Current Affairs

But it is also a question of history and, more specifically, of how welfare states in the rest of the world developed alongside warfare. European welfare states began in Prussia at the end of the 19th century, when war with France required the mobilisation of a large number of civilians. Britain’s welfare state has its origins in the discovery that many of the men who presented themselves to recruiting offices during the Boer war were not healthy enough to fight. Before the second world war, British liberals would have seen the creation of a government-run national health service as an unwarranted intrusion of government into private life. After 1945 it seemed a just reward for a population that had suffered.

In America this relationship between warfare and health care has evolved differently. The moment when the highest proportion of men of fighting age were at war, during the civil war (when 13% of the population was mobilised), came too early to spur the creation of a national health system. Instead, the federal government broke the putative link between war and universal health care by treating ex-servicemen differently from everyone else. In 1930 the Veterans Administration was set up to care for those who had served in the first world war. It has since become a single-payer system of government-run hospitals of the kind that many Americans associate with socialised medicine in Europe. America did come close to introducing something like universal health care during the Vietnam war, when once again large numbers of men were being drafted. Richard Nixon proposed a comprehensive health-insurance plan to Congress in 1974. But for Watergate, he might have succeeded.

That is from The Economist.

Here is one of Noah’s bits:

Smith: OK. I wanted to press you on a couple more things. First, you discuss how productivity growth has slowed down, but you also mention that people might be slacking off a lot more at work. Don’t those two contradict each other? If people are producing the same amount as before in half the time and spending the other half of their day surfing the net, doesn’t that mean true productivity has risen rapidly?

Second, you discuss how matching leads to complacency — how the Internet allows us to find jobs, mates, and consumption goods that are perfectly suited to us, and how this can make us lazy and over-satisfied. But you also talk about how people, especially working-class people, are getting stuck in high-unemployment places. Isn’t better matching part of the solution to the mobility problem?

Here is the whole exchange.

Written for the 40th (!) anniversary of the Cato Institute, here is the clinching summary paragraph:

So we’re going to see a kind of intellectual war, and possibly war in other, more violent forms too. That war, using that word in the broadest sense possible, will be between today’s amazing accumulated stock of human capital — and the emotional momentum behind authoritarianism, which is encouraged by the political fraying that stems from underlying fears of disruption.

The piece has other points of interest.

Probably so, so says my latest Bloomberg column.  One problem is that interstate mobility as a competitive check has declined, but there are other problems too.  Here is one excerpt:

One unfortunate side effect of today’s political polarization is that voters are more likely select state and local candidates on the basis of whether those individuals profess the same ideology — as defined at the national level — as the voter. In other words, if you think the federal government spends too much on transfer programs, you are more likely to vote for the Republican in your state, whether or not your state spends too much on transfer programs. The incentive for candidates is then to stake out relatively extreme and easily observed positions, to attract the most commonly held ideology in each state. The news media, by devoting most of its coverage to the most highly visible national candidates and issues, makes this problem worse.

One study found that when it comes to votes for the state legislature, the most important factor was the popularity of the sitting president and the president’s party. How well the state’s economy was doing was relatively unimportant. Again, that hardly creates strong incentives for good practical performance. Many state and local issues are more about competence than ideology, including road maintenance, running the prison system and helping to fund K-12 education.

Do read the whole thing.

Walter Olson at Overlawyered reports:

Those free online course materials may be gone from the University of California, Berkeley, courtesy of a U.S. Deparment of Justice interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related statutes, but they’re not gone from the Internet: “20,000 Worldclass University Lectures Made Illegal, So We Irrevocably Mirrored Them” [LBRY] Won’t that infringe on a lot of copyrights? The site claims not: “The vast majority of the lectures are licensed under a Creative Commons license that allows attributed, non-commercial redistribution.” Earlier coverage here, here, here, and here.

As someone put it, it looks as if the internet recognizes ADA litigation as damage and routes around it.

Jeremy Kauffman at LBRY gives some more detail:

The LBRY protocol provides a completely decentralized network for discovering, distributing, and publishing all types of content and information, from books to movies.

When publishing the lectures to LBRY, the content metadata is written to a public blockchain, making it permanently public and robust to interference. Then, the content data itself is hosted via a peer-to-peer data network that offers economic incentives to ensure the data remains viable. This is superior to centralized or manual hosting, which is vulnerable to technical failure or other forms of attrition.

