Archive for February 2024


Atheists are the new Christians

I don’t mean that literally. Atheists have not started believing in God. But in one respect they have replaced Christians—they are now the group that views all humans as having equal worth. In contrast, universalist Christianity has largely been replaced with Christian nationalism (which of course is a sort of oxymoron.)

Here’s Matt Yglesias:

George W. Bush took up the cause of HIV/AIDS in Africa and created the PEPFAR program with the backing of a bipartisan majority in congress.

PEPFAR is quintessential elite-driven, inside-game policymaking. You could never win a high-profile public argument about how we should help poor people in Africa. That’s why now that Bush is off the scene and it’s no longer a personal priority of anyone important in Republican Party politics, the program is mired in the larger abortion discourse dynamics.

But membership in the cosmopolitan minority is increasingly correlated with other issue positions. The kind of Bush-style politics where Christian commitments drive traditionalist notions of sex and gender, but also universalist beliefs about human value is going out of style. Increasingly, the cosmopolitan-minded people are just the secular people who are also on the left on other issues. This is all part of the larger process of education polarization — politics in western countries increasingly pits the business class not against a labor union left, but against what Thomas Piketty calls the “Brahmin left” of educated professionals and social service providers. Those are the people who are mostly likely to be cosmopolitan, and that’s created a mutually reenforcing cycle in which politics increasingly aligns around views of immigration rather than views of Medicare.

Illegal immigration could easily cost Biden the election.

What Trump should have said

Trump should have said something like the following:

There should be a Nato agreement that each country contributes at least 2% of GDP to the mutual defense. Those countries falling short in their defense spending must contribute the difference to a fund to assist those countries spending more than 2% of GDP.

That would have been a responsible approach to Nato reform, unlike his actual comments, which served to weaken the alliance.

But Trump doesn’t wish to save Nato, he’d rather see it destroyed. Trump doesn’t respect Putin despite his flaws; he respects him precisely because of his flaws. Trump respects power—the power to kill your political opponents and invade neighboring countries. He feels so passionately about this that he refuses to forcefully condemn Putin’s crimes despite the fact that it costs him votes. In contrast, Trump despises leaders that seek to cooperate with other countries, or those who advocate human rights, viewing them as weak.

People wonder why Trump keeps saying these awful things about Russia and Ukraine (and occasionally China). Even Trump’s critics cannot quite wrap their minds around the fact that he says them because he believes them. Trump really does believe that Putin should be able to kill his opponents and invade neighboring countries. He really does wish to see Nato destroyed. Ditto for the EU. These are not just slips of the tongue. We are not used to having candidates who are 100% pure evil, so we cannot see the truth when it’s right in front of our eyes.

In 2016, I pointed out that Trump had authoritarian tendencies, and commenters mocked me for it. After January 6th, those commenters look like complete fools, and the current iteration of Trump is far worse than the 2016 version. If anything, I greatly understated how bad Trump is.

Inevitably, commenters will tell me that the first Trump administration was staffed with some mainstream GOP officials who occasionally put sanctions on Russia. But listen to what Trump is saying now. He’s saying that in his second term he will not use any of those mainstream “RINOs”, and instead will staff his administration with authoritarian right-wing nationalists.

Maybe he’ll be too lazy to pursue that agenda. But if he does, don’t say that we weren’t warned.

PS. Can someone explain to me why Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea have not already been added to Nato? It seems like a no-brainer that would clearly make Nato even stronger. What are we waiting for?

Are rate increases unthinkable?

Bloomberg says that some pundits are beginning to contemplate the possibility that the Fed’s next move might be up, not down:

Summers, a Harvard University professor and paid contributor to Bloomberg Television, suggested a perhaps 15% chance that the next Fed move is an increase. Mark Nash, who manages absolute return macro funds at Jupiter Asset Management, puts the odds at 20%.

Even some who do expect rate cuts have advocated taking out insurance on that bet. BMO’s Davis has been shorting two-year Treasuries since December, though covered half of that position amid the climb in rates since the start of the year.

