Saturday, January 31

A couple of subscriber-only articles on education from last week's Economist. One says:
In reality, there is no proven connection between spending on universities and prosperity, nor can there be. Those rich countries that spend a lot on higher education may do so for the same reasons they subsidise opera: because they like it, rather than because it makes them richer.

This sounds heretical, but should not be very surprising. Just as people differ, so do their educational needs. An intensive three-year academic course may be just the ticket for one person, but a tedious waste of time for another.
The other:
British and European academics cast envious and wondering eyes at the American university system. It manages both quantity and quality: more than 60% of American high school graduates at least start some form of tertiary education. And it keeps standards high, too. The European Commission recently published a painstaking ranking of the world's best universities, compiled by researchers in Shanghai. Of the top 50, all but 15 were American. From Europe, only Oxford and Cambridge made it into the top 10; from other EU countries, no university ranks higher than 40....

The American system is not flawless. The diversity which makes the system so dynamic also leaves it vulnerable to abuse. In the humanities, intellectual fashion seems bizarrely distant from the real world. Many bad ideas—notably political correctness—started life as American campus fads. And budget pressures squeeze the system when times are tough. This year, the axe has fallen hard on California's public universities...

Why does America succeed where Europe fails? The most important factor is diversity. American higher education is not just more varied, but has less of the crippling snobbery and resentment that accompanies variety in, say, Britain. At the bottom of the pyramid are community colleges, offering inexpensive, flexible, job-focused courses for millions of Americans each year. They are pretty basic, and Britons sniff at them. But the difference in mentality, says Martin Trow, an observer of both the British and American education systems, is that in America “something is seen as better than nothing”.

Crucially, too, the different bits of the system fit together. As Mr Trow points out, a student can start in a California community college, earn some credits, move on to state university and finish up taking a degree at Berkeley. Such a path would be inconceivable in most countries in Europe. In France, for example, the division between the state-funded, mass-market universities and the grandes écoles is vast and jealously guarded. Britain's further-education colleges are the poorest relations of an already impoverished family...

A crucial part of competition is flexibility in setting fee income. Most European countries charge little or nothing. But fees have two beneficial effects. The first is that the university is beholden to nobody in its planning. Engineering and medicine are expensive to teach, so they cost more. Law is in high demand, so it is rationed by price at places like Harvard. But these are the university's own decisions. If it wants to teach something expensive, it can raise the money from fees, or from outside donors, or subsidise it from its endowment. It is not left, as Britain's academic managers are, wondering if it can squeeze money from the English department to keep the chemistry labs open.

Fees also mean that students are much more motivated. Underpriced goods and services are usually wasted, and university education is no exception. In a new book*, Robert Stevens, an academic who has run colleges in both America and Britain, writes of “an alcoholic yobbish culture” among students, for whom university is principally “a rite of passage”, like national service in the army, rather than an education. When Austria introduced a modest tuition fee of €363 per term in 2001, the number of students enrolled dropped by a fifth. Many, it seemed, were signing up simply for benefits such as health insurance.

But fees will also make students more powerful customers. Teaching at American universities is much better presented than in most European ones. Visiting American students are often startled to attend lectures with no visual aids, out-of-date hand-outs and droning, inaudible speakers. Such complacency will not long survive when customers have a choice.
Italics mine. I was a little surprised by the suggestion that the "alcoholic yobbish culture" was a problem in Britain, not the US. Trust me, it's alive and well here, too. But anyway, choice is good.
Water in D.C. Exceeds EPA Lead Limit reminds me of something else from a subscriber-only article in the Economist:
...common sense gets you only so far when dealing with risks to safety, security and health. How far, for instance, should a government go to save lives by reducing everyday hazards? Life is priceless, of course, especially when it is yours or a loved one's. Yet governments have budgets and must try to weigh costs and benefits. If a life can be saved for a few thousand dollars, that sounds like money well spent. But what if the cost is $100m?

According to Kip Viscusi of the Harvard Law School, the price that Americans put on a life is around $7m. He has researched what people are willing to pay to reduce the risk of death at their place of work and how much money they will accept to compensate them for an increased risk of dying on the job. By cross-analysing data from many surveys, he says, it is possible to discover the value people put on avoiding the loss of a life. Different countries, it seems, have different preferences (see chart 2). The Japanese, perhaps true to their reputation of being risk-averse, put a price of almost $10m on each life, whereas the Taiwanese seem to be satisfied with a modest $600,000. In general, as countries get richer the price of a life goes up: by 5-6% for every 10% rise in income per head, according to Mr Viscusi.

A country's rule book should reflect its people's preferences, but John Morrall, an official at America's Office of Management and Budget, noted 20 years ago that many regulations fail a basic cost-benefit test. He has just updated his analysis by looking at 76 American regulations for the period from 1960-2001, and has found that government is still doing a poor job. Only just over half the regulations he studied were “cost-effective” as defined by saving a life at the cost of less than $7m, and some were vastly more expensive. In itself, that may not be a bad thing: people may well decide to spend a lot more to protect themselves from particularly nasty deaths, and less to prevent deaths that result from voluntary risk-taking. The problem comes when inefficient regulation is promoted at the expense of the thriftier sort.

