Friday, July 28, 2006

Multiculturalism's Endgame

There is an article in the Guardian in the U.K. that suggests that the multicultural philosophy is close to collapsing of its own internal contradictions. (Hat Tip: No Pasaran!.) In it, Germaine Greer suggests that a British author whose mother is a white Brit and whose father was born in Bangladesh is not culturally pure enough to write a book (Brick Lane, about to be made into a movie) about Bangladeshi life in Britain:

As British people know little and care less about the Bangladeshi people in their midst, their first appearance as characters in an English novel had the force of a defining caricature. The fact that Ali's father is Bangladeshi was enough to give her authority in the eyes of the non-Asian British, but not in the eyes of British Bangladeshis.

A connoisseur of absurdity cannot help but relish the whole episode. A white dinosaur Australian feminist takes it upon herself to take to task a “half-Bangladeshi” British writer for being insufficiently ethnically authentic. In this we see the entire multicultural pathology: trendier-than-thou elite leftists desperately racing to pile up the most tribally sensitive bona fides, even to the point of someone with no Bangladeshi blood pronouncing someone with half of it as inadequate.

The wheels, I think, are coming off the whole multicultural philosophy, which seeks to divide society into a series of cultural boxes, and then to put its own properly trained elites in charge of keeping the boxes impermeable and pure. There can be no “Britishness” to Germaine Greer, only the never-the-twain-shall-meet separate cultures of whites, Bangladeshis, etc. That the parents of Monica Ali (and that name itself, with its mixture of Christian Christian name and Islamic surname, is an act of defiance against cultural isolation) would dare to mate and create children that don't fit neatly into any of the preexisting cultural boxes is a fatal blow to Germaine Greer's entire culturally static conception of the world.

People like Monica Ali and her parents are the best hope we have against the ideology of cultural purism, as her very existence is a brick thrown into the glass house of cultural sterility that is modern multiculturalism. (When a Klansman speaks of the threats Jews and blacks pose to Aryan culture, we are rightly repelled. When multiculturalists speak of the threats minority cultures face from contamination by the majority culture, we are strangely fascinated.) This episode reminds me of the hilarious story of Rahila Khan. She was an author whose book, Down the Road, Worlds Away was published in 1987 and reviewed very favorably:

Virago Upstarts is a new series of books for girls and young women… . This new series will show the funny, difficult, and exciting real lives and times of teenage girls in the 1980s.” No prizes for guessing the reality of the real lives, of course: and Rahila Khan gives us “twelve haunting stories about Asian girls and white boys … about the tangle of violence and tenderness … in all their lives,” written “with hard-eyed realism and poignant simplicity.”

As for Rahila herself, she was born in Coventry in 1950, lived successively in Birmingham, Derby, Oxford, London, and Peterborough, married in 1971, and now lives in Brighton with her two daughters. She began writing only in 1986 (presumably when her daughters demanded less of her time), and in the same year six of her stories were broadcast by the BBC. Virago accepted her book, an acceptance that, in the words of Professor Dympna Callaghan, Professor of English at Syracuse University and author of a Marxist analysis of the exclusion of women from the Renaissance stage, “seemed to fulfill one of Virago’s laudable objectives, that of publishing the work of a diverse group of contemporary feminist authors.”

Alas, when a literary agent tried to contact Ms Khan, it turned out that he was neither female, let alone a “contemporary feminist,” nor Asian. Rather, “she” turned out to be the Rev. Toby Forward, a drearily conventional white Anglican priest. That he could write so compellingly about the lives of young Asian women while being so white and male seemed to put the whole multicultural literary project – we need to hear the authentic voices of dispossessed communities, etc. – in great peril. Indeed, in the article linked above Theodore Dalrymple notes that he had the same background – child of a gritty urban working-class neighborhood with tensions between whites and Asians – that the fictional Ms Khan was thought to have. And yet his whiteness apparently deprived the work of all its literary merit. And so of course there was nothing for the publisher to do but to destroy all the unsold copies of its own book, so that anyone who bought one now possessed a rarity.

