Month: February 2018
Kinshasa is the centre of Congolese cultural life and politics. Its glitzy hotels and restaurants are where the money looted from the rest of the country is spent. It boasts grandiose architecture (including an enormous Chinese-built parliament) and some of the best-dressed people in the world (known as sapeurs, or members of the Society for the Advancement of Elegant People). It is also filthy and lawless. The buses are known as “spirits of death”. The potholes are the size of buses. Traffic is regulated by gun-toting cops who will happily pull a motorist out of his car and beat him up in broad daylight.
The city is one of the least connected in the world. The airport on the English channel island of Guernsey, with a population of 63,000, handles more passengers than Kinshasa’s. Perhaps one in 20 Kinois has a formal job. Nonetheless they pay dearly to live in the metropolis. A room in a slum, without dependable electricity or clean water, can go for $100 a month.
That is from The Economist, the whole article is superb, one of the best I have read this year, with virtually every paragraph full of interesting points. Don’t forget that the Congo War(s) of 1998-2003 were the bloodiest since the Second World War.
I take an inordinate amount of pleasure in this note from the Wikipedia entry on Spock’s Brain under Reception and Influence:
“The episode was referenced in Modern Principles: Microeconomics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University as an example of how it is virtually impossible to have a command economy; in that not even Spock’s brain could run an economy.”
At left is the picture from Modern Principles; we also snuck in an oblique Simpson’s reference.
From Wikipedia I also learned that Phish has a song called Spock’s Brain, alas it is not about the difficulties of running a command economy.
She referred to herself as a “hothead,” but in fact was a model of grace under fire. She had to be, view 17:00 to 20:00:
As a besotted worshiper of Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, and Afro-Futurism more generally, I have been anticipating this one for many months. Since I wish that one-fifth of all movies had an Afro-Futurist background, and so few do, I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Still, I was disappointed by just about everything except some of the visuals.
The male characters were weak and most of the scenes dull, and worst of all most of the humor is mediocre. Furthermore, I found the movie uncomfortably prejudiced. There is such a thing as racism directed mainly at Africans (as opposed to blacks), and it seems to me this was it.
So many spears and wild animals? How about holding a referendum every now and then? And there were so many “Africanist” tropes. De facto, I thought the actual message was strongly pro-segregation, although wimpiness on that finally kicks in. The visual references to Narnia and to various Star Wars installments were fine, but was it necessary to cite the colonialist Zulu? The contrast with the resource-poor city of Busan, South Korea was almost Straussian in intent. Is wealth based on human capital so impossible in Africa?
I would say the more you know about actual African cinema, the less you will appreciate this one.
Christopher Lebron in Boston Review has written the best review (via Hollis Robbins).
A significant part of a St. Louis block is devoted to the world of chess. There is the Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Chess Club, and also a chess-themed restaurant, Kingside Diner, with a King on the men’s room door and a Queen on the women’s room. The facilities are world class and very welcoming for the visitor; I am honored to have been given a personal tour (and to have eaten fish and chips there).
If you see a Slavic-looking face walking down this street, you simply assume it is a chess player. In general, I am very interested in the idea of creating extreme mini-universes, a’la Robert Nozick’s concept of utopia. This is what the chess utopia looks like, and it is in St. Louis. In this world, rating matters more than race or gender or age.
Many of America’s best chess players now live in or near St. Louis, and the two best college teams — Webster and SLU — are both in or near St. Louis.
One lesson is the power of philanthropy in an otherwise under-supported domain. I am instead used to seeing donations in “crowded” areas, such as economics or politics. Rex Sinquefield, a former finance economist, and the developer of index investing, has been the major force behind the rise of St. Louis in chess. The game is now played in more than one hundred of the local schools.
The strangest moment for me was reading through the plaques in the Hall. I had known many of those individuals during the ages 13-16, but for the most part have not had contact with them since, or heard word of them. All at once, I learned when each had died, and which of the few remained alive.
1. He is more likely right than wrong on the major points of optimism and progress and science.
2. The book is very clearly written, and it would do most of the world good to read it.
3. Contrary to Pinker, inframarginally I see the Enlightenment as a strong complement to Christianity/faith, even though the two at the margin often will clash. The same is true for nationalism.
4. The Counterenlightenment, as Pinker calls it, is intellectually much stronger than he gives it credit for. It’s time for yet another reread of Gulliver’s Travels.
5. I am uncomfortable with statements such as “Intellectuals hate progress.” That sentence opens chapter four. I know that he explains and qualifies it, but it is not how I like to organize concepts.
6. It is not a good book for understanding the Enlightenment.
7. Overall my main difference with Pinker might be this: I believe there is a certain amount of irreducible “irrationality” (not my preferred term, but borrowing his schema for a moment) in people, and it has to be “put somewhere,” into some doctrine or belief system. That is what makes the whole bundle sustainable. It also means that a move toward greater “Enlightenment” is never without its problematic side, and that a “Counterenlightenment” can be more progressive than it might at first appear. In contrast, I read Pinker as believing that Enlightenment simply can beat ignorance more and more over time.
The book’s subtitle is The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. And here is my earlier discussion with Pinker, video, podcast, and transcript.
It is often about time, says Diane Coyle in the FT:
In many retail industries, higher productivity means faster service. There are many routine services where getting more for less requires less time to be spent performing them. This applies to parts of many sectors of the economy. There are past examples — think of the impact of the washing machine on doing the laundry or the ATM on taking money out of the bank — but now we are seeing much more automation in new areas such as legal search, scrutiny of medical tests and buying train tickets online. There is surely much further to go as artificial intelligence advances.
