That is the title of a new and interesting short essay by Arthur Waldron, here is one interesting bit of many:

Since the attack on Scarborough Shoal, now six years ago, my own opinion is that China expected to have occupied a lot more. Her slightly delusional view of her claims, first made explicit in ASEAN’s winter meeting of 2010 in Hanoi, was that “small” countries would all bow respectfully to China’s new pre-eminence. This has failed to occur. All of China’s neighbors are now building up strong military capabilities. Japanese and South Korean nuclear weapons are even a possibility. Over-relying on their traditional concept of awesomeness (威 wēi), the Chinese expected a cake walk. They have got instead an arms race with neighbors including Japan and other American allies and India too. With so much firepower now in place the danger of accident, pilot error, faulty command and control, etc. must be considered. But I’d wager that the Chinese would smother an unintended conflict. They are, after all, not idiots.

And:

China’s tremendous economic vulnerabilities have no mention in Allison’s book. But they are critical to any reading of China’s future. China imports huge amount of its energy and is madly planning a vast expansion in nuclear power, including dozens of reactors at sea. She has water endowments similar to Sudan, which means nowhere near enough. The capital intensity of production is very high: in China one standard energy unit used fully produces 33 cents of product. In India the figure is 77 cents. Gradually climb and you get to $3 in Europe and then — in Japan — $5.55. China is poor not only because she wastes energy but water too, while destroying her ecology in a way perhaps lacking any precedent. Figures such as these are very difficult to find: mine come from researchers in the energy sector. Solving all of this, while making the skies blue, is a task of both extraordinary technical complexity and expense that will put China’s competing special interests at one another’s throats. Not solving, however, will doom China’s future. Allison may know this on some level but you have to spend a lot of time in China and talk to a lot of specialists (often in Chinese) before the enormity becomes crushingly real.

Recommended.

Tuesday assorted links

by on June 13, 2017 at 1:49 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

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

Typically, if you put a major military base in a country, there is a general expectation you will not actively work to subvert the sovereignty of the host government. But right now the U.S. is violating that understanding.

Now imagine you are the leadership of Singapore, which faces political pressure from a much larger China and Indonesia. Singapore also hosts a significant American military base. You will think twice about the benefits you once expected from this arrangement. Kuwait and Bahrain, too, will be reconsidering their options. Other vulnerable countries with American military bases include South Korea, Kosovo, Greece and Djibouti. Yet other nations, such as Taiwan, do not host American military forces, but rely in part on the potential for American military assistance.

In sum, many more countries will feel less secure, and many of these countries will most likely court additional favor with their local or regional hegemons, which are typically less liberal influences than the U.S. In the Middle East and Gulf, for instance, Turkey and Iran stand to gain in influence.

Do read the whole thing.

Your Next Government

by on June 13, 2017 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

Private governments can learn from the commercial corporate world, where intense competition has driven the evolution of institutions capable of supporting large, complex, and consent-rich communities. Your next government might thus resemble a city-sized corporation, with you and other residents buying shares, electing the board of directors, and so forth. Think of it as residential co-op, upgraded for the big leagues.

Read Tom W. Bell for more, including his intriguing idea for “double democracy” and a generous appreciation of dominant assurance contracts.

…we estimate that refugees pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their first 20 years in the U.S.

That is from a new NBER paper by Evans and Fitzgerald.

Relative to my education, including self-education, I think of myself as commanding only a limited English-language vocabulary.  Some of this comes from having studied two foreign languages as an adult, which means picking up vocabulary in other languages instead, as the marginal value of a word in the foreign language usually will be higher.  Another factor is the complementarity of “direct speech” modes and a fairly modest vocabulary; it doesn’t make sense to talk common sense and suddenly interject “albescent.”

There is also a third reason.  I think of “flowery” vocabulary as operating against what Richard Hamming calls “compound learning.”  Compound learning occurs when your new learning, and your new analysis, builds steadily upon the old.  Over time, learning is a bit like compound interest and it cumulates.

When compound learning is possible, you wish to keep a relatively well-defined set of analytic pieces on the table.  It is fine and indeed essential to add to those pieces, but then the new piece should be one that will stick around for a while, again so that you may learn with it.  Furthermore it should be readily shared with other people, used with ease on the blog or Twitter, and stick in your mind without much if any effort.  It’s a bit like having a consistent programming language or micro model to share across a lunch table, or indeed with yourself over time.

Should I write of a “velleity,” or of a slight, non-fervent wish?

