Monday, September 26, 2005

Parliament delay

A Royal decree was issued yesterday delaying the opening the regular session of parliament for two months. This was against a background of a threat to withhold confidence from the government over the rising cost of fuel.

Typically, no-confidence motions in Jordan are simply ways to grandstand and extort small bribes from the government. These can include cars, increased salaries or cash payments paid in order to help needy families who are constituents of certain MP's. Of course, since the MP is responsible for distributing the money outside the normal framework of government help to the poor, this money is simply a bribe.

In this case, it is dishonest to ask for a no confidence vote when it is clear that the options for the government are limited. Of course, nobody wants to pay more money for gas, but nobody has presented a viable alternative either. The proposed increases in cigarette and liquor taxes are silly, as these taxes have recently been raised and will not do nearly enough to cover the massive deficit caused by increasing world oil prices.

Therefore, the proposed no-confidence vote can be considered dishonest grandstanding by corrupt MP's. Nobody will be sorry that they stay home another two months, except their wives.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

A new way to collect money

Al Ghad today has a report on a plan to change the format of license plates in Jordan. The new format will divide the plate into two segments. The new format will consist of a two digit segment to the left and a five digit segment to the right, similar to the Dubai license plate format.

The charge of changing the plates will be around 20-25 JD. Of course, given a choice, I would keep my current plate. There is nothing wrong with it, and the police can easily identify me through it if they place the plate numbers and their owners on a simple data base program. If people can easily remember eight digit telephone numbers, they certainly can just as easily remember the current six digit number. On the contrary, I think that the new format would be more difficult to remember, given that it is segmented.

As far as I can tell, the government is looking to make a quick JD 20 million windfall. The plates should not cost more than one or two JD's, if there is a need to replace them at all.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Waiting for the "National Agenda"

Whereas the press is taking a lot of interest in the National agenda and is speculating about it's outcome, interest in the street is minimal. I suppose that most people are waiting for a new long-winded report that is full of vague generalities and few specifics (such as the "Jordan First" document, which was largely ignored).

A committee has been set up by Royal Decree to set a "National Agenda" for the next ten years. This committee has metastasized into a large number of subcommittees covering the economy, the political process, higher education, infrastructure and so forth. While we wait for the report, speculation is swirling about the fate of the government and the parliament, which also seem to be in the balance.

My feeling is that Jordanians are suffering "political fatigue". A new survey shows that people are pretty much happy with the one-man one vote formula, and that they are interested in more bread and butter issues. This is shown by the interest in solving the problem of corruption. Basically, corruption means that people are not interested in policy, and I suspect that they have been convinced that the current government economic policies are the only reasonable ones. Thus, if the policy is OK, then the problem must be that corruption is negating the effects of the policy. Alternate economic policies are really not being seriously debated. I can't imagine why people are so interested in democracy if they are no substantive policy debates, especially when speaking of economic policy. On what basis will people choose their government?

I would guess that almost anybody who would form a new government would get the same reaction. Nobody cares any more. We have apathy even before the first vote is cast.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Earthquake idiocy

Last night a large segment of Jordan slept in the street, because of a rumor of an earthquake that was supposedly eminent. A similar rumor was spread a few months ago. Now, it is well known that it is essentially impossible to predict when an earthquake might occur. Seismologists study ground movement after it occurs, and all attempts to develop techniques to predict earthquakes have failed. At best, people have noticed that animals start behaving erratically and ground water levels change slightly in some cases a short time before an earthquake. However, the results of using these indicators are poor.

As in the case a few months ago, a rumor spread that the experts were unable to quell. The fact that the Natural Resources Authority issued a statement that earthquake prediction is impossible, and that there should be no reason to expect an earthquake on Saturday night, or any other time for that matter, did not help. I hope that the people who slept in the street feel as stupid as they should feel. How many times can you fool the same people in the same way?

I believe that people who start these rumors are a threat to the public good. As such, criminal investigations should be initiated to find the source of this rumor, and to apply appropriate punishments. Of course, this does not alleviate the blame from the naïve who believe every rumor whispered in their ears. If any of you guys who slept in the street reads this, I have a bank account in Nigeria that I need your help with.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

What happened to free oil?

The decision by the government of Adnan Badran to raise the prices of fuel for the second time during his short tenure begs the question "what is going on?". Close reading of the statements issued by the government shows that world oil prices were not the only factor. What slipped out additionally is that the levels of foreign aid have fallen drastically as well. What is the deal?

