Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The End of the Japanese Miracle… and the American One

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has a very good post on cost disease. It definitely betrays a strong libertarian or conservative bias, but is nevertheless, worth reading.

The piece that resonates with me is posted below. It has some good insights, one or two that are questionable (for anyone not firmly ensconced on the right), but overall it methodically works its way to one hell of a punch-in-the-gut truth in last sentence.

Imagine if tomorrow, the price of water dectupled. Suddenly people have to choose between drinking and washing dishes. Activists argue that taking a shower is a basic human right, and grumpy talk show hosts point out that in their day, parents taught their children not to waste water. A coalition promotes laws ensuring government-subsidized free water for poor families; a Fox News investigative report shows that some people receiving water on the government dime are taking long luxurious showers. Everyone gets really angry and there’s lots of talk about basic compassion and personal responsibility and whatever but all of this is secondary to why does water costs ten times what it used to?

I think this is the basic intuition behind so many people, even those who genuinely want to help the poor, are afraid of “tax and spend” policies. In the context of cost disease, these look like industries constantly doubling, tripling, or dectupling their price, and the government saying “Okay, fine,” and increasing taxes however much it costs to pay for whatever they’re demanding now.

If we give everyone free college education, that solves a big social problem. It also locks in a price which is ten times too high for no reason. This isn’t fair to the government, which has to pay ten times more than it should. It’s not fair to the poor people, who have to face the stigma of accepting handouts for something they could easily have afforded themselves if it was at its proper price. And it’s not fair to future generations if colleges take this opportunity to increase the cost by twenty times, and then our children have to subsidize that.

I’m not sure how many people currently opposed to paying for free health care, or free college, or whatever, would be happy to pay for health care that cost less, that was less wasteful and more efficient, and whose price we expected to go down rather than up with every passing year. I expect it would be a lot.

And if it isn’t, who cares? The people who want to help the poor have enough political capital to spend eg $500 billion on Medicaid; if that were to go ten times further, then everyone could get the health care they need without any more political action needed. If some government program found a way to give poor people good health insurance for a few hundred dollars a year, college tuition for about a thousand, and housing for only two-thirds what it costs now, that would be the greatest anti-poverty advance in history. That program is called “having things be as efficient as they were a few decades ago”.

I should note that the spending examples cited in the above paragraphs have numerical support earlier in Alexander’s post. But the problem with the post is the lack of a satisfactory answer to the question it raises: what caused the massive declines in efficiency we saw in many vital parts of the US economy?

And here I am pleased to say I can help. I actually provided an answer to that question in a post I wrote six years ago explaining why Japan grew so rapidly after WW2 and what policy changes led to the end of its rapid rise.

I encourage you to read my post, but it comes down to this: the Japanese Miracle ended when its fabled bureaucracy became far less of a test- and performance-based meritocracy.  This was done with the noble cause of broadening inclusion, which of course, was severely lacking in the old system.  But the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.  The new system ended up just as unfair as the old one, but in very different ways.  Unfortunately, it also became a lot less efficient.  Test scores turned out to be positively correlated with performance.   Highly correlated.  It didn’t take long for the public to notice the change.  The deference once afforded to entities like MITI dwindled and died.  Soon the ministries could no longer command the respect they needed to actually run the economy, much less the competence to do it well.  But the now enfeebled bureaucracy could still influence events.  It went on to buy into Reaganomics (tax cuts, smaller government, and a trade policy that was less export oriented). Put another way: Japan Inc. started hiring suckers, and predictably the suckers got suckered.

The parallels with the US are obvious. That isn’t to say  all is doom and gloom for either Japan or the US. Both countries remain rich, prosperous, and innovative. But Japan no longer inspires the world as it once did. The Japanese Miracle ended decades ago. And I have a real fear that America’s best moment may also in the past. Policies that elevate mediocrity achieve just that.  And they are awfully hard to reverse.

