The Moulin Rouge, San Francisco, a Fragment of Memoir

When I was 22, I lived at the Moulin Rouge, a French bar in North Beach, San Francisco, California. Not all the time, only when I was not hitch-hiking to and from the community college with almost a view on San Quentin Prison, and when I was not attending classes there, or working. The Moulin Rouge was run by a spiffy well-coiffed older French woman. I always thought she was a retired madam from Marseilles. I don’t say that to blacken her name for she was a real sweetheart. And anyhow, I don’t know this for a fact.

I was a good student who did his assignment efficiently and who drank too much every night at the Moulin Rouge. It was a good plan to meet new people, some who were interesting, some who could be useful. The regulars were a mixture of French immigrants and of American Francophiles. Some of the latter were single women of an uncertain age in the low light of the bar. I met a middle-aged French woman who owned an expensive hairdresser’s shop and who tried to make me her chauffeur/gigolo. She failed (we failed,I failed).

I had emigrated to the US with no skills and no money. That’s no money, not a cute way to say “little money.” Through the Moulin Rouge, I landed a succession of part-time jobs, not all as unimportant as you might imagine. One job was editing a small, largely local French language newspaper. I always wanted to make it more hifallutin. The publisher, a Frenchman who only lived in San Francisco part of the year, objected. We had a final falling out when he fired me with these exact words, “We don’t need intellectual shit in this paper. Fifty per cent of our readers are Basques; the Basques are stupid. I know because I am Basque.” ! At the time, I slept in a small room in a Basque hotel precisely, also in North Beach. The other tenants were Basque shepherds on vacation from their lonely jobs in the Sierras. They did not seem stupid to me although they were not what you would call real literati. Plus, they cooked great six-egg plus smoked ham breakfasts.

A middle-aged gay customer who was an interior decorator – I am not kidding – heard of my predicament. He introduced me to a rich old lady who would have me occupy her basement apartment on Pacific Hill and pay me a little stipend in return for “some work.” She called the lodgings: “the Chinaman’s flat.” (Again: Would I make this up?)

The old lady, a widow, drove a hard bargain. She thought she had a right to be demanding because she often brought down for me her surplus cooked vegetable. That was a misplaced concern, of course: Young men use beer for both fiber and vitamins. I did not enjoy the job of a houseboy much and bringing girls down into the basement was hellishly difficult because the old lady never slept. She did not even take naps in the afternoon, I know this for a fact. After a couple of months, she fired me. She told me to my face she would replace me with an Asian boy who would be “more docile.” It made a lot of sense since her main offer was the “Chinaman’s flat.”

I kept spending my long winter evenings at the Moulin Rouge. I kept meeting interesting characters there. One was a Frenchman in his forties who told me he was a pirate on leave. He said he owned an old Navy PT boat with a machine gun he used to prey on Chinese ships in the Celebes (Indonesia). “How come you are not in prison for 20 or 25 years? How about the police, the local coast guard, the navy?” I asked. “Nobody cares about the rich Chinese in Indonesia; besides, we never, never kill anyone. We wave big guns at them, my crew and I, and they always pay up. Sometimes, they bargain with me. I am not unreasonable,” he explained. He invited me to join him in a piracy campaign on my next summer vacation. I told him that I would like too but I would probably have to study in the summer too. I had my values down straight: junior college before piracy.

Evidently, the pirate had detected my criminal fiber before I had. “How about spring break – he said – I have a contact in Columbia. We could go quickly and smuggle back pre-Columbian artifacts. I know some collectors. Actually they come to his bar once in a while. I have heard you speak Spanish. Your Spanish is good. You could be very helpful and make enough money to support yourself for a whole year.”

Before I had time to really consider his tempting offer, he changed the subject. He told me that today was “El Dia de la Raza.” I did not know what that was then. Anyway, it’s not really about race. It’s just a day when Spanish speakers from all countries celebrate their “hispanidad,” whatever that is. He said there was a big dance at the Masonic auditorium. He added that it would be full of tarted-up Hispanic women on the make. (Here is a rule of thumb: Like a hunter who has lovingly cleaned and oiled his gun, a woman who has gone to great expenditure of time and money to make herself sexy for a special event hates to return empty-handed.)

So, we went to the ball and it was just as he had said. For some reason, women visibly outnumbered men. Now, a neutral, scientific note about Frenchmen: They may look like any northern Europeans but many can dance like Puerto-Rican pimps. The reasons why this is are interesting but too complex for this story. In this case, we both also spoke Spanish with ease which is not uncommon among French people. Quickly, the pirate and I did very well. I met a short but shapely brown, black-eyed Central American woman with hair down to her waist. She wore a bare-back dress and her skin under my right hand was the smoothest and the softest I had ever felt. She liked that I was twice her size and she raised herself on her toes to reach me. After a decent hour or so, she took me to her apartment in a taxi she called herself. Turned out she was twice my age. CUT! This may be read at a family gathering!

