Month: December 2018

Tuesday assorted links

Scott Sumner on China and trade and me, and why it really is all about geopolitics

The first bit is mine, the second is his commentary, link here:

[TC] This [China] is an issue that predates Trump, and he deserves some credit for doing something to help solve it.

[SS] Everything in that paragraph is completely correct–except the last portion of the final sentence, which is wrong.

Scott’s is a common view in free market circles, so it’s worth outlining why I see things differently.  Like it or not, the United States is the global hegemon.  In my view this is an overall positive, but for our purposes today let’s just take it as given.

If you are the global hegemon, and another country, largely hostile to your political values and geopolitical desires, engages in widespread subversion of your power and influence, you must in some way hit back.  Otherwise you will not be global hegemon for much longer.  And unlike India or the EU, China desires to build an international political and economic order which would destroy liberalism as we know it.  Imagine a world where autocracy is a much more widespread norm, the Xinjiang detentions and North Korean nuclear weapons are considered entirely appropriate behavior, Taiwan is a vassal state, and few Asian countries could allow their media to print criticism of the Chinese government, for fear of retaliation.  Institutions such as the WTO would persist only insofar as they created loopholes which gave China the benefits of membership without most of the obligations.

Did I mention that politics in Australia and New Zealand are subverted regularly and blatantly by Chinese influence and money?  Very likely the same is underway in the United States (and other countries) right now.

You can put aside trade practices altogether, and simply look at the extreme and still under-reported degree of espionage and spying conducted by China, aimed at major U.S. corporations.  It’s not quite an act of war, but it is not the classical model of trade either (“Mercantilism is bad…what’s wrong if they send us goods and we just send them back paper dollars?”).  China is violating U.S. laws on a massive scale, and yes, I am sorry to say, trade is our main way of “reaching” them and sending a message.

Some kind of push back is needed, and I find it striking how much Westerners — and this includes free market types — who have lived in China full-time tend to agree with this conclusion.  It is also striking how many market-oriented economists, usually from the outside, don’t talk much about this issue at all.

That said, I fully agree that Trump has a poor understanding of economics, he is incapable of building the proper alliances, the benefits from Trump’s actions are likely to be marginal, and perhaps the best case scenario is simply that his provocations cause the Chinese to think twice before proceeding further along their current path.

Scott’s comparisons are with the EU and India, neither real rivals of the United States nor intended subverters of the Western economic order.  His p.s. is the part of his post that comes closest to my view:

PS.  There may be a few national security issues with China where sanctions are appropriate. I’m no certainly expert on high-tech espionage.  But that’s only a tiny faction of the trade dispute, and if it is a problem is better addressed through sanctions targeted at specific high-tech companies like Huawei.

I would have written “PS: For China, everything is a national security issue.  It is neither stable nor desirable for the world’s other major power to take exactly the opposite view.”

The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice

The excellent Jason Brennan with a short introduction to his new book, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice:

Imagine a situation in which a civilian commits an injustice, the kind against which you believe it is permissible to use deception, subterfuge or violence to defend yourself or others. For instance, imagine your friend makes an improper stop at a red light, and his dad, in anger, yanks him out of the car, beats the hell out of him, and continues to strike the back of his skull even after your friend lies subdued and prostrate. May you use violence, if it’s necessary to stop the father? Now imagine the same scene, except this time the attacker is a police officer in Ohio, and the victim is Richard Hubbard III, who in 2017 experienced just such an attack as described. Does that change things? Must you let the police officer possibly kill Hubbard rather than intervene?

Most people answer yes, believing that we are forbidden from stopping government agents who violate our rights. I find this puzzling. On this view, my neighbours can eliminate our right of self-defence and our rights to defend others by granting someone an office or passing a bad law. On this view, our rights to life, liberty, due process and security of person can disappear by political fiat – or even when a cop has a bad day. In When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2019), I argue instead that we may act defensively against government agents under the same conditions in which we may act defensively against civilians. In my view, civilian and government agents are on a par, and we have identical rights of self-defence (and defence of others) against both. We should presume, by default, that government agents have no special immunity against self-defence, unless we can discover good reason to think otherwise.

