ money and their power over Congress. Talking with Mike Wallace of CBS, the senator said that lobbyists are the real lawmakers because they have not only access to senators but “it's all those K Street lawyers now and lobbyists and interests making up the legislation, and they work with staffs and everything else. The bills, and the special interests overwhelm us with submitted legislation”

What do Senators and Congressmen do? They spend their days and nights raising money for the next election. Speechwriters write their speeches, lobbyists craft bills for them and public relations firms do the thinking for them. What a wonderful life it must be to be a senator!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A place where you don't have to wear pants?

A self-correcting system

Is the world currency system correcting itself or is the fall of the dollar Bush’s fault? John Cassidy in The New Yorker: “Ultimately, the value of a currency is an international verdict on the honesty and competence of the government that issued it. President Bush may have recovered in the domestic polls, but in the currency markets his ratings are still falling.” But the value of the dollar has fallen only in Europe. Or you might say, Euro is rising against the dollar. Does it mean the world trusts Europe more than the United States? I have not seen any measurable indices of trust in Europe rising in the world. There is more to the dollar fall than the falling trust in the Bush administration.

Be warned and take note, ye Americans

Will America become China-compatible one day, a secondary power at the service of a new superpower that’s sans freedom, sans, democracy, sans human rights? David Smith and Dominic Rushe say in the Sunday Times. “The sale of IBM's personal computer business to a Chinese group shows that China is no longer content to be just the world's workshop. It wants to own global businesses as well, and is using its low-cost advantages to embark on the acquisition trail…. The Lenovo-IBM deal represents a coming of age for China. Until recently the economy that will dominate in the 21st century has been content to be the new workshop of the world. Now it has signalled that it wants a big slice of the control, and the boardroom action, as well.”

Ad of the day

“Isn’t it strange that your dry cleaning got you to a place where you don’t have to wear pants?” Citi/ AAdvantage

Friday, December 10, 2004

Dragon in the American tent

No security alert or red flag went up when it was announced that a most celebrated icon of the US technology IBM was selling a part of itself to a Chinese company, Lenovo Group for a paltry sum of $1. 25 billion. Chinese companies, even when some of them don’t know how to manage themselves--Chinese Aviation Oil (Singapore) is a case in point--are nonetheless so ambitious that they are on an international hunt for acquisitions, especially for global brands.

IBM’s sale of its personal computer business would catapult Lenovo to become the third biggest computer company in the world, after Dell and Hewlett-Packard. “As Chinese companies move from prey to predator, they are also sitting on a powerful advantage: A possible currency revaluation. If the yuan rises 10 percent, 20 percent or even 40 percent analysts expect, overseas acquisitions of household-name companies and properties become that much cheaper. In other words we haven’t seen anything yet from China,“ writes Bloomberg’s William Pesek Jr.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

American tongue-in-cheek

ND Batra

From The Statesman

Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal wonders “why no one has yet run for office by campaigning against the computer. After all, you couldn’t ask for a better sin-delivery system than a PC with a fast Web connection.” Well, you might as well call a gun as a death-delivery system, but no one dares run a political campaign against guns in the United States and get elected. If you talk against guns, some gun lover would fire back, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” If a politician runs against guns, it means that not only he is challenging the people’s right to bear arms (Second Amendment) but also getting into a crossfire with the National Rifle Association—the 500-pound gorilla who does not need a gun to kill you. Senator John Kerry, who lost to George W. Bush, eagerly flaunted his Vietnam credentials, Purple Hearts and all, as well as his love for hunting by going on a goose-hunt, which proved to be of no avail.

But Gomes has a point: “With a week or two of patient work, someone with their hands on the keyboard of such a system—no matter what his or her age—could download a
Kinsey library of erotica, play videogames depicting the cruelest kind of violence, steal a studio’s worth of music and movies, and gamble away small fortune.” If politicians can’t fight against the girlie men” and “bushwhooping women of Hollywood, how would they fight the Internet, where no man or beast has much control? Whether it was Dr. Alfred Kinsey or the Playboy that liberated Americans sexually, or corrupted them, as Rev. Jerry Falwell would say, nonetheless, sexual imagery, heterosexual, homosexual, omni-sexual, has been seeping into American social ecology, even into corporate brands. Is omni-sexual a new word in American lexicon?

But consider this. A Saks Fifth Avenue ad shows two itsy-bitsy girls, one a coy blond and the other a brash oriental with the belly-button up, pants slipping down with palms in her hip pockets, face-to-face on two opposite pages of a glossy magazine, with the tag line: “Saks loves it: both ways”. Both ways? Very naughty indeed, I thought and wondered if it were a new form of omni-sexuality. A constant hovering anxiety in the “Sex and the City” used to be the question on the mind of every single woman who met a hunk: Is he gay? Of course if he were a heterosexual, a girl could have a chance. She could steal him from his girlfriend or wife. But what can a girl a do with a homo? Oh, yes! She could cry with Dame Edna in Back with Vengeance! : “Darling, this is not a shoe. This is a cry for help, my possum.” Dame Edna has a new act for the world and could get away with her conceit, “Sorry dear, I am just not feeling naughty tonight,” but what can a single girl with sex on her mind do in New York, the city of spin, spin, spin, and sin. Girls are not calendar-resistant, are they? They wrinkle. They shrivel. Boys move on.

Of course you have heard of water-resistant and wind-resistant, but what is calendar-resistant? That’s Timberland’s ad for its men’s Mixed-Media Jacket, which says: “It is quite possible the jacket will last longer than you.” Something to leave behind to make the world a better place, when your “too, too sordid” self is gone! You could pass on the jacket to one of your poor relatives whom you never liked or donate it to the Salvation Army. That however reminds me of a plumber who came to my house to replace a leaky pipe and said that the new pipe had a life-long warranty. Amazed, I said: Whose life are we talking about? Yours or mine? He never felt so embarrassed. He had a triple by-pass a year before. Just like the Timberland’s jacket, the plumber’s pipe too was calendar-resistant. And that reminds of me something else that was touted as calendar-resistant. A few years ago, a young thirty-something brunette was shown gloating over her Seiko watch: “My husband has left me, but my Seiko is still with me.” Joy to the world! Seiko is ticking and the woman is waiting for another gentleman caller.

Talking of gentlemen and lovers, a few years ago I overheard an ambitious woman humming to herself: There are a thousand-and-one ways of getting rid of your lover. And she got rid of him, kept the sprawling house and the kids, and moved on to another city, another hunt. But that’s merciful, though she had a killer instinct and could have done more. In a red, red state in the South, where I was a professor once upon a time, the Bible belt where there are more divorces and single moms than in the blues states, a colleague whose department work I was evaluating said to me in a loud whisper, “In my county, we don’t kill anyone unless there’s a reason.” I got the message loud and clear. But that was no better than two men of God who one evening came to the beautiful Eagle Lake where the university had given me a living quarter and said that they wanted to deliver me from my sins. One of them said, “Do you go to church?” I said, no, but why? The other said, “Do you want to go to heaven or hell?” I said, “ I would rather stay here.” They laughed and left me alone.