My friend the pirate had met a very sweet Mexican-American woman half his age at the dance and he had immediately fallen hard for her. She had the kind of sweetness that caused her to keep worrying about who was doing my ironing since I was a bachelor living alone. She thought that was not right. The pirate told me it was time for him to abandon his evil practices and to return to France where his old mother was still alive. He and his Mexican-American sweetheart began traveling West to East toward our shared native country. The girl had never been outside the Bay Area. Together, they hitched-hiked and worked their way on ships toward Singapore. That included a two-month stay in Australia where the pirate made good money killing rabbits. Then, he worked as a cook and she as a maid on a freighter that took a few passengers. They made it to France by various means in a little under a year.

“Why stop in Singapore?” I asked the pirate when I met him and Maria again briefly in Paris. “Why, it has the biggest and the most beautiful Catholic cathedral in Asia. That where I wanted to marry Maria. That’s where I married her,” he said simply. Real or not, the pirate had great style. I am sorry I don’t know what became of him or her. I imagine they lived in a nice farm in the beautiful French countryside and that they have had many children who look like pretty Maria.

Soon afterwards the Dia de la Raza, I moved to Sausalito where I had found a gardener’s job on the sole strength of my French name. After that, I only returned to the Moulin Rouge infrequently. In Sausalito, every night, I would attend the No Name Bar, right downtown. It was an intellectual sort of place. There was wallpaper in the restroom that showed scenes from the Trojan War. Someone had drawn a bubble coming out of a hoplite’s mouth with words in Greek letters. Another graffito said: “Schwartz is a neo-classic.” Schwartz must have been devastated! Soon, I found that the Moulin Rouge had played out its part in my destiny. I was steeped in American life and on my way to becoming a scholar, not a little thanks to the No Name Bar. Staying on the academic straight and narrow was not always easy though because of the pirate’s bad example.

Nightcap

  1. Was liberal imperialism ethical? Kenan Malik, Guardian
  2. The world is trapped in America’s culture war Helen Lewis, Atlantic
  3. That was some election! Scott Sumner, Money Illusion
  4. California’s far Left governor sends his kids to private school Politico

Nightcap

  1. Breaking the industrial bank taboo Diego Zuluaga, Alt-M
  2. Racism as emergence Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Neo-feudalism in California Joel Kotkin, American Affairs
  4. Neo-feudalism: the end of capitalism? Jodi Dean, LARB

Nightcap

  1. California’s fires (no mention of “property rights”) Claire McEachern, LARB
  2. Nationalism is not always the enemy of liberalism Asle Toje, American Interest
  3. Universal Love, said the Cactus Person Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex
  4. Great list of recent low budget sci-fi flicks Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 12): The Shape of Anti-immigrant Hostility

After fifty years of participant-observation and of a scholarly reading, both, I have come to think that hostility toward immigrants tends to follow a U-shaped curve, with degree of hostility on the vertical axis and numbers of immigrants on the horizontal axis. The first immigrants, those who do not go unperceived, evoke hostility because we are hard-wired to mistrust strangers and also because they are usually culturally incompetent. (Only usually; see my description of Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley who often land functionally capable). They don’t know how to act properly, often they don’t even know how to ask for help to learn how to act. In addition their newcomer status usually places them near the bottom of the relevant employment pyramid. Frequently, they perform unpleasant work. They are the disagreeable poor. Even rich immigrants may be summarily rejected for being “vulgar.”

As their numbers rise, the early instinctive hostility diminishes among many of the host population. Immigrants’ manners improve as the first comers coach the recently arrived. They do so directly and also through ethnic publications and via their churches. In the meantime, the host population learns that the immigrants are mostly not dangerous. With rising numbers also, there are growing opportunities for the native population to observe immigrants fulfilling useful functions, such as digging ditches in the hot sun and practicing medicine. At the same time, the opportunities for personal, face-to-face interaction rise exponentially. At some point, many in the host population begin to create exceptions in their own minds to their remaining hostility: Deport them all, except Lupita; she is a good housekeeper and I trust her with my possessions; Mexicans are lazy, except Diego, he is a really hard worker. After a while, exceptions have become the rule. Soon, hostility toward the immigrants is at its lowest. Fewer natives resent them and they don’t resent them deeply. (I think this is a useful distinction; ask me.)

If the number of immigrants continues to increase, however, more and more of the host population begin to feel that they are not at home anymore. They are like strangers in their own  land, the land of their ancestors. Unavoidably, with large numbers, some of the immigrants will turn out to be talented, or lucky, and they will occupy visible positions of power, like bank branch president. Many will rise faster than the members of the original population. Envy makes matters worse, of course: He got here only fifteen years ago, he still has an accent, and he is the School Principal (or better, the president of a big university, a real case). My people have been here for two hundred years and….Hostility increases again; it’s become anew a simple function of too many of the other kind.

I think California has reached that area of the U-shaped curve, near the top of the second branch of the U. The three most common last names here are said to be: Garcia, Hernandez and Lopez, instead of the normal Smith, Williams, Anderson, or Miller. Many of my neighbors (many) think that not knowing Spanish has become an unfair work handicap. As I said, local hillbilly women with a high school education (Did I say “hillbilly”?) used to find reasonably good employment as receptionists in medical offices. Those jobs have dried up because the daughters of Mexican immigrants who know enough Spanish to deal with Spanish-only speakers cost no more than they. Some mothers also claim that the use of Spanish by other kids isolates their children at school. It’s probably rare because Spanish speakers are generally a minority but impressions matter, however devoid of basis.

