Nightcap

  1. Coronavirus and Ramadan Declan Walsh, New York Times
  2. The future of China’s political economy South China Morning Post
  3. Ricardo, Marx, and interpersonal inequality Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. Polystate, part 2 Rick Weber, NOL

Nightcap

  1. The Cause and Mechanisms of American De-Industrialization John Mueller, Law & Liberty
  2. Against moral crusades Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. A test with Imran Khan Nitin Pai, Pragati Express
  4. The De-Industrialization of the U.S.: A String of Enlightening Fallacies Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Latest thoughts on Brexit: Its Decay, Italy (and Ireland), Cars, and Giving up British Citizenship

The slow decay of Brexit: a Rule-Taking Country

I don’t mean that the UK will stay in the EU. I fully expect it to formally depart next year. If the poor performance of the UK economy compared with the Eurozone continues, I also expect the UK to rejoin in a few decades, when the growth divergence is not just in figures, but felt in everyday life, such as when people find it too expensive to travel in Europe or buy goods from Europe; if they do travel they notice that everything seems expensive and there are more nice things abroad than at home, while European tourists will seem to have huge amounts of money to throw around.

It might or might not work out like that, but the point here is that the UK, behind headlines about soft versus hard Brexit, is moving towards an ‘alignment’ with the single market and the customs union: not formal membership but keeping nearly all the rules. The short term losses in trade from leaving both the single market and the customs union, along with the Republic of Ireland/Northern Ireland border question, have combined to make de facto membership of the single market and the customs union inevitable. Hardening the border at all between the two parts of the island of Ireland is economically disruptive and very threatening to a Northern Ireland peace settlement, in which the Irish nationalist-republican side in NI can live with being part of the UK as long as the North and the Republic are unified via the EU and associated commercial agreements.

This is what I get from following Eurosceptic sources when they get round to proper conversation and analysis, rather than fighting the remain-leave battle. Brexit outbursts of premature triumphalism over Italy, or demands to abolish the upper House of Parliament because the Lords uses its constitutional rights to pass amendments they don’t agree with back to the Commons for the final decision, are a distraction from the collapse of full Brexit.

The idea of a ‘no deal’ walk-away from the EU has been abandoned and inevitably the UK will accept single market/customs union rules while the government makes a show of leaving everything. Because the UK very probably will not be a formal member of the single market (though there is a possibility of joining the EEA which would mean formally staying in the single market), it will be able to reduce migration from the EU (not a great thing to my mind), which will bring joy to a large part of the population (particularly the Brexit-voting part). No doubt the reality of moving to what Jacob Rees-Mogg (a well known, hard-Brexit Conservative MP) calls ‘vassal state’ status will be covered over with that issue, but the reality is the UK will accept rules for customs and economic regulation made by the EU indefinitely.

‘Indefinitely’ means ‘permanent’ though this is being covered up by talk of ‘transitional periods’. Alternatives to this have collapsed with the failure of ‘no deal’. The New Hard Brexit is to accept aligned rules on goods, but not on services, with the UK’s exceptional role in financial services in mind. However, there is no indication that the EU will give this kind of deal, despite the Brexiteer posturing about the UK being too powerful to push around, which has clearly been shown as empty by negotiations so far.

Over-excited Brexiteers getting Italy wrong (and Ireland)

So a new government formed without anti-Euro currency finance minister. 5 Star and the League (the coalition partners) are not impeaching President Sergio Mattarella. The idea they would is a bit of a joke anyway, as it would require the agreement of the Supreme Court and a vote of both chambers of the Italian parliament to achieve an impeachment. The issue behind the non-impeachment was that Mattarella had vetoed an anti-Euro candidate for finance minister: Paolo Savona (who now has another post in the government).

Some relevant facts here. 1. Italian presidents have the constitutional right to veto ministerial nominations and have frequently done so before 2. Recent Italian opinion polls show support for the Euro at over 60% 3. Neither coalition party ran on an anti-Euro manifesto.

