Category: Current Affairs

How gender relations define American politics

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

I view the national-level Republican Party, at least in its current incarnation, as putting forward a vision of strong sexual dimorphism. That is, the underlying presumption is that men and women are very different, and there’s a belief that in terms of norms, behavior and the law, men and women should be very different.

The symbols emanating from the White House reflect this vision. The Trump cabinet and advisory teams have been well-stocked with traditional white men in business suits. There doesn’t appear to have been much deliberate attempt to pursue gender balance. Trump’s manner projects an older American vision of masculinity; he even married a fashion model. His broader patterns of behavior with women are well-known, and very far away from being gender egalitarian.

And the conclusion?:

So how will this turn out? There is a tendency on the progressive left to think that enlightenment eventually arrives, and that egalitarian visions will outcompete the attempts to ramp up gender dimorphism. I’m not so sure. I’m struck by recent research that in wealthier economies men and women tend to show greater personality differences, and that women are less likely to pursue STEM degrees. If we wished to give this story a Shakespearean close, it could be said that politics and sex are two topics that usually surprise us.

Do read the whole thing.

The Kevin Williamson/Atlantic fracas

Many of you are asking my opinion of what happened.  I’d like to answer a slightly different question.  As you may know, America does in fact (partially) restrict a woman’s right to an abortion beyond a certain stage of her pregnancy.  I believe Roe vs. Wade specified up until the 22nd to 24th week for the relevant right, and as of a few years ago eleven states had imposed legal restrictions.

I believe I have never read a piece, much less a good piece, on how these restrictions are enforced in practice, and what happens when such laws are broken.  I’ve also never read a good piece, from any point of view, on how these laws should be enforced, given that a particular law is in place (I have read pieces on what the laws should be).

My suggestion is this: do not focus your emotional energies toward revaluing Kevin Williamson or The Atlantic.  Ask yourself what are the relevant topics you have yet to read good pieces on, and then try to find them and read them.  Over time, your broader opinions will then evolve in better directions than if you focus on having an immediate emotional reaction to the events right before your eyes.  The more tempted you are to judge, the higher the return from trying to read something factual and substantive instead.

Are Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area superseding New York City?

In terms of influence, absolutely:

Traditionally, Americans have thought of New York City as the country’s cultural and intellectual center. That’s no longer the case. New York dominates in many areas, most of all the arts, but those are no longer the most influential or innovative parts of the American Zeitgeist.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that NYC feels higher status or is so diverse or has some of the coolest people.  Right now it is not the place with the generative ideas — sorry!

Here is my bit on D.C.:

The D.C. area is the center of legalistic thinking, which is increasingly important with the growth of government and the regulatory state. Lawyers and policy-makers are our engineers for incentives, so to speak, even if they don’t always get it right. Their efforts are backed by an array of economic, legal, political, public opinion and bureaucratic expertise that is without parallel in history. If, for instance, you talk to the specialist at the Treasury Department on accelerated tax depreciation, that individual will be impressive, even though his or her final output may be filtered through some very unimpressive political constraints.

D.C. has also become an increasingly important media center, where so many rhetorical battles over the future of the country are started. President Donald Trump maximized his influence by moving to the nation’s capital, though augmented by Twitter, a San Francisco product.

I’m not saying you have to like this, in fact it may end in the overregulation of tech and the Bay Area — America’s other generative center — to the detriment of economic dynamism:

But the Bay Area and the D.C. area are built on such different principles, and they don’t understand each other very well. It’s more likely that we see a rude awakening, as the U.S. realizes its two most influential centers have been pulling the country in opposite directions.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column, recommended.

Interview with MbS

There are many excellent bits in this Jeffrey Goldberg exchange, here is one:

MbS: Saudi Arabia is a network of thousands of absolute monarchies, and then has a large absolute monarchy. We have tribal monarchies, town monarchies. Moving against this structure would create huge problems in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi fabric is much more complicated than you think.

Jean Bodin would be proud.  And this:

Goldberg: Do you believe in women’s equality?

MbS: I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So I support women.

MbS does seek to do away with Saudi guardianship laws, and he also seems to fully support Israel’s right to exist.  This is one of the best interviews you will read this year.

