Current Affairs

A man threw his body onto a self-driving car — a GM Cruise AV — causing a car vs. pedestrian collision at the 16th and Valencia intersection earlier this month, the DMV reported Wednesday.

Operating in “autonomous mode,” the Cruise AV was stopped at a green light, facing northbound on Valencia, waiting to make a right turn onto 16th Street as pedestrians crossed.

Suddenly, a man ran across Valencia Street against the “do not walk” sign, shouting, and struck the left side of the car’s rear bumper and hatch with his entire body. This is all according to a report the self-driving car manufacturer must file with the DMV in the event of a collision.

The man sustained no injuries, but the car did. It suffered “some damage to its right rear light,” according to the report.

Here is the full story.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg article, here is one bit:

What is striking about immigration, and immigration policy, is the very simple but oft neglected fact that it concerns human bodies. Any exercise of immigration law thus requires some violence, either explicit or implicit, against those bodies. It will mean the rounding up and forcible restraint of bodies, the widespread use of prisons and other coercive holding chambers, and tearful scenes of airport separation. Those methods will be applied to individuals who do not enjoy the full protections of the U.S. Constitution, who are vulnerable to mistreatment during the process, and who do not always have full fluency in the English language or a full understanding of their legal rights. The resulting problems are especially high costs, not only because of the associated dollars, but also because our precious self-image as a humane country implies keeping such episodes to a minimum. Too many violent stories and images, even when they technically can be justified by laws, damage our conception of our country. Eventually that will shape our future behavior and not for the better.

A somewhat lax enforcement of immigration restrictions is in fact the friend of the future of the rule of law, not the enemy.

Do read the whole thing.

I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect.  Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature.  Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:

…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.

Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use.  Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.

And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.

So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.

And:

COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?

DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.

The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?

And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —

COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.

DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.

And:

I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.

And:

COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

On another topic:

I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me.  Do read or listen to the whole thing.

And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.

In 2016, the island nation’s police reported 135 total days without any crimes including snatch-theft, house break-ins and robbery. That low crime rate means many small businesses enjoy little concern about shoplifting.

In fact, as CNBC recently observed, many local businesses take few precautions when closing shop at night.

For instance, in the ground floor lobby of a mixed-use building in the downtown business district, many shops don’t have windows, locks — or even doors.

Here is the full story.

This study compared perpetrators of seven mass killings during 2013–2017 with more than 600 celebrities over the same time period. Findings indicate that the mass killers received approximately $75 million in media coverage value, and that for extended periods following their attacks they received more coverage than professional athletes and only slightly less than television and film stars. In addition, during their attack months, some mass killers received more highly valued coverage than some of the most famous American celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Aniston. Finally, most mass killers received more coverage from newspapers and broadcast/cable news than the public interest they generated through online searches and Twitter seems to warrant. Unfortunately, this media attention constitutes free advertising for mass killers that may increase the likelihood of copycats.

That is from an Adam Lankford paper, via Rolf Degen.

I feel I am repeating myself, but these remain neglected:

1. The good outcomes for African immigrants to the United States mean we could and should take in more such immigrants, to mutual benefit.

2. In part these gains arise from selection, namely that it is not easy to get from Africa to the United States, at least not generally.  So we should not make it too easy, even though we should take in more migrants.  “Take in more, keep hard” sounds contradictory but it is not.  And if African outcomes decline in quality at the margin, that is a sign that policy is working (more entrants), not that policy is failing.

3. We cannot let everyone in, and so at the margin there will always be cruelties when it comes to those who are denied entry, sent back, and so on.  Right now even Canada may be sending back some Haitians (NYT).  Those cruelties are relevant for assessing an immigration decision, but they are not decisive.  If you cite the cruelties without also outlining a limiting principle for the appropriate margin where immigration ought to stop, you are arguing poorly and most of all fooling yourself.  It is a good recipe for never thinking clearly again about any policy issue.

4. Adopting a cosmopolitan ethic will increase the margin at which immigration should be allowed.  But still we cannot let everyone in, if only because of backlash effects.  And if backlash effects are the binding constraint, the degree of cosmopolitanism in your ethic may not matter much for finding the appropriate rate of immigration.

5. Just to repeat, we really should take in more immigrants.  Not only from Africa, but from many countries that are not major successes on the gdp or education front, India and Iran being two other obvious examples.

