Category: Current Affairs

Don’t relax about nuclear war

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

Each generation has its own form of recency bias, as it is called in behavioral economics. Just after Sept. 11, for example, there was great concern about follow-up attacks. (Thankfully, nothing comparable followed.) Now we worry a lot — maybe too much — about insolvent banks, insufficiently high inflation, and the Chinese shock to U.S. manufacturing.

So what about nuclear war? Looking forward, the reality is that the risks of such a war are quite small in any particular year. But let the clock run and enough years pass, and a nuclear exchange of some kind becomes pretty likely.

I have found that people with a background in financial market trading are best equipped to understand the risks of nuclear war. An analogy might be helpful: Say you write a deeply out-of-the-money put, without an offsetting hedge. This is in fact a very risky action, though almost all of the time you will get away with it. When you don’t, however — when market prices move against you — you can lose all of your wealth quite suddenly.

In other words: Sooner or later the unexpected will come to pass.

And:

Meanwhile, a generation of hypersonic delivery systems, being developed by China, Russia and the U.S., will shorten the response time available to political and military leaders to minutes. That raises the risk of a false signal turning into a decision to retaliate, or it may induce a nation to think that a successful first strike is possible. Remember, it’s not enough for the principle of mutual assured destruction to be generally true; it has to be always true.

Do read the whole thing, which includes a discussion of Steven Pinker as well.

Who loses most from the U.S.-China trade war?

You are hearing claims, hints, implications, or outright statements that the full burden of the trade war is falling on American consumers.  (Maybe some of the commentators are too wrapped up in the “Trump’s action have no merits whatsoever” game?)  I strongly believe that is wrong, as outlined in my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

…there are well-done studies showing that the recent tariffs have translated into higher prices for U.S. consumers. I am not contesting that research. The question is whether those studies give sufficient weight to all relevant variables for the longer run.

To see why the full picture is more complicated, let’s say the U.S. slaps tariffs on the industrial inputs (whether materials or labor) it is buying from China. It is easy to see the immediate chain of higher costs for the U.S. businesses translating into higher prices for U.S. consumers, and that is what the afore-mentioned studies are picking up. But keep in mind China won’t be supplying those inputs forever, especially if the tariffs remain. Within a few years, a country such as Vietnam will provide the same products, perhaps at cheaper prices, because Vietnam has lower wages. So the costs to U.S. consumers are temporary, but the lost business in China will be permanent. Furthermore, the medium-term adjustment will have the effect of making China’s main competitors better exporters.

And:

China has an industrial policy whose goal is to be competitive in these [branded goods] and other areas. Tariffs will limit profits for these companies and prevent Chinese products from achieving full economies of scale. So this preemptive tariff strike will hurt the Chinese economy in the future, even if it doesn’t yet show up in the numbers.

Most generally:

In my numerous visits to China, I’ve found that the Chinese think of themselves as much more vulnerable than Americans to a trade war. I think they are basically correct, mostly because China is a much poorer country with more fragile political institutions.

I should note that I am not trying to defend Trump in this column, rather we need to get the economics right if we are to understand what is going on and why America can exert any pressure at all.  On Twitter, Christopher Balding is one who is getting these matters right.

Returning to the bigger picture, to the extent you wish to criticize Trump’s policies, focus on what China may do as a result of its vulnerability, not America’s supposed lack of bargaining power in the struggle.

Britain’s regional divide is smaller than you might think

In London, the median household has a disposable income before housing costs that is only 21 per cent higher than the weakest area, which is in the north-east England. After paying a lot for very small homes, Londoners have no higher incomes than the UK average. Most inequality occurs within regions not among them — the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that if average regional income differences were eradicated, 95 per cent of UK income inequality would still exist.

That is from Chris Giles at the FT.

Bhutan’s prime minister spends his weekends as a surgeon

Take that Adam Smith!:

Dr Lotay Tshering was one of Bhutan’s most highly regarded doctors before he entered politics last year, and while his prime ministerial duties occupy him during the week, on weekends he returns to the hospital as a way to let off steam.

“Some people play golf, some do archery, and I like to operate,” Tshering told AFP as he tended to patients one Saturday morning at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck national referral hospital, describing his moonlighting medical work as a “de-stresser”.

