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That was then, this is now (a continuing series)

Even if the Nobel committee does not consider Mr Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, the 44-year-old Greek prime minister is barely recognisable as the leftwing firebrand who threatened to denounce Greece’s eurozone bailout, ban German politicians from visiting Athens and pull the country out of the euro if its creditors rejected his demands for debt forgiveness.

Four years after his first narrow election victory for his radical Syriza party, Mr Tsipras has become a surprising anchor of Greek financial discipline. His government is generating the sort of budget surplus that Athens’ creditors could once only have dreamt of. And he has reinvented himself as a southern European pragmatist, committed to being a co-operative EU partner while deepening relations with Washington in the interests of regional security.

“Tsipras now has a new international profile, that of the mature leader ready to incur political cost to carry out unpopular policies, whether it’s over Macedonia or the difficult economic reforms needed to keep Greece in the eurozone,” said Aris Hatzis, an Athens university professor of law and economics.

Here is more from Kerin Hope at the FT.  Note that Tsipras is currently not especially popular in Greece: “he is widely expected to be ousted from office when Greece holds a general election this year. Opinion polls show Syriza still lagging more than 10 points behind the centre-right opposition New Democracy party, which has rejected the Macedonia deal.”  Bryan Caplan, telephone!

That was then, this is now, a continuing series

This is part of a letter from Miss Howe to Miss Clarissa Harlowe, from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa [1748].

You and I have often retrospected the faces and minds of grown people; that is to say, have formed images for their present appearances, outside and in, (as far as the manners of the persons would justify us in the latter) what sort of figures they made when boys and girls. And I’ll tell you the lights in which HICKMAN, SOLMES, and LOVELACE, our three heroes, have appeared to me, supposing them boys at school.

Solmes I have imagined to be a little sordid, pilfering rogue, who would purloin from every body, and beg every body’s bread and butter from him; while, as I have heard a reptile brag, he would in a winter-morning spit upon his thumbs, and spread his own with it, that he might keep it all to himself.

Hickman, a great overgrown, lank-haired, chubby boy, who would be hunched and punched by every body; and go home with his finger in his eye, and tell his mother.

While Lovelace I have supposed a curl-pated villain, full of fire, fancy, and mischief; an orchard-robber, a wall-climber, a horse-rider without saddle or bridle, neck or nothing: a sturdy rogue, in short, who would kick and cuff, and do no right, and take no wrong of any body; would get his head broke, then a plaster for it, or let it heal of itself; while he went on to do more mischief, and if not to get, to deserve, broken bones. And the same dispositions have grown up with them, and distinguish them as me, with no very material alteration.

Only that all men are monkeys more or less, or else that you and I should have such baboons as these to choose out of, is a mortifying thing, my dear.

I am enjoying this splendid book for the first time, and yes it is OK to read an abridged edition.

The show so far, a continuing series

1. The situation with North Korea has moved to one of open confrontation.  That said, there are stronger commercial sanctions on North Korea than before, and the attitude of the Chinese does seem to have shifted toward recognizing North Korea as a problem needing to be solved.  For the time being, both the missile tests and the jawboning have stopped, for unknown reasons.  Note that the South Korean and Japanese markets remain high, of course the U.S. market is strong too.

2. Trump has spent a great deal of time with Prime Minister Abe, the real “pivot toward Asia.”  Abe is being treated like the most important leader of the free world — is that crazy?  Merkel is now teetering.

3. The Trump administration has recognized and encouraged a much more explicit semi-military alliance between America and India, also part of the pivot.  China-India relations could be the world’s number one issue moving forward.

4. The apparent “green light” from the Trump administration probably raised the likelihood and extremity of the Saudi purge/coup.  I give this a 20% chance of working out well, though with a big upside if it does.  Whether you like it or not, so far it appears to me this is Trump’s most important initiative.

Just to interject, much of your assessment of the Trump administration should depend on #1-4, and I am worried that is hardly ever the case for those I see around me.  While I do not view the current administration as “good executors” on foreign policy, the remaining variance on #1-4 is still very high and it is not all on the down side.

5. The Trump administration seems to think that keeping production clusters within this nation’s borders is of higher value than shaping the next generation of the world’s trade architecture.  I don’t think they will get much in return for this supposed trade-off, but there you go.