6. Will Wilkinson has an excellent NYT piece on making immigration deals with Trump.

A few points:

1. Facebook can now claim it is truly addressing the problems (way exaggerated in my opinion) associated with the 2016 election.  This looks decisive, and the company can present it as a turning point.

2. In essence, they are blaming the media, without having to throw the stones themselves.  Americans respond positively to attacks on the media, so this is a strong public relations move.  Facebook retains the option of blaming the media more explicitly for its previous troubles, if need be.

3. The news feed can always be reintroduced under another name or guise.  Two years from now, the entire dialogue about the major web companies is likely to be different, one way or another.

4. I do understand this may devastate some marginal media outlets, and in fact many media outlets are marginal these days in economic terms.  Still, in the longer run I prefer a scenario where other web sites try to compete with Facebook rather than being co-opted by it and dependent on it.

5. Does this mean more ads will turn up on Instagram, chat apps, Facebook Messenger, and other Facebook services?

There is also this angle (NYT, speculative):

Facebook’s pulling back from the news — which necessarily depends on conflict — and elevation of homier material may bolster the company’s attempt to enter China, where it has been met with stiff resistance.

“Facebook is just desperate to get into China, and it will never do that unless it censors news — and this is actually a neat solution to that,” Mr. Weisberg, the Slate chairman, said. “If you only have news on the platform shared by users, users who live under repressive regimes don’t have access to real news and can’t share it, because it’s legally prohibited.”

I’m not entirely happy about this last factor, but I also don’t see how it is better for China for Facebook to remain permanently outside the country.  And if the desire to enter China makes Facebook in some way worse for Americans, that is a potential problem, but I don’t see how this move makes the overall media environment worse for Americans.

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

Or consider Nigerian-Americans, Nigeria being the most populous nation in Africa. Their education levels are among the very highest in the U.S., above those of Asians, with 17 percent of Nigerian migrants having a master’s degree.

And:

Economist Edward Lazear suggests a simple experiment. Consider immigrants to the U.S. from Algeria, Israel and Japan, and rank them in order of most educated to least educated. The correct answer is Algeria, Israel then Japan. Although that’s counterintuitive at first glance, it’s easy enough to see how it works. If you are Algerian and educated, or aspire to be educated, your prospects in Algeria are relatively poor and you may seek to leave. A talented, educated person in Japan or Israel can do just fine by staying at home. These kinds of considerations explain about 73 percent of the variation in the educational outcomes of migrants.

Do read the whole thing.

Maybe not, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column:

The numbers instead indicate that lobbying hurts the underlying capital values of the corporations. Lobbying doesn’t increase the chance that favored bills are passed by Congress, and it isn’t associated with the company receiving more government contracts.

Those are the key results from a new study by Zhiyan Cao, Guy D. Fernando, Arindam Tripathy and Arun Upadhyay, published in the Journal of Corporate Finance and considering 1,500 S&P companies over the period 1998 to 2016. Neither spending money at all on lobbying nor spending more money on lobbying over those years seem to help companies, and for that matter contributions to political action committees don’t work either.

And:

If corporate lobbying is an unprofitable use of money, why does it happen? One possibility is that corporate leaders are using company resources to indulge their own ideological preferences. Other researchers have found that companies with weaker governance and more entrenched management are those more likely to spend on lobbying. This study finds that lobbying expenditures are higher when the percentage of CEO perks is higher and when the board of the company is larger.

It’s also possible lobbyists are ripping off companies with slick sales pitches, or that incompetent CEOs are spending money on lobbying so they seem to be doing something constructive.

Do read the whole thing, I also consider under what kind of hypothesis the lobbying actually might be paying off.

A company which supplied lingerie to the Queen has lost its royal warrant over a book which revealed details of royal bra fittings.

Rigby & Peller, a luxury underwear firm founded in London, had held the royal warrant since 1960.

It was withdrawn after June Kenton, who fitted bras for the Queen, released a book called ‘Storm in a D-Cup’.

Mrs Kenton said there was “nothing” in the book to “be upset about”, adding that it was an “unbelievable” decision.

Buckingham Palace said it did not “comment on individual companies”.

A statement from Rigby & Peller said it was “deeply saddened” by the decision, adding it was “not able to elaborate further on the cancellation out of respect for her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Warrant Holders Association”.

The Royal Warrants Association says 20 to 40 Royal Warrants are cancelled every year – and a similar number granted.

File under “elsewhere in the cosmos.”  And for the pointer I thank M.