“I will continue doing this until I die and I miss not being able to be here every day,” he added. “Whenever I drive to work on weekdays, I wish I could turn left towards the hospital.”

Far from finding the two roles hard to juggle, Tshering said he had found that there was unexpected crossover between prime minister and surgeon. “At the hospital I scan and treat patients. In the government, I scan the health of policies and try to make them better,” he said. He has also put healthcare reform at the heart of his political agenda.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.

Price Regulation in Credit Markets

From Cuesta and Sepulveda’s Price Regulation in Credit Markets: A Trade-off between Consumer Protection and Credit Access.

Interest rate caps are widespread in consumer credit markets, yet there is limited evidence on its effects on market outcomes and welfare. Conceptually, the effects of
interest rate caps are ambiguous and depend on a trade-off between consumer protection from banks’ market power and reductions in credit access. We exploit a policy in Chile that lowered interest rate caps by 20 percentage points to understand its impacts. Using comprehensive individual-level administrative data, we document that the policy decreased transacted interest rates by 9%, but also reduced the number of loans by 19%. To estimate the welfare effects of this policy, we develop and estimate a model of loan applications, pricing, and repayment of loans. Consumer surplus decreases by an equivalent of 3.5% of average income, with larger losses for risky borrowers. Survey evidence suggests these welfare effects may be driven by decreased consumption smoothing and increased financial distress. Interest rate caps provide greater consumer protection in more concentrated markets, but welfare effects are negative even under a monopoly. Risk-based regulation reduces the adverse effects of interest rate caps, but does not eliminate them.

Hat tip: Matt Notowidigdo.

What should I ask Eric Kaufmann?

I am doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  I am a big fan of his book WhiteShift (perhaps the best book of the year so far?), here is my review.  Here is Wikipedia on Eric:

Eric Peter Kaufmann (born 11 May 1970) is a Canadian professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist on Orangeism in Northern Ireland, nationalismpolitical demography and demography of the religious/irreligious.

Eric Kaufmann was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His ancestry is mixed with a quarter Chinese and a quarter Latino. His father is of Jewish descent, the grandfather hailing from Prostejov in the modern Czech Republic. His mother is a lapsed Catholic; he himself attended Catholic school for only a year. He received his BA from the University of Western Ontario in 1991. He received his MA from the London School of Economics in 1994 where he subsequently also completed his PhD in 1998.

Here is Eric’s home page.  He’s also written on what makes the Swiss Swiss, American exceptionalism, and whether the Amish will outbreed us all.

So what should I ask Eric?

How upset are the Brits really?

There has been lots of talk lately (including by me) about how unhappy and divided the UK is. The vote for Brexit is often described as a cry of pain from suffering people.

So I was stunned to see the chart reprinted below, which comes from the independent Resolution Foundation think-tank and shows that self-reported British life satisfaction is the highest since surveys began in the 1970s. About 93 per cent of Britons now say they are “fairly” or “very” satisfied with their lives.

Resolution reports “a very marked upward drift” since 2000, despite stagnating satisfaction during the financial crisis and since the referendum. Academic experts tell me they believe these findings. Nancy Hey, director of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, says that, contrary to Britain’s doom-ridden national debate: “For most people, things have been getting gently better.”

Here is more from Simon Kuper at the FT, via Yana.  In management, it strikes me as an interesting and underexplored question to what extent people, when things are going relatively well, turn on each other, or not.

Thwarted markets in everything

Ahead of the second summit in Hanoi, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un requested as part of the agreement between the countries moving forward that the U.S. send “famous basketball players” to normalize relations between the two countries, according to two U.S. officials.

The request was made in writing, officials said, as part of the cultural exchange between the two countries, and at one point the North Koreans insisted that it be included in the joint statement on denuclearization. The North Koreans also made a request for the exchange of orchestras between the two countries.

Here is the full story.  Via Ian Bremmer.

