Monday, April 30, 2007

An American in Paris

I can hardly believe what I am seeing out of the City of Light. Here is Nicolas Sarkozy, whom I am falling for more and more with every passing day despite a previous spasm of doubt, on the campaign trail yesterday (from The Daily Telegraph):
He summoned memories of the student revolt of 1968, saying: "In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all."

If elected, Mr. Sarkozy promised to break with the "cynicism" of the "gauche caviars", who he blamed for a crisis of "morality, authority, work and national identity". Citing the recent mini-riot in Gare du Nord, he repeated his accusation that the Left "systematically takes the side of thugs, troublemakers and fraudsters against the police".

1968 was a turbulent year in the U.S., with, among other things, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy and violence at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. I can dimly recall from my childhood in the 1970s that my parents had saved a copy of Life magazine (a weekly then) devoted to that incredible year. But we had nothing on France, where the “revolt” of 1968 was devastating, with the country shut down for weeks on account of student protesters, despite their ignorance about the ways of the world. No less a leader than Charles De Gaulle was shoved aside by the thuggery of "the people," and the New Left moved into power with even more devastating effect there than here, with France’s stagnation and ethnoreligious turmoil the primary result a generation later.

But Mr. Sarkozy is talking truly amazing talk. I assume that "gauche caviars" is the French equivalent of "limousine liberal," and to take on the cherished totems of the left this way – on economics, on integration, on the social model – is remarkable. He talks like a fire-breathing American conservative. His opponent has predictably tried to paint him as a Bush clone, but the attacks seem to be bouncing off ineffectively.

Many people predict that the French are too attached to their social model to make meaningful change, and I myself have long believed this. But the way Mr. Sarkozy is campaigning and the language he is using at crunch time now suggest to me that he is serious. Assuming he has the political strength, I anticipate him to try to make major change, especially on labor rigidities, probably the most compelling of the big three (along with high taxes and unemployment benefits) economic deficiencies of France. I also anticipate that his biggest challenge, the one that may deprive him of the political oxygen his fire desperately needs, will come from the suburbs. I expect an angry, riotous challenge to arise thence to meet him very soon after his inauguration; how he handles it will determine the success of his grand vision for a new France.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

You Are What You Write, or You Write What You Are?

The "alternative" newspaper the LA Weekly has a mildly disturbing story about an episode at the Los Angeles Times. A reporter of Armenian extraction had written an article about whether or not Congress will soon officially recognize the mass slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I as genocide. The Turkish government has been waging a campaign all over the world for years to prevent the use of the word “genocide” to describe these events, which they characterize as the unfortunate but unavoidable slaughter of war.

An editor of the Times apparently felt that the reporter had an intrinsic conflict of interest precisely because of his ethnicity. And so he killed the story and assigned it to a non-Armenian reporter. In the modern multicultural climate – in which your ethnic ancestry is completely determinative of what you believe, what you eat, how you learn, which holiday celebrations are going to offend you – this is a lamentable but inevitable result. Taken to its logical conclusion, the multicultural belief system in the journalistic context supposes that no one writing a story about any matter that impinges or affects in any disproportionate way any ethnoreligious group in the world should be allowed to publish it. Thomas Friedman can never write about Israel or the Arab world, Christopher Hitchens can never write about Islamist attacks on Britain, indeed no one of any ethnicity may write about affirmative action, an activity that affects all ethnic groups differently.

In posts like this, I like to link to a wonderful little story about a white-as-cotton Anglican vicar who, writing under a Muslim-sounding pseudonym, wrote a book about the tough lot of young Muslim women heroically navigating their way among the irresponsible white boys of contemporary Britain. The book was widely praised for its authenticity, and it was only when the author met with an agent who wanted to represent him that his secret was unmasked. The Reverend was a vivid and compelling Asian writer, until we actually got a look at him.