I think it helps in answering this question to think of other countries say South Africa under Apartheid or China today among the Uighur in Xinjiang province…then be consistent. Note that resistance to state injustice may be unwise even when it is ethical.

Price discrimination markets in everything

Parents who give up their phones during dinner will be rewarded with free meals for their kids at one U.K.-based restaurant chain. For the first week of December, Frankie & Benny’s is running its “no-phone zone” campaign in an attempt to improve family interactions at the dinner table.

The promotion was announced following a study that the Italian restaurant chain ran earlier this year, where they studied the dinner table behavior of over 1,500 people. And the results were staggering—almost a quarter of the parents admitted to not only using their phones during mealtime but that they did so while their kids were talking about their day.

Here is the full story, via Tadd Wilson.

Mostly returned books

I have thought about this question for at least twenty years, Elisa Gabbert spells it out (NYT):

My favorite spot in my local library — the central branch in Denver — is not the nook for new releases; not the holds room, where one or two titles are usually waiting for me; not the little used-book shop, full of cheap classics for sale; and not the fiction stacks on the second floor, though I visit all those areas frequently. It’s a shelf near the Borrower Services desk bearing a laminated sign that reads RECENTLY RETURNED.

This shelf houses a smallish selection of maybe 40 to 60 books — about the number you might see on a table in the front of a bookstore, where the titles have earned a position of prominence by way of being new or important or best sellers or staff favorites. The books on the recently returned shelf, though, haven’t been recommended by anyone at all. They simply limit my choices by presenting a near-random cross section of all circulating parts of the library: art books and manga and knitting manuals next to self-help and philosophy and thrillers, the very popular mixed up with the very obscure. Looking at them is the readerly equivalent of gazing into the fridge, hungry but not sure what you’re hungry for.

Is it better to spend time, at the margin, pawing through the “recently returned” cart, or the “New Arrivals” section or for that matter just the regular shelves?  How about the books simply left on tables and abandoned?

The big advantage of the books on the carts is that they usually are not bestsellers.  For bestsellers there is a waiting list, and they are held for another patron, never making their way to the cart.  I say go for the carts.

52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2018

Here is one of them:

35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]

Here is another:

Advertisers place a single brown pixel on a bright background in a mobile ad. It looks like dust, so users try to wipe it off. That registers as a click, and the user is taken to the homepage. [Lauren Johnson]

And:

Those weirdly expensive books on Amazon could be part of a money laundering scheme. [Brian Krebs]

And:

Expensive placebos work better than cheap placebos. [Derek Lowe]

And if you ever doubted it:

There is a small but thriving startup scene in Mogadishu, Somalia. [Abdi Latif Dahir]

Here is the whole list, definitely recommended.  Via Anecdotal.

Fanfare classical music meta-list, and my favorite classical music of the year

Fanfare is the best outlet for classic music reviews I know, and each year I avidly scour the critics’ Want Lists.  These are the items that showed up more than once:

Kyle Gann, Hyperchromatica, “…an extended set of movements…scores for three retuned mechanics pianos…The music draws together every facet of Gann’s style and life-long musical interests: rhythmic complexity, microtonality, extended “tonal” harmonies and voice leading, post-Minimalist surfaces, and more.  The result is a tremendous mix of sheer enjoyment coupled with extremely sophisticated compositional craft.” (Carson Cooman).

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens, conducted by John Nelson.

Murray Perahia, Beethoven, Hammerklavier Sonata/Moonlight Sonata.

John Adams, Doctor Atomic, 2018 recording.

While I can recommend those strongly (I haven’t heard the Adams yet, but didn’t like the earlier recording), my own recommendations would be:

Bach, Violin Sonatas and Partitas, get both the latest Christian Tetzlaff recording and Ning Feng, and:

Paul Lewis, Joseph Haydn, Piano Sonatas 32, 40, 49, 50.