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One Measure to Determine Whether a President Was a Success or a Failure

Some years ago, Michael Kanell and I wrote a book called Presimetrics in which we tried to quantify the performance of Presidents along a range of issues objectively, using numbers. But what if we want a single measure of a Presidents performance? Put another way – how do we know whether a President was a success or a failure?

I was born when Nixon was in office, though admittedly, I wasn’t paying all that much attention to politics at the time. But if I had to categorize Presidents in my lifetime as successes or failures, I would say Clinton was the most successful, followed by Reagan. Here’s why.

Off the top of my head, Clinton’s key achievements were these: creating conditions for or at least not standing in the way of a booming economy, generating a surplus, NAFTA, FMLA and welfare reform. Some of them may not look as good a decade and a half later, but that is true of anything. Nevertheless, on Clinton’s signature achievements, his opposition has either sought to claim some or all of the credit for them (e.g., the surplus, the economy, and welfare reform) or quietly accepted the issues as part of the status quo going forward.

With Reagan, we see the same thing. His signature issues were tax cuts, a growing economy after years of stagnation, a detente with the USSR (“tear down this wall,” some nuclear dealing, and getting the Soviets to leave Afghanistan) and instilling a general feeling that it was, indeed, morning in America and that the US was back in business. These were accomplishments that Reagan’s opposition sought to either claim would have happened anyway (e.g., a general deterioration in the USSR, the end of stagflation) or quietly adopted as a new status quo (e.g., tax cuts may have risen since Reagan – even under his Republican successor, but no Democrat in Congress or the Presidency has pushed for rates to go back to pre-Reagan levels). Of course, there were a few things that nobody, most certainly not the Democrats, wanted any part of, the big one being the explosion in the debt. The whole Iran-Contra Affair was another example.

So Reagan and Clinton were successful precisely because their opponents wanted a share of their success, and neither took many actions whose outcomes the political world wanted to keep at a distance.

On the other hand, consider GW and Obama. Nobody in opposition wanted (or wants) to claim any part of the credit for their signature issues. And nobody wants to claim that the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, the Mediocre Recovery, whatever the heck happened in Libya, or Obamacare was inevitable.

As the old saw goes: success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

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Making Fun of Barack Obama

My wife has been enjoying the recent skits about the Trump administration on Saturday Night Live. I can see why. Even Melissa McCarthy has managed to be funny in her impressions of Sean Spicer. Until now I would have sworn that reports of McCarthy having a sense of humor were some sort of urban legend. SNL has a long history of generating memorable Presidential impressions: Chevy Chase (sort of Gerald Ford), Dana Carvey (Bush the Elder) and Will Ferrell (Bush the Lesser) come to mind.

But poking fun at Presidents has a long and storied history, and is probably a good thing. I enjoy comedy a lot, and I can safely say that every President in my lifetime has been the butt of a lot of jokes. Well, every President but one. It seems to me that almost nobody made fun of Barack Obama.

I thought it was interesting, so I did some searching. I found this NY Post article which has a bit of commentary from SNL’s Jim Downey:

Yes, data nerds, there is empirical evidence that Barack Obama gets a free ride from comics.

In a new book, “Politics Is a Joke!” three academics tabulated 100,000 jokes told by late-night comics over the last 20 years. They found that in 2008 only 6% of the jokes were about Obama (Palin attracted nearly as many jokes in four months as a public figure as he did all year). And those jokes had a tendency to be about as barbed as cotton candy. Example cited by Tevi Troy in The Wall Street Journal: Jon Stewart said Obama visited Bethlehem so he could see “the manger where he was born.”

In every presidential campaign since 1992, the researchers found, comedians aimed more jokes at Republicans than they did at Democrats. Overall, twice as many barbs flew at the GOP.

“Our job is, whoever is in power, we’re opposed,” “SNL” chief Lorne Michaels told The New York Times in 2008. Agreed. And so they’ve been doing their job badly. Says who? Says . . . Downey.

