Category: Current Affairs

“You say you want a revolution…”

That was actually a conservative Beatles song of course, and these days the conservatism is popping up in the American lack of enthusiasm for the Hong Kong protestors.  That is the focus of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Since the protests in Hong Kong started two months ago, I have been struck by the coolness of the American response. I am referring not just to President Donald Trump, who has reiterated that the dispute is an internal Chinese matter. Both the social media I sample and the people I know have been fairly quiescent. I haven’t seen that much cheering and rooting for the protesters, nor have the major Democratic presidential candidates made a show of stressing their dissent from Trump on this issue [there is one Elizabeth Warren tweet]…

The relative indifference may be especially hard to explain when it comes to Americans. After all, the U.S. owes its existence to a rebellion against the British Empire, and against especially long odds. America probably would not have won independence without direct French assistance, while Spain and other nations helped to distract the British on the broader global stage.

Remember the enthusiasm we used to have for the Soviet dissidents, or for Solidarity, also movements facing apparently long odds?  In sum:

…Americans are preoccupied with fighting each other over political correctness, gun violence, Trump and the Democratic candidates for president. To be sure, those issues deserve plenty of attention. But they are soaking up far too much emotional energy, distracting attention from the all-important struggles for liberty around the world.

It’s 2019, and the land of the American Revolution, a country whose presidents gave stirring speeches about liberty and freedom in Berlin during the Cold War, remains in a complacent slumber. It really is time to Make America Great Again — if only we could remember what that means.

There is more at the link, including a discussion of recent demonstrations in Russia as well.

Canadian jubilee

Finally, a good news story about credit card debt.

U.S.-based Chase Bank is forgiving all outstanding debt owed by users of its two Canadian credit cards: the Amazon.ca Rewards Visa and the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa. The bank retired both cards last year and said it’s wiping out cardholders’ debt to complete its exit from the Canadian credit card market.

Affected customers can’t believe their luck.

“I was sort of over the moon all last night, with a smile on my face,” said Douglas Turner, of Coe Hill, Ont., after learning he’s off the hook for the $6,157 still owing on his now-defunct Amazon Visa. “I couldn’t believe it.”

After 13 years in the Canadian market, Chase decided to fold its two Visa cards in March 2018.

The bank — which is part of global financial services firm JPMorgan Chase & Co. — wouldn’t say how many Canadians had signed up for the cards or how much debt was outstanding.

Here is more, via Shaffin.

Has anyone said this yet?

Consider the right-wing, conservative, and libertarian movements — is there a good word for them as a general collective?  For now I’ll use “conservative,” while recognizing that the lack of generally recognized standard bearers means that “conservative” and “radical” these days blur into each other, and furthermore conservative and libertarian views have areas of real and significant conflict.

Who is today the most influential conservative intellectual with other conservative and libertarian intellectuals?  (I once said Jordan Peterson is the most influential intellectuals with the general public.)

It seems obvious to me that this is Peter Thiel (admittedly I am a biased observer, for a number of reasons, one being that the Thiel Foundation is a supporter of Emergent Ventures).  Quite simply, if Peter gives a talk with new material in it, it gets discussed more than if anyone else does.

What else might his qualifications be for “most influential conservative intellectual”?

He has had a major hand in the tech revolution, and with his later view that technology is stagnating more generally.

He is the talent spotter par excellence, having had a hand in the rise of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, Eric Weinstein, and others.

A major hand in Trump/populism/nationalism, or whatever it should be called.  I should note that Peter is often highly influential with those who disagree with him about Trump.

Spoke/wrote/co-authored a bestselling book — Zero to One — which also was a huge hit in China.  And the samizdat lecture notes, from Peter’s Stanford talks, were a big hit in advance of the book.

A major hand in the critique of political correctness, and the spread of that critique.

He foresaw that globalization might contract rather than keep on expanding.  The final answer isn’t in yet on this one, but so far Peter is looking prescient.

A major hand in causing people to rethink higher education, through his Thiel Fellows program.

A major hand in stimulating the interest of others in Girard and Strauss, and maybe someday Christianity?

This point has nothing to do with how much you agree with Peter or not.  It simply occurred to me that no one had said this before, or have they?

By the way, here is David Perell on Peter Thiel on Christianity.

Has the time come and passed for negative interest rates?

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

Step back and consider the cultural context. Germany is still scarred by the memories of two world wars, fascism, communism, deflation and hyperinflation: in general, huge instability. Since the end of World War II, however, personal savings and the banking system have been an oasis of predictability and a driver of growth. Many Germans treasure their frugality, perhaps excessively or irrationally, and it has become an important part of the narrative Germans tell themselves about the economic order they have built.

