Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

I've been AWOL for quite a while, I realize. And I'm going to be AWOL for an even longer while, since I'm hopping on a plane with one of my friends for the Dominican Republic tomorrow at 7 am. For the first time in my life, I will be staying at an all-inclusive resort, with unlimited booze, mediocre food, and (hopefully) a beautiful beach. For a whole week.

Long-time readers of my blog will realize how shocking this is. My previous vacations have included road-tripping around Bosnia and Transylvania, and hopping from Turkey to Bulgaria to Serbia in 9 days. I've never hung around on a beach for a week doing nothing before. The closest thing was a vacation when I was 13 with my folks in Bali. I managed to contract dysentery, so the second half of the vacation found me limited to the resort -I couldn't be away from a bathroom for longer than 30 minutes.

This should be a great trip. I really need a vacation where I have no deadlines, no pressures and nowhere to go. I remember my frustration with my ex-fiance's desire to have exactly such vacations when he was in law school. Trust me, I recognize the irony.

So I will likely be away from my blog for quite a while - at least until I get back next Thursday. Fear not, gentle readers, you will be on my mind long as I imagine you as fruity cocktails with little umbrellas in them.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

North of the border

Watching Olympic coverage reminds me that I come from the border. A short walk from my parents' house is the lake - and the mouth of the Detroit River. On the other side is Canada. Hell - we're NORTH of the border, as we like to point out to visiting Canadians.

If you spent some time in my parents' house, and didn't know what country you were in, you might guess that you were in Canada. My mother listens to CBC radio classical music broadcasts whenever she's not teaching, and leaves the radio on upstairs all day. My parents watch the National every night. My mother is much better versed in Canadian politics and all its dirty little nuances than in US politics. My dad thinks Vancouver is the best city in North America. And in our house, we know very well that when it's 8:00 AM in Detroit, it's 9:30 AM in Newfoundland.

I am reminded of this because I've been watching CBC for my Olympic coverage. Unlike US coverage, the Canadians actually show some of the other competitors - not just their own nationals, and the Olympics are on for much longer periods of time. I find myself even rooting for Canadian competitors. I suppose, coming from north of the border I feel a certain kinship with my southern brethren.

The WTO - a deficit of legitimacy

The age of the nation state is coming to an end - its demise began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which paradoxically created a plethora of new nation states. To take its place is the age of global corporations, whose influence and reach extends into many nation states. The age of global corporations has been long in the making - but only now is it really emerging as a successor to the traditional Westphalian-based model.

Within this context, the future of the WTO seems uncertain. The WTO remains a dinosaur among many other dinosaurs - a traditional international organization based on the cooperation and agreement of member states. The global corporation has no role within the WTO, and the WTO lacks the capacity to regulate such corporations.

Furthermore, the WTO's ability to enforce its regulations appears to be limited to the Western nations and the developing countries who hope to improve their economic status through WTO membership. With Russia and Saudi Arabia aiming to becoming WTO members, the question of how effective WTO regulations will be on their economies looms large, particularly with regards to Russia.

Russia is in many ways the antithesis to the WTO - its economic policies could not be more diametrically opposed to the principles underlying the WTO if it tried. While China has an ostensible excuse in that it is a Communist country, Russia purports to be a democracy while lacking such basic elements of economic liberalization as even minimal transparency, a climate favorable to foreign investors and non-protectionist measures.

Furthermore, Russia's fingers are deeply embedded in myriads of pies throughout the former Soviet republics, particularly in the energy sector. The WTO has never dealt with the economic issues surrounding energy from a production standpoint - only from the consumer end. It seems unlikely that the WTO will suddenly find itself motivated to act once Russia becomes a member, even if other member states file complaints. China has largely managed to remain aloof from WTO interference, and it seems likely that Russia will as well.

The WTO is only able to deal with large economic powers when they are themselves willing to accept the rulings and enforcement-mechanisms imposed by the WTO. The legitimacy of the WTO lies in the acquiescence by such countries to the decisions of the WTO panels and Appellate Body. With China already undermining this legitimacy, the accession of Russia to the WTO would further undermine its already limited effectiveness.

Without the structure and mechanisms to deal with global corporations, the WTO will find itself increasingly marginalized as the world moves towards a more corporate-based model. Simultaneously, failure to enforce basic regulations vis-a-vis the non-Western large economic powers such as China and Russia will erode what legitimacy the WTO still has. In the end, the WTO will find itself limited in its role to dealing with highly technical minor decisions while global corporations run wild, harkening back to the corporate capitalism that was rampant in the United States during the days of Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. Here, however, instead of individual tycoons, the power will be housed in corporate boards, behemoths of international trade and new order capitalism.

Without significant systemic changes, which are unlikely to occur due to the unwillingness of member states to enact such widespread amendments, the WTO will remain entrenched in the 20th century, lacking the regulatory power, the legitimacy and the scope to deal with a world where nation states are no longer the main players on the international scene and where global corporations vie with each other for domination of the various economic sectors.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

My Cold War view of the Olympics

I've often said that I'm a product of the Cold War. Nowhere is it more clearly exemplified than in my sentiments during the Olympic games.

