Month: March 2015

Assorted links

Does suffering make Russians happier?

And can happiness research be trusted?:

According to the latest opinion survey in Russia, the share of people who are happy with their life has increased to 52 percent, from 44 percent in December 2014, and from 41 percent in December 2013. The survey results were published at the end of February by the state survey agency VCIOM. This is quite a spectacular finding, suggesting that despite Western sanctions and the recent ruble devaluation, life in Russia is going well.

Except these attitudes are hard to square with some facts.

Fact #1: Between January 2014 and March 2015, the price of food products has increased by 29.3 percent. After the sanctions, prices of fruit have shot up by 45 percent, vegetables by 41 percent, fish by 30 percent, and meat by 28 percent. All this, according to Rosstat, the state statistical agency.

Fact #2: January 2015 saw a 51 percent fall in the number of Russian traveling abroad, relative to January a year earlier. Fewer Russians go skiing in Europe: Russian tourism dropped by 27 percent to Austria, by 52 percent to Finland, and by 43 percent to France. And lest one thinks that most Russian skiers now go to Sochi, it is worth pointing out that the numbers from last summer also show a significant decline in the tourist visits to Thailand, Bulgaria, Spain, Dubai, and other beach destinations.

Fact #3: 115,390 cars were sold in Russia in January 2015, down from 151,000 in January 2014, and 163,000 in January 2013. In other words, about one quarter fewer new cars have been sold so far this year.

That is from Simeon Djankov, via www.macrodigest.com.  And if current trends continue, maybe the Ukrainians will end up happier yet.

Protest sentences to ponder, Selma edition

Today, it would be impossible to obtain a federal court order permitting a five-day protest march on a 52-mile stretch of a major U.S. highway. Under contemporary legal doctrine, the Selma protests would have ended March 8, 1965.

…Starting in the 1970s…the federal courts began rolling back this idea. A series of rulings erected what is known as the public forum doctrine, which lets a city, state or the federal government decide whether public property can be used for 1st Amendment activities. It also means that if courts do not designate a place a “traditional public forum,” government may forbid its use as a site of protest altogether.

That is from Ronald J. Krotosynszski, Jr., there is more of interest here.

The endgame of Communist rule in China?

China expert David Shambaugh is claiming exactly that in a bold argument.  Here is a summary of his brief:

He points to “five telling indications of the regime’s vulnerability”: an apparent lack of confidence among the country’s wealthy; intensified political repression, betraying insecurity among the leadership itself; a sense that “even many regime loyalists are just going through the motions”; corruption too pervasive and deep-rooted for Xi’s ongoing crackdown to fully address; and an economy “stuck in a series of systemic traps from which there is no easy exit.”

Shambaugh also argues “Communist rule in China is unlikely to end quietly.”

That’s pretty heady stuff and I am happy to link to material I disagree with, but disagree I do.  My reasons are simple:

1. There are internal coups, which are more or less invisible to most of the world, and external coups, where a visible overthrow of a government makes the front page and is accompanied by violent conflict in public places and a change in the labeling of the regime.  China already has shown its system can accommodate internal coups, for better or worse.  You can argue they have such internal coups (on average) every ten to twelve years.

2. It is entirely reasonable (though very hard to call) to expect another internal coup in China.

3. Does any coup in China prefer to a) jettison the Communist brand?, or b) refurbish the Communist brand?  I say b), by a long mile.  The Communists drove the foreigners out of the country, built the modern nation, and delivered close to ten percent growth for almost thirty-five years running.  Most of the time the Communist Party has been pretty popular, in spite of all the (justified) cynicism about the corruption.

4. Once you accept #3, and work back to rethink #1, you expect at most an internal coup in China, with external continuity and a maintenance of the Communist party brand, albeit in refurbished form.

5. The strongest version of Shambaugh’s argument is that there is no “core” to the internal coups, a’ la Gordon Tullock’s book Autocracy.  You get too many internal coups, or too many incipient internal coups, and the public square is required to impose structural equilibrium on the problem.  Maybe so, but that requires lots of claims about the internal dynamics of Chinese politics, and the lack of internal coup stability mechanisms.  The cited evidence by Shambaugh does not seem to bear directly on this question, and so I am back to having no strong reason to expect an external coup, much less a chaotic and bloody one.

What I’ve been reading

1. Michael Meyer, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.  Adam Minter has a very good and useful review of a very good book.  The main lesson, beyond the specific and often fascinating vignettes, is that history is everywhere, and everywhere is interesting if only you know how to read the open book.

2. Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East.  An engaging look at a time and place of increasing relevance for today’s global problems.