Is the trade war with China over?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The basic problem with any U.S.-China trade conflict is that there is not very much the Chinese are interested in offering, and their intransigence is more than just a bargaining stance. They are willing to buy more American soybeans and manufactured goods (and probably wish to anyway), and they might give U.S. financial institutions freer rein within China. But they won’t dismantle their system of state-owned enterprises, as those companies are among China’s most powerful special interest groups. Nor will China give the major U.S. tech companies free rein in China, if only for reasons of national security and China’s desire to build a surveillance state based on data controlled by China.

Overall, the grievances on the U.S. side are significant, and the possible concessions on the Chinese side are minor. So the most likely outcome is only modest progress in difficult negotiations. It’s also likely that the power and focus of the Trump administration will wane as it deals with investigations from the new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. It might be said that the trade war you now see is the trade war you are going to get. Foreign relations gridlock will set in.

Nonetheless, it’s not quite fair to describe the trade war with China as a problem that Trump started and then pretended to solve. The reality is that hostility toward Chinese trade practices has been building for some time. Anti-China measures have long commanded bipartisan support not only in Washington but also among corporate leaders, who see themselves as victims of unfair Chinese trade practices and espionage. This is an issue that predates Trump, and he deserves some credit for doing something to help solve it.

Do read the whole thing, which contains other points of interest.

What I’ve Been Watching

Image result for bohemian rhapsody filmBohemian Rhapsody—you already know the plot and it’s a tad long but the music is great and Rami Malek is fabulous as Freddie Mercury. The movie culminates with a virtually shot-by-shot recreation of the legendary Queen performance at Live Aid, considered by many to the greatest live performance in all of rock and roll. A little puzzling why they didn’t use the original. Worth seeing in the theater, if you don’t have a home theater.

Crazy Rich Asians – the all Asian cast made it notable and the shots of Singapore are great but it’s only average as a romantic comedy. The leads lack chemistry.

The Last Kingdom (Netflix)—I’ve watched all three Seasons and enjoyed them. Season 3, however, is beginning to lose its legs. The on-again, off-again love affair between King Alfred and Uhtred has worn its course and I swear I’ve seen the jump in the boats and row away under falling arrow scene more than once before. Still, it’s not boring.

Bodyguard (Netflix) —taut British thriller. I enjoyed it and at 6 episodes it’s less of an investment than some series.

Homecoming (Amazon Prime)—sold as a Julia Roberts endeavor. She’s fine but the real star is the mysterious atmospherics and unusual shots and edits. I didn’t realize till the end of the first episode that this was a Sam Esmail show. Ah, now it all makes sense. If you liked Mr. Robot, give it a shot. I haven’t finished the first season and I may not, so I can’t say for certain whether the investment is worthwhile.

Daredevil (Netflix) I have already mentioned. Now cancelled, despite a great third season.

The Man Who Would be King (Amazon Prime) – a John Huston classic featuring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. One of my favorites. Based on a story of Rudyard Kipling which was based on the true story of Josiah Harlan, Prince of Ghor.

Image result for aT ETERNITY'S GATEAt Eternity’s Gate: A stirring and powerful performance by Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh. Directed by Julian Schnabel, himself a noted artist. The camera work–meant to convey a “you are there” point of view and also the sometime madness of Van Gogh–was disconcertingly jumpy at times. Schnabel would have done better stepping back and placing more trust on Dafoe’s performance and also the cinematography of Benoît Delhomme. Oddly, Schnabel insists Van Gogh was murdered when suicide is the accepted account and one that rings true, even to the film itself.

Machines (Amazon Prime)–an excellent documentary illustrating a day in the life of a textile factory in Gujurat, India. The pictures do the work, very little commentary. Dickensian. Especially striking to an economist , how inefficiently the factory is being run. Quality control, inventory management and maintenance are clearly atrocious. I am reluctant to claim something is inefficient but we have strong experimental evidence that management quality in these firms is very low and that better management could more than pay for itself.

