Category: Current Affairs

Solve for the “not a detention center” equilibrium

A spokesman for Southwest Key, Jeff Eller, said on Sunday it could not legally require children to stay on the premises if they sought to leave, and that “from time to time” children had left several of its 27 shelters for immigrant children.

“We are not a detention center,” Mr. Eller said in a statement. “We talk to them and try to get them to stay. If they leave the property, we call law enforcement.”

Federal officials echoed that position, saying they could not stop a child who attempted to leave. The officials did not respond to a question about how many children had walked away from migrant centers nationwide.

Here is the rest of the NYT article, it has further points of interest.

What should I ask Claire Lehmann?

I will be doing a Conversation with her (no associated public event), if you don’t already know here is Wikipedia on Claire:

Claire Lehmann is an Australian psychologist, writer, and the founding editor of Quillette.

Lehmann founded Quillette in October 2015, with the goal of publishing intellectually rigorous material that makes arguments or presents data not in keeping with the contemporary intellectual consensus.

Here is Claire on Twitter.  Here is her own home page and bio.  Here is the Quillette Patreon page.

So what should I ask her?

The NBA vs. the NFL

[Lebron] James has more than 38 million followers on Instagram and nearly 42 million on Twitter. Brady, the N.F.L.’s biggest star, has 4.1 million Instagram followers and is not active on Twitter.

The best of those N.B.A. players are also power brokers behind the scenes. The executive committee of the N.B.A. players’ union looks like a future wing of the Hall of Fame, including James, Curry, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.

The John Branch article (NYT) is interesting throughout on the economics of sports, social media, American politics, and race.  I’ve said it before, but the NBA is one of the best-functioning institutions in America today.

Was the Colombian peace deal so wonderful?

It seems to be increasingly unpopular with the Colombian electorate, and now there is this report:

Hundreds of Colombian farmers, activists, and community organisers have been killed over the past 18 months, despite the landmark peace deal that supposedly ended 52 years of war. For them, and for local leaders in the former conflict zones, the war – which left an estimated 220,000 dead and seven million displaced over five decades – didn’t end: it only became worse.

“Whenever we hear talk of peace, we worry,” says Anadelia Trochez, 43, president of the community council in El Ceral, a village in the Cauca Valley, the most productive coca-growing area in the country. “Out here, that usually means more trouble.”

Of course that is not the final word, but the evidence increasingly suggests it is a perspective to be taken seriously.  I recall how many outsiders swooned when the initial Colombian peace deal was first announced, and how tragic they considered it when the Colombian electorate rejected the first version of the deal.  Critics of the deal were considered warmongers.  Those are classic signs of mood affiliation.

The pointer is from Tom Murphy.

Is the bilateral approach to trade liberalization really so bad?

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

It seems we are bureaucratizing trade as much as liberating it. Perhaps that is no surprise. If you wish to induce numerous nations to sign on to a deal, you will have to offer exceptions, clauses and conditions for them. The eventual result is that a free-trade treaty morphs into a managed-trade treaty. I still believe that the various trade agreements that have been passed or drawn up are for the better, but I also can’t help being disappointed by them. Note also that progress through the World Trade Organization had ground to a halt even before the election of Trump.

We are now in a setting where the world’s No. 2 economy — China, on its way to being No. 1 — is strongly opposed to free-trade ideals and free flows of information, especially for its own home market.

Enter bilateralism. The smartest case for trade bilateralism is that trade in many goods is already fairly free, but some egregious examples of tariffs and trade barriers remain. Look at agriculture, European restrictions on beef hormones in beef, and the Chinese unwillingness to allow in foreign companies. Targeted strategic bargaining, backed by concrete threats emanating from a relatively powerful nation — in this case the U.S. — could demand removal of those restrictions. Furthermore, the negotiating process would be more directly transactional and less cartelized and bureaucratic.

My colleague John Nye, an economist at George Mason University, has argued that the free-trade revolution of the 19th century came about because of a major trade agreement between Britain and France in 1860. Other European nations were fearful of being locked out of subsequent deals, and they hurried to sign bilateral trade treaties with Britain and France. There was a competition to make deals rather than cartelization of the process.