3. Bill Gifford, Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying).  An informative, entertaining, and yet non-sensationalistic account of recent (and some not so recent) attempts to conquer aging.  It avoids the temptation of exaggerating the science and also turning all of the profiled individuals into “colorful characters.”  A genuinely good book.

4. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers.  Imagine taking an underdiscussed (by most people) book of the Bible and showing its connections to politics and the legitimation of authority, to spiritual yearning, to overcoming trauma, and to Freudian and other psychoanalytic theories of the ambiguity of desire.  This is all done from a theologically Jewish point of view, incorporating the midrash as well.  That may sound like a bit much, but I found this book fully captivating — virtually every paragraph is substantive and interesting — and it will definitely make my “best of the year” list.  I will buy more books by her as well.

*The Paradox of Liberation*

That is the new Michael Walzer book, with the subtitle Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions.  The stated paradox is fairly simple, yet worthy of sustained attention:

Why have the leaders and militants of secular liberation not been able to consolidate their achievement and reproduce themselves in successive generations?  Over the past several decades, Indian intellectuals and academics have been debating this question in its local version: “Why is it,” one of them asks, “that the Nehruvian vision of a secular India failed to take hold?”

Other cases considered include Israel, Palestine, and Algeria, as well as the Middle East more generally.  Walzer doesn’t much try to answer his own question, but this book is very stimulating and worth the short amount of time it takes to read it.  I would modify the paradox however: I see various European nations which do consolidate and maintain largely secular nationalist movements.  How about Denmark or France?  If you find those examples troublesome, try Serbia or for that Vietnam or China.  There may be a more general issue of morphing, above and beyond the religious vs. secular issue.

United States fact of the day

Percentage of annual net electricity generation by renewables in 1948: 32

Percentage of annual net electricity generation by renewables in 2005: 11

The main difference of course is the fall in the relative import of hydroelectric power.

By the way, those numbers are read off a graph and thus are approximate.  They are from p.67 of Mara Prentiss, Energy Revolution: The Physics and the Promise of Efficient Technology, new and noteworthy from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, recommended.

Why Grexit matters for even a healthy eurozone situation

Jean Pisani-Ferry makes a few good arguments, this is the most interesting:

…an exit would force European policymakers to formalize their so-far unwritten and even unspecified rules for divorce. Beyond broad principles of international law – for example, that what matters for deciding an asset’s post-divorce currency denomination are the law governing the underlying contract and the corresponding jurisdiction – there are no agreed rules for deciding how conversion into a new currency would be carried out. A Grexit would force these rules to be defined, therefore making it clear what a euro is worth, depending on where it is held, by whom, and in what form. Indeed this would not only make the break-up risk more imaginable; it would also make it much more concrete.

The entire piece is here.  File under “The End of Creative Ambiguity.”  That file is growing larger all the time.

How nonconsumption shapes desire

That is a new paper (pdf) by Xianchi Dai and Ayelet Fishbach,the abstract is here:

The proposed model suggests that desire depends on the length of nonconsumption of a good and the presence of salient alternatives, and that desire is at least partially constructed. In the absence of salient alternatives, a longer nonconsumption period results in stronger desire for the unconsumed good. However, in the presence of salient alternatives, individuals infer that they have developed new tastes, and thus a longer nonconsumption period results in a weaker desire for the unconsumed good. Five studies support this model across nonconsumption of various  goods: food from home when attending college (study 1); chametz food during the Passover holiday (study 2); social media (i.e., abstaining from Facebook; study 3); and cultural foods (i.e., forgoing Japanese food, study 4; and Thai food, study 5). We discuss implications of our findings for when and how the experience of desire is constructed and situationally determined.

The publishing culture that is German

The copyright on Mein Kampf is running out in 2016, so what will Germany do?  Here is the latest:

The Institut für Zeitgeschichte got the call, and apparently their critical edition should be available already shortly after the copyright runs out, in January 2016. In Die Zeit they report on some of the details — including that the two-volume edition might extend to 2000 pages, some 780 of actual text and the rest taken up largely by the up to 5000 explanatory notes.

That is from Literary Saloon.

Thursday assorted links

The Ferguson Kleptocracy

In Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison I wrote:

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

The DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department verifies this in stunning detail:

Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court. The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct.

… Our investigation has found overwhelming evidence of minor municipal code violations resulting in multiple arrests, jail time, and payments that exceed the cost of the original ticket many times over. One woman, discussed above, received two parking tickets for a single violation in 2007 that then totaled $151 plus fees. Over seven years later, she still owed Ferguson $541—after already paying $550 in fines and fees, having multiple arrest warrants issued against her, and being arrested and jailed on several occasions.