Just as the Internet and Hollywood deliver to us our daily pipedream of sins,
men of God are always ready to deliver us from our daily sins. Some call it checks and balances. I call it a supply chain system of American values.

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Discussion: Internet democracy, Ukraine and China

On-site Internet voting system enables voters to cast ballots on Internet-connected machines located at polling places. Remote Internet voting system allows people to vote from any device, a computer or cell phone, connected with the Internet. What if Internet voting were available in Ukraine? There would have been no fraudulent voting. The political crisis could have been avoided. You might say the same thing about the 2000 US presidential election, which, as some contend, was undemocratically decided by the Supreme Court in favor of George W. Bush. Is the Internet truly a democratic medium that would create a new electronic democracy and spread freedom around the world? Would the Internet democratize China? Does it matter when all we need from China is cheap stuff?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Drug companies too can kill

From The Statesman

Drug companies too can kill

ND Batra

Drug companies might have killed more people than all the terrorists put together. But who is counting? Raymond V Gilmartin, CEO of the pharmaceutical giant, Merck & Co., said in an open letter the company “is continuing to offer to refund patients for their unused Vioxx.” But Gilmartin didn’t say what kind of refund would Merck give to children whose mothers have been killed by Vioxx, an arthritis painkiller.

After a study established that patients taking the arthritis drug Vioxx for 18 months had twice the risk of heart attacks and strokes than those placed on a placebo, Merck pulled the drug off the market in September. Memos and e-mails leaked from the company to the media indicate that Merck had some knowledge about the side effects of the drug long before it was taken off the shelf. Did the company use its corporate power to choke the bad news? That would be for the lawyers to prove when they pursue class action suits, which might cost the company billions of dollars in settlement.

The US Drug and Food Administration, which approved the drug in 1999, now reports that Vioxx might have been responsible for causing an additional 27,785 heart attacks or deaths from 1999 through 2003. How much is the FDA culpable for not supervising the drug properly? Dr David J Graham, the researcher who led the Vioxx study for the FDA told the Senate Finance Committee Vioxx is a “national disaster” and that the FDA embodies “a profound regulatory failure” and is “incapable of protecting America against another Vioxx.” The drug, Dr Graham said, should have been removed from the market four years ago, alleging some people in the company knew the drug was not very safe but kept quiet. This is nothing but reckless disregard of the truth, what one might call as actual malice against the public, if the whistleblower scientist is proven correct.

But can any drug be totally safe? What are FDA’s safety standards? Sandra L Kweder, the FDA’s deputy director in the Office of New Drugs said, “Unless a new drug’s demonstrated benefits outweighs its known risks for an intended population, FDA will not approve the drug. However, we cannot anticipate all possible effects of a drug during clinical trials that precede approval.” But Dr Graham in his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee compared FDA drug warnings with weather forecasting. He told the Committee that if a weather forecaster said that there’s 80 per cent chance of rain, naturally a person would take an umbrella to his office. But the FDA believes that an umbrella won’t be necessary unless there is a 95 per cent probability of rain.

The analogical criticism of the FDA, however interesting, does not answer the question of acceptable risk for a drug. If a drug kills five patients but saves or makes the lives of a million livable, should that drug be put on the market? Should the FDA obligate the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug to put a label, such as: Five in a million users of the drug will die or develop some other serious problems?

Many people wonder whether the FDA has become a promotional arm of the pharmaceutical industry or is intrinsically incapable of doing its work properly. Dr Jerry Avorn, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has authored a new book, Powerful Medicines: The Benefits, Risks and Costs of Prescription Drugs. Talking with Ray Suarez of PBS NewsHour whether the FDA was doing a good job of protecting the public, Dr Avorn said, “I think it’s fair to say in light of both the Vioxx experience and also the experience we’ve had with other drugs in the recent past that, no, the system is not working well at all. There’s an enormous focus within the FDA about approving drugs quickly and getting them on to the market. And that’s okay if it’s done well. But then the attention of the FDA really drops off. And the vigilance disappears when it comes to requiring and analysing the data that we need to be able to learn about the safety of the drugs once they’re in widespread use.”

It is difficult to say whether the FDA suffers from a short attention span or is intimidated by corporate power, but Congress and the media can’t ignore the problem of drug safety any longer. In the meantime, Merck has begun its public diplomacy to win the hearts and minds of its shareholders if not the American public. Apparently the three full-page ads in major newspapers were not meant to assure the millions of people who have used Vioxx. Like the rest of corporate USA, Merck is interested in the bottom line; and that’s what Gilmartin said, “Our business prospects are strong and we are well prepared to address the challenges posed by the withdrawal of Vioxx.”

There is nothing wrong in Merck’s interest in delivering “returns to shareholders,” provided it also includes the welfare of the American patient. Now that Merck stands on trial in the court of public opinion and before Congress and faces class action suits, it would be its burden to prove what the ad claims: “Our ethical standards are the foundation of our company. Merck has consistently been recognised as one of the world’s ethical companies.” Who has conferred such a high distinction upon Merck? Where did the company executives learn their ethics? Are they confusing ethics with technical standards and profit making?

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Corporate greed

Consider what Arthur Levitt Jr., a former chairman of the SEC, said in a recent piece in WSJ entitled “Money, Money, Money.” “Exorbitant compensation feeds the worst instincts and egos of powerful CEOs, fueled by their desire to win at all costs and resulting, too often, in the cutting of ethical corners.“

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

If Condoleezza Rice were a mother

If Condoleezza Rice were the mother of young children, would she have looked at Iraq differently?

What would Lady Macbeth have done?

“I have given suck, and know

How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this.''

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Dr Rice is in and the whole world is watching

From The Statesman


America’s face to the world

ND Batra

Condoleezza Rice, the new US secretary of state, has a world to heal, without giving up the fight against global terrorism. As a most trusted confidante of President Bush, whom she is said to have helped form a vision of the world based on freedom and democracy, she could launch a new phase of American diplomacy. A broken and wounded world expects much from her. She brings to the job greater clarity and more credibility than Colin Powell, about whom the world was not sure whether his voice was authentic.

