Category: Current Affairs

Mormon no more?

The church’s longtime website, LDS.org, now redirects to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, and Mormon.org will soon switch over, too. In May, the church stopped posting on its @MormonChannel Instagram feed and encouraged followers to move to @ChurchofJesusChrist instead.

The church-affiliated publishing house, Deseret Book, has been phasing out or renaming titles that used the word Mormon, prompting authors to scramble to rename their books and figure out new marketing plans — ones that don’t require the use of internet search terms that are 11 syllables long.

The shift became impossible to ignore when the church’s iconic musical organization announced in October that it would no longer be known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

All of this has left adherents with a bit of whiplash, especially following the church’s 2011 “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign, in which leaders went all in by placing ads on buses and billboards in New York’s Times Square and plastering the internet with profiles of tens of thousands of Mormons.

Some members have felt relief and a new optimism about broader inclusion in American society.

Viewing this strictly as an outsider, I see a benefit in keeping American religions as relatively distinct, rather than more coordinated.  The distinctly LDS approaches to poverty and missions, might have been less likely to evolve had the Church been closer to mainstream American Protestantism in earlier times.  Here is the full NYT story.

My contrarian, eccentric take on the Democratic debates

Do read the whole thing, that is my Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt of relevance:

My biggest impression is simply how much the dominant candidates agree in terms of basic values…

I don’t regard that as entirely healthy by any means, and I suspect most Democrats, especially of the relatively intellectual stripe, just don’t notice how much this stands out.  Now to move to a specific or two:

Finally, there is Marianne Williamson. When she first began to speak, I googled her, as I suspect did many other Americans. Her eccentric manner can be distracting, but I recommend instead focusing on her values. Her performance suggests that Democrats need to take a broader, deeper set of values into account: sometimes love and New Agey spiritual values, other times historical values. Her answer about making America the finest country for a child to grow up in was perhaps the best single moment of either debate, and that too stemmed from her understanding of values.

I don’t think she has much of a chance to win. But she is the external voice that the rest of the Democrats need to shake them out of their conformity. At first I thought it was crazy that she was included in the debates. In retrospect, I now see it as brilliant.

Kamala Harris and Marianne Williamson were the most memorable candidates on the stage, and they were also the two most in tune with the importance of values. The other candidates would do well to heed this lesson.

There is much more at the link, including some observations on some of the other candidates.

Is free college a good idea?

C’mon people, this one should be a no-brainer, can’t you at least call upon your craven loyalty to the higher education lobby to reject the free tuition proposals from Warren and Sanders?:

Just three German universities placed in the top 100 world institutions in rankings compiled by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British education consultancy…

In Germany, public funds covered $14,092 per student in 2015, the latest year for which the OECD has compiled numbers. In the United States, public funds covered $10,563 per student. But once private money was taken into account, U.S. university spending was far higher: $30,003 per student, compared with $17,036 in Germany…

“The best German universities look a lot like the University of Colorado. It’s not going to be like the top privates. It’s not even going to be like the top publics,” said Alex Usher, a Canadian education consultant who has studied how countries fund their university systems. “They’re perfectly good schools. They churn out good graduates. They’re not as focused on creating an elite. And in many ways that’s what the top systems in the United States are trying to do.”

The German system is entirely defensible if you believe that higher education is largely a matter of wasteful signaling; that is not my view, but believe it or not I know a few people who hold it.

The simple reality is that when it comes to higher education policy, President Trump is much better than the Democratic Party thought leaders.

#thegreatforgetting

Here is the full WaPo article by Michael Birnbaum.

Prisoners

New Yorker: On May 13, 1943, Axis forces in North Africa surrendered. The Allies suddenly found themselves saddled with nearly three hundred thousand prisoners of war, including the bulk of General Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. Unable to feed or house their share, the British asked their American comrades to relieve them of the burden. And so, by the tens of thousands, German soldiers were loaded aboard Liberty Ships, which had carried American troops across the Atlantic. Eventually, some five hundred P.O.W. camps, scattered across forty-five of the forty-eight United States, housed some four hundred thousand men. In every one of those camps, the Geneva conventions were adhered to so scrupulously that, after the war, not a few of the inmates decided to stick around and become Americans themselves. That was extraordinary rendition, Greatest Generation style.

That’s the opening to a piece by Hendrik Hertzberg from 2011 and thus the piece is motivated neither by President Trump nor about separating children from their parents on the border. For that reason it is perhaps more relevant to these issues than otherwise. We can and have been worse but let no one say that we have not and cannot be better.

Hat tip: Jason Kuznicki.

The politics of order in informal markets: Evidence from Lagos

That is the title of a new paper by Shelby Grossman, here is the abstract:

Property rights are important for economic exchange, but in much of the world they are not publicly guaranteed. Private market associations can fill this gap by providing an institutional structure to enforce agreements, but with this power comes the ability to extort from group members. Under what circumstances do private associations provide a stable environment for economic activity? Using survey data collected from 1,179 randomly sampled traders across 199 markets in Lagos, I find that markets maintain institutions to support trade not in the absence of government, but rather in response to active government interference. I argue that associations develop pro-trade institutions when threatened by politicians they perceive to be predatory, and when the organization can respond with threats of its own; the latter is easier when traders are not competing with each other. In order to maintain this balance of power, the association will not extort because it needs trader support to maintain the credibility of its threats to mobilize against predatory politicians.

