Category: Current Affairs

Which thinker from the past would you resurrect?

The Scholar’s Stage writes:

If I were to resurrect one person to comment on our current dilemmas, that person would be Hannah Arendt. 

What issue of importance today did she not ponder?  How should Western countries understand and respond to authoritarian states? What makes meaningful community possible? Does bureaucracy, technology, and settled life diminish our freedom?  Why do politicians lie—and what consequences should there be for lying in office? How do political institutions decay? Should we forgive our political enemies? When is violence justified, and when is it not? How can it be controlled or avoided? What should the ‘justice’ in phrases like ‘social justice’ actually mean? What role should guilt, rage, and fear play in our political lives? How should we translate abstract political principles into living realities?

Arendt wrote about all of these things and more. She would have the intellectual background needed to say something useful about the biggest political and social challenges we face today: America’s relationship with China, technology’s encroach upon democracy, the unsettled relation between the sexes, the collapse of American social capital and community life, the strengths and foibles of social justice campaigning, partisanship and ‘post-reality’ politics, and of course, the presidency of Donald Trump.

I wish we could hear her opinions on these things. I wish this because I honestly do not know what her opinions would be. I recognize positions she would not adopt, but I can only guess what she would make of Facebook or consider the proper political grounding for impeachment.

A case is made against several other plausible options, including the Founding Fathers.  One approach is simply to ask who would be good on television, or on social media.  Another is to pick a person whose historical reputation is so strong that he or she cannot be ignored — perhaps that would militate in favor of Abraham Lincoln or how about Jane Austen?  Perhaps attention is the true scarcity that needs to be overcome.

I believe I would revive Confucius, at least assuming everyone would accept that it is indeed the real Confucius.  He is perhaps the person most likely to have an influence in China, and there is some chance he would seek to reverse the current course of political events.

Robert Kagan has solved for the equilibrium

Consider what it will mean if we decide that what Trump and Giuliani have already acknowledged doing in Ukraine becomes an acceptable practice for all future presidents. Sending the signal that other governments can curry favor with a U.S. president by helping to dig up dirt on his or her political opponents would open our political system and foreign policy to intervention and manipulation on a global scale. Every government in the world wishing to influence U.S. foreign policy will have an incentive to come to a sitting president with information on his or her potential political opponents.

That information might be related to investments or other financial dealings in a particular country, as in Ukraine. Or it might have to do with the behavior of a particular individual while traveling abroad — who he or she sees and what he or she does. Other governments will therefore have an incentive to conduct surveillance of political figures traveling through their countries on the off chance of gleaning some bit of information that could be traded in Washington for some favor. Nor would other governments be limited to what they can see in their own countries. They would have an incentive to dig into the lives of potential opposition politicians in the United States, through monitoring their social media and other Internet presences, their bank accounts and other personal information — as already happened in 2016, and which Trump openly welcomed then, too.

Here is the full piece.  I mostly agree, but wonder if foreign governments haven’t already been doing this for some time, but hoarding the information rather than releasing it to select American politicians (no reason to encourage them further, of course).

Not a single child born in the U.K. in 2016 was named Nigel

When he heard that no babies born in Britain in 2016 were named Nigel, Nigel Smith began to fret that the people with whom he shared a first name were a “dying breed.”

“I thought that’s a bit of a worry, really, because most of us are over a certain age,” Smith told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Instead of going into mourning, however, he decided to have some fun with it. He owns the Fleece Inn, near Worcestershire, so he organized “Nigel Night” at the pub.

“We’re going to die out soon, so it’s important to sort of celebrate our Nigel-ness before we all pop off the planet.”

Smith says 434 Nigels — including himself — joined in the festivities on Saturday to enjoy some music, food and celebrating their mutual “Nigel-ness.”

It’s believed to be the biggest gathering of Nigels in the world — though it’s unclear who’s keeping track of this unusual statistic…

All attending Nigels, ranging in age from seven months to 80 years old, were verified with an ID check, and handed a badge with their name on it. Other attendees were issued badges that read “Not Nigel” on them.

According to the U.K. Office for National Statistics, no boys born in 2016 were named Nigel. The name enjoyed a slight uptick with 11 new Nigels in 2017, and eight in 2018.

That number pales in comparison to the most popular name, Oliver, which saw 5,390 new additions in 2018. Other top boys’ names over the last decade included George, Harry, Noah and Jack.

And:

Smith didn’t rule out the possibility that Farage’s role in the 2016 Brexit referendum may have even played a part in the dearth of newborn Nigels that year.

“Despite the man, we are fighting back.”

Here is the link, via Michelle Dawson.

Who again wants ten percent less democracy?