At Societe Generale SA, Chief FX Strategist Kit Juckes told clients in a report last week that if “the US economy re-accelerates, the Fed will eventually have to tighten again and the dollar will rally,” possibly back to 2022’s all-time high.

Clearly the markets believe the next move will be toward lower rates, but no one should be surprised by the fact that a rate increase is possible. In an efficient monetary policy regime, there would be roughly a 50-50 chance of a rate increase on any given day. (Under an efficient regime, policy would set the target fed funds rate to the nearest basis point, and that target would be adjusted daily in response to a continual flow of new information.)

Even with our current inefficient regime, policy moves should be at least somewhat unpredictable. For simplicity, define easy money as a policy rate below the natural rate and tight money as a policy rate above the natural rate. If the central bank is trying to set rates at the (unobservable) natural rate of interest, then they would be expected to overshoot 50% of the time and undershoot 50% of the time. More importantly, the errors made by a rational central bank should be completely uncorrelated with the level of interest rates.

This means that you would not necessarily expect a high interest rate policy to be any more contractionary than a low interest rate policy.

Of course you can imagine models where high rates are correlated with tight money, as in the case when the central bank intentionally sets rates above their estimate of the natural rate in order to control inflation. But in general, policy errors should be uncorrelated with the level of rates. So “make up” policies to correct previous policy errors should be hard to forecast.

The Fed has now set rates at a level expected to produce a soft landing. If they overestimated the natural rate of interest they might deliver a hard landing, and if they underestimated the natural rate we might get no landing at all. In the latter case, inflation might stay stubbornly above target, requiring further rate increases.

Two years ago, almost no one correctly forecast the recent path of interest rates. The same could be said about interest rate forecasts in early 2020, or early 2019. I don’t know what will happen to rates over the next two years, but I have very little confidence that things will play out in the way the markets or the Fed currently expect. There could be surprises in either direction.

I see people cherry picking some obscure inflation metric which has hovered around 2% for 6 months. But price inflation is not the right variable to look at. In order to have lower interest rates, we need a slowdown in wage inflation and NGDP growth. If wage inflation gets stuck at 4.5%, then interest rates are headed higher. I still think it’s likely that wage inflation will slow, but recent price inflation moderation doesn’t reassure me at all.

In an efficient monetary regime (NGDPLT), policy errors in either direction would be equally bad. But we don’t have level targeting. In addition, recent policy errors have been in the direction of an excessively expansionary policy. For that reason, the damage from a somewhat overly expansionary policy in 2024 would be greater than the damage from a somewhat overly contractionary policy in 2024. The longer that wage inflation stays elevated, the more difficult it will be to bring it down.

PS. Here’s the FT:

Earlier this month, Australia’s central bank — the Reserve Bank of Australia — decided to keep its main interest rate on hold at 4.35 per cent. Nothing alarming there. But in a statement, rate setters indicated that the next move could conceivably be up, not down. . . .

Assumptions for swift rate cuts are also on shaky ground in New Zealand. Last week, regional bank ANZ flipped its view on what the Reserve Bank of New Zealand will do next. As recently as January, it thought the central bank would start pruning rates back in August. Now it is forecasting two more rate rises by April, taking the benchmark rate to 6 per cent.

What Trump and Tyler get wrong about NATO

Former (and future) President Trump recently encouraged Russia to invade Nato members that spent less than 2% of GDP on defense. Tyler Cowen didn’t endorse the specific words, but suggested that Trump was “basically correct” to pressure Nato members.

I believe that both Trump and Tyler misunderstand the role of Nato. The most important aspect of Nato is not the amount it spends on the military, rather its role is to provide a mutual defense pact so large that no nation would dare to attack even its tiniest members. In that regard, it’s a smashing success.

Consider the recent war in the Ukraine, where Russia has been stalemated for 2 years. To say that Ukraine is weaker than Nato would be an understatement. Nato has 31 members, many of which are individually richer and more powerful than Ukraine. As long as Nato sticks together, Russia would not dare to attack even a small member like Estonia. It makes essentially no difference whether Germany spends 1.4% or 2.0% of GDP on its military. Nato is ten times over impregnable, if it sticks together.

