A short note on Brazil’s present political predicament

This Wednesday, O Globo, one of the newspapers of greater audience in Brazil, leaked information obtained by the Federal Policy implicating president Michel Temer and Senator Aécio Neves in a corruption scandal. Temer was recorded supporting a bribe for former congressman Eduardo Cunha, now under arrest, so that Cunha would not give further information for the police. Aécio, president of PSDB (one of the main political parties in Brazil), was recorded asking for a bribe from a businessman from JBS, a company in the food industry. The recordings were authorized by the judiciary and are part of the Operation Lava Jato.

In the last few years Oparation Lava Jato, commanded by Judge Sérgio Moro and inspired by the Italian Oparation Clean Hands, brought to justice some of the most important politicians in Brazil, including formed president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. However, supporters of president Lula, president Dilma and their political party (PT) complained that Moro and his team were politically biased, going after politicians from the left, especially PT, and never form the right – especially PSDB. PSDB is not actually a right-wing party, if we consider right wing only conservatives and libertarians. PSDB, as it name implies, is a social democratic party, i.e., a left wing one. However, since the late 1980s and especially mid-1990s, PSDB is the main political adversary for PT, creating a complicated scenario that PT usually explores politically in its own benefit. In any way, it is clear now (although hardcore Lula supporters will not see this) that Operation Lava Jato is simply going after corrupt politicians, regardless if their political parties or ideologies.

With president Michel Temer directly implicated in trying to stop Operation Lava Jato, his government, that already lacked general public support, is held by a string. Maybe Temer will resign. Other possibility is that the Congress will start an impeachment process, such as happened with Dilma Rousseff just a year ago. In one way or another, the Congress will have to call for a new presidential election, albeit an indirect one: the Congress itself will elect a new president and virtually anyone with political rights in Brazil can be candidate. This new president would govern only until next year, completing the term started by Dilma Rousseff in 2014. There is also another possibility in the horizon: the presidential ticket that brought both Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer to Brasília is under investigation and it is possible that next June Temer will be declared out of office by the electoral justice.

Politicians from the left, especially REDE and PSOL, want a new presidential election with popular vote. In case Temer simply resigns or is impeached, this would require an amendment to the already tremendously amended Brazilian constitution. This new election might benefit Marina Silva, virtual candidate for REDE and forerunner in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections. Without a solid candidate, it is possible that PSOL will support Marina, or at least try a ticket with her. A new presidential election with popular vote could also benefit Lula, still free, but under investigation by Moro and his team. Few people doubt that Lula will be in jail very soon, unless he escapes to the presidential palace where he would have special forum.

Temer already came to public saying that he will not resign. Although a corrupt, as it is clear now, Temer was supporting somewhat pro-market reforms in Brazil. In his current political predicament it is unlikely that he will be able to conduct any reform. The best for Brazil is that Temer resigns as soon as possible and that the Congress elects equally fast a new president, someone with little political connections but able to run the government smoothly until next year. Unfortunately, any free market reform would have to wait, but it would also give time for libertarian, classical liberal and conservative groups to grow support for free market ideas among the voters until the election. A new presidential election with popular vote would harm everyone: it would be the burial of democratic institutions in Brazil. Brazil needs to show the World that it has institutions that are respected, and to which people can hold in times of trouble, when the politicians behave as politicians do.

Who is Jair Bolsonaro and why you should care

Since 1994, Brazilian presidential elections follow a pattern: PSDB and PT candidates are the main competitors, with a third candidate falling between the main leaders and countless dwarf candidates. Although this third candidate does not reach the presidency and does not even dispute the second round of the elections, its political influence tends to increase and its support happens to be disputed by the candidates of the PSDB and the PT. So it was mainly with Marina Silva in 2010 and 2014, and possibly will be so with Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

After being defeated in 1989, 1994 and 1998, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva finally won the presidential election in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006. In 2002 Lula was benefited by the low popularity of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), hurt by the circumstantial economic difficulties that the country was going through. FHC was practically absent from the campaign of his successor candidate, José Serra, apparently by common agreement of the incumbent and the possible successor. In addition, Lula and the PT had a radical change of stance that year, expressed mainly by the “Letter to the Brazilian People”. In this document Lula promised to abandon his historic struggle against free markets and to maintain the basic guidelines of FHC’s economic policy, which in the middle of the previous decade had taken the country from one of the worst economic crises in its history. The Brazilian economy left the circumstantial difficulty of 2002 and with this Lula secured his reelection in 2006. However, looking back, the arrival of Lula to the power was not accidental. Created in the late 1970s, the PT always faithfully (and not secretly) followed Antonio Gramsci’s guidelines of cultural Marxism: to come to power not by violence and also not by elections per se, but by cultural influence. This guideline guaranteed to Lula, even in the elections he lost, about 30% of the valid votes. The other 21% were electors dissatisfied (in the case of 2002) or excited (in the case of 2006) with the economic conditions of the moment. However, it is this same strategy of cultural Marxism that is now opening room for Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro is already an old congressman in Brazil, but has only really become famous in recent years. Elected for the first time in 1990, he fiercely criticized FHC’s free-market economic policy during the 1990s. In his view the then-president was a entreguista (something like a surrenderer) and the Brazilian economy needed to be protected against foreigners. Bolsonaro has also many times attenuated or even denied the fact that Brazil underwent a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. But what his followers (who call him Mito) really admire him for is the way he stands against political correctness, in a way reminiscent of Donald Trump. Bolsonaro became famous mainly for opposing the introduction of gender ideology as content in the country’s public schools. For this reason he is often accused of machismo and homophobia by his opponents. In recent statements Bolsonaro expresses greater support for the free market, but maintains his admiration for the military that governed Brazil in the past and a hard line against the politically correct.