Now that he has retired from the show and gained a little perspective, Downey comments in “Live from New York,” “I have to say, and even [Al] Franken agrees with me — I’ve talked to him about this — that the last couple seasons of the show were the only two in the show’s history where we were totally like every other comedy show: basically, an arm of the Hollywood Democratic establishment. . . . We just stopped doing anything which could even be misinterpreted as a criticism of Obama.”

But I don’t know if this is being deferential to the Democrats, or to Obama. After all, comedians had a lot of fun at the expense of Clinton, and Jimmy Carter before him.

Another possibility was raised by no less an expert than than Dana Carvey, namely that making fun of Obama is seen as not PC and possibly racist. I suspect there is something there. For instance, NPR carried an article with this title:

Portraying Obama As Chimp Not Like Showing Bush As One

Personally, I think that regardless of the reason making fun of Obama was off limits, the fact that people mostly didn’t do it wasn’t healthy. Humor, particularly at the expense of the ruling class, is a safety valve for dissatisfaction. The victories that Obama provided the American people were sparse and weak. They were not great or grand, and they provided no justification for treating a leader like a holy man. And unearned privilege does nothing more than generate resentment. I think it created an “emperor has no clothes” mentality in a substantial segment of the electorate, many of whom had previously voted for Mr. Obama. I think that in turn helped elect a successor whose campaign essentially came down to repudiating Obama and everything for which he stood.

Your thoughts?

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I Didn’t See Tom Brady in the Supermarket Today

I saw three people wearing Tom Brady jerseys in the supermarket today.  I don’t watch football and I am bad with faces, but I would venture a guess that not one of the three was the Tom Brady who will be playing in the Super Bowl today.  For one, none of them looked the part.  If forced to provide a description of Tom Brady, I would go with somewhere north of 6 feet, fit, athletic and most importantly, somewhere else.  I don’t know where the Super Bowl is being played today, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t in Long Beach, CA.  (Breaking:  I pulled out teh Google, which tells me the Super Bowl is being played in Houston.)

But I was wondering – what possesses grown men to wear a jersey with Tom Brady’s name and number on it?  Of course, the question generalizes to any other athlete.  You don’t see people wearing a jersey proclaiming themselves to be anything other than athlete.  I get why nobody wears a jersey with, say, Andrew Wiles name on it, and he was last year’s Abel Prize Laureate.  Few people would recognize what the Abel Prize is about, who Andrew Wiles is, or what Andrew Wiles did to deserve the Abel Prize.  But we also don’t see people wearing a faux-Marine corps uniform with James Mattis’ name tag on it, and Mattis was pretty damn popular among military personnel long before The Donald put him up for Secretary of Defense.  Ditto now dead Stormin’ Norman, and he was widely known in his day.   To go back a war or two, I doubt anyone was wearing William Westmoreland get-ups either.  In fact, I cannot think of any field other than sports that results in people dressing up as other people when neither Halloween nor fraud is involved.

So what is it about sports that generates that sort of behavior?  And what is that behavior representing?  It is very unlikely that anyone is actually fooled into believing some middle-aged out-of-shape guy wearing a Tom Brady or a Stephen Curry jersey is the person whose name is on the jersey so it’s gotta be something else.  I also don’t see how wearing one of those jerseys confers any sort of simpatico or affinity.   I say this as someone who has on occasion worn jerseys from one or another soccer team (though none with a player’s name and/or number on it).  In each case, however, the jersey was a gift, and I made a point of wearing it when it the gifter was likely to see it.  So what am I missing?

 

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A Review of “Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa” by Keith Richburg

I just finished Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa by Keith Richburg. Richburg spent three years in Africa while working for the Washington Post, and his tenure overlapped with the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, among other atrocities and outrages.