In spite of his well-articulated magnificent presence, Powell was an over-rated diplomat. His domestic reputation rested on the fact that the son of Jamaican immigrants, raised in the Bronx, a Vietnam vet, rose to become chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, national security advisor and finally the secretary of state. He celebrated his Horatio Alger kind of rags-to-fame and riches achievements in his best selling book My American Journey. The Powell Doctrine –attack only when absolutely essential but with an overwhelming force and know how to get out – was nothing but a distillation of the best practices of some of the past great generals.

Powell’s international reputation rested on a dubious premise that in spite of the fact that he differed with the Bush administration on its policy of pre-emption in general and the war against Iraq in particular, he heroically continued exercising his moderating voice among the hawks like defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney. If the chief function of a diplomat is to persuade others, Powell persuaded no one; not the President; not his own Cabinet colleagues; not the public; and not the international community. Using satellite imagery on 5 February 2003, he tried to convince the UN Security Council that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Technically brilliant and highly oratorical, it was nonetheless a disastrous performance.

By giving the impression that he was trying to give a moderate face to the Bush administration’s policy of pre-emption, Powell raised false hopes abroad. Last year on his visit to Islamabad, he declared Pakistan to be a non-Nato ally, which made no sense to anyone and pleased none. It was a diplomatic blunder of sub-continental proportion. His defenders say as a loyal soldier, he has continued supporting the commander-in-chief, President Bush, in spite of fundamental differences, but that is a deceptive behaviour. He would have served the country better by being a man of conscience rather than a blind follower of something he did not believe in. May be he would write another book about his experiences in living with contradictions in an atmosphere of cognitive dissonance. Diplomacy is not deception. It is not a charm offensive; nor a point-counterpoint game of chess. In the ultimate analysis, it is building alliances by creating shared meanings and common goals. It is persuasion using all the available means, short of war.

With Powell’s departure, it falls upon the shoulders of Condoleeza Rice to give a new tone and set up a new structure for the US foreign policy, which must go beyond pre-emption. Much is being talked about her past; how she grew up in the segregated South; how her father, a priest, imbued in her an unshakable faith in the ultimate goodness of American society; her self-discipline and dedication to whatever she chose to do, whether it was concert piano, ice skating or being a provost at Stanford University.

The most remarkable thing about Rice is she won the confidence of George Bush, who graciously introduced her at the time of appointment as secretary of state as “America’s face to the world.” Her relations with Bush, which began during the 2000 presidential campaign when she became his foreign policy advisor, grew into mutual admiration and trust. Bush admires Rice’s sharp analytical mind; she is captivated by his uncluttered vision, his habit of cutting through verbiage and getting to the heart of the matter. Probably she understood that behind the occasionally mangled English and malapropism, there lies a clear-headed and determined person with a vision.

What is expected of her? In what way would she be different from Colin Powell? As the President’s trusted person, she would speak with an authentic voice and in that sense she would be a true face of the Bush administration to the world. With so much credibility, she must dust up the roadmap for Israel-Palestine peace process and instigate earnest negotiations for the establishment of a genuine Palestinian democratic state that lives in peace with Israel, an indispensable first step in winning over the Arab-Muslim world. Lessons of Iraq must not be forgotten; though hopefully peace would return some day and Iraqis would have their own democratically elected government. Although Iran and North Korea cannot be ignored, any attempt to force a regime change would unleash forces that the USA might not be able to control. Dr Rice of course understands all that and much more.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Recent columns published in The Statesman

Revisiting Bush’s policy of pre-emption

Section: Perspective Date:Nov 17,2004Cyber Age/ ND Batra

The USA needs deeper engagement with the world through international economic aid, building up democratic institutions and strengthening weaker or failing states so that they don’t become havens for terrorists. It cannot depend

Bush unbound?

Section: Perspective Date:Nov 10,2004

The US presidential election ended gracefully and with clarity. It was a celebration of democracy. And if, as they say, the end is the beginning of something new, Bush’s second term could be more productive at home and less destructive abroad. But that wo

Outsourcing healthcare and other American problems

Section: Editorial Date:Nov 03,2004A few days ago

I shocked one of my colleagues when I showed him a Washington Post story how a 53-year old man Howard Staab, suffering from a life-threatening heart problem, could not afford $200,000 for heart surgery and instead went to New Delhi’s

America’s most (un)civil war

Section: Perspective Date:Oct 27,2004 by ND BATRA

The USA is a fierce democracy; non-violent may be, but brutal. Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry said the “W” in George W Bush’s name stands for wrong – wrong on war, wrong on peace, wrong on budget, wrong on social securit

Democracy’s work is never done

Section: Perspective Date:Oct 20,2004 by ND Batra

The continued insurgency in Iraq has unfortunately distracted our attention from some positive developments in Afghanistan. The election in Afghanistan held under the auspicious of the United Nations and international observers is the first sm

Seductions of cyberspace

Section: Perspective Date:Oct 13,2004

As the legend goes, on the Internet nobody knows whether a person is a dirty old man trying to seduce teenagers; a gender-swapping woman playing with big boys in a virtual MUD room; or a teenager posing as an expert. As a New Yorker cartoon by Peter Stein

cyber age: ND Batra: Who would do a better job in Iraq?

Section: Perspective Date:Oct 06,2004

The political war about war in Iraq has heated up to the point that other domestic issues including economy, jobs, social security, education and health care have been sidetracked. The daily flow of images of car bombs and suicide explosions in Baghdad, i

cyber age: ND Batra: Doing away with business patent methods

Section: Perspective Date:Sep 29,2004

Vivius, Inc., based in Minneapolis, is a most recent example of companies rushing to patent their unique methods of doing business, thus creating impenetrable walls to hide ideas that should be tested and debated in public. The company, according to Busin

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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Discussion: Internet privacy and e-commerce

Discussion: Internet privacy and e-commerce

What is your position on collecting and distributing consumer information collected through the Internet? Should companies be allowed to collect this data and sell it to third parties? Why or why not?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Revisiting Bush's policy of pre-emption

From The Statesman

Wednesday 17 November, 2004


Revisiting Bush’s policy of pre-emption

Cyber Age/ ND Batra

The USA needs deeper engagement with the world through international economic aid, building up democratic institutions and strengthening weaker or failing states so that they don’t become havens for terrorists. It cannot depend solely upon its firepower and modern war technology to subdue a restive people. Consider what happened at the funeral of Yasser Arafat, where Palestinian authorities could not control frenzied, hysterical mourners, who jumped barbed wires, climbed over the walls of Muqatta, descended on the compound, and raised passionate chants to grieve the passing away of their beloved leader. Such street-battle scarred people, whether in Palestine or elsewhere, need to be engaged culturally, economically and politically to wean them away from Islamic militant ideology. Pre-emptive policy needs revisiting.

