Randy's Corner Deli Library

30 June 2009

Blink Twice if You Like Me

LINCOLN, Mass. — Sara Lewis is fluent in firefly. On this night she walks through a farm field in eastern Massachusetts, watching the first fireflies of the evening rise into the air and begin to blink on and off. Dr. Lewis, an evolutionary ecologist at Tufts University, points out six species in this meadow, each with its own pattern of flashes.

Sara Lewis

MATING In many fireflies, pairs stay coupled for hours while the male, lower, gives the female a protein package injected with sperm, called a nuptial gift.


Firefly Watch Project (Boston Museum of Science)


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Melody Ko/Tufts University

RESEARCHER Sara Lewis is an evolutionary ecologist at Tufts University who studies firefly mating habits.

Tufts University

SPIRALS A coiled nuptial gift may take up a lot of space in a male’s abdomen. Receiving a gift can make a difference in the female’s reproductive success.

Along one edge of the meadow are Photinus greeni, with double pulses separated by three seconds of darkness. Near a stream are Photinus ignitus, with a five-second delay between single pulses. And near a forest are Pyractomena angulata, which make Dr. Lewis’s favorite flash pattern. “It’s like a flickering orange rain,” she said.

The fireflies flashing in the air are all males. Down in the grass, Dr. Lewis points out, females are sitting and observing. They look for flash patterns of males of their own species, and sometimes they respond with a single flash of their own, always at a precise interval after the male’s. Dr. Lewis takes out a penlight and clicks it twice, in perfect Photinus greeni. A female Photinus greeni flashes back.

“Most people don’t realize there’s this call and response going on,” Dr. Lewis said. “But it’s very, very easy to talk to fireflies.”

For Dr. Lewis, this meadow is the stage for an invertebrate melodrama, full of passion and yearning, of courtship duets and competitions for affection, of cruel deception and gruesome death. For the past 16 years, Dr. Lewis has been coming to this field to decipher the evolutionary forces at play in this production, as fireflies have struggled to survive and spread their genes to the next generation.

It was on a night much like this one in 1980 when Dr. Lewis first came under the spell of fireflies. She was in graduate school at Duke University, studying coral reef fish. Waiting for a grant to come through for a trip to Belize, she did not have much else to do but sit in her backyard in North Carolina.

“Every evening there was this incredible display of fireflies,” Dr. Lewis said. She eventually started to explore the yard, inspecting the males and females. “What really struck me was that in this one-acre area there were hundreds of males and I could only find two or three females,” she said. “I thought, ‘Man, this is so intense.’ ”

When a lot of males are competing for the chance to mate with females, a species experiences a special kind of evolution. If males have certain traits that make them attractive to females, they will mate more than other males. And that preference may mean that those attractive males can pass down their traits to the next generation. Over thousands of generations, the entire species may be transformed.

Charles Darwin described this process, which he called sexual selection, in 1871, using male displays of antlers and feathers as examples. He did not mention fireflies. In fact, fireflies remained fairly mysterious for another century. It was not until the 1960s that James Lloyd, a University of Florida biologist, deciphered the call and response of several species of North American firefly.

Dr. Lewis, realizing that other firefly mysteries remained to be solved, switched to fireflies from fish in 1984, when she became a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard. She taught herself Dr. Lloyd’s firefly code and then began to investigate firefly mating habits. North American fireflies spend two years underground as larvae, then spend the final two weeks of their lives as adults, flashing, mating and laying eggs. When Dr. Lewis started studying fireflies, scientists could not say whether the females mated once and then laid all their eggs, or mated with many males. “Nobody knew what happened after the lights went out,” Dr. Lewis said.

She searched for mating fireflies in the evening, marked their locations with surveyor’s flags and then revisited them every half-hour through the night. They were still mating at dawn.

“It was cool to watch the sun rise and see the couples breaking up and the females crawling down the grass to lay their eggs,” Dr. Lewis said.

Many Americans are familiar with the kinds of fireflies Dr. Lewis studies, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the 2,000 species worldwide. And there is enormous variation in these insects. “There are some species that produce flashes when they’re adults, and there are some that simply glow as adults,” Dr. Lewis said. “Then there are a whole bunch of species where the adults don’t produce any light at all.”

In recent years scientists have analyzed the DNA of fireflies to figure out how their light has evolved. The common ancestor of today’s fireflies probably produced light only when they were larvae. All firefly larvae still glow today, as a warning to would-be predators. The larvae produce bitter chemicals that make them an unpleasant meal.

As adults, the earliest fireflies probably communicated with chemical signals, the way some firefly species do today. Only much later did some firefly species gain through evolution the ability to make light as adults. Instead of a warning, the light became a mating call. (An enzyme in the firefly’s tail drives a chemical reaction that makes light.)

The more Dr. Lewis watched firefly courtship, the clearer it became that the females were carefully choosing mates. They start dialogues with up to 10 males in a single evening and can keep several conversations going at once. But a female mates with only one male, typically the one she has responded to the most.

