Month: June 2019

No sweet spot for Singapore in US-China tensions

That is the title of the new and remarkable Bilahari Kausikan Op-Ed in The Straits Times.  I will serve up some bits, and please note this is now the world we live in:

Evoking the Long March [by Xi] is intended to prepare the Chinese people for a prolonged struggle with the US. It was, in effect, a tacit admission of the CCP’s mistakes with the consequent need for a retreat, while holding out the promise of ultimate victory…

The Chinese have long memories. Despite our constant denials, they still consider Singapore a “Chinese country” and may feel entitled to our support and will not quickly forget if we are regarded as insufficiently helpful in their time of need.

Some in the Trump administration also seem inclined to view the issue in racial terms. As the only ethnic Chinese-origin majority sovereign state outside greater China, we may be subject to special scrutiny.

What Singaporeans need to understand better is that, under present circumstances, there may be no sweet spot we can occupy that will keep both the Chinese and the Americans simultaneously happy. There is no silver bullet, and it is a fool’s errand to look for one.

Neither can we just lie low and hope for the best. You may not look for trouble but trouble may come looking for you. And trouble is all the more likely to seek you out if either side thinks you are, or can be, intimidated.

We must have the courage to pursue our own national interests. Sometimes our national interests may lead us to tilt one way, sometimes the other. But it must always be our national interest that guides us and nothing else.

Both the Chinese and Americans may not be too happy with us for pursuing our own interests. But Singapore does not exist to give joy to American or Chinese hearts. So long as neither side is so unhappy that it dismisses us as unredeemable, we can live with their unhappiness and manage it…

Our more complex domestic politics is a complication. I see still faint but distinct signs that some section of our population – how large, I do not know – either for transactional economic reasons, or unthinking ethnic sympathies, or sheer chauvinism, is beginning to look at the current US-China tensions through a racial lens.

As US-China competition heats up, this tendency may be accentuated. This is the greatest danger to Singapore in this new phase of US-China competition. It is still at a nascent stage and must be checked, if necessary by the prophylactic exercise of the coercive powers that are the legitimate monopoly of the state, before external and internal forces act and react with each other in a vicious spiral downwards.

If we hold together, we can manage the external complications. If we do not, and the social compact which is the foundation on which modern Singapore was built is strained or broken, these internal stresses may make the external complications unmanageable.

Since this period of US-China tensions will be prolonged, this is not a challenge that lends itself to definitive solutions. Managing it requires continual vigilance and periodic decisive action. It is our own Long March.

Do read the whole thing, as I said above this is now the world we live in.

W.E.B. Du Bois sentences to ponder

Du Bois was born in 1868, the year that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg had its debut: he died in 1963, when “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was on the charts.  His longevity gives us, I think, a sense that he is more modern than he really was.  It can be startling to realize, for example, that when Khruschev gave him the Lenin Prize in 1959, Du Bois was being honored in the name of a man two years his junior.

That is from Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.

Cosmopolitanism vs. nationalism

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  It is hard to excerpt, but here is the closing bit:

The best way for that to happen is to let practical nationalism reign, while at the margin seeking to soften it with moral cosmopolitanism. Both perspectives are valuable, and neither can be allowed to dominate. Each perspective, standing on its own, is intellectually vulnerable, yet the two outlooks together are not quite fully harmonious. It is this dynamic clash, however, that helps to account for the strength of each.

Try explaining all that, and its required background knowledge, in a 280-word tweet. Yet much of the world manages a pretty fruitful balance between moral cosmopolitanism and practical nationalism. There is a wisdom embodied in this lived experience which neither pundits nor philosophers can convey.

A tempered and centrist cosmopolitanism won’t always command the strongest loyalties, nor will practical nationalism always look so pretty. If we can accept that reality, then maybe we can stop throwing stones at each other.

*The New Right: A Journey to the Fringe of American Politics*

That is the new book by Michael Malice, and I have to say it will go down as one of the more important albeit objectionable books of this year.  Imagine an well-informed anthropological treatment of Gamergate, PUA, Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, Milo, and all the rest of “that stuff,” both its history and how it fits together.

Just to be clear, this book is not written from the perspective of a journalist trying to make these movements look weird, rather it is written from the perspective of an anarchist trying to make these movements look (relatively) normal.  You might find that approach is not affiliated with the proper mood.  I don’t get the sense that Malice is “one of them,” but his “objectivity” might not be the right kind of objectivity.  I’m not going to try to resolve that meta-issue here, I’ll just say that a “normalizing” treatment of “the New Right” has some descriptive virtues, and you might end up more scared and more concerned than if you read a journalistic expose.  That said, I am not sure the author really grasps the non-niceness of so much of this stuff, or the import of that non-niceness.