According to Mr Morrall, environmental regulations, such as restrictions on hazardous waste and other kinds of pollution, generally cost over $1 billion for every life saved, often much more (see table 3). The cost of such regulations, many of them designed to reduce the use of substances that cause cancer, is far higher than the results seem to justify.

On the other hand, fairly cheap measures can produce big benefits. In America, simple precautions, such as requiring cigarette lighters to be child-proof or reflectors to be installed on heavy lorries, have proved especially cost-effective. Disappointingly, many measures that could save lives at low cost are still waiting to be introduced. These include reducing some types of fats, such as trans fatty acids, in foods (each life saved would cost only $3,000), or installing defibrillators in workplaces to treat cardiac arrests.
We saw The Slingshot (1993), which was watchable, if not wonderful. Nice acting job by the kid.
Suicide Bomb Survivors Face Worlds Blown Apart
[F]or all those killed, there are many, many more left alive but burned, maimed, scarred, blinded, paralyzed, hearing-impaired, missing limbs and often requiring long-term care.
Not to sound like a little green footballer, but that doesn't make me very sympathetic to the Palestinians.
I saw The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) shortly after it came out. I found Hanna Schygulla very appealing. I was certain the actor who played the accountant (Senkenberg, I think, which would make him Hark Bohm) was the one who played Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981; I haven't seen it since its first release), but I guess he can't be Ronald Lacey. The guy who plays Maria's husband's friend (Gottfried John?) also looked familiar, but maybe it's another mistaken identity.
U.S. Pressing EU to Uphold Arms Embargo Against China By Philip P. Pan:
China has made ending the embargo its top priority in relations with the EU, in part because it is worried that persuading Europe to repeal the ban will be much more difficult after May, when the 15-nation bloc accepts 10 new members, including several considered close U.S. allies, the diplomats said.

The Chinese leaders who took office last year also appear eager to score a diplomatic victory that would set them apart from their predecessors, earn respect from the country's influential army and demonstrate to the world that China has moved out of the shadow of the Tiananmen massacre.


No decision is expected from the EU until at least April. European officials are worried that any action before then might exacerbate tensions surrounding the March 20 presidential election in Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims and has threatened to seize, diplomats said.


The EU's deliberations have already alarmed some in the United States who feel that lifting the ban on weapons sales could upset the balance of military power across the Taiwan Strait. The United States is Taiwan's main source of arms and is committed to helping Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese attack.

Some analysts said lifting the embargo would have little effect on China's military modernization program because China can purchase much of what it wants from Russia. Russian weapons systems are not as advanced as those produced in Europe, but they are less expensive.

"The Chinese understand that Western military equipment comes with significant strings attached, and those strings include the risk of sanctions that can cut off your supply of spare parts," said Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defense Weekly. "There is Chinese interest in a range of European military products that fulfill niche requirements, but I doubt lifting the embargo will have a broad impact on force modernization in China."

Friday, January 30

Links to bilingual articles. It's interesting to see what they choose, but it looks to be dated.
Still waiting to see who the Chinese Beneficiaries of Saddam's Oil Vouchers are.
Tyler Cowen links to The Absurdity of Egalitarianism, which points out how grossly unfair it is that women outlive men. Maybe that's why we're paid more?
Awhile ago I did some searches to see how "SARS" was rendered in Chinese:
非典 2,130,000 (非典 is short for 非典型肺炎)
SARS 1,030,000 (on Chinese websites only)
萨斯 126,000 (a transliteration of SARS. I don't much like it, but even the BBC used it.)

Thursday, January 29

Bird flu outbreak started a year ago
China says the disease was first detected this week.

In fact, the outbreak began as early as the first half of 2003, probably in China, health experts have told New Scientist. A combination of official cover-up and questionable farming practices allowed it to turn into the epidemic now under way.
But China Denies Responsibility for Bird Flu Scourge, despite their bad record with SARS.

Wednesday, January 28

As of last fall, Chinese universities still required their students to study:
  • Philosophical Principles of Marxism 马克思主义哲学原理

  • Principles of Marxist Politics and Economics 马克思主义政治经济学原

  • Introduction to Maoist Thought 毛泽东思想概论

  • Introduction to Deng Xiaoping Theory 邓小平理论概论

  • Modern World Politics and Economics 当代世界政治与经济
If that weren't bad enough, Deng Xiaoping Theory includes Jiang Zemin's 3 Represents 三个代表 (Let's see, who are they? There's Larry, Moe, and--wait, maybe it's Huey, Dewey, and--no, it's the father, the son, and--no, that's not it, either. I give up). On the other hand, let's not complain about the last one. We're moving up in the Chinese world, at any rate.


Stefan Landsberger's Jiang Zemin Theory posters.
This article claims the way the Chinese eat Chinese food (sitting around a table with common dishes in the centre and everyone dipping their chopsticks in) engenders a sense of bonhomie or togetherness.
For many Chinese, suggesting separate servings to friends is tantamount to estrangement....soon after the SARS threat ended, the mention of infection was a no-no among friends...

