Month: December 2014
The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance . . . .
The best aspect of Christmas is the aspect usually decried by the mystics: the fact that Christmas has been commercialized. The gift-buying . . . stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure. And the street decorations put up by department stores and other institutions—the Christmas trees, the winking lights, the glittering colors—provide the city with a spectacular display, which only “commercial greed” could afford to give us. One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle.
From the Ayn Rand Lexicon.
Should you keep your kids in the dark about Santa not being who he says he is? Who you say he is? Will Wilkinson says he will:
Well, we’re atheists. I don’t intend to proselytize atheism to my kid, because I’m not interested in getting him to believe anything in particular. What I’m interested in is teaching him how to reason in a way that maximizes his chances of hitting on the truth. Now, one of the most interesting truths about the empirical world is that there are all these powerful systems of myth that are kept afloat by a sort of mass conspiracy, and humans seem disposed to pick one from the ambient culture and take it very seriously. But it can be hard to get your head around the way it all works unless you participate in it. Santa is a perfect and relatively harmless way to introduce your child the socio-psychology of a collective delusion about the supernatural. The disillusionment that comes from the exposure to the truth about Santa breeds a general skepticism about similarly ill-founded popular beliefs in physics-defying creatures.
I say why not leave them guessing, hovering in a state of Bayesian Santa doubt? My parents never told me Santa “was real,” but they didn’t tell me he “wasn’t real” either, so I slid rather gracefully into my Santa non-belief. I don’t recall ever feeling disillusioned by a sense of loss and in fact those presents kept on coming. I even had a clearer sense of the appropriate channel for making gift requests, what’s not to like about that?
Why not teach them some Walter Benjamin early on?:
The 99-cent App “Talking Santa,” in addition to allow children to talk to an animated St.Nick, allows them to run him over with a snowball and, when the “violence” setting is turned on, slap him.
Some sociologists and child-development experts warn the technology puts the magic of Christmas in jeopardy. If children treat Santa as they would any classmate — constantly texting or calling or tweeting at him — then what makes Santa special?
Remember Smith’s diamond-water paradox, which in fact dates as far back as Galileo?
I recall sitting on Santa’s lap as a tot and being terrified by his rubber fingers (why oh why was he wearing rubber fingers? Were his real fingers scarred?). Thank goodness we have left those days behind, I would have preferred a simple text although I barely know how to do that either.
Scott Sumner asks a version of that question:
But here’s what I don’t get. If America really is this weak and cowardly, then why can’t ISIS easily defeat us? They could phone in threats against movie theaters just as easily as the North Koreans can. And there must be 100 times as many Hollywood films that offend ISIS sensibilities as there are that offend Kim. Recall that women get stoned to death in ISIS-controlled areas for things like wearing a miniskirt. Then consider Hollywood films, which often show Arab terrorists as villains. So why doesn’t ISIS copy North Korea? Why does ISIS let us insult them? I don’t get it.
There is more from the Scott on the question here. This is hardly my area, but here are a few observations:
1. The United States will permit all kinds of mini-outrages against us, provided they are not seen as precedents. If we were viewed as exploitable at this margin, our reaction, from both the government and private citizens, would be quite different. In the meantime, pretending that North Korea is a fly to the American elephant may be an optimal response/non-response. When Obama told Sony it made a mistake by pulling the film, that is exactly what he was doing, namely minimizing the significance of the event on purpose. He wasn’t trying to scold Sony or even to defend free speech.
2. Often groups such as ISIS are much more offended by what “their own” women do than by what “outsiders” do. They may even welcome the existence of a certain amount of Western and also Hollywood depravity, to aid product differentiation. Additionally, don’t forget that some of the 9-11 terrorists seemed to enjoy strip clubs and the like. Their motivations are not always strictly pious.
