Political Science

This Neill Blomkamp (“District 9″) movie has received only lukewarm reviews, but while highly imperfect it is more interesting than most critics seem to realize.  The initial premise is that in a few years’ time South Africa resorts to AI-driven, robot policemen.  I see the film as revolving around three key questions:

1. What will a robot be like, if he grows up under rather brutal conditions?  This is first and foremost a movie about education, and it could have been written by John Gray.  Don’t assume that people (robots) have an irrevocable tendency to support liberal values, at least not when the chips are down and they have been beaten up.  The gang motive is both popular and enduring.

2. Can a society dependent on robots for law enforcement become/remain a liberal society?  Or will the “arms race” between the law and the criminals result in brutality and a loss of liberty?

3. How robust is a robot society to the eventual possibility of human error and depravity?

Along the way there are references to Asimov, “Silent Running,” Blade Runner, Verhoeven of course, and other android sources.  I can’t endorse every angle of the ending, or every character decision, but still I didn’t consider leaving this one.

Today, it would be impossible to obtain a federal court order permitting a five-day protest march on a 52-mile stretch of a major U.S. highway. Under contemporary legal doctrine, the Selma protests would have ended March 8, 1965.

…Starting in the 1970s…the federal courts began rolling back this idea. A series of rulings erected what is known as the public forum doctrine, which lets a city, state or the federal government decide whether public property can be used for 1st Amendment activities. It also means that if courts do not designate a place a “traditional public forum,” government may forbid its use as a site of protest altogether.

That is from Ronald J. Krotosynszski, Jr., there is more of interest here.

China expert David Shambaugh is claiming exactly that in a bold argument.  Here is a summary of his brief:

He points to “five telling indications of the regime’s vulnerability”: an apparent lack of confidence among the country’s wealthy; intensified political repression, betraying insecurity among the leadership itself; a sense that “even many regime loyalists are just going through the motions”; corruption too pervasive and deep-rooted for Xi’s ongoing crackdown to fully address; and an economy “stuck in a series of systemic traps from which there is no easy exit.”

Shambaugh also argues “Communist rule in China is unlikely to end quietly.”

That’s pretty heady stuff and I am happy to link to material I disagree with, but disagree I do.  My reasons are simple:

1. There are internal coups, which are more or less invisible to most of the world, and external coups, where a visible overthrow of a government makes the front page and is accompanied by violent conflict in public places and a change in the labeling of the regime.  China already has shown its system can accommodate internal coups, for better or worse.  You can argue they have such internal coups (on average) every ten to twelve years.

2. It is entirely reasonable (though very hard to call) to expect another internal coup in China.

3. Does any coup in China prefer to a) jettison the Communist brand?, or b) refurbish the Communist brand?  I say b), by a long mile.  The Communists drove the foreigners out of the country, built the modern nation, and delivered close to ten percent growth for almost thirty-five years running.  Most of the time the Communist Party has been pretty popular, in spite of all the (justified) cynicism about the corruption.

4. Once you accept #3, and work back to rethink #1, you expect at most an internal coup in China, with external continuity and a maintenance of the Communist party brand, albeit in refurbished form.

5. The strongest version of Shambaugh’s argument is that there is no “core” to the internal coups, a’ la Gordon Tullock’s book Autocracy.  You get too many internal coups, or too many incipient internal coups, and the public square is required to impose structural equilibrium on the problem.  Maybe so, but that requires lots of claims about the internal dynamics of Chinese politics, and the lack of internal coup stability mechanisms.  The cited evidence by Shambaugh does not seem to bear directly on this question, and so I am back to having no strong reason to expect an external coup, much less a chaotic and bloody one.

That is the new Michael Walzer book, with the subtitle Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions.  The stated paradox is fairly simple, yet worthy of sustained attention:

Why have the leaders and militants of secular liberation not been able to consolidate their achievement and reproduce themselves in successive generations?  Over the past several decades, Indian intellectuals and academics have been debating this question in its local version: “Why is it,” one of them asks, “that the Nehruvian vision of a secular India failed to take hold?”

Other cases considered include Israel, Palestine, and Algeria, as well as the Middle East more generally.  Walzer doesn’t much try to answer his own question, but this book is very stimulating and worth the short amount of time it takes to read it.  I would modify the paradox however: I see various European nations which do consolidate and maintain largely secular nationalist movements.  How about Denmark or France?  If you find those examples troublesome, try Serbia or for that Vietnam or China.  There may be a more general issue of morphing, above and beyond the religious vs. secular issue.

The copyright on Mein Kampf is running out in 2016, so what will Germany do?  Here is the latest:

The Institut für Zeitgeschichte got the call, and apparently their critical edition should be available already shortly after the copyright runs out, in January 2016. In Die Zeit they report on some of the details — including that the two-volume edition might extend to 2000 pages, some 780 of actual text and the rest taken up largely by the up to 5000 explanatory notes.

That is from Literary Saloon.

