Month: February 2011

What do India’s cities need?

One of the worst aspects of Indian democracy is that power is often lodged at the state rather than the city level, and states are often dominated by rural voters who, just as in the U.S. Senate, have far more representation per capita.  India's cities need more control over their own destinies.

That is from Ed Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.

Assorted links

1. Why an eBook?; "Mr. Cowen…says the ability to swiftly release something with “a lot of intellectual content but without the padding of many books” harks back to a time when pamphlets discussing new theories and ideas about economics were churned out regularly."

2. Will Hutton on TGS in The Guardian.

3. An Ice King married a Snow Queen.

4. Referee report on Plato's Euthyphro.

5. Do Arab Islamist parties lose on purpose?

6. The universal translator is here, p = 0.

Credible commitment to demonstrated virginity loss?

Several Circassian men boasted to me that they had kidnapped or "stolen" their wives, in order to force them to marry them.  At first I was shocked, but the situation was not in fact what it sounded like.  Far from being effectively the rape of an unwilling woman, Circassian bride-stealing is a strategic step taken to force her unwilling parents to agree to her getting married.  The stealing is ritualized, and accompanied by a volley of gunshots to alert the parents that it has happened.  The couple would never be alone together, and the groom's uncle would normally be employed as an emissary to sound out the prospective in-laws.

If they relented — which they almost always do — and agreed to the match, she would return home immediately, and the wedding would be prepared.  If they did not agree, she would go to live with the groom's uncle until the wedding.

That is from Oliver Bullough's Let Our Fame be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus.

World of Snow and Ice

Daily Mail: At first glance it looks like a graphic from a Discovery Channel programme about a distant ice age. But this astonishing picture shows the world as it is today – with half the Northern Hemisphere covered with snow and ice.

The image was released by the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Association (NOAA) on the day half of North America was in the grip of a severe winter storm.


Addendum: It's a cool picture, that is all.

Why are so many islanders obese?

Via Chris Bodenner, Joshua Keating reports:

What really sets the size of these islanders apart is the size of their islands: Tuvalu, Palau, Nauru, and the other countries on the obesity list are among the world's smallest countries in terms of land area and population. So a single tourist resort, fast-food chain, or trade deal has a much more profound effect on society than it would, say, in India or Nigeria.  

Could it be something about Polynesians?  After all, there are some hefty Maori in New Zealand and that is not a small island, especially not measured in economic terms.  Mexico (not Polynesian, of course) also has a growing obesity problem and that cannot be attributed to the island factor.  The same is true of the Persian Gulf states and there Keating suggests very rapid modernization as a culprit.

Keating discusses other factors.  Don't Polynesians naturally eat a starchy diet?  Are island groups more used to the prospect of famine, and thus their bodies store fat more readily?  Being heavy is not low status on many of these islands.  Here are some separate (speculative) claims about their voyaging history.  Nauru is the heaviest island  population, so maybe it has something to do with not having to work for a living, in this case due to phosphates.  Cape Verde and Okinawa are islands, but their residents do not seem to be very heavy.

Don't residents of (some) small islands have weaker prospects of migrating to large cities and might that affect their dietary decisions?  I think of rural isolation as a factor behind obesity, though Keating does not mention that.  Being heavy is also one way of identifying with the local rather than the global culture, and islanders may be faced with stronger pressures to reaffirm their identities.  I would like to see a comparison between Samoans who move to New Zealand and those who stay put.

Articles for our times

The Politics of Military Reform in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Elite Conflict, Nationalism, and Institutional Resistance, by Marcus Mietzner. The abstract:

Since the fall of Suharto's New Order regime in 1998, Indonesia has launched a number of initiatives to reform its previously omnipotent armed forces. The extent to which these reforms have resulted in real political change, however, has been subject to heated debate in Indonesia and in capitals of Western donor countries. The two camps have often advanced highly antagonistic accounts of the military reform process. Human rights groups and political activists, on the one hand, have contended that despite formal reforms, there has been almost no change in the way the armed forces operate. They maintain that the military continues to influence, and even dominate, political and economic affairs. The opposing view, which is frequently argued by foreign proponents of restoring full military-to-military ties with Indonesia, states that the armed forces are now fully subordinated to civilian democratic control, and that substantial progress has been made in imposing international human rights standards on the troops.

This study presents an evaluation of military reform efforts in Indonesia eight years after Suharto's resignation. Applying the two-generation model of military reform developed by Cottey, Edmunds, and Forster, it proposes that Indonesia has made remarkable progress in advancing first-generation military reforms, which include extensive changes to the country's institutional framework, judicial system, electoral mechanisms, composition of representative bodies, and the responsibilities of security agencies. In combination, these reforms have successfully extracted the armed forces from formal politics, have undermined many of their institutional privileges, and have produced a polity in which the military arguably no longer holds veto power to overturn decisions made by the civilian government.

You can start the rest of your reading here.  The Wikipedia version is here.