Predatory fining was incentivized:

FPD has communicated to officers not only that they must focus on bringing in revenue, but that the department has little concern with how officers do this. FPD’s weak systems of supervision, review, and accountability…have sent a potent message to officers that their violations of law and policy will be tolerated, provided that officers continue to be “productive” in making arrests and writing citations. Where officers fail to meet productivity goals, supervisors have been instructed to alter officer assignments or impose discipline.

Excessive, illegal and sometimes criminal force was used routinely:

This culture within FPD influences officer activities in all areas of policing, beyond just ticketing. Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do too little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Here is one example:

In January 2013, a patrol sergeant stopped an African-American man after he saw the man talk to an individual in a truck and then walk away. The sergeant detained the man, although he did not articulate any reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. When the man declined to answer questions or submit to a frisk—which the sergeant sought to execute despite articulating no reason to believe the man was armed—the sergeant grabbed the man by the belt, drew his ECW [i.e. taser, AT], and ordered the man to comply. The man crossed his arms and objected that he had not done anything wrong. Video captured by the ECW’s built-in camera shows that the man made no aggressive movement toward the officer. The sergeant fired the ECW, applying a five-second cycle of electricity and causing the man to fall to the ground. The sergeant almost immediately applied the ECW again, which he later justified in his report by claiming that the man tried to stand up. The video makes clear, however, that the man never tried to stand—he only writhed in pain on the ground. The video also shows that the sergeant applied the ECW nearly continuously for 20 seconds, longer than represented in his report. The man was charged with Failure to Comply and Resisting Arrest, but no independent criminal violation.

Here is another, especially interesting, example:

While the record demonstrates a pattern of stops that are improper from the beginning, it also exposes encounters that start as constitutionally defensible but quickly cross the line. For example, in the summer of 2012, an officer detained a 32-year-old African-American man who was sitting in his car cooling off after playing basketball. The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code. Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him. The officer charged the man with eight different counts, including making a false declaration for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”) and an address that, although legitimate, differed from the one on his license. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in possession. The man told us he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government as a result of the charges.

Although the report says the initial stop was constitutionally defensible, the initial stop was also clearly bullshit. “The officer arguably had grounds to stop and question the man, since his windows appeared more deeply tinted than permitted under Ferguson’s code.” Deep tinting!!!

Missouri, like most states, has a window tint law which essentially requires that tinting not be so dark as to impede the ability of the driver to see out of the car. Ok. But why does Ferguson have a window tint law! What this means is that you can be fined for driving through Ferguson for window tinting which is legal in the rest of Missouri. Absurd. Correction: the code appears to be the same as the state code but passed as a municipal ordinance so fines were collected locally. The purpose of the law was simply to extract more blood:

NYTimes: Last year Ferguson drivers paid $12,400 in fines for driving cars with tinted windows. They paid another $4,905 for loud music coming out of their cars.

The abuse in Ferguson shouldn’t really surprise us–this is how most governments behave most of the time. Democracy constrains what governments do but it’s a thin constraint easily capable of being pierced when stressed.

The worst abuses of government happen when an invading gang conquer people of a different race, religion and culture. What happened in Ferguson was similar only the rulers stayed the same and the population of the ruled changed. In 1990 Ferguson was 74% white and 25% black. Just 20 years later the percentages had nearly inverted, 29% white and 67% black. The population of rulers, however, changed more slowly so white rulers found themselves overlording a population that was foreign to them. As a result, democracy broke down and government as usual, banditry and abuse, broke out.

Toward a theory of American academia

Paul E. Smaldino and Joshua M. Epstein have a new paper, note they are not responsible for my blog post heading, they called it “Social conformity despite individual preferences for distinctiveness.”  The abstract is here:

We demonstrate that individual behaviours directed at the attainment of distinctiveness can in fact produce complete social conformity. We thus offer an unexpected generative mechanism for this central social phenomenon. Specifically, we establish that agents who have fixed needs to be distinct and adapt their positions to achieve distinctiveness goals, can nevertheless self-organize to a limiting state of absolute conformity. This seemingly paradoxical result is deduced formally from a small number of natural assumptions and is then explored at length computationally. Interesting departures from this conformity equilibrium are also possible, including divergence in positions. The effect of extremist minorities on these dynamics is discussed. A simple extension is then introduced, which allows the model to generate and maintain social diversity, including multimodal distinctiveness distributions. The paper contributes formal definitions, analytical deductions and counterintuitive findings to the literature on individual distinctiveness and social conformity.

Other sources for paper drafts are here, and for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.