Saturday assorted links

by on November 11, 2017 at 1:04 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Won’t Get Foiled Again

by on November 11, 2017 at 7:23 am in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

The Trump administration has just put crippling tariffs (97-162%) on the import of aluminium foil from China. Making America great again? It’s doubtful. Far more American firms use aluminium foil than make it. Indeed, only two US-based firms make it and one of them is owned by Swedes. Virginia Postrel has the details:

Only two companies have U.S. mills making the thin-gauge foil affected by the duties. The ones owned by Sweden-based Gränges are already selling all they can produce; the company has announced plans to expand capacity at its Tennessee mill by 2019. Converters say that JW Aluminum Co., the Mt. Holly, South Carolina-based company that lobbied strongly for the duties, isn’t offering them much, if any, additional supply.

Most of the ex-Chinese sales won’t even go to US firms but to firms in countries not affected by the tariffs, including Russia, Bulgaria, South Korea and Taiwan. Yes, Russia.

Conspiracy or coincidence? I want to say coincidence. On the other hand:

Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is under investigation for involvement in an alleged plot to kidnap a Turkish dissident cleric living in the US and fly him to an island prison in Turkey in return for $15m, it was reported on Friday.

So who can say anymore? Excuse me while I go put on my hat.

My view is not exactly that of Bryan’s, but this will be one of the most interesting and important books of the year, pre-order it here.

Here is Bryan on the book.

The estimable Chug asks me:

Curious what you consider the top classic movies and books about American politics and DC.

Today let’s do movies, the following come to mind:

1. All the President’s Men.

2. No Way Out: Gene Hackman at his peak.  The Conversation also might count as a DC movie.

3. The Exorcist, set in Georgetown.  Maybe The Omen too?

4. The Manchurian Candidate.

5. Wedding Crashers.

6. The Day the Earth Stood Still.

7. Born Yesterday.

8. Contact.

I don’t really like Independence Day, but it deserves some sort of mention.  The Oliver Stone Nixon movie I’ve yet to see.  I like Being There, and it is set in DC, but it doesn’t feel like a “Washington movie” to me.  Legally Blonde, Logan’s Run, and Minority Report are all worth ponders, and have their cinematic virtues, but I am not sure they are true to the spirit of the question.

The real question, in my mind, is which of these captures the unique way in which Washington is the world’s epicenter for extreme productivity (don’t laugh) in the areas of economics, public policy, law/lobbying.  What is special but also sometimes despicable about DC area culture?  Might this be a mix of Contact and No Way Out?  I’ve yet to see anyone fully explain the DC micro-culture, as extreme and hyper-specialized as that of say Hollywood or Silicon Valley.

By the way, all the movies you thought I forgot to mention I didn’t, rather I don’t like them.

Nutella fans are outraged after it was revealed the recipe for the chocolate spread is changing – making it lighter and sweeter.

The makers of the popular spread, Italian food company Ferrero, admitted it is adjusting the recipe after the slight changes were noticed by German consumer group Hamburg Consumer Protection Centre.

The new recipe contains 8.7 per cent powdered skimmed milk, compared with the previous quantity of 7.5 per cent. And sugar content has risen from 55.9 per cent to 56.3 per cent.

Furious Nutella lovers took to Twitter to hit back at the changes using the hashtag #boycottNutella.

Here is the full story.

Friday assorted links

by on November 10, 2017 at 11:33 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. North Korean snacks.

2. Why non-complacency is hard, Trump and Native Americans edition.

3. Ways in which computers are getting worse.

4. “You Can Rent a (Grounded) Private Jet Just to Take Instagram Photos In.

5. Helen Dale’s libertarian novel about Christ and Roman law.

6. “…there’s nothing more offshore than a yacht.”  And then: “Otherwise, the Paradise Papers seem to be “dull reading,” and they describe plans that are “mostly, if not totally, legal” — “Some are not even questionable from a legitimacy point of view.””

I am now giving this a chance of somewhat over 50 (!) percent, and that is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

Gross domestic product growth for the last two quarters was over 3 percent, even in light of hurricane damage in August and September, and middle-class income growth has resumed. You might think that would mean high price inflation from credit growth and “overheating,” but the 12-month change in core prices for personal consumption expenditures has fallen to 1.3 percent.