Conspiracy theorists in Jordan (there are many of them) believe that the US is applying economic pressure in order to ease the way for people to accept the concept of relocation of displaced Palestinians residing in Syria and Lebanon to Jordan. The idea is that if economic conditions deteriorate, then the lure of financial aid might make the concept of relocation palatable. While this idea is widely accepted, it is not the only one being discussed. Historically, economic deprivation leads to increased xenophobia and lower tolerance to outsiders. I believe that if the turning of the economic screws on Jordan is to achieve more receptive attitudes towards relocation, then this approach defies the logic of social history.

The second theory is premised on the idea that aid is given to people who need the help. The widespread belief that aid given to Jordan is misused has led donor countries to limit their help. While this theory makes sense for western donor countries, it is not very credible when thinking about our rich Arab neighbors. Aid from Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries is viewed as a way to buy influence, and not because Jordan is particularly needy.

This leads to the third theory, which I believe is the closest to what is going on. Jordan is doing everything it is supposed to do vis a vis the Iraqi problem, the Palestinian issue and the "war on terror". In essence, since aid is designed to achieve certain results, then if these results are achieved, why give aid? Political and personal relationships between the leaders of the Gulf States and Jordan have never been better. The failure to make this translate into tangible help is a colossal failure in diplomacy. The idea that diplomatic issues are separated from economic ones is ludicrous. In essence, Jordan is failing to gain any leverage despite the total cooperation it is giving to the US, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinians and the Gulf States. Since many of the policies that are achieving this are very unpopular in Jordan, the Jordanian diplomatic stature should be more hard line until we get levels of aid that we have always received.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


The issue of rising fuel prices is producing some interesting monologues from the government and the press, as some bizarre decisions.

Yesterday the government decided to allow the importation and registration of small scooters, as indicated in the following item from the Jordan Times today "The Council of Ministers decided to permit the import of scooters and exempt them from custom fees, as they are characterised by their low gas consumption of 35km per litre".

Of course, as is usually the case with such hurried decisions, the implications were clearly not fleshed out. Instead of the government taking the lead on investing in high quality public transportation that will allow for car-free life styles, it comes up with this!

Our public transportation system (bus lines) is old and overstretched, and does not cover enough of the country for long enough hours. In essence, living without a car in most of Jordan is simply not practical, and thus owning private transportation is not a luxury. Thus, in order to solve this, the government will let us buy scooters.

I don't know about anybody else, but I barely feel safe driving around Amman in a well fortified car, with airbags no less. I certainly will not allow myself or anybody I care about drive a scooter, no matter what the economics. Of course, if you are young, poor and male, the government thinks that you can live with lower safety standards for yourself. So what is new with that? I will change my mind when I see Adnan Badran puttering around on a scooter.

Fahed Fanek in Al Rai today thinks that we overuse petroleum products because the ratio between oil consumption and per capita income is 10 times the ratio in the United States, never mind that the per capita income there is 10 time that of Jordan. Dr. Fanek does not tell us where or how we are wasting oil, but he thinks that we should raise prices to the point that we stop moving around and heating ourselves in the winter, because we can't afford it. What a novel idea. I have a better one. We should make more money. If not, we can always use the subsidized animal feed that the government is selling to the animal farmers. I think that riding around on donkeys will be cheaper and safer than scooters. We can also cuddle next to them in the winter for warmth, which we can't do with a scooter.

Fuel prices up again!

The government is once again looking to justify another raise in fuel prices. Today, Muasher, Badran and the usual chorus at Al Rai are explaining why. Of course, everybody knows that crude prices are up; although there is the usual confusion (which is of course deliberate) as to how much of the crude we import is free or at reduced cost. Presumably, the Saudis and the Kuwaitis are in need to bolster their budgets by charging us. Fine.

In any case, I hope that the charade that accompanied the last price rise a few weeks ago is not repeated. At that time, the government promised that the government budget will be slashed by limiting spending on non essentials, like government cars used for private purposes. I don't know about everybody else driving the streets of Jordan, but the number of cars with red license plates and little kids with drivers does not seem to have fallen significantly. Give me a break.

Badran now claims that 80% of the subsidies on fuel go to people who are well off. I guess that if you can only afford to walk, then you wouldn't be able to take advantage of our cut rate gas prices, which are close to the prices in the US, which when I last checked were not subsidized. Since the most subsidized products are kerosene, diesel oil, and residual fuel, I am wondering where this 80% number comes from. Kerosene is used by poor people for heating in the winter, and our lousy diesel oil is used in dilapidated trucks and buses, producing clouds of awful pollution. To be fair, it is also used in central heating for more wealthy homes, but I doubt that this is a very large volume. The residual fuel is used by factories and power plants, and is being phased out in favor of natural gas imported from Egypt.

Of course, people will accept this latest raise, and will not say anything when the world prices go down, or when the Saudis are told to give us some free oil.