Friday, June 06, 2008

Calling out a Punk: Eastwood's Non-PC Rejoinder

Some weeks back, Spike Lee, the black director of such cinematic gems as Crooklyn and She Hate Me upbraided Clint Eastwood for failing to depict any black soldiers in his Iwo Jima film Flags of Our Fathers.

Spike Lee launched a bitter attack on Clint Eastwood yesterday, condemning his failure to include a single African-American soldier in his films about the Battle of Iwo Jima.

The Oscar-nominated African-American director, one of the most influential figures in contemporary cinema, said that black soldiers were conspicuous by their absence from Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Hundreds took part in the battle for the Japanese island in 1945.

Lee said: “There were many African-Americans who survived that war and who were upset at Clint for not having one [in the films]. That was his version: the negro soldier did not exist. I have a different version.”

Lee stopped short of actually calling Eastwood a racist, but the implication was clear. Astonishingly, Eastwood hasn't done what most Hollywood luminaries would do when accused of being a racist (i.e. to issue a simpering denial/apology and promise to work with his accuser to include more minorities in some future unspecified project). Instead, the 78 year-old director has fired right back at Lee, pointing out that Lee has a history of ridiculous accusations, has no ground to stand on, and doesn't know his history.

Eastwood has no time for Lee's gripes. "He was complaining when I did Bird [the 1988 biopic of Charlie Parker]. Why would a white guy be doing that? I was the only guy who made it, that's why. He could have gone ahead and made it. Instead he was making something else." As for Flags of Our Fathers, he says, yes, there was a small detachment of black troops on Iwo Jima as a part of a munitions company, "but they didn't raise the flag. The story is Flags of Our Fathers, the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn't do that. If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people'd go, 'This guy's lost his mind.' I mean, it's not accurate."

Lee shouldn't be demanding African-Americans in Eastwood's next picture, either. Changeling is set in Los Angeles during the Depression, before the city's make-up was changed by the large black influx. "What are you going to do, you gonna tell a fuckin' story about that?" he growls. "Make it look like a commercial for an equal opportunity player? I'm not in that game. I'm playing it the way I read it historically, and that's the way it is. When I do a picture and it's 90% black, like Bird, I use 90% black people."

Eastwood pauses, deliberately - once it would have provided him with the beat in which to spit out his cheroot before flinging back his poncho - and offers a last word of advice to the most influential black director in American movies. "A guy like him should shut his face."

Wow. Taking a stand for accurate history and not politically-correct smiley-faced "diversity." Very refreshing in Hollywood. Of course, Eastwood is 78 and an icon, so he doesn't have to worry about damaging his career by slapping down a leftist punk like Spike Lee.

The Wonders of Corrupt, Socialist Economies...

The price of crude oil is soaring on international markets - up to $139 per barrel as of today. This is a incredible boon for oil producing nations, and indeed the nations of OPEC are drawing in record profits. But not every oil producing country is making a fortune.

Call it the case of the missing $3 billion.

The price of oil keeps climbing and Mexico exports oil. When that happens the government should earn extra money from the state oil monopoly, Pemex. But this year - so far at least - the government says there is no oil windfall money to hand out.

The recent announcement by the Finance Ministry got the opposition up in arms. Politicians declared that the technocrats at the ministry were manipulating the numbers and demanded an explanation.

The spat over the missing oil windfall is about more than government largesse, although that is certainly part of the issue. Under the law, a percentage of extra money from high oil prices is distributed to state governors to spend on public works. Opposition parties govern most of Mexico's 31 states as well as Mexico City.

Of course, as with everything in Mexico, Pemex's problems are rooted in the corrupt government that runs it.

At the heart of President Felipe Calderón's proposal is the argument that the oil company does not have the billions it needs to find, pump and refine more oil. The government uses Pemex to finance about 40 percent of its budget, leaving the company short of money to invest.

The missing windfall is evidence of Pemex's problems. It is a product of sagging exports, increasing fuel imports and the cost of subsidizing Mexico's below-market gasoline prices, according to the Finance Ministry.

Many outside analysts accept the government's explanation. "The numbers are quite clear," said Carlos Elizondo Mayer, a political analyst at CIDE, a Mexico City research firm.

The leftist opposition labor party refuses to believe the government's numbers, of course, if only because their party isn't in power.