And:

Low rates of inflation, however, reflect productivity gains that already are here. The tech giants — Google, Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. — have become major managers of our information, our businesses and our lives. They’re meeting political resistance, but whatever you think of those complaints, they are signs the major tech companies are having transformative effects. I used to say that we are overrating what tech has done for us to date, and underrating what it will do in the future. Perhaps reality has caught up with that prognostication.

And:

The major tech companies are growing their platforms quickly, supporting low prices with scale, product diversity, data ownership and superior service. Hardly anyone today worries about the eventual disappearance of competition and monopoly prices from Amazon or the other major tech companies. Do you really think Amazon is going to double book prices five years from now?…The tech companies have shown that their radical model of low price, high market share, high quality rapid expansion will keep them profitable for a long time to come.

Big if true, as they say…do read the whole thing.  The still-remaining negative possibility, of course, is that the current positive wave is like 1995-1998, and we will sink back to less positive economic times, as we did back then.

Definitely recommended, the volume covers 1929-1941, I am now on p.234.  Here is one good “that was then, this is now” bit:

Stalin had fixed a covetous eye on Chinese Turkestan, or Xinjiang (“New Territory”).  From January through April 1934, he fought a small war there.  Renewal of a mass Muslim rebellion had spurred Comintern operatives to contemplate pushing for a socialist revolution, but Soviet military intelligence had pointed out that, even though the rebels commanded the loyalty of almost the entire Muslim population (90 percent), a successful Muslim independence struggle in Chinese Turkestan could inspire the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Soviet Turkestan or even the Mongols.  Stalin had decided to send about 7,000 OGPU and Red Army soldiers, as well as airplanes, artillery, mustard gas, and Soviet Uzbek Communists, to defend the Chinese warlord.  Remarkably, he allowed Soviet forces to combine with former White Army soldiers abroad, who were promised amnesty and Soviet citizenship.  A possible Muslim rebel victory turned into a defeat.  Unlike the Japanese in Manchuria, Stalin did not set up an independent state, but he solidified his informal hold on Xinjiang, setting up military bases, sending advisers, and gaining coal, oil, tungsten, and tin concessions.  Some 85 percent of Xinjiang’s trade was with the USSR….Chiang Kai-Shek became dependent on Soviet goodwill to communicate with Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Here is excellent New Yorker coverage of the book from Keith Gessen.  You can buy here on Amazon.

Andrea Matranga emails me:

“You have to drop a pin somewhere. Thereafter, at each meal time, a random person living within 30km of that pin will be selected, and you will eat an exact copy of what he is eating. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for the rest of your life, a different random person, but always within 30km of that pin. Where do you drop it?”

I go for the three s’s: Singapore, Seoul, and Sicily.  You wish to avoid junk food, while also making sure that cheap food can hit some of the peaks.  Seoul is especially good for vegetables, Singapore for variety, Sicily for yummy!

What is your pick?

*The Wizard and the Prophet*

by on November 9, 2017 at 1:34 pm in Books, History, Science | Permalink

That is the new Charles C. Mann book, I pre-ordered long ago, here is the new Kirkus review:

A dual biography of two significant figures who “had little regard” for each other’s work but “were largely responsible for the creation of the basic intellectual blueprints that institutions around the world use today for understanding our environmental dilemmas.”

A thick book featuring two scientists unknown to most readers is a tough sell, but bestselling journalist and historian Mann (1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, 2011, etc.), a correspondent for the Atlantic, Science, and Wired, turns in his usual masterful performance. Nobel Prize–winning agronomist Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) developed high-yield wheat varieties and championed agricultural techniques that led to the “Green Revolution,” vastly increasing world food production. Ornithologist William Vogt (1902-1968) studied the relationship between resources and population and wrote the 1948 bestseller Road to Survival, a founding document of modern environmentalism in which the author maintains that current trends will lead to overpopulation and mass hunger. Borlaug and Vogt represent two sides of a centurylong dispute between what Mann calls “wizards,” who believe that science will allow humans to continue prospering, and “prophets,” who predict disaster unless we accept that our planet’s resources are limited. Beginning with admiring biographies, the author moves on to the environmental challenges the two men symbolize. Agriculture will require a second green revolution by 2050 to feed an estimated 10 billion inhabitants. Only 1 percent of Earth’s water is fresh and accessible; three-quarters goes to agriculture, and shortages are already alarming. More than 1.2 billion people still lack electricity; whether to produce more or use less energy bitterly divides both sides. Neither denies that human activities are wreaking havoc with Earth’s climate. Mann’s most spectacular accomplishment is to take no sides. Readers will thrill to the wizards’ astounding advances and believe the prophets’ gloomy forecasts, and they will also discover that technological miracles produce nasty side effects and that self-sacrifice, as prophets urge, has proven contrary to human nature.