Every page of this book is interesting, and so I am going to recommend it.  Here is a Kirkus Review, otherwise MSM doesn’t seem to be touching this one at all.  Here is the Amazon link, 79 reviews and an average of five stars.  The reviews themselves are not entirely reassuring.

I thank an MR reader for the pointer.

Sunday assorted links

1. “Overall, our findings on tax-rate and tax-base avoidance of U.S. multinational and domestic firms explain the recent evidence that effective tax rates of domestic firms are at least as low as effective tax rates of multinational firm.

2. The Tony Soprano house is for sale (NYT).

3. “Trump’s four-minute video about the North’s bright future, showed to Kim in Singapore, may have had more effect than observers once suggested. By now it’s clear that rich and poor North Koreans were sorely disappointed by the breakdown in talks with Trump.”  Story here.

4. The history of the Laffer Curve.  It’s worth noting that Laffer was correct about many of the original applications of the curve.  Should there really have been Swedish and British marginal tax rates of 102 or even 95 percent?  How soon people forget.

5. The law and economics of literary fan art.

The NYTimes is Woke

Many trends develop over decades but I’ve never seen change so rapid as the breathtaking success of what one might call social justice concerns. Beginning around 2010-2014 there appears to have been a inflection point. Here from Zach Goldberg on twitter are various words drawn from Lexis-Nexis.









And here from David Rozado is a longer list all drawn from the NYTimes. Rozado has a page where you can graph the trends for words of your own choosing.


The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges & Universities

We briefly cover higher education in Why Are the Prices So D*mn High? If you are interested in a longer treatment that covers many more issues I highly recommend Archibald and Feldman’s The Road Ahead for America’s Colleges & Universities. Archibald and Feldman reach the same conclusion we do with regard to dysfunction versus the cost disease:

We have offered two contending viewpoints about the drivers of college cost, and we have made a judgement between them. The dysfunction stories form the dominant narrative in public discussion, but we think it’s a story with weak foundations. Yet we agree that the status quo likely costs more than it could or perhaps should. You might notice that we mounted no defense of lazy rivers. Still, the cost consequences of true excesses probably are small. The major drivers of college costs are as follows (1) higher education is a service, and productivity growth in services lags productivity growth in goods; (2) higher education relies on highly educated service providers, and the income gap in favor of highly-educated workers has grown; and (3) higher education institutions adopt technology to meet a standard of care, even if meeting that standard pushes up cost.

In addition to discussing costs, Archibald and Feldman look at the demand for college, the role of the federal and state governments, online education, policy proposals such as free college and much more. Throughout their book they are data driven, analytic, and judicious.

The dark side of the internet, in a nutshell?

As incentives to take higher actions increase—due to higher stakes or more manipulable signaling technology—more information is revealed about gaming ability, and less about natural actions. We explore a new externality: showing agents’ actions to additional observers can worsen information for existing observers. Applications to credit scoring, school testing, and web searching are discussed.

That is from a forthcoming JPE paper “Muddled Information,” by Alex Frankel and Navin Kartik.

Heritability of lifetime earnings

Using twenty years of earnings data on Finnish twins, we find that about 40% of the variance of women’s and little more than half of men’s lifetime labour earnings are linked to genetic factors. The contribution of the shared environment is negligible. We show that the result is robust to using alternative definitions of earnings, to adjusting for the role of education, and to measurement errors in the measure of genetic relatedness.

That is from a newly published paper by Ari Hyytinen, Pekka Ilmakunnas, Edvard Johansson, and Otto Toivanen.

How much of education is signaling? — yet again

The social and the private returns to education differ when education can increase productivity and also be used to signal productivity. We show how instrumental variables can be used to separately identify and estimate the social and private returns to education within the employer learning framework of Farber and Gibbons (1996) and Altonji and Pierret (2001). What an instrumental variable identifies depends crucially on whether the instrument is hidden from or observed by the employers. If the instrument is hidden, it identifies the private returns to education, but if the instrument is observed by employers, it identifies the social returns to education. Interestingly, however, among experienced workers the instrument identifies the social returns to education, regardless of whether or not it is hidden. We operationalize this approach using local variation in compulsory schooling laws across multiple cohorts in Norway. Our preferred estimates indicate that the social return to an additional year of education is 5%, and the private internal rate of return, aggregating the returns over the life-cycle, is 7.2%. Thus, 70% of the private returns to education can be attributed to education raising productivity and 30% to education signaling workers’ ability.

That is from a new NBER Working Paper by Gaurab Aryal, Manudeep Bhuller, and Fabian Lange.  You can enter “education signaling” into the MR search function for much more on this ongoing debate.