January 28, 2007

The shipping container

It was February 1997, and the seas around Britain were fierce as the Tokio Express, a majestic but ageing cargo liner, passed within 20 miles of Land's End. Like most such vessels, it was stacked high with hundreds of anonymous 20 and 40ft shipping containers. The details of what was inside would have been barely known to the crew, or to the port workers who had hoisted them aboard. It was only because a sudden wave struck the Tokio, rocking it to one side and pitching 62 containers into the sea, that the contents of one of the boxes became briefly famous. It held almost 5m pieces of Lego, including, appropriately enough, 42,000 miniature plastic octopuses and 26,000 tiny yellow lifejackets. "They still haven't turned up in North America, though we do expect they will," says Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle-based oceanographer who monitors the journeys taken by spilt cargo, to track ocean currents. "Sometimes the sea just swallows things up and holds on to them for a long time."


January 20, 2007

Western Europe's America Problem

When my father and I arrived in the United States as immigrants from Romania — by way of Vienna — in the summer of 1960, we spent a number of weeks living with American families in the greater New York area. Some were Jews, like us; most were not. But all spoke some German because our English was virtually nonexistent at the time. What impressed me no end, and will always remain with me, was how all those people adored my Viennese-accented German, how they reveled in it, found it elegant, charming, and above all oh-so-cultured. For business and family reasons, my father had to return to Vienna, where I attended the Theresianische Akademie, one of Austria's leading gymnasia. The welcome accorded to me in that environment was much colder and more distant than it had been in the United States, not by dint of my being a Tschusch and a Zuagraster, an interloper from the disdained eastern areas of Europe, but by virtue of having become a quasi American.


January 17, 2007

UAE beats Americans' environmental harm

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - When it comes to squandering the earth's natural resources, residents of this desert land of chilled swimming pools, monster 4x4s and air-conditioned malls are on a par with even the ravenous consumption of Americans, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The average person in the Emirates puts more demand on the global ecosystem than any other, giving the country the world's largest per-capita "ecological footprint," WWF data shows. The United States runs second.

But the oil-rich Emirates is considered a developing country, and even as a signatory to the United Nations' Kyoto protocol on global warming, is not required to cut emissions. The United States is not bound by Kyoto.


January 16, 2007

The Warming of Greenland

LIVERPOOL LAND, Greenland — Flying over snow-capped peaks and into a thick fog, the helicopter set down on a barren strip of rocks between two glaciers. A dozen bags of supplies, a rifle and a can of cooking gas were tossed out onto the cold ground. Then, with engines whining, the helicopter lifted off, snow and fog swirling in the rotor wash.

Dennis Schmitt, a 60-year-old explorer, discovered an island in Greenland that had been bound to the mainland.

When it had disappeared over the horizon, no sound remained but the howling of the Arctic wind.

"It feels a little like the days of the old explorers, doesn't it?" Dennis Schmitt said.

Mr. Schmitt, a 60-year-old explorer from Berkeley, Calif., had just landed on a newly revealed island 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle in eastern Greenland. It was a moment of triumph: he had discovered the island on an ocean voyage in September 2005. Now, a year later, he and a small expedition team had returned to spend a week climbing peaks, crossing treacherous glaciers and documenting animal and plant life.


January 12, 2007

Great Dane, Great Pain

"It is entirely possible to have a large welfare state, with generous benefits, without choking the economy," says Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic in a new series of articles, glorifying the Danish economic model. He enlists the support of several prominent economists from left and right.

  • Economist Kevin Hassett: "The Scandinavians show that you don't have to have a terrible economy if you have a big welfare state and high taxes."

  • Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs: "A generous social-welfare state is not a road to serfdom but rather to high levels of satisfaction, fairness, economic equality and international competitiveness."

  • Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin: "I think I would like to move to Denmark."

Before Mr. Rubin starts packing, perhaps a dose of reality from someone who has actually lived in Denmark is in order.

First, let's compare material living standards in Denmark and the United States, looking at the poorest, the richest and the middle class in each society. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the poorest 10% of Americans on average earn 39% of the US median income while their Danish counterparts earn 43% of the US median income, as Tim Worstall recently pointed out. Thus, the poorest 10% in America and in Denmark have about the same annual income (accounting for purchasing power parities and all social income transfers).

Not surprisingly, the top 10% of Americans are much better off than their Danish counterparts with an average income of 210% of the US median income compared to 123% in Denmark. "Rich" people in Denmark thus do not make much more than the median income in the United States.