Now enter the ECB, in essence telling Germans (and others) that savings are a bad thing, to be taxed and penalized. The very word “negative,” as in “negative interest rate,” makes the policy hard to sell politically. The German word “Strafzinsen” refers to a penalty rate, but the root “Straf” also refers to punishment, and it was used effectively by Franz Kafka in his famous torture-laden short story “In the Penal Colony” (the German title is “In der Strafkolonie”). One German newspaper referred to the “final expropriation” of the German saver, noting that the ECB’s decision to deviate from its inflation target carries “grave consequences.”

More generally, a significant segment of the German population is upset or outraged by the policy. There is even a claim that the revenue from the negative interest payments will be used to finance other EU countries.

Most economists and central bankers view negative interest rates as an acceptable tool of macroeconomic management. Maybe so. But in an era when trust, including trust among nations, is much lower than previously thought, it probably isn’t a good idea to place a punishing new tax on the German national virtue of saving. Central bankers must also be sensitive to public relations.

I find it striking how many people are responding to this column by insisting that Merkel should do more fiscal stimulus.  She should (though I don’t find “stimulus” to be the most instructive word here), as I suggest in the piece, because the Germans have been letting their infrastructure run down for a good while now — internet speeds anybody?  But at the end of the day, I don’t think that spending will eliminate the basic macroeconomic problem facing the EU, nor is most of that spending likely to land on the doorstep of the countries which most need it (though Huawei may benefit a good deal).  There is also this:

So if a policy of negative interest rates is just a Band-Aid, it is one that should be ripped off. And if monetary policy is insufficiently expansionary, that is going to require an increase in the ECB’s inflation target, or a move to nominal GDP targeting, not a jerry-rigged tax on deposits.

There is also an argument that Germans are saving too much. But by some measures, they have a level of national wealth relatively low for their per capita income, in part because Germans are less likely to own their own homes. According to the OECD, Germany’s near neighbors Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland all save more in percentage terms than Germany does.

German savers: underrated.

The Entire German Yield Curve is Trading Below Zero

The German government could today borrow billions of Euro and in a decade they could give back to investors less than they borrowed and the investors would be happy. Does the German government have no net positive investments to make?

The global savings glut which drives asset prices higher and makes them more volatile is very much still with us. Around the world there is now over 15 trillion in negative interest debt.

From the FT.

How carbon-unfriendly is the act of flying?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, with a focus on Greta Thunberg, whom I admire but I wish she would endorse nuclear power and other practical possible solutions to climate change problems.  At this point, I don’t think the returns to “simple moralizing” are that high, and they may be a substitute for concrete actions.  Excerpt:

Or think more broadly about how to choose one’s symbolic commitments to combat climate change. Buying a carbon offset, verifiable by an independent third party, seems like a good practical step. Thunberg also could take a stand in favor of nuclear power — a feasible source of green energy — except that she opposes it. Nuclear power has worked quite well for France for about 70 years, even if it is not suitable for earthquake zones.

Another way to show one’s dedication to limiting global temperatures would be to educate the public on carbon sequestration, which recently has made a good deal of real progress. How about a strike or demonstration to call people’s attention to the possibilities of this new technology, and to ask for additional funding?

There is much more at the link.

Gun policy suggestions from Jennifer Doleac

Several programs are at least worthy of consideration. Summer jobs programs for teens reduce mortality by 18 to 20 percent among participants. This effect is driven by a reduction in young men killed by homicide or suicide. Cognitive behavioral therapy for at-risk young men lowers violent crime arrests by 45 to 50 percent for participants. Access to Medicaid in early childhood decreases suicide by 10 to 15 percent later in life. Mandating that health insurance cover mental health benefits at parity reduces the suicide rate by 5 percent. Access to antidepressants also reduces suicide rates: An increase in antidepressant sales equivalent to one pill per capita reduced suicide by 5 percent.

In addition, repealing duty-to-warn laws for mental health providers—which require that they report a patient’s violent threats, perhaps causing patients to be less honest—could reduce teen suicides by 8 percent and decrease homicides by 5 percent. Repealing juvenile curfews could lower urban gunfire by two-thirds. And if the goal is to reduce mortality in general—not just gun deaths—then there are many more options policymakers should consider.

Here is more.  I don’t read her as endorsing all of those uncategorically, simply as noting that many available options are on the table.

Pew data on American opinions on this, that, and the other

There has been a 12 percentage point decline in the share of Democrats who view the impact of churches positively (from 50% to 38%); Democrats are now evenly divided in these attitudes (38% positive, 40% negative). In five previous Pew Research Center surveys over the past decade, significantly more Democrats viewed the impact of religious organizations positively than negatively. Republicans continue to view religious organizations much more positively than do Democrats (68% positive in the new survey).

