Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rent-a-friend in Japan

Rent-a-friend in Japan. By Duncan Bartlett
BBC, Monday, January 12, 2009, at 08:46 GMT



Lola - or Rora - to give her a slightly more Japanese pronunciation - is a beauty and she knows it.

Customers pay by the hour for her company. Usually they just want to stroke her, but as a special treat for favoured clients, she will lie back in a chair, close her eyes and pose for photographs.

Lola is a Persian cat who works at the Ja La La Cafe in Tokyo's bustling Akihabara district. It is one of a growing number of Cat Cafes in the city which provide visitors with short but intimate encounters with professional pets.

When I called, there were 12 felines and seven customers, mostly single men.

One man, in his early 30s, was attempting to bond with an Oriental Longhair by means of a rubber mouse.

Yutsuke, who speaks with a lisp, is normally rather shy with people. He longs for a cat of his own but frequent business trips make that difficult. Besides, he lives alone, so the Ja La La is his solution to the problem.

The right pet

It costs about £8 ($10) an hour to spend time in a Cat Cafe.

If felines do not appeal, other establishments will rent you a rabbit, a ferret or even a beetle.

There are more than 150 companies in Tokyo which are licensed to hire out animals of various kinds and although beetles may be cheap, dogs are much more popular.

First you pay a deposit and a hire fee. Then you are issued with a leash, some tissues and a plastic bag and given some advice on how to handle your new friend.

Kaori is a pretty waitress who regularly spends her Sunday afternoons with a Labrador. They go for a walk in the park if the weather is fine, or if it is wet they just snuggle up in front of the TV in her apartment.

"When I look into his eyes, I think he's my dog," Kaori told me. "But when I take him back to the shop, he runs away from me and starts wagging his tail when he sees the next customer. That's when I know he's only a rental dog."

Every need considered

Of course, it is not only animals whose loyalties can be decided by money, as people who work in Japan's vast entertainment business will testify.

The industry offers an enormous variety of opportunities to exchange money for company.

Very popular at the moment is the Campus Cafe, where men go to socialise with female university students. It is cheaper than the upscale hostess clubs in which businessmen and politicians drink whisky with women in kimonos, although that is a business which is in crisis because of the recession.


One specialist agency is known as Hagemashi Tai, which translates as I Want To Cheer Up Limited. It rents relatives.

Actors are despatched to play the part of distant relations at weddings and funerals. For an extra fee, they will even give a speech.

But the firm's services do not stop there. It can also provide temporary husbands to single mothers who want them.

The website says the "dad" will help the children with their homework. He will sort out problems with the neighbours.

He will take the kids to a barbeque or to a park. He could also appear at the daunting interview with a nursery school head teacher which parents are required to endure in order to persuade the principal to give their child a good start in life.

Cry for help

There is a service for women who are about to wed too. Apparently, they can practise for married life with a hired husband, although whether this involves seduction or sock washing is not exactly clear.

And if things are not working out with a real husband, a woman considering a divorce may choose to hire a "mother" in order to discuss her marital anxieties.

Mr M O from Shizuoka near Mount Fuji called upon the services of I Want To Cheer Up Ltd because he needed a father.

Mr M O has been blind since birth and had a number of concerns that he felt he could not speak to others about.

"I kept it all inside and couldn't deal with the criticisms that had been directed at me by my parents and teachers," he testified.

After some discussion, the company sent an older man to have dinner with him. "Usually I can't open up when I meet someone for the first time but on that occasion, I felt I was really talking with a normal father. I'll use the service again," he said.

Loneliness is a problem faced by many people on these crowded islands. But the Japanese are prone to believe that, in the right circumstances, money can turn a stranger into a friend... at least for a couple of hours.

Check the article at BBC's site.

h/t: Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

Potential Harm to Economy and Job Losses of Green Jobs Plan

Green Lantern: New Study Shines Bright Light on Potential Harm to Economy and Job Losses of Obama’s Green Jobs Plan

IER experts Michaels and Murphy find “green jobs” plan would cost our country jobs, increase price Americans pay for their energy

Washington, DC – One week away from inaugurating a new president, a comprehensive new study authored by the Institute for Energy Research (IER) confronts, explains, and methodically refutes the increasingly popular notion that government-directed efforts to create millions of “green jobs” can cure our nation of its economic ills.

In Green Jobs: Fact or Fiction?, IER senior fellow Robert Michaels and economist Robert Murphy consider the conclusions of four recent analyses on the subject – all of which project a clear, unconditional economic windfall from diverting billions in taxpayer resources to commissioning jobs that, by their very definition, cannot withstand the rigors of the marketplace.