Not only in Brazil, but in other parts of the world, the spell of cultural Marxism is turning against the sorcerer. When the facts refuted Marx’s economic theory (already brilliantly refuted by Mises) some Marxists, such as Oskar Lange, and more recently Thomas Piketty, sought a soft version of economic Marxism. Many others, however, took refuge in the cultural Marxism of Gramsci, Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, and others. The option was simple: instead of admitting that Marxism is not true, many Marxists decided that truth is relative. The main result of this is the identity politics that spread throughout the world. Everyone wants to identify themselves as members of minorities who are not represented by traditional politicians. It was only a matter of time before white middle-aged men began to complain that they were not represented. And so white middle-aged men have taken Britain out of the European Union, elected Trump US president and will shortly elect leaders in other countries or at least greatly annoy the globalist establishment.

Throughout the world there is a weakening of the semi-Marxist welfare state, and the same can be observed in Brazil. Important right-wing leaders have emerged in recent years, ranging from conservatism to libertarianism. In the case of Brazil, however, where the population is still largely socially conservative, there is a strong tendency towards a conservatism with which libertarians do not identify, and this trend is stopping the advance of communism in the country. Brazilians can accept Marxism in politics and economics, but they do not accept it in their bedrooms as easily. It is possible that Bolsonaro is accepting the basic premises of a free-market economy, but his main appeal is to be the most anti-Lula, anti-PT, anti-establishment and politically incorrect presidential candidate. Even if he is not elected president in 2018, or even reaches the second round of elections, Bolsonaro is already a political leader impossible to ignore.

Some ideas to guide your thoughts on health care

This post is meant to help my non-economist friends think more clearly about how we pay for health care. I’ll talk about markets, but the truth is that the American system is built of deeply bastardized markets. If our car markets worked like our health markets, most of us would walk to work. I’m trying to focus on the essential logic of the situation which is going to sound Utopian because Congress isn’t going to give us any sort of logical policy any time soon. But we aren’t going to get a logical solution until we as voters understand the logic of health care finance.

I’ve got a few big points to make:

  1. Trying to health insurance also work like charity is bound to end poorly for everyone.
  2. A single-payer system has a lot of nice features for individuals, but a lot of systemic problems.
  3. It’s fundamentally impossible to insure pre-existing conditions. Insurance is about sharing risk, not unavoidable expenses.

(This post is longer than I’d like, so thanks for your patience!)

Markets and Charity

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we don’t have to ruin markets to do charity.

The essence of markets is that they aggregate knowledge about the relative costs and benefits of different goods based on the preferences of the real people involved in producing and consuming those goods.

The demand side of markets provide information by giving you (as a consumer) a choice between more of something you like and more money to spend on other stuff. On the supply side they give you (as a supplier–probably of your own labor) the choice between providing more of what people are willing to pay for or having less money to buy the stuff you want. Markets crowdsource cost-benefit analysis.

Prices also give suppliers an incentive to produce things that consumers want while trying to save resources (i.e. cut costs). In other words, a price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive.

So what about fairness? The bad news is that markets are a system of “from each according to their ability, to each according to how much other people are willing to pay for the product of their ability.” (Not very catchy!) It’s mostly fair for most of us, but doesn’t do much good for people who are just unlucky (e.g. kids born with genetic defects). Here’s the good news: we can use charity alongside markets.

We can debate how much role government should play in charity some other time. For now, let’s whole-ass one thing instead of half-assing two things. We have to appreciate that interfering with markets interferes with the ability of those markets to function as sources of reliable information. It doesn’t matter how good our intentions are, we face a trade off here… unless we do something to establish a functioning charity system parallel to the health care finance system.

Single Payer

Anecdotes about the merits of a single-payer health care system are powerful because they shed light on the biggest benefit to such a system: individual convenience.

Part of the appeal has to do with the general screwiness of the American system. It’s a cathedral built of band-aids. But even in an idealized market system, a single-payer system has the advantage of not making me go through the work of evaluating which plan best suits my needs.

A single-payer system is, from an individual perspective, about as ideal as having your parents pay for it. But we don’t really  want our parents buying our stuff for us.

Single payer system sacrifice the informational value of markets (probably even more so than America’s current system of quasi-price controls). Innovation would be harder as long as new treatments had to be approved by risk-averse bureaucrats (and again, we already face a version of this with Medicare billing codes and insurance companies).

Essentially, a single payer system creates a common pool problem: each of us gets the individual benefit of being able to be lazy. But then we’re left trusting bureaucrats, special interest groups, and think tanks to keep an eye on things. It could be an improvement over the current American system, but that’s like saying amputation is better than gangrene.


Premium = expected cost + overhead

Consider two alternatives. In scenario A you start with $150, flip a coin, and if it comes up tails you lose $100. In scenario B you get $90. The expected value of A is $100, but most of us would still prefer the sure thing.