The notion that tribal identity is destiny is incompatible with a free and harmonious society. The good news is that in the daily business of life – going to work, shopping, dating, marrying – people know that all the multicultural gibberish is irrelevant. The rise in multi-tribal workforces, in inter-tribal marriages, and so on, is making a hash of multiculturalism. And the end cannot happen soon enough.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Doha Disgrace

The Doha round of trade-liberalization talks has collapsed. The primary cause is the intransigence of developed nations – especially the U.S., the European Union and Japan – over slashing their agricultural subsidies. While Europe and the U.S. are engaged in an acrimonious round of blame-trading over the other side's unreasonableness, it seems clear that neither side was ready to make significant sacrifices. Per capita, the farm lobbies are perhaps as powerful as any in the developed world, and the inability to rein them in, causing the collapse of talks that could have created billions of dollars in wealth in desperately poor countries, is nothing short of a disgrace.

Farm subsidies are costly in a number of ways. The most well-known are that excess produce is dumped in developing countries with comparative advantage in such production, preventing their farmers from competing, and the billions of dollars taken directly out of taxpayer pockets to pay the subsidies. These things are true, but the costs go far beyond that. They raise the price of food products in developed countries, because high-cost production becomes reasonable when taxpayers foot much of the bill. Some estimate suggest that the average EU-15 resident pays well in excess of $1000 a year in higher food bills because of the artificial incentives given to high-cost agricultural production. If the EU announced (and they are not the only sinner, by far) that it was simply going to take $1000 out of the bank account of every non-farmer in the EU and divide the money among the farmers, EU residents would never put up with it. But the poison of farm subsidies, as with most special government privileges, is that their costs are difficult to discern, hence there is little incentive to mobilize against them.

In addition, the high-cost production is carried out on relatively low-fertility land that would not be used if market prices provided the only incentives to farmers, and thus the land must be browbeaten into submission through the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. In 2000 the OECD showed a chart, which I have been unable to find online, comparing agri-chemical use and government assistance to farmers. The positive correlation was striking. The four top jurisdictions in order in terms of subsidy were Korea, Switzerland, Japan and the EU, and the four top jurisdictions in order with respect to kg of fertilizer used per hectare were Korea, Japan, Switzerland and the EU. And so it went on down the line.

But clearly the biggest impact is in the poorest countries, which are most in need of opportunities for their agricultural entrepreneurs to earn income. (And in fact all their entrepreneurs, including the importing ones, as a deal on farm subsidies would have unlocked the entire Doha agenda.) It is thus they who will suffer the most from the Doha failure. Indeed, a primary hidden virtue of trade liberalization is that it corrals people into trade, giving them a greater stake in economic freedom and turning them away from rent-seeking and even political radicalism. That so many people piously lecture the rich countries, especially the U.S., about low levels of (completely ineffective and even corrupting) foreign aid while the power of the farm lobbies to derail much more effective changes is unfortunate. The politicians, and by implication the constituents, of the rich countries have much to be ashamed of in the whole sorry episode.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Legalize Bribery!

Randy“Duke”Cunningham (Why must the journalists always include the“Duke"? Would we not know him otherwise?) in jail for bribery. Tom Delay indicated for campaign-finance shenanigans. William Jefferson accused of corrupt entanglements with a Nigerian vice president. In other eras, Congressmen videotaped taking briefcases full of money from FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs. The high-school history lessons on Boss Tweed, the spoils system, etc.

Corruption is the bane of very age in every place, analyzed by Machiavelli, the Indian author Kautilya in the Arthashastra (quite possibly the world's first management text four centuries before Christ, by Confucius, and more recently by the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International and thousands of economists. I would like to make a (very immodest) proposal that most of bribery's ills could be remedied quickly by one simple step: legalizing it.