Claims that Mattarella is some pathetic weak instrument of the European institutions who ordered him to keep Savona out are themselves absurd. 1. There is a shared preference of Mattarella, the Italian public, and European institutions for staying in the Euro 2. Mattarella is from a political family in Sicily, which went anti-mafia and Sergio Materall’s brother, Piersanti, who was head of the regional government, was assassinated by the mafia as a result. I think we can say Sergio is a character of substance to stay in politics after that.

Regarding constitutions and democracy, constitutions establish limits on the power of temporary majorities through rules and institutions designed to embed basic rules about rights and the use of power. This is why democracy of a kind worth having is referred to as ‘constitutional liberal democracy’. You cannot both be in favour of constitutional democracy and complain when constitutional constraints express themselves in the action that Mattarella took, which is well within his formal powers and previous precedent.

Many of the triumphalist Brexiteers in the UK, who were shouting about Mattarella as an enemy of democracy who was about to be punished, are admirers of the US ‘constitutional conservatism’ which, on the face of it, advocates very strict restraints on the actions of elected bodies according to the supposed original meaning of the constitution. You can’t have it both ways. And even if you think democracy means the unrestrained right of a majority, there is no majority support for leaving the Euro in Italy and no manifesto mandate for the coalition to leave the Euro.

You could argue that Mattarella made a mistake about perceptions and had been outplayed, that had some plausibility for a few days but does not look so correct now. Mattarella has got what he wanted and will not be impeached. It’s true that the League has strongly increased its support since the election in opinion polls, but that mostly precedes the ministerial crisis. Brexiteers are still clinging to an attempted triumphalism over Italy. The Italians are standing up to Brussels, which supposedly is a lesson to Britain to be tougher in Brexit negotiations. Well it is a bit soon to say whether the Coalition in Italy represents Eurosceptic triumph and hard to see what this has to do with Brexit negotiations.

What loud mouthed Brexiteers in the UK say about Italy is in some ways not very important, but what is important is the presumption to know more than they do and circulate false assumptions about European politics in the UK, which in turn distorts our debates and assumptions, and which can then pop up amongst Proper centre-right journalists and commentators Who Should Know Better.

Something similar has emerged with Brexiteer attitudes towards Ireland’s attempts to keep an open border with Northern Ireland. Manipulated by the EU institutions with naive and incompetent leaders (rather reminiscent of old prejudices about the Irish being stupid) has been standard opinion, and then there was the claim by a senior Conservative politician, Iain Duncan-Smith, that the Irish position is to do with a forthcoming presidential election. 1. The Irish president has no political powers whatsoever 2. There may not be an election, since no one has announced a wish to run against the incumbent so far and it may suit the major parties in Ireland to leave it like that. Funnily enough all those stupid naive Irish leaders manipulated by the EU have given Ireland much greater economic growth than the UK. What an economic miracle there would be in Ireland if they were as clever as Brexiteers!

It’s difficult to stop Brexiteers from 1. using simplistic rhetoric about majorities and Will of the People to suit their immediate anti-EU goals without concern for consistency and the values of liberal democracy 2. Living in an imagined world where European politicians they disagree with are stupid and/or slaves of the European Commission, conspiring against democracy. These views should be challenged and left with the true believers, away from informed debate.

Brexiteers and German car companies

UK enthusiasts for leaving the EU have a strange obsession with German car makers. They export so many cars to the UK, they will MAKE the German government which will MAKE the European Commission give us the exit deal we want. This has been going on from all kinds of people ever since the Leave Referendum (maybe during the campaign as well, but I missed that). It is an expectation that has obviously been falsified by the course of negotiations in which the EU has got 10s of billions of Euros from the UK to even start negotiations (though the UK tries to pretend otherwise) and has refused the kind of market access the Brexiteer enthusiasts assumed they would get automatically thanks to Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes (!).