During the 2002 brinkmanship between India and Pakistan, the USA by sharing selective military intelligence with both countries played a low-profile but significant role in defusing the crisis; and since then Washington has been unobtrusively supporting the process of normalisation. Today, the Indian sub-continent is a more hospitable place for business and investment than it was a few years ago. Although this does not diminish the bold foreign policy initiatives taken by the Vajpayee and Singh administrations, the quiet diplomacy of the USA has begun to bear fruit.

The only way the USA can exercise its influence is through the use of diplomatic power, the power of persuasion through cooperation, commonality of national interests and developing common goals such as economic growth, fighting terrorism and eliminating AIDS. Diplomatic power arises from the attraction of a nation’s culture and values, apart from its economic and military prowess. Most people around the world perceive American culture as a culture of Hollywood, pop music, blockbuster movies and steamy television programmes, but that’s only partly true. American culture is a culture of openness, of freedom and open roads that lead to the free marketplace of goods and ideas. It is a culture of optimism that holds the possibility of expanding human horizons. The Arab-Muslim world needs to be informed and educated about.

India like China has understood the power of US openness, the free marketplace, and has become one of the fastest growing world’s economies. If the USA, for example, were to shut its doors on India by blocking outsourcing, India’s technology-driven export economy would receive a setback. Bush’s Democratic opponent Senator Kerry talked against outsourcing. From economic and diplomatic point of view, Bush is a better choice for India. China has benefited tremendously by opening its economy and eventually would open itself to other cultural influences including free expression and democracy. By opening its markets to China, the USA has exercised its diplomatic power and changed a hostile nation to a friendly global power. A similar phenomenon has begun to take place in Pakistan, where the economy is picking up steam and foreign currency reserve is swelling. Americans may be resented and even disliked in some places, but they are also a most admired and envied people in the world. India and China aspire to catch up with the USA one day.

Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Governance says that a country can become attractive by “co-opting people rather than coercing them.” He suggests that international influence “comes from an effective aid and information programme abroad. What is needed is increased investment in soft power, the complex machinery of interdependence, rather than in hard power – that is, expensive new weapons system.” Although fighting terrorism requires both hard and soft power, attraction of the soft power, “is much cheaper than coercion, and an asset that needs to be nourished.” Just as trade with China and rising prosperity has co-opted the Chinese people and has given them new hopes and new dreams, a similar policy might transform Iran too.

The Bush administration must explore new directions in international relations instead of using pre-emptive power. For example, it is important that the USA uses media power to present an alternative view of reality to the Arab and Muslim world. Unlike the quick catastrophic victory in Iraq, the results of such cultural engagement would not be immediately visible but they would be long lasting. All battles ultimately have to be fought and won in the minds and hearts of the people. “Effective broadcasting,” wrote Edward Kaufman in The Battle for Hearts and Minds, “strengthens the traditional triad of diplomacy, economic leverage, and military power and is the fourth dimension of foreign conflict resolution… Perceptions change when outside information challenges certain assumptions.” International broadcasting done in local languages, for example, as done by BBC, must become part of the larger front of public diplomacy, the deployment of soft power of culture, to win the war of ideas.

More than anything else it is corporate America that makes the USA attractive. If American apparel makers were to open factories in Palestine, for example, they would create new hopes and dreams for the Palestinian people. The USA should encourage corporate America, through economic incentives and other means, to invest in West Asia to raise and sustain democratic dreams, the kind of dreams about which Bush talked about in his recent joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Internet porn and the First Amendment

Internet porn and the First Amendment

Pornography has been proliferating on the Internet and is obviously a serious problem, especially for parents of computer savvy children. What should be done? Should porn be controlled? Can it be controlled somehow when the Internet is boundless? Should Congress regulate it legislatively? Or is it better to leave its control to programmers, software companies and the marketplace?

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Bush unbound?

From The Statesman


10 November, 2004

Bush unbound?

ND Batra

The US presidential election ended gracefully and with clarity. It was a celebration of democracy. And if, as they say, the end is the beginning of something new, Bush’s second term could be more productive at home and less destructive abroad. But that would depend upon how creatively he accommodates or co-opts others’ ideas.

As Democrats and Republicans assimilate the causes of their respective defeat and victory, the bitterness and ugliness of the campaign would hopefully diminish, if not disappear altogether. Some are already planning for the future. After all, political power is never static. The election divided the map of the USA into a vast red territory that went for Bush and three disjointed puddles of blue that voted for Kerry, giving a totally misleading impression of homogeneity in each division. Underneath every red state, there is blue and vice versa. And as consciousness changes, the blue would surface up and dominate the red.

Terrorism and the question of legalising gay marriages that became a test of character and moral values drove many voters to Bush. While the Bible-thumping voters might have helped Bush get re-elected, the rich would more likely reap the economic benefits of his second term. The stock market rose 3.5 per cent in two days after the election.

Though magnanimous in victory, Bush was nonetheless quick to assert that his ambitious agenda cannot wait. People have spoken and Congress must listen up, he admonished during his first post-election press conference held in the White House. He seemed in a hurry to accomplish his agenda, the social political and economic platform that he set up during his election campaign. Knowing that the last 18 months or so of his second term would be the time for the next presidential poll campaign, he can’t afford to be a lame duck President too soon. Bush does not want to not end up simply building his legacy in the form of a presidential library or writing a bestseller memoir. Bush seems to have established a tryst with destiny. He has put the country on notice. “I earned capital in the campaign, political campaign, and now I intend to spend it,” he said. The decisive victory over Senator Kerry has given him a tremendous sense of power, especially when he sees that both houses of Congress are now under Republican control. He said he would tell Congress that the people have spoken and embraced his political platform, and so should they; especially regarding social security, taxation, health care, medical liability reforms and other initiatives. But of course when the reality sets in, he would know that his fellow Republicans in the Senate and the House too have their own political agendas to safeguard their political future.

Bush also knows that 48 per cent of voters who did not vote for him were not limited to the North-east, the upper lake region and the West; that underneath the vast swath of red states, there is a thick layer of the throbbing blue, the enduring Democratic sensibility that sees the USA differently. Although the election has left Democrats weak and humbled, he is aware that for any meaningful work to be done he might have to compromise. As he said, “My goal is to work on the ideal and to reach out and to continue to work and find common ground on issues.” But how far would he deviate from the ideal, his political platform regarding social security, taxation, health care, stem cell and other contentious issues remains to be seen.

The most contentious issue is of judicial appointments, especially for the US Supreme Court, where many justices are old, some too old. The influence of the Supreme Court justices extends beyond their graves. In many ways, they have shaped American society. Like most Americans, the justices of the Supreme Court too have conservative and liberal ideologies. And it is the President who, with the approval of Congress, appoints them.