It is a basic tenet of modern multiculturalism that that which unites us is less important than that which divides us – dominated by the practically genetically encoded cultural framework that completely determines our role in life. Working from such a mental template, it is unavoidable that journalism must place unusual importance on the ethnoreligious composition of its workforce, and it is only a very short step from there to the idea that stories must be assigned on the basis of these criteria, and from there to a newspaper with no news in it. I have previously criticized the very notion of journalistic objectivity, arguing instead for journalists not to be shy about their biases, so that readers may better evaluate their stories. But the diversity fetish that increasingly afflicts modern journalism – blacks and Asians and whites in women and men are all looking at a different funhouse-mirror distortion of an unknowable reality, and so we have to have a newsroom that “looks like America” – is itself inconsistent with the pursuit of objectivity. You can have diversity as a means to more thorough coverage, or you can have objective coverage, but you can’t have both. What a mess.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Honeybees and Global Warming

Heard of Colony Collapse Disorder? Human-kept bee colonies all over the world seem to be suffering from it. A beekeeper opens a hive, then finds to his astonishment that a huge number of his bees are not dead but simply not there – disappeared somewhere out into the wild. I think this disorder has important implications for the global-warming debate.

But not in the way that you probably think. To be sure, CCD has been attributed, according (caveat emptor) to Wikipedia, to many of the usual environmental dastardries – pesticides, genetically engineered corn, urban sprawl gobbling up bee habitat, even cell-phone towers destroying bees' navigational system. But I am not interested in exploring whether global warming causes CCD; if you came here looking for that, you will be disappointed. Rather, I am interested in whether the current reaction by mainstream media to CCD tells us anything about how to evaluate the claims about global warming’s likely consequences – in particular, whether dire consequences from environmental problems are as likely as environmentalists believe.

Much of the reporting on CCD is certainly replete with the language of crisis that is so fundamental to modern environmental reporting. Here are excerpts from a recent New York Times story:

The sudden mysterious losses are highlighting the critical link that honeybees play in the long chain that gets fruit and vegetables to supermarkets and dinner tables across the country.

As researchers scramble to find answers to the syndrome they have decided to call “colony collapse disorder,” growers are becoming openly nervous about the capability of the commercial bee industry to meet the growing demand for bees to pollinate dozens of crops, from almonds to avocados to kiwis.

Along with recent stresses on the bees themselves, as well as on an industry increasingly under consolidation, some fear this disorder may force a breaking point for even large beekeepers.

A Cornell University study has estimated that honeybees annually pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States, mostly fruits, vegetables and nuts. “Every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food,” said Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

The bee losses are ranging from 30 to 60 percent on the West Coast, with some beekeepers on the East Coast and in Texas reporting losses of more than 70 percent; beekeepers consider a loss of up to 20 percent in the offseason to be normal.

There you have it; a third of the food supply at risk! Certainly the language regarding global warming is similar, with the general argument being that it is happening, it is mankind’s fault, and that We Must Do Something to Avoid the Crisis. It has been this way in environmental advocacy and gullible journalistic acceptance of it at least since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the publication of which arguably led to the deaths of millions of people in Africa after DDT was hysterically banned. But this argument, I suspect, strongly underestimates the human capacity for adaptation and innovation. If the temperature rises, people will move, they will learn techniques and living habits more suited to warmer temperatures (perhaps even improving human welfare on balance), they will develop defense mechanisms as needed. The costs of global warming will be lower than expected, and the benefits greater.

An implication of this view is that if we simply ignore (at least at the transnational level) global warming, everything will work out much better than expected. “Doing something” about it through some multinational authority, on the other hand, will tend to bias decisions toward lower emissions no matter the cost (since climatologists, like all of us, value their own knowledge too much, and since the foregone opportunities for those ruled over by such a regime are treated as free), to ignore local information about how better to cope with it, and to increase the risk of centralized control of all sorts of human activities, with devastating effects on human freedom.

The honeybee problem has this feel of “Crisis! Do something!” about it. If (as I suspect is likely) the problem is dealt with by beekeepers, agrichemical companies, etc., without us suffering a disaster in the supermarket, this is strongly suggestive of what will happen if we react to global warming by refusing to hand up a number of never-to-be-regained freedoms to any international climate bureaucracy. I predict that with CCD scientists, entrepreneurs and local officials will find ways to solve or to accommodate this problem, and that the predicted crisis will not happen. I predict that with global warming it will be the same.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Vice Presidents As Far As the Eye Can See

Paul Wolfowitz, most notorious among a certain sort of person for being a “neoconservative” and an advocate of the Iraq war, is under fire in his current job as head of the World Bank. He is accused of maneuvering the transfer of his girlfriend to the State Department from the Bank at a significant pay increase. Maybe his ethics breach was severe, or maybe, as The Wall Street Journal page contends, it was not unethical at all and this is instead a smokescreen to block Bank reform. But I was struck by the following offhand remark in The New York Times:

Paul D. Wolfowitz sought Wednesday to quell discontent over his leadership of the World Bank by promising top aides that he would change his management style, but he suffered a blow when one of those aides urged him to resign,

The officials said that at a meeting with about 30 vice presidents of the bank, Mr. Wolfowitz asked for suggestions on how he could restore faith in his management after a furor over charges of favoritism toward his companion in 2005.