But will Nato stick together? Late in his first term, Trump told aides that he hoped to pull the US out of Nato in his second term. That’s why Putin desperately wants Trump to win the election. How do I know this? Putin is so desperate that just recently he endorsed Biden (knowing the endorsement would help Trump), which must have made Putin feel sick to his stomach. If (under a future President Trump) Putin starts to doubt that the US would defend Estonia, then he might seek to recreate the Soviet Empire, triggering World War III.

Nato is the world’s most powerful force for peace. It is essential that each country’s commitment to Nato remain rock solid. It’s not a negotiating tool to be used to get a foreign policy gain, or to save a bit on the US military budget. Too much is at stake.

And keep in mind that most of our military spending is unrelated to Nato. Even if Europe did not exist, we’d spend vast sums on nuclear weapons to deter Russia, and a navy to deter China. We’d also spend lots of money on things like bombers and fighter planes to use when we intervene in the Middle East. Maybe we’d spend a tad less than 3.5% of GDP, but without Europe our GDP would be much smaller.

Let’s not forget that America’s per capita GDP is much higher than almost all other Nato members (except Norway and Luxembourg.) It’s not unreasonable for us to spend a bit more, especially given how much of our current prosperity comes from abuse of “intellectual property rights” rules.

After 1500, Europe became the world’s most successful continent by stealing its more important technologies from China, with no compensation. In the 1800s, the US became the world’s greatest industrial power by stealing its technology from Britain, with no compensation. Now we demand that (poorer) foreign countries pay up any time they use an idea or product that looks even vaguely like something produced by one of our companies. America is the most successful extortionist in global history.

A signficant portion of native born Americans are lazy slobs who sit around enjoying the world’s highest standard of living, brought to them by immigrants like Elon Musk. They believe our politicians will preserve that high standard of living by shutting off trade and keeping those immigrants out. This is the group that is outraged that those devious foreigners are free riding on our great nation by not spending enough on defense. Sorry, I’m not buying the self pity. Americans are incredibly lucky people.

PS. I hope it’s obvious that only the first half of this post is directed at Tyler’s comments.

Travel notes for Abu Dhabi/Oman/Qatar/Tanzania

I still have not recovered, but if I don’t do this post soon I’ll have forgotten the whole trip:

Abu Dhabi: In a previous post, I said you should wait a couple years before going to Abu Dhabi. At the moment, I saw three notable places, the grand mosque, the palace, and the Louvre museum branch.

For most people, the mosque and palace are the most impressive sights—really stunning works of architecture. The more aesthetically-minded viewer might feel these two buildings are a bit excessive. I find it hard to evaluate huge modern examples of classical architecture, as without the patina of age they seem a bit artificial.

The mosque is roughly in the style of the Taj Mahal, but lacks its perfect proportions. Even so, it’s light years better than anything Vegas would do. The palace is slightly more subdued, but perhaps not as graceful.

The mosque is worth visiting twice, once in the daytime when the white marble gleams in the sun, and once at night when it has a blueish tint:

The Jean Nouvel designed Louvre is very different. I found it to be a highly successful example of modern architecture, which perfectly fits the Middle Eastern climate. It’s hard to get a good picture, as it looks best from the inside out:

Like the (much bigger) Paris Louvre, the collection covers a wide ranges of genres and time periods. It’s a pretty good museum.

Not much more to say. Abu Dhabi isn’t super interesting, but it’s pleasant and has good food at reasonable prices. Great airport.

Oman: I knew relatively little about Oman, and was initially disappointed by the two hour wait at immigration. We spent two nights near Muscat, two in the desert, and two in the mountains. I say “near” Muscat, as Oman’s capital is a weirdly spread out place, due to the rugged mountains along the coast. Don’t make our mistake—get a hotel near the old town.

Oman is a slightly confusing place. Is it a middle income or high income country? The IMF has its (PPP) per capita GDP at just below $40,000, right next to Greece. But it actually feels like a developing country that’s pushed up to developed status by oil wealth.