Drs. Michaels and Murphy dissect the assumptions at the center of those findings, and eventually conclude that a massive government program aimed at creating “green jobs” – at the exclusion of all others – would result in a net loss in U.S. employment opportunities, a sizeable increase in the price Americans pay for their energy, and a deepening and continuation of our current economic condition.

IER president Thomas J. Pyle issued the following statement:
“With the release of this study, it’s our sincere hope that a rational discussion on the merits of the president-elect’s ‘green jobs’ plan can finally begin in earnest. Such a plan, according to this analysis, would result in a net loss in U.S. jobs, a net increase in the price consumers pay for energy, and a further protraction and deepening of our current economic downturn.

“With an economy in peril and millions of Americans out of work, it stands to reason that any plan that promises to create millions of new jobs would be welcome news to the American people. But before we fundamentally restructure our economy, and turn over to the federal government unprecedented authority over its day-to-day operations, we ought to decide whether the supposed cure to what ails our economy is worse than the actual disease itself. This study takes the first meaningful step toward answering that question. We hope others follow.”

Among the key findings of Green Jobs: Fact or Fiction?:

  • “[Obama’s green jobs plan] would likely increase consumer energy costs and the costs of a wide array of energy-intensive goods, slow GDP growth and ironically may yield no net job gains. More likely, [it] would result in net job losses.”
  • “Although each report [in defense of ‘green jobs’] is unique, a common characteristic is that they all rest on incomplete economic analysis, and consequently greatly overstate the net benefits of their policy recommendations.”
  • “[The Center for American Progress] estimates that this “fiscal stimulus” will result in the creation of two million jobs. Yet the CAP methodology treats the $100 billion as manna from heaven; it does not consider the direct and indirect adverse effects (including job destruction) of imposing higher costs on a wide array of energy-intensive industries and thereby raising prices for consumers.”
  • “The government doesn’t create wealth simply by taking $100 billion from one group of firms and handing it over to a different group …”
  • “After broadly defining the renewable industry, the Council of Mayors study goes on to paint a picture of expanding markets that can only grow further. In reality, with the single exception of wind, U.S. power production from renewables has stagnated for the past fifteen years.”
NOTE: As IER analysis has shown, it takes as much as $100,000 in taxpayer resources to create a single so-called ‘green’ job – a fact not accounted for in any of the studies analyzed by IER scholars.

Why Democrats Ignore Pro-Palestinian Activists

Why Congress Ignores Pro-Palestinian Activists, by Eric Trager
Contentions/Commentary Blog, Jan 13, 2009 - 7:45 AM

Juan Cole has a typically conspiratorial theory for explaining why congressmen have ignored the pro-Palestinian marches that occurred in a handful of American cities this past weekend:

The US Senate and the US House of Representatives are not afraid of street protests in San Francisco. And why should they be? What sort of threat is it to them, that we say if they don’t change their legislation we will . . . walk in the street? Their response would be, ‘Make sure you have comfortable shoes; now, I have to see this nice lobbyist in my office in a thousand dollar suit and alligator shoes who has an enormous check for my current political campaign.’
Well, I have an alternative to Cole’s thesis: maybe it’s not the slimy pro-Israel lobbyists - who are so rich that they practically wear money - that pro-Palestinian activists should blame for not being heard. Rather, maybe the problem is the pro-Palestinian activists themselves.

Indeed, maybe congressmen ignore pro-Palestinian rallies because the ANSWER Coalition - an offshoot of the communist World Workers Party (WWP) - organizes them. Maybe congressmen know that the WWP - a longtime supporter of Fidel Castro and Kim Jong-Il - actively protested Slobodan Milosevic’s war crimes tribunal, and therefore feel uncomfortable associating with it.

Or, maybe congressmen stay away because these rallies are just as anti-American as they are pro-Palestinian, with banners declaring the U.S. “racist” and “terrorist.” Or maybe it’s because congressmen don’t want to march with protesters who cover their faces, which is something that only truly nefarious groups do in this country. Or maybe it’s because congressmen don’t want to be around people who burn flags; haul mock coffins; splatter clotheslines of baby t-shirts with fake blood; and never - never - advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Of course, these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. But, if pro-Palestinian activists really want to know why their cries fall on deaf ears in Washington, they should start by looking in the mirror. Politicians are, after all, deeply image-conscious: they are unlikely to march alongside people who appear immoderate, and certainly won’t give much weight to rallies that communist-affiliated groups organize. It’s strange that Juan Cole - who claims political expertise with his regular treatises on the remarkable influence of “Likudniks” - doesn’t recognize this most basic political reality.