Open English Borders

by on March 3, 2015 at 7:30 am in Economics, Law, Political Science | Permalink

I am in favor of open borders for economic and moral reasons. It’s not crazy, however, to be concerned about some of the potential consequences of immediately opening borders between countries with very different income levels, culture or history. It is crazy, however, to fear opening borders between countries with similar income levels, culture and history. Thus, I fully support the petition of the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation:

Because of the unique relationship and socio-economic bonds that the U.K, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share, we believe that each country can benefit from a free movement agreement with each other, similar to the policies of the European Union and the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement (T.T.T.A) between Australia and New Zealand.

We propose that the governments of the aforementioned countries finalise agreements (and inevitably, legislation) which make it possible for citizens to move freely with no restrictions regarding work permits or visa controls.

Amen to that.

The only problem with agreements like this is that the very big gains come from opening up borders between countries that are different. Still, I am for lowering transportation and transaction costs. I do hope, however, that more people will come to appreciate that the right to move is a human right and not just a right of the British and their colonial cousins.

Addendum: Open Borders Day is coming on March 16. Write about open borders–pro or con–on that day. Let’s peacefully debate.

American military commanders rarely seek out deserters and even more rarely punish them.  At the height of the Iraq War, fewer than 5 percent of deserters received a court-martial, and fewer than one percent served prison time.


…the only deserters who have consistently been punished by the American military are those who went to Canada.

The full article, by Wil S. Hylton, is interesting throughout.

That was quick…

by on February 28, 2015 at 10:26 am in Economics, Political Science | Permalink

Greece called into question on Saturday a major debt repayment it must make to the European Central Bank this summer, after acknowledging it faces problems in meeting its obligations to international creditors.

There is more here, most of all showing the Greeks have not obtained much leverage from the talks.  They are in a deep liquidity squeeze, even post “agreement.”  The Bundestag overwhelmingly approved last week’s “deal,” whereas the Greeks don’t even want to vote on it.  So who won that round?  The on-paper ability to be flexible with a primary surplus — that isn’t real any more — just isn’t worth very much right now.

Michael Pettis has an excellent short essay on this point, here is one (scary) excerpt:

A debt crisis must be resolved quickly because there is a self-reinforcing component within the process that can be extraordinarily harmful. High levels of sovereign debt create uncertainty about how the costs of resolving the debt will ultimately be assigned. This uncertainty causes growth to slow by adversely changing the behavior of a wide variety of stakeholders in the economy (as I will describe later). As the economy slows, contingent liabilities within the banking system rise, tax revenues decline and fiscal expenditures rise, all of which push up sovereign debt levels even further and increase both the cost of resolving the debt and the uncertainty about how the costs will be assigned. The consequence of this self-reinforcing deterioration in the sovereign balance sheet is, at first, a slow grinding away of the economy until the market reaches some point, after which the process accelerates and debt can spiral out of control.

Hat tip goes to the ever-excellent The Browser.

That is the new Robert D. Putnam book and it focuses on the widening opportunity gap among America’s young.  Much of the work is narrative and case studies, starting with Port Clinton, Ohio but not stopping there.  Any Putnam book is an event, and this one is the natural sequel to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.  The writing and the underlying intelligence are of an extremely high quality.

One significant theme is that upward mobility results from a mingling of the upper and lower income classes, and such mingling is more scarce than in the immediate postwar era.  You can think of it as case study evidence for the cross-sectional statistical regularities stressed by Chetty et.al.  Contra Chetty, however, Putnam believes that declines in socioeconomic mobility will start to show up in the data as current generations age.

The book’s problem is finding a new note to strike.  Putnam stresses this is a story of social forces rather than personal villains, but, for all the merits of his text, he identifies no new culprits or solutions.  Inequality of opportunity seems to have more to do with parents than schools, but how to control parents?  This book does not flirt with the so-called Neoreaction.  Putnam favors increased access to contraception, professional coaching of poor parents, prison sentencing reform and more emphasis on rehabilitation, eliminating fees for school extracurricular activities, mentoring programs, and greater investment in vocational education; contra Krugman he gives a lot of evidence for skills mismatch (pp.232-233).  More generally, he asks for federalist solutions and lots of experimentation.  Maybe those are good paths to go, but the reader feels (once again) that matters will get worse before they get better.  There is very little on either political economy or the evolution of technology.

Do read this book, but by the end Putnam himself seems to come away deflated from dealing with some of America’s toughest problems.

I’ve been receiving numerous requests for more of my “totally conventional views,” and someone asked me about HRC.  We’ve never covered her in the past, so why not?  But by construction of this series, none of what follows is at all new and probably there won’t be any discussion in the comments.  But with that in mind, I’ll offer up these points:


1. Women are judged far more by their looks than are men, and Hillary’s are not right for the presidency.  She doesn’t seem composed enough, schoolmarmish enough a’ la Thatcher, and frankly many men, when they see her in their mind’s eye, imagine a voice saying “Look here, buster…!”  Her hair is not properly ordered for the Executive Office, and I suspect many Americans want for their first female President to appear somewhat ageless.  I am not suggesting any of this is fair or even an efficient form of Bayesian statistical discrimination, but it is a reality.