That said, our current pursuit of this approach does not seem to have enough allies on our side, and thus I doubt if it will work.  There is much more in the rest of the column.

Will the European Union ruin the internet?

A committee of MEPs has voted to accept major changes to European copyright law, which experts say could change the nature of the internet.

They voted to approve the controversial Article 13, which critics warn could put an end to memes, remixes and other user-generated content.

Article 11, requiring online platforms to pay publishers a fee if they link to their news content, was also approved.

One organisation opposed to the changes called it a “dark day”.

The European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs voted by 15 votes to 10 to adopt Article 13 and by 13 votes to 12 to adopt Article 11.

It will now go to the wider European Parliament to vote on in July.

…Article 11 has been called the “link tax” by opponents.

Here is further information.  If ever there was a case for Brexit…

For the pointer I thank Saku.

South Korea North Korea fact of the day

According to a survey of 167 [South Korean] businesses earlier this month, almost 75 per cent would be prepared to invest in the North if sanctions were lifted. Companies that stand to benefit, such as steel and cement groups, have seen their stock prices soar in recent weeks. Shares in Hyundai Cement rose more than 500 per cent between March and June as detente unfolded on the Korean peninsula.

Much more is going on (FT).

Will AI blur the difference between private and public sectors?

…there are incredibly powerful non-state actors who are also competing furiously to develop this technology. All of the 7 most important technology companies in the world–Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu–are making huge investments in AI, from low level frameworks and silicon to consumer products.  It goes without saying that their expertise in machine learning leads any state actor at the moment.

As the applications of machine learning grow, the interactions between these companies and different nation states will grow in complexity. Consider for example road transportation, where we are gradually moving towards on demand, autonomous cars. This will increasingly blur the line between publicly funded mass transportation (e.g. a bus) and private transport (a shared Uber). If this leads to a new natural monopoly in road transportation should it be managed by the state (e.g. the call in London for “Khan’s Cars”) or by a British company, or by a multinational company like Uber?

As Mariana Mazzucato outlined in her fantastic book The Entrepreneurial State, states have historically played a crucial role in underwriting long term, high risk research in science and technology by funding either academic research or the military. These technologies are often then commercialised by private companies. With the rise of visionary and wealthy technology companies like Google we are seeing more high risk long term research being funded by the private sector. DeepMind is a prime example of this. This creates tension when the interests of a private company like Google and a state are not aligned. An example of this is the recent interactions between Google and the Pentagon where over 4000 Google employees protested against Google’s participation in “warfare technologies” and as a result Google decided to not renew its contract with the Pentagon. This is a rapidly evolving topic. Only a week earlier Sergey Brin had said that “he understood the controversy and had discussed the matter extensively with Mr. Page and Mr. Pichai. However, he said he thought that it was better for peace if the world’s militaries were intertwined with international organizations like Google rather than working solely with nationalistic defense contractors”.

Here is more of interest from Ian Hogarth, via…whoever it was that sent it to me!

Which technological advances have improved the working of autocracy?

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

“What have been the really major advances of the past 20 years?” is one of the most common debated questions in my circles. The smartphone is probably nominated most often, while Google, Facebook and fracking have their advocates too. Yet we hardly ever talk about one of the most important developments, perhaps because it raises uncomfortable political issues: the governance technologies and strategies of authoritarian regimes have become much more efficient

The big innovation in authoritarian governance has been this: subsequent autocratic leaders, most of all in China, have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power. The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more…

A second development was when authoritarian leaders realized that absolute prohibitions on free speech were counterproductive, and they learned how to manage an intermediate solution.  Allowing partial speech rights is useful as a safety valve, it allows major dissidents to be identified and monitored, and absolute speech prohibitions tended to wreck the economy and discourage foreign investment, leading to unpopularity of the government. At the same time, an autocratic government could come down hard on the truly threatening ideas when needed.