Corruption is a problem for several reasons. First, it distorts resource use. It means that resources are artificially diverted to the firm that pays the biggest bribe rather than the firm that can create the most value. If cars are made by a firm owned by the dictator’s son, because he has monopolized access to the resources, then those resources are unavailable to start not just different car companies but perhaps companies in industries to which the country, by virtue of innate comparative advantage, is better suited.

Second, corruption causes a huge amount of resource diversion into rent-seeking rather than productive activity. If there are big prizes to be handed out by the state, then every business finds that it must devote substantial resources to getting its own prizes and fighting off prizes awarded to others at its expense. None of this is free, as a casual glance through the Washington, DC phone book, with its pages upon pages of National Pressure Group of This, National Organization for Campaign-Finance Bribery on Behalf of That, will show. More acutely, society's best and often end up stamping meaningless forms in exchange for bribes or rising up the ladder and deciding how the major prizes at the legislative level will be allocated in exchange for truly major-league bribes. Instead, of fighting over the distribution of the pie, they could be out applying their talents toward making it bigger. These problems are especially acute for the poorest countries, where the opportunity cost of such resources and talents is in relative terms the greatest.

How much does this cost? No one knows for sure, although the strong link at the nation-state level between widespread corruption and brutal poverty suggests it is high, as this chart showing the relation between the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index of clean governance (0-10, 10 cleanest) and per capita income suggests:

Work in the economics literature estimate the full cost of rent-seeking at anywhere from ten percent to more than 60 percent of GDP in many societies. So clearly it ain’t cheap.

The longstanding recommendation of the rent-seeking literature is to eliminate corruption by eliminating opportunities for corruption – in other words, by eliminating the special privileges generated by law that provide the chance for government employees to extract income from the producers. But that is easier said than done: how can a government whose members depend so heavily on such regulations and the bribe opportunities they generate be persuaded to repeal them? Such things occasionally happen to small degrees – the Indian government repealed some of its licensing requirements after the 1991 economic crash there – but wholesale elimination is rare. And this is surely in part because the political-competition process is hindered by the public’s lack of knowledge about what the rent-seeking raj is costing them.

And so I propose that bribery of public officials in the U.S. be legalized immediately. The only requirements are that all bribes must be publically recorded, must be paid in cash rather than in-kind (e.g., as golf trips to Scotland), and the proposed laws on which influence is sought must be recorded. Such transparency will have one enormously positive effect: it will let the public know what the efficiency cost of any proposed law or regulation is by informing them as to what various pressure groups are willing to pay to have (or avoid having) it written. If a tariff imposes $10 billion in costs on consumers, that figure will be easier to get a grip on based on what manufacturers are willing to pay to have it imposed. Such transparency will facilitate public pressure by groups typically too diffuse to pay attention (especially consumers) because of high informational costs. It will also expose officials to the pressure of shame when it comes to bribery generally, because now it is all out in the open. To the extent that corruption creates a moral crisis for society, a belief that it is ethically crippled and hence until it is fundamentally remade (perhaps violently), there will be no progress, such shame may overcome this impasse. Who knows – it might even lead to pressure for a less intrusive state to begin with.

To be sure, there are problems of implementation – the practicalities of associating a particular regulation with a particular bribe, for example. But I am confident that a government that can discern the emanations and penumbras in the Constitution is up to the task. Tell a friend.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Europe's Growing Migration Quagmire

Europe has resolved another migrant mini-crisis. Previously, it was Chinese workers suffocating in a truck, or Africans storming Ceuta, Spain’s enclave in Morocco. Now a fishing boat captain has elected to save would-be migrants headed for the mainland from drowning. He then finds that neither Malta nor anyone else wishes to take them. Fortunately, it it has all been worked out. Three will stay in Malta, and the rest will be allotted among Spain, Italy, Andorra and Libya.