Dr. Lewis wondered if the female fireflies were picking their mates based on variations in the flashes of the males. To test that possibility, she took female fireflies to her lab, where she has computer-controlled light systems that can mimic firefly flashes. “You can play back specific signals to females and see what they respond to,” Dr. Lewis said.

The female fireflies turned out to be remarkably picky. In many cases, a male flash got no response at all. In some species, females preferred faster pulse rates. In others, the females preferred males that made long-lasting pulses.

If females preferred some flashes over others, Dr. Lewis wondered why those preferences had evolved in the first place. One possible explanation was that the signals gave female fireflies a valuable clue about the males. Somehow, mating with males with certain flash patterns allowed females to produce more offspring, which would inherit their preference.

It is possible that females use flashes to figure out which males can offer the best gifts. In many invertebrate species, the males provide females with food to help nourish their eggs. Dr. Lewis and her colleagues discovered that fireflies also made these so-called nuptial gifts — packages of protein they inject with their sperm.

Dr. Lewis is not sure why she and her colleagues were the first to find them. The gifts form coils that can take up a lot of space in a male firefly’s abdomen. “They’re incredibly beautiful,” she said.

Receiving nuptial gifts, Dr. Lewis and her colleagues have shown, can make a huge difference in the reproductive success of a female firefly. “It just about doubles the number of eggs a female can lay in her lifetime,” she said. One reason the effect is so big is that fireflies do not eat during their two-week adulthood. A slowly starving female can use a nuptial gift to build more eggs.

In at least some species, females may use flashes to pick out males with the biggest gifts. Dr. Lewis has tested this hypothesis in two species; in one, males with conspicuous flashes have bigger gifts. In another species, she found no link.

“In some cases they could be honest signals, and in some cases they could be deceptive signals,” Dr. Lewis said.

Deception may, in fact, evolve very easily among fireflies. It turns out that a male firefly does not need to burn many extra calories to make flashes. “It takes some energy, but it’s tiny. It’s less costly for a male than flying around,” Dr. Lewis said.

If making light is so cheap for males, it seems odd that they have not all evolved to be more attractive to females. “What is it that keeps their flashes from getting longer and longer or faster and faster?” Dr. Lewis asked.

Scanning the meadow, she grabbed her insect net and ran after a fast-flying firefly with a triple flash. She caught an animal that may offer the answer to her question. Dr. Lewis dropped the insect into a tube and switched on a headlamp to show her catch. Called Photuris, it is a firefly that eats other fireflies.

“They are really nasty predators,” Dr. Lewis said. Photuris fireflies sometimes stage aerial assaults, picking out other species by their flashes and swooping down to attack. In other cases, they sit on a blade of grass, responding to male fireflies with deceptive flashes. When the males approach, Photuris grabs them.

“They pounce, they bite, they suck blood — all the gory stuff,” Dr. Lewis said. She has found that each Photuris can eat several fireflies in a night. Photuris kills other fireflies only to retrieve bad-tasting chemicals from their bodies, which it uses to protect itself from predators.

To study how Photuris predation affects its firefly prey, Dr. Lewis and her colleagues built sticky traps equipped with lights that mimicked courtship signals of Photuris’s victims. The scientists found that Photuris was more likely to attack when flash rates were faster. In other words, conspicuous flashes — the ones females prefer — also make males more likely to be killed.

“At least where Photuris predators are around,” Dr. Lewis said, “there’s going to be a strong selection for less conspicuous flashes.”

29 June 2009

Elections in Iran – Part V: The Waning of the Protest Movement

Elections in Iran – Part V: The Waning of the Protest Movement 

By: A. Savyon*

Iran|#529| June 29, 2009


Two weeks after the elections, it seems that the Iranian regime has managed to suppress the protest movement. This report examines the reasons for the waning of this movement.

1. Violence by the Regime

In attempt to quell the protests, which were mostly peaceful, the Iranian regime has employed brutal violence. IRGC and Basij units, some of them in plainclothes, used both cold weapons (clubs and knives) and live fire against the protestors. In addition to employing violence against the demonstrators in the streets, the security forces also raided student dorms, especially in Tehran; arrested protesters, political activists, journalists and intellectuals; and persecuted owners of homes from which the call of "Allah Akbar" was heard in the nights. The heads of the regime made threats against anyone who participated in the demonstrations, blocked websites and media outlets supportive of the protest movement, and waged a media campaign against this movement by describing the protestors and their leaders as hostile elements collaborating with Iran's enemies. Permits for political and party activities were revoked, and a special court was establish to prosecute the protestors.