Scientific public opinion polling has been another advance in authoritarian states. In 1987, the Economic System Reform Institute of China conducted the first Chinese public opinion survey, a breakthrough event. Under Chairman Mao in contrast, the incentive was to report only the good news. In the 1990s, however, Chinese public opinion surveys boomed and also became much more scientific.

There is much more at the link, one of my more interesting columns as of late.

Why consume the most recent news?

Here is another left-over question from my recent talk:

How do you think about when it makes sense for to consume the most-recent news, in light of Robin Hanson’s “news isn’t about info”?  How would you advise the rest of us?

I consume the news avidly for (at least) these reasons:

1. For professional reasons, I am required to do so.  That said, I am happy to note the endogeneity of that state of affairs.  Consuming the news is fun, though in a pinch more sports, games, and the arts could serve much of the same role.

2. I actually care what is happening.

3. Consuming the news is one of the best ways of testing your views about the past.  We are always revaluing what we thought we knew, in light of new data.  Brexit teaches us that the UK was never quite so well integrated into the EU.  The election of Trump may imply that certain late 19th century strands of American politics are enduring, and the evolution of the racial income gap will induce us to reassess various policies of the last few decades.

Under this theory, reading a lot of history books should raise the return to following the news.  For most people, they haven’t read so many books and at the margin they need more books rather than more news.  In this sense, following the news doesn’t make intellectual sense for most people, though they may need it for social bonding, signaling, and conversation purposes.

I would stress the concomitant point that following the news does not make one a much better predictor of the future, if at all.  It may even cause people to overweight the most recent trends, due to availability and recency bias.

4. I also use the news to make history more interesting to me.  It is easier to get “wrapped up” in the news, if only because of the social support and the element of dramatic suspense.  If somehow the Balkans no longer existed, I would find it hard to wish to understand that “…the medieval Serbian Orthodox Church had established a new see at Pec in Kosovo in 1297…”  As it stands, my interest in that event is sufficiently intense, and it remains important for understanding the current day.

5. It is perhaps addictive that the news comes every day.  But that is a useful discipline.  If you follow the news, you will work at it every day, more or less.  Better those compound returns than to do something else once every three months and a half.

In essence, the news is a good, cheap trick for getting yourself to care more about things you should care about anyway, but maybe don’t.

*Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls*

That is the new book by Tim Marshall, yes Trump and Israel and the like, but it goes much further than that.  Here is one excerpt:

Since 1971, Assam’s population has more than doubled, from 14.6 million to over 30 million, much of which is due to illegal immigration.  Hindu nationalists have argued that the area might have a Muslim majority by 2060.  In 2015 there were 19 million Hindus and 11 million Muslims, nine of the twenty-seven districts being Muslim majority.  Equally importantly, the 2017 census showed that people who are ethnically Assamese are now a minority in the state as a whole, and as people continue to arrive their proportions will continue to drop.

This is a depressing but thought-provoking book.  Bangladesh, by the way, is smaller than the state of Florida, but has 165 million people.  And I had not known there are about 800,000 Nigerians in South Africa.  You can order the book here.

Asian-American admissions at Harvard

Here is basic NYT coverage of the case:

University officials did concede that its 2013 internal review found that if Harvard considered only academic achievement, the Asian-American share of the class would rise to 43 percent from the actual 19 percent.

Here is the plaintiff’s brief by Peter S. Arcidiacono.  Here is David Card’s brief in defense of Harvard and Asian-American admissions.  Here is Arcidiacono’s response to Card.

Gabriel Rossman noted on Twitter: “Once you control for lacrosse, founding an NGO in high school, legacy status, alumni evaluation of personality, woke personal essays, and a 23&me test for EDAR, there’s no effect”

My take is simple.  Harvard is risk-averse with respect to the stream of future donations, as are many other schools.  Asian-American admissions don’t have the same donating track record as the white students traditionally cultivated by Harvard and other top universities.  Either Asian-Americans may seek out “diaspora philanthropy,” or they simply may have a more cynical attitude toward top institutions that they basically have never had any control over.

