Current Affairs

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit, the optimistic part:

When observing the evolution of market prices in reaction to Trump, I am currently left with a mix of very optimistic and very pessimistic sentiments.

First, the European Union, and not the U.S., really does remain the center of Western civilization. The underappreciated good news is that European growth rates are edging up, the euro as a currency appears to have a more secure future, and Brexit, though I view it as a major mistake for the U.K., is not pulling apart the broader European project. The refugee crisis has stabilized, and right-wing populist parties are not taking over Europe. I see that (legitimate) concerns about the impact of Trump are distracting many people from these quite positive developments.

Second, I now view many asset classes as at least partially dependent on Chinese capital, but I’m not so afraid of that capital going away, as those positions have built-in hedges. If China does well, the flow of Chinese capital will continue. If China does poorly, capital will leave China rather rapidly and seek out foreign investments, and that too gives non-Chinese markets a fair degree of protection. China’s highly leveraged position may be precarious internally, but the West has a built-in hedge, namely that bad times for China still send more capital our way, at least for a while. That’s another piece of security that we have been distracted from seeing, though I’m not sure it is good news for China itself.

If you were wondering what to make of low expected volatility in markets, it’s typically worth looking at which asset prices have been volatile. I have two nominations: Chinese corporate bonds and Chinese commodity prices, both of which have fluctuated considerably with changing expectations about Chinese deleveraging. But those have not created a broader crisis of volatility, which is consistent with the above story about how the world as a whole has been growing economically safer. Furthermore, the ongoing growth of emerging economies implies more global diversification over the long run for both trade and investment.

Do read the whole thing.

Those are one year nominal interest rate futures, basis points on the vertical axis, and this was the result of political troubles relating to another impeachment.  The image is courtesy of AJ.

I’ve been guilty of this too, and I apologize.  It strikes me that it has become politically acceptable among some of the high status people in my Twitter feed to make fun — if only implicitly — of the ugly, idiosyncratic, puzzled, sweaty, or otherwise mockable images sometimes presented by members of the Trump administration.

I’ve also seen a tendency to use images to play on some of the ruling Saudis as fitting stereotypes of sinister or perhaps comical, or some combination of the two.  At the very least, “orientalism” is making a comeback, and with some of the people who have been objecting to Trump’s own stereotypes.

I do not see these as positive developments.  It is inevitable that, to some extent, we judge people by their looks, and in some instances it may be practical and indeed necessary as well.  That said, I doubt if it is a good idea to publicly mock the ugly and the mockable for being ugly and mockable.  Even if they are evil, or doing the world harm.

Many people (rightly) criticized Trump’s campaign imitation and mockery of what seemed to be a spastic individual.  Let’s say Trump had done the same imitation of a spastic who had been convinced of robbery and murder.  Would that have been better?  Well, maybe better but still not good.  Don’t mock the looks, even of wrongdoers, even if those are looks of stupidity or boorishness, and of course members of the Trump administration have not been so convicted.

What if there are some people born looking sinister (by our standards), but are perfectly nice and friendly?  Or say there were witches, and witches were bad, and most witches had long, crooked noses, but some other people did too.  Should we caricature/criticize witches for this appearance?

Furthermore, the standards for ugly and mockable are in fact not always so clear, and trying to cement them in with our mockery is problematic.

This also should be a lesson as to how easily people can slip into enjoying racist, sexist, and otherwise objectionable memes.  Returning to the Saudis, it is especially easy to use this particular photo because stereotypes of Arabs still are permissible in some parts of American discourse:

Would that photo have been retweeted so many times if it simply had looked like a normal Western bureaucratic meeting?  And yes, you can use this photo to show Trump is a hypocrite, relative to his earlier pronouncements about the Saudis, but of course the picture communicates much more, namely that the Saudis have a very different and sometimes strange-looking (to us) culture.

We should not hesitate to criticize what we think is wrong.  But criticizing the appearance of various wrongs, as embodied in the looks of various people, is going a step further.  Don’t let the wrongdoers distract you from the reality that your use of images may be promoting an unjust generalization, or in fact mocking people for non-objectionable cultural elements.  In other words, the use of images may be promoting “lookism.”

This is one of the most serious problems with photos on Twitter, namely that we are not good enough to use them carefully.  Right now, the unjust philosophy of lookism is on a rampage, bigly.

