Month: June 2013

Traditional dress from the Gulf States, and its origins

This is from the latest book by Christopher M. Davidson, After the Sheikhs:

Another prominent mechanism for guarding and preserving the social base of national elites in the Gulf monarchies has been the adoption of a “national dress” code.  There are significant variations across the region, with men and women in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait wearing several different styles of garments, and with the younger generations in all six Gulf monarchies increasingly wearing western clothes during their leisure time.  For the most part the older generations in all these countries, and most citizens — young and old — in the wealthiest of the Gulf monarchies tend to wear a fairly strict uniform of white thobes or dishdashas (men) or black abayas (women).  Such quotidian sartorial choices allow the observer to differentiate instantly between a citizen and an expatriate, which helps the former to access the aforementioned privileges associated with citizenship and the concomitant elevated social status they bring.  In those monarchies such as Qatar or the UAE where the material rewards of citizenship are the greatest and where the expatriate component of the total resident population is the highest, adherence to the dress code is most prevalent.  As one recent study put it, “it is no mere fashion that leads all Qatar national men to wear their traditional thoh at all times…the emir and his government have perpetuated these neo-traditional myths of authenticity, allowing the creation of a citizen autocracy.”  Certainly it is very important to note that this dress code is primarily a product of the oil era and the rentier state: although sometimes referred to as “traditional dress” or even “Islamic dress” by foreigners, the current national dress code in these Gulf monarchies has few roots in tradition or religion, with early pre-oil photographs from the region demonstrating that the indigenous populations once wore a variety of colours and styles.

As for the book as a whole, I don’t think the author makes a convincing case for his extremely pessimistic forecasts, but still it is an interesting read.

Academic economics is more winner-take-all than you might think

John P. Conley and Ali Sina Onder write (pdf):

We study the research productivity of new graduates of top Ph.D. programs in economics.  We find that class rank is as important as departmental rank as predictors of future research productivity.  For instance the best graduate from UIUC or Toronto in a given year will have roughly the same number of American Economic Review (AER) equivalent publications at year six after graduation as the number three graduate from Berkeley, U. Penn, or Yale.  We also find that research productivity of top graduates drops off very quickly with class rank at all departments.  For example, even at Harvard, the median graduate has only 0.04 AER papers at year six…

The indicating post is from Angus, thanks also to Stan T. for a pointer.

No One is Innocent

I broke the law yesterday and again today and I will probably break the law tomorrow. Don’t mistake me, I have done nothing wrong. I don’t even know what laws I have broken. Nevertheless, I am reasonably confident that I have broken some laws, rules, or regulations recently because its hard for anyone to live today without breaking the law. Doubt me? Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

Harvey Silverglate argues that a typical American commits three felonies a day. I think that number is too high but it is easy to violate the law without intent or knowledge. Most crimes used to be based on the common law and ancient understandings of wrong (murder, assault, theft and so on) but today there are thousands of federal criminal laws that bear no relation to common law or common understanding. The WSJ illustrates:

Last September (2011), retired race-car champion Bobby Unser told a congressional hearing about his 1996 misdemeanor conviction for accidentally driving a snowmobile onto protected federal land, violating the Wilderness Act, while lost in a snowstorm. Though the judge gave him only a $75 fine, the 77-year-old racing legend got a criminal record.

Mr. Unser says he was charged after he went to authorities for help finding his abandoned snowmobile. “The criminal doesn’t usually call the police for help,” he says.

Or how about this:

In 2009, Mr. Anderson loaned his son some tools to dig for arrowheads near a favorite campground of theirs. Unfortunately, they were on federal land….

There is no evidence the Andersons intended to break the law, or even knew the law existed, according to court records and interviews. But the law, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, doesn’t require criminal intent and makes it a felony punishable by up to two years in prison to attempt to take artifacts off federal land without a permit.

The Anderson’s didn’t even find any arrowheads but the attempt to find was punishable by imprisonment. Under statutes such as the Lacey Act one can even face criminal prosecution for violating the laws of another country. Ignorance of another  country’s laws is no excuse.

If someone tracked you for a year are you confident that they would find no evidence of a crime? Remember, under the common law, mens rea, criminal intent, was a standard requirement for criminal prosecution but today that is typically no longer the case especially under federal criminal law .

Faced with the evidence of an non-intentional crime, most prosecutors, of course, would use their discretion and not threaten imprisonment. Evidence and discretion, however, are precisely the point. Today, no one is innocent and thus our freedom is maintained only by the high cost of evidence and the prosecutor’s discretion.

One of the responses to the revelations about the mass spying on Americans by the NSA and other agencies is “I have nothing to hide. What me worry?” I tweeted in response “If you have nothing to hide, you live a boring life.” More fundamentally, the NSA spying machine has reduced the cost of evidence so that today our freedom–or our independence–is to a large extent at the discretion of those in control of the panopticon.

Google Interview Questions

The famous Google interview questions? They don’t work. Here’s Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google:

On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.

Instead, what works well are structured behavioral interviews, where you have a consistent rubric for how you assess people, rather than having each interviewer just make stuff up.