3. We don’t have a good understanding of why terrorists don’t attack more than they do. Perhaps terror attacks can be viewed as belonging to two groups: a) the more or less replicable (Sri Lankan and Palestinian suicide bombings), which are allocated by some set of calculating authorities, and b) the “one-off,” which are governed by a kind of multiplicative formula, under which many things have to go the right way for an attack to happen at all. 9-11 is probably an example here, but without a fixed infrastructure for providing training and motivation and coordination, most terrorists aren’t actually that well organized and they can’t pull much off. Read Diego Gambetta on 9-11. Now that U.S. troops are (mostly) out of Iraq, the replicable attacks aren’t there any more either.
4. It remains possible that the U.S. still will retaliate against North Korea, or perhaps already has retaliated in a non-public manner. It is also possible we have let news of such retaliation or pending retaliation leak to ISIS and other groups in some fashion.
And a final point: in the MR comments section Boonton wrote:
I think this illustrates a difference in perception between North Korea and, say, Al Qaeda. If Al Qaeda was offended by some movie (say the last Batman movie which featured some type of Middle Eastern prison that was nonetheless within walking distance of Gotham city), people would be up in arms about all theaters pulling the movie. Yet not so much North Korea, why?
Al Qaeda is recognized as having an actual agenda is is assumed to be a somewhat rational agent. Hence most of us will give credit to the anti-appeasement argument with them. If we pull one movie they will keep making demands.
North Korea, in contrast, is perceived as an irrational state lead by a child-man dictator. In other words, most in the west see it as essentially an entire nation that is literally mentally ill. We are willing to indulge them a bit because we are not quite sure how ill they really are and just like a deranged person may try to stab you over a napkin on the ground, this is the type of state that may start a nuclear war over a Seth Rogan movie.
Is this perception correct? Is North Korea not just mentally ill ‘on the ground’ but also at the top? Is the inner circle populated by cold rationalists cynically exploiting propaganda to control the masses or have they actually drunk the most Kool-Aid of the entire bunch?!
“Both” is a possible answer of course.
That is the new book by Joshua D. Angrist and Jörn-Steffen Pischke, from Princeton University Press, and the subtitle is The Path From Cause to Effect. I have not yet had a chance to peruse this book, but the odds are very high that it is a very strong contribution. The Amazon link for the book is here.
2. The word is that Doug Elmendorf will not be reappointed at CBO. Doug has done a very good job and he deserves our plaudits. And Kaiser on the Medicare spending slowdown. Excellent piece, and if nothing else it shows what a fiscal conservative Elmendorf has been.
3. Interview with Piketty, more than just the usual, recommended, he also needs some PR training.
4. List of films that most frequently use the word “fuck” (yes, someone seems to have counted).
The Internal Revenue Service is putting outfielder Darryl Strawberry’s retirement annuity on the auction block next month.
The annuity, seized by the IRS because Strawberry owed back taxes, was part of a contract he signed in 1985, back when he was slugging home runs for the New York Mets.
The annuity will be worth about $1.3 million, to be paid out over nearly 19 years, when it goes up for sale on January 20, according to court documents.
The starting bid is $550,000.
There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Zachary Klein.
The city-state will open one of its neighborhoods to driverless cars in 2015…
Combined with a version of Uber it would seem, there is more here.
I’m not one of those who thinks Cuba is the next Singapore or even the next Puerto Rico. Why not?
I’m willing to assume that the end of the American embargo will mean some kind of economic liberalization over the next ten years. But how much good will that bring?
We could start by looking for relevant comparisons. We could ask how well have non-British-ruled, non-Dutch-ruled, non-American-ruled Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands done? There is a fairly clear example of such a country with some ethnic, cultural, historic, and linguistic similarities to Cuba, namely the Dominican Republic. For non-PPP-adjusted gdp per capita, the D.R. clocks in at about $5800 per year. And that is about where I think Cuba will end up, after a good bit of turmoil.
