Archive for the Category Social trends



I don’t use twitter, but I occasionally come across news stories discussing tweets that shame someone for not being politically correct.  How should we think about those tweets?  In principle, shaming should serve a valuable public function—discouraging offensive comments and behavior.  But shaming non-PC speech does not seem to be effective.  Why?

The straightforward interpretation of shaming is that the tweets are punishment for various racist and misogynist comments.  That might be true, but it doesn’t seem to fit the facts very well.  The actual racists and sexists among us are not damaged by the shaming tweets intended to punish them.  In contrast, the people who are damaged are generally not racist or sexist.  Shaming doesn’t hurt Donald Trump or Steve Bannon at all; indeed Bannon insists on wearing the “racist” label as a badge of honor in front of his adoring crowds.  Instead, these sorts of attacks tend to adversely affect people who are not bigoted, someone like Larry Summers.  Those who intentionally make racist or misogynist statements do so precisely because the public shaming will not hurt them.

Now consider the high school model of twitter shaming.  Recall that the cool kids in high school would create a set of rules that were impossible for the uncool kids to adhere to.  When the uncool kids fell short, they were ridiculed.  Isn’t that today’s twitterverse?

Suppose that you want to make sure your group is composed of only those with a high level of political correctness.  One method is to create rules that are so extreme that most people will not be able to keep up.  Thus Katy Perry did not know that dressing up like a geisha is insulting to the Japanese.  Why not?  Well, because Katy Perry dressing up like a geisha is not in fact insulting to the Japanese.  Indeed the Japanese were honored by her performance.  How could it be otherwise, as “cosplay” is a big part of Japanese culture?  If you make political correctness this detached from reality, it’s hard for anyone but the most committed to keep up.

The same dynamic occurred during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where the Red Guards made increasingly extreme demands for ideological purity.  In fact, this technique goes far back in history.  A new book by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson has this anecdote from ancient China:

Zhao Gao was a powerful man hungry for more power.  One day he brought a deer to a meeting with the emperor and many top officials, calling the deer a “great horse”. The emperor, who regarded Zhao Gao as a teacher and therefore trusted him completely, agreed that it was a horse—and many officials agreed as well.  Others, however, remained silent or objected.  This was how Zhao Gao flushed out his enemies.  Soon after, he murdered all the officials who refused to call the deer a horse.

[At least Jeff Flake wasn’t murdered!]

Even people far to the left of Larry Summers can be ensnared in the web.  During the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders got into trouble for saying that “all lives matter”.  For someone of his (1960s) generation, it’s not obvious why this statement is offensive.  After all, don’t all lives matter?  The whole point of PCism is to make things so confusing that only the insiders, the cool kids, avoid shaming. Sanders didn’t realize that saying all lives matter would be seen as an implied criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement (as it sometimes is, but not in Sander’s case). Bernie Sanders was once considered cool, but I predict his age, gender and race will eventually catch up with him, and he’ll be exchanged for someone who is not an old white male.  In 2019, being cool is no longer about standing up for blue collar workers that largely vote for Trump.

Suppose I’m wrong, and that twitter shaming really is about punishing offensive statements.  Let’s consider the most offensive statement in the mainstream media during the past year.  Here’s my vote, from Bloomberg:

A figure of 15 million births would be the third-lowest total since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, He Yafu, one of the demographers cited by China Times, told Bloomberg News. It would only exceed 1960 and 1961, when the country was hit by natural disasters and famine.

As Bob Dole might have said, “Where’s the outrage.”  The Great Leap Forward of 1959-61 was one of the two or three worst crimes in human history.  And unlike the others, it occurred during my lifetime.  Perhaps 30 million died from the cruel policies imposed by Mao, and countless others enduring unspeakable pain, even as Mao was warned that his actions were having disastrous consequences.   Is there anything more offensive than implying this crime was a “natural disaster”?

The problem here is that shaming for ignorance of the Great Leap Forward is nowhere near as effective as shaming for saying that “all lives matter”, or for dressing up like a geisha, if your goal is to ostracize people who have insufficiently extreme views on race, sex and gender.

One popular form of shaming is to criticize statements that are not directly offensive, in a logical sense, but seem tone deaf.  The people likely to make these sorts of statements are often the exact same types who were viewed as “nerdy” in high school. Ironically, some of their oppressors are also former nerds, finally getting their chance to retaliate for all the misery they suffered in school.

PS.  I should say that the ideas in this post were partly inspired by the Simler/Hanson book on hidden motives.  But they should not be blamed (or shamed) if I’ve misused their theories.

