Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Private vs. Public

7 World Trade Center, destroyed on 9/11/01. Today it is a shining tower that is 80% leased. Top rents are $80 per square foot, well above the $50 per square foot its critics said it would never get.

Nos. 1-6 World Trade Center, destroyed on 9/11/01. Today it is… a pit.

What is the difference? The former is owned and operated by a private developer, Silverstein Properties. The latter is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Although leased to Silverstein Properties, all major decisions regarding its rebuilding have to be approved by its government owners.

What is the lesson? Draw your own conclusions.

Source: New York Post, "Moody's Takes More", 2/27/07

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Funding the Enemy

The United States has already paid $1.026 billion in ransom to the North Koreans in order to stop them from building the nuclear bomb. That was the price tag from 1995-2003 of President Clinton's "Agreed Framework" plan. Under that plan, negotiated in 1994, we paid the North Koreans food, fuel oil and in two light-water nuclear reactors to stop building the nuclear bomb. We helped them build nuclear reactors in exchange for stopping the building of the nuclear bomb. That is kind of like helping someone make dynamite in hopes that they don't build bullets.

You can read all about it here in a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service, a bureau of the U.S. Congress.

What did we get in return for the $1.026 billion? The answer occurred on October 9, 2006, when North Korea conducted a test explosion of what may have been a nuclear bomb.

Now, President Bush has agreed to give an additional $400 million of fuel oil and electricity... in exchange for what? The North Koreans have agreed to shut down current bomb-making efforts. What about the prior nuclear bombs they may have already made and the weapons-grade uranium they have stockpiled? We will leave that to a future negotiation to determine how much additional ransom we should give the North Koreans to turn that over to us.

What is to stop the North Koreans from lying and continuing their production of more nuclear bombs, just like they did in 1994 when President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright negotiated the first ransom payment? Nothing.

President Bush once called North Korea part of the Axis of Evil. Today he is paying money to a key member of that Axis. They will use it to build more nuclear bombs. We, the citizens of the United States, are paying for construction of the bombs that may one day be exploded over our cities.


For a pictorial representation of how the North Koreans have played us, look here.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Victim of the New Soviet Union

On Monday of this week, the Russian Prosecutor General levied new criminal charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The new charges mean it is likely that Khodorkovsky will remain imprisoned at a Siberian labor camp past 2008, when he is currently up for parole. Khodorkovsky has been incarcerated since July 2003 after being charged and then convicted of tax evasion, stealing and sundry similar charges.

What is really going on here?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has been ruthlessly stamping out all forms of opposition. He is re-nationalizing companies and closing down independent television stations and newspapers. He now appoints provincial governors who used to be elected. While he has been in office, more than 40 journalists have been assassinated. Under his watch, none of these crimes has been prosecuted. He is confiscating foreign business interests in Russia, using the pretext of violations of meaningless environmental laws. Such a tactic was used to partially confiscate the $20 billion Sakhalin oil project, after Royal Dutch-Shell had invested billions in the project.

When he was an active KGB officer serving in the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) district, one can only imagine what crimes Putin committed or witnessed. The recent polonium murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London is an example of the type of KGB-sponsored actions that were frequent in the old Soviet Union and have now been resurrected in the new Russia.

Putin is going out of his way to make sure that a man like Mikhail Khodorkovsky spends more time in the gulag. Why is he such a threat?

Men like Khodorkovsky are a threat to dictators everywhere because they are independent. Khodorkovsky was a double threat to the dictator, a man independent in his thinking and independently wealthy. Khodorkovsky was not just the wealthiest man in Russia at the time of his arrest in 2003, but he was the architect of Yukos, the second largest oil company in Russia. Under his leadership, Yukos became the first large Russian company to report accounting figures using internationally accepted “GAAP” (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) standards. By doing so, Khodorkovsky raised the standard for other corporations to follow in Russia, a standard that would facilitate modern capital markets and greater foreign investment in Russia. Khodorkovsky brought in Western managers to modernize Yukos’ business practices, including U.S. citizen Steven Theede, who was brought in as Chief Financial Officer of the company, and became its Chief Executive Officer after Khodorkovsky’s arrest.

