The Silence

This is an analysis blog not a news blog. That’s why I’m not writing about the atrocity at a music concert in Manchester, England other than to take note of it, offer condolences to the survivors, their families, and those of the slain, and to sit in silence until there’s something to analyze.

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Skin in the Game

In the Wall Street Journal historian Walter Russell Mead curtly summarizes the state of American foreign policy:

North Korea threatens to take America hostage. The Middle East burns. Venezuela descends into chaos. Jihadist groups develop new capacities. A failing Russia lashes out. The European Union risks breaking apart. China presses toward regional hegemony. Trade liberalization grinds to a halt. Turkey turns away from democracy. And the U.S. still lacks a strong consensus on what its foreign policy should be.

Washington’s foreign policy needs more than grudging acquiescence from the American people if it is to succeed. How to build broad support? First, the Trump administration should embrace a new national strategy that is more realistic than the end-of-history fantasies that came at the Cold War’s conclusion. The case for international engagement should be grounded in the actual priorities of American citizens. Second, Mr. Trump and other political leaders must make the case for strategic global engagement to a rightfully skeptical public.

It might be helpful if those who advocate an assertive, activist, interventionist foreign policy for the United States actually had some skin in the game. As long as bearing the financial costs of that policy is somebody else’s responsibility and somebody else’s children are the ones who’ll be sent to war, it’s hard to see how the case for “strategic global engagement” will be made.

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Is There an Economic Case for Autonomous Cars?

As you may have heard, Ford Motor Company has fired its CEO. As reported at Atlantic:

Ford Motor Company is expected Monday to replace Mark Shields, its CEO, with Jim Hackett, the head of its autonomous-driving unit, several news organizations are reporting.

Ford’s stock has declined more than 30 percent since Fields became CEO in July 2014. Last week the company announced it was cutting 1,400 jobs, about 10 percent of its salaried workforce, mostly through buyouts. The move was an attempt to assuage shareholders angry about the direction of the company, which has been buffeted by poor sales, lower-than- expected profits, and declining stock value.

Under the move being announced Monday, Fields, 56, will retire from the company he joined in 1989 and be replaced by Hackett, 62, the head of Ford’s Smart Mobility unit. Hackett served as CEO of Steelcase, the maker of office furniture, from 1994 and 2014, and, Bloomberg adds, “his promotion indicates Ford is looking to seize on that expertise as consumer demands change.”

That last sentence took me aback. Are consumers really demanding autonomous vehicles? Or do software companies and manufacturers see them as a marketing ploy to spur lagging sales?

Over the last last ten years the length of time that Americans keep their cars has doubled. That’s bad news especially considering that worldwide productive capacity for automobiles, already much greater than the number of vehicles sold, continues to grow rapidly.

How to change that picture? Make the old cars obsolete!

Can someone articulate the economic case for autonomous vehicles? I understand the business case, i.e. why car companies would want to sell them. I don’t know why people would want to buy them.

The hype behind autonomous vehicles has always puzzled me. There’s a use case that’s much better suited to autonomous operation than personal vehicles: freight trains. It’s a much easier problem to solve and there’s a substantial body of law that could be extended to govern the liability issues. Autonomous choo-choos have been within our technological grasp for decades and yet somehow they’ve never been adopted. Why? I think it’s because they don’t make economic sense.

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We’re Obese!

The United States is the most obese country in the world, according to an OECD study, remarked on by MarketWatch:

The obesity rate for American adults (aged 15 and over) came in at a whopping 38.2%, which puts the birthplace of the hamburger and the Cronut at the top of the heftiest-nations-in-the-world rankings, according to an updated survey from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Not unrelated I think is this:

Running at a not-too-close second is border pal Mexico, with 32.4% of population considered obese, followed by New Zealand, Hungary and Australia (the U.K. comes in at No. 6).

For a more detailed analysis this report from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the U. S. Department of Health is helpful and this diagram is interesting:

Grey indicates extreme obesity, dark green indicates obesity, light green overweight. This graph is interesting, too:

Offhand, I’d attribute our increasing obesity to a combination of diet, sedentary habit, age, genetics, and misuse of antibiotics, particularly in the 1950s. If you’ve got an explanation for the bump in the late 70s other than demographic change, I’d be interested in hearing it.

I’m no sylph but I’m thinner than my parents were at my age but that’s because I’m extremely disciplined. I must be the exception.

Update

I’ve come up with another potential explanation: the Egg McMuffin, i.e. the availability of fast foods all day long. McDonalds officially started offering breakfast in 1977.