PPS.  Please don’t tell me that the Bloomberg quote said natural disasters and famine.  I know that, but what does that phrase clearly imply to most readers?  A natural disaster that led to famine.

Is populism popular? Has it peaked?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but Simon Kuper presents an interesting contrarian view:

Sometimes, our street is so packed with protesters that you can hardly open the front door. But last Saturday, I gingerly stepped outside to encounter only a few hundred marchers in gilets jaunes (yellow vests). Later, on TV, I watched the tear gas and shoving on the Champs-Elysées. But the odd aerial camera shot revealed that the Champs was mostly empty. Friends abroad asked if we were safe. We were: I spent half the weekend freezing on suburban touchlines watching my kids play football.

About 10,000 gilets jaunes marched in Paris and 125,000 across France, says the government. That same day, the green “march for the climate” drew about twice as many protesters in Paris

His observation on the US election is also interesting:

Populist movements may be the past, not the future. In November’s midterms, Trump’s Republicans lost the popular vote for the House of Representatives by 8.6 per cent — the biggest defeat for a majority party since records began in 1942. Meanwhile, as Brexit becomes increasingly hilarious, polls consistently show that most Britons now oppose it. Approval of the EU across the rest of Europe is the highest since 1983, says the European Commission’s polling wing.

Don’t assume that “the populists” are equivalent to “the people”.  Hillary got millions more votes than Trump.  The French gas tax increase was defeated, but worry about climate change is extremely widespread:

The new obsession with white-working-class politics misses much else. If you’re worried about poverty, look at very poor non-whites. And if you want to identify movements of the future, try the greens. For a so-called elitist movement, they seem pretty broad-based. About two-thirds of French people say they support the gilets jaunes, but 85 per cent worry about climate change, according to pollsters Ifop. In Germany, the much fussed-over far-right Alternative für Deutschland party now polls at 14 per cent; the Greens are six points higher. German anti-immigrant rallies (like Tommy Robinson’s British versions) are typically dwarfed by protests against them.

Scott Alexander has a post showing that Trump’s views on trade and immigration are becoming less and less popular.  I made a similar observation about 20 months ago.

Speaking of Alexander, another of his posts provides an almost perfect example of how commenters misinterpret my views:

Imagine the US currently devotes 100% of its defense budget to countering Russia. Some analyst determines that although Russia deserves 90% of resources, the Pentagon should also use 10% to counter China. Since no one person can shift very much of the defense budget, this analyst might spend all her time arguing we need to counter China more, trying to convince everyone that China is really very dangerous; if she succeeds, maybe the budget will shift to 99-to-1 and she’ll have done the best she can. But if she really spends all her time talking about China, this might look to other people like she’s an extremist – that crazy single-issue China person – “Why are you spending all your time talking about China? Don’t you realize Russia is important too?” Still, she’s taking the right strategy, and it’s hard to figure out what she could do better.

Because I’m trying to talk the US out of starting a foolish cold war with China, I’m seen as an apologist for Xi Jinping’s authoritarian policies.  In fact, I view almost all countries as being too authoritarian (think of the 400,000 Americans in jail for drug violations), and China as being far too authoritarian, much worse than the US.

Where are people moving? And why?

Over at Econlog, I have a post discussing the slowdown in US population growth, to 0.6% in 2018 (the slowest growth rate since 1937.)  A WSJ article also had some interesting data on state growth rates:

Screen Shot 2018-12-20 at 7.49.53 PMThe footnote on Puerto Rico is rather striking, as its population fell by 4% last year.  That was partly due to hurricane Maria, but its population has been plunging for many years, down about 14% since 2010.  Who’s going to pay off that enormous debt, and will the last Puerto Rican please turn out the lights? Hawaii is also losing people, as are Mississippi and Louisiana.  So the “Sunbelt” phenomenon is more complex than advertised.

Other trends:

1.  Mormons have lots of kids.  The four fastest growing states are all in the top five in terms of percentage of the population that is Mormon, although only in Utah and Idaho are they numerous enough to dramatically impact population growth.  (The other top five Mormon state (Wyoming) is losing people.)

2.  Illinois has been losing about 40,000 people each year, while other Midwestern industrial states like Michigan and Ohio keep growing (albeit slowly).  What makes this surprising is that Illinois is dominated by one of the few Midwestern industrial cities to successfully reinvent itself.  Chicago has a thriving lakefront area full of high paying jobs, while Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Akron and Dayton have languished.  This Illinois underperformance may reflect the extraordinary incompetence of the Illinois state government, which is driving the state toward a fiscal crisis.  Illinois is dominated by Cook County, which has a corrupt political culture.