Richburg is not a particularly good wordsmith, but he is unflinching and that makes this book transcend. He tells it like he sees it, and varnishes nothing. Well, almost nothing. His fellow expat journalists do receive favorable treatment. But everyone else – Black Africans, White Africans, Black foreigners and White foreigners alike get it in the proverbial jugular. The book has the feel of truth.

If there is any criticism I have, it is that the book was written in the late 1990s and events have since moved on, usually in unfortunate directions. One of the few parts of Africa that Richburg identified as having the potential to be a success story, Zimbabwe, has since become, well, Zimbabwe. And that more or less confirms Richburg’s pessimistic view of Africa.

As I write this review, I realize I haven’t yet mentioned that Richburg is an African-American.  It’s in the title of the book, and the fact that he is Black does figure into the book – unlike most foreigners in Africa, he often gets treated like a local by the locals.  However, the main relevance of Richburg’s skin-tone, by my reading, is that it makes his “there but for the grace of God go I” moments more poignant.  It also confers on him an implied permission to write frankly about topics that would be off-limits to other reporters.

At this point in a book review, it is standard to pepper in some quotes from the book. Honestly, the book is so raw and covers so much ground from Detroit to South Africa that it is difficult to find the right piece of it to illustrate what the book is about. I settled on few. The first quote and a half lays out the problem of Africa in a way that has been bothering me for a while:

Why has East Asia emerged as the model for economic success, while Africa has seen mostly poverty, hunger, and economies propped up by foreign aid? Why are East Asians now expanding their telecommunications capabilities when in most of Africa it’s still hard to make a phone call next door? Why are East Asians now wrestling with ways to control access to the Internet, while African students still must use cardboard drawings of computer keyboards because they don’t have real computers in their classrooms? Why are East Asian airlines upgrading their long-haul fleets, while bankrupt African carriers let planes rust on weed-strewn runways because they can’t afford fuel and repair costs? Why are the leaders of Southeast Asia negotiating ways to ease trade barriers and create a free-trade zone, while Africans still levy some of the most prohibitive tariffs on earth, even for interregional trade?

There was nothing inevitable abut Asia’s success and Africa’s despair. Both regions emerged from colonialism at about the same time and faced many of the same obstacles. In 1957, when Ghana gained its independence from Britain, it was one of the brightest hopes of black Africa, with a higher gross national product than South Korea, which was itself still recovering from a destructive war, and before that, from thirty-five years as a Japanese colony. Today South Korea is recognized as one of Asia’s “dragons,” an economic powerhouse expanding into new markets throughout the region and the world. Ghana, meanwhile, has slid backward. Its gross national product today is lower than it was at independence. World Bank economists like to point to Ghana as an example of an African country that is “recovering” under a strict fiscal discipline program; what they don’t tell you is that the economy today is propped up by foreign aid.

A couple of paragraphs later, he continues:

Talk to me about Africa’s legacy of European colonialism, and I’ll give you Malaysia and Singapore, ruled by the British and occupied by Japan during World War II. Or Indonesia, exploited by the Dutch for over three hundred years. And let’s toss in Vietnam, a French colony later divided between North and South, with famously tragic consequences. Like Africa, most Asian countries only achieved true independence in the postwar years; unlike the Africans, the Asians knew what to do with it.

Talk to me about the problem of tribalism in Africa, about different ethnic and linguistic groups having been lumped together by Europeans inside artificial national borders. Then I’ll throw back at you Indonesia, some 13,700 scattered islands comprising more than 360 distinct tribes and ethnic groups and a mix of languages and religions; Indonesia has had its own turbulent past, including a bloody 1965 army-led massacre that left as many as a million people dead. But it has also had thirty years since of relative stability and prosperity.