Accordingly, it seems to me that, in my area, there is more hostility to Mexicans and Central American immigrants now than there was ten years ago. It’s dangerous hostility because it’s now fairly well informed hostility. Some of the derogatory ethnic stereotypes may well be realistic: Mexicans drive without insurance. (I don’t have hard figures but I would easily wager on this.) The hostility also remains somewhat abstract, for the moment. It hinders but little face-to-face, personal interactions. The exceptions regimen is still holding up to a large extent. The proof is that the number of anti-Mexican jokes remains remarkably low, steady, and repetitive, kind of boring, really. Bitterness, however seems more and more freely expressed in the social media where there is almost no price to pay for doing so. Incidentally, I don’t know where the inflection point is, where the hostility curves turn up. I wish I knew. It’s a doable study. Someone else will have to do it. Good topic for a doctoral thesis, maybe.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 11]

Eye Candy: garbage versus trash (American dialects)

NOL garbage versus trash USA

I’ve always said “garbage,” but down here in Texas they use the word “trash.” I have no idea where I found this, and I can’t verify the source, but it looks right to me.

Any contrary arguments about this map?

A note on the three Californias and arbitrary borders

As many of you may know, there is a proposal to split up California into three parts: north, south and ‘ye olde’ California. This proposal is idiotic on several fronts. For starters the best university in LA, the University of Southern California, would find itself in ye olde California. Meanwhile my university, UC Riverside, would overnight become USC Riverside. Now, I wouldn’t be against the Trojan football team relocating to Riverside, especially since Riverside doesn’t have a team of it’s own. However the proposed split would cut off the Inland Empire and Orange County from Los Angeles county.

This despite the fact that the greater LA area is composed of LA-Ventura-Riverside-San Bernardino-Orange counties. These counties are deeply interwoven with one another, and dividing them is bizarre. Imagine the poor “Los Angeles Angels at Anaheim”. What horrendous name will they have to take on next? The “San Diego Angeles at Anaheim”?

Beyond it’s idiocy the proposal makes a larger point: government borders are, for the most part, arbitrary and plain stupid. The proposal to split up California ignores the regions socio-cultural ties to one another, but there are countless other examples of senseless borders.

For example, who was the bright guy that decided to split up Kansas City between Missouri and Kansas? And let’s not even get started on the absurd borders of the old world.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Post in the comments.

Weed, and the Libertarian Party’s future

Last week, the Trump administration announced it would be pursuing a federalist approach to cannabis legislation, effectively allowing states to create their own rules about how the drug is classified and sold.

This is a big change in American drug policy. One common opinion of the Obama era is that the federal government took a relaxed approach toward policing states that were decriminalizing marijuana. The 2008-2016 administration shifted the financial language of the drug war from a law-and-order crackdown to a public safety effort, and placed a low priority on intervening in states with medical legality. Real reform was introduced like the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment which prohibited the Department of Justice from policing medical marijuana states with federal funds. However, DEA raids and reconnaissance missions continued — like in my home state, where counter-economizing Californians sold a whopping five times more weed than they consumed (often to states where it is illegal).

Under Obama, it looked like, with a president less enthusiastic about beating up stoners, American drug policy might start to approach the 21st century. Some skepticism was reintroduced when Senator Sessions was appointed Attorney General under President Trump. Jeff “Good People Don’t Smoke Marijuana” Sessions is explicit about supreme federal authority for drug laws, and supported overturning Rohrabacher-Farr. This, indeed, would be a return to normalcy. For the last half century, it has not been characteristic of the federal government to stay out of drug use — rather than the Trump administration being a Republican re-installation of the war on drugs, we would be witnessing a general return to the 20th century status quo. However, Trump’s announcement makes it seem like we can finally welcome the unexpected.

Trump’s representatives have positioned this move to give up cannabis regulation to the states in a philosophy of states’ rights. Whether or not Trump cares about dual federalism, the repeal of marijuana prohibition — medical, recreational and federal — sweeping across states the last decade is a big win for individual liberty, and, since neither Party has been particularly friendly to cannabis, would seem to point to mainstream party acceptance of libertarian ideas.

What is the Party’s track record on cannabis? The Libertarian Party explicitly opposed drug laws in its first 1972 national platform. Now, in our present day, drug decriminalization is not a radical stance but something more mainstream. Failed or ex-politicians from either party have made a habit of coming out in support of legalizing marijuana the last few years, and up north, the Canadian Liberal Party may now endorse wide-scale reforms. Just yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he would introduce a bill to directly decriminalize marijuana as a federally classified substance. We’ll see how it goes. But it is now clear that in the same way Libertarians supported gay marriage decades before either partisan establishment now does, one doesn’t have to seek out a minarchist anymore to find someone who opposes drug laws or mass incarceration. (One mainstream policy position that hasn’t budged — war.)

