Month: June 2019

Why China is not close to democratizing

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

It’s also worth thinking through exactly what changes Chinese democracy is supposed to bring. China’s urbanization has been so rapid — it has had more urban than rural residents for less than a decade — that a national election might well reflect the preferences of rural voters, which after all most Chinese were until very recently. If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? China is also growing rich during a time of extreme economic inequality, which may make many Chinese elites think twice about democratization.

Compare China’s situation to that of Taiwan, which is much smaller, does not have a comparable preponderance of rural population, and started becoming democratic in an era when inequality was not so extreme. There was enough of a sense of a common Taiwanese national interest for democracy to be trusted, and furthermore Taiwan has always been keen to distinguish itself from a non-democratic mainland.

What about social issues? One recent study has shown that Communist Party members are more likely to have progressive views on issues of gender equality, political pluralism and openness to international exchange than do the Chinese public at large. Again, if you are an elite among the Chinese citizenry, it is not a sure thing that you will do better with democracy than under the Communist Party.

There are many other points at the link.

*The Great Successor*

The author is Ana Fifield, and the subtitle is The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.  I’ve never read a book that has so much actual information about Kim, most of all about his early time in Switzerland.  Or how about this?:

Kim Jong Un’s efforts to clamp down on illegal drugs did not work.

At the time he left North Korea, Mr. Kang estimated that about 80 percent of the adults in Hoeryong were using ice [meth], consuming almost two pounds of the highly potent drug every single day…

For many North Koreans, taking meth became an essential part of daily life, a way ot ease the grinding boredom and deprivations of their existence.  For that reason, drugs can never be eradicated, he said.

Men are not allowed to have long hair, the concentration camps are reputed to be worse than those of the Nazis, and there is a detailed account of the rise of the “new rich” class in Pyongyang.  Plastic surgery has arrived as well.

Definitely recommended, the book also serves up the inside story on the Dennis Rodman visit to North Korea.  By the way, Kim hates the showiness of the Harlem Globetrotters.

*The Great Cauldron: A History of Southeastern Europe*, by Marie-Janine Calic

This book is perhaps the best general overview of its chosen subject area.  One part I enjoyed were the discussions of how much the Balkans once had numerous transport hubs for Europe, Belgrade being one but not the only example:

Thessaloniki was among the cities that experienced an economic boom.  The city was home to the third most important port in the Ottoman Empire.  Between 1880 and 1912, the volume of goods traded in Thessaloniki doubled from one to two million tons.  There were railway connections to Vienna and Istanbul.  new local factories produced flannel, woolen, and cotton products, as well as cigarettes.  Important exports included leather, silkworms, raw materials for textiles, and especially tobacco, the production of which took off around the turn of the century.  Thirty-eight of fifty large companies in the city were owned by Jewish families…The majority of these families specialized in the import-export business.

And:

Between 1850 and 1913, the value of exports from Serbia increased by a factor of five, and from Romania by a factor of fourteen.

You can order the book here.  I think about the Balkans a great deal (and enjoy visiting there), if only because they are one simple alternate scenario for what the rest of world history will look like.

Whale carrying costs > whale liquidity premium

Or so it seems to me, here is the headline: Washington state waterfront owners asked to take dead whales

Here is part of the story:

At least one Washington state waterfront landowner has said yes to a request to allow dead gray whales to decompose on their property.

So many gray whale carcasses have washed up this year that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries says it has run out of places to take them.

In response, the agency has asked landowners to volunteer property as a disposal site for the carcasses. By doing so, landowners can support the natural process of the marine environment, and skeletons left behind can be used for educational purposes, officials said.

But the carcasses can be up to 40 feet (12 meters) long. That’s a lot to decay, and it could take months. Landowner Mario Rivera of Port Hadlock, Washington, told KING5-TV that the smell is intermittent and “isn’t that bad.”

“It is really a unique opportunity to have this here on the beach and monitor it and see how fast it goes,” said his wife, Stefanie Worwag.

Via Anecdotal.

Sunday assorted links

1. The idea of prosecuting prostitutes’ clients is spreading, including possibly to the Netherlands (The Economist).

2. “Online, sobriety has become “the new black,” asserts a recovery site called, yes, Hip Sobriety.” (NYT. link here)

3. Critique of social psychology, not just the usual stuff.

4. Isn’t this abuse of Haitian orphans a way bigger scandal than most of what comes out of universities these days?

5. Data on what universities mean when they talk about diversity.

That was then, this is now

From Mrs. Bird, wife of Senator Bird, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“Well; but it is true that they have been passing a law forbidding people to give meat and drink to those poor colored folk that come along?  I heard they were talking of some such law, but I didn’t think any Christian legislature would pass it!”

And today’s version?: “An activist faced 20 years in prison for helping migrants. But jurors wouldn’t convict him.”  The activist was giving them food and water, but that law against that of course is on the books, as it was in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s time for aiding fugitive slaves.  Later in the chapter (vol.I, chapter IX) Mrs. Bird continues:

“It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do!  Things have gotten to a pretty pass, if a woman can’t give a warm supper and a bed to poor, starving creatures, just because they are slaves, and have been abused and oppressed all their lives, poor things!

…Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow.”

Here is a discussion of the religious issues behind current “aiding the immigrant” cases.