The next quote shows that is going on in Africa is more than tolerated, it is supported (and more or less why that is the case):

I got to see Strasser again about a year later in Libreville, the capital of the small, oil-rich central African state of Gabon. The occasion was a summit meeting between Africans and African Americans organized by the Reverend Leon Sullivan, the veteran civil rights campaigner and anti-apartheid activist who had authored the “Sullivan Principles” outlining fair employment practices for U.S. firms doing business in apartheid-era South Africa. The summit brought together some of the most prominent luminaries from the American civil rights establishment—including Coretta Scott King, former UN ambassador Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, the comedian Dick Gregory, the Reverend Joseph Lowrey, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and Virginia governor Douglas Wilder. Hundreds of African diplomats and some twenty heads of government were also in attendance.

When Strasser entered the meeting hall, sporting his now-trademark sunglasses and his camouflage battle fatigues, the crowd of mostly middle- and upper-class black Americans went wild with cheering, swooning from the women, some hoots, and frenzied applause. Sitting in that hall, you might be forgiven for thinking Strasser was a music celebrity instead of a puny boy-dictator. These black Americans were obviously more impressed with the macho military image Strasser cut than with the fact that he represents all that is wrong with Africa—military thugs who take power and thwart the continent’s fledgling efforts to move toward democracy. The chanting and hooting was a disgusting display, and to me it highlighted the complete ignorance about Africa among America’s so-called black elite.

The reception for Strasser wasn’t the only thing sickening about that summit meeting. I sat there and listened as speaker after speaker heaped a nauseating outpouring of praise on some of Africa’s most brutal and corrupt strongmen and their repressive regimes. An uninitiated listener might not have noticed the farcical nature of Jesse Jackson’s fulsome tribute to Nigerian strongman Ibrahim Babangida. Jackson called Babangida “one of the great leader-servants of the modern world in our time,” proclaiming, “You do not stand alone as you move with a steady beat toward restoring democracy” Jackson also called on President Clinton to reward Babangida with an official visit to the White House on what would be a “triumphant tour as we herald the restoration of democracy” in Nigeria.

Along the same theme, Richburg has this a few pages later:

It’s as if repression comes only in white.

So I was disgusted and angry in Gabon. And to keep from venting my disgust, I decided to have some fun by asking the various black leaders at the summit about the lack of human rights and democracy in black Africa. I enjoyed watching them wrap themselves in their own contradictions when I pointed out their contrasting views on South Africa versus the rest of the continent. I found the whole affair in Gabon so distasteful, I actually liked watching them squirm.

I asked Doug Wilder, Virginia’s first black governor since Reconstruction, about the problem of democracy in black Africa. “We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds,” he replied. “If they are on track and on the path and giving evidence of trying to adjust, then our job is not to interfere, and to understand that there is a difference from what they are accustomed to.”

Interesting. Now imagine the conversation was about South Africa, and the year is, say, 1980, and imagine a white governor of a southern state saying of the apartheid regime, “We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds…. Our job is not to interfere.” I can imagine that white politician would immediately be branded a racist or worst, and probably by no less a personage than Doug Wilder.

And consider the comments of Leon Sullivan on the question of democracy in black Africa: “We must be on the side of human rights and democracy,” he told me. “Many African leaders recognize it must be done and are trying to find a way to bring it about.” Then he added, “I don’t like to see anything stringent from America, saying you must do this or you must do that.”

Really? I seem to remember Reverend Sullivan being made of stronger moral fiber. What were the Sullivan Principles, after all, if not a way to bring pressure on the morally bankrupt apartheid regime? And they worked. So is Reverend Sullivan now trying to tell me that it’s okay to be stringent with despots when they are white racists, but for black despots we’ll let our standards slide a bit?”

At no point in the book is there much optimism about Africa or its future. I have never been to Africa, but I have spent a fair amount of time in Latin America and I can recognize a lot of what he wrote in the parts of the “developing” world that I know. The attitudes of the populace, and how they lead invariably to poor outcomes is certainly a factor in common.  And based on what I know about Latin America, I share Richburg’s concerns about the future of Africa.