So although we see radically unlibertarian moves nearly every day in Congress and the executive (e.g., FOSTA and Syria), some of the ideas of liberty have spread and reached mainstream status.

This raises some questions about the state of the philosophy and the Party, and more than just drug policy. What does it mean when our more eccentric ideas gain traction in the bigger political world? This question is tied to the purpose of an embedded libertarian political party in the first place.

Economist David Friedman made the point in the postscript to Machinery of Freedom that the purpose of the Libertarian Party is to not have a Libertarian Party. David’s argument is not the same thing as Austin Peterson’s brand slogan, to “Take over government in order to leave people alone.” Instead, David’s argument was built around a public choice understanding of political institutions, but the same conclusion follows from several different premises about the nature of third parties and especially those with a goal of mitigating or eliminating politics.

For American institutional reasons — codified in law and practice — a third party is almost certainly never going to win an election. David thinks, therefore, the purpose of a fringe political party is aspire to the legacy of the Socialist Party of the early 1900s. The Socialist platform in 1928 has succeeded in infiltrating establishment policy, even if the Party last election drew less than a tenth of 1% of the vote. Fringe parties are more successful as beacons of alternative policy than legitimate political competitors. The Party does not pursue political success but influence; hopefully, we will one day not need it to affirm liberty.

So, let’s return to cannabis decriminalization, where we are seeing a libertarian idea achieve mainstream political support.

Legalizing weed is a victory for libertarian ideas and a defeat for the Libertarian Party. Part of the simplistic draw of Libertarianism is “fiscal conservatism and social progressivism,” which, as a one-liner, allows recruitment from both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Now, however, if the progressive leaders, and the Republicans, are co-opting drug decriminalization, there is a lot less draw for social liberals to vote for Party alternatives more aligned with their radical agenda. (I know this, for instance, because drug legalization as an issue first drew me from Democratism to libertarianism in high school.) Hillary Clinton could have partially avoided her image as a crony neoliberal if she adopted more social freedoms, which would only leave her smears on the Left as an imperialist and capitalist.

A recent, rather strange video by AJ+ took aim at libertarianism (read: the Libertarian Party) as “ultra far-right” and spent seconds noting that libertarians are, on the flip side, “anti-NSA, anti-intervention and anti-drug laws.” These are not the only policies that small government people have to offer to the Left if they properly understand themselves. But, as libertarians, we should actually hope this list grows smaller and smaller; the more it shrinks, the more it means that establishment parties are appropriating libertarian positions. Pretty soon, being “anti-drug law” may disappear from the elevator pitch. Subsequently, the “worthwhile aspects” of the Libertarian Party fade to the back, and the draw of the Party (to the left, or the right) decreases until it looks heavily status quo.

So, we could expect that the influence of the Libertarian Party shrinks with the increasing influence of libertarian ideas in general society, as the general electorate pressures establishment politicians to adjust their policy space.

However, a lot of things are being taken for granted here. Do politicians actually respond to the general public consensus and public desire? Is it the case that “libertarian” ideas are spreading to the mainstream, or is it more “progressive” or “traditionalist” ones that are moving it in ostensibly similar directions? Can the ideas alone move policy positions without backing money?

Screenshot_5

We also know that the power of the Libertarian Party has greatly increased since its humble beginnings (whether or not its reputation has improved). My hypothesis is that the influence of libertarian ideas in society at large pressures the estabishment parties to adjust their positions, which in turn makes the Libertarian Party more irrelevant. This is not disproved by an increase in Libertarian Party power. The ideas, even if libertarian, still need to be seen as “libertarian” for it to hurt the Party. For instance, Chuck Schumer said “Looking at the numbers” guided him toward decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level and cited the ACLU.  These “numbers” have been available for decades, from a potpourri of alternative political thinktanks. Citing them from the ACLU will not embed the bill — also faux-embedded in a philosophy of states’ rights — in libertarianism, but in the context of mass incarceration, criminal justice racial disparity and THC research opportunity. These are all good contexts. But the individual freedom element key to libertarianism will be missing, and of course it is, because Schumer says nothing about the other plethora of federal drug laws which prohibit freedom. Recognition of the libertarian aspect of ideas which are libertarian, I think, is essential for them to harm a Party which bases itself around the philosophy.

All of this means that there will be perverse incentives in third-party leadership. Politicians want job security like the next guy, and organizations in some sense want to “survive,” so the interests of libertarianism and the Libertarian Party are in one way opposed (or environmentalism and the Green Party). Liberty is more advanced by incumbent politicians (who are liberty-advancing, of course) than defeated politicians. And the mainstream parties are successful, the fringe parties are not. Thus, liberty is better spread when our ideas take off and get mainstream acceptance, but this will only serve to weaken the Libertarian Party itself, as its attraction as a political outlier fades. This must be obvious: no Libertarian Party candidate is going to claim the White House in our lifetime, and the best hopes of libertarian success are in influencing other parties. So, even when we gain more percent of the vote, the success is in getting people to hear about libertarianism, not in actually convincing people to vote Libertarian.