6. I am seeing deeply biased assessments of tax reform, from both sides.  I don’t favor raising the deficit by $1.5 trillion (or possibly more), I do favor cutting corporate rates and targeting some of the most egregious deductions.  I am disappointed that there is not more celebration of the very good features of the plan on the table, that said big changes in the proposed legislation still are needed.

7. In terms of regulatory reform (WSJ), the administration has done better than my most optimistic scenario.  In their worst area, carbon, progress on solar and electric cars is bigger good news than the bad policy news.  And for all practical purposes, the carbon policy of Trump is not much different from that of say Angela Merkel.

8. The suburbs are rebelling against the Republican Party.  There is a decent chance the Republicans will lose the House in 2018, as well as numerous governorships.  Soon we may get a window of a very different Trump, plus more investigations.

9. Various people connected to Trump will be nabbed for crimes and perjuries.

10. Trump has personally “gone after” many political and social norms, but it is not yet clear if they will end up weaker or stronger as a result.  His “grab them…” tape for instance seems, in the final analysis, to have empowered a major rebellion in the opposite direction.  #10 is a major reason why many commentators hate Trump as a person and president, and I can understand that response, but I am myself more focused on what the final outcomes will be and there we do not know.

11. The cultural and intellectual force of liberalism — broadly defined — has been greatly weakened by a mix of Trump and Trump-related forces.  I find this tragic and a major source of despair.

12. I do not favor “a decline in the dignity of the presidency” in the manner we are seeing, but I find many of these criticisms are stand-ins for not liking the substance of what is happening.  I don’t think we know what are the costs (or benefits) are from this transformation of the presidential image.  I could readily imagine those costs are high, but as a sociological matter I am seeing “the dignity of the office of the president has been insulted” as a stand-in for “my dignity has been insulted.”

13. The quality of discourse continues to decline.

The “Trade Talks” podcast series

Chad Bown writes to me:

“I write and take the liberty of drawing your attention to a new and weekly podcast series called Trade Talks that Soumaya Keynes (The Economist) and I are publishing.

According to the iTunes description, we promise to

cohost a weekly podcast on developments in international trade and policy. From trade wars to trade deals, this podcast covers the week’s trade news with insights and economic analysis from two of the world’s top trade geeks.

What more could you want from a couple of economists?

How to find the podcast?

  • Subscribe (for free) to Trade Talks in iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn, or from most anywhere you find podcasts, whether on an iOS or Android device.
  • Either click through one of the blue links above, or type “Trade Talks” into the search bar of your podcast directory (and look for our logo, below).

Here are our episodes thus far:

The show so far, a continuing series

South Korea suspends THAAD deployment

Turkey prepares to send troops to Qatar

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards charge that Saudi Arabia was behind the terror attack on Teheran

Hmm…Meanwhile Qatar is engaging in talks with Turkey and Iran for emergency food and water supplies.

I don’t know what to expect from the Qatar situation, but I will say this.  If America really is withdrawing from its global role, “crude economism” predicts that small, hard to defend, oil-rich states are the first places where you would expect fighting to break out.  So Qatar is a bellwether for how global world order is likely to evolve.

Recall, by the way, that Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.  Unless the Qatar situation is resolved very quickly, and sufficiently in Qatar’s favor, I would say that the expected return from hosting such bases just fell dramatically.

The show so far, a continuing series

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.

The show so far, a continuing series

In my view, the Republicans have had a very weak hand to play on health care (not enough good ideas!), but over the last week they have played it brilliantly (which is not the same thing as having good policies).  Those House members who need to say “I voted to repeal Obamacare” can now do so.  The Republicans also have an option on proceeding further with reform, with everyone knowing the Senate will write its own bill.  The defects of what they voted for are not so significant for this reason, and the cavalier attitude of many House Republicans toward the contents of the bill makes perfect sense.

At the same time, the Republicans have the option of letting the bill die in the Senate, where it is far easier to blame the Democrats for inaction — how many American swing voters understand the fine points of the Byrd rule and filibuster anyway?  If you are what I call a “fulminating Democrat,” you are actually playing into Republican hands on this one (it would have been better to have spent the week saying abortion should be legal but rare, and talking about white people).