2. Unlike Some of the Demonstrators, the Protest Movement Leaders Never Advocated a Regime Change in Iran; Their Campaign Is Part of a Struggle between Two Streamswithin the Regime

The leaders of the protest movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohammad Khatami, called on the demonstrators to keep their protests peaceful, and stated that they would negotiate with the regime to attain their goals, which are the holding of a new election or the establishment of a committee of ayatollahs, acceptable to all sides, to examine the election results. Unlike some of the protestors, these leaders are not interested in a change of regime in Iran, and have never called to topple Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.(1)  
It should be noted that Khatami and Rafsanjani, who stayed behind the scenes of the protest movement, have not managed to recruit the support of any senior ayatollah against Khamenei. Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is the second most powerful figure in the regime and heads two of its most important bodies (the Experts Assembly and Expediency Council), has never purported to lead a movement presenting an alternative to the regime. Despite his blatant disagreements with the Supreme Leader, he hasn't openly challenged the latter's decision to accept the election results, though, according to reports, he has sought to recruit senior ayatollahs to join his camp within the regime.

3. Absence of International Support

The policy of the West during this crisis has been one of non-intervention in the events in Iran.


The events in Iran following the elections were a public outburst of rage that encompassed many sectors of Iranian civil society. This outburst was made possible by the emergence of a comprehensive national common denominator, namely anger over the rigged elections. The protestors sought a leadership, but did not find one.

The regime's power and brutal suppression of the protests, the absence of a religious leadership, and the silence of the world meant that the protest movement could not maintain its momentum, and started to crumble after two weeks. However, it is safe to assume that another, more effective, protest movement will arise when the necessary "ingredients" are present, namely – a public of protestors, a compelling ideological agenda presenting an alternative to the regime, a religious leadership that will head the movement and will be willing to pay the price, and international support.

It can also be assumed that the present Iranian protest movement is likely to impact the Sunni Arab societies in the countries neighboring Iran, which are also no strangers to election fraud. 
Now that the regime has managed to quell the protests, its various elite groups are busy trying to mediate between its two competing streams, both of which are conservative and accept Khamenei's authority.(2) The desire for reconciliation is clearly evident in Rafsanjani's recent public statement – his first in the last two weeks – in which he declared his loyalty to Khamenei (who has his "unending affection"), and adopted the line of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad that foreign elements were behind the protest movement.(3)

*A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.


(1) The leaders' position was expressed, for example, by Mousavi's supporter Majlis Member Ghodratollah Alikhani, who cried out emotionally during a recent Majlis session, "We are all sons of the Revolution!" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFiv361ycpQ .  
(2) See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 522, "Elections in Iran – Part II," June 9, 2009, http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=countries&Area=iran&ID=IA52209
Since Khamenei stressed, in his June 19, 2009 Friday sermon, the importance of all the leaders to the regime,  the regime's various elites and mechanisms have been working to appease the disgruntled presidential candidates and offer a solution to the crisis. Among the figures undertaking this effort are Ayatollahs from Qom, such as Mousavi Ardabili, Sobhani and Javadi-Amoli, as well as Majlis Speaker Larijani who has established his own committee for resolving the conflict, members of the Guardians Council and others.
On Khamenei's June 19 sermon, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2413, "Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a Tehran Friday Sermon: In Every Election There Are Winners and There Are Losers," June 21, 2009,http://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=countries&Area=iran&ID=SP241309.
(3) ILNA (Iran), June 28, 2009, Mehr (Iran), June 27, 2009.

25 June 2009

A Bizarrely Sad Day

Today was a very strange day indeed. It began with a visit to Le Pain Quotidien down the street for a coffee and a pastry, and then descended into a bizarre clash of competing sadnesses. The deaths today of Farah Fawcett, the 70s beauty icon, and Michael Jackson, but especially the death of the latter, has shaken the world, if I am reading the tea leaves correctly.

The depths of the sadness is a little hard for me to understand. I guess I don't buy into the celebrity culture that values form over substance. I think the world is trying to come to grips with the competing notions of why exactly it is that we feel the way we do when a person who is known as "the king of pop" dies at the relatively young age of 50.

It can't be that it's because we knew who Michael Jackson was as a person at various times of his life -- we fans were mostly not personally acquainted with him. It's because of the good feelings that he gave those of us 9 and 10 year olds who really dug that Jackson 5 songs "I Want You Back" and "ABC" that I remember my sister and I listening to fairly incessantly in 1969 or 70 - whenever we got the 45 and then the album "The Jackson Five".

But to be honest, it's been years since I thought Michael Jackson was a pop icon on the order of U2 or Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, his later years have been peppered with disgusting allegations of some strange behavior. I can only imagine the emotional effect of having the skin disease he had on Michael's self-image. I would think that in some sufferers, it could be devastating. It expressed itself in Michael Jackson in some very strange ways.

