Category: Current Affairs

How bad is the new German trade deficit?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  The country suddenly faces many problems at once:

…extremely high energy prices, the need to bail out some of its energy firms, the conflict in Ukraine and the resulting promise to boost defense spending, and possible troubles with Italy in the Eurozone over rising borrowing costs. Germany is either going to do very, very poorly, or will muddle through and manage a major turnaround. I would bet on the latter.

And here is another part of the argument:

And then there is what may be Germany’s biggest problem: complacency. In the last 20 years Germany’s primary education system has had a mixed performance, albeit with some improvements, and its infrastructure is no longer perceived as so efficient or high quality. Yet reform was not imperative, partly because things were going OK enough in Germany.

There is a chance that the current crisis will jolt Germany out of its passivity. Throughout history Germany has managed to reverse some very bad situations, as it did after the devastations of the Napoleonic wars and World War II.

Keep in mind that human capital is the most important determinant of national wealth, much more important than the flows reflected in the trade account in any given month or year. If German reforms boost the ability of the country to train students and to put its people to work, the long-run payoffs could be very high.

In general I have found that wealthy societies deal with “one-off” problems somewhat better than most observers expect in advance.  I will be watching closely.

The Destruction of the Georgia Guidestones and the Bamiyan Buddhas

I am saddened and disturbed by the destruction of the Georgia Guidestones. The Guidestones, “America’s stonehenge,” were a set of six large, granite slabs, erected in 1980 and paid for by a mysterious group of unknown benefactors. The slabs were arranged precisely for astronomical reasons and contain inscriptions in multiple languages. On July 6, 2022 the Guidestones were blown up and then, what remained, was completely destroyed for apparent safety reasons.

The Guidestones were not a significant marker of cultural heritage, unlike the 1400 year old massive Buddhas of Bamiyan which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see the parallels between the destruction of the Guidestones and the Bamiyan Buddhas. Earlier this year Kandiss Taylor, a minor candidate for the 2022 Republican nomination for Governor of Georgia, made the destruction of the Guidestones one of her campaign pledges, claiming they were a Satanic evil. Thus, the destruction of the Guidestones was likely motivated by fears and hatred similar to those that motivated the destruction of the Buddhas. At the very least, an interesting art work, created at considerably expense by a group of public benefactors, was maliciously destroyed.

The Guidestones were meant to last for a thousand years and to offer guidance to humanity after a castrophe such as a nuclear war. The Guidestones lasted 42 years. It doesn’t bode well.

Georgia Guidestones in Elbert County, GA.jpg
The Georgia Guidestones, Quentin Melson, Wikipedia.

What exactly is the problem these days?

In my latest Bloomberg column I tried to express the “model” in as few dimensions as possible.  Here is an excerpt:

I am increasingly worried that human success and failure are ruled by taste — the demand side, in economic terms. If there are fewer beautiful and charming residential post-World War II neighborhoods, it is because most people do not want to live in them. If there are fewer movies today with the dramatic impact and compositional rigor of “Citizen Kane,” it is because people do not very much want to see them. It is not that it is too difficult or expensive to make another “Citizen Kane.”

Again, this is not an argument for pessimism. Hollywood movies may be worse, but television programs are much better. Neighborhoods may look less interesting, but the insides of homes are more comfortable. For every potential lost Baroque concerto, there are gains in other areas of life.

Still, it is striking how much the quality of taste can decline — and stay there for long periods.

Social contagion plays a significant role in this process. That is, when some people become interested in a particular genre, many others may follow: Think of the rise of Beatlemania. The process also works the other way: Think of the decline of disco.

The question is why some particular tastes decline, and others rise. There are probably deep structural explanations, but for the most part those reasons are not transparent to our understanding. For all practical purposes, many shifts in cultural tastes are random.

It’s also important to realize that a lot of politics is about aesthetic tastes for a particular set of values, a particular set of people, a particular set of processes and outcomes. There was a series of democratic revolutions starting in the late 18th century, just as there were numerous fascist revolutions starting in the early 20th century and neoliberal revolutions in the 1990s. Social contagion can help explain those as well.