Li Qiang, professor with the Sociology Department of Tsinghua University, says it is so because the Chinese attach great importance to a friendly, joyful atmosphere when dining together.

"In addition, Chinese traditional eating habits strengthen relationships between people,'' Li says, adding that if it were not for this purpose, many would not even think of going out and eating together.

Separate servings, on the other hand, are part of Western culture, which stresses individuality, the professor opines.
Li also claims
Common servings started from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) when Chinese ate around a table and used their chopsticks to pick up food from the same dishes....
(link via rice cooker.)

Sunday, January 25

So Kerry's more liberal than Kennedy. But what's their definition of liberal? While looking for that, I ran across this PDF A Measure of Media Bias, according to which the media is indeed biased leftward. As Marginal Revolution puts it: Surprise! Fox News is Fair and Balanced! That search also led me to the Plane Truth book below.
I missed this:
The Communist Party presented a sweeping plan on Monday to reduce the high death tolls in China's perilous workplaces, calling for immediate action on a problem that has long embarrassed the government...

China is notorious for unsafe workplaces. At least 4,200 people were killed in coal mines alone last year, and the official death toll of 14,675 from all industrial accidents is widely considered a conservative estimate.

Still, the government, which has long reflexively tried to suppress bad news, has shown signs of being willing to attack the problem more directly. After a fatal flood at a tin mine in southern China in 2001, senior leaders encouraged the nation's tightly leashed press to expose operators of unsafe mines.

The government has been under particular pressure since the gas leak in Chongqing. In addition to killing 243 people, the leak also sickened hundreds and forced the evacuation of more than 60,000 residents.

The government reacted unusually quickly and blamed negligence for the disaster. China's state oil company, PetroChina, is offering $3.6 million in compensation to victims and family members of those who died.
Let's hope the government really makes it work.
I just ran across The Plane Truth: Airline Crashes, the Media, and Transportation Policy by Roger W. Cobb and David M. Primo:
Cobb and Primo make several policy recommendations based on their findings. These include calling on lawmakers and regulators to avoid reactive regulation and instead to focus on systematic problems in airline safety, like the antiquated air traffic control system. Concerned that aviation security is eclipsing aviation safety in the wake of September 11, they encourage federal agencies to strike a better balance between the two. Finally, in order to address the FAA’s poor track record in balancing airline safety regulation with its other duties, they recommend the creation of a new federal agency that is responsible for aviation safety.

The Plane Truth provides a framework for understanding conflicts about the meaning of air safety and the implications of these battles for public policy.
Like a lot of misguided public policy.
JOSEPH KAHN is more concerned about equality than growth:
Guangdong has grown by more than 10 percent annually for the past decade. But its factory workers, mostly migrants from the interior, earn no more today than they did in 1993, several Chinese studies have found. The average wage of $50 to $70 a month also buys less today than it did in the early 1990's, meaning workers are losing ground even as China enjoys one of the longest and most robust expansions in modern history.

This is partly a paradox of globalization. China has attracted more foreign investment by far than any other developing country, nearly $500 billion since it began internationalizing its economy. But it continues to draw capital essentially because it is willing to rent workers for falling returns.

The free-market economic policies have not left China worse off on the whole. They have lifted it out of the ranks of the world's poorest countries, created a nascent middle class of service industry workers in the big cities, and made China the largest Asian exporter to the United States.

But China is living through a Gilded Age of inequality, whose benefits are not trickling down to the 700 million or 800 million rural residents who live off the land or flock to the cities for factory or construction jobs.
(Emphasis mine.) But doesn't the fact that rural residents flock to the cities for factory or construction jobs mean that the work is better there than off in the countryside? And if wages are raised, doesn't that mean there will be fewer jobs to go around, and less of them will get money? Still, there are major abuses:
...many lower-level officials participate in exploiting the workers. State-financed construction projects often fail to pay the workers they hire. The reason, it is assumed, is that bureaucrats and favored businessmen pocket the money. Many coal mines do not install safety equipment, and the death toll in accidents has been well in excess of 5,000 annually. (China in 2003 produced about 40 percent more coal than the United States but had at least 130 times more mining fatalities.)

The foreign-financed export sector is less dangerous. But the factories that produce the world's goods operate on marathon 12-hour shifts, rarely pausing on Sundays. Workers live in crowded dormitories with communal bathrooms that lack hot water in winter or fans in summer.

Guangdong legally requires a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, before overtime, of about $72 a month, as well as medical insurance and pension plans. But factory managers said in interviews over the past year that the only people who care about these standards are managers for foreign companies. And these people, factory bosses say, are easily deceived.
(Emphasis mine again.) Anti-globalists, take note: it's the foreign companies that are concerned about upholding basic standards.
EU May Lift Ban on Arms Sales to China. I suppose one can blame Bush for this, and the Americans' hands aren't particularly clean with regard to selling weapons, but this still doesn't sound like a particularly bright idea. Is it really in Europe's interest to see a better armed China?