This kind of muddled, completely arbitrary compromise is always the hallmark of indecision, and that is where Europe currently resides in its migration problem. At this point, this much is clear to me:

- Europe desperately needs the migrants. (This point is disputed, a controversy I will take up in a subsequent post.) It is aging, and has a very burdensome and ambition-destroying welfare state that its population refuses to give up.
- There are people from Europe's fringes who are eager, even desperate, to go and keep the welfare-state Ponzi scheme going, mainly because their own societies are falling apart in comparison. They will go, as Mexicans do to the U.S., regardless of any legal and military barriers the Europeans place in their way.
- Europe’s population doesn't really want any immigrants (France and the U.K. partially excepted), except as multicultural zoo exhibits.

Thus, stasis. Europe will soon reach a moment of reckoning, where there will either be a largescale recovery of native fertility amid vastly increased rewards for increasingly scarce children, wholesale expulsions of immigrants amid nativist backlash (the backlash is likely, the expulsion not) or a large-scale program to regularize immigrant exchanges with Africa the Middle East and Asia culminating in the gradual nonviolent civilizational change of Europe, or continued large-scale illegal immigration and relegation of the immigrants and their children to the shadows, in which case the civilizational change will be violent. The second outcome is the most likely, but if it occurs there is no way Europe avoids being dramatically changed. In fact, the key question for Europe in 25 years may be not the conflict between whites and nonwhites, but the conflict among various immigrant groups over control of the civilization that remains. The demographic numbers appear, while subject to change if fertility recovers, to be that bad. (The globalization of Africa and the Mideast, despite globalization's bad reputation in Europe, would ironically do Europe a big favor. In taking such a hard line on lowering farm subsidies, Europe is contributing to bigger problems fifteen years down the road.)

Finally, the problem is not uniform. I expect these problems to be worst in the places where the demographic trends are worst, the prosperity is greatest, and the assimilationist forces the weakest. Given that France has, along with the UK, a significant assimilationist tradition (which the Arabs seem partly exempt from), the problems, while much in the news these days, may be less severe there. Rather, I expect Italy and Germany soon to see the worst of it. (Spain has high immigration and negligible domestic fertility, but is aggressively courting immigration from Latin America.)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Declining Fertility: Quality, Quantity and Darwin

Bioeconomics has not yet gotten much respect from much of the profession. It is, along with cognitive psychology applied to various economic problems, part of what is called behavioral economics. This is probably because cognitive-psychology literature, which sometimes pokes pinpricks in rational choice, is more congenial to those who reject rational choice and the economic freedom it implised. But bioeconomics' orphan status is changing as there are more attempts to use evolutionary biology to explain economic problems. One article even tackles the most important problem in economics, economic growth and prosperity. (Adam Smith’s foundational work, after all, was called An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.)

Why is fertility declining in so many countries? There are two leading schools of thought. One, based on economic reasoning and derived substantially from the work of economics Nobelist Gary Becker, says that potential parents maximize a tradeoff between child quality and quantity. One can have many children and invest little in each one’s development, or have few and invest a lot. Over time the time opportunity cost of children has become higher. 10 years out of the labor force in one’s 20s or 30s to raise children now entails greater costs in foregone investments in human capital. (An equal investment in on-the-job training or postgraduate education at age 20 has a much higher present value than the same investment at 35.) At the same time, economic growth has made it much easier for parents to self-finance their retirement, and even leave some to their children, rather than requiring their children to take care of them in old age. (Public pension systems such as Social Security not only do not contribute to this effect, they detract from it insofar as a private pension financed with what would otherwise be working-life Social Security contributions would be more rewarding.) Such a model explains both the tendency for fertility to fall as societies get wealthier and the tendency within societies for better-educated families to have fewer children.

But to Becker this was simply a matter of parental preference – of preferences and utility, the basic building block of rational choice, itself the basic building block of most economic theory. Parents invested in fewer children as they got richer because it maximized utility. Evolutionary biologists, in contrast view such behavior not as chosen rationally by the organism (which is ultimately all we are in their worldview) but as a random permutation that confers survival advantages. The reasons why people might choose quality over quantity are not as important as the fact that it provides propagation advantages.