Conflicting incentives (working in the Party and advancing liberty) means that the Party could be taken over by bad actors like any other political organization, and indeed David predicts this with the increase of political clout. Parties with political power have plenty of favors to dish out, and it only takes a few non-ideological Party members to break ranks. As some of the ideas become more mainstream, this is one possibility. Another is disintegration: there might be no reason for the Libertarian Party to continue, given that its unique draw has suffused into larger bases. A third option is that more radical contingents, like the Mises Caucus, achieve ideological supremacy as the moderate libertarians leave for the newly-libertized Democrat and Republican parties.

In any case, libertarianism faces a conundrum in its Party format. Much of the problems apply to other third parties, but some are unique to libertarianism. One brutal confrontation is the acknowledgement that legalizing cannabis will advance liberty and simultaneously hurt the liberty movement. To this end, Saul Alinsky’s reflection in Rules for Radicals is potent.

The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago is trying to stop the University from bulldozing the black ghetto. The activists issued five demands for the city council, grew in power, and defeated the construction project. Eight months later, the city crafts a new policy on urban renewal to the frustration of the Woodlawn Organization, who barge into Alinsky’s office denouncing the policy statement. But “Through the tirade it never occurred to any of the angry leaders that the city’s new policy granted all the five demands for which the Woodlawn Organization began. Then they were fighting for hamburger; now they wanted filet mignon; so it goes. And why not?”

The solution to one problem creates a new problem, and there are always future problems to work on. Liberty will just have to keep trucking through the victories, and learn from our friends the Socialists of 1928 and Saul Alinsky, who never joined a political party.

Happy 4/20.

“Does Russia own a piece of the US?”

That’s the title of my latest piece over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

The Russian-American Company was run through Saint Petersburg and thus had a strict racial hierarchical code in place, in conformity with the latest beliefs about race at the time. The neighborhoods of Fort Ross were segregated, but an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Kent Lightfoot, has produced excellent research at Fort Ross, showing how the Company’s racist charter was unofficially ignored, with miscegenation widespread (“creoles” was even created as an official race for documentation purposes) and interethnic activities commonplace. The people inhabiting Fort Ross preferred to follow instead something the anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle calls “mestizo logics.”

Please, show me some love.

Kent Lightfoot can be found at NOL here. Jean-Loup Amselle can be found at NOL here. I also give a shoutout to Andrei Znamenski‘s work in the piece, so be on the lookout for that.

I didn’t get to delve as much into this piece as I’d have liked to. I wanted to get more into the inner workings of the Russian-American Company and compare it to the Dutch East India Company, but that sounds like a tall task even for a PhD dissertation.

I don’t think I did a good enough job of highlighting just how rich Pacific Rim trade was in the early 19th century. I tried in vain to sneak a reference to Hawaiian laborers that could be found throughout the Pacific world at the time of Fort Ross’ founding, but I’ve got a 600 word limit.

Also, I wanted to highlight the fact that Native Americans weren’t losers in the opening up of the Pacific to the world. They were active participants in the globalization of the Pacific Rim trade. They were powerful. I don’t know if I’d focus on California Indians to highlight Native American actors. I’d probably focus on an area a little further north, in the Puget Sound-Vancouver area.

At any rate, hope you enjoy the piece!

Mormons and California’s Gold Rush

The folks over at RealClearHistory have enjoyed my weekly column so much that they’ve invited me to write a second weekly column for their Historiat blog. I was tasked with writing the introductory essay for a blog that has been dormant for 3 years. Here’s an excerpt:

Initially the Mormon leadership in Nauvoo sought to establish a new homeland in northern California – which was far enough away from the American, Mexican, and British governments to be considered safe – and Brannan was tasked with the initial wave of settlement. Once Brigham Young reached the Salt Lake valley, however, he changed his mind and decided that the state of Deseret should be run from Salt Lake City instead of northern California. Much of this decision had to do with the fact that the trek from Nauvoo, Ill. to Utah was so arduous, and there was little inclination to keep pressing onward to northern California through the Great Basin’s high altitude desert. But Samuel Brannan’s success in San Francisco, coupled with his earlier wayward fancies, also played a part in Brigham Young’s decision to establish the Mormon church’s capital in Utah instead of northern California. Samuel Brannan was competing with Brigham Young to be the leader of the Mormon church.

Please, read the rest. I am not quite sure if there will be a specific day assigned for my Historiat posts, but my regularly-scheduled Friday column is still a thang.

I haven’t seen anybody here explain why Trump’s protectionist tariffs are horrible (yet), so here’s Jacques on the topic. Here is the NY Times on the same topic.

Inequality and Regional Prices in the US, 2012

I have just completed a short piece on the impact of regional prices on the measurement and geographic distribution of low income individuals. Basically, Youcef Msaid and myself* used the March 2012-CPS data combined the BEA’s regional purchasing power parities database to correct incomes.

We found is that the level of inequality is very modestly overestimated (0.5%). Now this is a conservative estimate since we used state-level corrections for price differences. This means that we took price corrections for New York state as a whole even if there are wide differences within New York state. Obviously, with more fine-grained price-level adjustments we would find a bigger correction but it is hard to imagine that it could surpass 1-3%.