The big victory celebration pleased Trump, but more importantly all Republicans involved learned there is a way forward on many other issues: let Congress lead the way and pull Trump out of the bully role.  That lesson won’t soon be forgotten.  And from Trump’s point of view, he hasn’t given up the option of later working with the Democrats to pass a more centrist version of health care reform.

I don’t see the broader American public as so impressed with the Democrats’ arguments against the bill, mostly because they are not paying attention.  It doesn’t feel like it has the urgency of when Obamacare was passed, and in fact it doesn’t.  No one succeeded in showing it did, because it didn’t.

I still see the Republican House majority as extremely fragile, but on this one I believe the Democrats got pwned.

The show so far, a continuing series

Hint: Trump is not working with Paul Ryan to disassemble Medicare as we know it.

Those of us who predicted gridlock, stasis, and an excessively weak Trump presidency are so far right.  Hardly anything has gotten through, though we have managed to scare off 40% of the potential foreign applicants for higher education, one of America’s most successful export industries.  Tax reform, which is not an ideological touchstone, won’t be easy, and the Republicans have not reached prior agreement on many of the (numerous) details.  Russia will continue in the headlines.  The weakness of political parties remains an underlying theme.  Overall, it is good that health care reform is off the table for now, because superior alternatives were not likely to result.

Is it good or bad, all things considered, that foreign governments are seeing increasing latitude to ignore Trump’s threats?  And why exactly does Trump dislike Germany so much?

By the way, the end of global QE is rapidly approaching, with U.S., European, and possibly Chinese central banks all tightening at about the same time; maybe that’s the real news!

Addendum: Alex writes to me:

39% of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35% reported an increase, and 26% reported no change in applicant numbers.

http://www.aacrao.org/docs/default-source/TrendTopic/Immigration/intl-survey-results-released.pdf?sfvrsn=0

The show so far, a continuing series

The big news was that China actually started to apply real pressure to North Korea, namely ceasing to buy their coal for the rest of the year.  That may prove a phantom or reversed piece of news, but still it is real progress of some kind, if only in expected value terms.  Did Trump’s antics and also his courting of Abe have anything to do with this?  We don’t know.  Was Obama’s THAAD missile deployment to South Korea a factor?  Probably.  I say score one for them both.  Keep in mind that is probably the world’s #1 foreign policy problem, and otherwise progress has been hard to come by.  Their KL airport assassination also may end up as a relevant PR disaster, costing them further foreign support.

Closer to home, outright Obamacare repeal seems increasingly unlikely.  Since I never favored Obamacare, you might think I am unhappy, but as I see it they were likely to replace with something unworkable and worse.  So this is, if not good news outright, at least the opposite of bad news.  Whether through brilliance or incompetence, Trump simply isn’t leading on this issue and so major changes won’t get done, maybe not even minor changes.

Republicans in state governments are running away from fiscal conservatism rather rapidly.  The Michigan legislature turned down a tax cut and there was a significant revolt in Kansas.  That was an under-reported story, namely a reversal of Tea Party influence on Republican-controlled state governments.

The Border Tax plan appears to be dead or on life support.  Flynn is gone and replaced by the apparently excellent McMaster.  There is talk (fact?) again of Kevin Hassett as CEA chair — a great idea — and Russia seems increasingly disillusioned with our president, also a nicer place to be.

The new Executive Order on regulation has some upside deregulatory potential.  Whether or not you favor a federal role in the matter, I thought it was a good sign to see Betsy DeVos sticking up for transgender rights.

Proposed policies on trade and immigration, as well as rhetoric toward the press, remain awful, plus various “background problems” continue, but overall I thought this was a very good week for Trump, with Flynn out to pasture and the North Korea news far outweighing the rest.

Department of Uh-Oh, a continuing series, the drone wars have begun

Late last month, a pair of Islamic State fighters in desert camouflage climbed to the top of a river bluff in northern Iraq to demonstrate an important new weapon: a small drone, about six feet wide with swept wings and a small bomb tucked in its fuselage.

The two men launched the slender machine and took videos from a second, smaller drone that shadowed its movements. The aircraft glided over the besieged city of Mosul, swooped close to an Iraqi army outpost and dropped its bomb, scattering Iraqi troops with a small blast that left one figure sprawled on the ground, apparently dead or wounded.

The incident was among dozens in recent weeks in a rapidly accelerating campaign of armed drone strikes by the Islamic State in northern Iraq.