Even today, listening to the Telegraph Brexit podcast, I heard Christopher Hope (the highly affable and mostly reasonable chair) keep on about how German carmakers were going to make Brussels gives the UK what it wants. The guests, pro-Brexit people from the Telegraph, were clearly bemused as they had been explaining how the UK was going to remain ‘aligned’ with the single market. Clearly if the UK is already de facto accepting the ‘indefinite’ (i.e. permanent) application of single market rules, German car makers have no incentive to MAKE Merkel give the UK another deal preferable to hardcore Brexiteers.

Of course the saddest expression of this muddled thinking came from Boris Johnson (the notoriously attention seeking and inconsistent foreign minister) when he claimed Italian prosecco wine manufacturers would make Rome/Brussels give the UK a Brexiteer-friendly trade deal. It turns out demand for prosecco in Italy is greater than supply and the makers can easily live with reduced demand in the UK.

The German car industry is of course much larger and not dependent on the supply of a particular kind of grape. Still, just one seventh of German cars are sold in the UK. Now obviously it would be very bad news to lose one seventh of the market, but there are no circumstances in which German manufacturers would sell no cars in the UK, the drop would never be as great as one seventh. Sales of German cars are already declining in the UK and given weak UK economic performance compared with Germany, the decline is likely to continue. Anyway, it should now just be really bloody obvious that German car manufacturers have not united to force Berlin/Brussels to accept a hardcore Brexit agenda! There is clearly a very big stream of reality distorting national self-obsession amongst Brexiteers who believe this kind of thing. Well it has now been shown to be thoroughly incorrect, let go now!

Brexit Bureaucracy and Renouncing UK Citizenship

UK nationals living outside the UK in the EU are applying for citizenship abroad to retain rights they lose after Brexit. Some of these countries forbid dual citizenship so UK citizens are renouncing UK citizenship. The Home Office takes the opportunity to raise fees for renouncing citizenship, though evidently its revenue is already increasing because of charges for renouncing citizenship. Didn’t Brexiteers tell us Brexit would reduce state bureaucracy?

The Disaster: A Teenage Victory

Last Tuesday (11/6/2012) there was a vote about the future and the teenagers won. They now have the keys to the family car.

I have never in my life so wanted to be wrong in my judgment. Here it is: President Obama’s re-election is an even worse disaster than his election was. Do I think that many of the people who voted for him gave serious thought to the giant national debt, to the impending entitlement implosion, to the tepid economic growth, or even to the unusually high rate of unemployment? No. Do I think a sizable percentage did? No. Do I think a few did consider all or any of this? I am not sure.

President Obama won re-election decisively. His margin in the popular vote was nearly three million votes. Apparently* there were none of the gangsterish electoral tactics that marred his 2008 election. This makes the results worse as far as I am concerned.

President Obama is still not a monster. It’s possible that he is manipulated by a brand of leftists we thought had disappeared long ago. It’s also possible that someone like me will nurture in his brain paranoid notions at a time of major anxiety, such as now. Continue reading

From the Comments: Manufacturing Jobs and American De-Industrialization

I hate to admit it, but Dr. Delacroix has been on fire lately (with the exception of his foreign policy quackery, of course). I pulled this reply out of the ‘comments’ section of his post on the de-industrialization of the United States. You can find the condescending comment to Dr. Delacroix’s post here, but I’m going to reproduce Dr. Delacroix’s whole reply beneath the fold: Continue reading

Socialism: Sinister, Silly

Many of the conservative comments about President Obama I hear on the radio have been leaving me vaguely non-plussed. (If you think about it, it’s not easy to be non-plussed in a vague way, or on the contrary, is it a redundancy?) Little by little, I began realizing that the cause of my non-plussness is the frequent allegation that the President is “a socialist.” Nearly always, the implied suggestion is that something sinister is about. The French side of my mind, well versed in things socialist, perceives a strong discordance between the two concepts, “socialist” and “sinister.”