Under any circumstance, the collective sadness is understandable. It's at once a reminder of how old some of us are getting as well as a reminder that 1969 and '70 were just a little more tolerable with the Jackson 5 in them, despite the fact that Richard Nixon was in the White House and our boys were fighting a war of choice that made no sense to a lot of people. It's also a sadness at the loss of our collective innocence, when little pop songs that you couldn't get out of your mind rocked your world even if they came out of a tinny speaker from a little portable red AM radio made proudly in Japan. And the world wasn't so damn cynical. We were a little kinder to one another for what I remember and things like baseball still mattered and the pursuit of money wasn't so front and center. The sadness is at the state of our selves: we look at what mattered then and then look at what matters to us now, and it is really sad.

19 June 2009

Mad as Hell: A Torah portion of cries, spies, and revolutions on the rise

Mad as Hell

A Torah portion of cries, spies, and revolutions on the rise

By Liel Leibovitz | 7:00 am June 19, 2009

As throngs of Iranians take to the streets to question the validity of the recent election in their country, allow me to add one more name to the list of men in contention for the Islamic republic’s top job: Woody Allen.

Young, reform-minded Iranians can ask for no better leader. They should adopt as their battle cry Allen’s famous quip, that 90 percent of life is just showing up.

I know, I know, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” or “Hasta la victoria siempre,” but when it comes to the green-clad youth flooding the town squares of Persia, no slogan could be more poignant. Although it is too early to tell just what is going on in Iran, one thing is clear: wonderful things can happen if only one opened one’s door and stepped out to the street in protest.

I doubt that many Iranians, still governed by the crushing will of the mullahs, will be paying much attention to the weekly Torah portion. Pity. This week, the parasha is all about another rebellious people, the Israelites, who learn a priceless lesson in politics.

As the story begins, one is inclined to feel sorry for our exhausted ancestors. There they are, in the endless desert, with aching feet and doubting minds, when God instructs Moses to dispatch twelve of his finest fellows to see firsthand that greatly promised land. The spies hop over to Canaan, and return 40 days later. The look on their faces alone is enough to alert the people that there’s trouble in their promised paradise.

“The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature,” shrieks one of the returned spies. “There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”

The Israelites, never ones to miss an opportunity for some operatic moaning, take their cue. Immediately after hearing these reports, the people begin to wail: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?”

Hold on, say two of Moses’s emissaries, Joshua and Caleb. Don’t turn around quite yet: the land is “an exceedingly good land,” with milk and honey and all that. And those giants are nothing compared to the glory of God, who would surely deliver them to us, you know, what with being His chosen people and all.

But Jews, historically, never really knew what to do with good news, and the congregation turns to the two cockeyed optimists and threatens to pelt them with stones.

Watching these shenanigans unfurl, God is not amused. Why not kill all of them, he suggests to Moses, and build a new, improved, and kvetch-free Jewish people? Moses, thankfully, turns down this kind offer, and God settles on a milder punishment: as the entire congregation failed to trust the Lord that the land is good, it shall never see it. The Israelites are doomed to wander in the desert for 40 years—one year for every day the spies spent in Canaan—until they all pass away and a new generation, free of sin, is ready to inherit and inhabit its home.

At first reading, the Israelites’ qualms with God may appear wholly justified. He had, after all, just appointed them as his elected few, and could have just as easily made them all disappear from Sinai in a cloud of purple smoke and reappear seconds later in downtown Jerusalem. That, the Israelites might have been forgiven for thinking, is how a god should roll.

Not our God. He is a Do-It-Yourself kind of deity. And when the Israelites balk, saying that there are too many other nations already occupying Canaan and that some consist of freakishly large men and that the whole thing is just too damn hard, He explodes.

More often than not, this story is taken as a lesson in the importance of faith. Joshua and Caleb, goes the perceived wisdom, believed that the Lord’s promises would come true, and that drove them to see Canaan not as it really was—a tiny and troubled country with too many folks fighting for too little space—but as God promised it would be, overflowing with earthly delights.

But faith may be beside the point. As in the anecdote of the pauper praying at the wall one more time, buying the ticket may be what it’s all about.

No one, perhaps, said it better than Michael Walzer. In his masterful Exodus and Revolution, he explained the story simply. “The land would never be all that it could be until its new inhabitants were all that they should be,” he wrote. In other words, it isn’t about believing, but about doing. The land itself is ordinary; it would be made special, promised, divine solely by the merit of its new inhabitants. If the Israelites took charge and obeyed God’s laws and set up a just and progressive society—the society that emerges from the intricate set of rules God had given his people at Sinai—the nation they would create would emerge as a beacon to all others, a true city on a hill. But if they sat and groaned and waited for readymade glory, all they would find is a desolate and divided strip of land, no better than Egypt and perhaps much worse.

It’s a stunning vision, and one we all too frequently forget. I wish there was a way to condense it to 140 characters and tweet it to Tehran. It would go something like this: 90 percent of life may be showing up, but it’s the other 10 percent, doing the right thing, that’s the hardest.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress, Matson Collection.