One way of setting the agenda for generations to come would be to appoint justices who reflect the conservative philosophy of Bush. Recently, the 80 year-old Chief Justice Rehnquist underwent surgery for thyroid cancer. He may be the first to go. For Democrats and Republicans, whoever becomes the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is no less crucial than who sits it the White House. Presidential deeds and misdeeds can be undone but what the Supreme Court does lasts for generations. The Court’s influence comes from its exclusive power to interpret the Constitution, which shapes the culture, whether a woman can have an abortion, public school children can recite the Pledge of Allegiance that includes “under God” or a man can say to another man, I do.

The presidential election ultimately pivoted on values and Bush was able to convince a substantial majority of the American people that without values the nation can’t battle terrorism abroad and cultural anarchy at home.

Tuesday, November 2, 2004

Outsourcing healthcare and other American problems

From The Statesman

3 November, 2004

Outsourcing healthcare and other American problems

ND Batra

A few days ago I shocked one of my colleagues when I showed him a Washington Post story how a 53-year old man Howard Staab, suffering from a life-threatening heart problem, could not afford $200,000 for heart surgery and instead went to New Delhi’s Escort Heart Institute and Research Centre. At a meagre cost of $10,000 which also included round-trip fare, a visit to Taj Mahal and great food, Staab had his defective heart valve replaced by Escort surgeons.

Staab is one of the 150,000 foreigners who visited India last year for medical problems. Of course the uppity-nose correspondent John Lancaster of the Post could not resist his condescending remark: “Staab is one of a growing number of people known as medical tourists who are travelling to India in search of First World healthcare at a Third World prices.”Apollo Hospital’s founder Prathap Reddy was quoted saying: “If we do this, we can heal the world.” My colleague’s reaction was: Who would heal India, Mr Reddy? India might have to be satisfied with trickle-down benefits from the medical tourist industry that is projected to grow to $2.2 billion by 2012. But that is beside the point. Skyrocketing healthcare costs are making Americans desperate. State governors in defiance of the federal government are reaching out to foreign countries for cheaper prescription drugs.

If US healthcare providers and the insurance industry want to reduce healthcare costs, they might offer the American patient a choice: Go to India for surgery or pay up the bill, which might be ten times higher in the USA, and swallow up a the retirement nest egg. That presents a policy dilemma. If universal healthcare is the goal, how do you make it affordable? How much of it could be outsourced to countries like India and how much should be handled by the US healthcare industry? This year the flu vaccine shortage has made authorities think about the need for setting healthcare priorities. Should the limited healthcare opportunities be given to those who can afford it or those with the most need?

Until last year, most employers in the United States of America offered their employees free flu shots before the onset of the flu season. They did so in their own enlightened self-interest. It is more economical to keep workers healthy than let them fend themselves in the flu season and the work be disrupted due to sickness.For rest of the community, family health clinics offered flu shots at affordable rates. Since each year there are new strains of the flu virus, the vaccine has to be tailor-made, as it were. There used to be enough for everyone who wanted it. But no one ever thought what might happen if the production of flu vaccine was disrupted due to some catastrophe or even sabotage. Flu vaccine never entered into the calculus of the Homeland Security colour alert system.

Not long ago only most vulnerable people, children, senior citizens, and nursing home residents were advised to go for a flu shot. But since newer flu strains came to be associated with sources of foreign origin — China, Hong Kong, Thailand — most people thought what is good for older people must be good for younger people too. It is just like Viagra, which was initially meant for people with erectile dysfunction but later on even normal healthy people began to use it, thanks to the aggressive advertising push by the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, and later on sby other manufacturers (Ciala, Levitra). Need was created. Market expanded.

Although widespread fear has made flu shot a universal choice, the market does not drive its demand and supply, unlike that of Viagra. In fact liability claims and low profits might have discouraged its production. Nonetheless, the supply managed to keep pace with the demand. But this year, one of the major vaccine manufacturers, Chiron, expected to provide 48 million doses against a total US demand of 100 million, had its licences suspended due to the problem of bacterial contamination in its plant in Liverpool, England.Most of the people, according to a survey reported by USA Today blamed drug companies and federal health officials. It has not become a serious political issue in the presidential campaign, though one Bush advertisement blamed trial lawyers associated with his Democratic opponent Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards.

But the shortage has created a national scare and an ethical dilemma for the medical profession. Although all healthy people have been excluded from receiving flu shots this year, how do you prioritise the limited supply among the vulnerable population? How do you decide who is the most vulnerable when in some cases a person needs more than one shot to get full protection. One after the other, healthcare facilities have struggled with the ethical dilemma and issued public statements limiting shots to high risk categories; for example, people suffering from asthma, diabetes, immune deficiency, children less than two-years-old and pregnant women, but not necessarily in that order.

The question is: If healthcare is everyone’s basic right, how do you ration it? The next President of the USA might find that outsourcing healthcare and buying cheaper drugs abroad may be the best solution. Another door might open for India.


Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Games people play

Games people play

Apart from MUDs, many other pay-for-play or free game sites are available on the Internet. They enable players to compete against other players around the world. Besides, there are global casinos, which do not necessarily originate in the United States. US courts have no jurisdiction over them. Apart from the problem of regulating them, there is a serious social concern about compulsive and addictive behavior. Internet gamblers can forget the real world. What should be done?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