First, the word socialist does not have a fixed meaning. In the past fifty years, it has meant just about everything, from German genocidal totalitarian (“National Socialist,” “Nazi”), to African plutocrat, to the mild high-tax administrations common in several mild and undoubtedly democratic European countries. (See my series of essays on this blog about various kinds of fascism.) It seems to me that American conservatives who call Obama a “socialist” are implicitly referring to the western European brand of so-called “socialism.” (Although, some of the president’s followers and entourage belong to the brass-knuckle brand of “socialism.”) Here is where the French fraction of my brain feels a discordance. As some of you may know, the candidate of the French Socialist Party was recently elected President of the French Republic. French “socialists” are fresh in my mind, count on it. Now, there is no way they are sinister, except by happenstance and only in the long run. They are not sinister, they are idiotic and deeply ignorant. They are ignorant the way someone is ignorant who has not learned a thing in fifty years say, between 1960 and 2010. Continue reading

Shipping Jobs Overseas: The Export of American Manufacturing Jobs and Lousy Education

I had a troubling encounter in the past few days. It was on Facebook and it was with a stranger. Here is how it went: I patronize several organizations’ and people’s Facebook pages, to stay informed and also to learn from them. There is a man, X, who is my Facebook “friend” and whose page I like because he is a libertarian, or a libertarian conservative like me, who knows useful things I don’t know. X has a talent for firing up debates on Facebook. In one debate a propos of I don’t remember what, one person, followed by several others, kept referring to the de-industrialization of America, its putative loss of manufacturing industries specifically.

I intervened calmly and politely to point out that there was no such thing. I remarked that the height of American industrial production was either 2008 or 2007, or maybe even 2006, not 1950 as they seemed to believe. I directed the debate participants to a couple of government sources. One woman responded almost insultingly, alleging that I was trying to send her on a wild goose chase. She appeared to think that I was referring her to the whole Census with its thousands of pages of documents. I took the trouble – obligingly, if I say so myself – to direct her through Facebook to a source I though was easy to read, NationMaster. In addition I summarized what NationMaster had to say on the topic.

Here is the summary: Continue reading

The De-Industrialization of the US: A String of Enlightening Fallacies. Essay on International Economics, in Plain English

About ten days ago, I began I lively exchange with a stranger, G., on the Facebook wall of the President of the Independent Institute, of all places. The I.I. is my favorite think-tank. It’s located in Oakland, California. It’s my favorite because it regularly performs, intelligently and usefully, the function of bringing libertarian thought (broadly defined) to all who are interested. It has been doing this for years and on a shoe-string budget. (Full disclosure: I have had two co-authored articles [here and here; both pdfs – BC] in The Independent Review, one of the journals associated with the Independent Institute.)

You can easily Google the Independent Institute’s website.

My interchange with G. begun when I noticed one of the most common fallacies on one of his Facebook messages: He expressed himself in a way that led me to believe that he thought the US had been de-industrializing for years, chiefly to the benefit of China. We were both referring only to manufacturing industries.

G.’s impression is correct only in the most trivial way. It’s wrong on the whole, very wrong.

What is true is that American manufacturing employment has declined steadily for the past forty years. That’s true in an absolute sense. Fewer Americans work in manufacturing than used to.

This would have happened if there had not been any China, Red or otherwise. I gave G. the following historical precedent to which he did not respond:

Around 1860, about 60% of the American workforce was in agriculture. Today, it’s around 3%. (Note: Don’t go on a television game show with those figures. They are close enough for my purpose; that’s all.)

Nevertheless, American agriculture produces more than it ever has, in every sense of the word, whatever measure you want to use.

American agriculture used so much of the country’s labor power because it had low productivity then. (That’s value of production per worker.) As productivity improves, farmers can produce as much with fewer workers. What happened in the American case (and in Canada, and in Australia, and in Western Europe) is that farmers produced more with fewer workers. This virtuous trend has not stopped. It’s going on as I write. Some reforms may slow it or even reverse it; so-called “organic agriculture” may be one.

What happened early in agriculture happened later in manufacturing. Here are the simple, hard to believe, but nevertheless real facts:

Productivity in American manufacturing had never stopped growing, except for lags of a year or two. So has total American manufacturing production.

The simplest, most general rule-of-thumb is:

The year in which American manufacturing output was the largest in value, was last year, or the year before.