18 June 2009

Israel's real friends are honest about its mistakes

Israel's real friends are honest about its mistakes
By Abraham B. Yehoshua
Commentary by
Friday, June 19, 2009

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How do you tell a true friend? By the fact that he believes and has confidence in you, cares about your true needs, and honestly tells you your mistakes, which he tries to help you correct. That is the kind of friend I want at my side, not one who automatically approves of whatever I do, declares his love for me, and accepts me as I am.

Ever since its victory in the 1967 war, when it repelled the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which had openly proclaimed their desire to destroy the Jewish state, Israel has been in the throes of an ideological and military confusion resulting from the conquests it made during that conflict.

Following the 1967 war, Israel did not consider the conquered lands as something to be traded for peace, and thus induce the Arab world and the Palestinians to recognize its legitimacy and ensure the demilitarization of Palestinian territories after their restitution. Instead, Israel - either because of its distrust of its enemies and of their commitment to respect any future peace agreement, or because of a desire to annex some of the territories - began to pursue a policy of settlements. But, in doing so, it created a reality that is difficult to reverse.

Israel's non-military settlements are, and have always been, irrelevant to the country's security. On the contrary, because the settlements are located in the heart of the Palestinian population, they are convenient targets for attacks and require special defensive measures, including the deployment of large military forces engaged in patrolling and surveillance. Even on the Golan Heights, where there is no Syrian presence, the settlements, located only a few kilometers from enormous Syrian troop concentrations, create a heavy burden, because, in the event of war, the Israeli army would be forced to evacuate them quickly, as was the case during the Yom Kippur war of October 1973.

The settlements intensify Palestinian hatred toward Israel. In addition to occupying Palestinians' land, using their water, and imposing limits on their freedom of movement, the settlements symbolize Israel's intention to remain, and thus its reluctance to concede independence to the Palestinian people, even if they were to recognize Israel's legitimacy and show themselves disposed to peaceful coexistence.

Israel has invested great financial resources in the settlements, often ignoring important needs in Israel proper. The settlers, predominantly supporters of religious-nationalist movements and parties, often flaunt an attitude of superiority in their relations with Israeli authorities, pretending to have a special status with respect not only to Palestinians, but also to other Israeli citizens. Indeed, a substantial number of them don't even recognize the Israeli state's legal authority.

The greatest problem with the settlements is that if they continue to expand, the two-state solution will be compromised and, sooner or later, lead to a unitary state - one populated by two ethnic groups - between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Because simple demographic implies that Palestinians would gradually come to constitute a majority, a unitary state is a recipe for the end of Israel.

The majority of Israelis understand this. But, like an incorrigible drug addict, they are unable to say, "Enough. We have made a mistake, and we have to remedy it before it's too late."

To be sure, when a peace treaty was signed with Egypt, Jewish settlers were forcibly evacuated from the Sinai. Similarly, when Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip became unsupportable, the leader of the right, Ariel Sharon, forced out the 9,000 settlers who lived there among 1.5 million Palestinians - a dramatic event that has left deep scars on both sides. But there are 250,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Any attempt to evacuate them could escalate into a civil war.

The world, including the United States, disapproves of the Israeli settlements. But, despite past American administrations' opportunity to make their influence felt, they preferred to permit Israel, an allied, friendly state, to do what it wanted.

So a moment of truth has arrived. Barack Obama, a wise and courageous leader, is - I have no doubt about it - not merely interested in improving America's image in the eyes of the Muslim world. He also seeks Israel's welfare and security, and says to us, "Enough. Stop harming yourselves and your own future. Even if you don't believe in Palestinians' real desire for peace, their capacity to hold terrorist organizations at bay, or their renunciation of the alleged right of return, you can always protect your security with a military presence in Palestinian territories rather than prejudicing the future peace and the two-state solution by expanding useless settlements."

With such a clear and direct appeal to the Israeli government, America's president not only expresses what a majority of Israelis know. He also proves his profound friendship for the Jewish state.

Abraham B. Yehoshua is one of Israel's pre-eminent novelists. His latest novel is "Friendly Fire". THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (c) (www.project-syndicate.org).

17 June 2009

Quick! Find This Infidel "Twitter", and Kill Him!"


Revolution in Iran

At first I thought it was a joke. That there could be free elections in "The Islamic Republic of Iran". Then I learned that, indeed, I was right, to a point. The elections held for the Presidency of Iran last Friday in which M. Ahmedinejad allegedly won a 'landslide' were not free. Indeed, even the so-called reform candidates had to be formally approved by the actual power in Iran, the "Guardian Council" and had to meet stringent ideologic requirements before their names could even be put on the ballot.

That aside, the raging protests and the brutality exhibited by "The Islamic Republic of Iran" shows that even they can't, in the name of Allah, pull the wool over every Iranian's eyes. I know that the Persian empire was at one point one of the largest in the world. The Persian culture is one of the most celebrated in the history of humanity. It makes me wonder, then, how long the people of Iran will stand for the theocracy that they got back in 1979, a theocracy that has ruined the Iranian economy, made Iran a paraiah state in the West, and otherwise meddlesome in the politics in the explosive Middle East.

