Category: Current Affairs

*Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan*

The demographic legacy of four centuries of Slavic settlement is striking along Kazakhstan’s 6,846-kilometre frontier with Russia, the world’s second longest land border.  In 2014, when the conflict erupted in Ukraine, Russians formed 22 per cent of Kazakhstan’s population nationwide (by 2018, that figure had fallen to just below 20 per cent), but in many places in the borderlands they were in large majorities: in Ust-Kamenogorsk, 67 per cent of people were Russians, while in the town of Ridder, further north towards the frontier, the figure was 85 per cent…

By 2018, the share of Kazakhs in the population had risen from 40 per cent to 67.5 percent and the share of the other largest ethnic group, Russians, had fallen from 37 per cent to 19.8 percent.  Kazakhstan’s two main cities used to be predominantly Russians; now Kazakhs dominate.  Astana’s Kazakh population hit 78 per cent in 2018, up from 17 per cent at independence (when it was still a backwater called Akmola and not yet Kazakhstan’s capital); Almaty’s Kazakh population had risen from 22 per cent to 60 per cent.

The government is also working hard to “Kazakhify” towns along the Russian border.

That is all from the new and excellent book by Joanna Lillis.  You may also have read that Nazerbayev, who has held power in Kazakhstan since 1991, announced yesterday that he is stepping down, hoping to take on more of a Lee Kuan Yew role in the country.

Alan Krueger, RIP

You probably all know by now that Alan Krueger has passed away, nonetheless it seems appropriate to offer tribute and condolences.  Alan and I were together in the same year at Harvard in the economics Ph.D program, and although he was on track to win a Nobel Prize and I have read most of his papers and books, I always associate him more with those years in the mid-1980s.  I am very saddened by the news.

British sentences to ponder

But holding the government to account is one thing, setting the agenda another. The Brexit crisis has shown this. In January and February, when MPs tabled amendments that would truly empower backbenchers — by giving them control of what is debated in the Commons, or setting up voting systems for MPs to rank different Brexit options — the majority stepped back. “I think the most remarkable thing is how unsuccessful we’ve been in taking control,” says one shadow minister. Faced with a choice of now or never, MPs generally decided it couldn’t be now. Only this week did they become bolder, rejecting May’s deal for a second time. In response, the government agreed to facilitate a vote on different Brexit options if they rejected it a third time.

“The last two years have thrown into sharp relief the things that parliament is good at and the things it is not good at. It is generally not good at legislating,” says Lisvane. “The things that have gone really well are select committees.”

That is from a long FT piece by Henry Mance, perhaps the best article I have read this week.

Should climate change limit the number of kids you have?

No, or so says I in my latest Bloomberg column., here is the closing bit:

Let’s not give up by ceasing to have children.

Finally, leave aside the implausibility of these arguments and consider their assumptions. What you’ll find is zero-sum thinking, negative value judgments about large families, and an attempt to use guilt and shame to steer social and environmental policy. I suspect that is why these arguments are finding some traction, not because they are the result of any careful cost-benefit calculations.

So if you are both worried about climate change and considering starting a family, I say: Put aside the unhelpful mess of emotions some participants in this debate are trying to stir up. Instead, focus on how your decision might boost future innovation. As a bonus, you might find that one of the better approaches to climate change is actually pretty fun.

Super simple arguments, with credit to Paul Romer and Alex T. and Bryan and Ross Douthat as well.

The Daily Beast Hit Piece on Amazon

The Daily Beast hit piece on Amazon, ‘Colony of Hell’: 911 Calls From Inside Amazon Warehouses, insinuates (while denying that this is what they are doing) that Amazon warehouses are an unsafe space that generates mental health problems. The upshot is this:

Between October 2013 and October 2018, emergency workers were summoned to Amazon warehouses at least 189 times for suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mental-health episodes, according to 911 call logs, ambulance and police reports reviewed and analyzed by The Daily Beast.

The reports came from 46 warehouses in 17 states—roughly a quarter of the sorting and fulfillment centers that comprise the company’s U.S. network. Jurisdictions for other Amazon warehouses either did not have any suicide reports or declined requests for similar logs.