In closing, I would say I finish less than 10% of the books I start. I finished this one, and expect to re-read it within the next year or two. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about Africa, and the United States.

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Garrett Jones Reviews the Literature on Immigrant Success

Recently I put up a few graphs showing that the income of immigrants is correlated with the income of the country from which they hailed, and that this relationship is especially true for immigrants who have been in the US the longest

Garrett Jones has been covering the same ground, and here he provides a bit of a review of the literature:

Recently, a small group of economists have found more systematic evidence on how the past predicts the present. Overall, they find that where your nation’s citizens come from matters a lot. From “How deep are the roots of economic development?”published in the prestigious Journal of Economic Literature:

A growing body of new empirical work focuses on the measurement and estimation of the effects of historical variables on contemporary income by explicitly taking into account the ancestral composition of current populations. The evidence suggests that economic development is affected by traits that have been transmitted across generations over the very long run.

Does that sound familiar? It should. It’s what I keep getting excoriated for writing around here.

More from Jones:

And finally, from “Post-1500 Population Flows and the Economic Determinants of Economic Growth and Inequality,” published in Harvard’s Quarterly Journal of Economics:

The positive effect of ancestry-adjusted early development on current income is robust…The most likely explanation for this finding is that people whose ancestors were living in countries that developed earlier (in the sense of implementing agriculture or creating organized states) brought with them some advantage—such as human capital, knowledge, culture, or institutions—that raises the level of income today.

Hmmm… that too seems familiar.

Moving along, since many of today’s immigrants to the US hail from countries with very different institutions than their adopted home, this next paragraph from Jones is also very interesting (and also parallels quite a bit of what I have written):

If migration shaped institutions in the past, perhaps migration will shape institutions in the future. Or perhaps not: while violent European colonizers imposed their institutions and their culture on lands that had belonged to Native Americans, perhaps peaceful mass migration in the 21st century will leave today’s institutions and culture undisturbed. Perhaps, to coin a phrase, this time really is different.

The danger in all of this is that Americans are pretty bad at picking their bedfellows. If you doubt that, ask any of the nice women who attended the March on Washington this weekend what they think of cliterectomy-enthusiasts. Then ask them if they favor restricting the immigration of people from cultures where cliterectomy-enthusiasts are especially prevalent. Even if you point out this isn’t a case of a few bad apples giving the the rest a bad name – according to UNICEF there are countries where over 9 in ten women have been subjected to FGM – I am going to guess a lot of Americans find restricting immigration to be more icky than FGM. The result is that according to the CDC, in 2012 half a million women or girls in America were at risk of FGM.  The CDC attributed that to immigration from countries where the practice is rampant. Now, this behavior is still illegal here in the US, but that can change. After all, the people who would do such things to their daughters also vote.

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Protesting Donald Trump

When Barack Obama became President, Republicans in Congress pledged to oppose him tooth and nail. That was a bad idea. It implied that they were hoping the President would fail. This implies one of two things: either they wished ill for the country, or they were completely convinced that Obama was wrong and they were right on every important issue. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, we can assume hubris rather than dislike of country (or worse).

But hubris brings with it its own set of issues as anyone who has read Greek Mythology can attest. If Obama had achieved success, the Republicans would have looked very, very bad, particularly after 8 years of GW Bush. It could have set back the Republican Party for a generation.

Fortunately for Republicans, Obama has come across as inept. The best defense his supporters can conjure up is, in fact, the fact that Republicans didn’t cooperate with him. But even without the help of Congress, there were many things a President can accomplish. As head of the Executive Branch, Obama could have reduced unnecessary spending, graft and corruption, to name initiatives that are always popular and which have been ignored by American Presidents during my lifetime. Even many of the worst run third world countries have managed to produce a leader who does tries that approach for a few years. We are long overdue.