We can trace the 1979 revolution to American meddling. It was the US which helped stage a coup d'etat in 1953 to place the friendly, malleable Shah back in power. It gave the US, for a very long time, a valuable outpost in the region. So the Iranian students who kidnapped the American hostages and held them until the day that Ronald Reagan took office are now the Ahmedinejads of the world. But their cause - continuous rants against the "Great Satan", the US, and the "Little Satan", Israel, are not enough to keep a people clothed, housed, fed, employed and happy. What does the existing government of Iran offer its own people?

What Ayatollah Khomenei and M. Ahmedinejad cannot admit publicly is that their state is in ruin and the people know it. So much so that the Iranians have to resort to violence to quell the righteous outrage that is currently boiling over there. They know when they've been had, when they' ve been sold a bill of goods for which there is no substance. I cannot help but think that at this point, Khameini and Ahmedinejad are, like their brothers in Hamas, holding on to power for its own sake, not necessarily for the sake of the welfare and prosperity of the people they supposedly govern.

The problem for the Guardian Council, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Ahmedinejad and the rest of the current power elite is how to put the toothpaste back into the tube. It can't be done. Let us hope that the actions of so many, and those seven that (so far) have been killed in the name of democracy (albeit flawed, but democracy nonetheless) will not have been in vain. Let us hope that the people of Iran continue to show the rest of the world that power in Iran does truly rest ultimately with the people, not with Ayatollahs and the like who claim a monopoly on truth and justice. There's a revolution brewing in Iran. The question will be who will stand with the Iranian people.

08 June 2009

The American Health Choices Act


The American Health Choices Act

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, is circulating draft legislation designed to overhaul the nation's health care system. This so-called "draft of a draft" is the first piece of concrete health reform legislation to emerge from Democrats in Congress. As the Washington Post notes, "[A]t least five congressional chairmen are working on health-care reform bills," and Kennedy's draft represents the Democrats' first attempt at "a partial road map for how the nation might address health coverage gaps and problems such as rising costs and inferior quality." The legislation, called the "American Health Choices Act," would provide affordable coverage to all Americans, require businesses to provide and individuals to obtain coverage, and establish a new public health care plan to compete alongside private insurers. 

EVERYBODY IN, NOBODY OUT: Kennedy's bill aims to improve access to coverage by regulating insurers, expanding Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and building state-sponsored insurance Gateways (or exchanges) to help Americans find affordable coverage. Americans who like the insurance they have can keep it, but those who are dissatisfied with the porous policies of the individual market -- and those who are uninsured -- would be able to purchase affordable and adequate coverage. Under the legislation, "a group or individual health insurance plan may not impose preexisting condition exclusions." In fact, "rates cannot vary by health status, gender, class of business, or claims experience." Insurers must accept every employer and individual that applies" for coverage and must also renew their policies. The bill eliminates lifetime or annual limits on benefits and limits the cost sharing for certain preventive services and immunizations. Individuals and employers would be required to purchase insurance, but families earning up to 500 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL) -- $110,000 for a family of four -- could "buy insurance on a sliding scale with government subsidies." Anyone with incomes up to 150 percent of the FPL -- $33,000 for a family of four -- would also be eligible for Medicaid, and people up to age 26 would be able to participate in SCHIP. The new state-based insurance Gateways -- where individuals and small employers could compare plans side by side, find options with a minimum benefits package, and buy coverage -- would help applicants find and enroll in comprehensive and portable coverage and certify qualified health plans to ensure they "provide a level of standard benefits." 

A MUSCULAR PUBLIC OPTION: The new public health plan would provide all Americans under 65 the choice of public coverage, restore competition into the consolidated health insurance market, lower health care premiums across the board, lead the way in innovation, and improve health quality. As CAPAF Senior Fellow Peter Harbage and Director of Health Policy Karen Davenport argue in a recent report about the public plan, "In the face of tremendous consolidation in the health insurance market, employers and individuals have a shrinking set of health insurance options. Private insurers have used this market power to boost their profits." Harbage and Davenport add, "By including a public health insurance plan as another insurance option and creating a health insurance exchange that delivers transparency and accountability to the market, we can assure both viable competitors and real competition." A new public plan has the potential "to drive improvements in the health care system" and set the standard for developing new payment models and investing in preventive care and care coordination. Critics of the public option, including the insurance industry and most Republicans, argue that a public plan could not compete fairly with private insurers because its lower reimbursement rates would "crowd out" private coverage and spell death for the private insurance industry. But as health care economist Uwe Reinhardt explains, "If the new public plan had to negotiate its own prices, then it would not have a competitive advantage any more 'unfair' than is the ability of large insurers -- such as Aetna and Wellpoint -- to negotiate lower prices with hospitals and physicians than these providers charge smaller insurers. For some reason, no one has ever called this form of price discrimination 'unfair.'" Under Kennedy's bill, the new public option would reimburse providers 10 percent above current Medicare rates. It would not have to negotiate its own rates, but could piggyback off of Medicare's considerable reach. Using "Medicare plus 10" rates, rather than the prevailing market rates, would lower costs and allow the plan to charge lower premium rates.