So how many employees does this cover? No answer. Note also the weasel words, jurisdictions which “did not have any suicide reports or declined requests” are not included. So that could mean that a majority of fulfillment centers reported no serious mental health problems. Basically the report is devoid of useful information.

As far as I can tell from the report, there were no actual suicides at Amazon warehouses during this time period. Nevertheless, let’s try to do some back of the envelope calculations. Amazon has about 125,000 full time workers in its fulfillment centers but in a typical year they will double that during holiday season so say 250,000 employees in a year. The US suicide rate for working age adults is 17.3 per 100,000 so over five years we would expect 216 suicides and many more “suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mental-health episodes”. Indeed, the National Institute for Mental Health reports that 0.5% of Americans aged 18 years or over attempted suicide in 2016 so we would expect 6,250 suicide attempts in a population of Amazon-sized workers (250000*.005*5=6,250). Of course, the Daily Beast’s numbers don’t cover all fulfillment centers, most suicides wouldn’t occur at work and there are a variety of other issues so cut these numbers down as you see fit. For any reasonable estimate, however, there is no reason, in this data, to think that Amazon’s numbers are in any way unusual for a large employer.

The CDC does have some limited data on suicide by occupation and the real outlier is the construction and extraction industry which has a suicide rate over 50 per hundred thousand, several times the national average.

Moreover, if you really want to find out what it’s like to work at an Amazon fulfillment center don’t look at anecdotes, look instead to the over 5 thousand reviews for this job at Indeed.com which gives Amazon 3.6 stars out of 5. Not stellar but not bad either. Costco, one of the most beloved and best ranked employers in the United States, has a rating of 4.2.

It’s obvious that there is a political impetus to go after big tech companies. Whatever one’s thoughts about that, we shouldn’t let propaganda infect our decisions.

The college bribery scandal

Of course universities have long taken money to let in unqualified applicants, what is happening here is they are going after the local rate busters.  Here is my Bloomberg column on this topic, excerpt:

My second worry is that the number of bribery cases suggests that many wealthy Americans perceive higher education to be an ethics-free, law-free zone where the only restraint on your behavior is whatever you can get away with.

I suspect that most of those charged in this case never expected they might have to answer in court for their actions. To consider a parallel situation: I wouldn’t dream of shoplifting. Yet I sometimes drive 32 mph in a 25 mph speed zone. Like most of us, I draw a distinction between laws we are expected to follow, and laws we aren’t.

To me, the number of people caught up in this scandal indicates that too many Americans do not take seriously the idea that our system of higher education is a set of institutions bound by morality and laws. They take its governing rules as optional and conditional, depending on convenience, much as we do many speed-limit signs.

In this case, those charged are mostly wealthy Americans of high social status, not gangsters. They probably thought of themselves as law-abiding Americans, with exceptions so minor as to be negligible. In other words, this case illustrates what a low opinion America has of its system of higher education. As a university professor, I would feel much better if it had been mobsters charged with these alleged crimes.

There is much more at the link.

It is easier to do this when there is no single dominant company involved

Or is it that real estate developers are somehow especially popular these days?:

New York was riveted for weeks by a debate over whether Amazon should receive $3 billion in tax breaks and other incentives in return for setting up a headquarters in Queens and creating 25,000 jobs. But with far less public attention, the city government has for more than a decade been funneling even more aid to Hudson Yards, a 28-acre complex of gleaming office buildings and luxury residential towers that is one of the nation’s biggest real estate projects in recent years.

In all, the tax breaks and other government assistance for Hudson Yards have reached nearly $6 billion, according to public records and a recent analysis by the New School.

Here is more from Matthew Haag at the NYT,

The third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients

As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different.  Here goes:

Jordan Schneider, for newsletter and podcast and writing work “explaining the rise of Chinese tech and its global ramifications.”

Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.

Craig Palsson, Market Power, a new YouTube channel for economics.

Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.

Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.

David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.

Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.

Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.

Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.

Matthew Teichman at the University of Chicago, for his work in philosophy podcasting.

Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.

Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort.  Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.

Is Germany still a member of the Western alliance?

