Category: Current Affairs

Why I disagree with Scott Sumner on China

U.S. government investigators increasingly believe that Chinese state hackers were most likely responsible for the massive intrusion reported last month into Marriott’s Starwood chain hotel reservation system, a breach that exposed the private information and travel details of as many as 500 million people

Story here.  And:

Armed with a rich array of personal data, an intelligence agency can also tailor an approach to a person to see whether the individual can be recruited as a spy or blackmailed for information. The passport data, which is not often collected in data breaches, probably was a particularly valuable find for the hackers.

You will note that no one is trying to sell the data.  And this:

The report, citing two people briefed on the investigation, reported China had launched an intelligence-gathering campaign which included hacking into health insurance companies and hacking security clearance files of millions of people living in the U.S. The New York Times reported the hackers are believed to be employed by the Ministry of State Security, which is China’s spy agency. The paper noted that the revelation that China was behind the Marriott hack comes as the U.S. government is gearing up to launch actions against China’s trade that include indicting Chinese hackers that work for the government. The New York Times noted the Marriott hacking isn’t expected to be part of the indictments but does add a sense of urgency to the moves the White House was mulling.

The Trump administration is also planning on declassifying intelligence reports that show China had been trying to create a database of American executives and government officials that have security clearances, reported The New York Times.

I could go on.  I am genuinely unsure what are the economic costs of these mischievous activities, but would note simply that it is sometimes necessary to punch back.  The choice is not free trade vs. protectionism (I strongly suspect Scott and I agree on the economics of trade), but rather a partial return punch now vs. a worse situation much later on.

Does Macron have any new ideas to save the moment?

My opening line for Bloomberg:

The sorry truth is that both progressives and neoliberals still don’t get it, and that seems true in France most of all.

Part of the argument:

In response, people want something beyond more income redistribution (what the left is offering) or more globalization (what the pre-populist right used to offer). People want ideas and inspiration, and when no good new ideas are put forward, the current default seems to be nationalist ideas, including of the less tolerant variety.

Macron doesn’t have any new ideas or vision, however much you might like the old ideas he has embraced. And so, however promising it might have seemed at first, his tenure has accelerated the collapse of the traditional European liberal order. For some time, his approval ratings in France have been lower than those of U.S. President Donald Trump.

And here is the least central paragraph:

The one intellectual group that really gets what is going on right now are the much-maligned libertarians. For decades they have been told that they are too analytical, that they lack empathy, that they don’t have much to offer the public in the way of inspiration. For all the (mostly failed) attempts to pretend otherwise, that is mostly true — and libertarians have to hope that analytical perspectives become more ascendant.

Oh, and don’t forget this:

A quick comparison with 19th-century French culture, with its emphasis on progress, utopia and the rationalization of social systems, shows just how much the forward-looking perspective is lacking.


Interstate trade is relatively high in India

The first-ever estimates for interstate trade flows indicate a trade to GDP ratio of about 54 per cent, a number that is comparable to other large jurisdictions and that contradicts the caricature of India as a barrier-riddled economy; the ratio of India’s internal and international trade also compares favourably with others.  De facto, at least, India seems well-integrated internally.  A more technical analysis confirms this: trade costs reduce trade by roughly the same extent in India as in other countries.

When it comes to internal trade, the big negative outlier is in fact Indonesia.

That is all from the new and interesting Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy, by the excellent Arvind Subramanian.

Sorry people, but I will always be an independent…

Senate Democrats are pushing back against attempts to pass a compromise bill in the lame-duck session that could speed the introduction of driverless cars onto U.S. roadways, saying it lacks safeguards that would protect drivers.

Link here, and I’m sure you know the House Democrats don’t want to pass the new NAFTA.

Elsewhere, in Chicago, the war on democracy continues:

To get on the ballot, Krupa was required to file 473 valid signatures of ward residents with the Chicago Board of Elections. Krupa filed 1,703 signatures.

But before he filed his signatures with the elections board, an amazing thing happened along the Chicago Way.

An organized crew of political workers — or maybe just civic-minded individuals who care about reform — went door to door with official legal papers. They asked residents to sign an affadavit revoking their signature on Krupa’s petition.

And the background?:

The David is David Krupa, 19, a freshman at DePaul University who drives a forklift part time. He’s not a political powerhouse. He’s just a conservative Southwest Side teenager studying political science and economics who got it in his head to run for alderman in a race that pits him against the most powerful [Democratic] ward organization in Chicago.