Zimbabwean passport seigniorage is the best kind of Zimbabwean seigniorage

With Zimbabwe’s economy in shambles and political tensions rising, leaving the country seems the best option for many who are desperate for jobs. But those dreams often end at the passport office, which doesn’t have enough foreign currency to import proper paper and ink.

A passport now takes no less than a year to be issued. An emergency passport can take months amid a backlog of 280,000 applications, never mind recent ones.

Here is the full story, via Charles Onyango-Obbo.  In turn via Garett Jones.

Neglected Open Questions in the Economics of Artificial Intelligence

That is my essay in the new NBER volume The Economics of Artificial Intelligence: An Agenda, edited by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb.  Here is one excerpt from my piece:

These distribution effects [from more powerful AI] may be less egalitarian if hardware rather than software is the constraint for the next generation of AI.  Hardware is more likely to exhibit constant or rising costs, and that makes it more difficult for suppliers to charge lower prices to poorer buyers [price discrimination].  You might think it is obvious that future productivity gains will come in the software area — and maybe so — but the very best smart phones, such as IPhones, also embody significant innovations in the areas of materials.  A truly potent AI device might require portable hardware at significant cost.  At this point we don’t know, but it would be unwise to assume that future innovations will be software-intensive to the same extent that recent innovations have been.

You can buy the book here, it has many notable contributors and other essays of interest.

The new Ben Horowitz management book

What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Own Business Culture.  It is the best book on business culture in recent memory, here is one bit:

When Tom Coughlin coached the New York Giants, from 2004 to 2015, the media went crazy over a shocking rule he set: “If you are on time, you are late.”  He started every meeting five minutes early and fined players one thousand dollars if they were late.  I mean on time…”Players ought to be there on time, period,” he said.  “If they’re on time, they’re on time.  Meetings start five minutes early.”

And:

Two lessons for leaders jump out from Senghor’s experience:

  1. Your own perspective on the culture is not that relevant.  Your view or your executive team’s view of your culture is rarely what your employees experience.

You can pre-order the book here, due out in October.

Saturday assorted links

Chernobyl model this

Now, in a strange turn more than three decades after the meltdown, the exclusion area around Chernobyl is gaining a following as a tourism destination, apparently propelled by the popularity of a TV mini-series about the blast that was broadcast in the United States and Britain last month.

The mini-series, HBO’s “Chernobyl,” fictionalizes the events in the aftermath of the explosion and fire at the plant’s Unit 4 nuclear reactor. It has been one of the highest-rated shows on the IMDB charts.

“The number of visitors increases every day, every week, by 30, 40, now almost 50 percent,” said Victor Korol, the head of SoloEast, a company that gives tours of the site. “People watch TV, and they want to go there and see the place, how it looks.”

Here is the full NYT story by Iliana Magra.  Not long ago I predicted, half tongue in cheek, that the Chernobyl show could end up making nuclear power more rather than less popular…

Why Chinese is so difficult

Worse than you think, I enjoyed the discussion of dictionaries most of all:

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.

Figuring out all the radicals and their variants, plus dealing with the ambiguous characters with no obvious radical at all is a stupid, time-consuming chore that slows the learning process down by a factor of ten as compared to other languages with a sensible alphabet or the equivalent. I’d say it took me a good year before I could reliably find in the dictionary any character I might encounter. And to this day, I will very occasionally stumble onto a character that I simply can’t find at all, even after ten minutes of searching. At such times I raise my hands to the sky, Job-like, and consider going into telemarketing.

Chinese must also be one of the most dictionary-intensive languages on earth. I currently have more than twenty Chinese dictionaries of various kinds on my desk, and they all have a specific and distinct use. There are dictionaries with simplified characters used on the mainland, dictionaries with the traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and dictionaries with both. There are dictionaries that use the Wade-Giles romanization, dictionaries that use pinyin, and dictionaries that use other more surrealistic romanization methods. There are dictionaries of classical Chinese particles, dictionaries of Beijing dialect, dictionaries of chéngyǔ (four-character idioms), dictionaries of xiēhòuyǔ(special allegorical two-part sayings), dictionaries of yànyǔ (proverbs), dictionaries of Chinese communist terms, dictionaries of Buddhist terms, reverse dictionaries… on and on. An exhaustive hunt for some elusive or problematic lexical item can leave one’s desk “strewn with dictionaries as numerous as dead soldiers on a battlefield.”

There is however much more, by David Moser, via someone on Twitter, sorry I forgot.

Laying of cable for the transatlantic telegraph is an underrated achievement

To provide storage space for the huge coils of wire, three great tanks were carved into the heart of the ship.  The drums, sheaves, and dynamometers of the laying mechanism, occupied a large part of the stem decking, and one funnel with its associated boilers had been removed to give additional storage space.  When the ship sailed from the Medway on June 24, 1865, she carried seven thousand tons of cable, eight thousand tons of coal, and provisions for five hundred men.  Since this was before the days of refrigeration, she also became a seagoing farm.  Her passenger list included one cow, a dozen oxen, twenty pigs, one hundred twenty sheep. and a whole poultry-yard of fowl.

That is 1865 we are talking about here, remarkably early (in my view) for laying a cable across the bottom of the entire Atlantic.

The passage is from Arthur C. Clarke’s excellent How the World Was One: Beyond the Global Village.