Accidents, Essences, and the Trump Presidency

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I read something like Gerald Seib’s column in the Wall Street Journal:

Let’s imagine an alternative opening act to the Trump presidency.

Specifically, let’s imagine a presidency that attempted from the outset to take advantage of the fact that Donald Trump isn’t an ideological conservative or a traditional Republican, but rather a radical centrist who should be able to create unconventional, bipartisan coalitions.

Imagine this new president had given a different kind of inaugural address, one in which he didn’t accuse the capital’s political leaders of flourishing at the expense of its citizens but rather sketched out a vision of a new way of working with those leaders.

There is an old Yiddish proverb which responds to that perfectly: if my grandmother had balls, she’d be my grandfather.

Putting it into Aristotelian terms, divisiveness and polarization aren’t accidents, incidental characteristics, of Donald Trump’s presidency. They’re its essence, what makes it what it is. There couldn’t have been the alternative inaugural address that Mr. Seib imagines because Trump is who he is and Trump’s presidency will be what it will be.


Why Is Labor’s Share of GDP Declining?

At Bloomberg View Noah Smith considers the factors that have led to a decline in the share of GDP that goes to labor. He discusses four:

Economists are therefore scrambling to explain the change. There are, by my count, now four main potential explanations for the mysterious slide in labor’s share. These are: 1) China, 2) robots, 3) monopolies and 4) landlords.

Read the whole thing.

To those I would add two: open borders and massive subsidies to capital intensive but not labor intensive industries.

The problem doesn’t need to have any single cause. Those factors operate synergistically to create the observed effect. And that synergy will make it darned hard to end.


Life Inside the Bubble

When was it that Hill Street Blues was in first run on TV? Thirty years ago? I didn’t watch it faithfully but did so occasionally and played a sort of game. The show’s writers were cagey about exactly where it was supposed to take place but it was explicitly supposed to be in a big city on the East Coast or Midwest. The game was to count the number of palm trees, eucalyptus trees, and shots of mountains in the distance. The “media bubble” Jack Schafer and Tucker Dougherty write about in this Politico article isn’t new:

The answer to the press’ myopia lies elsewhere, and nobody has produced a better argument for how the national media missed the Trump story than FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, who pointed out that the ideological clustering in top newsrooms led to groupthink. “As of 2013, only 7 percent of [journalists] identified as Republicans,” Silver wrote in March, chiding the press for its political homogeneity. Just after the election, presidential strategist Steve Bannon savaged the press on the same point but with a heartier vocabulary. “The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what’s wrong with this country,” Bannon said.

Television news production has been concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, or Washington for what? The last fifty years? That’s why every time it snows in New York it’s big news while blizzards in Cleveland go unnoticed. TV reporters cover what’s easy to cover and what affects them. It seems like a big story so it must be a big story.

Meanwhile, have you noticed how many Americans on television have Canadian “ehs”?


What’s a “Species”?

This article at Science illustrates one of my pet peeves:

A remarkably complete skeleton introduced in 2010 as “the best candidate” for the immediate ancestor of our genus Homo may just be a pretender. Instead of belonging to the human lineage, the new species of Australopithecus sediba is more closely related to other hominins from South Africa that are on a side branch of the human family tree, according to a new analysis of the fossil presented here last week at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

I really, really wish that paleoanthropologists would stop using morphology as their means of relating species. It’s an awful indicator. It ignores variation within species.

I realize it’s all they have but that’s no excuse.


It’s Still a Trade War Even When You Don’t Shoot Back

Whenever I read one of the many well-intentioned articles, like this one at The National Interest by Yukon Huang and David Stack, counseling President Trump and the United States to avoid trade war with China, I’m struck by how little the experts know. You don’t have to follow a lot of statements made by the Chinese authorities to recognize that they see not only trade but the relationships among nations as zero sum games and they’re in it to win and for that we must lose.

Or this statement:

Moreover, there is no direct link between China’s trade surplus and America’s trade deficit. The U.S. trade deficit started to balloon in 1997, while rapid growth in China’s surplus didn’t start for another six years and its size didn’t surpass Japan’s until 2006.

which exhibits a remarkable inability to understand trends. It is in the nature of geometric growth that it starts small and over time becomes very big. You trace the trend from its beginning not its end.

To me there are two questions. Have the Chinese have used every means at their disposal with the deliberate intention of reducing our industrial base? And is that good for the United States as a whole? I think the answers to those questions are “yes” and “no” respectively.


Ending Foreign Aid for the Right Reasons

At Quartz Tom Dichter explains the right reasons for ending foreign aid:

If we look at the goal of instigating economic development—which is what development aid initially aimed for in the 1950s—and not just saving lives after a humanitarian crisis or finding a cure for malaria, the track record is quite poor. Given the seven decades that official foreign aid for development has existed (since president Truman’s Point Four speech in 1949), and the trillions of dollars spent, there is little to celebrate. The record looks especially bad when remembering the decades of confident declarations that did not even lead to modest gains: for example, the UN’s 1974 Universal Declaration on the Eradication of Hunger and Malnutrition, the 1975 Lima Declaration and Plan of Action on Industrial Development (the goal of which was to increase less developed countries’ share of world production to 25% by the year 2000), the 1978 Alma Ata International Conference on Primary Healthcare which resolved to bring about “health for all” by the year 2000, the UN’s International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade which promised clean water for all by 1990, and of course the Millennium Development Goals, whose many unfulfilled promises expired in 2015.