My fear, quite simply, is that we have entered an age in which the popular taste for good political outcomes, and fair political processes, is much weaker than it used to be. You might think that people would always want at least decent political outcomes, but that hypothesis has gotten increasingly hard to defend in the last 10 years, both in the US and globally. Attachment to democracy, for instance, seems significantly weaker, as does love for capitalism. People’s tastes are being pulled in different directions, whether it be the Proud Boys or the extremely woke.

All of which is to say, a rather simple and unglorified possibility is becoming more likely: People have stopped wanting good things to happen.

I realize this explanation is banal and does not hold much emotional appeal. Many people prefer conspiracy theories, or tightly structured theoretical hypotheses, or to pin the blame on some particular political faction, usually one they oppose. Or they focus on some very specific issue, such as climate change.

I view all of those problems, real though they may be, as downstream from the more fundamental issue: Why haven’t our systems of government responded better to whatever particular dilemmas concern us most?

Happy 4th!

Mexican nearshoring is failing

Between 2018 and 2021 the proportion of manufactured goods imported into the US from Mexico barely changed according to data compiled by Kearney, the consultancy. Instead the rewards of the China boycott were reaped by low-cost Asian competitors including Vietnam and Taiwan. Asian countries other than China increased their share of US manufactured goods imports from 12.6 per cent to 17.4 per cent over the period.

And:

It is the only major Latin American economy whose output will still be below pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year, according to estimates from JPMorgan.

Here is more from the FT.  Note that Mexican immigration into the United States is rising again.

What Caused the Murder Spike?

I think there’s clear evidence that the current murder spike was caused primarily by the 2020 BLM protests. The timing matches the protests well, and the pandemic poorly. The spike is concentrated in black communities and not in any of the other communities affected by the pandemic. It matches homicide spikes corresponding to other anti-police protests, most notably in the cities where those protests happened but to a lesser degree around the country. And the spike seems limited to the US, while other countries had basically stable murder rates over the same period.

I agree with Scott Alexander, although I would emphasize a little more the mediating factor of the police pullback.

I would also add that each step in the mechanism–protests lead to police pullback which leads to an increase in murders–is well supported on its own in the academic literature. Step one, for example, is that protests lead to police pullback. In The effect of highly publicized police killings on policing: Evidence from large U.S. cities Cheng and Long document exactly this:

Our regression discontinuity and difference-in-differences estimates provide consistent and strong evidence that those high-profile killings reduced policing activities, including police self-initiated activities and arrests.

That’s step one. Step two is that police on the street reduce crime which you can find from my research using the terror alert level as well as that of many others. Step one plus step two leads to a spike in murders following the 2020 BLM protests.

As Alexander noted, we also have plenty of evidence on a micro level. For example, I showed clear evidence of police pullback–a “blue strike”–and consequent increase in crime in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray protests. Put it all together along with the timing and other evidence and the case is strong that the 2020 BLM protests led to police pullback which led to a spike in murders, especially in black communities.

Photo Credit.

My Conversation with Barkha Dutt

Here is the link, and here is part of the CWT summary:

Barkha joined Tyler to discuss how Westerners can gain a more complete picture of India, the misogyny still embedded in Indian society, why family law should be agnostic of religious belief, the causes of declining fertility in India, why relations between Hindus and Muslims seem to be worsening, how caste has persisted so strongly in India, the success of India’s subsidized institutes of higher education, the best city for Indian food, the power of Amar Chitra Katha’s comics, the influence of her English liberal arts education, the future of Anglo-American liberalism in India, the best ways to use Twitter, and more.

And from the conversation:

COWEN: Many outsiders have the impression that relations between Hindus and Muslims and the aggregate in India have become worse over the last 10 to 15 years. If you put aside particular actions of particular political personalities, and you try to think of a structural reason why that might be true — because normally the intuition is, people grow richer, they’re more tolerant, there’s more commercial interaction, there’s more intermingling — what would be your structural account of why, in some ways, that problem has become worse?