That was not our most important result. Our most important result relates to where the bottom decile of the income distribution is geographically located. We find that instead of being found disproportionately (relative to their share of the total US population) in poorer states, the bottom decile is disproportionately found in rich states. The dotted black line in the figure below illustrates the change in the number of individuals who are, nationally, in the bottom 10%. New York and California have significant increases while West Virginia has a large decrease. The dark black line shows the same for the top 10%.

fig2

Another way to grasp the magnitude of this change is to relate the change to the population shares of each decile by state. For example, New York had 6.29% of the US population in 2012 and 6.61% of all Americans in the bottom 10% of the income distribution before adjusting for regional purchasing parities. After adjusting however, New York’s share of the bottom 10% surges to 7.88%.

Why does it matter? Because most of the cost difference adjustments come from differences in housing costs. The first obvious point is that housing is a crucial aspect of any discussion of inequality. The second, but less obvious point,  is that these differences are massive barriers to migration within the United States and the poorest are those for whom these barriers are the heaviest. Unfortunately, the high-cost areas are also high-productivity areas (New York, San Francisco for example) whose high costs are largely the result of restrictions on the supply of housing. This means that high-productivity areas – which would raise the wages of low-skilled and low -income workers are inaccessible to them. It also means that those who were present before the increase in productivity of these areas capitalized the gains in more valuable real estates (even if this means lower real incomes).

In this light, the geographic reallocation of the bottom 10% is consistent with an emerging literature that argues that inequality is in great a result of housing policy (see notably Rognlie’s reply to Piketty in the Brookings Papers).  This small modification (I consider it small) that me and Youcef made has important logical ramifications.

* Thank you to my friends Rick Weber (who blogs here at NOL and whose research can be seen here) and Ryan Murphy (whose research can be found here) who provided good comments to bring the paper to the stage where we are ready to submit.

How to split up California?

The idea of splitting up California has been previously discussed on NOL (see here, here, and most recently). In this post I wish to consider how California could be split up.

California has a large population of 38.8 million. For comparison Canada has 35.1 million residents distributed among its 10 provinces and the New England states house 14.7 million yankees in six states. With such a large population it is not surprising that the state has several regions with distinct cultures. This in itself is not sufficient merit to split up the state. One of the wonders of a liberal republican form of government is that diverse populations can coexist so long as they are treated equally before the law and have the freedom to exercise their various cultures. The problem is when these cultural differences lead to different public policy demands.

Consider for example the issue of abortion. In most matters of religion it is sufficient to allow different faiths to practice their beliefs so long as they keep to themselves. Why should non-Jews care if Jews must follow kosher dietary restrictions? The same cannot be done with abortion though. Those who believe, often due to their religious inclinations, that abortion is murder cannot tolerate its practice among those of other faiths or atheists. What is to be done?

One option would be to break up California. Although those on both sides of the abortion debate exist across California, there is also quite a bit of spatial correlation. See here. The Central Valley and Inland Empire counties both have significant portions of their populations favoring abortion limitations. Both regions also have low support for same sex marriage, see here, so it is safe to assume that their cultural differences with the rest of California is not on just one issue but several important public policies.

I would caution those who propose splitting up California between its inland and coastal regions. Both the Central Valley and Inland Empire may be culturally conservative, but the inland northern counties do not seem to fall in line. Nor would I recommend the Coastal/Inland split for those concerned about partisanship, see here. The San Francisco Bay Area, Northern Coast and Los Angeles are liberal strongholds but the Central Coast and Orange-San Diego region aren’t.

Similarly a North/South split would do little to help address regional cultural differences. The North/South split would usually split the state apart at San Luis Obispo-Kern-San Bernardino county lines. This would lead to the conservative Central Valley being lumped into the same state as ultra-liberal San Francisco. Meanwhile the Inland Empire and Orange-San Diego counties would find themselves sharing a state with blue Los Angeles.

What would be a good split then?

I personally favor the creation of four new states. Jefferson (the northern coastal and inland counties), San Francisco (the bay area states), Los Angeles (LA County), Central Valley (everything between Fresno and Bakersfield roughly) and the rest of southern California.

Given that any division would have to be approved by Congress the new states of Jefferson, San Francisco, and Los Angeles would have to be gerrymandered in such a way as to ensure they are blue states and maintain as many electoral votes from old California as possible. The Central Coast would likely be gobbled up between LA and San Francisco.  This gerrymandering would be needed to get Democrat votes who would otherwise be against losing all those electoral votes. Although Democrats would get two more seats in the Senate the Republicans could favor the deal in order to sweep extra electoral votes from the Central Valley and Southern California.

Although the split would be less than perfect, it would still grant greater say over public policy to the conservation counties.

Thoughts? Further maps on Californian public policy opinions can be found here.

P.S. In regards to the water issue, I like to think that the split of California would lead to a revision of the Colorado River Compact and related laws in order to create a more market oriented process for water allocation. I can dream can’t I?

Is government decentralization the right answer to differences across regions?