'HEALTH CARE REFORM BY OCTOBER': President Obama "is preparing an intense push for legislation that will include speeches, town-hall-style meetings and much deeper engagement with lawmakers," the New York Times reports. In Saturday's radio address, Obama argued that "fixing what's wrong with our health care system is no longer a luxury we hope to achieve -- it's a necessity we cannot postpone any longer. ... Today, at this historic juncture, even old adversaries are united around the same goal: quality, affordable health care for all Americans." The radio address kicked off a "50-state grass-roots effort that Organizing for America, the president's political group, began Saturday to promote a health care overhaul." The push also follows Obama's letter to Kennedy and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), in which he reiterated his support for the public health plan and committed to "fully offset the cost of health care reform by reducing Medicare and Medicaid spending by another $200 to $300 billion over the next 10 years" and "by enacting appropriate proposals to generate additional revenues." The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, who obtained a timeline of Congress's legislative schedule for passing health reform, reports that the Senate -- which is expecting a separate bill from the Senate Finance Committee on June 17 -- will vote on a single health bill during the last two weeks of July, and the House is expected to move a bill to the floor in "the last week of July." "The overarching goal is to get health care reform to the president's desk by Oct. 1," Klein writes.

05 June 2009

A Tale of Two Depressions

View from a booth: Just wanted to brighten up an otherwise gloomy Friday in June. Thanks to Michael Markman for the link to this. Last one out, turn out the lights. What? You couldn't afford the electricity any more? Well, that's one less job.

Randy Shiner

Barry Eichengreen   Kevin H. O’Rourke
4 June 2009

This is an update of the authors' 6 April 2009 column comparing today's global crisis to the Great Depression. World industrial production, trade, and stock markets are diving faster now than during 1929-30. Fortunately, the policy response to date is much better. The update shows that trade and stock markets have shown some improvement without reversing the overall conclusion -- today's crisis is at least as bad as the Great Depression.

Editor’s note: The 6 April 2009 Vox column by Barry Eichengreen and Kevin O’Rourke shattered all Vox readership records, with 30,000 views in less than 48 hours and over 100,000 within the week. The authors will update the charts as new data emerges; this updated column is the first, presenting monthly data up to April 2009. (The updates and much more will eventually appear in a paper the authors are writing a paper for Economic Policy.)

New findings:

  • World industrial production continues to track closely the 1930s fall, with no clear signs of ‘green shoots’.
  • World stock markets have rebounded a bit since March, and world trade has stabilised, but these are still following paths far below the ones they followed in the Great Depression.
  • There are new charts for individual nations’ industrial output. The big-4 EU nations divide north-south; today’s German and British industrial output are closely tracking their rate of fall in the 1930s, while Italy and France are doing much worse.
  • The North Americans (US & Canada) continue to see their industrial output fall approximately in line with what happened in the 1929 crisis, with no clear signs of a turn around.
  • Japan’s industrial output in February was 25 percentage points lower than at the equivalent stage in the Great Depression. There was however a sharp rebound in March.

The facts for Chile, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Sweden are displayed below; note the rebound in Eastern Europe.

Updated Figure 1. World Industrial Output, Now vs Then (updated)

Updated Figure 2. World Stock Markets, Now vs Then (updated)

Updated Figure 3. The Volume of World Trade, Now vs Then (updated)

Updated Figure 4Central Bank Discount Rates, Now vs Then (7 country average)

New Figure 5. Industrial output, four big Europeans, then and now

New Figure 6. Industrial output, four Non-Europeans, then and now.

New Figure 7: Industrial output, four small Europeans, then and now.


Start of original column (published 6 April 2009)

The parallels between the Great Depression of the 1930s and our current Great Recession have been widely remarked upon.Paul Krugman has compared the fall in US industrial production from its mid-1929 and late-2007 peaks, showing that it has been milder this time. On this basis he refers to the current situation, with characteristic black humour, as only “half a Great Depression.” The “Four Bad Bears” graph comparing the Dow in 1929-30 and S&P 500 in 2008-9 has similarly had wide circulation (Short 2009). It shows the US stock market since late 2007 falling just about as fast as in 1929-30.

Comparing the Great Depression to now for the world, not just the US

This and most other commentary contrasting the two episodes compares America then and now. This, however, is a misleading picture. The Great Depression was a global phenomenon. Even if it originated, in some sense, in the US, it was transmitted internationally by trade flows, capital flows and commodity prices. That said, different countries were affected differently. The US is not representative of their experiences.