Here’s how insurance works: You start with $150, give $60 to the insurance company, then flip the coin. If it comes up tails, you lose $100, but the insurance company gives you back $40. You’ve just gotten the sure thing. And by taking on thousands of these bets the insurance company is able to make enough money to pay their employees.

But here’s the thing: the premium they charge is fundamentally tied to that expected value. Change the odds, or the costs (i.e. the claims they have to pay for) and you’ll change the premium.

(BTW, Tim Harford did a nice ~8 minute podcast episode on insurance that’s worth checking out.)

Pre-existing conditions are the equivalent of changing our thought experiment to a 100% chance of flipping tails. No amount of risk sharing that will get you to the $90 outcome you want. You can’t insure your car after you’ve been in an accident and you can’t insure a person against a loss they’ve already realized. If you’re Bill Gates, that’s no big deal, but for many people, this might mean depending on charity. That’s a bummer, but wishful thinking can’t undo that.

If we insist that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions* the result can only be higher premiums. This is nice for people with these pre-existing conditions, but not so great for (currently) healthy poor people. Again, charity matters needs to be part of the debate, but it needs to be parallel to insurance markets.

Covering more contingencies also affects premiums. The more things a policy covers, the higher the expected cost, and therefore the higher the premium. We each have to decide what things are worth insuring and what risks we’re willing to face ourselves. Politics might not be the best way to navigate those choices.

High deductibles and catastrophic care

Actuaries think about the cost of insuring as a marginal cost. In other words, they know that the odds that you spend $100 in a year are much higher than the odds that you spend $1000. So the cost of insuring the first dollar of coverage is much higher than the cost of insuring the 5000th dollar. This is why high deductible plans are so much cheaper… they only pay out in the unlikely situation where something catastrophically bad happens to you. This is exactly why most of us want insurance. We aren’t afraid of the cost of band-aids and aspirin, we’re afraid of the cost of cancer treatment.

For those of us firmly in the middle class, what we really need is a high-deductible plan plus some money in the bank to cover routine care and smaller emergencies. (Personally, my version of this is a credit card.) Such a plan has the added benefit of encouraging us to be more cost conscious.

A big problem with our current system is that it’s set up like an all-you-can-eat buffet. You pay to get in (your premiums) but once you’re in the hospital, any expenses are the insurance company’s problem (read: everyone else on your health plan). The logic here is the same as with pollution. When I drive my car I get the benefits of a quick and comfortable commute but I also suffer a little bit more pollution. But I don’t have incentive to think about how that pollution affects you so I pollute more than would be ideal. Multiply that by millions of people and we can end up with smog.


If I were trying to put together a politically palatable alternative to our current system, I’d have an individual mandate with insurance vouchers for the poor (it’s not very libertarian, and it’s far from my Utopian ideal, but I think it would be a huge improvement over what we’ve got now). I would also expand the role of market competition by encouraging high deductibles plus flexible health savings accounts.

Reality is complicated, but I’m trying to get at the fundamental logic here. We don’t have a properly functioning market system. To get there we need competition, transparency, and a populace with the mental tools and mathematical literacy necessary to understand what their insurance can and can’t do. That’s a tall order, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to move in that direction.

To have a fruitful debate we need to understand what we want from our healthcare system: help for the poor (charity), convenience, and efficiency from an individual and social perspective. By trying to lump all these things together we muddy the waters and make it harder to understand one another.

*I don’t know what the deal is with the idea that the AHCA will treat rape as a pre-existing condition. Some webpages give a bunch of random tweets as evidence of this, and others call bullshit. Let’s just leave it at this: in a competitive market this would be considered terrible marketing and savvy companies wouldn’t do it. The lesson then is to keep calling companies on bad marketing, and avoid protecting politically powerful companies from market competition.

Turkey’s Referendum: Authoritarianism and Electoral Fixes

As previously indicated I will be posting an appendix to my posts on Coup and Counter-Coup in Turkey, referring to Ottomanism, Kemalist republicanism and related issues. The sixteenth of April referendum does require a response of a more immediate kind. The referendum was on amendments to the Constitution largely concerned with transforming Turkey from a parliamentary republic, which it has been at least in principle since the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Recep Tayıp Erdoğan had already been breaking the Constitution since 2014 when he was elected President of Turkey after more than a decade as Prime Minister. On becoming President he transferred the chief executive power to the presidential palace (which has more than 1000 rooms and was built on Erdoğan’s orders using executive privilege to override court bans on building on the land concerned). This in itself tells you everything you need to know about the decay of Turkish democracy, from a starting point which was itself not a shining beacon to the world of purist constitutional democracy.

Erdoğan’s ambitions for an executive presidency in Turkey precede his elevation to that role. The shift from a President elected by the National Assembly to a President elected by popular vote came from a referendum of 2007, though Erdoğan is the first President of Turkey to take the office in this way. Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938) and then İsmet İnönü (1938-1950) were powerful presidents in a parliamentary system. This paradox arose because Turkey was a de facto one-party state in which only the Republican People’s Party had seats in the National Assembly from 1923 to 1943, though the Free Republican Party won seats in local elections. The elections of 1946 resulted in an opposition party and some independent deputies entering the National Assembly. In 1950 İnönü became the first Turkish (or Ottoman) leader to give up power peacefully as the result of elections and the Republican People’s Party became the first political party to give up power in this manner. During the one party period, the President was the dominant figure in the Republican People’s Party and therefore acted as the head of government, though with a Prime Minister and some genuine divisions of responsibilities.