That’s the main question being asked by Federico Boffa, Amedeo Piolatto, and Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto, all economists. I cruised through the whole paper (pdf) and have some superficial thoughts. One snippet:

Western California is more liberal, even among Republican voters and politicians; Eastern California considerably more conservative […] At a first glance, such a political divide might suggest that a break up of coastal and inland California would be optimal on preference-matching grounds […]

[H]owever [this is a] superficial assessment. [Eastern California] contain[s] a large Hispanic population that overwhelmingly prefers the Democratic party. This group is much less educated, less politically knowledgeable, and less likely to vote than Republican supporters in the region, who are on average older, whiter, and wealthier. At the same time, the left-wing Hispanic working class in the Valley shares the political leanings of highly educated liberals on the coast. This ideological alignment goes beyond mere partisanship and includes shared preferences over policies.

As a consequence, our model suggests that the political integration of California is welfare maximizing. For relatively uneducated inland minorities to have a government corresponding to their preferences, it is essential that they share a state with ideologically aligned liberal elites in the Bay area. Right-wing Californians, instead, are sufficiently educated and influential to have a voice in state-wide politics, despite being in the minority: California had a Republican governor for twenty-one of the past thirty years.

[This lesson] applies more broadly. Disadvantaged ethnic minorities— which are less educated and often politically underrepresented— should belong whenever possible to the same polity as better educated and higher-status voters having similar political preferences. Only then are politicians effectively held accountable to both groups. (29-30)

California is “welfare maximizing”? Somebody help me out here. Isn’t it also possible that poor Hispanics and rich liberals form a voting bloc in California as it is because of how the GOP is patched together? If California split into an East/West, current coalitions would be shattered and it doesn’t follow that rich liberals and poor Hispanics would share the same voting preferences in the new arrangement. It doesn’t follow that rich conservatives and poor Hispanics in a hypothetical East would be at odds, either.

The biggest weakness in the paper, if you can call it that, is that the authors are focused on the fiscal aspects of federalism rather than the diplomatic, cultural, and political aspects. Federalism binds people together and forces them to at least try to come to an agreement about some issues. That’s a big deal, though it’s obviously not sexy.

The paper is focused on the EU and the US. There are lots of interesting insights into the European Union but the US angle is kinda boring (I’m sure is vice-versa for readers living and working in Europe). (h/t Mark Koyama)

California Dreaming

Facts first: California, the state, is so far into the red, so overwhelmed with unfulfillable retirement obligations that only a major earthquake can save us. I mean a major earthquake taking place during a Democrat administration that would be eager to make the money of non-California taxpayers pour into our Golden State. Nor is the disaster affecting only the state bureaucracy. Many of us would secretly gloat if it, and only it, just went bankrupt. I wouldn’t even be surprised if one of our artsy craftsy conservatives (you would be surprised) were making ready a new flag for the occasion. Perhaps, it would show a grizzly bear with its foot in a bear trap.

The truth is that private business does not seem to have really recovered since 2008 either. If it had, I reason, you would notice it here in Santa Cruz, Silicon Valley Beach. Nothing further from the truth. There are still many empty window fronts right downtown. And new businesses don’t seem to last. The turnover is higher than it used to be, as if those that tried shouldn’t have because they have financial feet of clay. Just yesterday, a new restaurant left its door ajar before actual opening, for deliveries and such. It occupies a really good spot where a popular drinking hole stood for twenty years. The owner of the new place, a Palestinian immigrant, told me that I was the sixth person in thirty minutes to walk in spontaneously to wish the new business good luck. We are that eager for good economic news.

Anyway, Sunday and Saturday was the annual Cabrillo street music festival and fair. It was surprisingly good. It’s surprisingly good each year; no one should be surprised, really.

Among the street fair exhibitors, you found, of course, the usual insipid watercolors and second year art students’ plein air art of the California hills all in shocking primary colors. I mean boring paintings, of course. And then, there are the pretty non-discriminate earrings from no one knows where that sell only because of the nature of women’s eyes: You put anything on women’s ears, including little broke pieces of mirror, and their eyes shine and sparkle. Yet, yet, there are good surprises, because this is California, I think. Someone is offering earrings and other jewelry made of sea glass, original, at least. (Sea glass is made up of pieces of broken bottles and such that have been rolled by the ocean until their shape, texture, and color have been radically modified for the better.) Further down the street, an older lady is selling colorful birds nesting boxes made of old food cans. A young couple is doing a brisk business in incredible objects. They are attractive belts, laptop cases, and even frankly elegant purses made entirely with old bicycle inner tubes (recycled, I think). Yes, there is a common theme here. Although I am skeptical of the economic rationality of most recycling, I am in love with the ingenuity involved in turning old into new, seeming nothing into something. California for you, even if the original impulse is rooted in the insane fallacies of the climate change cult!