The former seems to me rather periphrastic.

Jeff Ely has a hypothesis:

Everyone who has armchair-theorized why movie theaters don’t sell assigned seats in advance is now obligated to explain why this has changed and how that’s consistent with their model.

I will start.  My theory was based on the value of advertising to movie-goers who must arrive early to get preferred seats and then are a captive audience.  This has become significantly less valuable now that said movie-goers can bring their own screens and be captive to some other advertiser.

Top 25 of the Century

First Tier:

Mulholland Drive

Nobody Knows

2046

Lord of the Rings

In the Mood for Love

Three Times*

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives

Spirited Away*

Inland Empire

Second Tier:

Oldboy

Melancholia

Winter Sleep

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Three Monkeys

The Wailing

Mountains May Depart

Happy Hour

Third Tier:

The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes

Poetry

Yi Yi*

Japanese Story

Dogville

Memories of Murder

Mother

Her

Here is the link, that is not even the main point of his post.  Scott’s list is much better than the NYT “weak tea” effort.

Monday assorted links

by on June 12, 2017 at 11:24 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Inclusivity and working less.

2. Do fractal planting patterns yield optimal output, without centralized direction?

3. How and why to coin flip travel decisions.

4. “”Now we have weddings where one headliner isn’t enough; they need three or four. Then you hit problems as to what order do you put them on in.” Tell a big name that she’s not the headliner, and she’ll drop out.” Link here, interesting throughout: “I love the look of a corset and I love a waist and I love drama,” she says.

5. “The scientists calculated that one 220,000-gallon, commercial-size swimming pool contained almost 20 gallons of urine.

6. Deirdre McCloskey summarizes her views (pdf).

“The amount of high bridge construction in China is just insane,” said Eric Sakowski, an American bridge enthusiast who runs a website on the world’s highest bridges. “China’s opening, say, 50 high bridges a year, and the whole of the rest of the world combined might be opening 10.”

Of the world’s 100 highest bridges, 81 are in China, including some unfinished ones, according to Mr. Sakowski’s data. (The Chishi Bridge ranks 162nd.)

China also has the world’s longest bridge, the 102-mile Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge, a high-speed rail viaduct running parallel to the Yangtze River, and is nearing completion of the world’s longest sea bridge, a 14-mile cable-stay bridge skimming across the Pearl River Delta, part of a 22-mile bridge and tunnel crossing that connects Hong Kong and Macau with mainland China.

The country’s expressway growth has been compared to that of the United States in the 1950s, when the Interstate System of highways got underway, but China is building at a remarkable clip. In 2016 alone, China added 26,100 bridges on roads, including 363 “extra large” ones with an average length of about a mile, government figures show.

Here is the Chris Buckley NYT piece, excellent visuals too.  Via Kevin Lewis.

What I’ve been reading

by on June 12, 2017 at 1:03 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History.  Things might have been different, if you believe this book.  German support for Lenin was very important, and the author sticks to the main story lines.  Hard for me to judge, but at the very least it was interesting and also clearly written.

2. Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13.  This novel builds too slowly to fit my reading style in a somewhat busy time of year, but I suspect it would be wonderful read aloud in a monotone, or as an audio book.  A young girl disappears in England, and the story records how the town processes the event, and eventually forgets about it, over the course of 13 years.  Here is one good review, it is a quality work of some originality.

3. Ken Gormley, editor, The Presidents and the Constitution.  An edited volume that is wonderful and deserving of the “best of the year” list.  The book considers how each American president in turn faced constitutional issues, and how those were resolved.  This is an excellent survey of constitutional law, and a very good refresher on American political history.  If you are a non-American, and looking to learn who all those lesser-known American presidents were, and what they did, and why and how so many of them were mediocre or worse, this is also perhaps the best place to start.

4. Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire.  As clear and understandable a treatment of this topic as you are likely to find, Wilson himself writes: “A major reason for the Empire’s relative scholarly neglect is that its history is so difficult to tell.  The Empire lacked the things giving shape to conventional national history: a stable heartland, a capital city, centralized political institutions and, perhaps most fundamentally, a single ‘nation.’  It was also very large and lasted a long time.  A conventional chronological approach would become unfeasibly long, or risk conveying a false sense of linear development and reduce the Empire’s history to a high political narrative.  I would like to stress instead the multiple paths, detours and dead ends of the Empire’s development…”  Relative to those obstacles this is an amazing book.

5. Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby y compañia.  I tried this a few years ago in English, but it clicked for me only in Spanish.  It is a series of short, interconnected philosophical meditations on those who don’t write, have given up writing, or who cannot help but write.  One of the better novels of the new century, though note it does require some basic background knowledge of figures such as Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Arthur Rimbaud, Marcel Duchamp, Herman Melville, and J. D. Salinger.

Shenyang bleg

by on June 11, 2017 at 3:17 pm in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

Not too long from now, I’ll be in Shenyang, formerly known as Mukden, and largest city of Liaoning province.  It is also the largest city in China’s Northeast.  What should I do there, and what/where should I eat?  What else do I need to know?  I believe Lang Lang is from this city, and the famous nine-hour documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks is set in Shenyang.  Note that “Due to the popularity enjoyed by many Shenyang-based comedians, the city is nationally recognized as a stronghold of Chinese comedy.”

I can hardly believe my good fortune at being able to visit Shenyang.

I thank you in advance for your assistance.

Sunday assorted links

by on June 11, 2017 at 12:35 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

I mean for the West, not for emerging economies.  Obviously we need to know future trajectories, and that is hard to do.  But try this simple question: since 2000 or so, have the predictions of the optimists or the pessimists come closer to being correct and insightful?

At a dinner party two nights ago, the unanimous opinion, even from the optimists, was that the pessimists had been doing better in the predicting game.  Of course, that does not mean the pessimists will be correct going forward.  The optimists might try these counters:

1. There isn’t much of a true structure period, so a bunch of correct pessimist predictions doesn’t mean much.

2. The optimists had the better predictions for the 1980s and 1990s.  Perhaps the sides simply alternate being correct every now and then.

3. The recent correct predictions of the pessimists are mostly noise.  Soon, optimistic predictions are likely to start being correct again.

4. Since 2000, the pessimists didn’t actually predict as well as you might think.  They failed to see how quickly the internet would spread, the power and reach of smart phones, and furthermore peace has continued, at least among the advanced economies.  GDP still grew.

I don’t see #1 as giving a huge boost to a structurally-rooted optimism.  Note that for #2, it is usually cheaper to destroy than to build.  They are not the bleakest scenarios either, but still a big comedown for the optimists, I would think.

#3 cannot be ruled out, but it’s not a huge amount of evidence for optimism either.  It does allow the optimists, however, to keep their structural models intact.

#4 runs the risk of “if this is what optimism looks like…”

I believe many optimists wish to invoke an inconsistent mix of #1 and #3.

I thank Veronique de Rugy for pushing me on this point in the conversation.

How much should the predictive ability of a group matter anyway?  People who are good at predicting may or may not be good at understanding.

Facts about Qatar

by on June 11, 2017 at 12:34 am in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink

1. Qatar is about the size of Yorkshire or Connecticut.

2. The United States and Qatar have been friendly only since the first Gulf War; before then, the relationship was somewhat hostile or at least problematic.  But Qatar was keen to invite in American troops, and the country took the lead in condemning Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

3. The British left only in 1971, so modern Qatar had a relatively short window of time with no foreign/Western troops in the country.

4. Qatar does not charge the U.S. for these bases, and “Qatar has never been able to guarantee its own security by itself.”

5. In the new century, Qatar turned itself into a major provider of hostage negotiator services.  That it is Sunni, yet has friendly relationships with Iran, Lebanon, and the United States has made it a useful go-between, and the Qatari leadership has used this as one of many ways to build up Qatari soft power.

6. “Qatar has no history of animosity towards the Shia movement…”

7. Qatar owns 20 percent of the London Stock Exchange and 20 percent of Heathrow airport.

8. The country’s main revenue is a natural gas field it shares with Iran.

9. “Al Jazeera can be seen as one of Qatar’s most significant means of antagonising Saudi Arabia…”  One can view the much-vaunted “press freedom” of the outlet as part of a more calculated balancing strategy.

10. The government of Qatar came out early for regime change in both Libya and Syria.

11. “Qatar’s history has long been punctuated by challenges emanating from modern-day Saudi Arabia.”

12. “…Qatar’s policy is worryingly dependent on two or three individuals, giving the state little strategic depth or institutional back-up capability.  The personalised nature of politics marginalises the structures in place to inform and support decision-making.  This cycle is exacerbated by Qatar’s youth as a country, which means it has only had a meaningful bureaucracy for a generation, while its educational system has been mediocre at best.”

Those are all from David B. Roberts, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State, an excellent book, just out, recommended reading for you all.