If you love prediction markets you should love the art world

Think of art markets, and art collecting, as an ongoing debate over what is beautiful and also what is culturally important.  But unlike most debates, you have a very direct chance to “put your money where your mouth is,” namely by buying art (it is very difficult to sell art short, however).  In this regard, debates over artistic value may be among the most efficient debates in the world.  At least if you are persuaded by the basic virtues of prediction markets.  The prices of various art works really do aggregate information about their perceived values.

I have, however, noted a correlation, how necessary or contingent I am not sure.  The “white male nerd types” who are enamored of prediction markets tend to be especially skeptical of the market judgments of particular art works, most of all for conceptual and contemporary art.

In my view, discussions about the value of art, as they occur in the off-the-record, proprietary sphere, are indeed of high value and they deserve to be studied more closely.  Imagine a bunch of people competing to make “objects that are interesting but not interesting for reasons related to their practical value.”  And then we debate who has succeeded, or not.  And those debates reflect many broader social, political, and economic issues.  And it is all done with very real money on the line.  The money concerns not just the value of individual art works, but also the prestige and social capital value that arises from having assembled a prestigious and insightful collection.

*Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities*

That is the new and excellent book by Alain Bertaud, so many pages have excellent food for thought.  Here is one simple bit:

Cities are primarily labor markets.

Or this:

…large cities are growing at about the same rate as medium and small cities in the same countries or regions.  It seems that cities’ growth rates follow Gibrat’s law of proportionate effect, which states that the size of a city is not an indicator of its future growth rate — that is, cities’ growth rates are random, with the same average expected growth rate and same variance…The population of larger cities keeps growing, but on average, so do smaller cities.  This seems paradoxical, given that larger cities are more productive than smaller ones.  However, larger cities do not play the same economic role as smaller ones do.  They complement each other’s activities.  The increase productivity of larger cities is therefore linked to the existence and growth of smaller cities.  In turn, smaller cities’ economic growth is dependent on larger cities’ innovations and inventions.

How about this:

In 1830…London’s population density had reached a very high density of 325 people per hectare.  By 2005, however, the density of London had decreased to only 44 people per hectare.  The larger decrease in London’s density has not caused a corresponding decrease in mobility.  On the contrary…

I learned a great deal from the discussion (starts p.287) of Indonesia’s “kampungs,” and how the Indonesian has managed their integration with local infrastructure relatively well.  In contrast, this is the common alternative procedure:

The predictable first reaction of governments has usually been to set minimum urbanization standards to prevent the legal construction of these unsanitary urban villages.  The regulations made the situation worse, as they prevented these informal settlements from obtaining normal urban services from the municipality.  They also created a risk of future demolition, which discourages housing improvement that the households would have naturally done themselves.  Eventually, many governments slowly regularized the older informal settlements in a piecemeal fashion, as is the practice in India, for instance.  But the regularization of informal settlements usually had been conducted with a provision that after a set date, no more informal settlements would be regularized.

The outcomes of these successive policies — first ostracism, then benign neglect followed by reluctant integration — has been disastrous.  A significant share of the urban labor force, otherwise gainfully employed, live in large “informal” settlements often with unsafe water supplies, deficient sanitation, and sporadic solid waste collection.

But:

What made a difference [in Indonesia] was a decision taken in 1969 by the government of Indonesia to concentrate its resources on the improvement of the kampungs’ infrastructure without trying to remove or restructure the existing housing, however small or inadequate it was…And, even more exceptional, since 1969 to this day, the Indonesian government’s support for KIP has been unwavering…The government housing policy objective consists of allowing the poor to settle in and around existing villages at the standards of their choice, while the government concentrates its efforts not on housing construction but on gradually improving residential infrastructure and services to all residential settlements.  The policy has proved largely successful.

Later in the book, pp.351-352 have a fascinating discussion of how relatively good urban/suburban policy, and also the fragmentation of municipalities, contributed to the early success of the tech community in Silicon Valley.

Definitely recommended, this is now one of my favorite books on cities, and it will be joining my “best non-fiction of 2018″ list.  Again, you can buy it here.