What has been missing is a marriage of the rational choice of individuals with the survival advantages of quality investment at the expense of quality.
In the aforementioned study two economists joined evolutionary biology and the economic model of rational choice to get a theory of economic growth. The argument is that evolution-driven improvements in the human brain gave survival advantages to lower-quantity, higher-quality families, motivating increased investments in human capital, which created the Great Transformation, the making of modernity that liberated humanity from short lifespans and Malthusian struggles. (The genes that might have caused this transformation were not identified.) The greatest advantages, they note, are conferred primarily on men with moderate sperm count – big enough to conceive, not big enough to conceive indiscriminately.

This publication, in The Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2002, one of our most prestigious publications, is part of a growing acceptance of biological arguments by economists. That we are willing to do so is to our credit, in contrast to many in anthropology, sociology and political science who reject the encroachment of economic modeling on their turf. This is probably due to our belief in gains from trade, which makes biological models productive rather than imperialistic. Even so, many of my economist colleagues who are raised on utility theory, where preferences are simply given by nature, or who think primarily of behavioral economics as a way to invalidate rational choice, are probably going to be disappointed by the rise of bioeconomics, which will soon vindicate the rational-choice approach in broad measure in an evolutionary framework. But they had best get used to it, for that is going to be the way of things in the future.

Morally, this is troubling. A scientific diagnosis of why we do the things we do naturally lends itself to state control over our choices if, in the judgment of experts, they are seen as socially costly. Indeed, the entire biological approach takes us to be automatons, with no moral content, only the struggle for survival of all against all. In economic modeling we are calculating machines, but our preferences themselves are inviolate (if they do not involve negative externalities imposed on others), and so orthodox economic modeling lends itself to a bias toward freedom. (This is why economists with radical political bents know that the first thing they must do is debunk rational choice.) But while believers in freedom will have to be on guard against any marriage of sociobiology and public policy (which is a philosophical and moral question on which neither biologists or any other scientists have any particular expertise), believers in the progress of knowledge will have to accept it.

Curiously, the argument also raises the possibility that declining fertility is a good thing, not for the usual tired reasons of overpopulation, but because it will improve average child quality and hence the rate of technological progress. But that is a proposition for another day.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

China Bubble Watch: If China Builds It, Will They Come?

I have been a partisan of the China-bubble hypothesis for some time. But a fair question is when? I have been predicting it for well over a year, with nothing but double-digit economic growth to show for it. But here are some items I have found around the web:

-"The competitiveness of China’s manufacturing industries has suffered serious erosion over the past year, according to one of the world’s largest trade sourcing companies.

Hong Kong-based Li & Fung group, which manages a $7.1bn a year trading business, said price rises crept back into the Sino-US and EU supply chains last year, after at least six years of often “severe deflation”.

William Fung, Li & Fung managing director, reported an average 2-3 per cent increase in the once unbeatable China price its US and European clients were willing to pay. He pointed to a “double-digit” rise in Chinese labour costs, the revaluation of the renminbi and higher oil and energy costs for the shift."

Source: "China's competitiveness 'on the decline'," Financial Times, March 2006.

- Over 60% of China's vacant office and residential stock has been on the market for at least a year, and the amount of such stock increased by 13.8% last year. (Source, July 2006).

On the other hand, it may be that the vacancy rate arises more from large developments almost completely unfilled rather than widespread vacancies in Beijing and Shanghai. Anecdotal evidence is always the worst kind, but a student reports based on personal experience that there are entire massive developments going begging far from these two mega-cities, even as this report from Collier's (pdf) suggests that Shanghai office vacancy rates at the high end of the market have been trending downward for several years.

On the other other hand, the report also suggests that this is largely because of demand by foreign firms to be in Shanghai. If the Thai experience is any guide, foreigners are always the last to know, so this could actually be a warning flag.

- The number of civil protests over land redistribution continues to rise year after year. While this is probably not a long-term deal-breaker, it could easily accelerate an otherwise manageable short-term decline.

