Beat the recession (Punch it! Kick it!!)

New York State’s constantly-on-the-ropes Governor David Paterson has just come up with an excellent plan to boost economic recovery:

Gov. Paterson is pushing to legalize ultimate fighting in New York, claiming the unrestrained mixed-martial arts events will make a quick buck for the state’s troubled economy. If he gets his wish, the cage fighting exhibitions, which have been banned in the area since 1997, could take place not only in upstate arenas but in Madison Square Garden.

The controversy over the Brazilian-inspired fighting championships began when John McCain called the blood sport “repugnant” thirteen years ago. The practice was banned in 36 states, including NY, and some reforms were adopted. The UFC introduced weight classes and gloves and made kicks to a downed opponent, hair pulling, fish-hooking, headbutting, and groin strikes illegal. The championship also dropped its “There Are No Rules!” tagline.

Now proponents claim that the PG-13 version of the ultimate fighting is appropriate and necessary. “A study done in 2008 by the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization estimated one event would generate $11.5 million in economic activity in New York City and $5.2 million in Buffalo. Ultimate Fighting Championship estimates there could be two or three events a year in New York,” according to the NY Daily News. Paterson is slated to propose the legalization in his January 19 budget announcement.

Seriously? Why stop there, Governor? If we were to boot the Mets out of their lovely new Citi Field ballpark and turn it over to Roman-style gladitorial combat – possibly involving live tigers mauling slaves – then (i) we wouldn’t have to put up with the Mets being rubbish any longer, and (ii) you’d raise way over $11.5 million.

Afghans: cheerier than Americans

Some unexpected data comes in from the BBC:

Of more than 1,500 Afghans questioned, 70% said they believed Afghanistan was going in the right direction – a big jump from 40% a year ago. Of those questioned, 68% now back the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, compared with 63% a year ago.

The survey was conducted in all of the country’s 34 provinces in December 2009. In 2009 only 51% of those surveyed had expected improvement and 13% thought conditions would deteriorate. But in the latest survey 71% said they were optimistic about the situation in 12 months’ time, compared with 5% who said it would be worse.

Compare that with these Gallup figures, released last week:

Sixty-three percent of Americans describe their outlook for the United States during the next 20 years as “very optimistic” or “optimistic.” Americans expressed greater optimism about the country’s future near the beginning of the 1990s and 2000s, but the current level optimism exceeds that of Americans heading into the 1980s.

So, there you go: there’s 7% more hope in Afghanistan!

Travelling in style

We achieved the record for a ‘sept places’ (seven-seater) the other day. This is considered the most luxurious form of transport in this part of West Africa. It consists of a Peugeot or Renault estate car slightly modified with an extra row of seats where the boot should be. It is designed to seat seven plus the driver.

If you are seated in the front or middle rows, it is fairly comfortable, provided of course that you don’t object to clouds of dust billowing in through the uncloseable windows, chickens pecking around your feet, or spray from the driver’s spittle occasionally flying in your face.

If you are seated in the back, however, it is less luxurious. You then have to choose either to bend your legs double in front of you so that they are folded tight against your chest (and these cars never stop during the journey, so your knees may be folded for seven hours straight, as mine were on our first sept places journey), or to put your legs on the floor and instead have your head rammed up hard against the metal ceiling. Shifting from one buttock to the other, moreover, to avoid contracting haemmorhoids from the rock-hard seats, is impossible – there is no room.

The middle row is only comfortable, of course, if the driver sticks to the 7-person limit. Often, however, he cannot resist the temptation to fit a few more in. Sometimes there are four people in a row designed to squeeze in three, turning the sept places into a neuf places. This is uncomfortable, but not the worst of all possible worlds.

The other day our driver allowed no less than 16 passengers (plus 3 chickens) into one of these cars. There were people standing up! They were leaning from the rear row over the middle row, where Ebru and I were seated with three others and the chickens. Astonishingly, nobody complained when we stopped to let in more passengers – when there are fourteen of you in a car designed for seven, after all, a couple more bodies doesn’t make that much difference.