America's most (un)civil war

The Statesman

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

America’s most (un)civil war


The USA is a fierce democracy; non-violent may be, but brutal. Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry said the “W” in George W Bush’s name stands for wrong – wrong on war, wrong on peace, wrong on budget, wrong on social security, wrong on everything. But Bush, he said, would admit no mistakes and instead tries to hide the painful truth of war, having gone bad with “arrogant boasting” that the war is being won. Quoting former US commander in Iraq General Ricardo Sanchez who had warned about the poor supply problems, Kerry said, “Bush went out and told the American people that our troops were properly equipped.” Kerry’s running mate, Senator John Edward, said Bush has been hoodwinking the American people “into believing that he is the only one who can fight and win the war on terrorism.” Of course both keep boasting that they can do a better job of winning the war on terrorism. In an unguarded moment, Kerry said terrorism might be reduced to a nuisance like illegal gambling or prostitution, for which he was castigated by the Republicans. Bush said the war against terrorism could not be completely won. But he was quick to explain that since terrorism is not a state enemy, it would not be completely eliminated. Bush has been calling Kerry a flip-flopper, a man who speaks looking at the polls. He supported war in Iraq and then turned against it. He is a man without conviction and credibility. Bush said while he is fighting to end terrorism and spread freedom, Kerry “has chosen the easy path of protests and defeatism” and that he would push the nation to “a major defeat in the war against terrorism.” Talking in New Jersey, a Democratic state that bore the brunt of the 9/11 attacks on World Trade Centre, Bush said his opponent “has now flip-flopped his way to a dangerous position. He has talked about artificial timetables to pull our troops out of Iraq. He has sent the signal that the USA’s overriding goal in Iraq would be to leave, even if the job is not done.” Short of name calling, they have been putting down each other as someone unfit to be the commander-in-chief. The rhetoric of mutual vituperation is being reinforced by negative ads that pull no punches. There was a time when liberalism as a political philosophy was in vogue. Liberals with their social programmes, from social security to welfare for unwed mothers, turned the USA into a gentler, kinder society. But liberalism as a public policy required state intervention in the lives of the people, apart from taxation to fund the programmes. So as the mode of consciousness began to change, sometime around the Reagan era, Democrats came to be called tax and spend liberals, and became associated with more government and less individual responsibility. Today, calling an American “a liberal” is as bad as it can be, worse than calling him an immoral person. So a Bush ad says, “John Kerry and his liberal allies. Are they a risk we can afford to take?” Kerry’s anti-Bush ad shows images of violence in Iraq, where US troops are attacked, as the ad says, “530 times a day.” Another ad asks, “Are we safer today with a lying Bush? Or with naval hero Kerry?” The unkindest cut came during the third presidential debate when the moderator Bob Schieffer asked if the gentlemen, Bush and Kerry, thought whether homosexuality was natural. While Bush tried to wiggle out of the question (I don’t know, he said, but the sanctity of marriage should be preserved.), Kerry responded by referring to Vice-President Dick Cheney’s daughter being a lesbian and said homosexuality is natural. Regardless of his good intention, the reference to Bush’s running mate’s daughter left a bad taste. But who cares? It is a civil war – the kind the USA has never seen before. It is a war about the USA’s hearts and minds. And it is a bitter one. No one would emerge a total victor and claim a mandate, which might not be that bad for rest of the world. The American people have been deeply divided since the last presidential poll, but 9/11 temporarily papered over those divisions. If Americans were deeply divided over the issue of weapons of mass destruction before the invasion of Iraq, there might not have been a war. But Americans had become a victim of a spiral of silence induced by a post 9/11 wave of fear and patriotism, and had developed a dangerous collective mindset. The media had unwittingly become a propaganda machine for the administration. It is now that some of them have begun to question their transcendent silence and timidity. Florida achieved notoriety in 2000 when the presidential poll got bogged down due to the perfidy of the electoral machinery (hanging chads and other alleged sleights of hand), and the US Supreme Court stepped in to cut the Gordian Knot and handed over the election to George Bush. The Florida election night terror of 2000 still haunts Democrats in spite of the fact that the state claims that it has installed what is being called “idiot-proof” computerised ballot machine. The fear of Florida 2000 repeating itself has unleashed pre-emptive legal wars. Democrats have been accusing officials of Republican controlled states of trying to disenfranchise new voters who are most likely to vote for the former. Republicans have been accusing Democrats of voter registration frauds. Both parties have hired thousands of campaign lawyers, and established SWAT teams with networks of cell phones and helicopters, who are going to patrol every poll precinct especially in swing states and are ready to take the battle to court. Even the Afghanistan election seemed a more civilised affair.

(ND Batra is Professor of Communications, Norwich University, Vermont. You can blog him at http://corporatepower.blogspot.com.)

Exercises in Games of Power and Leadership

Exercises in Games of Power and Leadership

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Corporations and Cybersex

Corporations and Cybersex

Is it safe to send, from one’s home or office, sexually explicit e-mail messages to a colleague? Is cybersex between office colleagues a form of adultery? How should corporations deal with the problem? How should Fox News Network deal with Bill O’Reilly’s situation?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Democracy's work is never done

The Statesman

October 20, 2004

Democracy’s work is never done

The continued insurgency in Iraq has unfortunately distracted our attention from some positive developments in Afghanistan. The election in Afghanistan held under the auspicious of the United Nations and international observers is the first small step toward the beginning of a new democratic society. Regardless of what the ground conditions are at present, it seems that a new horizon of hope, peace and prosperity might just be opening up in Afghanistan. For millions of Afghans, including women who cast their votes for their presidential choice, it was a historic occasion. And by doing so, the people of Afghanistan have distanced themselves from the Taliban, al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden and militant Islamic fundamentalism. For women specially, the very act of going out to vote was an act of freedom that they never experienced before. Gradually they would assert themselves and reject the oppression of a closed tyrannical society run by mullahs and warlords. The peaceful vote must have had a persuasive influence on opposition candidates who had boycotted the election, complaining about ink fraud that might have let some people to be misled to vote more than once. The setting up of an independent commission to look into the alleged election irregularities was in itself a lesson on how necessary transparency is for the functioning of democracy. Public opinion, not the booming of guns, would eventually become important in political decision making. Democracy is trust building through accountability, and indeed it demands patience and hard work, especially when it has to be transplanted as an exotic plant. But imagine if the USA, albeit in its self-interest, had not invaded the country! The people of Afghanistan would have continued living in the dark ages ruled by the Taliban. Afghans might still stumble and fall back, but democracy deserves a chance. Nonetheless, the first successful democratic exercise in nation building in Afghanistan indicates that diversion of resources to Iraq might not have been that catastrophic. Even in Iraq, the government’s cash for weapons programme might bring about changes and hope for peace. In Sadr City, the vast slum in Baghdad that has been the centre of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s resistance against US efforts towards rebuilding a new democratic Iraq, Mahdi Army fighters, as part of the truce deal, are giving up their weapons including machine guns, mortars and landmines by the tons. The fairness of Afghanistan presidential election cannot go unnoticed by Iraqis. Hope creates hope. Bartle Breese Bull, who earlier reported for The Financial Times from Baghdad, wrote in The New York Times that Moqtada al-Sadr’s commitment to the democratic process is genuine and "represents momentous progress for the democratic project in Iraq and it signifies the emergence of a broad and powerful Shiite front... After five centuries under Sunni rule, Iraq’s Shiia majority will get its elections in January. In the end, Sadr and the occupation have common cause on the issue that matters most: a stable democratic outcome." Would the prospects of a fair election and participation in power sharing through democratic wheeling dealing change the minds of the Sunni population too? That’s the challenge. Last month, Bush told the UN: Our security is not merely founded in spheres of influence or some balance of power; the security of our world is founded in advancing the rights of mankind. Bush is convinced that fighting terrorism would be an endless task unless it is accompanied by spread of freedom and economic opportunities. He says he feels no regrets in invading Iraq despite the clear and convincing evidence that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. The rationale for war has changed. A closed country might become a haven for terrorists and, therefore, it must be opened through democracy and trade. It is a political philosophy in a new key and goes beyond pre-emption. Benevolent intervention might become the other face of pre-emption. The challenge in Iraq is not how soon the USA can get out but to find ways and means of controlling insurgency so that National Assembly elections scheduled for January have full participation from the Sunnis too, along with the Shias and the Kurds who make up 80 per cent of the population. The National Assembly has the task of drafting Iraq’s permanent Constitution, and without the full representations of the Sunnis, the Constitution will lack legitimacy. If the Sunnis are convinced that election would be held as fairly as in Afghanistan, they might turn around, take part in the January elections, and participate in the framing of the Constitution. Spreading democratic freedom is not only a moral obligation but a political necessity. Along with other pro-active measures such as going after terrorists wherever they happen to be, freedom would provide a long term insurance against terrorism. At least that’s how Bush has been professing during the last days of the presidential election campaign and his opponent Senator Kerry has not expressed any disagreement with him on this point.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Seductions of cyberspace