As Table 3 shows, eight of the nation’s 12 largest metropolitan areas have lost domestic migrants since 2010. These areas are either pricey coastal regions, or are located in the industrial Midwest. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have led the nation in domestic out migration for more than three decades. However, because each also receives substantial numbers of international migrants, their overall migration loss for 2010-2016 is minimized. This is also true for other domestic migration losers on the list.

In contrast, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta registered significant domestic in-migration gains.

That is from William H. Frey, there is much more at the link.  The pointer is from Amy Liu.

Sentences to ponder

by on May 18, 2017 at 3:17 am in Current Affairs | Permalink

National Security Council officials have strategically included Trump’s name in “as many paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he’s mentioned,” according to one source, who relayed conversations he had with NSC officials.

This second bit I am fully in accord with:

Trump likes to look at a map of the country involved when he learns about a topic.

Here is the Reuters article, via Brad Jaffy and Brendan Nyhan.

Vix is up 16% today, a sign that a Trump presidency is now seen as having a much more uncertain future.  I agree with Charles Cooke that the 25th amendment is not really an option, nonetheless investigations will be proceeding, with the FBI and many Republicans not really on Trump’s side.  It is not obvious that Trump will handle himself well during that process.  The chances for tax and health care reform are dwindling.  Many Republican leaders are pondering the logic of Timur Kuran, namely when they should flip out of their preference falsification and state their real views.

I think also that Trump’s instructions to Comey to halt the Flynn prosecution are significant.  I view much of the press coverage as overstated or sometimes even hysterical, including for the Russia leaks, but the Comey business fits into the category of “impeachable offense.”  A normal president would not be impeached for it, but Trump is not a normal president.  The instructions to Comey would not be the actual reason he would be impeached, but they create a path along which an impeachment inquiry could proceed, nudged along by other “non-impeachable but unpopular and objectionable actions” Trump might take in the meantime, and what information might be revealed in the meantime.  There are many shoes yet to drop.  So my estimate of the chances of a Trump impeachment or resignation have gone up from about 5% to about 25%, in less than a two-day span.

Addendum: Do consider the remarks of Philip Wallach.

A British prison has become the world’s first to use a new system designed to stop drones flying over perimeter walls to drop contraband into jails.

The device creates a 2,000ft (600m) shield around and above a prison that will detect and deflect the remote-controlled devices.

It uses a series of “disruptors”, which are sensors to jam the drone’s computer, and block its frequency and control protocols. The operator’s screen will go black and the drone will be bounced back to where it came from.

Drones have become a major security problem in Britain’s prisons and are increasingly used to smuggle in drugs, weapons, phones and other valuables.

The new system, called Sky Fence, is being introduced at Les Nicolles prison on Guernsey, where around 20 “disruptors” will be installed on the perimeter and inside.

The Channel Island jail was initially going to install a drone detection system, but went a step further to put in the technology that stops drones in-flight.

Here is the article, via Tyro.  By the way, the newly available BBC TV show, Planet Earth II, is an amazing illustration of the use of drones to track and film nature (that includes us!).

Crunching data from disparate states, Mr Chinoy says state borrowing rose by a whopping 32% in the year to March 2017, after a 25% rise in the previous year…

Bihar, the country’s poorest, with a budget deficit of nearly 6% of its state GDP last year and a hole in its finances after it banned alcohol sales…

That is from The Economist.

The Greek economy is projected to grow 1.8 per cent this year, against an earlier forecast of 2.7 per cent according to the proposal…

Of course that’s not great, especially with all the catch-up they could be doing (but please don’t assume that all or even most of the output gap represents potential catch-up).  Still, the Greek economy is not shrinking, even though Keynesian fiscal theories predict it should be:

“We accept that there will need to be a 3.5 per cent primary surplus until the end of the [bailout] programme [in 2018] but after that it should come down to something like 1.5 per cent to allow for more capital expenditure to lift the Greek economy.”

Here is the FT article by Kerin Hope and Claire Jones.  I said it before, I’ll say it again: the 2008-2012 period was a very special one, with a very high risk premium (sorry, Scott!) and with massive contractions in bank intermediation in some of the key affected countries.  We draw broader conclusions from it at our peril.

An email from Alebron:

Might it be worth revisiting this, since it’s been 3 years?

Vol is low right now, lots of hand-wringing about it. Some possible factors:

– Shiller used to say the puzzle was that equity vol was so high (at least in the context of plausible DCF models). More money is now in the hands of “smart” market participants (certainly as a fraction of total trading volume this is true), and they overreact less to news.