Most notably, I hate seeing Germans win medals. Seriously. I hate it. I like German people - I have no problem with Germany - but I hate the Germans with a vicious passion in the Olympics.

This is because I grew up when the Cold War was still going on. Summer or winter Olympics - we knew that the East German women were either actually men or highly doped. They had an unfair edge. The whole Communist bloc was made up of athletes in special sporting schools, rigorously trained. If they failed - their families lost all benefits of their special status. They had much more at stake than anyone else.

As a child, I knew that you always rooted against the USSR and East Germany.

I don't remember ever not knowing that the greatest moment in sports history was the US college boys beating the USSR Red Army team in hockey at the Lake Placid Olympics. Sentiments ran deep.

In short: Commies were bad.

Today, I've limited my opposition. I no longer root against Russia and the former Soviet Republics - they're too poor and the adversity that they overcome to reach the Olympics deserves my admiration. In uniting with West Germany, however, East Germany managed to keep its sports program and make Germany a dominant sports super-power. Take the pairs figure-skating coach - he was recently accused of having been a part of Stasi, the notorious East German secret police.

So I irrationally continue my Cold War hatred of East Germany in the Olympics, and as a result root more vehemently against Germany than against any other team. Screw "Olympic spirit" - the Olympic games are all about politics, and as a product of the Cold War, I can't just let bygones be bygones.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Seattle rocks my world

Some years ago I visited Seattle for the first time. On that occasion, much of my time was spent near the Microsoft campus, which while nice, is still a corporate campus.

Right now, I'm sitting in my hotel room in Seattle, amazed at how livable this city really is.

First of all - it's yuppy enough for me but also genuine and alternative enough for me. I'm yuppy in that I love esoteric cooking ingredients, fancy restaurants, and all things gourmet. But I've also got an alternative streak - I love the grunge factor in Seattle, particularly in that people here don't appear to be dressing a certain way to fit in some aesthetic niche, but rather because they feel like it. I also love the genuineness - the ability to eat raw oysters off a styrofoam plate not because that's chic, but because you're in a fish market and really close to where oysters live.

But the most amazing part of Seattle is its bus system. First of all - for $1.25 you can ride the bus all day long - you get a day pass for that. Moreover, during certain hours, you ride free around the downtown area. It's truly mass transportation. The buses are all trolley-buses, hooked into wires overhead, and go everywhere. I've never been a huge bus afficionado - but the Seattle buses are amazing.

Most importantly, the King County transportation webpage (which includes Seattle) has an amazingly useful website that allows you to input starting and ending addresses, and desired time of either departure or arrival. The website will then tell you what bus to catch where and at what time and how far you have to walk to get to your destination. This is possibly the most useful tool ever.

I adore good public transportation, and while Seattle lacks in subways and trams (it is significantly hilly), it more than makes up for it with its bus system.

Having had the chance to ride buses all around Seattle today, I can honestly say that it is among my favorite U.S. cities - up there with DC, New York, and even higher in my esteem than Chicago.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Why I couldn't be an international trade lawyer

I like food. I mean, I really like food. I love cooking, I love eating at good restaurants, I love thinking about food, I love looking at food, I love smelling food. If I had to choose between a lifetime of celibacy or a perpetually bland diet - I'd have to choose the lifetime of celibacy. And for those of you who know me, you know what a big deal that would be.

So what does this have to do with international trade law, you may ask?

From the EC Classification of Chicken case:

Brazil and Thailand argued that the chicken was "frozen boneless salted chicken cuts that have been deeply and homogeneously impregnated with salt in all parts with a total salt content of not less than 1.2% by weight."

The Panel of the WTO said that the chicken was "frozen boneless chicken cuts impregnated with salt, with a salt content of 1.2%-3%."

The Panel then determined that "the critical question in interpreting the EC Schedule is "whether the term 'salted' in the concession contained in heading 02.10 covers the products at issue which, in turn, will entail a determination of whether that concession includes the requirement that salting is for preservation and, more particularly, is for long-term preservation.""

And then they get into a big happy debate over what "salted" really means.

Now, they clearly fail to address the real issue:

Why would anyone want to eat frozen chicken impregnated with salt? Frozen chicken is bad enough. But impregnated...with salt? Yuck. This is why I don't buy the frozen chicken that comes in industrial-sized bags in the US - it's salted. Impregnated. No longer virginal.

I want my chicken to have been clucking a short while ago. I want my chicken to have eaten grains, and not hormones. I want my chicken to have not been impregnated with salt. In general, I prefer not to think of chicken and impregnation in the same sentence.

I really don't think I could be an international trade lawyer - these people keep missing the things that really matter in life. Just look at the latest WTO GMO decision.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Schrödinger's Cat

I learned about Schrödinger's cat before I learned about photosynthesis, multiplication, the American Revolution and the Beatles.

My dad, originally a physical chemist, felt that this was a worthy story to teach a small child about. Like Jesus and his parables, my dad's parable was Schrödinger's cat. I'm not sure how old I was when I first heard about the poor kitty, but at this stage of my life, I cannot recall ever not knowing about Schrödinger's cat and the basic idea of quantum mechanics that it demonstrated.