2. If not for factor #1, a healthy Hillary would be a shoo-in for demographic reasons, but as it stands her chances of winning are overrated.

3. A Clinton Presidency is the most likely of any, from the major candidates, to serve up significant and enduring market-oriented reforms.  She could bring along enough Democrats to work with the Republicans, and reclaim a version of the old Clinton legacy.  That said, her presidency also is more likely to effect change in the opposite direction as well, so the net expected value here is hard to calculate and still may be negative.

4. Given #1 and #2, and other gender-related factors, your opinion about Hillary, no matter what it may be, is less reliable than you think.  That suggests you should think about her less rather than more (sorry people for this post, what did Wittgenstein say about that ladder?), because I don’t think you’re going to see much of a payoff from grabbing here at that third derivative.

5. The willingness of the Clinton Foundation to solicit donations from foreign governments and leaders is corrupt, and yet mostly receives a free pass, in spite of some recent coverage on corporate donations.  I read recently they might stop soliciting donations “…if Hillary runs for President,” also known as “hurry up and give now!”  Arguably we would be electing a political machine as President of the United States, even more than usual.

6. Democratic intellectuals and operatives are quite unexcited — or should I say “fervently and passionately unexcited” — about the prospect of a Hillary candidacy.  The energy is already drained from the room, and they haven’t opened the door yet.

7. There is still the question of how the press, and the American people, might process any subsequent revelations about Bill’s “activities” since leaving the White House.

8. It will be hard to avoid giving the public “Hillary fatigue,” given how many years she has been in the public eye.  This is another reason why I think her chances are overrated, plus she will have to be very careful to carry herself in the debates just the right way, see #1 and #2 again.

9. It is easier to transcend race than gender.

Here is evidence for the Roberts Higgs thesis and, if I recall correctly, some recent remarks by Thomas Piketty on revolution and tax progressivity (does anyone know the link?).  Juliana Londoño Vélez writes:

Abstract    I argue that progressive income taxation in the twentieth century is a product of the exigency of war and not of democracy. I obtain long-run series of the top marginal personal income tax rate for a large sample of OECD countries, and use data on wars of mass mobilization and democracy from the Correlates of War data set and Scheve & Stasavage (2012) to test this hypothesis. My results suggest that wars of mass mobilization (i.e. wars in which more than 2% of the population served in the military) cause substantial increases in tax progressivity. These effects are persistent and do not vanish upon the conclusion of war.

The full paper is here (pdf), taken from the generally interesting Berkeley Economic History Lab list, as cited by Barry Eichengreen.  As Barry notes, see also the revised and much improved version of Lemin Wu’s paper on the Malthusian trap (pdf).

Also, unlike Silicon Valley, the Stasi was regulated.

That is from Bryan Appleyard.

That is the newly published volume 16 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, edited by Sandra J. Peart.  Of course this is splendid from beginning to end, including Peart’s introduction, the letters, Hayek’s commentary, and assorted documents, and the book even contains three very nice poems written by Harriet Taylor.

Is Hayek here blaming Taylor for moving Mill in a collectivist direction?  Is that the Straussian reading of this book and the reason why Hayek did it?

If there were a phrase for “one step above and beyond self-recommending,” this volume would get it.

The Economist, referring to “six-party politics,” reports:

In 1951 the Conservative and Labour parties together scooped 97% of the vote; in May, opinion polls suggest, they will each win barely a third.

You will note that the UK has a fairly strict “first past the post” system, so if such fragmentation happens in their system perhaps it could happen anywhere.  A second Economist article offers a few hypotheses about why this is happening:

1. People are now used to shopping in markets, and on the internet, for exactly what they want.

2. Politics has become increasingly multi-dimensional; this article cites the possibility that a “libertarian-authoritarian” axis may be replacing “left-right,” or consider the issue of Scottish independence.

3. Perhaps current politicians are less skilled than Thatcher and Blair at attracting the allegiance of a broad cross-section of British society.

I worry that the general decline of discretionary government spending may make politics less stable (but also more interesting, not necessarily in a good way).  When there is plenty of spending to bicker about, politics revolves around that question, which is relatively harmless.  When all the spending is tied up, we move closer to the battlefield of symbolic goods, bringing us back to “less stable and more interesting.”  If that is a cause, this trend is likely to spread.  (In a new paper David Schleicher argues that electoral reform may not stop polarization and splintering.)

Arguably a good deal of American politics is a cloaked debate over whether a particular kind of Christian worldview ought to enjoy higher or lower social status.  Since Britain doesn’t have much religion, perhaps that is why they are fragmenting in so many other directions.  Exactly which British debate is supposed to be imposing the uni-dimensionality on the political spectrum?