Via Henry Farrell, that abstract reminds me of my earlier essay, and critique of libertarian anarchy, “Law as a Public Good,” shorter version of the argument here.

Claims about Iran (model this)

“Iran has probably arrived at the conclusion that it has less to lose from acting this way than from doing nothing,” Aniseh Tabrizi, a research fellow and Iran expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told CNBC via phone Tuesday.

“There is a gamble behind it that wasn’t there before, which is: ‘If other countries retaliate, we are willing to take the risk because we have really nothing to lose at this point’,” Tabrizi described. “And that is a dangerous way to feel.”

Iran’s economy is expected to shrink by 6% this year, after having contracted 3.9% last year, the International Monetary Fund says. By contrast, it clocked 3.8% growth in 2017, before the Trump administration re-imposed economic sanctions after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal that offered the Islamic Republic relief from prior sanctions.

And:

“It’s all about careful calibration and plausible deniability,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told CNBC.

Iran’s tactics, experts say, are designed to disrupt but not provoke a military response. So far, attacks have specifically avoided civilian deaths and environmental damage like an oil spill.

Instead, the Revolutionary Guard or its naval equivalent may be sending the message that it’s capable of undermining U.S. and Arab Gulf states’ interests in the region. And if they feel they can get away with it, it’s because they’re banking on President Donald Trump not wanting to actually start a war.

“Ultimately, Iran’s intention is to call President Trump’s bluff,” says Ibish.

I don’t have a clear view on this matter, but find it an interesting and of course important question.  Here is more from Natasha Turak.

Why China is not close to democratizing

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

It’s also worth thinking through exactly what changes Chinese democracy is supposed to bring. China’s urbanization has been so rapid — it has had more urban than rural residents for less than a decade — that a national election might well reflect the preferences of rural voters, which after all most Chinese were until very recently. If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? China is also growing rich during a time of extreme economic inequality, which may make many Chinese elites think twice about democratization.

Compare China’s situation to that of Taiwan, which is much smaller, does not have a comparable preponderance of rural population, and started becoming democratic in an era when inequality was not so extreme. There was enough of a sense of a common Taiwanese national interest for democracy to be trusted, and furthermore Taiwan has always been keen to distinguish itself from a non-democratic mainland.

What about social issues? One recent study has shown that Communist Party members are more likely to have progressive views on issues of gender equality, political pluralism and openness to international exchange than do the Chinese public at large. Again, if you are an elite among the Chinese citizenry, it is not a sure thing that you will do better with democracy than under the Communist Party.

There are many other points at the link.

*The Great Successor*

The author is Ana Fifield, and the subtitle is The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.  I’ve never read a book that has so much actual information about Kim, most of all about his early time in Switzerland.  Or how about this?:

Kim Jong Un’s efforts to clamp down on illegal drugs did not work.

At the time he left North Korea, Mr. Kang estimated that about 80 percent of the adults in Hoeryong were using ice [meth], consuming almost two pounds of the highly potent drug every single day…

For many North Koreans, taking meth became an essential part of daily life, a way ot ease the grinding boredom and deprivations of their existence.  For that reason, drugs can never be eradicated, he said.

Men are not allowed to have long hair, the concentration camps are reputed to be worse than those of the Nazis, and there is a detailed account of the rise of the “new rich” class in Pyongyang.  Plastic surgery has arrived as well.

Definitely recommended, the book also serves up the inside story on the Dennis Rodman visit to North Korea.  By the way, Kim hates the showiness of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Whale carrying costs > whale liquidity premium

Or so it seems to me, here is the headline: Washington state waterfront owners asked to take dead whales

Here is part of the story:

At least one Washington state waterfront landowner has said yes to a request to allow dead gray whales to decompose on their property.

So many gray whale carcasses have washed up this year that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries says it has run out of places to take them.

In response, the agency has asked landowners to volunteer property as a disposal site for the carcasses. By doing so, landowners can support the natural process of the marine environment, and skeletons left behind can be used for educational purposes, officials said.

But the carcasses can be up to 40 feet (12 meters) long. That’s a lot to decay, and it could take months. Landowner Mario Rivera of Port Hadlock, Washington, told KING5-TV that the smell is intermittent and “isn’t that bad.”

“It is really a unique opportunity to have this here on the beach and monitor it and see how fast it goes,” said his wife, Stefanie Worwag.

Via Anecdotal.

Zimbabwean passport seigniorage is the best kind of Zimbabwean seigniorage

With Zimbabwe’s economy in shambles and political tensions rising, leaving the country seems the best option for many who are desperate for jobs. But those dreams often end at the passport office, which doesn’t have enough foreign currency to import proper paper and ink.

A passport now takes no less than a year to be issued. An emergency passport can take months amid a backlog of 280,000 applications, never mind recent ones.

Here is the full story, via Charles Onyango-Obbo.  In turn via Garett Jones.

