Category: Current Affairs

Russian rebound

David Warsh offers a good, balanced piece, with good links, on Russia’s recent economic performance, seven percent growth last year, a bright spot in Europe. A third of Muscovites earn a normal European wage.

I visited Moscow last month, it seemed poorer to me than Mexico City. Even more worrisome, there was a noticeable apathy about politics, only the Mafias seem to care. My wife is Russian, so I had good chances to meet and talk with other Russians, a select group no doubt, but even they had little passion to work for political improvement.

Stay tuned. And don’t ask about the provinces.

When is word of mouth important?

I have found some data on the relative importance of word of mouth for various purchases and choices. The first number in each category is what percent of respondents say they rely on other people, as one of the three best sources of information in a given area. The second number is the percent relying primarily on advertising:

Restaurants: 83, 35 (word of mouth is huge, by the way check out my ethnic dining guide)

Places to visit: 71, 33

Prescription drugs to try: 71, 21 (the prevalence of word of mouth here surprised me, do men really boast to other men about the effectiveness of Viagra? Or do women spread the word?)

Movies to see: 61, 67 (this time I am surprised that advertising is so effective, I guess that is why they spend $30 million marketing the average Hollywood movie)

Videos to rent or buy: 59, 45

Retirement planning: 58, 9

Clothes to buy: 50, 59

Finding a new job: 47, 54 (I am surprised that ads are so potent here)

Computer equipment: 40, 18

Web sites to visit: 37, 12

From the new book The Influentials, by Ed Keller and Jon Berry. The book is about the ten percent of the American population that (supposedly) tells the other ninety percent what to do, I assume that bloggers fall into the former category. The material is a bit fluffy, still unlike many marketing books it does have useful facts and figures. By the way, we are told that word of mouth is important for books too, although there is no single simple figure to cite.

Our shrinking arms industry?

The Washington Post reports on our shrinking arms industry:

A few numbers tell the story…the aerospace-defense industry workforce shriveled from 1.3 million in 1989 to 689,000 at the end of 2002, roughly the number employed in 1953…Between 2002 and 2008 nearly half of the industry’s workforce…will be eligible for retirement…universities are churning out few replacements.

Overall military spending is up, but only for 2003 has the weapons procurement allocation gone up. Here is a piece on the beginnings of the downward trajectory in some categories of spending.

But I don’t buy the Post’s account as stated. Procurement more generally is up across the agencies and stable within DOD, see this recent GAO report. In fact it appears that “A few numbers” do not tell the story. For the DOD, information technology accounts for 46 percent of the procurement total over the last five years. We are spending to make weapons smarter, not spending less on weapons. Not to mention that ship spending has risen 128 percent, again over the last five years. Aircraft spending is up 42 percent.

In part we simply like the weapons we have, and thus we are building more of them, or upgrading their quality. And since we are investing in information technology, it is hard to argue we are mortgaging our future. If we are underspending in any areas, look toward Iraqi reconstruction and intelligence, two areas where our failures have been obvious.

The psychology of defeat — hope for Iraqi reconstruction?

Here is a money quote from The Culture of Defeat by Wolfgang Schivelbusch:

“Losers who have completed the first stage of reaction to defeat – surprise, dismay, disbelief, and the search for scapegoats – begin to examine their history for the deeper reasons behind their failure. Forced to admit that they took a wrong turn somewhere, they try to ascertain where they strayed from the true path.” (p.69)

It gets better: “…conquered societies…strive to emulate the victors…” (from the inner flap).

There are some good examples: France after the Franco-Prussian War, Germany and Japan after World War II, parts of Germany after the invasion of Napoleon, or Russia after the 1905 war with Japan. Attaturk and Turkey, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Or Argentina after the Falklands. But I can think of exceptions. Did losing territory cause Peru to mimic Chilean organization? Did it do much for Bolivia? Poland has lost many wars, but fortunately stuck to its course rather than emulating the Russians.

What about contemporary Iraq? Here is a good review of Schivelbusch that raises the right questions. In any case reading his book made me more optimistic, though I would still like a comparative study of the successes and failures. Thorough defeat appears to be one key for later success. Schivelbusch suggests that allowing for a certain feverish insanity — including crazed dancing — after the defeat, might be another.

African food scandal

Zambia, Lesotho, Malawi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe — not exactly marvels of good nutrition — have been destroying food shipments from America. Why? This will sound like a sick joke, but they are afraid of genetically-modified foods. These countries have now expressed official opposition to American food entering their country, at a time when almost 3 million Zambians, to cite just one example, desperately need food aid.

There is another villain in the story, namely some of the European nations. The Africans fear that if they accept genetically-modified foods, the seeds will mix with their current crops. Europe will then be reluctant to import African foodstuffs. By the way, Greenpeace opposes the food shipments as well.

Peter Pringle offers a good survey of the debates on genetically-modified foodstuffs.

Even the Christians Can’t Agree

Lew Rockwell complains that the version of the Ten Commandments that Alabama Judge Moore chose for his 5,300 pound monument is “a sectarian one promoted by Calvinist and fundamentalist Protestants, but rejected by Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. (The difference has to do with whether the first commandment should be split into two parts to seem to justify iconoclasm.)”

The Right argues that the first amendment is all about defending atheism when, as Rockwell’s comment illustrates, it’s really about defending the religionists from themselves.

China’s trade deficit

“While China is running a large ($100 bn in 2002) bilateral trade surplus with the US, its trade balance with the rest of the world is in deficit, at $75 bn.” From today’s Financial Times (registration required), Morris Goldstein and Nicholas Lardy argue that only a modest revaluation of the renminbi [yuan] is needed.

Japan is the biggest source of China’s trade deficit, so clearly a high-wage country can have a trade surplus with China, are you listening trade protectionists?

Larry Summers in The New York Times

The New York Times Magazine from today (registration required) has a good article on Larry Summers as President of Harvard. His bracing manner, and willingness to engage in frank debate, is more popular with students than with faculty. He wants a world where an ignorance of scientific knowledge is as embarrassing as ignorance of a Shakespeare play. He thinks knowledge of literature is more important than a knowledge of the latest in literary theory. He is still thinking about whether affirmative action is a good idea, he would like to see more facts. Some parts of Harvard, including some of the sciences, appear to be moving to Allston and out of Cambridge. Most of all, he is willing to make enemies to be an effective leader.

The Harvard Crimson discusses whether Larry is a secret conservative. Slate gives a useful and analytical biography. And here is a piece on how Summers likes to ask tough questions of his faculty.