Republicans and Democrats also have moved further apart in opinions about how banks and large corporations affect the country. Half of Republicans say banks and other financial institutions have a positive effect on the U.S., compared with just 27% of Democrats. Two years ago, the partisan gap was less pronounced (46% of Republicans, 33% of Democrats).

Today, Republicans are more than twice as likely than Democrats to say large corporations have a positive effect on the way things are going in the U.S. (45% vs. 17%). In 2016, 34% of Republicans and 26% of Democrats said they had a positive effect.

There are further topics considered at the link.  At least labor unions are more popular.

My Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Here is the audio and transcript.  We covered Ghana, Africa more generally, cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of nationalism, philosophy and Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, the repatriation of cultural objects, Paul Simon, the smarts of Jodie Foster, sheep farming in New Jersey, and the value of giving personal advice.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.

And:

COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.

[laughter]

APPIAH: But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

There is much, much more at the link, self-recommending…

Rational discourse about the federal budget has become virtually impossible

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

The conservative and fiscal conservative response has been no more coherent. On one hand, conservatives like to boast of the power of economic growth. But if, as they often assume, the economy is going to keep growing strongly, a widening budget deficit may well prove manageable. Interest rates have been low, and even falling over the past year, while economic growth has been running over 2%. If it continues to exceed the government’s inflation-adjusted borrowing rate (currently negative for T-Bills and close to zero for longer maturities), the U.S. will be able to grow out of its debt. Under this scenario Trump will look like a genius, and the fiscal conservatives will continue their slide into irrelevance.

You might argue that the problem is government spending, rather than budget deficits per se. But the U.S. can in essence pull in more resources from abroad, finance greater spending and consumption with additional borrowing, and still pay off its bills in orderly fashion without bankrupting the future. Our grandchildren can inherit both the debt and the government bonds.

In my experience, fiscal conservatives hate this argument. But through the term structure of interest rates, markets are forecasting low rates for at least the next 10 years, and conservatives tend to respect market prices. To be against the budget deal is also to go against the markets’ current message that debt service costs will remain low.

There are twists and turns in the piece, and just about everyone gets whacked, so don’t judge the final message by that excerpt alone.

The Online Tipping Outrage

The latest outrage cycle was started by April Glaser in Slate who is outraged that some online delivery companies apply tips to a worker’s base pay:

My first DoorDash order is probably my last because, as journalist Louise Matsakis put it on Twitter, “I don’t believe that a single person intends to give a tip to a multibillion dollar venture-backed startup. They are trying to tip the person who delivered their order.”

You will probably not be surprised, however, that Slate is also outraged at tipping.

Tipping is a repugnant custom. It’s bad for consumers and terrible for workers. It perpetuates racism.

But one way for a firm to get rid of tipping is to guarantee a payment per delivery. Many delivery workers may prefer such a system because tips are often perfunctory and therefore from the point of view of the worker random or they vary based on factors over which the delivery person has little control (e.g. worker race but also the customer’s online experience and whether other workers got the pizza into the oven on time). In other words, the no-tip system reduces the variance of pay. Moreover, it won’t reduce pay on average. Delivery workers will earn what similarly skilled workers earn elsewhere in the economy whether they get to keep “their” tips or not. The outrage over who gets the tip is similar to complaining about who pays the tax, the supplier or the demander.

There are exceptions. In some industries, such as bartending, the quality of the service can vary dramatically by worker and tips help to reward that extra quality when it is difficult to observe by the firm. In these industries, however, both the workers, at least the high quality workers, and the firms want tips. If the firms themselves are removing tips that is a sign that they think that the worker has little control over quality and thus tips serve no purpose other than to more or less randomly reward workers. Since random pay is less valuable than certain pay and firms are less risk averse than workers it makes sense for the firm to take on the risk of tips and instead pay a higher base (again, with the net being in line with what similar workers earn elsewhere).

In short, a job is a package of work characteristics and benefits and it’s better to let firms and workers choose those characteristics and benefits to reach efficient solutions than it is to try to move one characteristic on the incorrect assumption that all other characteristics will then remain the same, to do so is the happy meal fallacy in another guise.

Martin Gurri reports from the front

I have met their kindred before, in other glittering places. They run the institutions that hold center stage in our society, but look on the world as if from a walled mountain fortress, where every loud noise from beyond is interpreted as risk and threat. They disagree about minutia, but mostly move in lockstep, like synchronized swimmers, with word and thought. They are earnest but extraordinarily narrow. In a typical complaint, one speaker blamed the public for hiding in an “information bubble” – yet it occurred to me, as I sat through the conference, that the bubble-dwellers controlled the microphones there.

The same unmodulated whine about present conditions circled around and around, without even the ambition to achieve wit, depth, or originality…

Here is the full post.