A Twitter battle over the size of each “nuclear button” possessed by President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has spiked sales of a drug that protects against radiation poisoning.

Troy Jones, who runs the website www.nukepills.com, said demand for potassium iodide soared last week, after Trump tweeted that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” button than Kim — a statement that raised new fears about an escalating threat of nuclear war.

“On Jan. 2, I basically got in a month’s supply of potassium iodide and I sold out in 48 hours,” said Jones, 53, who is a top distributor of the drug in the United States. His Mooresville, N.C., firm sells all three types of the product approved by the Food and Drug Administration. No prescription is required.

Here is the full piece, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over individual members. Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than just ideology.

But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

But what if you’re a Democrat? In these days of Republican rule, you might have discovered a newfound love for stasis. Still, earmarks make it harder for, say, far-right party members to hold legislation hostage to their demands. In other words, party leadership can put up a more centrist bill and then buy off the extremists with local benefits rather than policy concessions.

There is much more at the linkAddendum: I thank Garett Jones for spurring my interest in this topic.

Here in the land of technology leadership and free-market enterprise, American regulation has more than doubled the cost of solar.

The regulation comes in three un-American guises: permitting, code and tariffs — and together they are killing the U.S. residential market. Modernizing these regulations, primarily at the local and state level, is the greatest opportunity for U.S. solar policy in 2018.

To highlight the opportunity, let’s look at Australia, where nearly 2 million solar systems have been successfully and safely installed.

As of early December, installed costs in the main Australian markets were at $1.34 per watt, compared to $3.25 per watt in the U.S. What does that difference stem from?

In Australia, there is no permitting process. You simply lodge your request for interconnection online and go install it. The figure below highlights the relative mass of valueless work required to satisfy current city-level bureaucracy in the U.S., which adds between two and six months to delivery time and 47 cents per watt of cost directly to the installed system. That’s more than the cost of the panels themselves!

…the U.S. National Electrical Code dictates a best practice that more than doubles the installation time relative to Australia, and adds incremental hardware expense — together adding 49 cents per watt to the cost of solar. There is no discernable difference in the quality and safety of solar installations overseas relative to the U.S.

…There are no tariffs on imported hardware in Australia because it’s obvious to all that the jobs in solar are in sales and installation, not in manufacturing. That’s another 21 cents per watt in the Australians’ pocket — and a thousand dollars back into the economy per system sold.

And because solar is so much cheaper, as well as faster and easier to buy, it’s also much cheaper, faster and easier to sell. Acquisition costs in Australia average $400 per installed customer, compared to $2,500 in the U.S.

At lower cost and without the two- to six-month wait time and all of the permitting complexity, cancellation rates are minimal, compared to an average of about 30 percent for reputable U.S. companies. How many other electronics purchases do you know of that take up to half a year to be installed? That’s another 42 cents per watt of lower solar costs.

From Andrew Birch, there is much more at the link, read it and weep.  Via Felix Yates.

…advocates of a new copyright term extension bill wouldn’t be able to steamroll opponents the way they did 20 years ago. Any term extension proposal would face a well-organized and well-funded opposition with significant grassroots support.

“After the SOPA fight, Hollywood likely knows that the public would fight back,” wrote Daniel Nazer, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to Ars. “I suspect that Big Content knows it would lose the battle and is smart enough not to fight.”

“I haven’t seen any evidence that Big Content companies plan to push for another term extension,” Nazer added. “This is an election year, so if they wanted to get a big ticket like that through Congress, you would expect to see them laying the groundwork with lobbying and op-eds.”

Of course, copyright interests might try to slip a copyright term extension into a must-pass bill in hopes opponents wouldn’t notice until it was too late. But Rose doesn’t think that would work.

Here is the full piece, via someone in my Twitter feed sorry I forget.

A number of Chinese mobile applications have been shut down after it was revealed women on their platforms were actually automated robots, it’s reported.

According to the Modern Express newspaper, police have closed down mobile apps associated with 21 companies and arrested more than 600 suspects operating across 13 provinces, after discovering that messages from some women were being automatically generated by computer programmes.

Police in southern Guangdong province began investigating in August 2017, after suspecting one app of fraudulently charging visitors to view pornographic videos which did not exist.

Further investigation found that technical personnel from at least one company had created fake “sexy girl” accounts. They wrote computer programmes which generated greeting messages and compliments from fake accounts, and targeted these at newly registered users.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.