That the World Bank is an organization that has “about 30” (does no one know exactly how many?) vice presidents is, it seems to me, a far more pressing problem. But no one seems interested in that.

Has M. Sarkozy Lost His Nerve?

Denis Boyles, usually known for his bitterly sarcastic and therefore enjoyable tours through the European press, has an interesting survey of the closing days of the French presidential election campaign. In it, he argues that Nicholas Sarkozy, the man who once seemed capable of bringing radical economic and geopolitical change to a France desperately in need of it, has moved back into the dreary, a-little-bit-to-the-left, a-little-bit-to-the-right politics that is slowly strangling the French nation:

Left-leaning analysts thought people might be afraid of the kind of profound changes Sarkozy might bring. Royal’s early efforts to discover the depth of that fear were fruitless. But when Sarkozy began backing away from the big stuff and chasing trivial issues around the edges, it appeared he was afraid of serious change. Soon, Sarko was trying to out-promise Ségo, and ultimately, both candidates were offering more and more of the one thing the French didn’t want: more of the same. This week, l’Express reports, Sarko is suicidally campaigning with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the champion of the failed constitutional effort and perhaps the one politician in France who could rival the low esteem that voters have for Chirac.

Sad if true. Love it or hate it, France is for all its irritating qualities one of the most compelling historical narratives around. More importantly, its fate, at a time when it is increasingly drowning in hostile immigrants and economically dysfunctional, matters to Western civilization. It would be a disaster if the first candidate in years who understands that demand curves really are negatively sloped, that resentment-based economic policies have consequences, were himself drawn into the disastrous French postwar consensus. The whole article is worth a read.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


The massacre at Virginia Tech, like all such mass killings that so plague the U.S., has brought incomprehension from abroad over the easy access to guns in the U.S., and calls to limit (but, tellingly, not ban) access to them from Americans. But all of this energy is wasted.

It is taken for granted by advocates of more gun control that laws against guns lead to less guns. Let us think about that rigorously. Imagine there are two kinds of people: law-abiding and criminal. Each group can possess guns or not. There are thus four possible outcomes:

Outcome 1: The law-abiding and criminals have guns.
Outcome 2: The law-abiding have guns, the criminals don’t.
Outcome 3: Criminals have guns, the law-abiding don’t.
Outcome 4: Neither the criminals nor the law-abiding have guns.

Outcome 4 is usually the desired outcome for gun-control advocates. We might call it the Swedish or Japanese outcome, since these are countries where essentially no one owns guns. (No one other than the state, that is, which always possesses them. This is a primary argument gun advocates in the U.S. make for legalized gun ownership – protection against tyranny. But leave that aside.) Note as an aside, though, that Outcome 2 is just as good as outcome 4, since the law-abiding will not use their guns to harm others.

But it is almost certainly true that if we start from a society with widespread gun ownership, getting to Outcome 4, or even Outcome 2, is impossible. A society that can’t even police the black market in labor or the black market in drugs cannot realistically be expected to police the black market in guns that will surely develop. Thus our choices are Outcome 1 (if the law-abiding are law-abiding to such an extent that they do not participate in the black market) or Outcome 3.

Outcome 3 means that the law-abiding are under constant threat from the criminals. This is not purely hypothetical; Britain and, to a lesser extent, Canada are suffering increasing gun crime despite the legal barriers placed to handgun ownership. Outcome 1 is morally preferable to Outcome 3 because the law-abiding may defend themselves.

Of course, access to guns for criminals makes crime more productive, and makes violence easier. And so a side-effect of widespread gun ownership can be periodic massacres of the Virginia Tech type. The ghastly Wikipedia entry on mass murder lists mostly Americans, although also episodes in the UK, South Korea, and even Japan and Sweden. It would be foolish to deny that easy gun ownership makes these episodes easier.