The terrorist group last month formally announced the establishment of a new “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen” unit, a fleet of ­modified drones equipped with bombs, and claimed that its drones had killed or wounded 39 Iraqi soldiers in a single week.

Here is the full story by Joby Warrick.

That was then, this is now, a continuing series

Legislative power grab for me but not for thee edition: remember when HRC was (possibly) considering Elizabeth Warren as her running mate?:

The thing is, ahead of past expected Senate vacancies, rather than looking for a loophole, Massachusetts state legislators have opted to simply change the appointment rules. Multiple times.

In 2004, the Democratic-controlled State House pushed through a bill that stripped then-Gov. Mitt Romney of his power to fill Sen. John Kerry’s seat, presumably with a fellow Republican, as the Democratic senator ran for president. The measure—to keep the seat vacant until a special election was held in 145 to 160 days—was ultimately passed with a veto-overriding two-thirds majority, despite the fact the Kerry ultimately lost to incumbent President George W. Bush.

But then in 2009, with Democrat Deval Patrick as governor, state legislators passed a bill at the behest of Sen. Ted Kennedy to give Patrick the power to choose a replacement for the terminally ill Democrat.

Would Massachusetts legislators change the rules a third time for Warren? According to state House and Senate leaders, there are no such plans.

Do you find this more or less objectionable than the recent changes in North Carolina?  Did you complain about them both with proportional fervor?  Do you now recognize that “whataboutism” is a highly useful means of testing whether your views and outrages are in fact justified?  I enjoyed the earlier comment by Albatross:

My outrage at the power grab in NC is somewhat diminished by my wish that something similar (legislative power grab to limit the power of the incoming executive) were happening at the federal level, too.

That was then, this is now: a continuing series, Coasean George Washington edition

Land speculation was a natural and common preoccupation among the Founders. For some it became an economic affliction. “Hardly a prominent man of the period failed to secure large tracts of real estate, which could be had at absurdly low prices, and to hold the lands for the natural advance which increased population would bring,” wrote Albert J. Beveridge.27 For many, such speculation would prove a hazardous preoccupation. Virginia’s Henry Lee and Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris and James Wilson ended up in jail because of their debts from speculation. Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner noted that land speculation was “a fundamental aspect of American economic life, but it had become in the last few years an extremely tricky one. General [Henry] Knox was above the knees in financial trouble because of the new settlements he had started in Maine.”28 Speculation in land became particularly rampant in the early 1790s when the stability of the new republic seemed assured. Describing the process of speculation, historian Forrest McDonald wrote: “One worked or connived to obtain a stake, then worked or connived to obtain legal title to a tract of wilderness, then sold the wilderness by the acre to the hordes of immigrants, and thereby lived and died a wealthy man. Appropriately, the most successful practitioner of this craft was George Washington, who had acquired several hundred thousand acres and was reckoned by many as the wealthiest man in America.”

And:

Washington’s land holdings clearly affected his political outlook – first regarding England, and later regarding the United States. Washington thought big and thought about the implications of thinking big. Glenn A. Phelps wrote that Washington’s “extensive land-holdings in the West, as well as his frequent surveying expeditions to the frontier, had placed him within a circle of Virginia politicians with somewhat more enterprising, expansionist, westward-looking interests than their tidewater brethren.”59 Increasingly after the Revolutionary War, Washington’s land-holdings affected his preoccupation with the development of the Potomac River and a canal through the area where it was not navigable. Washington wrote a friend in 1785 that “unless we can connect the new States which are rising to our view in those regions, with those on the Atlantic by interest (the only binding cement, and not otherwise to be effected by opening such communications as will make it easier and cheaper for them to bring the product of their labour our markets, instead of going to the Spaniards southerly, or the British northerly), they will be quite a distinct people; and ultimately may be very troublesome neighbors to us.”

And:

Washington foresaw America’s great westward migration and he foresaw potential wealth for himself. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote: “Washington believed that as a private citizen pursuing his own interests he could still be working for the good of the nation. He engaged without a qualm in a scheme that would benefit him financially, while it bolstered American independence in a way that he thought was crucial…

Washington also supported infrastructure projects that would increase the value of his landholdings.  Here is the source, with the tip via MR commentator g. ruqt.

Here is my earlier post on Inconvenient Questions.