3.  As recently as 2013, New York had more people than Florida.  Now Florida has 1.75 million more than New York.  Indeed 35% of US population growth now occurs in Florida and Texas.

4.  The sunny, oil-rich states that border Texas continue to do very poorly, either falling in population or growing much more slowly than the national average.  Texas probably benefits from a mixture of no state income tax, lax zoning, and business friendly regulations.  While other inland states also have cheap housing prices, Texas has cheap housing prices in big urban areas.

5.  It now seems like the lack of a state income tax doesn’t provide much gain to states without a big city, such as Alaska, Wyoming and New Hampshire.  The exception is South Dakota, which is doing modestly better than its neighbors.  In contrast, states with big cities and no state income tax (Texas, Florida, Nevada, Washington, Tennessee (on wages)) tend to grow faster than their neighbors.  I think that’s because the lack of a state income tax is especially attractive for the sort of high paid professionals that live in big cities.

6.  The recent federal tax reform will raise the effective top rate on the California state income tax from about 8% to 13.3%.  Many rich people (like me) will continue to choose California, due to its amenities.  But at the margin, a few more will make the switch to Austin or Seattle or Vegas.  California always used to grow faster than the US as a whole.  Even when whites started leaving for other states, the overall California population kept growing at a good clip due to international migration.  But now its growth rate (0.4%) has fallen below the national average.  Eventually, California may begin losing Congressional seats.

7.  Today, most of our population growth is in three areas.  The southeast (Raleigh to Miami), four big Texas metros, and the non-California west (the Denver/Seattle/Phoenix triangle.)

What are the odds that the world’s two richest guys would live in the same medium size city, in the only liberal state without a state income tax?


The increasing populism of the new right

India’s Modi shares some similarities with other populists in places like Turkey, Italy and the US.  Here’s a recent FT story:

Tensions between the RBI and Mr Modi have been mounting for months over the central bank’s hawkish monetary policy, use of its mounting reserves and the tough measures taken to clean up bad loans at India’s state-run banks.

Mr Modi has been accused of demanding that the RBI ease back on its crackdown out of fear it will hit economic growth during his drive for re-election, particularly as liquidity in non-bank lenders has dried up after a series of defaults at IL&FS, a high-profile finance and infrastructure group.

At a 10-hour board meeting last month, Mr Patel made a number of concessions under heavy pressure from government nominees, including promising to review restrictions on fresh lending by banks that already have high levels of bad debt. Pressure on the RBI was expected to continue at Friday’s meeting.

Fresh lending from banks that already have high levels of bad debt?  What could go wrong?

As a result of the pressure, Patel announced his resignation today.  (Recall that Raghuram Rajan was let go two years ago, for similar reasons):

“By forcing Mr Patel’s hand, the government has now made it clear who runs the show,” said Eswar Prasad, a professor at Cornell University, adding that the move marks “the culmination of the government’s taking the hammer to a cherished and widely respected institution”.

The Indian rupee fell more than 1.8 per cent against the dollar in the immediate aftermath of Mr Patel’s resignation.

If you look around the world, there is more and more evidence that the left and right are switching position on a wide range of issues:

1.  The populist right is increasingly supportive of monetary stimulus and opposed to central bank independence. (Easy money)

2.  The right is increasingly supportive of protectionist trade policies. (Mercantilism)

3.  The right is increasingly supportive of ramping up “moral hazard” in the financial system. (Easy credit)

4.  The right is increasingly supportive of deficit spending, including entitlements.

Those used to be left-wing positions.  Of course there are plenty of Republican politicians and pundits in the US that still oppose this populism, but this is the way that politics are evolving, all over the world.

I predict this process will continue, with local variations. Many other left wing ideas will flip to the right. The right will advocate a higher minimum wage and more government spending on infrastructure.  Right wing populists will increasingly oppose Silicon Valley type companies.    But this switch on tech firms will be less noticeable in the US, as it conflicts with the desire of nationalists to extract rents from the rest of the world.  In contrast, populists in the other English speaking nations will be less protectionist than in the US, as the costs of protection are more obvious in those smaller trading nations (Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, etc.)