Paris is celebrating France's ties to China because
Hu Jintao's first state visit to France, which begins Monday, coincides with the 40th anniversary of the two countries' diplomatic relations.

As part of the country's "Year of China" promotion, officials closed Paris' grand avenue, the Champs-Élysées, on Saturday afternoon for a huge parade dominated by a dancing dragon — the first time the avenue has been taken over by an intrinsically non-French event since German troops marched down it during World War II.

The parade, sponsored in part by China, included hundreds of Chinese citizens and thousands of Chinese émigrés living in and around Paris. The only things missing, though, were firecrackers, banned for security reasons, and adherents of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement that the Chinese government has banned. The group's request to join the festivities was denied.

Chalk the Gallic eagerness up to China's market potential and its emerging role as a strategic node in the multipolar world that both France and China hope will eventually supplant the world's sole-superpower status quo...

There are other sour notes. France's Nobel Prize-winning author, Gao Xingjian, whose works have been banned in China, was not invited to the Paris Book Salon, which is featuring a special section on Chinese writers as part of the "Year of China" campaign.
So it's not about loving the Chinese as much as disliking the Americans.
Writing on Starbucks in Paris, Emilie Boyer King quotes the boss of a neighboring café, who says philosophically.
I say, the sun rises, and there's a ray of sun for everyone.
It sounds like a proverb, and I found this from the French writer Jules Renard, (1864-1910):
Il y a de la place au soleil pour tout le monde, surtout quand tout le monde veut rester à l'ombre.
"There's room in the sun for everyone, especially when everyone wants to stay in the shade." There's a kind of sweetness to see the cynic's message being turned upside down into something more optimistic.

That said, on the few times I've had Starbucks coffee it was a real disappointment.
Mmmm...fried cow brain sandwiches.

Saturday, January 24

STEVEN KURUTZ sneers at the kind of person who,
as a consequence of thrift, sentimentality or perhaps plain old inertia, is wedded to the same aging vehicle for a very long time.
He suggests that it's a false economy. Maybe in some cases. But our 1985 Mazda GLC (with only 90,000 miles on it) still hasn't had any major problems. My impression is that Americans buy new cars sooner than they need to, if thrift is the primary consideration.
Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) was watchable, although I was a little annoyed by the implication that the powers-that-be would happily paint the idea of a millionaire giving away his fortune as insanity. (The writers seemed to believe that such a give-away was a threat to the economic status quo; was the assumption that the political and business elite during the Depression was dependent on mass unemployment?) The young Gary Cooper is a contrast with the moral certainty of High Noon, the way I always think of him.

Dad (1989) was also better than the reviews led me to believe, although it had a couple of ridiculous scenes. I probably liked it because of seeing a whole new side to Jack Lemmon, whom I've always found a little annoying.
What is Tax Fairness?

I caught the last part of John Stossel's Popularly Reported Misconceptions last night. I missed the The Rich Don't Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes segment, but Stossel says here:
the richest 1 percent of taxpayers already pay 34 percent of all income taxes.
the top 1 percent of Americans — those who earn more than about $300,000 a year — pay 34 percent, more than a third of all income taxes, and the top 5 percent, those making over $125,000, pay more than half.
No references. Anger Management says,
the richest one percent pay about 37% of all taxes while earning only 21% of all income covered under the income tax
citing Rush Limbaugh, among others. Limbaugh says:
There is new data for 2001. The share of total income taxes paid by the top 1% fell to 33.89% from 37.42% in 2000. This is mainly because their income share (not just wages) fell from 20.81% to 17.53%. However, their average tax rate actually rose slightly from 27.45% to 27.50%.
That backs up Stossel. Limbaugh goes on:
Top 5% pay 53.25% of all income taxes (Down from 2000 figure: 56.47%). The top 10% pay 64.89% (Down from 2000 figure: 67.33%). The top 25% pay 82.9% (Down from 2000 figure: 84.01%). The top 50% pay 96.03% (Down from 2000 figure: 96.09%). The bottom 50%? They pay a paltry 3.97% of all income taxes. The top 1% is paying more than ten times the federal income taxes than the bottom 50%!
(His italics.) He links to the IRS data (for those of us who don't have Excel), and provides an html version, which backs up the assertion that the top 1% pay 37%, and the top 5% pay 56%.

Meanwhile, Donald Luskin pointed out in September that in tax-year 2001
the aggregate income of the top 1% of taxpayers fell by $243 billion, reducing their share of total income from 20.8% to 17.5%. In other words, the rich got poorer.

And since the rich pay most of the taxes around here, overall tax receipts fell dramatically in 2001 -- and are estimated in the federal budgeting process to keep on falling in 2002 and 2003 -- hence the forecasted deficits.
(Not to mention increased gov't spending.) He cites Bruce Bartlett; apparently their fall income was due to the stock market collapse and the recession.

Luskin's link to Bartlett is dead; he's apparently with the National Center for Policy Analysis, which is a disappointing site with lots of dead links.