The Prospect has identified 30 meaningful executive actions, all derived from authority in specific statutes, which could be implemented on Day One by a new president. These would not be executive orders, much less abuses of authority, but strategic exercise of legitimate presidential power.

Without signing a single new law, the next president can lower prescription drug prices, cancel student debt, break up the big banks, give everybody who wants one a bank account, counteract the dominance of monopoly power, protect farmers from price discrimination and unfair dealing, force divestment from fossil fuel projects, close a slew of tax loopholes, hold crooked CEOs accountable, mandate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, allow the effective legalization of marijuana, make it easier for 800,000 workers to join a union, and much, much more. We have compiled a series of essays to explain precisely how, and under what authority, the next president can accomplish all this.

Here is more from David Dayen.  Here is my previous post on the forthcoming Garett Jones book.

The white collar job apocalypse did not happen

In a follow-up paper released Friday, another economist, Adam Ozimek, revisited Mr. Blinder’s analysis to see what had happened over the past decade. Some job categories that Mr. Blinder identified as vulnerable [to offshoring], like data-entry workers, have seen a decline in United States employment. But the ranks of others, like actuaries, have continued to grow.

Over all, of the 26 occupations that Mr. Blinder identified as “highly offshorable” and for which Mr. Ozimek had data, 15 have added jobs over the past decade and 11 have cut them. Altogether, those occupations have eliminated fewer than 200,000 jobs over 10 years, hardly the millions that many feared. A second tier of jobs — which Mr. Blinder labeled “offshorable” — has actually added more than 1.5 million jobs.

But Mr. Blinder didn’t miss the mark entirely, said Mr. Ozimek, who is chief economist at Upwork, an online platform for hiring freelancers. The new study found that in the jobs that Mr. Blinder identified as easily offshored, a growing share of workers were now working from home. Mr. Ozimek said he suspected that many more were working in satellite offices or for outside contractors, rather than at a company’s main location. In other words, technology like cloud computing and videoconferencing has enabled these jobs to be done remotely, just not quite as remotely as Mr. Blinder and many others assumed.

Here is more from Ben Casselman (NYT).

The political business cycle, China style

He has pledged to achieve “national rejuvenation”, a goal that is supposed to include getting Taiwan under Chinese control by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But analysts have warned that Mr Xi could be under pressure to demonstrate “progress” on Taiwan much earlier — in 2022, when the Communist party leadership is due to confirm whether to allow him to stay on beyond the end of his second term.

That is from Kathrin Hille at the FT.

My trip to Karachi

Most recently, the city has been beset by a plague of flies — a “bullying force,” says the New York Times, “sparing no one.” The swarm of flies, which I was fortunate enough to miss, was the result of monsoon season, malfunctioning drainage systems clogged with solid waste, and slaughtered animals from the Muslim celebration of Eid. (The same monsoon season, by the way, led to power blackouts of up to 60 hours.) On a livability index, Karachi ranks near the bottom, just ahead of Damascus, Lagos, Dhaka and Tripoli.

There is no subway, and a typical street scene blends cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes and the occasional donkey pulling a cart. It’s fun for the visitor, but I wouldn’t call transportation easy.

And yet to see only those negatives is to miss the point. Markets speak more loudly than anecdotes, and the population of Karachi continues to rise — a mark of the city’s success. This market test is more important than the aesthetic test, and Karachi unambiguously passes it.

And:

Most of all, I am impressed by the tenacity of Pakistan. Before going there, I was very familiar with the cliched claim that Pakistan is a fragile tinderbox, barely a proper country, liable to fall apart any moment and collapse into civil war. Neither my visit nor my more focused reading has provided any support for that view, and perhaps it is time to retire it. Pakistan’s national identity may be strongly contested but it is pretty secure, backed by the growing use of Urdu as a national language — and cricket to boot. It has come through the Afghan wars battered but intact.

That is all from my longer than usual Bloomberg column, all about Karachi.

My take on the Jeffrey Epstein case

I asked myself the question of how those events have induced me to revise my priors.  Here is one bit of many:

I am now, at the margin, more inclined to the view that what keeps many people on good behavior is simply inertia. They are oddly passive in their core inclinations, but will behave badly if given an easy opportunity. And since many of these people probably are not active independent malefactors on a regular basis, their sense of risk may not be entirely well developed. Thus they themselves may have been fairly naïve in their dealings with Epstein, not quite understanding that their invulnerability in everyday life might not carry over to all situations.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column, many distinct points contained therein.

Lebanese/Gaza marriage markets in everything

Political parties sponsor weddings for young members to reinforce their loyalty, and gratitude. Religious and ethnic minorities — which means everyone in splintered Lebanon — consider marriage and procreation essential to their long-term survival. And armed groups encourage their fighters to marry so that their children can become the fighters of the future.