- The nonperforming-loan problem is tough to get a handle on, but there is no reason to be optimistic. Earlier this year there was the notorious incident in which Ernst & Young dramatically raised its estimate of Chinese NPLs in the four largest state-owned banks from $225 billion to $911 billion, the latter figure about 40% of Chinese GDP. It withdrew the report the very next day, citing an early release that bypassed normal vetting procedures, but the whole episode reeked of political pressure.

- The decline of the yuan, thanks to China's massive dollar reserves, has been orderly thus far. But if it is not, then the problem would be as bad as, if different from, the 1997 Thai problem, in which many Thais had taken out dollar-denominated loans only to see the value of the baht crash. Now it would be Chinese firms priced out of foreign markets. That the dollar has declined so much against the euro and other currencies that largely float unmolested, but not nearly so much against the yuan and other East Asian currencies, is a sign of trouble.

I must admit that my pessimism has been entirely unjustified thus far. And yet, and yet...every juggler reaches the point of one ball too many, at which point they all come crashing down.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Utopian Temptation

As part of my summer reading I am currently finishing Fouad Ajami’s The Foreigner’s Gift. I read his works as much for the beautiful writing contained therein as for his ability to interpret for non-Arab eyes the current shambolic state of Arab civilization. I am most struck by his description, here and elsewhere in his work, of the tendency of Arabs to fall for ideas that solve all of their problems - first socialism, then pan-Arab nationalism (which reached its pathological endpoint in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq), and now Islamism. In each case a deeply troubled people were looking for a simple idea that would fix all that ailed them - lack of development, miserable governance, what they see as the Palestine humiliation, etc.

The Utopian fallacy has a long and sad history. The word itself comes from the Thomas More story, which tells of a society in which private property is absent, work is carried out for the public purpose, and most of life is devoted to higher callings involving ideas, literature and the like. It is part of a long strain of Western thought and action dating at least to Plato on either the ideal society, or the horrors the pursuit of it brings about (e.g., Orwell's 1984). From the guillotine to the gulag, the infatuation with the perfect society has often had horrific consequences. The only mystery is Utopia’s continuing allure despite its toll in corpses.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Utopianism would come from a society, the West, hailing from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which hinges on the fall of man in paradise. The lesson of that story, one would think, is that perfection on this earth is unattainable, and must await the hereafter. And yet it is the West that has generated socialism, communism, fascism and the other ideal societies that, almost as though governed by an iron law, end up so tragically.

We are fortunate in the U.S. to have avoided the worst consequences of these movements. While Europe launched communism and fascism, and indeed societies like Weimar Germany tore themselves apart over the conflict between these dueling Utopias, such ideas have never really taken root in this country. Even in the 1930s there was never any serious prospect that the U.S. would adopt fascism or communism, and sympathizers such as Charles Lindbergh were regarded as misled eccentrics. To be sure we have suffered from anti-utopian excesses during the Red Scares of the second and fifth decades of the last century, but much better that than the thing itself. Equally true, we have our utopian communities - communes and religious communities and the like, which seek to create happiness here and now by adherence to some set of principles governing human behavior. But that our utopianism is channeled into Tocquevillian private communities rather than an attempt to grab the reins of the government - the privatization of paradise - is our blessing.

Why have we avoided the worst Utopian excesses - the Cultural Revolution, the Paris Commune, etc? Is it something in our temperament, a sort of show-me skepticism? It is probably partly this innate American pragmatism but also the genius of the Founders, who recognized that man is prone to manias in politics. The task of the government designer is then to prevent those manias from becoming law. All of that dreary stuff from my high-school government class (do they still have it?) about checks and balances turns out to be of capital importance. (It was probably a mistake to stop calling it “civics” and to start calling it “government,” but that is another conversation.)