Behavioral interviewing also works — where you’re not giving someone a hypothetical, but you’re starting with a question like, “Give me an example of a time when you solved an analytically difficult problem.” The interesting thing about the behavioral interview is that when you ask somebody to speak to their own experience, and you drill into that, you get two kinds of information. One is you get to see how they actually interacted in a real-world situation, and the valuable “meta” information you get about the candidate is a sense of what they consider to be difficult.

The ambivalence manifesto

We are the Ambivalents, unable not to see both sides of the argument, frozen in the no-man’s land between armies of true believers. We cannot speak our name, because there is no respectable way to confess that you believe two opposing propositions, no ballot that allows you to vote for competing candidates, no questionnaire in which you can tick the box, “I agree with both of these conflicting views.” So the Ambivalents avoid the question, or check “I don’t know,” or grit their teeth and pick a side. Consequently, our ambivalence doesn’t leave a trace. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Ambivalence refers to the state of experiencing conflicting beliefs or feelings simultaneously. The prefix ambi means both; the suffix valence derives from the Latin for vigor and refers to the attraction or aversion felt toward something. Someone can feel a positive or negative valence. Or both.

Ambivalence is not the same as indifference, with which it is often confused. Someone in an ambivalent state of mind is experiencing an excess of opinion, not an absence of it. An ambivalent person may feel very strongly about the subject at hand without reaching anything like a coherent point of view on it.

That is from Ian Leslie, here is more.

The Chinese credit crunch

Don’t be misled by posts which focus on “Chinese monetary policy.”  This is first and foremost about credit markets.

Read this FT Alphaville post about the Chinese carry trade (and bow down and revere them, while you are at it).  The previous Chinese credit overextension, the inability to keep this process going forever, and Bernanke’s talk of “tapering” all point in the direction of more expensive credit for the Chinese economy.  This economy was addicted to cheap credit in the first place, so that’s a big deal.  (By the way, promising to print more currency won’t solve the core problem here, with apologies to Scott Sumner.)

Note that a lot of the cheap credit has been funneled through a dollars mechanism, as explained in the first link.  To the extent dollars become more expensive to borrow, the Chinese central bank cannot easily do a complete offset.  The relevant lever here seems to have been U.S. interest rates, I am sorry to say.

What can the consolidated Chinese central bank/government do?  They can be easy with the yuan but that makes illegal and semi-legal capital flight all the more dangerous as a threat.  Keep in mind that China has to enforce capital controls — in both directions — at the same time as it conducts monetary policy, so it does not have access to the full range of effective instruments in a “carry trade world.”  There is already too much borrowing which cannot be made good, not even by more lending.  And they don’t want to push their current bubbles any further but rather seek to defuse them.  (Keep in mind also that capital controls do not work forever, so one possibility is that we are witnessing Chinese capital controls coming apart at the seams over a slightly longer time horizon, even though that is not what we saw on the screen today).

They also could lend out dollars at lower rates than the U.S. market will do to China. That would indeed help in the short run, but it’s easy enough to see why they do not wish to go down that route.  It would require rationing, it would lose money, and it also would most likely postpone the day of reckoning and of course unlike the Fed they can’t simply print more dollars at will.  For all of the $$ trillions in Chinese reserves, it’s still probably not enough to make good on current bad investments, given that the use of those reserves could be controlled only very imperfectly, at least once they are lent out at discount rates.

And so there we have the dilemma.  I don’t endorse their current policy of letting interbank markets freeze (update: they are now injecting cash), but it’s not clear they have many desirable options.  The importance of dollars as a “dual currency,” the presence of excess capacity and multiple bubbles, and the perceived need to maintain two-way capital controls are significant constraints.

Here are my previous posts on “Austro-Chinese business cycle theory.”

By the way, this entire mess also helps explain why Bernanke was so nervous about the previous course of U.S. monetary policy.  You will notice that once the talk of “tapering” hit the news, emerging markets absolutely tanked, a bad sign for the future and a very bad sign for what (possibly) has been going on.  See my previous remarks here.

The Greek public broadcaster showdown, and when do people finally snap?

There is now a chance that the Greek coalition government will collapse, and in some manner re-form, due to the controversy over the possible shutdown of Greece’s public broadcasting outlet (now suspended by the Greek High Court).  Here are comments from Matt, and also from Open Europe.  Here is a long update on the story.

There is a broader point about the possibility of countries on the periphery leaving the eurozone or otherwise choosing a radical change, such as outright default or capital controls or an illiberal government or a blatant renegotiation of the current deal.  Many observers seem to have in mind a path where things get really bad, economically speaking that is, and then a country leaves the eurozone (or makes some other radical choice) because they can’t stand it any more when things are at the absolute bottom.  Once things are looking up, it is assumed that countries are on board for the foreseeable future.

Without wishing to rely too heavily on Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution (pdf), that’s not how things usually work.  Very often there is an ongoing history of major problems and depredations.  Then things seem to get better or perhaps they really do get better.  Expectations start to rise.  Then some small events come along and those events are blown out of proportion, leading to the crisis in public opinion that didn’t quite happen in the first place.