Here is the story, it’s not just North Carolina where electoral law is treated with less than the utmost respect.

p.s. if you think or write “false equivalency” in response to this post, you fail the Intellectual Turing test.

Don’t arrest Chinese CFOs and CEOs

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

In the longer run, bringing charges against Meng is likely to accelerate the division of the world into two competing systems of law, technology and commerce — namely those of China and the U.S. That will encourage international relations to develop along the dimension of power — what can you get away with? — rather than law or orderly cooperation. The West’s dirty little secret is that the rule of law works well only when tempered with a high degree of discretion.


At the margin, the legal reach and police power of the U.S. can always be invoked to fight another crime or resolve another corruption problem. Don’t like how FIFA — the international soccer federation — is being run? Get the U.S. in on the act. There are in fact laws that gave the U.S. jurisdiction over bad FIFA practices (wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering), and the Department of Justice led a successful anti-corruption case starting in 2015.

That enforcement action seems to have gone fine, but where to stop? There a lot of wrongdoers who are connected, in one way or another, to the U.S. financial system. But America has more credibility as global policeman when it focuses on only the most pressing cases, such as when innocent victims are being killed.

Best yet, I offer remarks on Brexit as well.

Tom Lehrer, man ahead of his time

Ever since I was a young teenager I loved Tom Lehrer (thanks to Ken Regan, by the way), and I thought I would re-listen to some fresh.  I tried the Copenhagen concert, a good overview of his work and with good visuals.  I was struck by the following:

1. Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

2. Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.

3. He is very interested in language and the question of how words are used in the public sphere, and how words are used to obfuscate.  Might that be the central theme in his thought?

4. He often sneaks China into the cultural references, for instance: “And I’m learning Chinese, says Werner von Braun.”  He seems to think it is a much more important country than Russia, although this concert was from 1967 and often was drawing on songs which were older yet.

5. He is much more interested in math and science than current comedians, for instance his “Elements” is a classic [22:54], and redone here with an Aristotle coda, mocking The Philosopher.  His audience seems to take this interest in stride.  This song is yet another example of inverting what should be said, or not.

6. Yes I know the tunes sound derivative, but most of them are original.  And as music…they’re a lot catchier than most of the other musical theatre of his time and I think of many of them as minor classics.  I still enjoy hearing them as music.  And other than Sondheim and Dylan, how many better American lyricists were there?

7. When he wants to get really gory, he doubles down on mock sadism (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”: “…we’ll murder them all with laughter and merriment…except for the few we take home to experiment…”).  He once said: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

It would be hard to pull this off today.  Yet, when I listen to Lehrer, perhaps because I know the historical context, I am not offended.  Plus he is flat-out funny.  He cited losing his “nasty edge,” and starting to see things in shades of grey, as one reason for what appeared to be a quite premature retirement.

8. He wore a white shirt and his tie was tightly knotted.

9. He’s one of America’s great comics, and the material is idea-rich to a remarkable extent.  He hardly ever sung about social themes or person-to-person social interactions.

10. Many of the songs of his that you never hear are in fact commentaries on various folk song movements.  Circa 2018, few can understand their references, but they do showcase Lehrer’s extreme idealism.

11. He was at first a math prodigy and later in the mid-1950s, as a draftee, crunched numbers for the NSA.  He remains alive and turned 90 earlier this year.


*The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay*, by Christopher Clapham

A splendid book, why can’t the rest of you ****ers write books this good?  Here is one bit:

…the dynamics of clan works in a significantly different way in Somaliland from the way it does in south-central Somalia.  A single clan-family, the Isaaq, occupy the central areas of the territory, and account for by far the greater part of its population.  Though the Isaaq clans, inevitably, are divided both between and within themselves, they provide a reasonably solid ethnic core, that contrasts with the far more mixed and complex composition of southern Somalia, with its two major clan-families, Darood and Hawiye, and the further problems created by the presence of the Digil-Mirifle and other minority groups.  Somaliland is by no means entirely Isaaq…but its demographic structure means that other clans must either accept Isaaq hegemony and work within it, or else reject the Somaliland state altogether.  They cannot expect to control it.  At the same time, the fact that the Isaaq clans — characteristically of Somali clan politics — do not form a single united bloc provides other clans with the opportunity to build alliances with one or another group of the Isaaq.