Nonetheless, at a deep psychological level, the forces reshaping politics are obviously global.  The Economist has a fascinating article on the recent dramatic changes in Australia’s (conservative) Liberal Party, in which a Trumpian wing is suddenly becoming far more powerful.  Interestingly, the factors that supposedly led to the rise of Trump in America (opposition to imports, the Great Recession, low-skilled immigration, etc.) are largely absent in Australia.  This suggests that the psychological cause of this phenomenon is far deeper that the shallow explanations offered by media pundits.  I have no idea what those causes are, but imagine they will become clearer over time.  Why is misogyny usually a part of the package, for instance?

The Conservative Party in the UK is going through turmoil very similar to what’s reshaping Australia’s Liberal Party.  Unlike in Australia, however, it stays afloat because its opposition is even more loony.  The Australian Liberal Party doesn’t benefit from such a weak opposition, and thus faces a disaster at the next election.

The good news is that all of this turmoil may eventually lead to a US political party that is socially liberal and economically liberal.  I fear, however, that in the short run we’ll have two economically illiberal parties.


Zombie ideas that just won’t die

This post is loosely related to themes such as “The Great Stagnation” and “The Complacent Class”, to cite two recent books by Tyler Cowen.  Also loosely related is Scott Alexander’s epic blog post Meditations on Moloch.  And perhaps “The End of History”.

As time goes by, neoliberalism seems more and more like a immovable force.

Think about it.  The Great Recession seemed to completely discredit neoliberalism.  All the most fashionable intellectuals on the left and the right say so.  Entire governments on the left (Syriza), center (Five Star), and right (Trump) are elected to replace neoliberalism with something better.  Socialism, nationalism, whatever.  The British vote to leave the EU.

But neoliberalism is like the zombie that cannot be killed.  Syriza can’t do much of anything, and Trump’s only major achievement is an ultra-neoliberal corporate tax cut.  Here’s today’s FT:

In practice, Mr Grieve himself has said another referendum is the “only” route to stopping Brexit.  What the advocate-general’s opinion does is open the legal path. Indeed, on Tuesday analysts at JPMorgan doubled their estimate of the possibility of “no Brexit” to 40 per cent — while halving the probability of “no-deal” in early 2019 to 10 per cent.

Are hardline Brexiters worried that no-deal is off the table?

Not outwardly. “It’s full steam ahead,” said one pro-Brexit Tory, who predicted the government would lose Tuesday’s meaningful vote by a margin of 40.

However, supporters of Mrs May’s deal argue that Brexiters have trapped themselves and that parliament, in which a majority favours soft Brexit or no Brexit, is now in control.

“They’ve completely messed it up,” said one Tory MP. “I’m coming to the conclusion that they wanted the [2016 Brexit] referendum only as a way of protesting.”

What!?!?!  There’s still a 40% chance that Bryan will win his bet?  That’s crazy.  It’s as if NIMBYism also applies to entire policy regimes.  No new economic policy regimes in my backyard!  The British public is like that accountant in the Monty Python routine.  They wanted DRAMATIC CHANGE, just so long as nothing in their life actually, you know, changes.  “We want to be like Singapore!” . . .  “Well, maybe not, perhaps we could first try Norway.” . . .  “Er, don’t rush me.”

I never got the Trump phenomenon until I figured this out.  Re-read the last six words of the FT quotation.

I’m a neoliberal, and thus am thrilled with this state of affairs.  But I’m uneasy because I don’t understand why I’m winning.  So what gives—why is neoliberalism so hard to kill?  I await an explanation from my commenters.

PS.  Here’s what happened in 1968, fifty years ago.  First men to orbit the moon.  The Tet offensive in Vietnam.  Two assassinations of US political leaders.  Revolutionary activity in countries all over the world (Mexico, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc., etc.) Race riots and student riots in the US. The 747 airplane launched.  Two thousand miles of interstate highway are built—in one year.  Friedman’s natural rate hypothesis. The ATM, 911 lines, and air bags invented. Kubrick’s “2001” released. The White album and Beggar’s Banquet. Fifty years later we have what?  What happened this year? The stupid fight over Kavanaugh?  You might argue that there are all sorts of cool technological developments occurring now.  OK, but consider this:

[Engelbart] went on to considerably more significant accomplishments, including the computer mouse, the graphical computer interface, text editing, hypertext, networked computers, e-mail, and videoconferencing, all of which he demonstrated in a legendary “mother of all demos” in San Francisco in 1968.

That’s from a book entitled “How to Change Your Mind”.  Which modern equivalent of Doug Engelbart came up with that many neat ideas this year?

I miss 1968.

I’m bored.