– Stagnation/complacency. Or alternatively, all the action is in private firms (unicorns and the like). Firms only go/stay public if they are boring/stable.

– Consider a model where an industry has n firms, and some of them are mismanaged but investors don’t know which ones. Then any news about one of them reveals something about which are the good/bad ones. Suppose that the spread of (a) management consulting, (b) corporate regulation, and (c) efficiency due to information technology brings everyone towards the mean. Bad companies aren’t as bad as they used to be (they have access to competitors’ good ideas, Dodd-Frank/SOX/etc prevent egregious mis-management/mis-reporting, etc), and good ones aren’t as good (their good ideas leak out, they get saddled with unavoidable costs due to Dodd-Frank/SOX/etc). Thus, the value of news decreases, vol decreases.

– Trump of course. Pro-business, but more accurately pro-big-business, or pro-rent-seeking? I’m inclined to mostly dismiss this, since it’s not like vol cratered when he got elected. Vol has been pretty low for most of the last 5 years.”

– Does 1990s low-vol Japan have lessons?
Curious if you have other thoughts…

The excellent Samir Varma sends me this new article on VIX and volatility.  We all know there are models where volatility begets further volatility, if only because the initial big price moves make investors more wary, less willing to hold some positions, and more willing to bail out of others.  Perhaps we need a more in-depth study of how non-volatility begets further non-volatility.  When prices just aren’t moving by very much, maybe certain kinds of information get drained away, and it becomes harder to conclude that some position other than your status quo default position makes sense.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  It does not focus on single payer, but that is the part I will pass along to you:

Another way to manage health-care subsidies would be a single-payer system, and some commentators suggest that is where the Democratic Party is headed. I wouldn’t be so sure. Obama made his (partially incorrect) “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it” promise for a reason. The Americans who get health insurance through their jobs often enjoy privileged access to doctors and benefit from superior reimbursement rates.

If the price of covering the sick is for millions of wealthier and more influential people to give up those advantages, I don’t see that happening. The health-insurance industry and other medical lobbies will be opposed, too, with doctors fearing that a single-payer system would bargain down their reimbursement rates. Even a relatively progressive state such as Vermont could not make a single-payer system happen.

You can think of current debates over health policy as a game of hot potato in which “who loses?” and “who pays?” are questions nobody finds easy to answer but also questions that no party can ultimately avoid. Obamacare didn’t come up with a sustainable answer; neither, so far, have the Republicans.

Do read the whole thing.

Yes, the Garry Kasparov, here is the link to the podcast and transcript.  We talked about AI, his new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, why he has become more optimistic, how education will have to adjust to smart software, Russian history and Putin, his favorites in Russian and American literature, Tarkovsky, his favorite city to play chess in, his match against Deep Blue, Ken Rogoff, who are the three most likely challengers to Magnus Carlsen (ranked in order!) and who might win.  Here is one excerpt:

GK: The biggest problem, and I’ve been talking about for quite a while, that we’re still teaching very specific knowledge in the schools. Instead of teaching what, we have to teach how because this knowledge may be redundant 10 years from now. We are preparing kids for the world that will change dramatically. By the way, we already know it will look different. So what’s the point of trying to teach kids at age 10, 11, 12 without recognizing the fact that when they finish college, when they will become adults looking for jobs, the job market will be totally different?


COWEN: …If we look back on centuries of Russian history, do you think there’s something in Russian geography or demographics or geopolitics — what has it been that has led to such unfree outcomes fairly systematically?

Where do you find the roots of tyranny in the history of Russia? Is it a mix of the size of the country, its openness to invasion, its vulnerability, something about being next to a dynamic Europe, on the other side, China? What is it?

KASPAROV: It’s a long, if not endless, theoretical debate based on our interpretation of certain historical events. I’m not convinced with these arguments about some nations being predetermined in their development and alien to the concept of democracy and the rule of law.

The reason I’m quite comfortable with this denial . . . We can move from theory to practice. While we can talk about history and certain influence of historical events to modernity, we can look at the places like Korean Peninsula. The same nation, not even cousins but brothers and sisters, divided in 1950, so that’s, by historical standards, yesterday.


Let’s look at Russia and Ukraine, and let’s look, not at the whole Ukraine, but just at eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is populated mostly by ethnic Russians. In the former Soviet Union, the borders between republics were very nominal. People could move around, it was not a big deal. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the official state border between Russia and Ukraine was respected, but people still could move around. They didn’t need special visas.