And yet, this explanation seems incomplete. The U.S. in particular has always had guns, but has not always had mass murders. The Wikipedia entry indicates a large increase since approximately 1984. So what has happened from then on to make these events more common? If we extract back from 1984, and remember that most of these events seem to be committed by men under 40, we work our way back to 1944, and thus the postwar, baby-boom era. This is where the explanation lies. Something has gone profoundly wrong in the U.S. during this time. If we assume, plausibly, that once the first event after this change occurs (which I would argue was the James Huberty massacre in 1984 in a San Ysidro, CA McDonald’s), it now draws many imitators when earlier massacres like Charles Whitman in the University of Texas tower did not, then there is something going on now that makes people who might otherwise carry out their rage in other ways do this instead. What it is – the widespread use of mood-altering medications, a perverse desire for immortality and dark fame, which is better than no fame at all, a hyper-pressured society, a general relaxing of the social stigma against violence emanating from the permanent increase in crime here since the early 1960s – I cannot say. But ultimately guns, while clearly making it easier for a mass killer to get the means to do his ghastly work, do not explain why he becomes a mass killer in the first place. That is where the mystery lies.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Does China Up = America Down?

China and India are now grabbing headlines through their rapid economic transformation (more dramatic and longstanding in the Chinese case). Some highly respected people are saying some very surprising things. Recently the Princeton economist Alan Blinder, a pillar of the profession and a long-time free-trader, noted that the rise of India in particular, with a giant population well-endowed with technological skills and English fluency, will make tens of millions of American jobs “outsourceable.” In the article linked above, he indicates that this should be dealt with by training to prepare people for face-to-face work such as law, which is less subject to outsourcing. While Prof. Blinder is still a free-trader, The Wall Street Journal recently interpreted his stance to be skeptical toward globalization overall. The left-wing magazine The Nation documents the trend while interpreting in the usual anti-corporate way, arguing that opposition to globalization is rising among surprising people because corporations have been unmasked as disloyal.

The argument that the rise of China and India , and poor countries generally, is bad for the U.S. because they are cranking out so many skilled people and posing greater competitive threats is a bad one. Not just because it overstates the technical prowess of all those Chinese coming out of school with the label “engineers” despite the low level of their training, nor because it underestimates the power of skilled immigrants to the U.S. and our advantages in transparency, market flexibility and the other more important ingredients of rising standards (although it does both these things). Rather, the argument fails on basic fundamentals, the most important of which I lay out here:

More trading partners is a good thing. Would you rather have one car-repair shop or ten to choose from? One brand of bread or 100? One gastroenterologist or 12? Clearly, the more the better from your point of view. The same is true for the seller as well – the more potential customers, the better off he will be. That is all the rise of China and India is – more trading partners brought into the global trading networks that Americans always take for granted. The more they are woven into the global trading system, the better.

Knowledge is free. As I have argued before, more traders in the global economy also means more creation of new ideas. Much knowledge is nonrivalrous, meaning that you can use it without diminishing the amount available for others. A technological or scientific breakthrough in India is just as true and useful in Kansas City as in Bangalore. It is true that the Indian firm may (justifiably) be able to patent the breakthrough, but the underlying principles and ideas are still freely available to all. Each breakthrough provides the raw material for more. The more competitive experimenters, the better.

Job destruction is a precondition of job creation. The hard truth is that jobs are created and destroyed all the time, often for reasons having nothing to do with globalization. It is when they are being created and destroyed at the most rapid rate that human progress is most dramatic. The Industrial Revolution completely remade the employment profile of every country that went through it, moving people from the farms to industry, but only as a side-effect of completely remaking human possibilities. To a lesser extent the information revolution has done the same, and the merging of billions of people into the global economy will do the same perhaps even more spectacularly.

There is a fallacy that everyone who talks about jobs being “destroyed” is invoking, that the status quo is somehow to be privileged. This is the path of France, of Germany, of decline. In fact, jobs come and jobs go, and wastefully idle workers are the entrepreneur's workshop The only way this is not true is if labor markets are rigged to protect current job-holders, as is the case in countries like the aforementioned. In that case technological change leads to substitution of capital for labor, lower growth despite that, and high levels of unemployment. This pretty much describes the Continent in a nutshell.