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Compare and Contrast

Here are two opposite views of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. From Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post:

Before he moves on to Israel and then to Europe, before we are consumed by the next scandal and forget, here is a list, for the record, of just a few of the ways in which President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia was bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American…

and from Anthony Cordesman at The Hill:

For all the sound and fury over his public remarks and tweets in Washington, President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been a very different story. The president gave the right speech in the right place at the right time. There will still be critics on issues like human rights and Yemen, but the president had a different focus — and almost certainly the right one.

Compare and contrast.

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Priorities

In their expression of concern about the potential plight of immigrants who lie on their naturalization papers the editors of the Washington Post have a tiny, little problem. They don’t cite a single example from real life of the abuse they’re concerned about. The case before the Supreme Court they’re commenting on involved a woman who lied about her husband’s likely participation in the Bosnian genocide, which would seem to me a significant fabrication.

Should we have forgiven the Nazi prison camp guards for lying on their applications for naturalization? I would think not. Neither immigration nor naturalization are rights. They are privileges. It does not seem to me to be too much to ask of applicants for citizenship that they tell the truth on the most important form they’re ever likely to fill out.

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The Greatest Care Anywhere

…except for Andorra, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and 29 other countries where the health care is better than it is here. Those are the findings of a study published in Lancet of international health care systems:

National levels of personal health-care access and quality can be approximated by measuring mortality rates from causes that should not be fatal in the presence of effective medical care (ie, amenable mortality). Previous analyses of mortality amenable to health care only focused on high-income countries and faced several methodological challenges. In the present analysis, we use the highly standardised cause of death and risk factor estimates generated through the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) to improve and expand the quantification of personal health-care access and quality for 195 countries and territories from 1990 to 2015.

Fortune remarks:

The researchers examined 32 common ailments—from measles to diarrheal disease to appendicitis—that ought to be treatable by reasonably qualified doctors in a relatively modern healthcare system. Then, based on 2015 mortality rates from those preventable causes of death, the team gave each of 195 countries and territories, what it called a “Healthcare Access and Quality” index score, ranging from a low of 0 to a high of 100.

The United States earned a score of 81—a B-minus, if you will—right on par with Estonia and Montenegro, but unfortunately much lower than most of the rich nations in America’s peer group. Sweden, Norway, and Australia received a score of 90, for instance; Iceland—that brown-nosing snot—got a 94.

But what’s most scary is how poorly the U.S.—which spends about 17% of its GDP on healthcare, and more per capita than pretty much every country in the world—did in preventing death from things like lower respiratory infections (the tiny nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina performs better than we do in this regard), neonatal disorders (Lithuania kicks our butt), Hodgkin’s lymphoma (we’re bested by Armenia, Jordan, the Northern Mariana Islands, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia), and diabetes (more deaths from this brutal disease are prevented in Cuba, Russia, and Moldova).

My point in bringing attention to this study is not to bust the chops of American health care providers. The circumstances here in the U. S. are daunting. Patients are non-compliant, have lousy lifestyles and habits, have too much information but not enough knowledge, are inundated with pharmaceutical advertisements, and are predisposed to shop for physicians who will promise the results they seek.

Rather my point is to suggest that we shouldn’t be comparing the United States with geographically tiny countries with small, homogeneous populations but with other geographically large countries with diverse populations in the hundreds of millions or even billions. By comparison with Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia our health care system is very good indeed.

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Connections

This morning I began going through a mental exercise that, contrary to my original objective, led to me. Inspired by listening to the old-time radio Richard Diamond radio program, which starred Dick Powell, I began thinking about what a small world the entertainment industry actually is and, as an exercise, began trying to connect today’s actress Anne Hathaway to 19th century American show business.

Anne Hathaway got her big break in The Princess Diaries. In that movie she co-starred with Julie Andrews who was married to Blake Edwards who was not just her husband but also wrote and directed a number of her movies including 10, S.O.B., and Victor/Victoria.

Blake Edwards was a protege of Dick Powell’s. He wrote and directed many of the episodes of the Richard Diamond radio program that Powell starred in. Dick Powell is connected to Al Jolson in two ways. First, Powell’s co-star in 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and several others of those Busby Berkeley 1930s musicals was Ruby Keeler, who was married to Al Jolson. Additionally, both Jolson and Powell were under contract to Warner Brothers and hired by Jack Warner.