Have you ever wanted to read about how ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti fit into this same broad picture?  Just exactly how Somalian and Ethiopian history intersect, from the 1970s onwards?  This here is your book.  I’m running to Amazon right now to buy more from this wonderful author.  You can buy it here.

Why Brexit is so important

In this dilemma, I think of U.K. citizens as a kind of stand-in for the human race. Per capita income and education in the U.K. are well above the global average and, more important, Great Britain has one of the most firmly established democratic traditions in the world. So if the U.K. cannot get this decision right, it’s pretty gloomy news for all of us. I am reminded of the scene in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” where the traveling knight has to play a game of chess against the figure of Death, and his life will be spared if he wins…

Paul Krugman opined recently that Brexit would likely cost the U.K. about 2 percent of GDP, a fair estimate in my view. But that is not the only thing at stake here. Humanity is on trial — more specifically, its collective decision-making capacity — and it is the U.K. standing in the dock.

I’ll be glued to my seat, watching.

Recommended!  Here is the full column.

Solve for the equilibrium

The CEOs of Germany’s top three car firms, Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW, said they were optimistic on avoiding US tariffs after meeting US leader Donald Trump in Washington Tuesday. “We made a big step forward to avoid the tariffs,” Volkswagen boss Herbert Diess said. The visit caused annoyance in EU circles, where trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom was meant to conduct US trade talks on behalf of the whole EU.

Here is the link, via Bruno.

Scott Sumner on China and trade and me, and why it really is all about geopolitics

The first bit is mine, the second is his commentary, link here:

[TC] This [China] is an issue that predates Trump, and he deserves some credit for doing something to help solve it.

[SS] Everything in that paragraph is completely correct–except the last portion of the final sentence, which is wrong.

Scott’s is a common view in free market circles, so it’s worth outlining why I see things differently.  Like it or not, the United States is the global hegemon.  In my view this is an overall positive, but for our purposes today let’s just take it as given.

If you are the global hegemon, and another country, largely hostile to your political values and geopolitical desires, engages in widespread subversion of your power and influence, you must in some way hit back.  Otherwise you will not be global hegemon for much longer.  And unlike India or the EU, China desires to build an international political and economic order which would destroy liberalism as we know it.  Imagine a world where autocracy is a much more widespread norm, the Xinjiang detentions and North Korean nuclear weapons are considered entirely appropriate behavior, Taiwan is a vassal state, and few Asian countries could allow their media to print criticism of the Chinese government, for fear of retaliation.  Institutions such as the WTO would persist only insofar as they created loopholes which gave China the benefits of membership without most of the obligations.

Did I mention that politics in Australia and New Zealand are subverted regularly and blatantly by Chinese influence and money?  Very likely the same is underway in the United States (and other countries) right now.

You can put aside trade practices altogether, and simply look at the extreme and still under-reported degree of espionage and spying conducted by China, aimed at major U.S. corporations.  It’s not quite an act of war, but it is not the classical model of trade either (“Mercantilism is bad…what’s wrong if they send us goods and we just send them back paper dollars?”).  China is violating U.S. laws on a massive scale, and yes, I am sorry to say, trade is our main way of “reaching” them and sending a message.

Some kind of push back is needed, and I find it striking how much Westerners — and this includes free market types — who have lived in China full-time tend to agree with this conclusion.  It is also striking how many market-oriented economists, usually from the outside, don’t talk much about this issue at all.

That said, I fully agree that Trump has a poor understanding of economics, he is incapable of building the proper alliances, the benefits from Trump’s actions are likely to be marginal, and perhaps the best case scenario is simply that his provocations cause the Chinese to think twice before proceeding further along their current path.

Scott’s comparisons are with the EU and India, neither real rivals of the United States nor intended subverters of the Western economic order.  His p.s. is the part of his post that comes closest to my view:

PS.  There may be a few national security issues with China where sanctions are appropriate. I’m no certainly expert on high-tech espionage.  But that’s only a tiny faction of the trade dispute, and if it is a problem is better addressed through sanctions targeted at specific high-tech companies like Huawei.

I would have written “PS: For China, everything is a national security issue.  It is neither stable nor desirable for the world’s other major power to take exactly the opposite view.”