Not only did Erdoğan start using powers he had not been given in the constitution in 2014, the whole evolution towards a presidential system has been done in a way to benefit him personally. He was Prime Minister over three terms from 2002 to 2014, an office to be abolished in 2019 as a result of the recent referendum, and was the head of government. He has acted as effective head of government since 2014, regardless of the Prime Minister having this role. The office of Prime Minister will still exist until 2019 and most of the constitutional changes as a result of the referendum will not come into force until then. Erdoğan can then have the two terms of executive presidency in addition to the term he is currently serving which will still constitutionally limit his powers in ways that mean the Prime Minister should be head of government. In this sense, the system is working as in the days of the one party system. So Erdoğan can serve as head of government in Turkey from 2003 until 2029. Furthermore he may be able to add another term if the National Assembly goes to an early election during his second term.

The President will have the power to dissolve the National Assembly, and this could easily happen simply because the President wishes to have a third term. The amended constitution at least restricts the President to two five-year terms plus most of a third term in special conditions. So the possibility exists of Erdoğan running the Turkish government from 2003 to 2034, a highly unusual situation in any democracy and one likely to undermine the democracy in question, particularly as the powers of the President now include control of appointment of senior judges, senior civil servants, senior bureaucrats, the right to issue decrees as laws, the right to appoint all cabinet ministers without National Assembly approval, and the right to appoint two vice-presidents without National Assembly approval. Theses figures will not be required to answer questions in the National Assembly and, like the President, will benefit from lifetime immunity with regard to alleged crimes committed in office. That is to say, the President and his associates will have immunity for life unless the National Assembly votes to suspend the immunity, with a high enough majority required to make this unlikely unless there is a massive collapse in the number of AKP deputies, or of Erdoğan’s control of the AKP.

We cannot even say that these changes designed to produce a President above normal democratic constitutional checks and balances, dominating the whole governmental process and state machinery in a way unprecedented in Turkey’s multi-party history, have been agreed to by a genuine majority vote. The referendum was held in state of emergency conditions, which still prevails. A state of emergency in which opposition journalists have been detained in large numbers on flimsy charges as ‘terrorists’, opposition deputies (from Kurdish rights-leftist HDP) have been detained on a similar basis. State media and most private media groups operate as media organs of the AKP. The state of emergency has been applied in a particularly harsh way in the southeast (Kurdish majority) part of the country where elected local government has been replaced by central government appointees. There are 500,000 displaced persons in the southeast resulting from PKK terror and the state security reaction which led to military bombardment of whole towns and urban districts until they were reduced to rubble. It was clearly not easy for them to vote and it looks like a large number did not vote. Extreme intimidation of No campaigners was the norm in the southeast where large numbers of HDP election observers were denied access to polling booths. Intimidation of the No campaign took place elsewhere if in a less extreme way and public spaces were dominated by Yes publicity.

The count was itself full of flagrant irregularities. The number of polling stations recording a 100% vote for Yes was far greater than the number recording 100% AKP votes in recent elections. There was another party campaigning for the Yes, the hardline nationalistic MHP, but the party split over the leader’s support for Yes and all the evidence is that overwhelmingly most MHP voters did not vote Yes. Given that some AKP voters defected from Yes, not many but no less than 5%, there was no reason to expect an increased number of polling stations with a 100% vote and of course suspicion is in order about polling stations which recorded such results in the past.

An AKP politician who is a member of the national electoral board (itself packed with AKP appointees) requested that all ballot papers used to vote, but not carrying a stamp to show they have been authorised for that polling station by an official, should be counted. This is illegal but the request was granted. AKP apologists were quick to say that opposition requests in the past for counting such ballots (because maybe they were stuck together when the official was stamping papers) were granted in the past. Small illegality does not excuse large illegality and the scale of counting of such ballot papers was much larger than previously.

During the count the state news agency was announcing results before they were released by the electoral board. A strange and suspicious situation. The international media, following the state news agency, failed to see the discrepancy also confusing the percentage of ballot boxes opened with votes cast, giving a very misleading impression of a big lead amongst most votes cast early in the evening. The election board results then went off line and were not shared with the opposition. When results came back online they showed a very different pattern than before the break in service, more in line with the state news agency announcements.

Given the close (51.4% for Yes) nature of the official result, there are a number of reasons to think that No won in votes cast, and even if we ignore the voting irregularities, there is reason to think that in a less intimidating atmosphere, particularly in the southeast, more Yes voters would have cast a vote. In these circumstances I suggest that even on a very cautious reckoning, the number of votes cast for No was at least 51% and that with a less intimidating and disruptive atmosphere, another 2% would have gone to No. To say on this basis that 53% voted No is I believe a very cautious estimate. There is very probably a clear majority of Turkish voters against the new presidential system, at least 55%.