(By the way, the images of pro-Palestinian activists that I linked to in this post were from the recent demonstration in San Francisco.)

Towards a Biden-Putin Commission

Towards a Biden-Putin Commission, by Boris Mamlyuk
Huffington Post, January 13, 2009 06:18 AM (EST)



The importance of improving U.S./Russia relations cannot be understated. While there are reasons to be mistrustful of political developments in Russia, most commentators agree that Russia and the U.S. have vested interests in avoiding further antagonism. For this reason, the U.S. has maintained public dialogue with Russia open even in moments of crisis. For instance, on the heels of Russia's Georgia war, top U.S. brass met with Russian generals to discuss security and related issues. Even in an election cycle which saw the Georgia war politicized, and under an administration which had little to lose by further alienating Russia, pragmatism trumped politics.

What form should U.S./Russia cooperation take in the Obama administration? And what is in it for Russia? I agree with several other commentators (and here, Lord Boyce speaking before the Select Committee on the EU at the House of Lords) that America can boost its lagging relations with Russia by reestablishing the famous Gore-Chernomyrdin talks in the form of a Biden-Putin Commission. A Biden-Putin Commission has several advantages over the current form of dialogue.

First, a Biden-Putin Commission would serve as a perfect opening chapter for Obama's campaign blueprint of engaging adversaries while aggressively defending American interests. America has always had vibrant diplomatic relations with Russia--from the 1930s with American Ambassador Joseph Davies, to the height of the Cold War, and throughout the transition period. High-level talks are old hat for U.S. and Russia; they carry none of the political baggage Obama faced when discussing diplomatic talks with adversaries such as Iran without preconditions on the campaign trail. If successful, Biden-Putin talks can thus serve as a roadmap for future dialogue with other nations. Second, the commission has the potential to actually change substantive policy. Russia's influence in the aforementioned areas of cooperation is significant; America does need Russian help, especially with Iran and arms sales. Russia on the other hand needs America to recognize it as a rational partner and to reincorporate it into the global community (read: to reverse the capital flight after the Georgia war and to resume the WTO accession process). More fundamentally, Russia (hard hit by the financial crisis, despite denying the damage) needs America to acknowledge it as an equal partner. This alone gives the new administration much leverage.

The commission would also arguably deflate Putin and Medvedev's recent wave of anti-American rhetoric. From Putin's point of view, this may militate against the commission. As noted by Russian historian Boris Kagarlitsky here and elsewhere, Bush's ambivalence towards Russia has played into Putin's hand domestically. How will Putin view Biden, and will he agree to the talks? Russians know Biden as a staunch but reasonable Russia critic. Biden's rhetoric on Russia gives Putin a sufficient measure of protection at home. With Bush gone and a new negotiator across the table, Putin loses no face in participating in the talks and revisiting anew many of the thorny issues of the past eight years. Still, is there sufficient pressure on Russia to participate?

As Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations notes, Russia will emerge from the current financial crisis weaker and more inclined to work with the West:
Many Russian commentators have said that if the goal is to keep a hard-hit Russian economy in the international mainstream, adjustments in Russian foreign policy are likely to follow as well. They do not predict a complete change of direction, but a less confrontational, less ideological, more prudent, more resource-constrained approach to relations with the West. The need for such adjustments is particularly obvious where resources are concerned.
Russia's desire to be treated as an equal in the global economy, to gain a seat at Obama's proverbial table, presents an opportunity not seen since the collapse of the USSR. The prospect for a new Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission to support cooperation in the areas of space, energy, high-tech, business development, defense, the environment and the like dwarfs any other prospective development between the U.S. and Russia. Yet it is not without critics.

For instance, by June 1995, the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission also encompassed America's efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons from Russia; despite agreements with the U.S., Russia continued selling weapons and nuclear technology to Iran. Critics also argued that the high-profile commission detracted from established low-level diplomatic efforts, stifling conventional channels of negotiation. When the commission was effectively dissolved in 1998 with Chernomyrdin's dismissal by Yeltsin, few could point to actual policy achievements. The Biden-Putin Commission can be successful and avoid these pitfalls of its predecessor.