The oil wealth seems to have been invested pretty wisely. The roads weren’t just good, they were outstanding. Most of the houses (outside old Muscat) that I could see looked reasonably large and modern. The styles ranged from simple white boxes to gaudy excess to art deco to cool modernism.

We drove south down the coast and hiked a pleasant “wadi”, which is an oasis-like stream in a mountain canyon. Lots of French tourists. We turned inland at Sur and experienced the only sketchy road, but we could see a new expressway under construction. Then we hit a brand new 6-lane expressway in the desert, and were almost the only car on the road—even in the middle of the day. The gas station was so new they hadn’t even opened the little mini-market or toilet on the site. I felt sorry for the two young men working in this god-forsaken place, who probably came from somewhere like Bangladesh.

The last 11 kilometers were across the desert to the desert camp, and at first we had trouble finding the “road”, which was just tire tracks in the sand. So I was sort of randomly driving in the general direction of the hotel (thank god for GPS.) Eventually we saw a car coming the other way and found the track. Despite the generally excellent roads in Oman, you’ll need 4 wheel drive in a few places. At the desert hotel, there are jeeps that will take you to the top of the huge dunes to watch the sunset, if you are too lazy to hike up. Recommended.

It’s probably hard to see, but our hotel camp is on the lower right, and there is a delegation of Saudi government people visible on a dune above the camp. In real life, the colors are absurdly vivid:

The third hotel was high up in the mountains. The Anantara Hotel was not the best hotel on our trip (that came later) but it was by far the most expensive (even though we got a discounted rate.) There are spectacular views and you can hike along a string of little villages perched on the edge of the giant canyon, with terraced fields below them where they grow things like roses. These villages are gradually becoming gentrified.

Overall, we had a positive impression of Oman. It’s much easier for tourists like me to navigate Oman than a country in a place like Latin America. Good roads, not crowded, good facilities, low prices, friendly people, very little crime. On the other hand, in some ways I’d rather visit a more “authentic” place, say Morocco, Turkey or Iran. Oman is safe, but a tad boring. The oddest thing we noticed is absurdly oversized police stations in almost every town. One was in a compound almost half a mile long, with several grandiose buildings. Maybe that’s why they have so little crime; every third Omani seems to work for the police.

Qatar: Qatar is even richer than Abu Dhabi, and looks it–perhaps only because it’s newer. It makes Florida seem like a state steeped in history. It also has a wonderful new airport, but unlike Abu Dhabi it’s very overcrowded, and thus you must take buses to and from the planes. (They are building a new terminal.)

Although they have a very nice new subway from the airport to the center of Doha, it doesn’t make any sense to use it. Take an Uber. But I wanted to see the subway, so not only did we take it, we paid triple to take a luxury “Gold” subway car. No one else did, as I later discovered than the ordinary cars are almost as luxurious. New Yorkers would trash these seats within 5 minutes:

We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, which was more luxurious than the Amantara, but found a discounted room at only $227/night. In a city like New York, the same hotel room is about $800/night. The first day I went to the spectacular Qatar National Museum, also designed by Jean Nouvel, but much less successful than his Abu Dhabi museum—the style is too “busy”. The collection is also mediocre. Imagine if a multi-generational business family spent a fortune on a museum of the family’s history, and filled it with knick knacks. OK, it’s not that bad, but let’s face it—Qatar is not a real nation. It built the museum to try to convince people that it has a rich history, but it doesn’t. It had 25,000 people back in 1950. There are Orange County suburbs with more than 10 times that number. Imagine a giant museum of the history of some place like Plano, Texas.

In other respects, Qatar is ahead of Abu Dhabi. The architecture mostly seemed better, and the Islamic Art Museum was spectacular—the best museum I saw on the entire trip. We had dinner at a fancy restaurant on the top floor of the museum. I generally find the Michelin star restaurants to be a bit pretentious and overpriced, and this was no exception. I preferred a meal we had in a Sri Lankan place in the fashionable Msheireb neighborhood near our hotel.