Countries do not compete; individuals do. Countries do not in an economic sense meaningfully compete. Rather, the individuals within them cooperate for mutual gain, and sometimes compete to make trades with others, whether as employers seeking workers, employees seeking jobs, or businesses seeking customers. There is no way in which “America” and “China” compete in that sense. The individuals who compose the two countries have so many different interests, possess so many different resources, etc. that the differences within countries are far more important than the differences across countries treated as unitary actors.

The rise of China, India, Brazil, or any other country does not intrinsically make any nation poorer. Rather, it serves to lift the residents of other nations up. This is the way it was with the rise of the U.S., of Japan, and every other successful country. The addition of billions of new hard-charging, industrious, clever, creative people into the global trading mix is going to be one of the greatest developments in the last several centuries of human history. Of course, this is purely an economic argument; the rise of India and especially China can certainly have geopolitical consequences. More on that later.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Those Somali Cab Drivers - The Final Resolution

According to a Minneapolis TV station, the Minneapolis Metropolitan Airports Commission has decided that any airport cab driver who refuses to take a passenger carrying alcohol will lose his privileges for 30 days for the first offense, two years for the second one. Some Somali cab drivers had refused to transport alcohol, citing Islamic prohibitions against doing so, an argument Muslim cabbies in no other American city had made.

It is a fairly stern punishment. While some drivers had apparently wanted separate lines for passengers with and without alcohol, and special signs on the top of the cab for those who wouldn't carry alcohol, I had contended here, based on economic-efficiency reasoning, that the proper response was to send such cabbies to the back of the line every time they refused a fare. One commenter dissented, arguing essentially that civilizational cohesion was at stake. Thanks in part to apparently great outrage from all over the country, he appears to have won the argument.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

How to Deal With Student Protesters

The University of Southern California is one of the most expensive schools in the country, but when you go there you find that sometimes the best education is free:

Students staged a sit-in Tuesday outside the office of USC's president, hoping the university would take measures to ensure that USC-themed apparel isn't manufactured in sweatshops.

Thirteen students, who came prepared with food to last three days and pillows, ended their protest after about six hours when the university threatened to suspend them and, in a move that even surprised former 1960s student activist Tom Hayden, called their parents.

"We were prepared for arrest, but not suspension," said Ana Valderrama, a senior in philosophy.

I have never understood the high moral authority attached to college students and their protests. It makes little sense economically. It is probably true that college students have more idealism, but that is simply a function of being younger and less understanding of how the world works. One could also argue that their greater amounts of free time than the average working adult gives them more opportunity to research the issues that generate their disturbances, so that they are more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, since they do most of this learning in the seriously problematic classrooms of the modern American university, I don’t anticipate that their campaigns will be any more well-informed than the stock-picking habits of someone who does all his market research by consulting his spam folder. And in any event, the fact that for college students time is copious cuts both ways: when time is plentiful its opportunity cost is cheap, meaning that people will protest over relatively unimportant things. So ignorance about reality and the importance of the particular slice of it that exercises them are problems that plague any student movement.

In fact, knowledge is a stock of capital that we expect older people to possess more of, other things equal, than younger people because they have been investing in it for longer. They should know more about the world and its frailties than the young, at least until the point that theor cognitive faculties begin to meaningfully depreciate. In this conception, people in their mid-50s, still active out in the world and with their minds fully intact, are the wisest people in the world. Indeed, one of the premises of a university is that students are there to get knowledge they don’t currently have.

And so it simply boggles the mind that college protesters, particularly the disruptive ones, are lent such respect by the broader society. Even when they act through threats of social chaos rather than through persuasion (as in the late 1960s), their leverage is limited, as USC's response demonstrates. Protest too much and you have to leave school and get a job. And so the attention and deference college protesters receive, combined with their seeming greater effectiveness in Europe (especially France, where student protests in 1968 substantially remade the country while protests in 2005 actually forestalled desperately needed economic reform) are mysteries I am unable to explain.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Continuing Ascendancy of English

The International Herald Tribune has been running a series (latest installment here, with links to previous articles) on the rise of English worldwide. It is pretty obvious to me that the number of speakers of English is for the foreseeable future going to rise, because the world needs a standard language and the marginal cost of English is smaller, given the number of people who already speak it. This is not an issue of replacing other languages, but of having a common backup language for all to communicate in. The use of English as the world's common tongue explains, among other things, why Americans and the British lag so badly in learning other languages; the marginal value of mastering another one, given the extent to which English can already be used to communicate, doesn't justify the marginal cost.