Those old service sector jobs (Ansichten eines Clowns)

At first they came for the clowns, and I said nothing:

Then McDonald’s terminated its regional Ronald McDonald program at the end of last year, though it’s vague about the reasons for the move…

One former Ronald, who believes their number was as high as 300 nationally, said he earned $64,000 in 2016, plus a $2,000 expense account, a car, and health and dental insurance, a fortune in clowning.

Now, that sort of income and security may be disappearing.

“Young people have not been excited by clowns,” says Richard “Junior” Snowberg, a World Clown Association founder and a retired professor [sic]. “They’re more excited by entertainment on screens.”

The World Clown Association has 2,400 members, about half its peak membership in the 1990s.

I believe roboclowns are not to blame, nor is it trade with China:

“I’ve been told that ‘you can’t come to the hospital. You’ll scare people.’ That was really heartbreaking,” says veteran Tricia “Pricilla Mooseburger” Manuel, 56, of Maple Lake, Minn. “It’s diminished my income. The damage is done in so many respects. There’s a whole generation that, when they think of a clown, they think of something scary.”

Though, Manuel adds, “people still love us in nursing homes.”

That is from Karen Heller at The Washington Post, via Michael Rosenwald and Mark Thorson.

Bruno Macaes on Trump on Europe

Trump the businessman has been operating in a global economy where, for the past thirty years, Europe has produced a single company that deserves to be called a world leader: the Spanish Zara. For the first time, an American President believes that Europe is a has-been. The secret of Trump’s approach to Europe is this: he will not allow the United States to be dragged down with Europe, even if that means bringing about a new schism in the transatlantic alliance…

Posed with the existential question of its own diminishing global influence, Europeans seem happy to settle for a world where their civilization and their values are protected from outside influence, even if that means renouncing the old “civilizing mission” to export them. The United States could of course reach for a similar bargain, in which case transatlantic ties would be strengthened. This seems unlikely because it would be tantamount to sacrificing its role as global leader and giving China a free hand in all those regions uncommitted to any of the two poles of the new Eurasian world. The alternative is for Washington to insert itself between Europe and Asia, drawing on the strengths of both and appealing to a global public from the position of what could become a common denominator.

…If the West ever falters, America will want to become less Western. As the fulcrum of world power moves away from the West, so does America. That—insofar as there is a doctrine—is the core of the Trump doctrine.

Interesting throughout, as you might expect, read more here.

Solve for the China jaywalking equilibrium

Jaywalkers in China are to be named, shamed and slapped with an instant SMS fine.

And it’s all thanks to cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

In the southeastern city of Shenzhen, police have set up AI-powered boards by crossings.

If you jaywalk, a CCTV camera will scan your face and flash it up on the huge screens for all to see, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, there are now plans to ping offenders’ phones with quick-fire fines as soon as they violate the grim rule.

The AI company behind the billboards, Intellifusion, is in talks with mobile phone networks and local social media platforms to enforce the new system.

To be clear, I consider this report speculative.  But not impossible.

Suicide attackers, the drone wars, and self-driving vehicles

To remind you of the Tempe story:

Police say a video from the Uber self-driving car that struck and killed a woman on [the prior] Sunday shows her moving in front of it suddenly…”The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Moir said, referring to the backup driver who was behind the wheel but not operating the vehicle. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”

From other sources I have read, the chance this was an actual intentional suicide seems to be low.  But I wonder if that is an angle to self-driving cars which we haven’t thought through yet, namely they could become a target for suicidal Luddites, intent on changing the course of history (they don’t like cars or social control).  It may indeed be the case that only a small number of pedestrian deaths will significantly slow down the progress of these vehicles, and thus they may be targeted.  Let’s turn to the sunny state of California:

So far in 2018, there have been only six reported traffic incidents involving self-driving vehicles in California, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. But of those six incidents, two involved angry, violent Californians going up to the futuristic cars on San Francisco streets and attacking.

This is just a speculative thought…

Bill Bishop on the Kim visit to China

The coverage was extensive, he got a lot of face time with Xi, and the general messaging seems to be that the errant junior ally has returned to the correct path. Xi was shown speaking to him confidently and without notes, and listening but not writing anything down while Kim spoke. Kim was shown reading prepared remarks and studiously taking notes while Xi spoke.

