Category: Current Affairs

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.


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.


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.

Algiers fact of the day

There has not been a single property transaction in the Casbah in 40 years, said Mr. Ben Meriem, the head of the Paris institute. “No buyers, no sellers — for 30 percent of the buildings, we don’t even know who the owners are.”

Among the disused buildings, said Mr. Mebtouche, “eighty percent are owners who have abandoned their properties,” unable to pay for renovations.

Here is the longer NYT story by Adam Nossiter.  An excellent piece, though I would like to know more about the underlying regulations and incentives.

What is China’s Belt and Road?

Another form of domestic politics?  Here is Andrew Batson on his blog:

The Belt and Road is really the expansion of a specific part of China’s domestic political economy to the rest of the world. That is the nexus between state-owned contractors and state-owned banks, which formed in the domestic infrastructure building spree construction that began after the 2008 global financial crisis (and has not yet ended).

Local governments discovered they could borrow basically without limit to fund infrastructure projects, and despite many predictions of doom, those debts have not yet collapsed. The lesson China has learned is that debt is free and that Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense, so there is never any downside to borrowing to build more infrastructure. China’s infrastructure-building complex, facing diminishing returns domestically, is now applying that lesson to the whole world.

In Belt and Road projects, foreign countries simply take the place of Chinese local governments in this model (those who detect a neo-imperial vibe around the Belt and Road are, in this sense, onto something). Even the players are the same. In the 1990s, China Development Bank helped invent the local-government financing vehicle structure that underpinned the massive domestic infrastructure. Now, China Development Bank is one of the biggest lenders for overseas construction projects.

Those who defend the Belt and Road against the charge of debt-trap diplomacy are technically correct. But those same defenders also tend to portray the lack of competitive tenders and over-reliance on Chinese construction companies in Belt and Road projects as “problems” that detract from the initiative’s promise. They miss the central role of the SOE infrastructure-complex interest group in driving the Belt and Road. Structures that funnel projects funded by state banks to Chinese SOEs aren’t “problems” from China’s perspective–they are the whole point.

The fact that this model was dubbed the “Belt and Road Initiative” and turned into a national grand strategy by Xi Jinping effectively gave the SOE infrastructure complex carte blanche to pursue whatever projects they can get away with. These projects were no longer just money-makers for SOEs, but became a way to advance China’s national grand strategy–thereby immunizing them from criticism and scrutiny.

And Andrew is always worth reading on music and jazz.

What is the chance we are being visited by space aliens?

That is the driving question behind my latest Bloomberg column, perhaps some of you can be talked up to one in a thousand.  Here is the opening bit:

For the last several years, the U.S. military has observed an increase in what it calls “unexplained aerial phenomena.” The rest of us may know them by their more common name — unidentified flying objects — and we should all strive, as the Navy is doing, to take these reports more seriously.

Sometimes, according to the Washington Post, well-trained military pilots “claimed to observe small spherical objects flying in formation. Others say they’ve seen white, Tic Tac-shaped vehicles. Aside from drones, all engines rely on burning fuel to generate power, but these vehicles all had no air intake, no wind and no exhaust.” They also appear to exceed all known aircraft in speed and have been described by a former deputy assistant secretary of defense as embodying a “truly radical technology.”

Meanwhile, Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard astronomy department, recently suggested that a passing object in space, named Oumuamua, might be a lightsail from an advanced alien civilization, as evidenced by its apparently strange movements.

And this:

Also keep in mind the history of the New World before the European arrival and conquest. There were legends of fair-skinned visitors from abroad, perhaps stemming from the Vikings and their explorations, but one day this “alien contact” turned out to be very real indeed — through Columbus, Cortés and others. To be oblivious of another civilization for a long time, and then suddenly encounter it, is a common theme in human history. Perhaps this has not happened for the last time.

There is much more at the link.

Why Twitter Isn’t Good for Coups

Here is Naunihal Singh interviewed by FP on the uprising in Venezuela–very much in the tradition of Tullock’s classic on Autocracy which argued that so-called popular uprisings almost always mask internal coups and Chwe’s work on the importance of common knowledge for coordinating action.

Naunihal Singh: Here’s the thing: At the heart of every coup, there is a dilemma for the people in the military. And it goes like this: You need to figure out which side you’re going to support, and in doing so, your primary consideration is to avoid a civil war or a fratricidal conflict.

If done correctly, a coup-maker will get up there and make the case that they have the support of everybody in the military, and therefore any resistance is minor and futile and that everyone should, either actively or passively, support the coup. And if you can convince people that’s the case, it becomes the case.

But in order to do this, you need to convince everyone not only that you’re going to succeed, but that everyone else thinks that you’re going to succeed. And in order to do that, you need to use some sort of public broadcast.

What is important here is the simultaneity of it. It’s the fact that you know that everybody else has heard the same thing as you have. And social media—Twitter—doesn’t do that.

FP: And can you tell us why Twitter isn’t really going to cut it?

NS: What broadcasts do is they create collective belief in collective action. Coup-making is about manipulating people’s beliefs and expectations about each other.

If I’m commanding one unit, even if I see Juan Guaidó’s official Tweet, I’m not going to even know how many other people within the military have seen it. What’s more, I would have good reason to believe that the penetration of this tweet within the military will be pretty slight. I have no idea what internet access is like inside the Venezuelan military right now. But I imagine that most military people don’t follow Juan Guaidó’s feed, because doing so would expose them to sanctions from military intelligence, and in that context, it would very clearly mark them as a traitor. But the other thing is this—what we think of as viral tweets operate on a far slower time scale than a broadcast. And coups happen in hours.

FP: Guaidó delivered his message to Venezuela this morning standing in front of men in green fatigues with helmets on, and armored vehicles in the background. Tell me about how Guaidó is drawing on familiar visual strategies of coups. What did he get right and wrong about the optics?

NS: It’s a dawn video, which is very classic. But there’s a problem: Guaidó does have military people there, but in order to be more credible he would have had a high-ranking military figure standing side by side with him. He can’t make it appear like there’s a military takeover. He also has to make it clear that this is a civilian action and that it’s within the constitution. As a result, he’s standing at the front and he’s got some soldiers in the back, but because they are low-ranking soldiers, it doesn’t mean very much, and it doesn’t carry very much weight.

Sentences to ponder

She also said Ms. Gardner had ranked reporters in job interviews according to how negative they were regarding tech companies, viewing that as a favorable trait, and had urged Ms. Angwin to run headlines on future stories like ‘Facebook is a dumpster fire.’ Ms. Angwin said her objections had led Ms. Gardner to seek her removal as editor in chief.

Here is the source (NYT), via Tom.

Chinese chieftain of the day

In a bid to enhance interaction and business with the Chinese in Kano State, the Emir of Kano, Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II has approved the appointment and instalment of a Chinese man, Mr Mike Zhang, as a chief and leader of the growing Chinese community in the northern Nigerian state.

Mr Mike Zhang, a Chinese trader in Kano will be referred to as “Wakilin Yan China” after his turbaning on April 25 at the Emir’s palace in Kano. He will be responsible for the proper management of the Chinese community and he would act as their representative in the Kano royalty in times of need.

There are photos at the link, via Tammy.