Even the virtues of limited government, which I have often proclaimed, are perhaps best seen as a bulwark against evil rather than a guarantee of the good. In proclaiming such things as the ability of the market to promote cooperation and of the state to promote conflict I must constantly be aware in my own writings of the dangers of overstating its virtues. (On the other hand hatred of “the market” - work, property rights, etc. - looms large in Utopian literature. The idea that work could be an independent source of dignity and a way for men to achieve their goals with relatively little conflict, rather than mere toil that Utopia banishes never occurs to Utopian authors.) In the end, the best-laid government plans designs come to the worst sort of grief - as a boot in the face of humanity for all time, whether as the Khmer Rouge executing anyone found with glasses, which they took as a mark of Westernization, or Somali Islamists beating and shooting people for the anti-Utopian (in its Islamist strain) sin of watching a World Cup game or having music at their wedding. In this life at any rate, all we have is man and all his flaws, which he does not shed when he takes the reins of state in order to implement this or that grand vision. That is something we cannot afford to forget. (Ideas, perhaps Utopian and perhaps not, can be our undoing too.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Why Do Americans Hate Soccer?

As I write this, six teams are remaining in world sports’ most (or maybe second-most, behind the Summer Olympics) popular event – the FIFA World Cup. Meanwhile, in what is allegedly one of the world’s most globalized nations, 69 percent of Americans said before the tournament they would not watch any games. As it was going on only six percent were following it closely. When the U.S. team played the streets of American cities were indistinguishable from any other hour of the day, something that would be inconceivable in soccer-mad (which is to say most) countries. When the final is going on many fans all over the country will be more absorbed by NASCAR or baseball.

What explains this peculiarity? Americans seem immune to the global hysteria over this sport. (Contrary to some claims, there are a few other countries where soccer is second fiddle – e.g., India, where cricket rules, and Australia. But it is clearly the world's most popular sport, save here.)

A number of suspects have been offered. Three have to do with the nature of the game:

1. It’s too boring.. Sports can be exciting because of suspense – the uncertainty of an athletic contest is appealing for the same reason a movie thriller is. And suspense depends on the likely outcome of the game being subject to change in the very near future. (Three economists have actually modeled optimal sporting suspense.) In this theory of soccer-hating, the soccer-loathing American says that soccer is boring because there is so little chance for the direction of the game to change; most of the action, such as it is, takes place very far from the net.

The soccer fan responds that while soccer is continually in motion save for halftime, American sports are filled with stoppages of play, many of them purely for TV purposes. There is a lot of truth to this. In a single 40-minute televised college basketball game, there are 14 timeouts allotted to the two teams, plus eight extra ones inserted just for TV purposes. The NFL is just as bad, the NBA only a little better.

But TV interruptions aside, I think this argument on behalf of soccer fails. Suspense doesn't require ongoing action. If there is a stoppage of play with 1:30 left in a close NFL game, there is still a lot of excitement as the announcers and the fans speculate on what will happen next. It is the nature of baseball and American football that as long as the game itself is close the lead could change on the very next play. With soccer this is less true. Along those lines...

2. There’s not enough scoring.. One goal in soccer is huge, two is often decisive. The absence of scoring opportunities means that on the rare occasions when it happens suspense is diminished. A baseball team two runs or a hockey team two goals down can easily come back. Even an NFL team two touchdowns down is not out of it. In soccer, two scores are far more difficult to overcome. The scoreless tie (far more common in soccer than in hockey; baseball cannot have ties, and so play goes on until someone wins) is arguably the most eye-glazing example of this phenomenon.

This absence could arguably be part of the game's appeal, in that goals are supreme achievements, requiring long periods of striving and near-misses. Soccer is a game then of tragedy and achievement.

But the flip side of this is that often game outcomes are random, in that it is perhaps hard to say that in a 1-0 game the team that scored on a penalty kick is better than the one that had two shots hit the post. The more difficult scoring is, the greater the likelihood that the outcome is not a true reflection of team quality.

But whatever the truth, that soccer is a game full of agonizing near-misses and the inability to improve one's own fate by using one's hands suggests that it is the sort of game that only the English could invent.