Wednesday, January 21

Juan Non-Volokh links to a study by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, which claims that EVERY Democrat Presidential Candidate's Platform Would Raise, Not Lower, Federal Budget Deficits
Labor Among Iowa's Big Losers
Gephardt (D-Mo.) was not the only loser in the Iowa caucuses. Organized labor, especially the nation's manufacturing and industrial unions, which poured huge resources into Iowa to support their longtime ally, suffered an equally embarrassing defeat.
So is free trade a winner? Or is this just a decline of industrial unions?
Gas Leak Resented by Chinese Villagers By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN:
Investigators blamed the disaster on a gas buildup caused by a negligent technician who failed to operate drilling tools properly.

A pressure regulator would have caught the problem, but it had been removed. Still, the gas could have been ignited and burned off before reaching homes, but no one did so.

"No one knew who was authorized to do it," the well engineer said. It was finally set afire 18 hours later, sending huge flames shooting into the sky.

Six members of the drilling crew have been arrested and charged with criminal negligence.

Workers hesitated in reporting the accident, and a lack of breathing equipment kept rescuers away. The landscape abetted the killing, trapping gas in deep valleys and channeling it through stream beds to homes.
243 died and more than 9,000 injured. It sounds like a systemic managment problem to me, or maybe I should say a systemic problem.
Shanghai Students Sue Over Kissing Video
Students in China's cities increasingly share the liberal social mores of their Western peers and have chafed in recent years at routine intrusions into personal lives by conservative authorities.
"Liberal" isn't necessarily left, nor is "conservative" always right-wing.
After talking to someone about the "Hello Kitty" phenomenon, I ran across this article and this one (looks like an interesting mag), and this book and this article and this one. Things get increasingly creepy until I found this. Oh, and this.
An AFP report about the revival of traditional beliefs in China:
Despite decades of atheist communist education, Chinese people are reverting to superstition and traditional practices like never before.
These include paying to rub a stone monkey in a temple to bring good luck for the Year of the Monkey, buying Chinese horoscopes and fortunes for as much as 100 yuan (12 US dollars), buying anything red--red belts, strings of plastic red peppers, and even underwear to ward off evil. There are taboos against cutting one's hair, sweeping the floor or talking about death in the New Year period. On the other hand, people are preparing to illegally set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits.
Even the image of the late Chairman Mao Zedong, who tried to wipe out superstitious practices during his decades-long reign, is being sold on decorative chains alongside statues of Buddha and the Fortune God.

What's interesting is I found this via a report in Chinese on the VOA. I might have expected the secular French to sneer at superstition, but one man's superstition is another's religion. Isn't the US position that religion is a Good Thing?

Speaking of superstition, I mean traditional belief, I don't think I heard about paying 2.33m yuan ($280,000) for the telephone number 8888 8888. Silly, but the auction was a good idea.

Monday, January 19

I often wonder what people mean by "fair taxes". Maya MacGuineas writes that a "fair tax" burden is "commensurate with one's ability to meet it", and then goes on to write of the declining "progressivity of certain taxes" coupled with increasing regressivity of others. (So the deck is stacked, unless you define progress as taxing people at different rates. After all, one could argue that taxing everyone at the same "rate", i.e. percentage, is fair. 10% of a million is a lot more than 10% of 20,000. And then there are "degressive" taxes.)

Then she writes,
The fundamental requirement of any tax system is that it raise enough revenue to pay for government expenditures.
Yeah, but, what if the government keeps spending money foolishly?

She goes on to argue
The purpose of the tax code should not be to punish rising incomes or wealth creation; besides, there are limits to how much we can tax income and capital gains without undermining our competitive position in the world.
Instead, she says,
we should reduce taxes on wages by eliminating the regressive payroll tax that currently funds Social Security and Medicare. A payroll tax might make sense as a way to fund individual medical-savings or Social Security accounts—that is, an individual's payroll deductions would go directly into that same individual's retirement account. But as a means of financing a redistributive universal social program, the payroll tax too often ends up funneling the wages of middle- and working-class Americans to affluent retirees.
To encourage saving,
There are two approaches that might be effective in encouraging a higher saving rate. The first is to increase incentives for saving by reducing taxes on income and capital gains, while creating targeted tax breaks for saving, such as tax-sheltered IRAs. The second is to punish consumption more heavily—especially unnecessary consumption. We have already gone about as far as we can with the first approach; further reducing taxes on income and capital gains would further compromise the fairness of the system. But we have not ventured far at all with the second approach, which would allow us to discourage consumption without impairing the economy or making the system less fair.
Finally, she explains how a consumption tax might work:
Imagine a "progressive consumption tax" levied not on individual purchases but on total spending, as measured by the difference between what you earn and what you save. It might work like this: no tax at all on the first $25,000 you spent, a 10 percent tax on spending from $25,000 to $100,000, and a 15 percent tax on all spending above $100,000. In effect, basic necessities would not be taxed, and luxuries would be taxed at higher rates. This plan would be simple to execute. Each year taxpayers would calculate their total income from wages, investment income, and other sources, just as they do now. But then they would take a second step, subtracting the value of all their savings that year—such as savings accrued in a bank account, through a 401(k) plan, or through an investment fund (all of which are easily tracked, meaning that it would be hard for cheats to escape detection)—from their total income. The resulting figure would be the base amount to which the consumption tax would apply, at progressive rates. The less you spent, the lower your tax rate would be. Low-income earners would for the most part be taxed less onerously, since they spend less; and middle- and high-income earners would have an incentive to save their money, preparing for retirement and bolstering the country's long-term economic prospects. A national progressive consumption tax would go a long way toward recouping revenues lost from the elimination of the payroll tax, and it would make the system fairer, too.
I agree with that. Good luck on getting the American people to accept it, though.