The narrow result clearly caused embarrassment to Erdoğan and the AKP who had predicted a very big victory for Yes. They have gone quieter since then, but with no let up in authoritarian measures. Just two days ago Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey, several thousand state employees were dismissed using emergency powers and a number of NGOs were closed in a similar way. The context of the supposed Yes victory gives hope that there is opposition to the Erdoğan/AKP destruction of liberal democracy, but recent measures suggest they are as determined as ever to use the tools of state to obliterate opposition, or just any sense of independence from the party-state machine.

Immigration and Jobs – Reprise

A good op-ed in the March 24 issue of the Wall Street Journal by Mark Krikorian forces me to go back to one of my recent postings on immigration: “Immigration and Jobs.”

Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C. Mr Krikorian accuses everyone in America of “not facing the facts” about current and recent immigration. He insists that some questions must be posed instead of skirted. I agree, of course, but I don’t know that it’s true that people are not facing the facts. I think instead that many busy and fair people are hearing contradictory statements and that they don’t have a good framework to think things through. Krikorian states that he rests his case on an authoritative study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The academies are a respected source. I take it seriously if Krikorian reports accurately. (Be aware that I have not read the study in question.)

Krikorian’s most troubling assertion is as follows: All Americans benefit from immigrants being in the US. This benefit is entirely extracted from the higher wages Americans competing with immigrants would receive absent wage lowering immigrants’ competition. In other words: Americans who compete with immigrants receive lower wages than they should; everyone else benefits from these lower wages.

I think that’s obviously overstating the case. There must be at least one immigrant generating product (GDP) that would not otherwise exist in the American economy. Maybe, there are two. One is in Silicon Valley, inventing a product – like the personal computer forty years ago – that will eventually cause the employment of thousands, or millions. The second is in Kansas, saving from demolition a beat-down hotel that provides immediate employment for two-to–four minimum wage-earning maids. (Both entrepreneurs are Indians, obviously). In general, immigrants might benefit all by offering additional, or better, services than do the native born. I develop this thesis below.

Krikorian seems to be operating from a standpoint where the work pie to be shared by Americans and by immigrants is of a permanently fixed size. This erroneous perspective, in turn, may well come from a respectable desire to stick close to research findings. Research that also (also) takes into account immigrants’ contribution to increasing the size of the pie is doable but it’s more difficult to perform and to integrate with previous findings than research that relies on a static representation of reality.

Let me admit that I don’t have any numbers at my disposal and that any reasonably credible set of numbers could blow out of the water everything I am going to say below.

First, it’s obvious that there are currently many unfilled jobs in the US. Organized labor and anti-immigration spokespeople will argue that all those jobs would be filled if the wages offered were high enough. I am skeptical of this argument for two reasons. First, Silicon Valley employers affirm vigorously that they just don’t find enough would-be employees with the required skills, at any price. I tend to believe them to some extent because they evidently spend energy and resources raiding each other for expensive existing personnel. This kind of practice suggests true, absolute scarcity. I have mentioned in one of the companion essays the difficulty farmers encounter in recruiting pickers even when they offer wages significantly superior to both the minimum wage and to the going wage in my job-poor area. I would argue that their difficulties are rooted in the same problem facing Silicon Valley employers: a shortage of local competence. Picking strawberries, for example, is not easy at all. And it requires a certain attitude, or fortitude, that is not common anymore among Americans, as I have argued elsewhere.

Second, presented below, a forbidden argument. But I must make a disclosure before I move to it: I am one of the 43 million foreign-born people now living in the US. I studied in the US and I was permanently admitted on a variant of a B1 visa. I had a main career as a university professor. I don’t believe that an extra teaching position was ever added in any university to accommodate me. (It happens for some foreigners, a very few, of star quality, like Einstein; I wasn’t one of them, let’s face it.) Of course, to obtain any university position, I had to possess the same credentials as native-born Americans who also wanted the position. (That’s right, there is no affirmative action track for white Europeans!) Good university positions are surprisingly competitive to obtain; earning tenure is even more competitive. Every position I obtained, I got from winning against similarly situated native-born.

Each time, I won the gold, if you will. This simple fact would seem to suggest that I was at least slightly better in conventional terms than those native-born who did not get the position. This fact implies at minimum that had I not competed for the position my students would have been served at best by a silver medalist. (I choose the Olympics language on purpose, from a surfeit of honesty. It’s not absurd to argue that the quality difference between the gold and the silver winners is insignificant or even accidental: On a different day, with a different wind, perhaps, the silver winner would have won the gold. But there is more.)

Like many but not all immigrants, I grew up in a language different from English, French in my case. So. I had to achieve the same credentials as my competitors in what was for me a second language. Forgive me for seeming to brag but doesn’t this indicate an intellectual competence over and above what the formal credentials express? If you doubt this shameless assertion, ask yourself how many native-born Americans are able to teach anything – besides the English language – in any francophone university anywhere. And I am not an extreme case of talent among immigrants to the US. I know a man, a distinguished biological scientist, who grew up in the African language Wolof, went to secondary school in French, to college and graduate school in English. Would you guess he possesses a certain mental nimbleness uncommon among determined monolinguals?

I will reluctantly take another step. I do it reluctantly because it is sure to lose me some friends. I will use my own case as an immigrant for an example because it’s the case I know best. It’s about the cultural endowment we carry around over and above, or aside from mastery of a foreign language.