52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2018

Here is one of them:

35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]

Here is another:

Advertisers place a single brown pixel on a bright background in a mobile ad. It looks like dust, so users try to wipe it off. That registers as a click, and the user is taken to the homepage. [Lauren Johnson]


Those weirdly expensive books on Amazon could be part of a money laundering scheme. [Brian Krebs]


Expensive placebos work better than cheap placebos. [Derek Lowe]

And if you ever doubted it:

There is a small but thriving startup scene in Mogadishu, Somalia. [Abdi Latif Dahir]

Here is the whole list, definitely recommended.  Via Anecdotal.

Is the trade war with China over?

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

The basic problem with any U.S.-China trade conflict is that there is not very much the Chinese are interested in offering, and their intransigence is more than just a bargaining stance. They are willing to buy more American soybeans and manufactured goods (and probably wish to anyway), and they might give U.S. financial institutions freer rein within China. But they won’t dismantle their system of state-owned enterprises, as those companies are among China’s most powerful special interest groups. Nor will China give the major U.S. tech companies free rein in China, if only for reasons of national security and China’s desire to build a surveillance state based on data controlled by China.

Overall, the grievances on the U.S. side are significant, and the possible concessions on the Chinese side are minor. So the most likely outcome is only modest progress in difficult negotiations. It’s also likely that the power and focus of the Trump administration will wane as it deals with investigations from the new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. It might be said that the trade war you now see is the trade war you are going to get. Foreign relations gridlock will set in.

Nonetheless, it’s not quite fair to describe the trade war with China as a problem that Trump started and then pretended to solve. The reality is that hostility toward Chinese trade practices has been building for some time. Anti-China measures have long commanded bipartisan support not only in Washington but also among corporate leaders, who see themselves as victims of unfair Chinese trade practices and espionage. This is an issue that predates Trump, and he deserves some credit for doing something to help solve it.

Do read the whole thing, which contains other points of interest.

What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?

Why historians worry more about Trump than economists do

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

…historians stress the importance of contingency, that things really could have gone another way. The decisions of a solitary assassin or the outcome of a single battle can shift the course of history. Particular leadership decisions might have avoided or limited World War I. Or what if the Germans had not, in 1917, put Lenin on a train back into Russia? The Bolshevik Revolution might have been avoided and probably the entire course of history would have been different. A shrewder President Paul von Hindenburg might have prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

If you think about these questions enough, you can end up very nervous indeed. Historians have seen too many modest mistakes spiral out of control and turn into disasters.

Economists, in contrast, work more with general models than with concrete historical situations, and those models emphasize underlying structural forces. Economies have fairly set populations, birth rates, natural resources, capital stocks, savings rates, trading partners, and so on. So to an economist, the final outcomes are closer to necessary than contingent…

And when it comes to politics, economists of the “public choice” variety tend to see outcomes as controlled by a fairly tight structure of voter preferences and interest groups, variables which a president can change only at the margin and with great effort.

So which perspective is correct — the historian’s or the economist’s?

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of how Paul Krugman’s strong anti-Trump stance fits into this picture.

Is the internet good for African politics?

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

A second dynamic is harder to measure or prove, but is also likely positive: greater national unity…

One source of gain is simply that the colonial era is receding ever further into the past. In the meantime, a wide array of media outlets have helped to further African notions of national unity and cultural coherence. Soccer and other athletic teams compete on the world stage, and African players competing in Europe are portrayed as representatives of their nations, not particular ethnic groups. Commercial brands and celebrities help define national identities. Exposure to international media, most of all through smart phones and the internet, cements the notion that these regions are indeed perceived as nations by the outside world and that such designations are likely to stick. Mobile phones have knit together different African regions, and ethnic groups, in closer economic ties.

The notion of a nation as an “imagined community,” to use a term from political scientist Benedict Anderson, is under accelerating construction in many parts of Africa. Cultures and cultural expectations are adapting to current borders, even given earlier injustices, thereby contributing to falling rates of violence and conflict.

Unfortunately, Africa is exposed to a lot of “fake news,” perhaps more than Americans are. The good news, if you would call it that, is that Africans seem to be relatively skeptical of social media as a news source, and they put a relatively high degree of trust in international media.

Better yet is that most Africans say that the internet has improved their politics and economics. For instance, 64 percent of Nigerians reported in 2017 that the increasing reach of the internet was good for Nigerian politics. That number compares to just 43 percent in 2014, and positive impressions of a similar nature are common throughout Africa. For all the talk about social media creating divisions (such as in Myanmar), the net effect of modern technology seems to be greater unity, including with respect to national borders.

Do read the whole thing.