Furthermore, there is a common fear — repugnant to me I should add — that if a student body becomes “too Asian,” many white students will be less interested in going there.  I taught at UC Irvine for several years and found it to be a delightful experience, but this is exactly what many schools are afraid of (the UCI student body is disproportionately Asian, and the honors class I taught in my first year had only one non-Asian student in it).

And so they come up with every excuse possible — sometimes cemented in by self-deception — for maintaining a “balanced” student body.

It is incorrect to call it “racism,” but it is non-meritocratic and we should move away from those attitudes as quickly as possible.

In related news, the University of Chicago is moving away from the use of SAT scores in admissions.  The cynical might suggest this is so they are more insulated from potential lawsuits and also so they have more discretion in admissions.  If Chicago feels the need to do this, perhaps the system really is buckling under the strain of all these outside pressures.

Nonetheless, I predict ultimately the status quo will not change very much.  I just don’t see a strong enough popular or judicial constituency for righting the wrongs done to Asian-Americans.  Some kind of partial concession will be made, various terms and standards will be somewhat redefined, and we’ll be back to “rinse and repeat.”  Meritocracy: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

I am pleased to report that none of this tomfoolery goes on at my home institution, which is highly and truly diverse.

Yale Politic interview with me

I enjoyed this one, lots of real questions from Eric Wallach, not “tell us about your book” and the usual snoozefest.  Here is one bit:

So you like the idea of pardons– how do you work through that one?

I don’t even firmly believe that punishment is justified morally. Maybe it’s necessary, maybe you just can’t do without it.  But the mere fact that someone has wronged another, I don’t think causes them to forfeit their rights in the way that was claimed in classic, early modern political philosophy. Once you think wrongdoers still have their human rights, on what grounds do you punish them? Could be that you simply have to– either the public won’t accept another option and they would overthrow your non-punishment regime and bring in fascism, and something with a lot more punishment would come about.

I get that– I’m not saying you can just toss away the keys to all these jails. But insofar as you have options of not punishing people – who in the cases I’ve read about it seems they’re not going to go out there and continue their serial killing sprees – I think we just simply ought not to punish them. Martha Stewart, again, that seems to me a very clear case. Undo the wrong. If I were a president, I’d consider just only pardoning people and then resigning. I know I couldn’t get away with it forever, but it’s one way to think about the job.

There are other points of interest, new and interesting throughout.

The North Korean summit and deal

Many of you have asked what I think, so here goes:

1. There is a secret (and unenforceable) deal beneath what is reported.  You may think this is good or bad, but for heaven’s sake don’t just be judging the press release.

2. If they didn’t actually agree to anything, that is fine.

3. I am reading so much yelping about how Trump “legitimized” Kim.  The status quo ex ante simply was terrible, and there is no reason to think this change is for the worse.  Trump’s great “virtue” in this regard was simply to be some mix of ignorant/disrespectful of the prior “expert consensus” and approach the problem afresh with a rather direct transactional and person-centered, personality-centered mentality.

4. As I tweeted: “Isn’t the whole point of the “deal” just to make them go visit Singapore? The real spectacle is not always where you are looking. And I hope someone brought them to the right chili crab place.”

The goal is to show the North Korean leadership there is a better way than playing the Nuclear Hermit Kingdom game.  We won’t know for some time whether this has succeeded.  Here is good FT coverage on this point.  There are in fact numerous signs that the North Koreans are considering serious reforms.  Of course those could be a feint, but the probabilities are rising in a favorable direction.  Economic cooperation with South Korea is increasing at an astonishing pace.

5. The chance that North Korea someday becomes an unruly version of an American client state has gone up.  The chance of a kind of faux, “on paper” Korean reunification has gone up too.

6. No, North Korea isn’t giving up its nuclear weapons.  The more important question is to what extent they will use those weapons in the future to check China.

7. How is it that Dennis Rodman played in only two All-Star games?

8. In expected value terms, this is the biggest triumph of the Trump presidency.  Most of all, however, you should be agnostic.  The negative commentary I am seeing is mostly sour grapes, misplaced frustration, and it is weak in the quality of its argumentation.  Here is one of Trump’s better tweets.