Let me say right away that I don’t contend that I enjoy a 100% understanding of American culture, even after fifty years. I don’t understand the rules of baseball, for example. I never bothered to learn because the game seems boring. Yet, I must be conversant with a lot of national culture, just for having acquired my professional credentials and, even more so, for navigating everyday life in my society of adoption. The point is that the acquisition of another culture does not entail a one-for-one exchange, like changing clothes, for example. Much, most of what the immigrant brings with him, he retains, as one might easily assume. When I was learning American culture, I was not leaving French culture behind with the hat-check girl.

The first thing that immigrants, those who immigrate as adults, keep is mastery of their native language. This may sound mysterious to a monolingual person. It’s true that one can become “rusty” in a language one does not use. The quality of self-expression, for example, may deteriorate over time spent abroad. Yet, it’s very unlikely that an immigrant will lose the ability to watch the news in his native language, or to read a newspaper. So, I follow the news in English, of course, but also in French, some of the time. The reporting of the same events do not overlap perfectly, far from it. So, I am learning things I probably would not learn if I knew no French. (That’s in addition to carrying in my head much disorderly information from my society of origin. More below.) In my job as a teacher and as a scholar, I was routinely able to draw on broader information than did my native-born colleagues. I wouldn’t say (although I am tempted) that I had twice as large a store of information at my fingertips as they did but that I had definitely more than they.

So, in fact, I am arguing – with little embarrassment – that I must have been a better teacher and scholar than most (not all) of my native-born colleagues with similar credentials by virtue of being an immigrant.* There may be no metrics allowing an assessment of this outrageous claim. That’s because what college professors actually do is so mysterious. (Another story.)

It’s also true that to measure accurately the added work value of immigrants you have to find a way to factor in laziness, which varies much among individuals. In my case, I suspect strongly that if I had been native born, I could not have had the normal academic career I enjoyed, given my above-average level of laziness. In other words, the informational advantage associated with being a bilingual immigrant may have paid the fare for my laziness. Had I been the same person, with the same formal credentials, except less lazy, however, my presence would have much benefited American society. This detour supports my main argument of course: It does not make much sense to deny that competent bilingualism adds to normally credentialed efficacy. This is true in an occupation such as university teaching. It’s true though possibly to a lesser extent, for a plumber who will, at least, be a better citizen than a comparably situated monolingual. This is all common sense. No hard data are needed to give this scenario credence although hard figures might destroy it.

It should be fairly clear that a second language is like another tool in one’s personal toolbox. Immigrants have yet more, other additional tools that may be more elusive, more difficult to describe. I am giving it a try. All of us approach new situations through a filter that is made up partly of our past experiences, through the colander of past experiences if you will. Many of the experiences that compose the sifting device are repetitive, partly superfluous: The tenth car accident you witness does not have the same power to influence your driving as the first. There is often an excess of material in the sifter. This means that whatever the sifting process accomplishes would be accomplished as well, or nearly as well, on the basis of fewer past experiences.

My experiences in my society of origin do not perfectly duplicate those of a similarly situated native-born American. For example, I lived through a school system that was much more authoritarian than he experienced. I take from this the strong impression that my experiences in my society of origin adds to my experiences in my society of choice to give me a better sifter than what exists among the native-born population. It does this in a non-repetitive way (unlike, say, the 9th car accident.) I don’t mean that I have twice as large a sifter as they do but perhaps that I have 125% of what they carry in their heads.

This second extra tool in my tool box is factually associated with the first, bilingualism, but it’s not the same thing. An Australian, with a perfect command of English and perfectly innocent of knowledge of another language would carry the same extra tool as I do. The advantage gained through this second tool is difficult to express. It’s tacit. (I have never read anything about the topic.) I believe that my experience of another society – again, independently of bilingualism – acts like a second pair of glasses. I think I am able to watch events and people from one perspective, and then, to some extent, from a second perspective. I suspect it does not give me extra-depth but an edge in exercising common criticality. Possibly, it acts like a few IQ points that would be added to my measured IQ. Again, this thesis is very exploratory, supported by no real numbers. I must add that this second tool associated with being an immigrant is free from the effects of education. I think I have observed the expected extra resourcefulness among Mexican immigrants I knew to be semi-literate (in Spanish) performing ordinary manual jobs, in construction and in repair work, for example.

In conclusion: I and hundreds of other immigrants I have observed contribute to the society in which we live over and above the contributions of the native-born. Thus, we add to the general well-being even if we are paid exactly the same as the native-born.

The above is a short string of arguments in favor of immigration. None of it is a call for open borders. I subscribe to the lifeboat view of immigration. Too numerous immigrants could easily sink the boat that made them swim to developed societies in the first place. (According to retired foreign service officer Dave Seminara’s review of relevant studies – that I have not read – 150 million people world wide would like to move to the US, including 34% of Mexicans.) In addition, there are non-economic arguments against large-scale immigration that I support although they may be even more difficult to describe than what I tried to explain above. My analysis supports instead an active stance to design immigration policies that make rigorously the conceptual distinction between immigrants we need and immigrants in need. This distinction is not inimical to any refugee policy whatsoever; perhaps, the reverse is true.

* Please, don’t try to factor in a putative superior European education brought to the job of being an American academic as an alternative explanation. I am a French high school dropout.