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Seductions of cyberspace

As the legend goes, on the Internet nobody knows whether a person is a dirty old man trying to seduce teenagers; a gender-swapping woman playing with big boys in a virtual MUD room; or a teenager posing as an expert. As a New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner quipped, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” At least for sometime, that’s what a California teenager Marcus Arnold had tried to do a few years ago. Probably using his knowledge gained from television programs such Court TV or Judge Judy, and taking advantage of the pseudonymous freedom that a newly started knowledge sharing company AskMe had provided, Marcus turned himself into a legal expert and began to dole out free legal advice. His simple direct non-legalese approach to puzzling legal questions had a great appeal. Soon people began to call him at home seeking his legal advice. But the burden of fakery became too heavy for the fifteen-year-old boy and one day, he said, I am not what you think. Real lawyers poured scorn but the public rallied around him and he continued to give his non-expert common sense expertise on legal matters for sometime. AskMe closed its free Website in 2002 but at its height about 10 million registered visitors posted questions and answers on everything from Armageddon to Zen. The Internet has created a new media environment that not only enables people to communicate, discuss and exchange information, giver and receive feedback, but also provides an interactive collaborative environment in which words can become deeds and speech can become action. Networked computers, the building blocks of the Internet, are much more than mere productivity tools and informatics systems. Unlike the traditional media, they are capable of creating cyber-environment that can be designed to be persuasive, that can motivate people to act and change their social behaviors. Stanford University researchers call this rhetorical concept as Captology, which according to BJ Fogg “focuses on the planned persuasive effects of computer technologies.” (http://captology.stanford.edu). What I am saying is this: It may be the next challenge for software programmers in Kolkata or Bangalore to design virtual environments to motivate people, for example, not to drink and drive, to have healthy sexual behavior, to avoid pregnancy. Professor Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School has expounded the view that computer codes have the potential force of law, that programmers could bypass Congress and in a manner speaking take laws into their own hands. But the rhetoric of software design, the persuasive code that entices, builds relationships, arouses and fulfills desires and keeps the users coming back has not been fully explored in areas other than cybersex and virtual reality Internet games like multi-user dungeons (MUDs). There may be fortune in developing codes that persuade the user to change his attitude, behavior and actions. The strength of the Internet is its interactivity, its ability to respond and give instant feedback. Feedback not only regulates the flow of communication but also gives some of the control back to the receiver of the message. Two persons in conversation establish a dynamic relationship to create shared meanings. Human communication is essentially a transaction that takes place effectively if people have or can create a common field of experience. Jehadis, for example, share each other’s mental model of the Islamic Paradise, and for them suicide becomes a door to that mental image of everlasting beauty. Persuasion works through sharing of mental models. The Internet makes it easy to share mental models whether they are of instant entrance to the Paradise through suicide bombing, buying and selling on a virtual platform such, or sharing knowledge as companies like AskMe do. Internet communication can transcend face-to-face communication, can be very persuasive, and in certain circumstances is even more desirable. Lack of face-to-face cues, physical appearance and vocal inflections, which might arouse skepticism (that’s how Marcus Arnold got away with it), are absent in Internet communication especially when it is time delayed (asynchronous) such as in e-mail or question-answer Websites. Selective self-presentation makes it possible for people to open themselves up to others, which they would hesitate to do in face-to-face conversation for fear of contradiction and lack of control. Even in chat rooms and instant messaging, communication can become what one researcher, JB Walther, called as “hyperpersonal,” that’s, socially more desirable than we are likely to experience face-to-face. It allows the play of fantasy partly to compensate for the absence of aural and visual information that gestures and voice create in interpersonal encounters. Fantasy lowers our guards and makes cyberspace so seductively persuasive—and dangerous. So many teenagers go astray in chatrooms because cyberspace lets them assume fake identities and gives them freedom to pretend what they fancy themselves to be. Some of them become victims of conmen and predators, who too assume identities desirable for their teenage victims. The playfulness of virtual environment, an environment of “Be what you want to be,” creates a pleasurable experience, a sensuous flow, in which we feel control of our environment that real life might deny us.

(ND Batra is Professor of Communications, Norwich University, Vermont.)

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Looking for another killer application?

CYBER AGE: Looking for the next killer application? BY ND BATRA

The Statesman Date: Jun 02,2004

For most businesses, the best digital strategy is to look for a killer application, a technology, an idea or a business method that creates new “marketspace,” a cyber-niche, that never existed before, and establish market dominance until another...

Who would do a better job in Iraq?

Cyber age: The Statesman October 6, 2004

Who would do a better job in Iraq?