The propaganda makes it look like a tributary bromance is budding.

You can subscribe here to Bill’s email newsletter.  Here is Evan Osnos on the visit.

My Conversation with Martina Navratilova

Here is the podcast and transcript, Martina was in top form and dare I say quick on her feet?  Here is part of the summary:

In their conversation, she and Tyler cover her illustrious tennis career, her experience defecting from Czechoslovakia and later becoming a dual citizen, the wage gap in tennis competition and commentary, gender stereotypes in sports, her work regimen and training schedule, technological progress in tennis, her need for speed, journaling and constant self-improvement, some of her most shocking realizations about American life, the best way to see East Africa, her struggle to get her children to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and more.

Here is one bit:

NAVRATILOVA: I just wanted to leave no stone unturned, really. The coach, obviously, was technique and tactics. The physical part was training, working very hard. I’ll give you my typical day in a minute. The eating was so that I could train hard and not get injured. So it all came together.

The typical day, then, when I really was humming was four hours of tennis, 10:00 to 2:00, two hours of drills and maybe two hours of sets. Then I would do some running drills on the court for 15, 20 minutes, sprints that if I did them now, I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.


NAVRATILOVA: You know, 15- to 30-second sprinting drills. Then we would eat lunch. Then I would go either play basketball full-court, two on two for an hour and a half or little man-big man. It’s two on one. I don’t know, those people that play basketball. You just run. You just run.

COWEN: Which one were you?

NAVRATILOVA: It switches. Whoever has the ball is the little man. No, whoever has the ball, it’s one against two. Then you play little man, the person plays defense, and then the big man plays center. It’s not two on one, it’s one against one and then one. Then whoever gets the ball goes the other way. It’s run, run, run.

Then I would lift weights and have dinner either before lifting weights or after. So it was a full day of training.

COWEN: What about 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.?

And this:

COWEN:Billie Jean King once suggested that you use writing in a journal every day to help you accomplish your goals. How does that work for you? What is it you do? Why do you think it works?

NAVRATILOVA: It worked because it really centers you. It narrows it down, whatever long-term goal you have. It becomes more real and more current because it narrows it down in that, “What do you need to do today?” and “Did you accomplish that goal?” You have a big goal. You break it into smaller goals, into smaller goals, until you get into, “OK, what do I do today to get to that goal?”

…Try to be honest with yourself. Be honest but also be nice to yourself. You see that with most champions. They’re perfectionists. You beat yourself up too much. I preach and I try to strive for excellence rather than perfection.

If you strive for excellence, perfection may happen. [laughs] It’s good enough to be excellent. That’s good enough. You don’t need to be perfect because perfection just happens by accident.

I asked her this:

COWEN: What was it like to go skiing with Donald Trump?

My favorite part was this:

NAVRATILOVA: Tyler, you need to drink more water. You’re not hydrating at all.

Remember, above all else, sports is cognitive!  These are some of the smartest humans of our time, even if it is not always the kind of intelligence you respect most.

Will American mass transit make a comeback?

Transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the United States last year, including the seven cities that serve the majority of riders, with losses largely stemming from buses but punctuated by reliability issues on systems such as Metro, according to an annual overview of public transit usage.

…Researchers concluded factors such as lower fuel costs, increased teleworking, higher car ownership and the rise of alternatives such as Uber and Lyft are pulling people off trains and buses at record levels.

I know, I know — if only we would spend more money, do it better, and so on.  An alternative and really quite simple hypothesis is that mass transit is largely a 20th century technology, it is being slowly abandoned, and in the United States at least its future is dim.  The more you moralize about the troglodyte politicians and voters who won’t support enlightenment, the harder it will be to give that hypothesis an analytically fair shake.

And what about the D.C. area?:

Metro’s ridership dropped by 3.2 percent. The trend was largely driven by a 6 percent decline in bus ridership. Dramatic losses to subway ridership, including a 10 percent decline in 2016, had appeared to level off by 2017, when the total number of trips fell by about a percent and a half.