3. The pitiful fake fouls. Flopping is a big part of soccer, with players faking having been fouled in an attempt to get a penalty called. This is certainly dishonorable, and lowers the appeal of the game. This doesn’t much exist in baseball or American football (punters faking roughing penalties aside), although basketball players flop a lot.

And so the argument goes that Americans just don’t care for these kinds of things. (See here for an example of this kind of argument.) But for any of these hypotheses to be true requires a very dramatic American exceptionalism – Americans have to be far more upset about these things than most of the rest of humanity, which loves the game. So it seems hard to accept any of them.

Other possibilities:

4. Violence. The amount of violence in the stands and in the streets that occurs over soccer - it's just a game, for crying out loud - strikes many non-fans as absurd. That European countries have a class of professional hooligans with nothing better to do than travel around and engage in mayhem during and after games also seems ridiculous upon just a moment's reflection. (Although in fairness it is not clear whether this is worse than the violence – low-level arson and looting, mostly – that has in the past sometimes accompanied American sports championships. It doesn't happen much, but in at least one city, Detroit, it has been somewhat serious.) Be that as it may, a related problem emanating not from the players but the fans is...

5. Racism. To the American observer the racism coming from the stands at European soccer games is nothing short of revolting. When the Dutch team Ajax, which has some historical association with Jewish ownership, goes on the road, fans commonly chant some variation on “Jews to the gas chambers.” Black players in various European leagues are taunted with monkey chants and fans waving and throwing bananas. The coach of the French national team says that this is even going on now in the World Cup. The problem is so obvious that FIFA has had to make anti-racism a theme of the current tournament, with announcements on its behalf before every game. This, recall, is happening in 2006. It is almost as if every single black player in Europe of any dinstinction must go through what Jackie Robinson got out of the way sixty years prior.

But both of these objections are not intrinsic to soccer, but are a peculiarly European problem. Racial taunts and hooliganism are not a problem when Tunisia plays Nigeria, or Brazil plays Chile. The racism and violence probably say more about contemporary Europe than about soccer.

What does that leave us with? I can think of two possibilities. The first is violence not in the stands but in the game. American sports are quite rough, at least in certain well-choreographed circumstances. Baseball has its brushback/beanball protocol, basketball its hard fouls, and American football is brutal from top to bottom. Soccer is just not a rough game at that level; no matter what the fouling, there is nothing comparable to a wide receiver getting clotheslined on a route across the middle, or a hitter getting drilled after the one before him homered. This too is an exceptionalist argument, but that Americans like rough sports more than everyone else is more tenable than an argument that they like, say, scoring more than everyone else.

Finally, a possibility is one I have never seen before - we don't like soccer because we didn't invent it. In this view, like everyone else Americans prefer the sports they invent, not necessarily out of chauvinism but because the sports are implicitly designed to or evolve to fit American tastes, even if the entrepreneurs don't explicitly know what those tastes are. (This is an evolutionary-fitness argument.) (Update: Having watched several games on American TV, I can add one other observation on this theme. The announcers for World Cup games go out of their way to use British sports terminology, which is also likely to turn American novice viewers off. Perhaps they are signaling their cosmopolitanism, I problem I have discussed here. In any event, when American announcers are broadcasting to American viewers, they should remember that American sports are played on a "field," not a "pitch"; American defenders "guard," they don't "mark"; and so on.)

Because the U.S. is both a big and wealthy country, there are many opportunities to invent sports and opportunities for the good ones to take advantage of a gigantic market. Some of the sports Americans invent – American football, basketball, baseball – become huge. Some of them – volleyball, lacrosse – become modest successes. Some of them – roller-blade hockey, triathlon (which I assume, because I associate it with the Hawaiian Iron Man event, is American-made) – remain the province of enthusiasts. An implication of this love-your-own-sports theory is that as other populous countries – China, India – become rich they will invent and begin to pay more attention to their own sports. I think I favor some combination of this and the rough-action-on-the-field hypotheses.