Obama could also have achieved success by placing himself in opposition to the policies of his predecessor which had generated such disastrous outcomes, and which, not incidentally, were supported by the Congressional opposition to Barack Obama. That would have been a no-brainer. But Obama’s approach toward dealing with the Great Recession was to keep doing what GW had been doing, and above all, holding nobody accountable. Mimicking GW and doing nothing to restore faith in the system had predictable results – a lackluster recovery to an economic meltdown.

So Obama saved the Republicans from themselves with his ineptitude. And now we have the spectacle of millions of Americans on the left behaving the same way the Republican Congress did eight years ago. The protesters are counting on Trump to fail as badly as Barack Obama (and GW) did before. And perhaps he will. Trump’s policies aren’t entirely thought out, and shooting from the hip often generates poor outcomes. But luck matters. And so does the ability to communicate, and to bring the crowds to your side. If Trump fails, it will probably be in a very different way than Obama (and GW) did before him. His failures may not look as bad as their failures. Similarly, if Trump’s policies are sufficiently unorthodox, in those areas where he does succeed, the appearance of success may well be magnified. Chewing out Boeing over the bill for the next generation of Air Force one or cowing Ford into keeping a few jobs in the US may be little more than good optics, but good optics create positive morale, and positive morale feeds back on itself. There is also no reason to believe he will stop with Boeing or Ford.

If I were to advise the protesters, it would be like this: wait until Trump has had a chance to fail before you protest. If he does fail, after all, it will come fast and it will come soon. But if he connects with the public, and you oppose him from the beginning, a lot of voters won’t be taking you seriously by the time the next election rolls around.

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The Economist on Diversity and Development

I was looking for information on how cultures affect growth and stumbled on this 12.5 year old article in The Economist:

Diversity and development might seem to sit oddly together. But they are intimately linked, and the report seeks to show that they are not related in the way many people assume. The UNDP’s press release says unambiguously that “there is no evidence that cultural diversity slows development”, and dismisses the idea that there has to be a trade-off between respecting diversity and sustaining peace. Some of the world’s richest and most peaceful countries are historically multi-ethnic, such as Switzerland, Canada and Belgium. And most of the world’s richest countries are now the destination of immigrants from around the world, making America, Britain and other wealthy nations hugely diverse.

I imagine if you make a movie whose cast is perfectly representative of the population of diverse Switzerland or Belgium of a decade ago when this article was written, and the movie was a masterpiece, it would run afoul of #oscarssowhite.

But there is some evidence that diversity has costs. In a recent book, “The Size of Nations” (see article), two economists show that managing ethnic diversity is expensive, as governments must deal with the demands of groups competing for scarce resources. In the United States, a study has shown that people are willing to pay more for services like education if they can live with people more like them in ethnicity and class. In other words, people place a value on being with others like them. Multi-ethnic nations have been breaking apart recently (the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia); few countries have merged during the same period, and those that have were ethnic mates (East and West Germany, North and South Yemen).

A quick look at the Human Development Index (HDI), released each year in the report, seems to support the idea that diversity has its costs. In the bottom 35 countries ranked as having “low human development”, all but three are in vastly diverse Africa, where borders drawn by colonialists showed no respect for tribal, linguistic or religious identities. Meanwhile, while single-ethnicity states are rare (just 30 countries in the world do not have a religious or ethnic minority that constitutes at least 10% of the population), they are strongly represented at the top of the HDI: places like Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Ireland and Austria.

The article continues:

The report recommends several political strategies for coupling diversity and development. One is “asymmetrical federalism”—the type of constitutional arrangement seen in Spain and Canada, where regions dominated by a cohesive minority (like Québec or the Basque country) get special local-government powers that others do not. This both recognises the region’s distinct identity and binds it to the central state. After all, the authors point out, most people in Spain’s minority regions see themselves as both Spanish and Basque (or Catalan or Galician)—not just one or the other. Giving those overlapping identities constitutional form can be one way to stabilise a diverse country. However, it can also give rise to resentment among the majority—be they anglophone Canadians or Castilian Spaniards—over the privileges of minorities.