I bring it up because the series confirms most of the points I made awhile back in Some Economics of Language, which drew some vigorous dissent in the comments section.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Who Should Own the Moon?

The BBC tells of an American named Dennis Hope who is selling plots of land on the moon. He apparently decides which ones to offer by “closing his eyes and pointing to a map of the Moon.” Most astonishingly, he claims to have made $9 million from individuals (including celebrities) and major corporations, including Hilton and Marriott, alike. (Whether people are buying as speculation or pure novelty is unclear.) Technology may soon make both permanent colonization and industrial/mining activity on the moon feasible. How should property rights be allocated when they are currently unowned?

The Moon is valuable because of the resources contained in it – minerals, ores, and apparently helium-3, the latter very rare on earth but potentially very valuable as an energy source. In principle, given the technological know-how, these resources could be made useful to those of us on Earth. It is even possible that manufacturing done in a low-gravity environment could lead to technologically superior products; I vaguely recall that experiments have been done in the space shuttle to test this possibility.

But finding these resources, establishing a human presence, and transporting the materials (and the people) back to Earth is very costly. I would want to use a property-rights system to give people incentives to learn how to do this cost-effectively, and to reward those who have (or are likely to have in the future) the knowledge to exploit these resources.

Any selling of moon plots before anyone has even gone there for commercial purposes is inefficient. There is no reason to think at this initial stage that anyone knows how enforceable those rights will be, and the necessary exploration work has yet to be done. To incentivize such exploration, it is critical to make it potentially profitable. The proper solution, it seems to me, is to simply allow anyone who makes it to the moon stake a claim by means of establishing a permanent presence, manned or unmanned. Indeed, it might even be beneficial to require the establishment of claims to all resources within a definitively surveyed area. This will presumably limit the ability of a first-arriver to claim the entire orb, while providing people incentives to go out and look for the valuable stuff - by rewarding actual extractors rather than merely explorers. The scheme bears some resemblance to the old Homestead Act provisions that encouraged settlement of the West, with the exception that under the latter you could establish ownership merely by fencing property off. That worked then because much of the presumed highest-value uses of such land – ranching, crops – involved no new technology. Here extraction of resources – there will be no horticulture on the surface of the moon – is prohibitively expensive and highly speculative. The incentive we want to provide is to find the resources, which requires making finding them profitable. I would thus argue in favor of establishing some kind of specific underlying resource claim, which might then also include other resources fortuitously found under the same plot.

One possibility – placing the moon under some kind of multinational body like the UN – is clearly a nonstarter. This would lead to all sorts of majoritarian rent-seeking on behalf of poor societies unlikely to mount any lunar resource extraction, or to frustration of private efforts to go get the resources to get them to begin with. Resources owned by everyone are owned by no one. The moon is valuable; we should encourage the expenditure of value to go out and get what makes it valuable. To answer the question in the title, no one - yet.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Gluttons for Punishment

A French group called Alternatives Economiques, best described as a fan of big government and an opponent of globalization (a fan of serfdom, in other words), has issued a petition called "Pourquoi nous consentons à l’impôt" (which, if my college French is still of any value, translates as "Why we consent to taxation"). The left-wing (not America squishy-left, but all-out French left) newspaper Libération has endorsed the petition, under the headline "For a campaign against fiscal demagoguery." (When I was in high school my teachers taught me that "demagoguery" was the sort of rhetoric that Hitler and Mussolini used, not rhetoric arguing for lower taxes during a presidential campaign. But let it pass.) The argument in the petition is that taxes are a necessary expression of social solidarity, of tying the rich to the poor, etc., an argument that Theodore Dalrymple systematically dismantles.

Funny thing, though. In France, the informal economy, the portion of the economy that is off the books and hence escapes taxation, is 15.3% of GDP and $3736.30 (2000) U.S. dollars per person. In the U.S., where anti-tax rhetoric ("fiscal demagoguery") is much more common, tax evasion is much lower, with the informal economy clocking in at 8.8% of GDP and, despite much higher income per capita, only $3000.80 per person. (Source: World Bank.)