This is true although American manufacturing employment is declining and declining fast. Remember the 1860, 60% precedent.

I suspect G. did not get this point, in part because I did not explain it so well on Facebook. In part it’s because he appears transfixed by his own experience. G. is an experienced executive with manufacturing responsibilities. He says he is in China often. G. argued with me that the evidence of his own eyes was that a lot of manufacturing that used to take place in the US is now done in China.

I have no doubt that he is right, well, sort of right. Thirty years ago, when I bought an ordinary gardening tool, it was invariably made in the US. Nowadays, it’s invariably made in China, or at least, not in America.

My garden tool is also cheaper, much cheaper than it used to be. I mean in constant dollars, I mean relative to everything, including the minimum wage and including the median wage. It’s true practically in any measure you want to use. My money goes a longer way. That’s what it means to be richer: Whatever money you have buys more. As a consumer, I have only gained by the fact that the production of garden tools is now very largely done in China.

That’s speaking as a consumer. If I had been employed in the American garden tool manufacturing industry say, twenty years ago, I might easily have lost my job. That would in fact have been a consequence of outsourcing.

This is not the whole story. The reality is more complicated. In brief, for every job lost to outsourcing, one or more are created by the after-effects of outsourcing. This is a factual but counter-intuitive observation I don’t want to discuss in this essay. Here is a brief way to deal with it: If you lost your job to outsourcing, nothing I will say will console you. I can only hope that the American economy is growing and flexible enough to provide another job soon. I hope it will be as a good as the one your lost. Looking at the past thirty years, there is a very good chance it will be a better job.

If the American economy does not offer an abundance of good new jobs, ask yourself why.

If you did not lose your job to outsourcing: see above; you are now richer than you were twenty or even ten years ago, the current crisis (circa 2009) notwithstanding. If you want to know the net effect on American employment, a crude but legitimate approach is simply to look at evolving unemployment figures: In spite of massive outsourcing, American employment was very high except from 2009-2014. (Note: Net effect = jobs added-jobs subtracted.) As long as unemployment is low or going down, it’s not likely that limiting outsourcing would do you any good.

Training exercise: The 60% of the work force who were in agriculture and who lost their jobs since 1860 evidently found something to do. The many manufacturing workers who lost their jobs in the past forty or fifty years ______ (Complete the sentence in your mind.)

G. seems to refuse to consider any of this because he thinks his own experience an appropriate substitute for the kind of stuff I am writing now.

His experience is called “anecdotal evidence.” It’s usually worse than no evidence at all to demonstrate anything. (It’s often useful to formulate hypotheses though.) Here is why it’s worse:

My wife beats me frequently. I deduce from this personal experience that wives originate much of or most conjugal violence. Furthermore, I know for a fact that my wife does not drink alcohol. So, I am pretty sure drunkenness does not play much of a role in domestic violence. (Ok. I am messing with your minds; my wife does not beat me, ever. She would like too though, and often.)

What happened with the transfer to China of American garden tool production is complex and factually well-supported, both. Fortunately, if you are busy, or impatient, or simply if you have a life, there are valid short-cuts to help you get a grip.

China, now India, and many other countries that could barely keep alive in the fifties are now producing. They are now finally contributing. This is good for me, for two reasons: One, the more goods there are worldwide, the cheaper they are, in real terms. Second, rich neighbors may sometimes be rivals politically, and even militarily, economically, they are all potential customers. The richer they are, the more I can sell them and, the richer I become.

As compared to 1955 today, the world produces all the garden tools it used to produce, many garden tools it did not produce then, more food than it did, more of everything than ever plus, it produces things that no one had ever heard of in 1955. That would include the low-end but amazingly sophisticated computer I am using to type and to disseminate this essay. Incidentally, there were television sets in 1955. Everything about them was awful and they were more expensive than the sets we have now. (That’s by any measure you want to use.)

There remains the genuinely important question of what industries are going to be in what countries. That’s an important issue because acts of production are not born equal: Making concrete, or steel, generates less in earnings, including wages, than producing software.