As a result, this cat is very dear to me. Maybe my dad felt that I was missing out on having a pet, so I would have a mental pet that was both dead and alive. Maybe he felt that he had to teach me about something scientific to counteract my mother's focus on the humanities. Maybe he just thought Schrödinger's cat was so incredibly cool that I had to know all about it. Maybe he wanted to make me aware of the fine line between science fiction and science and turn me into a science fiction buff. If the latter was his goal, he certainly succeeded. I'll have to ask him sometime.

Last night while trying to fall asleep, it suddenly occurred to me how strange it was that Schrödinger's cat was a children's story to me. It also occurred to me that there were probably many other things that I learned about as a small child that were rather strange. But those are stories for another day.

Monday, February 06, 2006

A bit late to the controversy...

I try to stay away from what I think are really obvious news stories. But after viewing some internet fora and speaking with some people I'm beginning to realize that the reaction from the Muslim world to the Muhammad cartoons is apparently less obvious than I'd thought. So let me summarize a few things:

1) This is not like having insulting cartoons of Jesus. For the iconophilic Christians, the heresy and insult that these cartoons represent is unfathomable. You cannot depict Muhammad. Simple. This isn't like depicting Jesus on a cross festooned with Christmas lights - that's in bad taste, it would insult Christians, but it's not a violation of Christianity. Depicting God or Muhammad in Islam is forbidden. Respect that.

2) The US places much value on its first amendment - the freedom of speech. We allow people to read whatever books they want, to protest and wear Nazi emblems - we pretty much allow any hate speech. But generally, mainstream newspapers respect certain things and don't go out of their way to be insulting. That's called self-censorship. Now, Europe doesn't have the same viewpoints on freedom of speech - and many things are banned - like hate speech. So how is a cartoon like that ok?

I feel like after my previous post I'm on an anti-European jag - I'm really not, but this latest scandal is simply unacceptable. It shows less respect for Islam than anything I've heard of outside of Gitmo and US-run prisons in the Middle East, and that's not a good thing. Especially not coming from Europe, which likes to act so superior to the US and emphasize its democratic values and respect for human rights and other cultures. How about trying to respect Islam for a change?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Roma discrimination within the EU

As a dual citizen with the US and Hungary, I am proud of both of my heritages. I am particularly proud to be a Hungarian since we are such a unique people. But I am not proud to be a Hungarian when it comes to the widespread discrimination by Hungarians against Roma (Gypsies).

Some years ago I conducted research on the situation of Roma in Hungary. In the course of my research, I was shocked by how widespread racism against Roma was. Educated liberals who professed their democratic and free-thinking ideals were quick to label all Roma as criminals and low-lifes. Moreover, I learned that in the rural areas of Hungary in particular, Roma children were frequently diagnosed as learning disabled and placed into special classes, creating a de facto segregated school system.

So it came as a shock and a disappointment but no surprise when I stumbled across an article yesterday describing the segregation of Roma children in a Hungarian public school a mere 10 km from Budapest.

The details of this story are shocking - the school placed bars down a hallway segregating Roma children (who were placed in special ed classes) from the rest of the school, denying them access to the fire escape. The rationale? To limit truancy. The story is all the more shocking in that it took place so close to Budapest.

The disappointment? This is but one of countless instances of discrimination against Roma in Hungary - and while this one was stopped because of the proximity of the town in question to Budapest, many other schools continue with de facto segregation in areas of the country that remain far from Budapest's EU oriented influence.

Hungary is now part of the EU - and as such should abide by EU norms. Last time I checked, the EU wasn't wild on segregation and discrimination. In fact, the EU is pretty big on protecting human rights. The ongoing discrimination against Roma in Hungary serves to emphasize my personal feelings that the EU accession process was grossly accelerated for the former Communist countries in a bid to counterbalance US power with a stronger, bolder EU.

One argument, made by my mother among others, is that Hungary's EU membership is precisely why cases like this school's segregation are even coming to light - Hungarians are gradually moving towards abiding by international and EU human rights norms, and such cases wouldn't have been dealt with without EU membership.

But my argument is that such steps should have been a precondition to EU membership. Human rights are very important to the EU and by allowing countries who regularly violate human rights as blatantly as Hungary does into the EU, the EU's adherence to fundamental rights becomes more rhetoric and less reality. Cases of segregation in rural Hungary are likely to remain prevalent for years to come, due in part to lack of interest, lack of motivation, and lack of funding on the part of the Hungarian government. Doesn't the hypocrisy of having representatives from member states such as Hungary, Slovakia and others that regularly violate human rights sitting as judges on the ECJ bother anyone?

By allowing the former Communist countries to become members without first requiring them to meet certain criteria regarding human rights, the EU has cheapened itself and has demonstrated that despite the lofty goals it had been evolving towards, today it is more about power, politics, and economic growth than ever before. Instead of moving forwards, the EU has taken a step backwards - or maybe sideways - joining the ranks of countries like the US that speak idealistically about human rights, all the while violating them.