Our Great Recession is every bit as global, earlier hopes for decoupling in Asia and Europe notwithstanding. Increasingly there is awareness that events have taken an even uglier turn outside the US, with even larger falls in manufacturing production, exports and equity prices.

In fact, when we look globally, as in Figure 1, the decline in industrial production in the last nine months has been at least as severe as in the nine months following the 1929 peak. (All graphs in this column track behaviour after the peaks in world industrial production, which occurred in June 1929 and April 2008.)  Here, then, is a first illustration of how the global picture provides a very different and, indeed, more disturbing perspective than the US case considered by Krugman, which as noted earlier shows a smaller decline in manufacturing production now than then.

Figure 1. World Industrial Output, Now vs Then

Source: Eichengreen and O’Rourke (2009) and IMF.

Similarly, while the fall in US stock market has tracked 1929, global stock markets are falling even faster now than in the Great Depression (Figure 2). Again this is contrary to the impression left by those who, basing their comparison on the US market alone, suggest that the current crash is no more serious than that of 1929-30.

Figure 2. World Stock Markets, Now vs Then

Source: Global Financial Database.

Another area where we are “surpassing” our forbearers is in destroying trade. World trade is falling much faster now than in 1929-30 (Figure 3). This is highly alarming given the prominence attached in the historical literature to trade destruction as a factor compounding the Great Depression.

Figure 3. The Volume of World Trade, Now vs Then

Sources: League of Nations Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, http://www.cpb.nl/eng/research/sector2/data/trademonitor.html

It’s a Depression alright

To sum up, globally we are tracking or doing even worse than the Great Depression, whether the metric is industrial production, exports or equity valuations. Focusing on the US causes one to minimise this alarming fact. The “Great Recession” label may turn out to be too optimistic. This is a Depression-sized event.

That said, we are only one year into the current crisis, whereas after 1929 the world economy continued to shrink for three successive years. What matters now is that policy makers arrest the decline. We therefore turn to the policy response.

Policy responses: Then and now

Figure 4 shows a GDP-weighted average of central bank discount rates for 7 countries. As can be seen, in both crises there was a lag of five or six months before discount rates responded to the passing of the peak, although in the present crisis rates have been cut more rapidly and from a lower level. There is more at work here than simply the difference between George Harrison and Ben Bernanke. The central bank response has differed globally.

Figure 4Central Bank Discount Rates, Now vs Then (7 country average)

Source: Bernanke and Mihov (2000); Bank of England, ECB, Bank of Japan, St. Louis Fed, National Bank of Poland, Sveriges Riksbank.

Figure 5 shows money supply for a GDP-weighted average of 19 countries accounting for more than half of world GDP in 2004. Clearly, monetary expansion was more rapid in the run-up to the 2008 crisis than during 1925-29, which is a reminder that the stage-setting events were not the same in the two cases. Moreover, the global money supply continued to grow rapidly in 2008, unlike in 1929 when it levelled off and then underwent a catastrophic decline.

Figure 5. Money Supplies, 19 Countries, Now vs Then

Source: Bordo et al. (2001), IMF International Financial Statistics, OECD Monthly Economic Indicators.

Figure 6 is the analogous picture for fiscal policy, in this case for 24 countries. The interwar measure is the fiscal surplus as a percentage of GDP. The current data include the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Update forecasts for 2009 and 2010. As can be seen, fiscal deficits expanded after 1929 but only modestly. Clearly, willingness to run deficits today is considerably greater.

Figure 6. Government Budget Surpluses, Now vs Then

Source: Bordo et al. (2001), IMF World Economic Outlook, January 2009.


To summarise: the world is currently undergoing an economic shock every bit as big as the Great Depression shock of 1929-30. Looking just at the US leads one to overlook how alarming the current situation is even in comparison with 1929-30.

The good news, of course, is that the policy response is very different. The question now is whether that policy response will work. For the answer, stay tuned for our next column.


Eichengreen, B. and K.H. O’Rourke. 2009. “A Tale of Two Depressions.” In progress.

Bernanke, B.S. 2000. Bernanke, B.S. and I. Mihov. 2000. “Deflation and Monetary Contraction in the Great Depression: An Analysis by Simple Ratios.” In B.S. Bernanke, Essays on the Great Depression. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bordo, M.D., B. Eichengreen, D. Klingebiel and M.S. Martinez-Peria. 2001. “Is the Crisis Problem Growing More Severe?” Economic Policy32: 51-82.

Paul Krugman, “The Great Recession versus the Great Depression,” Conscience of a Liberal (20 March 2009).

Doug Short, “Four Bad Bears,” DShort: Financial Lifecycle Planning” (20 March 2009).

This article may be reproduced with appropriate attribution. See Copyright (below). 


Barry Eichengreen
Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley; and formerly Senior Policy Advisor at the International Monetary Fund. CEPR Research Fellow

Kevin H. O’Rourke
Professor of Economics at Trinity College Dublin and CEPR Research Fellow