It boils down to the cold facts that the poor countries that have received the least development aid have prospered most, the poor countries that have received the most development aid have prospered least, and an “aid industrial complex” has risen whose main objective is ensuring that the flow of aid continues so they can maintain their cut.

Or, as Shimon Peres expressed it more pithily, development aid often comes down to poor people in rich countries sending money to rich people in poor countries.

So, what is to be done about poor, undeveloped countries? It turns out that investment is more effective than aid and that there’s no substitute for economic growth.

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It’s Nice to Dream

A view of what China’s role should be in the situation with respect to North Korea that more clearly resembles my own is expressed by Daniel Gerstein at The RAND Blog, in this case going beyond North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to its chemical weapons program. The Chinese should be taking point on the effort to cause North Korea to stand down with an unambiguous message:

There can be no ambiguity about the consequences of the use of chemical weapons. China would need to make clear that the result would be a severing of diplomatic ties between the two nations, closing of the China-North Korea border, an embargo for all trade that is occurring to include humanitarian support, and active global condemnation led by China as a result of chemical weapons use.

Should North Korea fail to be dissuaded from launching a chemical attack, any response should be coordinated with allies in the region and not result from a unilateral decision by the United States as was done in response to Syria. Such a response would do well to include the full authority of the United Nations and be executed by an international coalition.

Sadly, I think it’s about ten years too late for such a stance. It’s nice to dream.

But let’s be clear about it. The reason we’re drawing ever closer to war with North Korea and possibly with China is that we’ve been unable or unwilling to balance our interests with China. China has economic, political, military, and strategic interests in North Korea. We’ve been acting as though we only have economic interests to discuss with China and we’ll sacrifice anything in a mad grab for a dollar bill.


L’option Samson

The editors of the Wall Street Journal, natural allies of M. Macron’s candidacy for French president, remark on the outcome of the first round of French presidential elections:

Sharply divided French voters on Sunday gave themselves Emmanuel Macron as a mainstream alternative to far-right Marine Le Pen in next month’s second round of presidential voting. The French will now decide between two very different visions of French nationalism.

Incomplete tallies as we went to press suggested that the independent former Socialist Mr. Macron would finish first in a crowded field, with about 23% of the vote. Ms. Le Pen of the National Front was close behind. Free-market conservative François Fillon and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon each won a little under 20%. French voters remain deeply divided about how to jolt their country out of its malaise. But they seem willing, for now and only barely, to give the center another chance.

I am not quite sure how the editors arrive at that conclusion. Mssrs. Macron and Fillon were the closest candidates to representing the status quo and nearly two-thirds of French voters voted against them. In the final round French voters have a clear alternative between a vain grab at the status quo or upending it. We’ll soon know their mood.


Agreeing to Disagree

I both agree and disagree with John Delury’s Washington Post op-ed about our policy with respect to North Korea. I agree that we should stop threatening North Korea:

Maybe in the era of America First, we don’t care about death and destruction being visited on the 10 million people who live in Seoul, within North Korean artillery and short-range missile range. Do we care about some 140,000 U.S. citizens residing in South Korea — including soldiers and military families at bases here, plus more in nearby Japan? Or South Korea’s globally integrated $1.4 trillion economy, including the United States’ $145 billion two-way trade with the country? Do we care about North Korean missiles raining down on Incheon International Airport, one of Asia’s busiest airports, or Busan, the sixth-largest container port in the world? What happens to the global economy when a conflagration erupts on China’s doorstep and engulfs Japan?

Surely the American public and Congress, regardless of party, can agree that these costs are unbearable and unthinkable. Given the presence of many sober-minded strategists and policymakers in the administration, it seems reasonable to conclude the military taunts are a bluff.

However, I think he veers into fantasy in believing that we have anything material to gain by negotiating with the Kim regime. They won’t negotiate away their own survival and they see just about every difference we have with them as a matter of regime survival.

The Chinese have a much greater stake in what happens in North Korea than we do and not to put too fine a point on it but the North Korean nuclear weapons program wouldn’t exist without the Chinese. They can end it any time they care to without removing the Kim regime just by ending their commerce in dual use technologies with North Korea.

If the Chinese think the catalogue of horrors listed by Dr. Delury above are acceptable risks, who are we to contradict them? I think that at this point what will happen between the U. S. and North Korea will happen. North Korea is the point of the spear in the “Thucydides trap”.


Does Synthroid Do Anything?

I’m just full of questions today. Maybe it’s a sign that it’s one of those rare days in which I’m clicking on all cylinders. For example, this New York Times article on a study of the effects of levothyroxine in the treatment of subclinical hypothyroidism made me wonder if anybody’s actually studied drug interactions of the pharmaceutical in patients who were taking many different drugs?

As to the meat of the article I know at least one endocrinologist who won’t prescribe the most commonly prescribed version of of levothyroxine because he doesn’t think it’s as effective. They’re all supposed to be bioequivalent so I have no idea.