But what does she mean by "unnecessary consumption? That's a matter of opinion!
NPR had an interesting item Sunday morning about religion and politics. What jumped out at me is what John Green was quoted as saying. During the 1972 presidential campaign, George McGovern's young liberal activist supporters tended to be more secular than the average voter. Green says,
The secular activists were very adamant and zealous about their particular issues and pushed very hard for the Democratic Party to adopt liberal positions on social issues. A very similar thing happens in the Republican Party, where the zealous activists of the religious right pushed very hard for the GOP to adopt conservative positions on social issues.
Moreover, he says,
The traditionally religious tend to find morality in personal terms, a personal misbehavior or sexual conduct, the personal treatment of other people. On the other hand, less traditional religious people tend to think of morality in broader, more macro terms; a question such as the structure of society, the distribution of income, of the status of war and peace between nations. So it's not that we have a moral group opposing an immoral group, but rather we have a disagreement about how to think about morality.
However, it's probably easy to exaggerated the importance of this. For instance, I'm un- or even anti-religious, but I still think of morality in personal terms. And it certainly doesn't mean that the Democratic Party is the party of secularlists, while the Republicans are all religious. As Steven Waldman writes,
People often confuse the words "fundamentalist" and "evangelical." Fundamentalists are very conservative and almost entirely Republican because they view the deterioration of traditional morality as the primary public policy crisis. But fundamentalists are a subset of evangelicals, which is a more diverse group.
He also links to the Pew Religion Forum study, which says that fully half of of Americans say they would not vote for a well-qualified atheist.

Sunday, January 18

Bicycles have gone from carrying more than 70 percent of travelers in Shanghai as recently as 1990 to from 15 to 17 percent now, according to the Shanghai Urban Planning Bureau....

The switch from bicycles to cars is having serious health consequences. China has seven of the world's 10 most polluted cities, according to the World Health Organization, and pollution from cars has been rising quickly even as regulators have had some success in discouraging people from burning coal in their homes for heat and cooking. Mixing cars and bicycles in traffic is also deadly: bicycles account for three-quarters of all traffic accidents, Mr. Wu said.

In a country with an average income per person of $1,000, relatively few bicyclists can dream of affording a car....
Two points: The vast majority of the Chinese people don't have that much money (although actually measured in terms of purchasing power parity, it's at least twice the $1,000 figure), and more egregiously, I'm not all that pro-bike, but just because bicycles are involved in three-quarters of all traffic accidents doesn't mean they "account for" the accidents.
Shamelessly quoting Tyler Cowen's summary of Alwyn Young:
The Chinese economy has indeed done well. But once we cut through the mysteries of the numbers, we find an explicable reality. The Chinese growth experience is in reality comprised of "reasonable and comprehensible" numbers, rather than miracles. Young even wonders if the Chinese could not have done better than they did. On one hand, most economies would be delighted with a sustained 2.6 percent rate of labor productivity growth. But on the other hand, China has been moving away from a centrally planned economy. We might have expected even larger productivity boosts, given the incentive benefits of economic freedom. We also can interpret the figures as showing that China has enduring problems, and has not moved as far away from central planning as we might wish.
So it's no miracle.
A couple of items via The Longbow Papers: Is China the Next Bubble? By KEITH BRADSHER
While the wages may sound low to Westerners, even with free room and board, they are high by local standards, holding down turnover and training costs. The workers, mostly young women who stay one to three years and then return to their home provinces to start small businesses or families....

Business executives and economists often complain that factories are built with little attention to whether similar plants are being constructed elsewhere, or to how low prices will fall if all of them start churning out the same products at the same time....

"In China, overcapacity is not an issue that stops a businessman, because they always think they can do better," Mr. Jaeger said...

The problem arises when too many companies make the same calculation and invest too much.

Lists of potential causes of a Chinese economic derailment tend to start, and sometime end, with a banking crisis. By plying borrowers with ever more loans, following lending criteria that credit ratings agencies contend are laced with corruption and political influence, Chinese banks have wound up with extremely high proportions - as much as 45 percent - of nonperforming loans...