I wrote about online education and the ADA in Egalitarianism versus Online Education and I’m an adviser to LBRY so I’d like to say that this was my idea but I was not involved!

One of Beijing’s busiest public toilets is fighting the scourge of toilet paper theft through the use technology – giving out loo roll only to patrons who use a face scanner.

The automated facial recognition dispenser comes as a response to elderly residents removing large amounts of toilet paper for use at home.

Now, those in need of paper must stand in front of a high-definition camera for three seconds, after removing hats and glasses, before a 60cm ration is released.

Those who come too often will be denied, and everyone must wait nine minutes before they can use the machine again.

But there have already been reports of software malfunctions, forcing users to wait over a minute in some cases, a difficult situation for those in desperate need of a toilet.

The camera and its software have also raised privacy concerns, with some users on social media uneasy about a record of their bathroom use.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were. (This may be true in Europe as well. A recent thesis at Sweden’s Uppsala University, by an undergraduate named Ludvig Broomé, compared supporters of the far-right Swedish Democrats with people who voted for mainstream candidates. The former were less likely to attend church, or belong to any other community organization.)

That is from Peter Beinart, more of interest at the link.

A Patriot missile – usually priced at about $3m (£2.5m) – was used to shoot down a small quadcopter drone, according to a US general.

The strike was made by a US ally, Gen David Perkins told a military symposium.

“That quadcopter that cost 200 bucks from did not stand a chance against a Patriot,” he said.

Patriots are radar-targeted weapons more commonly used to shoot down enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles.

“Now, that worked, they got it, OK, and we love Patriot missiles,” the general said.

Here is more, via Ray Lopez.

Addendum: The Chinese are experimenting with a radio wave gun to bring down drones.

Cyber weapons are different. If you are a state and you let potential enemies know about your arsenal of cyber attacks, you are giving them the opportunity to fix their information systems so that they can neutralize the threat. This means that it is very hard to use cyber weapons to make credible threats against other states. As soon as you have made a credibly-specific threat, you have likely given your target enough information to figure out the vulnerability that you want to exploit.

This means that offensive cyber weapons are better for gathering intelligence or actually taking out military targets than for making threats. In this regard, they are the opposite of nuclear weapons, which are more useful as threats than as battlefield options. Nuclear weapons can create stability because they deter attacks. In effect, they create a stable system of beliefs where no state wants to seriously attack a nuclear power, for fear that this might lead to a conflict that would escalate all the way to nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons and cyber attacks don’t mix well.

Unfortunately, this means that the advantages of cyber operations become an important liability for nuclear deterrence when they are used for “left of launch” attacks on nuclear launch systems. By secretly penetrating another state’s launch system, you may undermine the stable system of beliefs that discourages an attack.

Consider what might happen in a tense standoff between two states that both have nuclear weapons, where one state has penetrated the other state’s launch system, so that it could stop a nuclear counter attack. The state that has penetrated the launch system knows that it has a military advantage. However, if  it reveals the advantage to the target state, the target state will be able to patch its system, destroying the advantage. The target state does not know that it is at a disadvantage, and it cannot be told by the attacker.

The result is that the two states have very different perceptions of the situation. The attacker thinks that there is an imbalance of power, where it has the advantage. The target thinks that there is a balance of power, where both states have nuclear weapons and can deter each other. This means that the first state will be less likely to back down, and might escalate conflict, secure in the knowledge that it can neutralize the other state if necessary. However, the target state may too behave in provocative ways that raise the stakes, since it mistakenly believes that at a certain point the other state will have to back down, for fear of nuclear war. Thus, this creates a situation where each side may be more willing to escalate the tense situation, making it more likely that one state will decide to move toward war.

That is from Eric Gartzke and Jon R. Lindsay, there is more interesting material at the link.

He was superb, here is the transcript, audio, and video.  We considered satire as a weapon, Harvard, long-distance running, Washington vs. NYC, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, Caribbean culture and intellectual history, and of course Malcolm’s mom, among other topics.  His answers are so fluid and narrative they are hard to excerpt, but here is one bit from him:

COWEN: Overrated or underrated, the idea of early childhood intervention to set societal ills right?