Rent control returns to New York

The bills announced on Tuesday night by the Democratic leaders of the State Senate and the Assembly would abolish rules that let building owners deregulate apartments and close loopholes that permit them to raise rents.

The legislation would directly impact almost one million rent-regulated apartments in New York City, which account for more than 40 percent of the city’s rental stock, and allow other municipalities statewide beyond New York City and its suburbs to adopt their own regulations…

The rent regulation package, which is expected to be approved before the end of the week, is perhaps the most resonant symbol of the change in power in Albany since Democrats took complete control in November.

Republicans had dominated the State Senate for most of the last century and formed a close alliance with the New York City real estate industry, which donated heavily to Republican senators.

The elections in November not only brought Democrats to power in the State Senate, but also saw the rise of progressive lawmakers who fiercely opposed real estate interests.

Here is the full NYT story.  Perhaps someday I will write a book or essay called The Great Forgetting

It would be a mistake to split up Facebook

Slate has published an adaptation from my recent book *Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero*, here is one excerpt:

Advocates of splitting up the big tech companies have a utopian vision of what will replace them. Whether you like it or not, we now live in a world where every possible idea (and video) will be put out there in some fashion or another. Don’t confuse your discomfort with reality with your assessment of big tech companies as individual agents. We’re probably better off having major, well-capitalized companies as guardians and gatekeepers of online channels, however imperfect their records, as the relevant alternatives would probably be less able to fend off abuse of their platforms and thus we would all fare worse.

Imagine, for instance, that instead of the current Facebook we had seven smaller companies all performing comparable social networking services, perhaps with some form of interconnectability or data portability. The negative sides of social media, which are indeed real, probably would be worse and harder to control.

It is unlikely that such a setting would result in greater consumer privacy and protection. Instead, we would have more weakly capitalized entities, with less talent on staff and weaker A.I. technologies to take down objectionable material. Probably some of those companies would be more tolerant of irresponsible user behavior as a competitive lure. Fake accounts would proliferate, and social networking sites such as 4chan—often a cesspool of racism and rhetoric that goes beyond the merely offensive—would comprise a larger and more central part of the market.

As for privacy, these smaller Facebook replacements would be more susceptible to hacks, foreign surveillance and infiltration, and external manipulation—the real dangers to our privacy and well-being.

There is much more at the link.

Hong Kong in the broader history of liberty

That is my other Bloomberg column for this week, here is one excerpt:

Still, actual life in Hong Kong seemed to be pretty free, especially compared to the available alternatives, which included the totalitarian state that was Mao’s China. Yet as the British lease on Hong Kong approached expiration, an even deeper problem with a non-democratic Hong Kong became evident: Because there was no legitimate alternative sovereign to protest, the British simply handed the territory over to China. (Compare Hong Kong’s experience to that of Taiwan, which did evolve into a free democratic state and remains independent.) Hong Kong was bartered away like a piece of colonial merchandise. Everyone learned the hard way that democracy really does matter.

Hong Kong still ranks near or at the top of several indices of economic freedom. But that may be a sign these indices have lost touch with the nature of liberty. In Hong Kong, the notion of a credible commitment to the future ceased to have meaning some time ago. Not only is there the specter of Chinese intervention, but there is also a broader understanding that the rules of the game can change at any time, including of course when it comes to extradition procedures. Meanwhile, many Hong Kong residents know their behavior is being monitored and graded, and they know the role of the Chinese government will only grow.

Thus is revealed a deeper lesson still: Freedom is not merely the ability to buy and sell goods at minimum regulation and a low tax rate, variables that are readily picked up by economic freedom indices. Freedom is also about the narratives people live by and the kind of future they imagine for themselves. Both of these are greatly affected by the legitimacy and durability of their political institutions.

The piece also offers a brief discussion of the Bruce Lee movie “Enter the Dragon.”

My trip to Israel

I was very pleased to have been sponsored by the Friedberg Economics Institute, who were wonderful hosts and put together great audiences on my behalf.

Here is my interview with Globes, which they helped to arrange, excerpt:

“We started this trade war with China by shooting in all directions. It would have been much wiser to form our alliances first, and then consider doing something versus China. I believe that the current trade war with China is unavoidable. It would have taken place even without Trump as president. There are too many cases of unfair trading by China, of Chinese companies operating unfairly and even spying, of stealing of US ideas, and preventing US or Western businesses from operating in the country. This dam had to burst sooner or later.

“What is happening now is not good for any country: not for the US, not for China, and also not for Israel, which like many other small countries will be harmed by the trade war. We’re in a situation in which everyone loses.

“The US is pressuring, and will pressure, Israel not to cooperate with China. It has already begun, and it will get worse. You can understand Washington – if you have the Sixth Fleet in Haifa and China controls part of the port, US concern is understandable. On the other hand, China depends on oil from the Middle East. It needs reliable partners in the region in order to ensure its regular supply, and Israel is the only country that meets this criterion. Imagine a future in which China exerts strong pressure on Israel to help it conduct its foreign policy. I think that it will be harder and harder for Israel to cope with Chinese pressure on the one hand and US pressure on the other.”

A variety of other topics are covered at the link.