The short-cuts to this important issue are these:

  1. Government seldom does anything right economically;
  2. The issue of production allocation among countries is well explained by the Doctrine of Comparative advantage. It’s almost 150 years old. It’s well tested. It’s not unfashionable just because it’s old. Old explanations should only be buried when they have been demonstrated dead.

My correspondent, G., is obviously worried about America’s place in the world and he seems impressed by solar technology. In support, I suppose, of what he would like our government to do, he sends me an article about China’s policies in this respect. It’s at:

(http://cleantechnica.com/2009/07/24/what-we-can-learn-from-chinas-heavy-investment-in-solar-energy/)

A sentence in the article caught my eye both because of its bad grammar and because it’s such a shining example of bad policy:

“China is telling their [sic] banks to support [solar energy industries] with strong loans…”

Two comments: 1) What reason is there to expect any national government, Chinese Communist or otherwise, to make good choices regarding what industries should be developed? The Communist Chinese are the same gang responsible for keeping China an underdeveloped country for forty years. We now know it did not have to be that way. Yes, they are reformed but we don’t know how thoroughly nor for how long. Thoroughly democratic Western European governments have a long record of failures in deciding national industrial priorities.

“How about the Airbus?” Two responses: To this day, the invoice for this multinational government venture has never been presented in a transparent fashion. Airbus looks like an economically viable venture but we don’t know for sure. If you invest $10,000 to earn ten dollars ten times and you have to spend eleven dollars each time, your venture may sell a lot but it’s not successful.

Second: The Airbus project benefited by the Concord experience, an extraordinarily costly apprenticeship and a rank economic failure from its first to its last day.

To my knowledge, the only large instance of a commercially successful government-prompted industrial venture is the Internet. It was done strictly on a cost-plus basis, as a defense project (another story), with hands-off by the federal government. (I would appreciate being corrected if there are other instances. Details and verifiable sources required.)

Examples in the negative abound. I will refer to what I know best. French governments have been sticking their noses into nearly all sectors of French industry since 1945. They had wide latitude to do so, because there were no intellectual defense of real, free-market capitalism in France until about ten years ago. French governments even intervene vigorously in the motion picture industry. French governments however never reached much into several industries, because they were too fragmented, or because industrial actors opposed a spirited defense against government intervention. Notable among those are the food transformation industry and the wine and spirits industry. Guess which French industries are more than holding their own, on the national market and internationally? (To begin, think Danon and think Gray Goose Vodka.)

G. also calls Chinese solar industry policies in a Facebook message developing “comparative advantage.”

It’s not comparative advantage. Like most college graduates and most MBAs (and deplorably, most university professors, I suspect), G. misunderstands the concept. His mistake is not small, it’s huge. I think you don’t understand the logic of international trade and investment if you don’t get comparative advantage. Let me try because my readers are, by definition, an elite group.

My comparative advantage is what I do best. Period. It’s not what I do better then the other guy. If I suck at everything I do, I still have a comparative advantage because I don’t do everything equally badly. That’s always true in the real world.

The doctrine of Comparative Advantage is the single most important rational underpinning of international trade, and indirectly of international investment.

It says clearly and absolutely that if every actor focuses his effort in what he does least badly, all the actors jointly produce more than would otherwise be the case. Period!

Logic test: Is there a difference between: “What I do least badly, “ and, “What I do best”?

Instant reminder: Once you know what I do least badly, in itself does this tell you anything about what I do better, or worse, than my neighbor Tom? This is a “yes” or “no” question. Don’t wimp out!

Below is a different approach to the same concept of Comparative Advantage. Select the approach that suits best your particular genius and stick with it.

My buddy John is an excellent, Mercedes-trained car mechanic. He is also an indifferent floor sweeper. Every time I catch him broom in hands, sweeping his shop floor, I bitch at him, “Stop, man; every time you sweep, you are impoverishing me.”

I am right? I insist you already have all the information you need to answer this question. Again, don’t wimp out on me.

Facts matter but thinking things through slowly is also important.

There is a Muslim saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad:

“Ignorance is a sin.”