To begin with, Putin is no Chernomyrdin. Next, even among the critics of the prior commission, few doubted the efficacy of regular face-to-face meetings in establishing goodwill and garnering popular support for U.S./Russia cooperation. If nothing else, the goodwill manifested itself in greater business ties between the two former foes. The U.S. led the world in foreign direct investment in Russia and the CIS states in the 1990s. If nothing else, the Biden-Putin Commission can discharge the pent-up anger and distrust on both sides, galvanize popular opinion towards cooperation, and renew investment in Russia.

The Chinese Navy sets sail for Somalia

Red Tide, by Michael Auslin
The Chinese Navy sets sail for Somalia

Jan 13, 2009 @12:00:00 AM

Just after Christmas, two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship left their base in southern China to make the long voyage to Somalia, there to protect Chinese-flagged vessels from pirate attacks. Headed by a Rear Admiral, the PLA Navy flotilla marks the first overseas maritime deployment by China since the 1500s. It also marks a new era in Chinese security activity outside its borders. The Obama administration and America's allies must now take into account China's ability to protect its overseas interests. This may fundamentally change U.S. maritime strategy in the coming years.

The Chinese decided to act after several of their ships were attacked and held for ransom, a fate shared by more than 40 vessels last year that entered the pirate infested waters around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Since last week, the Chinese have escorted at least seven ships from Hong Kong and the mainland, and have received requests to aid over a dozen more.

The real reason the PLA Navy's flag now flies off the Arabian peninsula is the continuing failure of the international community to engage and effectively respond to the pirate attacks in that region. After a year of attacks, only in the past few weeks have European navies actually begun to confront the threat there to shipping, it was only in December that the United Nations passed a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against pirates operating at sea and on land, if necessary. Yet it has all been too little too late, and now the Chinese navy is taking its place beside the American, Indian, and Russian navies as a major regional player.

Beijing has promised that its mission will abide by U.N. guidelines, but also said that its vessels will stay as long as necessary to protect Chinese ships. The mission therefore provides the Chinese with an unparalleled opportunity to gain experience in long-term, overseas deployments, as well as numerous chances to learn from more tested, better equipped navies already operating in the Gulf.

On the face of it, that should be nothing to worry about. However, the naval deployment must also be seen in light of China's steady expansion of maritime interests in Asia, including the so-called "string of pearls": a network of bases, ports, and other facilities stretching from the East China Sea all the way to the Arabian Sea.

Whether it be the Gwadar naval base in Pakistan or the Woody Island Airfield in the South China Sea's Paracels Islands, the Chinese are gaining access to strategically important facilities that sit astride the world's major trade routes.

In addition to this forward presence, the PLA Navy has committed itself to developing its naval capabilities as a vital component of China's "comprehensive national power." This includes the intention to build at least one, but maybe as many as five, aircraft carrier groups. Already, China's fleet of 55 submarines is larger than that of any other nation in the region, and has the capability of transiting key transport corridors.

All this means that the United States must now actively incorporate Chinese capabilities into its strategic planning. The preferred approach would be to work with Beijing on issues of common interest, such as the piracy problem. But so far the Chinese seem unwilling to provide the types of public goods, in this case protection of non-Chinese vessels, which the U.S. Navy has routinely provided for decades. China's overseas activities are limited to its own interests, and that could lead to political tension between China and other maritime powers.

In addition, Washington has to consider the effect of China's new capabilities on its allies and friends in maritime Asia. The Taiwanese, Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, and Australians all watch China's maritime growth warily. Tokyo hopes to send its own naval vessels to the Horn of Africa, and is feeling greater pressure to do so because of the Chinese expedition. An intensified naval race could be extremely destabilizing to Asia, but the only way to avoid one is to figure out a way to have China scale back its activities, which is unlikely, or formalize China's participation in maritime multilateral initiatives.

That is going to require innovative thinking on the part of the Obama administration, which must above all assure America's friends that the U.S. Navy will retain its maritime superiority across the region. As China just proved, any vacuum will be filled, and not always in ways that lead to long-term stability.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

U.S. Welcomes ECOWAS Suspension of Guinea

Press Statement
US State Dept, Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC, January 12, 2009

U.S. Welcomes ECOWAS Suspension of Guinea

The United States welcomes the decision by the heads of government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to suspend Guinea's membership until elections are held. We support the efforts of ECOWAS and the African Union to speed Guinea's transition to civilian rule. We reiterate our call for a return to civilian rule and the holding of free, fair and transparent elections as soon as possible. We note that at the time of President Conte's death, Guinea was preparing for legislative elections in early 2009.

The United States has suspended assistance to Guinea, with the exception of humanitarian aid and programs supporting the democratic process.