And then, there was music non-stop on an outdoor stage from 10 am to 8 pm. My old friends of Aza gave their usual brilliant performance. They play Amazigh music with a Santa Cruz twist. The Amazigh are the original inhabitants of North Africa, before the Arab conquest. (Saint Augustine was a romanized Amazigh.) They are the same people we often call “Berber” (but we shouldn’t because it really means “barbarians.”) The Amazigh have their own language that is unrelated to Arabic. Their culture is extraordinarily vivacious, especially in Morocco where they are probably a majority of the population though divided into several subgroups. Anyway, these two young Moroccan Amazigh guys, both trained musicians, emigrated to Santa Cruz, separately twenty years ago. They bumped into each other and began playing together. Then, they recruited local musicians to round off their band, to include more instruments. The locals were steeped in rock and roll and some, in (Western) classical music. Several played instruments never heard in North Africa before, such as saxophones. What comes out is profoundly original music. It’s Amazigh music with a zing and a bang and spitting fire. Last summer, they got first prize at an all-Amazigh music festival in the Atlas mountains of Morocco. You might say this Santa Cruz, California-grown ensemble are the world champions of Amazigh music.

There was also a group performing Carnataka stylized dance from South India. Only two of about twenty dancers appeared to me to be of Indian origin. (I am a kind of expert on Indian appearances, don’t ask.) The dance seemed perfectly accomplished to me. (But what do I know?) I didn’t catch where the group hailed from. Might have been Silicon Valley, someplace in California, for sure. One of the last numbers was West African drumming and singing. There were two energetic West African guys on stage beating traditional African drums very loudly and singing in Wolof (I think) plus a pretty African woman dancer. They were accompanied by a white woman on the drum set, I mean the Western-style drum set. Couldn’t have been less “authentic” and, that’s a key to success, to inventiveness, I believe. It’s one of the reasons nearly bankrupt California remains a beacon to the world. Within minutes, the drummers has thirty people dancing on stage with them, nearly all white. (No Mexicans though, Mexicans are a dignified, reserved lot. Perhaps, their California-born children will join later.)

I ended the lovely day a couple of miles away from the festival, near a restaurant at the harbor, having a smoke. A guy in his early fifties was standing nearby puffing away too. He was in very good shape. He wore a t-shirt of a light blue color matching precisely the blue of his eyes. Athletic gay guy for sure, right? He introduced himself as a former Army drill sergeant, which I believed immediately. Nowadays, he said, he was making his living teaching art at San Francisco State. California dreaming never ending!

What’s wrong with migrating?

This is a response to Irfan Khawaja over at the Policy of Truth blog.

I am of Jewish descent. I am not a JewI was baptized a Catholic as a baby and have no plan to convert in the foreseeable future. I am nonetheless of Jewish descent. My paternal grandfather is a rabbi and my cousins from that side of the family are Jews.

My family patriarch migrated from Germany to Mexico during the turn of the 20th century. He migrated long before the Holocaust, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was motivated to migrate to escape prosecution in Europe.

I also have slaves in my family tree. My great grand mother (Or was it great great? I forget.) was a black Cuban and my parents thought I might be born with dark skin. Blacks, for those who are keeping score at home, are not native to Cuba. Slavery in Cuba did not end till 1886. My great grandmother migrated to Mexico to escape prosecution in Cuba.

I myself migrated to the United States at the age of two. I might have been born in Mexico, but I was a libertario at birth. I loved Mexican food but that was not sufficient reason to stay in a country with such a poor conception of personal liberty. So I kissed my mother good bye, packed my bags, and crossed the border. I ended up settling down in Los Angeles, where I could have Mexican food and liberty.

What I am getting at here is that there is nothing wrong with migrating.

Had I stayed in Mexico I would likely be dead now. If a cartel member asked me to pay protection tax I would have refused and instead given him a speech on why we should legalize drugs. My town of birth, Morelia, is one of the capitals of the drug trade so you can imagine how long I would have lasted.

Had my great grandmother stayed in Cuba she would have to live with left over discrimination against slaves and their descendants. Worse still her descendants would be living in Castro’s Cuba!

My family patriarch might have survived the Holocaust if he had stayed in Europe. Or he might have been baked.

I agree with Irfan Khawaja that one should be assured of their personal safety and liberty regardless of any incidents of birth. I also agree with him that Benjamin Netanyahu, current Israeli Prime Minister, is wrong to urge European Jews to migrate to Israel. Israel is hardly a safer country for Jews than Europe.

Where I disagree is that I see nothing with migrating or urging others to migrate in pursuit of safety or liberty. There are times when one should hold strong and defend themselves. There are also times when one should realize that your neighbors are bigots and they won’t stop being bigots during your lifetime. If you can improve your quality of life by migrating, why not do so?

For any European Jews who might be reading this: forget about Israel and come to the United States! Specifically come over to my hometown, the San Fernando Valley.  The San Fernando Valley is a lovely community within Los Angeles. The original Karate Kid series, and countless other films, take place in the Valley. The film industry is actually located in the Valley, not Los Angeles itself. Best of all, the valley is filled with Jews. My undergraduate university, Cal State Northridge, has one of the largest concentration of Jews in America. Did I mention that there is plenty of Mexican food to go around?

I’ll be honest, there are some drawbacks to the valley. We are ruled over by the incompetent authorities in Los Angeles city hall and attempts to form our own city have been thwarted over the years. Real estate prices are also high. Despite this though I love the valley and welcome others to migrate there if their current home is undesirable.