GLADWELL: Overrated because to my mind it’s just another form . . . it became politically impermissible to say that certain people in society would never make it because they were genetically inferior. So I feel like that group, it’s like, “All right, we can’t say that anymore. We’ll just move the goalpost up two years.” And we’ll say, “Well, if you don’t get . . .” Or three years — “If you don’t get the right kind of stimulation by the time you’re three, basically it’s curtains.”

Why is that argument, which we decided we didn’t like it when they set the goalpost at zero, and somehow it’s super-important and legitimate and chin-stroking-worthy when they moved the goalpost to three. Truth is, people, it’s not over at three any more than it was over at zero. There are certain things that it would be nice to get done by the age of three. But if they’re not, the idea that it’s curtains is preposterous. It’s the same kind of fatalism that I thought we had defeated in the . . .

If you want to say that the goalpost should be at 30, then I’m open to it.

I asked what changes he would make to higher education:

GLADWELL: OK. I would establish a set of baseline criteria for admissions, and then I would have a lottery after that. So if you’re in the top 2 percent of your high school class — 5 percent, whatever cutoff we want — following test scores at a certain point, whatever cutoff we want, some minimum number of other things you do — you just go into the pot and we’re pulling out names. I’d probably triple or quadruple the size in the next 10 years, open campuses — probably two other campuses in the United States, one overseas.

I had this idea, I’m not sure how you’d do it, where I think that it would be really, really useful to ban graduates of elite colleges from ever disclosing that they went to an elite college.

I thought the Steve Pearlstein material was perhaps Malcolm’s highlight, but you need to read it straight through.

Here is a very short bit from me:

Most of my questions will be quite short, but my first question will be really, really long. Since everyone knows you and your work so well, I asked myself, “Who is Malcolm Gladwell?” And I tried to come up with an answer. I’ll give you my answer, and then you can correct me or add to that, and this will take a little while.

Definitely recommended.

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit from it:

…the U.K. seems to be in a crisis of ideas, as outlined by Michael Moran in his recent “The End of British Politics?”. He points out that the earlier Protestant, imperial and social democratic rationalizations for the political union largely have fallen away. Scottish separatism — now very much back on the agenda — is one manifestation of this problem. In such a setting, it’s possible to imagine a slightly different legal status for Northern Ireland, where the border check — if there is to be one — is done for flights to London rather than for ground transport to the Republic of Ireland, such as on the ground in Donegal County.

I don’t expect full union anytime soon, as I explain in the piece, but here is the closing tag line:

I’m seeing a world where the past is emerging as stronger than we had thought, and where nationalism has arguably been the most influential idea since the 17th century. That probably means the two Irelands still have some surprises in store for us.

Do read the whole thing.  And now there is talk of a Northern Irish referendum.

I wish to thank Ray Lopez for the pointer to Moran.

Here is part of the abstract from his 2011 paper:

Internationally: today’s external patron (the United States) of the free Korean half is weakening, while the external patron (China) of the communist half is strengthening. The opposite was true of the United States and West Germany, and the Soviet Union and East Germany, in 1989. Today’s northern patron (China) is trying to push further into the Asian continent, while yesterday’s eastern patron (the Soviet Union) was looking for an exit from central Europe. Chinese peninsular intervention is therefore easier, while U.S. support for South Korea’s unification terms will be more difficult.

Yes, that is the Robert E. Kelly, the one with the Korean wife and (at least) two children.  Here is more Robert E. Kelly on Korea.  Here is the video version.

The state of West Virginia has paid for so many burials for indigent people who have died from drug overdoses that the funding has run out five months before the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.

Kitchen said there have been so many drug overdose deaths in West Virginia, it often takes two to three weeks for the state medical examiner to complete the required autopsies. He said families then have the added stress of not being able to carry out a funeral for weeks after a death occurs.

Here is the article, via Anecdotal.  Here is a good Christopher Caldwell piece on opioids.

Late last month, famine was declared in two counties of the civil-war torn East African country of South Sudan. With 100,000 people at risk for dying of starvation in that area alone and millions more on the brink of crisis-level food shortages throughout the country, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir promised “unimpeded access” to humanitarian aid organizations working there.

A few days later the South Sudanese government hiked the fee for work permits for foreign aid workers from $100 to $10,000.

Here is further information, via Tom Murphy.

It is not easy to excerpt, so do read the whole thing.  But here is the closing bit:

And in any case, momentum depends on a strong, successful push at the start. This could have started better, and it needs to end smarter.