The list of signatories includes lots of mayors, professors, "cadres administratifs" and even some economists. The conclusion I draw is that talk is cheap, especially when you're spending other people's money.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Some Problems are Just Hard

There is a remarkable series of letters in The New York Times in response to a series of Op-Ed pieces there evaluating the War on Cancer 35+ years after President Nixon declared it. Each letter declares that the war on cancer requires that we do something specific. For Nancy G. Brinker, who is with a cancer-fighting foundation, all that is missing is the magic elixir of “national will”:

As the articles in “Humans vs. Cancer: Who’s Winning Now?” illustrate (Op-Ed, April 1), there is no shortage of ideas for how to deal with cancer. What appears to be missing, however, is a sense of urgency — an appreciation of cancer as the grave and growing crisis it is — and the national will to confront it.

For David Perlin, the problem is that cancer researchers don’t get enough federal grants:

Scientific discovery that addresses underlying disease mechanisms requires a union of physicians and academic researchers to develop novel approaches that can adroitly explore areas like host genetics while looking out for new etiologic agents.

Unfortunately, such high-risk science that challenges prevailing doctrine has been a casualty in a federal fiscal environment where biomedical financing is approaching 1 in 10 grants.

Ken Zaret, with the Fox Chase Cancer Center, argues that basic research needs more attention:

Despite the temptation to assume that we know enough of nature’s secrets to harness and prevent cancer, those of us doing basic research can see many vistas yet unexplored. It will take years, with many more unanticipated discoveries, before we should fully shift our gaze to translational science.

Mais non, argues M.J. Rosenberg; the problem is that some people need to be paying higher taxes:

Any candidate who cares about what this disease is doing to our people should commit to raising taxes by a specific amount that will finance the National Institutes of Health and other research institutes so that they have the resources to eradicate this disease.

I know that candidates are risk-averse, but anyone who cannot stand up to the misanthropes who would not pay more taxes to save the lives of family members, friends and fellow Americans does not deserve to be president.

A public-health professor argues, unsurprisingly, that public health needs more federal cash:

Behavioral and public health research has shown ways to reduce these disparities, but this research gets minimal support from federal granting agencies compared with their investments in genetics and basic biological research.

Behavioral and public health programs have helped millions quit smoking and could make similar contributions to reversing obesity and its risks for both cancer and heart disease. But the research and the programs are poorly financed amid heavy promotion of the dream of the genetic fix.

Injecting a dark note into the discussion, a woman from Poughkeepsie says that the problem is the suppression by big corporations of research into environmental factors:

But who is studying the cumulative effect of all the cancer-causing agents in the substances we touch, breathe, ingest or bathe in?

Several April 1 Op-Ed writers mentioned genetic vulnerabilities, but what about the environmental factors that may trigger those vulnerabilities?

I’m not surprised by the lack of research on this. The companies that finance cancer research are often polluters themselves.

Who knew it was so easy? The letter writers have all succumbed to the fallacy that problems like cancer are basically engineering ones, and the federal government can and should simply implement the proper design, what Virginia Postrel called The One Best Way. Of course, more resources devoted to one favored response means fewer resources available for other responses, which is a big problem if the favored response turns out to be ineffective. But the belief in solving problems through tinkering with legislation and appropriations runs deep in our society these days.

In fact, cancer is a hard problem to solve; its intractability (despite undeniable improvements in detection, treatment and social acceptance of those who have it) in the face of tremendous resources mobilized to fight it ought to convince any reasonable person of that. The problem is not that the government has failed, or has been captured by big business, or hasn’t sufficiently funded this or that. The problem is that cancer is still an unsolvable problem. The unwillingness to see it this way, and the vulnerability of the public to language invoking a nation's most compelling calling, war (in addition to "war on cancer," recall "war on drugs," "war on poverty," etc.), lead people to demand why the government has not brought its omnipotence to bear on this costly disease (often by throwing more dollars the complainer's way). This is an example of what I once referred to seeing the state, with all its all-too-often ignored flaws, as ultimate problem-solver. Thinking about cancer this way, like poverty or inequality or war or crime or the other things that will be with us for a long time, is a recipe for bitterness, for conspiracy theorizing, for surrendering more of what properly belongs to individual cooperation and initiative to zero-sum politics. There are some problems in society that people of any sort would be hard-pressed to solve, let alone people taking orders from the government.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Will East Asia Save Classical Music?