The left-wing opposition argues that Calderón's proposal, which would streamline procedures for outside contractors and reward them for finding new oil, is a disguised attempt to privatize Pemex. Part of the left's argument is that the government is manipulating the figures to make Pemex look worse than it is to strengthen the case for private investment.

A former presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has never recognized his 2006 loss to Calderón, has led public protests against the energy bill, demonstrations that have given his movement renewed vigor.

López Obrador said this week at a rally that the missing windfall was a lie. He demanded that the government account for what he said was $20 billion in excess oil revenue, money he argued could go to rebuilding Pemex.

Rogelio Ramírez de la O, an economist who has advised López Obrador on energy, said that the government's accounting was correct under the law but that it was not transparent. The result has been to create suspicions among opposition legislators.

"The Finance Ministry has taken the role with Congress of an accountant who is annoying the client with technicalities," he said.

The ministry has been working to explain the missing money, but has yet to convince everyone.

"The deficit this year is totally atypical under the scenario of record oil prices," said the Mexico City finance secretary, Mario Delgado, announcing Wednesday that he asked the head of Pemex for an explanation on behalf of other state finance secretaries.

The reason that Pemex isn't reaping a fortune, despite the heady market for oil, is actually clear: the company's oil production is falling and costs are rising. But this is too simple and answer for the politicians that want to run everything.

Each year, the Mexican Congress estimates how much the government will earn from oil by estimating the price Pemex will get for each barrel, how much it will produce and how much it will export.

The windfall is calculated based in part on what Pemex earns over that estimate.

In the first quarter, the price for Mexican oil averaged 40 percent more than the budget's estimate, a jump that should have delivered an extra $3 billion to the Treasury. But declining production meant that Pemex exported almost 12 percent less crude than Congress estimated when it passed the budget last year.

At the same time, gasoline imports spiked 39 percent because of higher volumes and prices than legislators estimated. A strong peso hurt, too, because Mexico received less in peso terms for its dollar-denominated oil sales.

The result, the Finance Ministry said, was a shortfall of about $800 million.

Miguel Messmacher, a top Finance Ministry official, said that the formula, which has not changed this year, used to calculate the windfall was confusing.

"The mechanisms are complex," he said. "But they are made with the idea that the windfall isn't distributed unless you have it."

This year, for the first time, the costs of subsidizing controlled gasoline prices have shown up very significantly in the books - at a cost of about $5 billion to the government in the first quarter.

Is it any wonder why millions of Mexicans voluntarily flee their own nation every year?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Fallen Dollar

Even a bastion of free-traders, open borders enthusiasts and hyper-Wilsonian interventionists as The Wall Street Journal occasionally sees the truth in front of everyone's eyes. Today's editorial bemoans the Bush administration's devaluing of the US dollar and the diminishing of US clout and prestige that the dollar's decline has wrought.

The Bernanke Fed has also been oblivious to the fact that it runs a global dollar bloc. Central banks in dozens of countries peg or otherwise link their own currencies to the world's reserve currency, which is the dollar. They do so for the sake of exchange-rate stability, which helps with trade and investment flows. They essentially subcontract their monetary policy to the U.S. central bank.

The Fed's dollar indifference has sent an inflation shock through those dollar-linked economies. This week alone, we've read about price riots in Vietnam; inflation hitting 10.1% in Kuwait; Abu Dhabi contemplating price or wage controls; South Korean and Indonesian central bankers considering rate hikes; and the Chinese letting the yuan rise ever higher to curb inflationary pressures imported from the U.S.

Many of these countries are now delinking from the greenback. Meanwhile, the dollar plunge has translated into a net transfer of trillions in wealth from the U.S. to the rest of the world. The result has been the largest decline in America's global economic influence since the 1970s.

Of course, the WSJ's editors carefully shift the blame from the president to Fed Chairman Bernanke and avoid mentioning the real causes of the dollar's decline - the loss of international confidence in the US government's financial situation. No mention is made of this administration's soaring deficits and foreign borrowing, failure to restrain congressional pork, newly added liabilities and, of course, of the ruinous deficit-spending prompted by the war in Iraq. That task has fallen to the former comptroller of the United States, David Walker, who has repeatedly warned that Washington's profligacy will inevitably lead to ruin. But no one in Washington, Democrat or Republican, wants to listen.