Of course a lot of service sector transactions aren’t so much about product quality as simply having a barrier removed from a basic enjoyment of life. How long did it take the CVS clerk or the DMV to serve you?
Should this point make us feel better or worse about the biases in productivity statistics? If nothing else, traffic congestion has become worse. On the other hand, with smart phones and iPads, waiting in line never has been better.
Bulgaria has the fastest declining population in the world. From a peak of nearly 9 million around the time of the communist fall in 1990 Bulgaria’s population is 7 million today and projected to fall to around 5 million over the next generation. Entire villages have been depopulated, especially in the poorer Northern region.
A correspondent wrote me asking what to do. I responded what’s the problem? Of course, there are plenty of things one could do to make Bulgaria a richer and better place to live, some of which Bulgaria has been doing and some of which they have not. The more fundamental question, however, is why the number of a particular type of people located in a particular geographically proscribed area should be a measure of welfare?
Instead of focusing on Bulgaria let’s focus on Bulgarians. One of the reasons the population of Bulgaria has been falling is that Bulgarians have been leaving for better lives elsewhere in the European Union. Over one million Bulgarians live abroad. It is not always easy to move nor to stay in a village that is bereft of young people. But how fortunate is that those young people could move elsewhere. Instead of thinking of them just as Bulgarians lets think of them as citizens of the European Union. Problem solved. The EU population is increasing!
Is that a facile answer? Perhaps but note that in the United States great swaths of the country have seen declining populations since the 1930s or even earlier. We tend not to regard this as a big deal. In part because many of the areas with declining populations were small to begin with but also because we regard it as a good thing that Americans can move about the country. Indeed, because people have been free to move to opportunity the people remaining have not seen big declines in their standard of living. Ghosts are better than zombies.
5. “Ms. Brewer, 33, and her understudy, Edward Barbanell, 40, are thought to be the only known performers with Down syndrome to play the lead in an Off Broadway or Broadway theater production.” NYT link here.
That is a new paper by Gjisbert Stoet and David C. Geary, here is the abstract, noting that the last sentence is perhaps the most important:
The underrepresentation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is a continual concern for social scientists and policymakers. Using an international database on adolescent achievement in science, mathematics, and reading (N = 472,242), we showed that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries, and in nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled. Paradoxically, the sex differences in the magnitude of relative academic strengths and pursuit of STEM degrees rose with increases in national gender equality. The gap between boys’ science achievement and girls’ reading achievement relative to their mean academic performance was near universal. These sex differences in academic strengths and attitudes toward science correlated with the STEM graduation gap. A mediation analysis suggested that life-quality pressures in less gender-equal countries promote girls’ and women’s engagement with STEM subjects.
So what is the implied prediction for our future?
For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.
This is at Bloomberg, I think this is the most interesting paragraph:
But Noah, I have a question for you. You’ve written several columns about how the American economy is becoming more monopolistic. If true (and it is not exactly my view), that implies output could be much higher with current resources, even at full employment. A boost in demand could spur firms to produce more, rather than restricting output so much. So are you now a fan of these Trumpian deficits? They may not be your preferred form of deficit spending, but do you see them still as a net positive?
But of course there is much more at the link.
Right-wing isn’t exactly the right word, but neither is conservative nor libertarian. Let’s put it this way: in which American city is the principle of sexual dimorphism so pronounced and so accepted and so built into the city’s most fundamental sector (Hollywood)? In which American city is risk-taking and the resultant income inequality so much a part of the founding culture, in this case the business of entertainment? Entertainment is also relatively free of government interference and subsidy, and has been so from its beginnings in American history. In which city are the market outcomes — the winners and losers — so accepted as the final verdict of relevance?
Dare I say Los Angeles (and environs) is the answer to all of these questions, or at least in the very top tier of answers?
Note that defense spending also has long been a foundational sector for much of southern California.
Of course I am well aware of the actual politics of L.A., and all the more of Santa Monica. Sometimes I toy with a “portfolio” theory of politics, namely that if your city or region’s core sector is quite capitalistic, your city’s politics will be fairly left-wing as a kind of expressive recompense against daily life.
Which American city or region is most like Denmark? How about the Washington, D.C. area? Very well educated, a thick middle class, job stability through government, and not many billionaires. It is easy enough to live here and feel like a libertarian!
3. Spy lizards? (speculative, very speculative)
5. Small steps toward a much better world, Norwegian style: “The northern Norwegian city of Bodø has approved ambitious plans to literally move its airport just 900 meters, thereby opening up valuable new waterfront land for redevelopment. If also approved by Parliament, it will be the biggest land-based construction project ever undertaken in Northern Norway, and further boost a city that’s already blossoming.”
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and it is not just about male wage stagnation:
The researchers Guido Matias Cortes, Nir Jaimovich and Henry E. Siu split jobs into categories, with “cognitive” occupations relying on brain power corresponding closely to what many call white-collar jobs. Their worrying result for men is this: In 1980, 66 percent of college-educated men worked in these cognitive occupations. By 2000, that had fallen to 63 percent. Those three percentage points may not sound like a major change, but that’s over a 20-year period when the American economy became wealthier and more Americans became educated. Men also grew older as a group during this time, which should have propelled them into more white-collar jobs. Relative to those expectations of improvement, the retrogression is startling.
…One possible reason for this shift is that more jobs demand good social skills. The data show that the growing demand for social skills, as measured by job characteristics and employment ads, has matched where women have gained relative to men in the workplace. The researchers suggest the scientific evidence shows that women have on average stronger skills in empathy, communication, emotion recognition and verbal expression, and corporate America is valuing those qualities all the more.
There is much more at the link.