Month: April 2012

Saudi Arabia fact of the day

The country is not energy efficient:

With domestic electricity demand rising 10% per year in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom now devours more than a quarter of its oil production—nearly three million barrels per day. International Energy Agency figures show that Saudi Arabia now consumes more oil than Germany, an industrialized country with triple the population and an economy nearly five times as large.

That is from Jim Krane via Brad Plumer.

Who would be a better president of the World Bank?

I see so many tweets and posts on this question.  None of you know, I suspect.  A few questions:

1. It is widely recognized that the Bank’s board “interferes” in WB activities too much, often meeting two times a week and also pushing through contracts which should be stopped or reexamined.  Who can best stand up to that board when necessary?  Can that be done at all, while keeping the contract-addicted major economic powers still interested in the Bank?

2. The WB is financially fairly dependent on China, which for whatever reason prefers to borrow from the Bank rather than use its reserves to finance projects.  What should a president do if China starts seeing itself as “graduating” from this relationship?  Or what if China falls apart economically?  Will the World Bank end up like the UN, losing some of its talent and being hat in hand, asking for funds?

3. Let’s say the BRICS continue with their plan to set up a separate lending facility, as endorsed recently by Zoellick.  How should a president keep the BRICS interested in the World Bank?  Should the new lending facility be fought, co-opted, subsidized, or whatever?  Competition or collusion?

4. The U.S. President tries to pressure the WB to create projects in Afghanistan or Iraq which the Bank doesn’t really want to do.  Stand up to the President, fold, or meet him halfway?  How should project demands involving the West Bank be finessed?

Maybe, maybe, maybe — if you knew the major candidates well — you could have some sense who would perform better at those tasks.  And at about fifty others.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

It is hard to predict how any particular candidate would do.  We do know who is likely to get the job.  We don’t know what it is like to have a non-American facing those kinds of problems.

Addendum: Chris Blattman comments.

Be a travel parasite

From Jodi Ettenberg:

2. Be a travel parasite.

No, this does not mean mooching off friends or family. What it means is learning how to use guidebooks to your advantage. While they are useful to have for the history of a place or the basics in itinerary planning, I rarely look to guidebooks for the name of a hostel or restaurant. Instead, I look at their recommendations as things to piggyback on. Lonely Planet recommends a place as “Our Pick”? Great, I go there, and walk two doors down to stay nearby. Rough Guides says “this is the best restaurant in town”? Perfect! Almost every one of those recommendations will spawn another restaurant within walking distance. Industrious entrepreneurs quickly learn that when these books recommend a place, they quickly get overcrowded and prices go up. The solution: they open a place right next door or nearby to handle the spillover. Without fail, those are the places that are cheaper, more delicious and not jaded. Being a parasite isn’t always a bad thing. (Having parasites? Not so much.)

There is much more at the link, all related to travel insights.

Someday, the unraveling of these problems will be blamed on austerity

…over the past ten years, France has lost competitiveness. In 2000 hourly labour costs in France were 8% lower than those in Germany, its main trading partner; today, they are 10% higher (see chart 2). French exports have stagnated while Germany’s have boomed. An employer today pays twice as much in social charges in France as he does in Germany. France’s unemployment rate is 10% next to 5.8% in Germany—and has not dipped below 7% for nearly 30 years.

…How can the country justify its massive public administration—a millefeuille of communes, departments, regions and the central state—which employs 90 civil servants per 1,000 population, compared with 50 in Germany? How can France lighten the tax burden, including payroll social charges, so as to encourage entrepreneurship and job creation?

Here is more.  Some of the French, by the way, blame the problem on insufficiently low tax rates.  Here is an article on Europe, France, and the working poor.  In the periphery, of course, the problems are more likely selective regulation, rent-seeking, lack of trust, and sclerotic privileges, rather than the level of expenditure per se, topped off with the unworkable (and ultimately fiscal) commitment to peg the value of their bank deposits in line with those of Germany.

Inflation fear and privileged service sector jobs

The greater the number of protected service sector jobs in an economy, the more likely those citizens will oppose inflation.  Inflation brings the potential to lower real wages, possibly for good.  How many insiders, if they had to renegotiate their current deals, would do just as well?

Get the picture?

This is a neglected cost of protected service sector jobs, namely that the economy’s central bank will face strong political pressures not to inflate even when a looser monetary policy would be welfare-improving.

Western Europe most of all.  If you see that the young people in an economy aren’t doing nearly as well as the privileged insiders, you should suspect that the privileged insiders fear renegotiation and thus fear inflation.

Inflation is easier to sustain in rapidly growing economies where people are moving up various ladders quickly.

Perhaps we have lost the ability and the political economy to support inflation when needed.

True, false, or uncertain?

From Susan Sontag:

On Intelligence

I don’t care about someone being intelligent; any situation between people, when they are really human with each other, produces “intelligence.”

There is also this bit:

Why I Write

There is no one right way to experience what I’ve written.

I write — and talk — in order to find out what I think.

But that doesn’t mean “I” “really” “think” that. It only means that is my-thought-when-writing (or when- talking). If I’d written another day, or in another conversation, “I” might have “thought” differently.

Here is more.

Young vs. old

Three of the top five symptoms searched for on Yahoo Mobile in January were early pregnancy, herpes and H.I.V. None of these symptoms showed up among the top searches on desktop computers, which are more likely to be used by older people.