Germany’s decisions on China’s Huawei, Russia’s Nord Stream 2 & now Iran-backed Hezbollah

That is a tweet from Velina Tchakarova.  Germany will not list Hezbollah as a terrorist group, in case you missed that piece of news.  And the country will not ban Huawei infrastructure as a potential piece of its communications networks.  Furthermore:

The projections peg the [German] military budget to be several billion euros short of the trajectory to meet the government’s goal of reaching 1.5 percent of gross domestic product by 2024. Analysts even see the current spending curve unable to sustain 1.35 percent in the years ahead.

NATO members in 2014 agreed to boost their defense spending to 2 percent of GDP within 10 years.

Italy, by the way, just endorsed China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, the only G7 member to do so.

For all the talk about Brexit, these may end up being the relevant “exits” of our time.  And if anyone is working hard to make Brexit seem like a somewhat less bad idea, I suppose that is Germany and Italy, not anyone in British politics.

China non-fact of the day

China’s economy is about 12 per cent smaller than official figures indicate, and its real growth has been overstated by about 2 percentage points annually in recent years, according to research. The findings in the paper published on Thursday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank, reinforced longstanding scepticism about Chinese official statistics.  They also add to concerns that China’s slowdown is more severe than the government has acknowledged. Even based on official data, China’s economy grew at its slowest pace since 1990 last year at 6.6 per cent.

That is from Gabriel Wildau of the FT — adjust your debt to gdp ratios accordingly.

The complacent class

The students who had taken over her office were a conscious throwback to the activism of the 1960s, when Hampshire [College] was conceived as an experiment in higher education. Now they were fighting for its survival in a different time, and it was not looking good. The college announced in January that it was facing “tough financial trends” and was looking for a partner to stay afloat…

Founded in 1965 and opened to students five years later, Hampshire, a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, is an embodiment of the progressive education principles that arose from the spirit of individualism and self-expression of that era. There are no grades, only narrative assessments, and there are no prescribed majors; students design their own courses of study.

Hampshire and a few dozen other schools founded on similar principles were once the cutting edge of academia. But now, families facing sky-high tuitions are looking for a more direct link between college and career, college officials say. As a result, many of these small, experimental schools are being forced to re-examine their missions, merge with more traditional institutions or, in some cases, shut down.

Here is more from Anemona Hartocollis at the NYT.

The culture and polity that is Arlington, Virginia

Arlington officials say Amazon’s arrival will boost the number of visitors staying in hotels, motels and other lodgings. Starting in June 2019, 15 percent of any increase in its “transient occupancy tax” would go to Amazon, if the company meets specific targets for how much office space the new headquarters facility occupies.

The agreement says Amazon needs to occupy 64,000 square feet of office space by July 31, 2020, in order to qualify for the 15 percent payment. The required amount of space increases to 252,800 square feet by July 31, 2021, and to 5.576 million by July 31, 2034, the last year of incentive payments.

Here is more from WaPo.

The culture and polity that is Brazil

Pentecostalist Churches, like Macedo’s Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus, which promise instant wealth, offer competing live prophecies and other supernatural theatre, and exorcise demons in public. The leading Brazilian polling organisation, Datafolha, estimated them at 30 per cent of the voting population this time around, and they have electoral discipline…

The evangelists are everywhere. In the prisons, in the favelas, among the black poor, but increasingly also appealing to the financially insecure middle classes. Over the last decade, defections from the Catholic population are estimated at 1 per cent per year, but this is arguably accelerating. Bolsonaro may not achieve much else, but he may well prove to be the first president of post-Catholic Brazil, with a new moral order perpetuated by a new television regime. The rest of Latin America is not far behind.

Such is life in Bolsonaro’s Brazil!  Here is the full piece, a letter to the LRB by Christopher Lord, via Alexander Papazian.

The polity that is Oregon

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a first-in-the-nation rent control bill Thursday and called on the Legislature to turn its attention to funding new housing initiatives.

Because of an emergency clause, Senate Bill 608′s rent control and eviction protections go into effect immediately.

The details are somewhat less bad than that may sound at first:

The law caps annual rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation throughout the state, which amounts to a limit of just over 10 percent this year. Annual increases in the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, for Western states has ranged from just under 1 percent to 3.6 percent over the past five years.

The rent increase restrictions exempt new construction for 15 years, and landlords may raise rent without any cap if renters leave of their own accord. Subsidized rent also is exempt.

Here is the full story, via Mike Tamada.