Now various official sources put Cuban per capita gdp (again, non-PPP-adjusted) at about that same level. That is highly misleading, and yes I have been to both countries. (Other countries at that level don’t have so many hungry people or so many women selling their bodies to tourists.) In any case I expect Cuban reforms, along with a good bit of additional deindustrialization from U.S. competition, to bring a short-run gdp dip, with an eventual climb into a D.R.-like economy, albeit with big bumps along the way.
Here are a few additional points:
1. The Caribbean in general has done very poorly since the economic crisis of 2008. Most of it does not show signs of bouncing back.
2. The short-run trends for foodstuffs are not so great. The major agricultural exports are sugar, citrus, fish, cigars, and coffee. Sugar is by far the most important of those, and right now the sugar price is well below half of its 2011 level.
3. Cuban industrial production is below half of its 1989 level (pdf, p.8).
4. National savings and investment rates are at about ten percent, well below Latin American averages (pdf, p.8).
5. I don’t in general buy “brain drain” arguments, but they do sometimes apply to islands and for historical reasons they are especially likely to apply to Cuba. Many of the most talented Cubans were encouraged to leave, or managed to leave, and staying in Miami will be better than going back for a long time to come.
6. Cuba has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, but I expect most of those returns to accrue to land and capital, not labor.
7. Cuba already imports 30% of its food from America. Note that sum has been falling lately, as Cuba seeks cheaper alternatives, such as food from Vietnam. Post-liberalization, trade with America will go up a good deal but we are not starting from zero under the status quo.
8. Cuba is inheriting some very serious problems with institutions, and that is assuming they manage to move away from communism. In my admittedly limited experience, a fair number of Cubans still believe in communism, while also thinking the revolution somehow went astray. Emmanuel Todd has argued that Cuban family structures make the country susceptible to authoritarian rule. I consider that speculative, but still communism has had a long shelf life there, well past the fall of the Soviet Union, so let’s not dismiss it out of hand. The country also had a notable history of instability well before the Castro revolution. It is hard to be optimistic on this front.
9. Cuba seems to depend a good deal upon…Venezuela. Is that an asset you wish to hold in your portfolio?
10. Foreign investors can hire Cuban labor only through a state employment agency, and no this has not led to a form of efficient offsetting power, rather it has kept productivity low. More generally, this long Brookings study of FDI in Cuba (pdf) shows how difficult the environment is for foreign capital.
11. Costa Rica has far, far better institutions than Cuba and still it is relying on agriculture and tourism.
On the bright side:
12. The island has significant reserves of nickel and cobalt, top five in the world for nickel by many estimates.
13. Literacy is high, probably higher than in the United States, and there is a functioning social health infrastructure which reaches a high percentage of Cubans.
14. Circa 1959, the book value of U.S. capital in Cuba was three times higher than in the rest of Latin America combined (pdf).
15. The Cuban diaspora may nonetheless kick in as a source of talent and investment.
I’m not a super pessimist on Cuba, I just think they will need a long time to get to the point the Dominican Republic is at today. Being “the next Costa Rica” seems for them impossibly far off.
4. You can google to John Cochrane’s WSJ criticism of Keynesianism here.
“Digital preservation is really just an oxymoron at this point,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “It’s really just putting plus and minus electronic charges on plastic — and that plastic has an extremely short half-life. So that most digital media, even if you take it and store it correctly, is probably not going to last more than eight or ten, maybe 15 years.” By contrast, with 35mm film, “we just need to put it into a cold, dark, dry place, pay the electricity bill, and it will last for 500 to a thousand years.”
In one of the most famous examples of the perils of digital preservation, when the makers of Toy Story attempted to put their film out on DVD a few years after its release, they discovered that much of the original digital files of the film — as much as a fifth — had been corrupted. They wound up having to use a film print for the DVD.
From Bilge Ebiri, there is more here.
We have learned in testing that moviegoers respond favorably to Kim Jong-Un when he is seen as more of a recluse who can be charming at times as opposed to a person who is simply a dangerous dictator.