Metro has said about 30 percent of its ridership losses are tied to reliability issues, with teleworking, a shrinking federal workforce, Uber and Lyft, and other factors to blame for the rest.

Here is the full WaPo story by Faiz Siddiqui.

Will there be a trade war with China?

No.  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

Keep in mind that the U.S. is a relatively large buyer in many markets; in economic lingo, it has some monopsony power. So if it cuts back purchases of, say, Chinese toys, China cannot simply reroute those now-surplus toys and sell them to Canada or Indonesia at the same price. This gives the U.S. significant power in trade conflicts. And China cannot throw around its weight as a buyer in similar fashion because it does not import on the same scale.

The Chinese don’t have that many ready American targets for economic retaliation. Aircraft are one of the major U.S. exports to China, where market demand for domestic flights is rapidly growing. Beijing has a backlog of about 400 orders with the Boeing Co. It could try to switch some or all of those orders to Airbus SE, but that would mean delays. Airbus would also know it could increase its prices and the Chinese would have to pay. As a buyer, China doesn’t have as much leverage in this market as it might appear.

The U.S. has many more targets when it comes to restricting foreign investment, as there is plenty of Chinese capital that would love to flee. The Chinese government already limits the activities of the big technology companies and many other U.S. multinationals in China, so they don’t have as many extra sticks in this regard.

The reality is China has margins for responding to the U.S., but they are mostly not in the economic realm.

I thank Ray Lopez for a useful email conversation related to this column.

Opioids are not mainly an economic phenomenon

Overall, our findings suggest that there is no simple causal relationship between economic conditions and the abuse of opioids. Therefore, while improving economic conditions in depressed areas is desirable for many reasons, it is unlikely to curb the opioid epidemic.

That is from Janet Currie, Jonas Y. Jin, and Molly Schnell in a new NBER working paper.

Iranian “CyberAttack” Threatens Elsevier Not USA

Here’s what Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said when announcing charges against a group of Iranian “cyber attackers”:

“We have worked tirelessly to identify you,” Berman said. “You cannot hide behind a keyboard halfway around the world and expect not to be held to account. Together, along with our law enforcement partners, we will work relentlessly and creatively to apply the legal tools at our disposal to unmask and charge you. We will do all we can to bring you to justice. While the defendants remain at large, they are now fugitives from the American judicial system.

So what are these horrendous people being charged with? Stealing unreleased scripts of Game of Thrones and a bunch of academic articles. I am not making this up.

…members of the conspiracy used stolen account credentials to obtain unauthorized access to victim professor accounts, through which they then exfiltrated intellectual property, research, and other academic data and documents from the systems of compromised universities, including, among other things, academic journals, theses, dissertations, and electronic books.

(That is from the press release and here is the earlier press release on GOT, with which this has been combined in many news accounts. The full indictment is here).

In other words, the Iranians were running something like Sci-Hub, the website that some of you have probably used to bypass publisher paywalls to read articles linked to on MR that you haven’t paid for. I don’t defend such actions but neither do I want the federal attorney  working tirelessly to identify you. As crimes go this is a yawner.

Indeed, since Sci-Hub is already used in Iran, one wonders how useful the additional Iranian hacking was. A few companies are also listed as targets, although they turn out to be publishers, a stock image company, two online car companies etc. A few government agencies are thrown in for good measure although that appears to be window dressing.

The federal attorney claims the hacking (hacking not attacking) cost billions which they estimate because:

Through the course of the conspiracy, U.S.-based universities spent over approximately $3.4 billion to procure and access such data and intellectual property.

As Tim Worstall puts it:

That’s just DoJ making up some number to make them look good. The direct losses in this scheme almost certainly amount to zero, bupkiss, nada. Universities certainly haven’t lost anything – the data was copied, not taken. The publishers might have lost a bit, but even then it would only be the revenue they would have got from papers that would have been bought if they hadn’t been copied. A useful estimate of the size of that loss still being zero, bupkiss, nada.

Frankly, this is a joke of an indictment. But headlines like “US Charges 9 Iranians With Massive Cyberattack” are certainly fortuitously timed for new national security designate John Bolton and others who want to take a hardline on Iran.