Tanzania: To say Tanzania was a change of pace would be an understatement. To begin with, it’s very poor (per capita GDP of $1327, or $3595 PPP) , even compared to nearby Kenya ($2188, and $6577 PPP). It was also quite green, although it was not the rainy season. It has 62 million people, but based on the green and fertile land I saw out the window, it could support a vastly larger population.

And soon it will! Most babies are now born in Africa and South Asia. That’s the future of the human race. Tanzania’s fertility rate is 4.7 per woman and falling, while Kenya is at 3.3 and falling. My driver had four children, while I have one. So who is more successful? It depends:

1. He’s having more success at the genetic level.

2. I’m having more financial success.

3. In utility terms it’s close, but he seems a bit happier.

We spent 8 days in Tanzania. The first night at Lake Manyara National park. Then a very long and bumpy drive to the Serengeti, where we spent 3 nights. Then back to Ngorongoro crater where we spent 2 nights. All three times we stayed at Serena hotels. We ended up staying 2 nights at a tent camp in Tarangire National Park.

If I could do it all over, I’d cut out Manyara, and start with Tarangire. I’d also stay closer to the entrance to Tarangire, as it was an uncomfortable 1.5 hour drive from the entrance to our camp, and most of the animals that we saw the next day were close to the entrance (at this time of year.) BTW, I think this is an excellent time of year to visit.

I have mixed feelings about the trip. Due to bad water, I suffered a lot of discomfort during the last couple days, on the long trip home, and even after getting home. But I also had some of the best travel days of my life, especially in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro areas. Most people go to see the animals and to a lesser extent tribal groups like the Maasai. I’m unusual–much more interested in landscapes than in animals and people (although I did enjoy seeing the animals and meeting the Maasai.)

There were times when the spectacular landscapes made me feel much younger. At the risk of sounding like Burt Lancaster in Local Hero, even the sky was amazing.

But most people come for the animal life, which gets quite close to the jeep:

We used Fortis safari company. The driver named Robert was very knowledgeable and quite personable. At the hotels, you get escorted to your room after dinner (generally a separate bungalow or tent), as the hotel doesn’t wish to have their customers eaten by lions.

The long trip home reminded me of the film Three Times, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. That film presents the same love story three times, using the same actors. The first episode occurs during the 1960s, and is obviously close to the director’s heart. The second is a silent film, taking place around 1910. Life is too repressive. In the final segment you are in a neon-lit future, where people are free but rather apathetic and alienated.

On the first of three consecutive nights, I stayed in a tent in a remote area of Tarangire park—not free to walk outside at night. The next night we were in massive Doha airport, which is a highly artificial environment packed with people from all over the world. Even at 1am the place was very crowded. We stayed right in the terminal in a tiny 5-foot by 6-foot room with a bunk bed, which had no windows—kind of like those futuristic Japanese capsule hotels. It cost almost as much as our luxurious Mandarin Oriental room. The third night we stayed at our spacious and pleasant home in Mission Viejo, which overlooks a lake and some mountains. In some odd way, I felt the primitive tent and the futuristic airport pod bookended our familiar house in OC in much the same way that the final two segments of Three Times bookended Hou Hsiao-hsien’s nostalgic memories of the 1960s.

PS. Even though I had already gone through security, there was another security checkpoint right at our gate for the 16 hour flight from Doha to LA. I was outraged that I couldn’t take a bottle of water with me, which I like to have on long flights. The agent told me to blame the TSA. Even on the other side of the world, the US government is screwing up my life.

Other passengers must laugh as they walk by gates where flights to America are boarding: “Those Americans are so risk averse that the security measures used in all other countries aren’t good enough for them.” It’s bad enough that the TSA imposes the excessive security theatre on American airports, now they demand that foreign airports serving America follow suit. So Doha must set up special gates for neurotic Americans. Pathetic.

Please abolish the TSA and let each American airport contract out security to the firm of its choosing. Let foreign airports set their own standards. Stop the madness.

PPS. In fairness, my Global Entry card worked well, so the US can do a few things right.