Most Chinese savers have few alternatives to the state-owned banks as places to park their cash, and the banks appear to have informal but total government guarantees of deposits. As a result, they have not experienced significant losses of depositors, although that could change as ever more businesses engage in trade deals that can be used to transfer money to safer banks overseas if hard times ever return to China. Lately, concern has gone beyond the stability of the banks themselves to the economic effects of all the extra money sloshing through the banking system.
Well, that's not really news, but let's not forget it.

More dubiously,
Hong Kong May Be Starting A Long March Toward Democracy. I hope so, but I'm afraid not.

Saturday, January 17

I'm not really a fan of Chen Shui-bian, but the fact that his referendum is to ask voters these two questions may produce a good result in my opinion:
whether Taiwan should purchase more advanced anti-missile weapons if China refuses to withdraw missiles aimed at the island; and whether Taiwan should negotiate with China to establish a "peaceful and stable framework for cross-strait interactions."
Well, a good result if the people of Taiwan vote yea for both, because the Chi-coms will be in the position of rejecting democracy on the first but accepting it on the second. On the other hand, if Taiwanese voters vote for the first and against the second, the Chi-coms will be angry and possibly over-react.

Anyway, Taiwan looks to be in a pretty tight spot. If they don't ultimately yield to the idea of re-unification and the mainland has not meanwhile adopted a more open political system, they're at risk of being attacked, and I don't believe the US, under any administration, will go very far to stand up to the Chi-coms (and given the price, I don't think we ought to). In the improbable event that Taiwan does yield and opts for re-unification, I suspect they'll face the same kind of interference as Hong Kong has. So the only solution is to cross our fingers and wait for the Chi-coms to come to their senses. Good luck on that.


Sure enough: China Sees Independence Move in Taiwan Referendum
Sydney Smith criticizes Sandy Szwarc, who's got a more nuanced take on exercise here than the one I took exception to.
Iain Murray says that in order to stop deadly heatwaves
from happening in the future, Europe would have to cut emissions so air conditioning would become more prohibitively expensive, so 20,000 people die every year until the climate gets back to "normal". Or, Europe could invest in air conditioning and put up with the rise in emissions necessary to save those lives. I wonder, which is likely to be more acceptable to the environmental alarmists?
This ignores the fact that there are people who live without aircon. But good luck on teaching people how to do it.

Iain Murray also links to an article about the impact of monetary costs on feelings about "frankenfood":
Although 35 per cent of participants refused to eat a product once they discovered it contained genetically modified ingredients, 42 per cent said they would buy it if it was cheap enough. The other 23 per cent had no qualms about eating GM products, whatever the price...

Co-author Robin said the results suggested people think differently about things when money is introduced into their decision-making.

'You give one answer when you're asked 'what you think of GM foods?' in an opinion poll, but you give a different reply when you're a consumer,' Robin said.
A lot of surveys ought to be re-jiggered. Of course, this also probably means that people wouldn't want to pay the price of shutting off their air-conditioners.

Thursday, January 15

So that's why they have to wear head scarves: women's hair emits rays that drive men insane!
NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF criticizes the way Democratic candidates are
flirting with anti-trade positions by putting the emphasis on labor, environmental and human rights standards in international agreements...

All the complaints about third world sweatshops are true and then some: factories sometimes dump effluent into rivers or otherwise ravage the environment. But they have raised the standard of living in Singapore, South Korea and southern China, and they offer a leg up for people in countries like Cambodia...

In Asia, moreover, the factories tend to hire mostly girls and young women with few other job opportunities. The result has been to begin to give girls and women some status and power, some hint of social equality, some alternative to the sex industry.

Cambodia has a fair trade system and promotes itself as an enlightened garment producer. That's great. But if the U.S. tries to ban products from countries that don't meet international standards, jobs will be shifted from the most wretched areas to better-off nations like Malaysia or Mexico. Already there are very few factories in Africa or the poor countries of Asia, and if we raise the bar higher, there will be even fewer.
But as Ramesh Ponnuru argues,
The 2004 election is likely to offer America an important choice about global trade. It is, alas, a choice between different orders of badness. On one side, we have a president who has imposed tariffs on imports of steel, lumber, and Chinese lingerie. On the other, an opposition that largely agrees with these tariffs and objects only to the president's promises to free trade in the future...

the choice for free traders in this election should be clear. Only Bush and Lieberman hold out the hope of significant new trade deals. Under a Dean or a Gephardt, there is no chance of one. It is a strong argument for Bush. Given the way his own tariffs have clouded the issue, however, it may not be one he can make.
I'd vote for Lieberman, but I'm afraid he won't make it, so I'll probably vote for Bush.

Tuesday, January 13

Arts & Letters Daily has the money quote from an article about the MLA. Scott Jaschik cites a lone professor who's uncomfortable with the atmosphere:
Just a few years ago, he noted, the Taliban was regularly attacked at MLA meetings for their treatment of women and likened to the American religious right. Now, there is only talk of how the United States has taken away the rights of the Afghan people.
He characterizes most of his students as "libertarian conservatives."
Carl Elliott (also via Arts & Letters Daily) writes on Daniel Moerman's Meaning, Medicine and the 'Placebo Effect', which shows
that people who take their placebos diligently do better than those who take them only occasionally; that placebo injections work better than placebo pills; that brand name placebos relieve pain better than generic placebos; and that blue placebos are better sedatives than red ones - except for Italian men, for whom the opposite is true...

