The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Russia and US liberalize bilateral visa regime

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow just announced sweeping changes to the visas that Americans can get to visit Russia:

Starting September 9, Russian and American travelers for business or tourism will be eligible to receive visas valid for multiple entries during a period of 36 months. The agreement also outlines other simplifications in the bilateral visa regime and eases visa processing time for travelers from both countries.

Thanks to the agreement, three-year, multiple-entry visas will become the standard “default” terms for U.S. citizens visiting Russia and Russian citizens visiting the United States. No formal invitation will be required to apply for a business or tourism visa, although applicants seeking Russian tourist visas must continue to hold advance lodging reservations and arrangements with a tour operator. Both sides have also committed to keep standard visa processing times under 15 days, although the circumstances of individual cases may require additional processing.

When I visited Russia in 2010, the visa application required the actual dates and modes of travel, and an official invitation from the hotel. Russian visas were only valid for the dates on the application, so missing a flight or train could cause serious difficulties crossing the border. (I saved a pdf of the rules in effect through September 9th.)

I'll be interested to see if Russian tourism picks up with this liberalization scheme.

Bloodletting and leeches

Krugman yesterday reminded us that people are so desperate for the security that investing in the U.S. brings them, they're paying us to take their money, at alarming rates of negative interest:

That’s right: for every maturity of bonds under 20 years, investors are paying the feds to take their money — and in the case of maturities of 10 years and under, paying a lot.

What’s going on? Investor pessimism about prospects for the real economy, which makes the perceived safe haven of US debt attractive even at very low yields. And pretty obviously investors do consider US debt safe — there is no hint here of worries about the level of debt and deficits.

Now, you might think that there would be a consensus that, even leaving Keynesian things aside, this is a really good time for the government to invest in infrastructure and stuff: money is free, the workers would otherwise be unemployed.

But no: the Very Serious People have decided that the big problem is that Washington is borrowing too much, and that addressing this problem is the key to … something.

Conservatives here and in the UK (another country with unprecedented low government interest rates) have either a delusion or a willfully dishonest belief in the dangers of deficits. Yes, both countries have long-term deficit problems that need resolution, and both countries will need lower defense and entitlement spending to close their gaps. But that's in 20 years.

Right now, we need to take this free money (five-year Treasuries are at -1.18%; ten year notes are at -0.68%) and abundant labor (nationally still around 9% unemployment) and rebuild. We need to repair our roads, upgrade our trains, fix our sewers and electric grids, and restore our countries to the economic strengths they have had in decades past.

Those on the right, however, want to continue bloodletting, draining us of our strength when we're weakest. Or, put another way, if someone is starving, withholding food won't help him. Lending him some food might just get him feeling better again.

Ten years from now we're going to look back on this period of Republican and Tory intransigence, laugh nervously, and change the subject. If we're supremely lucky, we'll be out of the economic traps that their misguided policies have created for us.

Complete lacks of terror

Two examples of how Europeans handle things differently than we do. First, Norway's refusal to be terrorized by lunatics with guns:

The car-bomb in Oslo designed to kill the leadership of the country, and the shootings on the island of Utoeya designed to destroy the next generation of Labour party politicians, left 77 people dead, the majority of them teenagers.

But even in the first days of shock after the attacks, it was clear the response of the Norwegian people and their government to this act of terrorism would be unique.

"The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation," [Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg] said.

A year later it seems the prime minister has kept his word.

There have been no changes to the law to increase the powers of the police and security services, terrorism legislation remains the same and there have been no special provisions made for the trial of suspected terrorists.

On the streets of Oslo, CCTV cameras are still a comparatively rare sight and the police can only carry weapons after getting special permission.

Even the gate leading to the parliament building in the heart of Oslo remains open and unguarded.