Chronicle of Philanthropy covers Emergent Ventures

Here is the very good Alex Daniels story, here is one excerpt:

One of the benefits of receiving a grant from the center’s Emergent Ventures program, Cowen says, is that grantees will have access to a brain trust associated with the center and with his own well-established contacts among Silicon Valley’s tech elite. Cowen, a highly regarded economist who writes daily on his popular blog Marginal Revolution, doesn’t envision supporting a lot of traditional nonprofits. Instead, he tells the social entrepreneurs interested in applying that it’s OK to score a profit from their idea, calling a quick path to self-sufficiency a “feature, not a bug,” of any plan.

But the thrust behind Emergent Ventures isn’t ideological Cowen says. He’d simply like to get money out the door as quickly as possible to people who have a vision and need some support to bring those big ideas to fruition.

It’s a clear departure from what’s currently in fashion among institutional donors. Foundations often spend long hours tinkering with strategies to change broad societal systems. Some require grant applicants to enter monthslong challenges that are open to public input. Grant makers develop “scans” of the players involved in various social issues, employ consultants to develop measurements to determine success, and set up “feedback loops” to hear from other organizations and beneficiaries of grants.

And:

Emergent Ventures may offer some insight, he says. So, too, could a philanthropy guided by public intellectuals with other perspectives, including Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Krugman, and Steven Pinker.

“I want to see a dozen or 20 other people set up their own version of this,” he says. “I’ll consider this a success if we’ve inspired people to do something similar.”

There is more at the link.

Why a U.S.-China trade deal won’t change much

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here are some bits:

The trade talks are chaotic because a trade deal would be chaotic. By which I mean, it would be difficult to interpret and enforce, not unlike the present situation…

The basic problem is easy enough to state, though it is all but impossible to solve. Many of the U.S. objections to Chinese trade practices, regardless of their merits, are fundamental objections to how the Chinese economy is organized. They are more than mere complaints about easily monitored variables such as tariff rates.

…If a trade agreement is concluded, then, it is likely to have two parts: the parts that are easy to enforce, and the parts that aren’t. To the extent that the U.S. insists on greater Chinese compliance on the easier parts, a self-interested China will respond by shifting more trade onto the difficult-to-enforce parts of the agreement.

The tug of war will never cease. Trump will continue to tweet and move markets. The Chinese will continue to organize their economy to maximize state control. And maybe, over time, we will all recognize the broader truth: In a highly legalistic world, vague and hard-to define-strategies offer a competitive advantage.

Here is a new Reuters piece on how China already had started walking back many of its earlier commitments.

Americans trust their government more than you are being told

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

Americans’ trust in their government is abysmally low, according to both survey data and a more subjective reading of opinions about President Donald Trump and Congress. I hold a contrarian view: Trust in the actual operations of government is pretty high, and the real growing mistrust is of each other.

Consider first that the Trump administration’s record spending and deficits don’t seem all that unpopular, even among those who detest Trump or might favor different spending priorities. No major candidate is campaigning on a platform of fiscal responsibility and restraint, and that is a sign of high trust in government.

I go through the major government programs, and show they are (mostly) pretty well trusted by the American people.  Here is another consideration:

Finally, interest rates on government debt have been remarkably low for years, probably the single best measure of trust in a government; less trusted countries such as Argentina and Turkey have to pay very high interest rates to borrow. The recent rise in U.S. rates is due more to an economic expansion than to rising fears of default.

Here is the basic model:

In reality, as people get older, they rely on government for more and more. While that is indeed a form of trust, it also increases anxiety about those in charge, and their values and priorities. The higher level of anxiety exists precisely because there is, for better or worse, greater dependence. Don’t confuse the resulting nervousness with a lack of trust.

Our leaders aside, we trust the actual operation of government on the ground, so to speak.  These days, what we do not trust is each other:

Many Democrats and Republicans do not want their children to marry into the other political party, for instance, and these preferences are growing stronger. So when one branch of the government is affiliated with one of the parties, as it inevitably is, members of the other party will voice a low level of trust. But their complaint may be about the supporters of that branch of the government as much as the government itself.

Recommended.

John Lukacs has passed away at age 95

Here is a Washington Post obituary.  Yes, he did write a bestselling tribute to Churchill, but more importantly he was one of the last representatives of a particular central European notion of history and culture.  I much prefer the Times of Israel obituary.  Here is WikipediaThe Last European War and Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and its Culture are two of my favorite books by him.