When we look at ethnic Russians born and raised in Kursk and Belgorod on the Russian side and across the border, say in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk on the Ukrainian side, there were people that could be hardly separated anything. They read the same newspaper, Pravda, watched the same television, spoke the very same language, not even accents. But somehow, in 2014, after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, we saw a huge difference. Most of ethnic Russians in Ukraine signed for the Ukrainian army, fighting against Putin’s invasion, against the same Russians that came from the other side.

It could be a long debate, but I would say that one of the main reasons is that Ukraine experienced in 1994 a gradual transition of power from one president to another after sitting president Leonid Kravchuk lost elections and walked away. Ukrainians somehow got an idea that power is not sacred, and government can come and go, and they can remove it by voting.

And even despite the fact that Ukraine never experienced higher living standards than Russia, people realized that keeping this freedom, keeping this ability to influence their bureaucrats and government through the peaceful process of voting and, if necessary, striking, far more effective than Russia’s “stability” where the same leader could be in charge of the country with his corrupt clique for a long, long time.

On computer chess, I most enjoyed this part of the exchange:

KASPAROV: But I want to finish this because what we discovered in this process . . . I wouldn’t overweight our listeners with all these details. I don’t want just to throw on them the mass information.

COWEN: It’s amazing what people will enjoy, though. You’d be surprised.

Self-recommending!  We cover many other topics as well, again you can read or listen here.

And I strongly advise that you buy and read Garry’s wonderful new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.

This is Africa’s third biggest city. At 12 million, its population is bigger than London’s. Yet it has almost no connections to the outside world. On normal days, there are only 11 international flights out of Kinshasa per day. At Heathrow, the figure is around 1,400. Apart from the airport, the only other way into this vast megacity is the rickety ferry from neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville. If you were extremely brave, you could try the road to the Atlantic Ocean. But that’s about it. Kinshasa can burn and most of the world doesn’t notice, because Kinshasa is only slightly better connected to the global economy than the North Pole.

And yet somehow it is one of the world’s fastest growing cities. Kinshasa is a particularly extreme example of how Africa is urbanising without globalising. Sixty years ago the whole of sub-Saharan Africa had no cities with a population of more than a million people. Now it has dozens.

But unlike the English peasants who moved to factory cities in the 19th century, or Chinese ones in the 20th, the people moving to African cities are not moving to new global metropolises. Africa’s urbanisation is not driven by economic growth. Instead, people are moving to miserable mega-cities, with crumbling infrastructure and corrupt political systems, and which export almost nothing. Two thirds of Africa’s urban population growth is accounted for by slums.

That is from Daniel Knowles, via Tom Murphy.

It still was a mistake, most of all for Greece and Cyprus.  Yet overall its prospects are looking up, as I argue in my most recent Bloomberg column.  Here is the most revisionist passage:

I now think of the 2008-2012 period as unwinding a long-term bubble of overinvestment in the EU periphery, and thus those were special circumstances when virtually all economic policies were radically underperforming. Given that a recurrence of such conditions is unlikely, the euro will do much better in the future.

Along related lines, compare the performance of fiscal austerity now with that earlier period. Greece has been going through an unprecedented fiscal adjustment, with a primary surplus running at 3.9 percent of gross domestic product; yet Greek output, while ailing, has remained roughly stable. Portugal has been cutting back drastically on public sector investment, dropping its public sector deficit from 4.4 percent of GDP to 2.1 percent. Rather than imploding, the economy grew by 1.4 percent.

Of course, fiscal austerity didn’t perform nearly as well in the earlier part of this decade, and neither did the euro. The economic implosion from the unwinding of the bubble was simply too strong, so we should not overgeneralize from the very negative performance during those years.

Here is the most important passage:

One of the original goals of the euro was to tie countries to the European Union and its rules for free trade and free migration. The major EU country that eschewed euro adoption, the U.K., has now voted itself out the union altogether, to its detriment. Estonia and Latvia, which adopted the euro in part for political reasons to tighten their bonds with the EU, still seem secure against potential Russian aggression. The biggest political trouble spots seem to be Hungary and Poland, neither of which are euro members. That may be a coincidence, but it may also reflect a very real psychological tie resulting from the currency adoption.

Do read the whole thing, there are several other arguments at the link.

Here is a link to the download and partial transcript, Russ is one of the very best interviewers and of course he is a pioneer in the podcast genre.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler Cowen: And I think overall academics are among the most complacent of the complacent groups in American society.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

There is more…