Meanwhile, just across the Baltic, Germany and the ECB seem frighteningly nonchalant about the possibility of Greece exiting the euro:

I’m not saying that Greece should be kept in the euro; ultimately, it’s hard to see how that can work. But if anyone in Europe is imagining that a Greek exit can be easily contained, they’re dreaming. Once a country, any country, has demonstrated that the euro isn’t necessarily forever, investors — and ordinary bank depositors — in other countries are bound to take note. I’d be shocked if Greek exit isn’t followed by large bank withdrawals all around the European periphery.

To contain this, the ECB would have to provide huge amounts of bank financing — and it would probably have to buy sovereign debt too, especially given the spiking yields on Spanish and Italian debt that are taking place as you read this. Are the Germans ready to see that?

My advice here is to be afraid, be very afraid.

Don't even get me started on anthropogenic climate change theory, which predicted just about everything we're experiencing in North American weather this year.

California Senate approves high-speed rail; airlines opposed

Last week the California senate voted 21-16 vote to approve $8 bn in funding for a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Naturally there will be some privateering and incompetence, because this is America:

Until the end of last year, SNCF, the developer of one of the world's most successful high-speed rail systems, proposed that the state use competitive bidding to partner with it or another foreign operator rather than rely on construction engineers to design a sophisticated network for 200-mph trains.

The approach, the French company said, would help the California High-Speed Rail Authority identify a profitable route, hold down building costs, develop realistic ridership forecasts and attract private investors — a requirement of a $9-billion bond measure approved by voters in 2008.

But SNCF couldn't get its ideas — including considering a more direct north-south route along the Central Valley's Interstate 5 corridor — out of the station.

Instead, the rail authority continued to concentrate planning in the hands of Parsons Brinckerhoff, a giant New York City-based engineering and construction management firm. Although they have occasionally consulted with high-speed railways, officials decided that hiring an experienced operator and seeking private investors would have to wait until after the $68-billion system was partially built.

But whenever it gets going, the data seem pretty clear: it will hurt the airlines even while getting more Californians traveling:

Earlier this year a pair of Dutch researchers analyzed the passenger market between London and Paris in recent years and found that high-speed rail has been far and away the dominant travel choice in the corridor. Using these findings, they extrapolated that if California's train can make the full trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about 3 hours, it will capture roughly a third of business travelers and about 40 percent of the leisure market.

A more recent study, set for publication in the September issue of the journal Transport Policy, suggests that high-speed rail will not only cut into the air market but actually create its own travel demand. The researchers found that more total travelers — air and rail together — existed in various corridors after high-speed rail service began in the country. That means either people saw the service and decided to take trips they otherwise wouldn't have or they shifted from driving to train-riding. The former would be great for California's economy; the latter, a relief to its congested highways.

The change was particularly pronounced in the Barcelona-Madrid corridor. Here the researchers estimate an additional 394,000 travelers in the post-bullet train era — an 8 percent rise from earlier times. That's a good sign for California. The Barcelona-Madrid trip is relatively equidistant to Los Angeles-San Francisco: 314 miles to 348 miles as the crow flies, respectively. The travel time by rail is also comparable, in the neighborhood of 3 hours in each case.

The study also found that opening the Chunnel has shifted travel patterns between the UK and the Continent, getting more people traveling even as fewer people fly.

So who's really behind the opposition to HSR? Can't guess.

But what of tradition?

Some misguided people in the ancestral homeland want to rename Big Ben in honor of a living monarch:

London's Big Ben clock tower is to be renamed Elizabeth Tower to mark the queen's 60th year on the British throne.

Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the name change. "The renaming of the Clock Tower to the Elizabeth Tower is a fitting recognition of the Queen's 60 years of service. This is an exceptional tribute to an exceptional monarch," he said.

Reactions among the public were mixed, however. "Big Ben is so old and iconic, what is the sense in changing its name? All over the world people won't understand what the Elizabeth Tower is," said Romanian tourist Mara Ciortescu.

Hear, hear, Miss Ciortescu. Her Majesty isn't some Emirati despot trying to make a name for herself by, for example, conditioning a huge "loan" on naming rights. She is Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. She does not need a bell named after her.