DUTT: You just spoke of intermingling, Tyler. I think that one of the biggest reasons for the worsening relations, or the othering, as it were, of communities that are not your own is the ghettoization of how people live. For example, if there were neighborhoods where people live cheek by jowl — that still happens, of course, in many cities, but it also happens less than it used to, and that is true. We are seeing a Muslim quarter, to give an example, or a Christian quarter in a way that we wouldn’t have before our cities were so ghettoized.

I think that kind of intermingling, of living in the same housing societies or neighborhoods, participating in each other’s festivals as opposed to just tolerating them — those are the structural changes or shifts that we are witnessing. It’s also true that it is tougher for a person from a religious minority — in particular, an Indian Muslim — to get a house as easily as a non-Muslim. I think I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that. Also, the last point is interfaith marriages or interfaith love. This is a deeply politicized issue as well.

While I’m talking to you, in the last 24 hours in the Southern city of Hyderabad, one of our big technology hubs, we’ve had reports of a Muslim family that attacked a Hindu man for marrying a Muslim woman. In reverse, we see Muslim women also targeted all the time if they choose to marry Hindus. This is not helped by the fact that you’ve had several states now talking about what they call love jihad. That’s the phrase they use for marriages that are across religious communities, in particular between Hindus and Muslims.

The percentage of Indians marrying not just outside their religion but also outside their caste — which in Hinduism is a hierarchical system of traditional occupation that you’re born into — is woefully low. I don’t know if I remember my data correctly, but I think less than 5 percent of Indians actually marry outside of their own communities. I would need to go back to that number and check it, but that’s what I remember off the top of my head.

Those are the structural reasons: the fact that people don’t love or have relationships outside of their community, don’t live enough with people of diverse faiths, and don’t participate in each other’s lives.

We used to have this politically correct phrase called tolerance, which I actually just hate, and I keep nudging people towards the Indian military. The Indian military actually has a system of the commanding officer taking on the faith of his troops during religious prayers. The military has multireligious places of worship. It even has something called an MMG, which is not just a medium machine gun but a Mandir Masjid Gurdwara, which is all the different faiths praying together at the same place. We don’t see a lot of that kind of thing happening outside of the military.

Another survey done by Pew reinforced this when it spoke of Indians today being more like a thali than khichri. Let me just explain that. A thali is a silver tray where you get little balls of different food items. Pew found that Hindus and Muslims — when surveyed, both spoke of the need for religious diversity as being a cornerstone of India. They like the idea of India as a thali, where there were different little food items, but separate food items. The khichri is rice and lentils all mixed up and eaten with pickle. The khichri is that intermingling, the untidy overlapping.

We are just seeing less and less of that overlapping. In my opinion, that is tragic. Where there is social interdependence, where there is economic interdependence, where there is personal interdependence is when relationships thrive and flourish and get better. But when they remain ghettos, separations just tolerating each other — that, I think, remains in the realm of othering.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

George Washington Can Be Proud

In recent years formerly proud universities such as Georgetown, Princeton, and MIT have cravenly failed to defend liberal principles.

Justice, however, is about more than punishing and condemning evil. It is even more important to defend and laud the good. So I want to laud the clear, concise, principled, and measured but forceful letter from George Washington University Provost Christopher Alan Bracey and Law School Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew responding to calls to condemn and fire one of their professors.

Dear Members of the George Washington University Community,

Since the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, we have heard from members of our community who have expressed feelings of deep disagreement with this decision.

We also have received requests from some members of the university and external communities that the university terminate its employment of Adjunct Professor and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and cancel the Constitutional Law Seminar that he teaches at the Law School. Many of the requests cite Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, in which he called the substantive due process doctrine a “legal fiction.” Justice Thomas has been a consistent critic of the Court’s legal philosophy on substantive due process for many years. Because we steadfastly support the robust exchange of ideas and deliberation, and because debate is an essential part of our university’s academic and educational mission to train future leaders who are prepared to address the world’s most urgent problems, the university will neither terminate Justice Thomas’ employment nor cancel his class in response to his legal opinions.

Justice Thomas’ views do not represent the views of either the George Washington University or its Law School. Additionally, like all faculty members at our university, Justice Thomas has academic freedom and freedom of expression and inquiry. Our university’s academic freedom guidelines state: “The ideas of different faculty members and of various other members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals within or outside the University from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.