My guess is this works only as long as the Quebecois mostly continue to live in a geographic distinct area. In other words – where diversity however it is measured exists at a macro but is minimized at a micro level. I imagine living and working together in a way that forms elite teams requires an approach that does more to smooth out whatever differences are perceived to exist and treat everyone as the same. (Warning – Youtube & profanity.)

 

The authors of the report argue for several other policies to protect and promote what they call “cultural liberty”, with certain caveats. For example, they support affirmative action, which, they say, has led to an increase in the number of black professionals in America, and has helped ethnic Malays in Malaysia and various minorities in India as well. But they lightly question the wisdom of letting such policies become entrenched, asking for example whether the children of affirmative action’s beneficiaries should themselves be eligible for a helping hand.

I suspect that such programs are very, very hard to dismantle. Differing cultural traits (which necessarily exist as long as people are assisted in keeping apart) will result in different outcomes, and different outcomes are a justification for keeping these programs intact.

The authors also propose treating “cultural goods” differently from other kinds when discussing trade. They give some of the oft-cited statistics about the cultural dominance of a few countries—for example, that America accounts for 85% of films screened worldwide. Their assumption is that, left to raw market forces, products from smaller cultures would be drowned out of the market. But rather than proposing restrictions on, say, importing American films, the authors propose allowing governments to take positive action to boost the production of their local fare. (Some trade agreements treat such support as an illegal subsidy.)

This must work because movies hav a discernible effect on the culture in different countries. That is so very unlike movies more typical goods like the Honda Civic, Sony Walkmen, SAP ERP, AK-47, Google’s search engine and Coca-Cola have had no discernible effect on any country’s culture.

While the report is full of feel-good language and social-science jargon, like “participation exclusion” and “living mode exclusion”, it is an interesting first stab at marrying diversity and development, two subjects not often found side-by-side. The report is, by its own admission, short on data about just how bad the problem of cultural exclusion is around the world. But it estimates, probably not too wildly, that one in seven people in the world is a member of some kind of disadvantaged minority. When engineering a new constitution, founding fathers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations under construction, as well as those who would advise them, would do well to take the suggestions of this report to heart.

And I predict that as long as society encourages people to think of themselves as distinct from their neighbors, and their neighbors as distinct from themselves, we will only increase the number of people who are members of what the Economist calls “some kind of disadvantaged minority.”

Updated to include comments on Swiss and Belgian diversity. Also, second blockquote was not originally shown as quote.

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Education – Close to Home Edition

This email just arrived from the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), where my son is currently enrolled in one of the elementary schools:

Long Beach Unified is conducting a survey of all students, staff and parents on the culture and climate of our schools. The surveys, all of which are available for review on our website, are an important part of our accountability plan. Your input is very valuable so please watch your in-box tomorrow for an email titled “Long Beach Unified School District Parent Survey”. If you do not receive an email, log into your ParentVUE account and click on the tab, Core Parent Survey, in order to complete the survey. The survey is available in English, Spanish, Khmer, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean and Arabic and takes 5-10 minutes to complete. Thank you.

On the LBUSD home page, though, Parent Guidelines are only available in English, Spanish and Khmer. Apparently the district is changing rapidly or they’d have the Parent Guidelines in Chinese, Tagalog, Korean and Arabic.

Just for reference, Ed-Data, run by the California Department of Education, provided data on the “Languages of English Learners” at the school my son attends:

Number of Students by language from ed-data dot org

 

For reference, in 2015-16 there were 3 under Arabic, 3 under Filipino, and 6 under Vietnamese.  Nine are “all other”, which is just under the 11 figure for Khmer.  Also for reference, there are about 1,000 students in total at the school.

Anyway, I have no conclusions, or anything else to add.  I just found the data to be interesting.

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