The *Atlas Shrugged* movie trailer

Via Allison Kasic and Chris F. Masse, here it is.  Apart looking like a bad movie, I found this jarring.  It should be in black and white, or muted colors, with the palate and overall look of a Visconti film.  It has some Art Deco architecture (good), but signs of the modern world intrude at the wrong moments.  It should not have high-speed rail (will this confuse conservatives?  Did those governors end up cutting Medicaid and coughing up the money?) and it should not postulate unrealistic speeds for freight trains.  It should not have 2011 cars and Dagny Taggart should not look like a mousy actress imitating Nicole Kidman playing a local news reporter.  "If you double cross me, I will destroy you" doesn't ring true.  Hank Rearden's line about only wanting to earn money comes across as either a parody of Gordon Gecko or as something worthy of Gecko's parody.  To be properly post-Wall Street, Rearden must somehow contain and yet leapfrog over Oliver Stone's vision; a pretty boy look will not suffice.

Tim Harford on *The Great Stagnation*

In the FT magazine, here is the end bit:

In short, if Cowen is right, there will be less growth in future unless a new wave of technology arrives, and our political institutions will have to cope, if they can. The same argument surely applies to western Europe too, and will come as no news to Japan.

And the solution? I am not sure, and neither is Cowen. He hopes to raise the status of scientists and researchers – a good idea, but how? The UK coalition plans to introduce charter schools; we shall have to see whether that delivers results. The government is also reducing subsidies for universities and, indirectly, for public libraries. Both those policies are probably progressive: universities (certainly) and libraries (probably) tend to be middle-class haunts. But if the great stagnation is the problem, making access to knowledge more expensive is surely not much of a solution.

Assorted links

1. The role of public sector research in drugs and vaccines, and here.

2. China five books of the day.

3. There is no Great Stagnation.  And Dutch strandbeests: There is no Great Stagnation.  And Dirk reviews TGS.  And a Robert Teitelman review.  And why an eBook?

4. Deirdre McCloskey's lecture from Wednesday night.

5. Rio murder rate is falling.

6. One hour of Milton Friedman on Hayek and The Road to Serfdom.  Better than most recent discussions of the book.

In my pile

1. Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.  Self-recommending.  I've browsed a few pages and he seems like…such a normal, happy man.

2. Bengt Holmstrom and Jean Tirole, Inside and Outside Liquidity.  This is a take on what follows from the imperfect pledgeability of corporate assets, by two of the world's leading economic theorists.

3. Jonathan Bendor, Daniel Diermeier, David A. Siegel, and Michael M. Ting, A Behavioral Theory of Elections.  The point is to predict both turnout and voting behavior (hard to get both right at once in a model), and the authors a computational model on top of all of that.  I have long been wanting more behavioral public choice.

State support of the arts

Jon Chait (a progressive) is against it, Ezra asks for my view.  I favor indirect subsidies for the arts, and indeed to non-profits in general, through our tax system, as we already do.  This tax policy is also a major subsidy to religion and, for me, a somewhat difficult decision to accept and also encourage…how shall I put it?…certain features of the American cultural landscape.  Nonetheless I believe in "diversification across countries" and I don't want the United States to become too much like Europe. 

In America at least, direct arts subsidies have both very low costs and very low benefits.

The issue currently at hand is whether various state-level arts agencies should be abolished or cut back, as is now the talk, including in Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and Washington state.  I say these states are doing the right thing.  If you're a libertarian, the choice is obvious.  If you're a progressive, it is better to spend the money on Medicaid expansion or other more worthy goals.  There really is an opportunity cost of this money, and reframing the choice as "so many cents per head" merely disguises that we could use those funds to save some lives.  Most of the benefit of arts subsidies goes to the relatively wealthy and well-educated.

I don't see any "intermediate" argument that beats back both the libertarian perspective, on one side, and the redistributive perspective, on the other.  The two extreme positions are more defensible than the middle, in this case, and each leads to the same conclusion.

Don't, however, think that cutting state arts funding will much matter for state-level fiscal problems.  It won't.  The budget problems are mostly about a mix of falling revenue and rising Medicaid expenditures.  I am against using such cuts to promote the idea that we are solving our budgetary problems; read David Brooks on this topic.

The real news is that some states are willing to cut arts funding even when they will cease receiving their transfers from the NEA.

If you're an arts snob and wish to mix aesthetics and politics for philosophic reasons, it is better to have arts money spent at the federal rather than the state level.  The state agencies are more aesthetically conservative and more oriented toward "economic development" (a myth, for the most part) and local special interest groups.  The state-level spending is less meritocratic and the NEA comes closer to serving an "R&D" function for the arts.  It didn't help the arts in this country when the NEA had, for political reasons, to start sending forty percent of its budget to the state arts agencies. 

The case for state-level support for the arts is strongest, by far, for the state of New York for reasons related to tourism and New York City.  But Manhattan, Kansas?  Let them watch YouTube.

Addendum: Here is my book on government support for the arts, and the proper roles of the aesthetic and political in liberal thought.