In 1902 Al Jolson worked for Lew Dockstader in Primrose and Dockstader’s Minstrels. And George Primrose, Lew Dockstader’s partner, went right back to the beginnings of minstrelsy just after the Civil War. Consequently, Anne Hathaway’s connections go right back to mid-19th century American show business.

However, as I worked through all of this mentally it occurred to me that it connected to me, too, since, if you can believe his obituary (not a slam dunk), my grandfather worked for Lew Dockstader at just the time that Al Jolson did and must have known him. It was a big company but not that big.

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NATO’s Slippery Slope

At The National Interest Ted Galen Carpenter outlines the bad precedents set by NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia:

Washington, DC perpetuated and deepened its Balkan blunder a few years after the Bosnia intervention when it intervened in Kosovo. Civil strife in Serbia’s restless, predominantly Albanian province, simmered and then flared in the mid-and late-1990s. This time, Washington didn’t even make a gesture of deferring to the leading European states, but took the policy lead early on. Ultimately, the United States led a seventy-eight-day air war against Serbia, compelling Belgrade to relinquish control to a largely NATO occupation force operating under a fig-leaf resolution that the UN Security Council approved. Russia reluctantly acquiesced to that peacekeeping resolution, despite Moscow’s ties to Belgrade and Russian interests in the Balkans going back well into the nineteenth century.

There has been a clear slippery slope in NATO interventions, from Bosnia where there was at least a humanitarian justification to Kosovo where there wasn’t, to Libya where it was a pretext for regime change and has resulted in persistent chaos.

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The Issues Surrounding a Guaranteed Jobs Program

I was interested to see what David Dayen had to say about a federal guaranteed jobs program in his article in The Nation. I think a well-designed guaranteed jobs program has potential. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be what he has in mind:

The Center for American Progress has been a White House in waiting for mainstream Democratic candidates for over a decade now. When it places something on the agenda, that becomes part of mainstream discussion on the center left. And at its Ideas Conference this week, it embraced one idea that has been kicking around the left for a long time: guaranteed employment for anyone who wants a job.

In “Toward a Marshall Plan for America,” CAP frames this as an answer to growing despair and acute economic pain bred by stagnant wages and lack of opportunity. But few advocates who have been pushing a federal-job guarantee for so long were consulted or even cited in the proposal. And while they’re generally thrilled that their life’s work has entered a broader conversation, they’re concerned that something is getting lost in translation.

So, for example, from my point of view prerequisites include that the plan be set up in the context of serious workplace immigration enforcement and that the plan replace other forms of welfare rather be being piled on top of them.

Issues that surround such a plan include

  • Who is “anyone”?
  • What kinds of jobs would be offered?
  • What would the jobs pay?
  • What would happen in the event of non-attendance or non-performance?

Alternatives in to whom the jobs would be available would seem to be a) American citizens or b) American citizens and legal immigrants. The former would be less costly but counter-productive. In some communities a very high proportion of legal immigrants, particularly refugees, are unemployed.

I found Mr. Dayen’s proposal for the sorts of jobs that would be offered dismaying:

What kinds of jobs would be created? CAP suggests that home health care, child care, and teaching aides are all urgently needed.

I won’t belabor you by reaching into today’s newspaper for examples of the many horrific cases of elder or child abuse to be found among the very groups who would be likely candidates for such a program. Suffice it to say that I think the qualifications for home health care, child care, and teaching aides exceed being otherwise unemployable. At the very least we should demand good intentions which goes against the idea of a guaranteed job.

I fear his other proposal will be politically impossible:

It also cites infrastructure investment for job creation–roads and bridges, but also schools and hospitals.

I predict that there would be deep union opposition to guaranteed construction jobs unless they were union jobs and equally vehement opposition to federal subsidies for increasing the number of union jobs among Republicans.

A median income of $30,000 per year (Mr. Dayen’s proposed $15/hour—a backdoor $15 minimum wage) would be a pretty nice income in Yazoo City, Mississippi or Hindman, Kentucky. It wouldn’t even be a living wage in New York City. That disparity alone suggests that any workable plan would need to be administered via bloc grants to the states, given with substantial flexibility. Too low a pay rate would make the plan irrelevant. To high a pay rate would make it impossible to find workers to take jobs that weren’t administered through the jobs program.

I also wonder about non-attendance or other non-performance. If there are no consequences for simply collecting a pay check without ever showing up for the “job”, how would the plan differ from an outright handout?

Presently, 17% of the U. S. workforce is comprised of immigrants, mostly illegal. All in all it seems to me that the wage and employment effects of serious workplace immigration enforcement would obviate any need for a guaranteed jobs program.

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