A few weeks before the Maronite nuptials, Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party, oversaw a similar enormous wedding for 31 couples. That was tiny compared with a mass wedding in Lebanon earlier this year that brought together 196 couples and was sponsored by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But the nearby Gaza Strip — where an Egyptian-Israeli blockade keeps people poor and locked in — beats them all, often because of competition between foreign sponsors eager to win friends by expediting marriages.

In 2015, the United Arab Emirates sponsored a mass wedding there for 200 couples. Two months later, Turkey seriously upped the ante, bankrolling a ceremony for 2,000 couples that was attended by officials from Hamas, the militant group that rules the territory…

Fadi Gerges, an official with the league, said it was natural for minorities to encourage their youths to procreate in a country where demographics affect power.

Here is the rest of the Ben Hubbard NYT story, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

They solved for the equilibrium

Yet GWU is taking a surprising and radical step that has prompted deep faculty anxiety: It is choosing to shrink — a lot.

Over the next five years, the private university just west of the White House aims to slash the undergraduate population of its D.C. campuses 20 percent. That would mean 2,100 fewer students, less tuition revenue and tough choices on whether to reduce faculty and financial aid or find other ways to balance the budget.

Many colleges have scrambled in recent times to cope with falling enrollment amid demographic upheaval. GWU provides the rare case of a school announcing in advance, as a public strategy, that it wants to get smaller…

LeBlanc declined to rule out faculty layoffs or other significant steps to reduce expenditures. He said those issues will be hashed out in consultation with faculty, trustees and others in the development of a strategic plan.

Here is more from Nick Anderson at The Washington Post.  Keep in mind that universities cannot do much to control their labor costs in the short or even medium-run, and thus shifts in demand can have a spectacularly large impact on finances.

Brexit update (POTMR)

Boris Johnson is planning to force a new Brexit deal through parliament in just 10 days — including holding late-night and weekend sittings — in a further sign of Downing Street’s determination to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU. According to Number 10 officials, Mr Johnson’s team has drawn up detailed plans under which the prime minister would secure a deal with the EU at a Brussels summit on October 17-18, before pushing the new withdrawal deal through parliament at breakneck speed.

The pound rose 1.1 per cent against the US dollar to $1.247 on Friday amid growing optimism that Mr Johnson has now decisively shifted away from the prospect of a no-deal exit and is focused on a compromise largely based on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.

That is new from the FT, here is part of my Brexit post from August 29:

I would sooner think that Boris Johnson wishes to see through a relabeled version of the Teresa May deal, perhaps with an extra concession from the EU tacked on.  His dramatic precommitment raises the costs to the Tories of not supporting such a deal, and it also may induce slight additional EU concessions.  The narrower time window forces the recalcitrants who would not sign the May deal to get their act together and fall into line, more or less now.

Uncertainty is high, but the smart money says the Parliamentary suspension is more of a stage play, and a move toward an actual deal, than a leap to authoritarian government.

This remains very much an open question, but if you “solve for the equilibrium,” that is indeed what you get.

Brazil is not entirely an environmental villain

It is unfair to single out Brazil for criticism. It is one of the world’s greenest countries: over 60 per cent of its territory is covered with natural vegetation, its agriculture grew based on productivity gains and technology rather than land expansion, and about 45 per cent of its energy comes from renewables, compared with a global average of 14 per cent. It also has one of the world’s most stringent land usage regulations, known as the forest code. How many farmers around the world are required to leave aside 20-80 per cent (depending on the biome) of their native forest land?

That is from Sylvia Coutinho from the Financial Times.

What kind of industrial policy does America need?

That idea is making a big comeback, but let’s make sure we understand the status quo first.  So runs my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Perhaps most important, it should be recognized that the U.S. already has an industrial policy — and has for some time. It is a collection of programs and policies at the federal and state level, many of which are highly imperfect, and so the focus should be on fixing what is already in place.

The first and perhaps most significant component of U.S. industrial policy is a high level of defense spending, much higher than that of any other country. The spinoffs of this spending famously include the internet of course, but also early advances in computers and some later advances in aviation. Today’s orbiting network of satellites is in part a spinoff from the space program, which was partially motivated by military concerns.

It’s not yet clear whether current defense spinoffs will prove as innovative and as potent as those  of the past, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Procurement cycles for weapons can stretch to a dozen years or more, yet technologies are changing far more quickly.

So if I were designing an “industrial policy” for America, my first priority would be to improve and “unstick” its procurement cycles. There may well be bureaucratic reasons that this is difficult to do. But if it can’t be done, then perhaps the U.S. shouldn’t be setting its sights on a more ambitious industrial policy.

I also consider the NIH and the biomedical establishment, and America’s extensive system of state colleges and universities, as part of what is already a quite ambitious “industrial policy,” even if we don’t always call it that.