The current Turkish crisis was set off by a dispute over a public park, and the recent demonstrations in Brazil seem to have been prompted by a 7% hike in bus fare prices, which is about ten U.S. cents.  Yet in neither case is the small trigger the ultimate cause of the discontent.

Many deconversions from religion, or from fandom, or even from marriage, work the same way.  Big lies are told and those lies inflict some damage.  The institution in question soldiers on.  A bit later, an apparently smaller slight or problem brings the whole thing crashing to the ground, precisely when things appeared to be getting better.

I’m not saying it always runs that way, only that it is a very common path.  Furthermore the steepest period of decline is very often when people are too preoccupied with coping to make the major adjustment.

The bottom line is that one should not dismiss the importance of small events, especially these days.

Addendum: Edward Hugh argues that Grexit is not off the table.  Here is a short piece on the Tocqueville thesis and China.

When are people OK with nuclear waste?

When they are asked — and not when they are paid  — at least when it comes to one recent study of the Swiss:

In the early 1990s, Switzerland was getting ready to have a national referendum about where it would site nuclear waste dumps. Citizens had strong views on the issue and were well informed. Bruno Frey and Felix Oberholzer-Gee, two social scientists, went door-to-door, asking people whether they would be willing to have a waste dump in their community. An astonishing 50% of respondents said yes—this despite the fact that people generally thought such a dump was potentially dangerous and would lower the value of their property. The dumps had to go somewhere, and like it or not, people had obligations as citizens.

Frey and Oberholzer-Gee then asked a slightly different question. People were asked whether, if given an annual payment equivalent to six weeks’ worth of an average Swiss salary, they would be willing to have the dumps in their communities. So these people, who already had one reason to say yes—their obligations as citizens—were now given a second reason—financial incentives. Yet in response to this question, only 25% of respondents agreed. Adding the financial incentive cut acceptance in half.

The full story is here, and of course the actual answer might be different if you actually paid them.  One way to read this result is in terms of signaling: if they have to pay me to accept it, it must be really bad.  Another signaling explanation is that you look bad if you are willing to welcome a community harm in return for money.  Another option is that “reasons compete,” rather than serving an additive function.  The reason “being paid” may be crowding out the reason “being asked.”

Coming from another quarter, here is a dispiriting tale of commercialization, involving Alan Alda and Michael Sandel, among others.

The passing of James Gandolfini

Ross Douthat called him “the best actor in the best TV show of all time.”  I consider that to be a fair description.  I will never forget Tony proclaiming in one episode “He ain’t got ungatz” (sp?) and suddenly understanding what my father had meant by that many years ago.  In my dotage I hope to watch through all of the episodes once again.  Here is one good obituary; Gandolfini grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey and was born in Westwood, both very close to my own upbringing.

Gandolfini was not very well known when he was cast as Tony Soprano, and of course this raises the broader question of how much talent is actually out there.

@ModeledBehavior asked an interesting question: “Are any of the nominees I’m seeing for best TV show ever not centered around crime?”

The best Chinese restaurant Washington, D.C. has had, ever

Panda Gourmet, Langdon Days Inn, 2700 New York Ave., just east of Bladensburg Road, NE, 202-636-3588.

It is in a dump of a roadside motel.  You must of course ask for the secret Chinese menus, as the Chinese-American fare does not appear to be of interest.  They have a special Shaanxi noodles dish, get it.  They have a special Xian dish which you can think of as like a Chinese hamburger, albeit with pork, Rouge Mo.  Get it.  They have the best Dan Dan noodles this area has seen, ever.  Get it.  The best cold Chengdu spicy noodles I have had.  The best cumin beef of any place around.  The spicy fish wasn’t bad, but not up to the other really good Chinese places around here.  In any case this is a top drawer Chinese restaurant and for authenticity it is #1 around of all choices.

You will note it is hard to get here, even with a car.  If you are driving east on New York Avenue, you will be constrained by a divided road, and you need to make a funny U-turn at the sign for The Washington Times building, and go under an unpromising overpass back to a service road, eventually the move will pay off, if it doesn’t feel wrong you are not doing right.

This is some Yelp information here and for the original pointer I thank Don Rockwell.

Whither the poet laureate?

Perhaps he could write such poems in his spare time.  Or perhaps better not?:

Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate, wondering aloud why the government never asks him to write poems, has inadvertently answered his own question.

“I wish that my government had asked me to write poetry about immigration policy, about Idle No More, about Canada’s complicity in the Middle East, the Enbridge pipeline,” Fred Wah, a Saskatchewan-born poet now living in Vancouver, recently told an audience at an Edmonton literary festival.

“I haven’t been asked to do any of those things.”

…He warned that the taxpayer-funded position risks becoming “homogenized and diluted,” and expressed frustration that during his two-year term in Ottawa he’s been asked to produce just one work — a “mediocre” poem about Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee.

That’s the British Queen Elizabeth by the way, not the Queen Elizabeth who sits on the Bangalore city council.  Here is more, via Pierre Lemieux on Facebook.