How dairy farmers unions in Canada are distorting the facts about supply management

Under heat recently as President Trump has criticized supply management in Canada and retaliated against it, the different provincial associations representing dairy farmers have moved on the offensive. To promote the virtues of this system meant to reduce production in order to prop up prices through the use of trade tariffs, production quotas and price controls (how can we call those virtues), these unions have produced numerous infographics to make their case. It is even part of what they dub their These-infographics-show-that-diary-prices-are-lower-in-Canada-than-elsewhere, that milk is still a cheap drink relative to other type of drinks and those prices, supposedly, increase more slowly than elsewhere. All of these graphics are dishonest and must be dismantled.

The most egregious of these infographics – present in the “lobby day kit” – shows the price of milk in Australia (1.55 CAD), Canada (1.45 CAD) and New Zealand (1.65 CAD). They are seemingly using 2014 prices. First of all, they use data that conflicts massively with the reports of Statistics Canada that suggest that milk prices hover between 2.33$ to 2.48$ per liter.  Their data is provided by AC Nielsen but no justification is presented as to why they are better than Statistics Canada. The truth is that it is not better. Participants in Nielsen surveys come from a self-selected pool of storeowners who wish to participate and are then selected by Nielsen to be part of the data collection. Then, they can record prices. It should be mentioned that not all regions of Canada are covered in the data. Although the Nielsen data does have some uses (especially with regards to market studies), it hardly measures up Statistics Canada when comes the time to evaluate price levels. This is because the government agency collects information from all regions and tries a broader sweep of retailers in order to create the consumer price index.

But an even larger problem is that, in their comparison of prices, they don’t mention that New Zealand taxes milk. In New Zealand, all food items are subjected to sales tax, which is not the case in Canada and Australia. Hence, when they compare retail prices, they are comparing prices that exclude taxes and prices that include taxes. One would like to find if they acknowledge this fact in the methodological mentions, but there are none!

Using prices available at Numbeo.com and Expatisan.com and the exchange rates made available by the Bank of Canada, we can correct for this problem of theirs. Simply changing prices source leads to a massively different result with regards to Australia whose milk prices are lower than in Canada. Secondly, once we adjust for the sales tax in New Zealand, we find that prices in New Zealand are lower than in Canada. In fact they are lower than in one of Canada’s cheapest market, Montreal (let alone Toronto or Vancouver).  So the infographic they show in order to lobby governments is a fabrication.

Table 1: The real price of milk

Using Numbeo.com (regular milk)
Unadjusted Adjusted for taxes
 Australia  $           1.59  $                 1.59
 New Zealand  $           2.26  $                 1.97
 Canada  $           1.99  $                 1.99
 Using Expatisan.com (whole milk)
 Unadjusted  Adjusted for taxes
 Sydney  $           1.82  $                 1.47
 Wellington  $           2.42  $                 2.10
 Montreal  $           2.87  $                 2.87

Source: Numbeo.com and Expatisan.com, consulted May 16th 2014 and the Bank of Canada’s currency converter. Note: using the Statistics Canada price would make Canada’s situation even worse by comparison.

This is part of a pattern of deceit since they also massage data for numerous other graphs that are presented to Canadians in efforts to convince them of the virtues of supply management. One other example is an infographic that presents a figure of nominal milk prices in Australia before and after the abolition of supply management. Given that prices seem more volatile after 2000 and that they increase more steeply, they try to make us believe that liberalization was a failure. This is not the case. Any sensible policy analyst would deflate nominal prices by the general price index to control for inflation. When one does just that using the data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one sees that real prices stabilized in the first ten years of deregulation after increasing roughly 15% in the decade prior. And since 2010, real prices have been falling constantly.

Other examples abound. In one instance, the Quebec union of dairy farmers circulated an infographic meant to show that nominal prices for dairy products increased faster in the United States than in Canada. Again, they omit inflation. Since 1990 (their own starting date), prices of dairy products have risen more slowly than inflation – indicating a decline in real prices. In Canada, the opposite occurred – inflation increased more slowly than dairy prices indicating an increase of the real price.

The debate around supply management is complicated. The policy course to adopt in order to improve agricultural productivity and lower prices for Canadians is hard to pinpoint. But whatever position one may hold, no one is well-served by statistical manipulations offered by the unions representing dairy farmers.

Geopolitics and Asia’s Little Divergence: State Building in China and Japan After 1850

Crossposted at the Medium

Why did Japan successfully modernize in the 19th century while China failed to do so? Both China and Japan came under increasing threat from the Western powers after 1850. In response, Japan successfully undertook a program of state building and modernization; in China, however, attempts to modernize proved unsuccessful and the power of the central state was fatally weakened. The failure to build a modern state led to China’s so-called lost century while Japan’s success enabled it to become the first non-western country to industrialize. In a paper with Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University) and Tuan-Hwee Sng (NUS), we explore this question using a combination of historical evidence and formal modeling.

On the surface this East Asian “little divergence” is extremely puzzling. Qing China, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, was a powerful centralized empire. An impersonal bureaucracy selected by exams, and routinely rotated, governed the empire. In contrast, the institutions of Tokugawa Japan are usually described as feudal. The shogun directly ruled only 15% of the country. The remainder was divided into 260 domains ruled by lords known as daimyo who collected their own taxes, possessed their own armies, and issued their own currencies. To the outside observer China would have seemed much more likely to have been able to establish the institutions or a centralized state than Japan.