Just as we affirm our commitment to academic freedom, we affirm the right of all members of our community to voice their opinions and contribute to the critical discussions that are foundational to our academic mission.

What should I ask Hanif Abdurraqib?

It will be a conversation, though not a recorded CWT.  Here is Wikipedia on him:

Hanif Abdurraqib is an American poet, essayist, and cultural critic. He is the author of 2016 poetry collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much (published as Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib), the 2017 essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, the 2019 non-fiction book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on A Tribe Called Quest on the American hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, the 2019 poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster, and the 2021 essay collection A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance which received the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Go Ahead in the Rain was on the long list for the 2019 National Book Award.

So what should I ask?

Claims about artillery

In short, US annual artillery production would at best only last for 10 days to two weeks of combat in Ukraine. If the initial estimate of Russian shells fired is over by 50%, it would only extend the artillery supplied for three weeks.

The US is not the only country facing this challenge. In a recent war game involving US, UK and French forces, UK forces exhausted national stockpiles of critical ammunition after eight days.

Such projections are not always accurate, but the broader discussion is interesting throughout.

My excellent Conversation with Marc Andreessen

I’ve been wanting to do this one for some while, and Marc did not disappoint.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is the summary:

Marc joined Tyler to discuss his ever-growing appreciation for the humanities and more, including why he didn’t go to a better school, his contrarian take on Robert Heinlein, how Tom Wolfe helped Marc understand his own archetype, who he’d choose to be in Renaissance Florence, which books he’s reread the most, Twitter as an X-ray machine on public figures, where in the past he’d most like to time-travel, his favorite tech product that no longer exists, whether Web will improve podcasting, the civilization-level changes made possible by remote work, Peter Thiel’s secret to attracting talent, which data he thinks would be most helpful for finding good founders, how he’d organize his own bookstore, the kinds of people he admires most, and why Deadwood is equal to Shakespeare.

And the opening:

COWEN: Simple question: Have you always been like this?

ANDREESSEN: [laughs] Yes. I believe that my friends would say that I have.

COWEN: Let’s go back to the junior high school Marc Andreessen. At that time, what was your favorite book and why?

ANDREESSEN: That’s a really good question. I read a lot. Probably, like a lot of people like me, it was a lot of science fiction. I’m one of the few people I know who thinks that late Robert Heinlein was better than early Robert Heinlein. That had a really big effect on me. What else? I was omnivorous at an early age.

COWEN: Why is late Robert Heinlein better?

ANDREESSEN: To me, at least to young me — see if older me would agree with this — a sense of exploration and discovery and wonder and open-endedness. For me, it was as if he got more open-minded as he got older. I remember those books, in particular, being very inspiring — the universe is a place of possibilities.

COWEN: What’s the seminal television show for your intellectual development in, say, junior high school?

ANDREESSEN: Oh, junior high school — it’s hard to beat Knight Rider.

COWEN: Why Knight Rider?

ANDREESSEN: There was a wave of these near science fiction shows in the late ’70s, early ’80s that coincided with . . . Some of it was the aftermath of Star Wars, but it was the arrival of the personal computer and the arrival of computer technology in the lives of ordinary people for the first time. There was a massive wave of anxiety, but there was also a tremendous sense of possibility.

Recommended, excellent throughout.

Germany is not really with the Western alliance

Germany has proposed basing most of the 3,500 extra troops it plans to contribute to Nato forces on its own soil rather than in Lithuania, significantly softening its initial backing for more foreign forces to be stationed in the Baltics to deter any potential Russian aggression. Vilnius and other capitals on Nato’s eastern flank have in recent weeks called for an increased military presence on their territory. German chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed support earlier this month for boosting the multinational troop presence that rotates every six months in the region. According to western officials, Berlin’s latest proposal is for a brigade to be stationed in Germany and deployed to Lithuania — where it has led the existing 1,000-strong multinational battle group since 2017 — only if needed.

Here is the full FT piece.  And how many heavy weapons has Germany sent to Ukraine by now?  Any?  People, as I have noted repeatedly it is time to wake up on this one — there is something rotten at the heart of the Western alliance, and it has been obvious for many years.