The most popular symptom searches on PCs included gastroenteritis, heart attacks, gout and shingles, Yahoo said, adding that the encyclopedic medical symptoms checker on WebMD was the most popular site of its kind among PC users. On WebMD, the top symptoms searched for in January were muscle strain, gastroenteritis and irritable bowel syndrome.

…“I do health searches all the time,” said Brittany Lashley, 20, who is majoring in Chinese at the University of Maryland at College Park. She surfs the Web on her iPod Touch for food and drinks that she hopes will increase her energy level and help her stay awake and sharp for late-night studying.

The article is interesting throughout.

Bloomberg Business Week

I am learning that many people still do not know how good it has become.  Every issue has a remarkable amount of substance.  I am in the blogosphere and on Twitter quite frequently, and yet still a large number of the stories are news to me; that is hard to pull off these days.  Many people had grown disenchanted with the old Business Week, but odds are you should be reading the new incarnation.  It would make my list of the five essential periodicals/magazines.  Let’s hope it continues, just don’t ask me what is their business plan.  Make Bloomberg a more focal name to spur and maintain demand for the terminals?

Surprising Probability Estimate of the Day

The UK’s Office of Work and Pensions estimates that a child born today has a 30% chance of reaching the age of 100. In contrast, a person 80 years old today has only a 7.7% chance of reaching the age of 100. Indeed, a person today, according to these estimates, has to be about 96.5 years of age to have the same probability of reaching the age of 100 as a newborn.

You can find the data at The Guardian.

Hat tip: John Lanchester’s article on Marx in the LRB.

What Export-Oriented America Means

That is the title of my new 4000 or so word essay for The American Interest.  Excerpt:

At least three forces are likely to combine to make the United States an [increasing] export powerhouse.

First, artificial intelligence and computing power are the future, or even the present, for much of manufacturing. It’s not just the robots; look at the hundreds of computers and software-driven devices embedded in a new car. Factory floors these days are nearly empty of people because software-driven machines are doing most of the work. The factory has been reinvented as a quiet place. There is now a joke that “a modern textile mill employs only a man and a dog—the man to feed the dog, and the dog to keep the man away from the machines.”

The next steps in the artificial intelligence revolution, as manifested most publicly through systems like Deep Blue, Watson and Siri, will revolutionize production in one sector after another. Computing power solves more problems each year, including manufacturing problems.

It’s not just that Silicon Valley and the Pentagon and our universities give the United States a big edge with smart machines. The subtler point is this: The more the world relies on smart machines, the more domestic wage rates become irrelevant for export prowess.

…The second force behind export growth will be the recent discoveries of very large shale oil and natural gas deposits in the United States…

That brings us to the third reason why America is likely to return as a dominant export power: demand from the rapidly developing countries, and not just or even mainly demand for fossil fuel. As the developing world becomes wealthier, demand for American exports will grow. (Mexico, which is already geared to a U.S.-dominated global economy, is likely to be another big winner, but that is a story for another day.)

In the early stages of growth in developing nations, importers buy timber, copper, nickel and resources linked to construction and infrastructure development. Those have not been U.S. export specialties, and so a lot of the gains from these countries’ growth so far have gone to Canada, Australia and Chile. Usually American outputs are geared toward wealthier consumers and higher-quality outputs, which is what you would expect from the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced home market. To put it simply, the closer other nations come to our economic level, the more they will want to buy our stuff.

That’s just the introduction.  The rest of the essay considers: “how will this shape American foreign policy, jobs, education, politics and poverty?”  For instance:

Some of the new technological and export-related breakthroughs will consist of making education and health care more affordable, often through software and smart machines that bypass the current credentialized control of those fields. Imagine getting an online medical diagnosis from a smart machine like IBM’s Watson, or learning mathematics from an online MITx program or one of its successors. The American poor and lower middle class will have considerably greater opportunities, at least if they are savvy with information technology and disciplined enough to take advantage of these new free or cheaper goods. Of course, this will not come close to helping everybody. These internet tools reward the self-motivated, who will be disproportionately well educated, even if their parents lack higher education, wealth and connections. Many of the rest will still fall by the wayside.

Do read the whole thing.  You can think of it as some current thoughts on what it would look like to climb out of The Great Stagnation.

Addendum: Reihan adds excellent comments.

*Mirror, Mirror* (paging Leo Strauss)

Not often does Hollywood put out movies romanticizing tyrannicide and the assassination of foreign leaders of friendly countries, in this case India.  Julia Roberts is the wicked Queen, witch, and false pretender, but actually the stand-in for Indira Gandhi, with an uncanny resemblance of look and dress in the final scene (I wonder if anyone told her?).  This movie presents a romanticized and idealized version of how her assassination should have proceeded and should have been processed, namely in a triumphal manner with no reprisals but rather celebration and joyous union and love.  As the plot proceeds, you will find all sorts of markers of Sikh theology, including numerous references to daggers, hair, mirrors, water, immersions, submersions, bodily penetrations, transformations, the temple at Amritsar, dwarves who enlarge themselves, and the notion of woman as princess, among many others; director Tarsem Singh knows this material better than I do (read up on Sikh theology before you go, if you haven’t already).  The silly critics complained that the plot didn’t make sense, but from the half dozen or so reviews I read they didn’t even begin to understand the movie.

Without wishing to take sides on either the politics or the religion, I found this a daring and remarkable film.  The sad thing is that no one is paying attention.

The movie’s trailer is here.