I could make a snarky comment about how right-wing politicians often use some patriotic ruse to distract from their abject failure to solve real problems, but nothing comes to mind. Elizabeth Windsor didn't forge the damn bell; neither did Sir Benjamin Hall. The difference is, Sir Benjamin is dead; Queen Elizabeth is not. Naming things after living people, no matter how noble the person in question may be, is simply not done. The Cameron government should know that. I expect the sovereign would agree.

IOC annoys Londoners faster, higher, and stronger

The branding cops from the International Olympic Committee are making sure the London 2012 sponsors get their £1 bn worth:

With far more Olympic funds coming from taxpayers than sponsors, there is some resentment that the public is underwriting a massive advertising platform for big companies who then treat the games as their sole property.

Stricter still are rules within the 35-day Brand Exclusion Zone due to be thrown about half a mile around London’s Olympic Park, where any advertising or endorsement of non-sponsors is forbidden. Given that these sponsors are contributing a massive £1 billion to the games, it’s understandable they want to protect their investment. But with negative publicity for moves such as Visa’s demand that all non-Visa ATMs are removed from the Olympic zone, companies supporting the games are doing themselves few promotional favors by insisting on an over-zealous approach.

The complaints have flooded in, and it looks like the Cameron government may relax the sponsorship laws a bit. Meanwhile, Londoners are annoyed, but then again they're usually so. It's also yet another reason why we in Chicago are happy we didn't get the 2016 games.

Afternoon link round-up

I've got a deadline, which didn't stop me reading these articles (but did stop me posting thoughts about them):

Back to the mines...

Hollande America

I've never seen this before. Here's the French presidential airplane, parked on the south apron at O'Hare yesterday:

Parked nearby were Azerbaijan's, Italy's, and (I think) Russia's, but I couldn't get good photos with my tiny backup camera.

Let me be an aviation nerd for a second. This is an Airbus 320, without any obvious modifications. So how did it get an all the way here from Paris? I assume it stopped at Andrews AFB in Maryland to drop President Hollande off. But even Paris to Andrews seems like a long flight for that plane. The A320 has a maximum range of 6,150 km. Paris to Andrews is 6,183 km—possible, but risky, as it wouldn't leave any margin for error even after flying as efficiently as possible. Not to mention, flying trans-Atlantic westbound goes against the prevailing winds. So did they stop for fuel somewhere? Or does the plane carry more fuel than the bog-standard air transport model?

I realize this is not the most important aspect of the NATO summit, but I am curious.

Leaving extra time, just in case

Home to O'Hare: 39 minutes
Taxi to the other side of security: 6 minutes
TSA checkpoint to free drink at the club: 9 minutes

The weather is nearly perfect (for flying, anyway; I think it's too hot already), so I don't anticipate any delays flying out. And Air Force One doesn't get here until tonight, six hours after I leave. So, depending on Route 92, this might be one of my easiest trips ever. (It's got to be easier than the last time I flew.)

So, after hearing non-stop for a week about the massive disruptions due to the NATO summit, it turns out I have an hour to kill.

That's why I have This American Life on my iPod.

That said, I am kind of disappointed I won't get to see any of the world leaders. The Tribune reports that Pakistan's Zadari, Afghanistan's Karzai, and France's Hollande will all be here later today. And, as I've already mentioned, the big guy himself arrives at 8:45pm.

Update: Yikes! He's following me!

On Wednesday, the President ... will travel to California for campaign events in Atherton and Redwood City. The President will spend the night in San Jose, California.

On Thursday, the President will attend a campaign event in Palo Alto, California. ....

Greek end game

Or, as Krugman puts it, Eurodämmerung:

Some of us have been talking it over, and here’s what we think the end game looks like:

1. Greek euro exit, very possibly next month.

...

4b. End of the euro.

And we’re talking about months, not years, for this to play out.

Good thing I only have about €15 in cash. Though I do have some escudos and pesetas somewhere...