The driver was not satisfied with our discomfort. He decided to make the journey even more challenging by giving us a demonstration of his driving skills. He seemed to have only recently passed (or bribed his way through) his driving test, for he looked extremely nervous. Sweat poured down his long hooked nose from under his white Muslim cap. He gripped the wheel tightly, and hunched over it to be closer to the road surface. Then, every time he reached down to change gear, he lost control and the car veered into the middle of the road. This behaviour provoked some complaints from the passengers; we were lucky the road was virtually deserted, so that when he regained control of the wheel we were still intact.

Near the end of the journey, a rotund, stern-looking woman passenger asks him to stop to let her out. “Where?” he asked. “At the mango tree.” The road is lined on both sides, as far as the eye can see, with mango trees. “Which one?” asks the hapless driver, gripping the wheel and staring intently ahead. “That one there, straight ahead,” the woman replies, tutting at the driver’s stupidity. He keeps driving, bemused, sweat pouring down his black robe, until she shouts, “This one! Stop!” We screech to a halt, and are down to a more comfortable 15 again…

On the web: the EU diplomatic service, reacting to terrorism, the state of liberalism, and fiscal cuts…

– Writing in E!Sharp magazine, David Charter examines some of the contentious debates surrounding the shaping of the new European External Action Service (EEAS). Jan Gaspers, meanwhile, suggests that the EEAS will mark the “real vanguard of a stronger EU in international affairs”, and given time could pose a significant challenge to national diplomacy.

– Bruce Schneier offers his take on the reaction to the attempted Christmas terror plot. “The problem”, Schneier argues, with the solutions being proposed (full-body scanners, passenger profiling, etc.):

“is that they’re only effective if we guess the plot correctly. Defending against a particular tactic or target makes sense if tactics and targets are few. But there are hundreds of tactics and millions of targets, so all these measures will do is force the terrorists to make a minor modification to their plot.”


“What we need is security that’s effective even if we can’t guess the next plot: intelligence, investigation and emergency response.”

– Elsewhere, Samuel Brittan, argues in favour of taking a “fresh look” at certain liberal values – “[h]owever difficult it is to define a liberal”, he suggests, “it is not hard to spot anti-liberals.” John Gray, meanwhile, explores the relationship between neoliberalism and state power, suggesting that “[t]he consequence of reshaping society on a market model has been to make the state omnipresent.”

– Finally, the FT’s Gillian Tett has an interesting piece on the potential social impact of fiscal cuts and the implications of this for bond markets and national standing over the next decade.

Adieu Guinea-Bissau

And so we move on from Guinea-Bissau. The journey to Ziguinchor in the Casamance region of Senegal passed without incident, although reports of the road from here to Gambia are less positive, with the separatist rebellion hotting up in recent months. Have decided to hole up here for a while to write – although Ziguinchor is surrounded by trouble, the town itself is well protected by army roadblocks and appears peaceful.

It was strange and slightly sad to leave Guinea-Bissau, a difficult, testing little country that somehow we’d grown to like. You can learn a lot about a place by leaving it. Although itself one of the world’s poorest nations, Senegal is affluent compared to Guinea-Bissau. It has buildings of two storeys. Some even have three, four floors! Its markets have piles of food rather than just scraps. There are factories, cash machines, bookshops! People in boats are made to wear life jackets. There are tourists, and the incessant hassle from hustlers that comes with them. Guinea-Bissau has none of these things.

Most amazingly of all, Senegal has electricity. You press a switch and a light comes on! Wonder of wonders! Fans turn instead of lying still. There are streetlights, so you don’t need a torch to pick your way through the potholes at night. Food is stored in refrigerators. Guinea-Bissau, whose lights went out in 2003, has none of these things.

But I’d take Guinea-Bissau over Senegal any day. The people are friendly but not overfriendly. Foreigners are left in peace. There is solidarity among Guineans, too – despite its poverty, there are far fewer beggars there than in Senegal, and far fewer people yearn to make the dangerous trip to Europe. Guineans who are in trouble can turn to family and friends for food and shelter, and they are ridiculously generous even to wealthy strangers like us. And despite its governments’ venality, the country is at peace, and its people have hope for the future.

I myself am less optimistic than many Guineans. The drug trade (of which more later), an over-reliance on cash crops, an over-hasty rush to the cities, and the clash of generations are likely to put a brake on the country’s development, while it may not always remain unaffected by the instability of the region as a whole. On the next stage of my journey, I will find out how it compares with Sierra Leone, and then Burkina Faso. It should be an interesting ride.

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