An insightful, highly significant account that makes no predictions but lays out the critical environmental problems already upon us.

You can pre-order here.

Thursday assorted links

by on November 9, 2017 at 12:15 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

War dissolves customs

by on November 9, 2017 at 4:39 am in Books, History, Religion, Uncategorized | Permalink

…the role of wars in dealing the coup de grace to lingering customs is quite remarkable.  Contemporary observers noted this development without comment or simply attributed it directly to the catastrophe.  But war was less a cause of change than a precipitant of changes already under way.  Edgar Morin makes precisely this point when he writes that in the parish of Plodémet “the war of 1914 accelerated and amplified most of the processes set off in 1880-1900.”  Like the Great Revolution in peasant parlance, the Great War became a symbolic dividing line between what once was and what is, so that informants in a survey used terms like jadis and avant de guerre interchangeably.  Yet wars are not watersheds for customs, but difficult times in which people are forced to focus on essential matters and come to see things differently.  Many festive customs were not necessarily suspended by the Great War.  In the countryside, mourning was almost as universal as hardship; two years for parents, one for siblings.  There were few pigs to slaughter, no festive family meals, no public festivities.  And after the war there was the great influenza epidemic.  By 1919 the old customs were no longer part of people’s lives.  Some were restored to their prewar prominence, but many were quietly forgotten.

That is from Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914.

About one-sixth of India is Dalits, or “Untouchables.”  And while Western criticisms of caste segregation are a long-standing observation about India, I hardly hear serious complaints over the last two decades or so.  In contrast, the apartheid system of South Africa met with demonstrations, boycotts, campus activism, frequent dialogue, and so on.  Why don’t we see some modified version of the same for the Indian caste system?  No matter how you compare its relative oppression to that of South Africa, it still seems like a massive system of unjust and opportunity-destroying segregation, and an efficiency-loser as well.  Here are a few hypotheses, not intended as endorsements but rather speculations:

1. The caste system is simply too difficult for most Americans to understand, whereas apartheid could be represented more readily in what I dare not call simple black and white terms.

2. Most of the Indians who migrate to the United States are higher caste or at least middling caste, and they sway American opinions of India in a way that South African migrants to the USA never did.

3. Libertarians don’t want to focus on the caste system because it persists without active government support being the main driver.  Democrats don’t want to focus on the caste system because Indian-Americans are often leading supporters and donors.  It doesn’t feel like a Republican issue either.  So who is there to push this one for domestic ideological reasons?

4. Talking about the caste system makes harder the (justified, I should add) program of raising the status of non-minority whites in America.

5. Talking about the caste system would focus light on caste-based discrimination in the United States, and distract attention from other domestic issues.

What else?  Overall I find this a disappointing topic to ponder.  Perhaps all politics, like envy, really is local after all.

I am indebted to Sujatha Gidla for a useful conversation on this topic.  My formal Conversation with her will be up in a bit, I still recommend her book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

Wednesday assorted links

by on November 8, 2017 at 1:41 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Room charges at the Ritz?

by on November 8, 2017 at 11:12 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Law | Permalink

The Saudi government is aiming to confiscate cash and other assets worth as much as $800 billion in its broadening crackdown on alleged corruption among the kingdom’s elite, according to people familiar with the matter.

Several prominent businessmen are among those who have been arrested in the days since Saudi authorities launched the crackdown on Saturday, by detaining more than 60 princes, officials and other prominent Saudis, according to those people and others.

The country’s central bank, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, said late Tuesday that it has frozen the bank accounts of “persons of interest” and said the move is “in response to the Attorney General’s request pending the legal cases against them.”

Here is the WSJ piece, note that many of these people are being held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, now being used as a kind of high-class detention center.