Figure 1: Qing China and Tokugawa Japan

For much of the early modern period (1500–1700) China and Japan possessed military capabilities that made them more than a match for any western power. This changed dramatically after the Industrial Revolution and their vulnerability exposed by the Opium War (1839–1840) and the Black Ships Incident of 1853, respectively. During the First Opium a small number of British ships overpowered the entire Chinese navy, while Commodore Perry’s show of force in landing in Japan in 1853 convinced the Japanese of western naval superiority. Within a few years, political elites in both countries recognized the need to modernize if only to develop the military capacity required to fend off this new danger.

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Figure 2: Commodore Perry in Japanese eyes

In China, after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, there were attempts at modernizing — notably the Self-Strengthening movement associated with Li Hongzhang and others. Recent scholarship has reevaluated this movement positively. At the purely military-technological level it was in fact quite successful. The Jiangnan Arsenal and the Fuzhou Shipyard saw the successful importation of western military technology into China and the Chinese were soon producing modern ships and weaponry. However, these developments were associated with a process of political decentralization as local governors took on more and more autonomy. The importation of military technology was not associated with more far-reaching societal or political reforms. There was no serious attempt to modernize the Qing state.

In contrast, Japan, following the Meiji Restoration, embarked on whole scale-societal transformation. The daimyo lost all power. Feudalism was abolished. Compulsory education was introduced as was a nationwide railway system. A new fiscal system was imposed in the teeth of opposition from farmers. The samurai were disarmed and transformed from a military caste into bureaucrats and businessmen.

Qing China and the newly modernized Meiji Japan would collide in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). Before the war, western observers believed China would win in part because of their superior equipment. But the Chinese lacked a single national army. It was the Beiyang army and the Beiyang fleet that fought the entire Japanese military force. The fact that Japan had undergone a wholesale transformation of society enabled them to marshal the resources to win a rapid victory.


Figure 3: The Jingyuan, one of the ships in the Baiyang fleet

* * *

Why did the Japanese succeed in modernizing while Qing China failed to do so? Historians have proposed numerous explanations. In our paper, however, rather than focusing on cultural differences between Japan and China, we focus on how different geopolitical incentives shaped their decisions to invest in state capacity and state centralization.

Before the mid-19th century China only faced a threat from inner Asia from where historically nomadic invasions had routinely invaded and threatened the sedentary population of the Chinese plain. Due to this threat, historically China tended to be a centralized empire with its capital and the bulk of its professional army stationed close to the northern frontier (see Ko, Koyama, and Sng (2018)). In contrast, Japan faced no major geopolitical threats prior to 1850. This meant that it could retain a loose and decentralized political system.

After 1850 both countries faced major threats from several directions. China was threatened on its landward borders by Russian expansionism and from the coast by Britain and France (and later Germany and the United States). Japan was threatened from all directions by western encroachment.

We build a simple model which allows for multidirectional geopolitical threats. We represent each state as a line of variable length. States have to invest in state capacity to defend against external geopolitical threats. Each state can use centralized fiscal institutions or decentralized fiscal institutions.

If there is strong threat from one direction, as China faced prior to 1850, the dominant strategy is political centralization. In the absence of major geopolitical threats decentralization may be preferable as was the case in Tokugawa Japan.

The emergence of a multidirectional threat, however, changes things. A large country facing a multidirectional threat may have to decentralize in order to meet the different challenges it now faces. This is what happened in China after 1850. In contrast, for a small state with limited resources, an increase in the threat level makes centralization and resource pooling more attractive. For a small territory like Japan, the emergence of non-trivial foreign threats renders political decentralization untenable.

We then consider the incentives to modernize. Modernization is costly. It entails social dislocation and creates losers as well as winners, the losers will attempt to block any changes that hurt their interests. We show that for geographically compact polities, it is always a dominant strategy to modernize in the face of a multidirectional threat as the state is able to manage local opposition to reform. This helps to explain why all members of the Japanese political elite came around to favoring rapid modernization by the late 1860s.

Consistent with our model, modernization was more difficult and controversial in China. The Qing government and particularly the Empress Dowager famously opposed the building of railroads. The most well-known example of this was the Wusong Road in Shanghai. Built using foreign investment it was dismantled in 1877 after locals complained about it. The Qing state remained reactive and prepared to kowtow to local powerholders and vested interests rather than confront them. Despite local initiatives, no effort was made at wholesale reforms until after China’s defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895.

Figure 4: The Wusong Railroad in 1876

* * *

By 1895 it was too late, however. The attempts of the Qing state to reform and modernize led to its collapse. Needless to state, East Asian’s little divergence would have lasting consequences.

Japan’s modernization program astonished foreign observers. Victory over Russia in 1904 propelled Japan to Great Power status but also set Japan on the path to disaster in the World War Two. Nevertheless, the institutional legacy of Japan’s successful late 19th century modernization played a crucial role in Japan’s post-1945 economic miracle.

Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty China fragmented further entering the so-called warlord era (1916–1926). Though the Nationalist regime reunified the country and began a program of modernization, the Japanese invasion and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) devastated the country. The end result was that China came to be reunified by the Communist party and to experience more conflict and trauma until it began to embrace market reforms after 1979.