Midori. Seiji Ozawa. Yo-Yo Ma. And soon
Lang Lang? One of the most interesting things going on in modern (as it were) classical music is the rise of East Asians as the custodians of a cultural form that was of course created in Europe. In China, Japan and Korea, devotion to the Western instrumental form is arguably much greater than in Europe and North America. Indeed, very casual empiricism suggests that among émigrés from these countries who have gone to the U.S. it is more common to see children mastering Western classical music than among the natives (including natives of East Asian ancestry). East Asian students, including naturalized US citizens, were 11 of the 35 contestants in the 2005 Van Cliburn piano competition. The International Herald Tribune has a story on the rising popularity of the study of classical music among the Chinese children of ambitious parents. Asian faces, while a minority, more and more populate major world orchestras, particularly on strings and piano.

When I used to live in Japan I was struck by how much more common Western classical music is there than in the U.S. Beethoven’s Ninth is a holiday tradition, played by orchestras all over the country. NHK (the state broadcaster) has a professional orchestra. All kindergarten teachers (overwhelmingly female) are expected to be skilled piano players (piano of course not being a native Japanese instrument). And so too in Korea, Taiwan and China proper, where the music is admired among the broader population more than in the West.

The reasons classical music are fading in the West are not clear, but fading it is. Classical-music listeners are trending older, CD sales of the form are down. Commercial classical stations are far rarer than they used to be. Whatever the reason, I will resist the temptation to offer fundamentally snobbish reasons, the ever-crasser tastes of the public and all that. That is because the competition is tougher in the best sense – the world’s cultural offerings are far greater and more interesting than ever before, not less and less interesting. People who once might have drifted into classical music may instead be wandering over to various forms of “world music,” much of it complex and compelling. As Greg Sandow notes, the primary reason that popular culture poses a threat to classical music is not because it’s so bad but because it’s so good. Globalization and improved communications technology have opened the world’s people to all sorts of new cultural possibilities.

And the decline of classical music in the West is also not for lack of trying by its advocates. Many orchestra leaders now recognize the need to connect with an audience incapable of relying on the music-education classes that public schools have long since dropped. The orchestra director in our town does a terrific job of educating, in a non-condescending way, the audience about the work they are about to hear, and of making concerts accessible to children. KMZT in LA is a good example of a commercial classical station that assumes its listeners are eager to learn, and emphasizes more well-known composers and works while not completely cutting out those less well-known.

But whatever the reason, classical music is facing tough times in the West. And it is strange to see, in tandem with its decline here, its ascendancy in the Far East. It is almost as though those in that part of the world see something in our heritage that we are no longer able to see for ourselves, that orchestral music, chamber music, etc. are still, despite the increasing cultural competition, among the most sublime of human artistic achievements. This is not a development without flaws. In Japan in particular (and, I assume, elsewhere in that part of the world) there is a tendency even greater than in the U.S. to be drawn to brand names – to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and the other giants, at the expense of new and innovative composers. And some of the students of classical music are undoubtedly driven by parents keen for the prestige of having a child musically accomplished in the Western tradition, which is associated with high culture there as much as elsewhere.

But all in all this is certainly a trade worth making, and certainly not unhealthy for the continued vitality of classical music. And it’s not the first time such a thing has happened. Britain was the creator of modern tennis, but a Brit hasn’t won at Wimbledon since Virginia Wade in 1977. But the Russians, Swedes, Swiss, Belgians and others who win it these days still treat the tournament and its traditions reverently. Another racket sport, badminton, has uncertain origins in, depending on who is talking, Greece, India and China. But it became big-time when British soldiers brought it home from India at the height of the Raj. (The international federation is now located in Gloucestershire.) Asians now dominate the game, but its future and past are both secure. It will be much the same if the job of maintaining the classical-music tradition falls more and more to the East. It would be ironic indeed if places like China, where Westerners were once seen as barbarians and Mao Zedong’s Red Guards once insisted on destroying every piano in the country as an emblem of bourgeois decadence, were the places where a Western cultural form went to be saved.