All of the business steps Khodorkovsky took resulted in Yukos’ oil production growing at a nearly 20% annual rate during the last three years before his arrest and the Russian government's confiscation of Yukos. The proof of his Western managerial style was in these results.

Based on the public information available, Khodorkovsky’s actions are those of a highly competent, intelligent and successful business executive. His rise was a remarkable sign that Russia had changed, that the old Soviet Union was giving way to a new Russia that was more free and more Western than it had ever been before.

One of the charges against Khodorkovsky is that he unfairly acquired the assets that formed the base of Yukos during the corrupt privatizations of the 1990s. This may be true, but it is irrelevant. In a Communist society, no one “owns” the industrial plants, equipment and resources. The state was not the owner; it was the confiscator of property that had been formerly owned by private individuals prior to the Revolution. Such property would lie fallow until men like Khodorkovsky stepped forward to make it valuable. This process is similar to the appropriation of land by the Homesteaders in the United States in the 1800s. Vacant land was occupied by settlers who farmed it, and it became theirs. That was the same status of the property that had been abandoned by the Communists when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.

That men such as Khodorkovsky stepped forward to appropriate such property, and make it far more valuable than it had ever been under the Communists, we should all be thankful. By doing so, he created wealth that he enjoyed and all those who did business with him enjoyed. That wealth was created, after having been dissipated by the Communists before. By doing so, he also helped bring the rule of law through modern business practices and accounting standards to Russia.

Stated in simplest terms, the proof of Khodorkovsky’s moral right to the property that formed the base of Yukos is the fact that he made it productive. He was a Homesteader.

Moral leaders in the West have said little about Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment (under horrible conditions, he was recently slashed by a fellow inmate). In the United States, leaders such as President Bush, who himself excoriated American businessmen and imposed punishing new rules on them such as Sarbanes-Oxley, have been incapable of taking a moral stand in support of Khodorkovsky. Instead, Bush, speaking of Putin, utters such grotesque inanities as, “I looked the man [Putin] in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. // I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” With statements like that backing him up, it is no wonder that Putin feels morally empowered to stamp out the independent minds in Russia.

I wish Mikhail Khodorkovsky well. May justice prevail.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Mass Hysteria

A recent HBO documentary chronicles a road trip through the Bible Belt.
Friends of God: A Roadtrip with Alexandra Pelosi shows the narrator as she visits a truck stop where nightly prayer sessions are held; as she interviews a man who erects gigantic white crosses all over the South; as she chronicles brain-washing sessions for children where overweight hucksters explain the truth of Creationism, and how man could not be evolved from monkeys; as she visits a family of ten children where the pregnant mother describes how she used to want to be a doctor, but now glories in her holy duty of procreating for Christ. The narrator attends church meetings where well-known national ministers such as Jerry Falwell tell his congregation to vote for candidates who uphold Christian values such as anti-abortion. She shows us Christian comedians and Christian rock stars, and Christians who proudly declare themselves "soldiers for Christ" at "Battle Cry" rallies.

She shows us mass hysteria.

How much of a threat is it? Is it growing, or declining? What would these people do if they gained complete political power? What would happen to atheists, agnostics, gays, and members of every religious sect other than fundamentalist Christianity?

The ideas are so ridiculous, the worship is so... cheesy, that I find it hard to take seriously. Hopefully, a majority of Americans will always feel as I do. Hopefully, a majority of Americans will respect science. Hopefully, a majority of Americans will uphold the separation of church and state. Hopefully, a majority of Americans will stand for religious freedom, the right of people of different faiths -- and no faith at all -- to live together peaceably. Hopefully, a majority of Americans do not want government legislating personal morality.

These Christian true-believers are laughably small in stature. They take the Bible literally. They believe the earth is 6,000 years old. They believe God created man in His image and that evolution is false. They are hypocrites and guiltily engage in the sexual practices they say are evil.

As they battle for Christ, they tell us they would outlaw abortion. They would ban certain sex practices and homosexual acts. They would use government money to fund their causes in violation of the First Amendment. All of this they have admitted.

And if they really got all of the political power they crave, what would their true colors be?