The political war about war in Iraq has heated up to the point that other domestic issues including economy, jobs, social security, education and health care have been sidetracked. The daily flow of images of car bombs and suicide explosions in Baghdad, images of the injured being rushed to hospitals and the dead being mourned, are being used both by Republicans and Democrats to make their own partisan argument: For Republicans, the Iraq war is a war against terrorism that must be won; for Democrats Iraq is a no-win situation and there has to be a smarter strategy of disengagement. Senator Kerry says President Bush not only made “a colossal error in judgment” about Iraq but has also misled the nation about the grimness of the current situation, and he “owes the American people the truth and he owes the troops the truth.” Even some prominent Republican leaders agree with the assessment that the situation in Iraq has been going from bad to worse. “The worst thing we can do is to hold ourselves hostage to some grand illusion we’re winning. Right now we are not winning. Things are getting worse,” Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said a few weeks ago. His Republican colleagues in the Senate, Senator Richard Luger of Indiana and John McCain of Arizona have been equally vociferous against the false sense of optimism of the Bush administration and lack of planning in conducting the war and its aftermath. Despite the talk of deception, the charge of ill-conceived war planning and daily horrors of war images, Bush – according to several polls – maintains a steady though narrow lead and also may be solidifying his lead in the so-called red states he won in the 2000 election. Even among women voters, Bush is edging ahead of Kerry, though a majority of women voted for the Democratic candidate Vice-President Al Gore in the last election. From suburban moms to soccer moms to security moms, the American woman voter would prefer a leader in the White House who promises to make life in the USA safe. For women, it is always security first. The commander-in-chief must make the American home safe. That’s the difference between the Vietnam War and the war against terrorism. Getting out of Vietnam was humiliating but it did no harm to the USA, its homes and streets. Getting out of Iraq will not be the end of terrorism and will not make the main street safe. American voters may not like Bush much but they are still not sure of Kerry, despite his excellent performance in the first debate, that he is the man with an executable plan to eradicate insurgency and begin the beginning of democracy in Iraq. Republican attacks have tried to paint Kerry as weak on defence against terror, a position that according to them emboldens terrorists. Bush was quick to say during the debate, “I don’t see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place.” The political ad war is being fought under the shadow of the ruins of the World Trade Centre. The announcer in one of the ads asks: “Would you trust Kerry up against these fanatic killers?” Days before the first presidential debate, in an interview broadcast with a conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Bush said that he had no regrets about going to war against Iraq and declaring the war to be over when he landed on a carrier dressed up in a flight suit in May 2003. The number of Americans dead after Bush declared the war over rose to more than a thousand, and the overall misery of the Iraqi people, not the least thousands of civilians dead and injured, has been incalculable. So the question is, why are the American people not ready to ditch Bush in favour of Kerry? As Bill Clinton said in a perceptive moment, in difficult times Americans prefer a leader who is strong though wrong to one who is right but weak. Trying to fight the impression of weakness, Kerry said during the debate, “Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we’re there. We have to succeed. We can’t leave a failed Iraq.” But the doubt remains. Could Kerry convince the American people that he can do the job, that he would be able to bring the allies around and persuade them to send troops to Iraq, that he could set a timetable to end the war? They might give the benefit of doubt to Bush because they believe that terrorism is not a passing phase in international affairs and the war is going to be long and hard. But in times like these when American homes are flooded with images of daily carnage, Iraq might turn the tables against Bush’s optimism that the war against terrorism is being won. Kerry might win by default. But I will hold my tongue until the election is over.

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Smart, very smart

cyber age: ND Batra: Smart intelligence systems

The Statesman Date:Aug 11,2004

Last week when I called my Internet service provider, a smooth computerised human voice asked my phone number, presumably to check my identification from its database, and then said, “Probably I could help you, if you tell me the problem.” It

Friday, October 1, 2004

Tear down the wall at Wal-Mart

From The Statesman

CYBER AGE: Tear down the wall at Wal-Mart


Big events don’t necessarily portend the future. People live with hurricanes and earthquakes. Lives don’t change fundamentally. The Twin Towers are gone. New York continues, probably livelier and better prepared for future eventualities. Americans are in the midst of a great hullabaloo: the mega media event created by Bill Clinton and the publishers of the supposedly confessional account of his life and times; the handing over of sovereignty, fact and fiction, on a platter to Iraqis with live on the Internet beheading and cries of the innocent; and the Bush-Kerry simmering presidential campaign. Yet, from a long-term perspective, the quality of life in the USA may not be much affected by the raging media storms. Clinton would justify his $10 millions royalty advance; Iraqis would continue their daily bloody rituals, freedom or no freedom, for some time to come; and anyone who goes to the White House would be wondering, so much power, yet so little foresight, so little wisdom. When small things aggregate, they bring about great changes. One of the world’s biggest retail giant, Wal-Mart, that sells small things at low prices and buys massive quantities from inshore and offshore sources at blood and sweat wages, mostly of women, may have greater impact upon the world than Al-Qaida or Clinton’s My Life. As the retail giant scrounges and sponges the third world for cheap goods, in the USA it keeps overheads low by hiring mostly female workers at wages much less generous than it pays its male employees. In 2001, the year Al-Qaida hit Twin Towers and the Pentagon, six women said to Wal-Mart, this is discrimination and you can’t do it. Six women snowballed into 1. 6 million current and former women employees who in a class-action suit charged that Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, paid less and gave fewer promotions to women than to male employees. In the land of equality, this is a serious accusation. And the US District Court Judge Martin J Jenkins found that the plaintiffs did “present largely uncontested descriptive statistics which show that women working in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region, that pay disparities exist in most job categories, that the salary gap widens over time for men and women hired into the same jobs at the same time, that women take longer to enter management position, and that the higher one looks in the organisation, the lower the percentage of women.”Although there’s prima-facie evidence of discrimination against women, the judge hedged his exuberance and corrected himself by saying that he was simply certifying that the class action could go ahead and “shouldn’t be construed in any manner as a ruling on the merit or probable outcome of the case.” Gender and race-based discrimination is an anathema in US society and Judge Jenkins, evoking the 50th anniversary of the landmark case Brown v Board of Education, said that the anniversary “serves as a reminder of the importance of the courts in addressing the denial of equal treatment under the law wherever and by whomever it occurs.” In its unanimous decision in 1954, the US Supreme Court mandated school integration, ruling that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place,” nullifying an 1896 ruling that it was constitutional to educate black students separately, provided school facilities were equal. In many ways, Brown v Board of Education ruling was the beginning of the epic struggle for justice and racial equality, which flowered in Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s grand vision, “I have a dream…” Now these 1.6 million women say that Wal-Mart has been denying to them their dreams of equal opportunities.This is, however, not the first gender-discrimination class-action suit against corporate USA. Home Depot, Texaco, Coca-Cola, Public Super Markets and many others were hit with class-action suits for discriminatory employment practices and paid millions of dollars in settlement. Unfortunately, all these cases were out-of-court settlements, which means close public scrutiny was avoided. Such settlements might solve immediate problems but they do not advance the cause, in this case breaking the cultural glass ceiling that keeps women down even if they have degrees from Harvard and Wharton and are capable of doing better jobs then men. That’s the fear that the class-action suit lawyers fighting for more than a million Wal-Mart women workers in the USA might succumb to the temptation of making a quick buck for themselves rather than taking the fight to its logical conclusion, that is, ending workplace discrimination against women once for all. A golden opportunity would be lost.A precedent set in the USA would be followed wherever Wal-Mart and other multinationals go, for example, India, where local companies would have no choice but to offer competitive opportunities to their female employees at par with what they offer to males, another consequence of globalisation. As women advance, so does civilisation.