The placebo response is highly variable across cultures. Germans with ulcers, for example, respond to placebos at a rate twice that of people in the rest of the world. In fact, the placebo healing rate for ulcers in Germany is almost three times that of the Netherlands or Denmark. Does this mean that there is something about German psychology that makes them extraordinarily responsive to placebos? Not at all, Moerman says. When you look at studies of blood-pressure drugs rather than ulcer drugs, the situation reverses itself. In blood-pressure studies, the Germans have the lowest placebo response rate in the world. Whatever the reason for the contrast, it probably has less to do with individual psychology than with the varying cultural significance of ulcers and high blood pressure...

People who do not respond to placebos at one point in time may well respond later...

The more convinced a doctor is that a drug or a placebo will work, the more likely that it really will...
He also reviews Yolande Lucire's Constructing RSI, about the epidemic of repetitive strain injury in Australia in the 1980s.
Lucire argues that RSI is a mass psychogenic illness without a physical cause. RSI, she claims, was not the result of repetitive work, static strain, ergonomics or poor posture. It was caused by the belief that these things may harm the body. One important source of this belief was the medical profession. Some of these doctors were moral entrepreneurs: public crusaders on behalf of workplace reform. But others were simply well-intentioned practitioners. 'The kindest, most sympathetic physicians,' Lucire writes, 'became vectors of a disabling illness, one caused by the ideas inherent in its name.'..

She believes that RSI is the type of condition that in earlier times might have been called hysteria or, later on, a psychosomatic disorder, but is now more often called somatisation: the experience of anxiety, depression or stress as symptoms in the body. The symptoms of somatisation are usually inconsistent with physical and laboratory tests, inexplicable by known pathophysiological mechanisms, and do not correspond to the symptoms of known medical disorders. Yet somatising patients are not fakers. They really do experience paralysis, blindness or, as Lucire argues in the case of RSI, symptoms of pain and weakness, which can also manifest themselves as redness and swelling.

Lucire does not provide a straightforward rebuttal of the various physical explanations of RSI that have been offered in the medical literature, which is a pity, but in one of the most illuminating sections of the book she does discuss case reports (20 are included in an appendix). At the request of a third party, Lucire interviewed 319 patients in litigation over arm pain. She found little evidence that their symptoms were caused by workplace injuries, but a lot of evidence that the litigants were working under extraordinary levels of personal stress. They were undergoing divorce proceedings, financial trouble, family crisis, pregnancy, miscarriage or the threat of job loss. About a third had other significant health problems. Many were responsible for children or sick relatives.
Should I call my witch doctor? A few days after visiting my senile mother and my father in denial, which was also the weekend before classes started, I got a horrendous backache, and now that classes have started, I'm OK.
IMF continues warning on US deficit By Shihoko Goto
The I.M.F. forcefully argues that the United States will need to adjust taxes and spending to bring its finances under control; the recovery alone won't do it. The fund's report warns that America's profligacy and its voracious appetite for credit will drive up interest rates around the world, threatening the global economic recovery and American productivity growth.

The U.S. budget deficit is burgeoning from rising defense and security spending, even as tax cuts are lowering government revenue, amid increasing demands on the budget from the retiring baby boom generation, the International Monetary Fund cautioned once again Wednesday....

The IMF warned that the large fiscal deficits will likely continue over the next decade as the administration keeps on cutting taxes on the one hand, while increasing defense and social spending on the other.

...the pace in which the deficit was growing as well as its sheer size [make] the current account deficit a significant liability to U.S. economic prospects.

At the same time, the IMF warned that the evaporation of fiscal surpluses accumulated over the 1990s "has left the budget less well-prepared to cope with the retirement of the baby boom generation, which will begin later this decade and place massive pressure on the social security and Medicare systems."

"Without the cushion provided by earlier surpluses, there is less time to address these programs' underlying insolvency to address these programs' underlying insolvency before government deficits and debt begin to increase unsustainably, making more urgent the need for meaningful reform," the IMF added.

As such, the international agency argued that the United States should focus its economic policy on restoring a budget balance, and quickly at that. While the IMF recognized the need for more military and security spending in light of the terrorist attacks and new global risks that need to be addressed, it nonetheless stressed the need for more disciplined spending by the government. It also called for better, and broader, ways of increasing the tax base, for example by reducing corporate and personal income tax preferences including corporate tax shelters and mortgage interest deductibility. It also reported that energy taxes "which are comparatively light in the United States", could be a good way of increasing government income.

While economists may argue on whether the IMF's assessment of the state of the U.S. economy and its suggestions for dealing with the ballooning deficits, it is unlikely that U.S. policymakers will take much, if any, of the IMF's warnings and suggestions to heart. For one, neither the Republican nor Democratic administration has had a track record of not taking much notice of what the IMF suggests about directing the U.S. economy.

...given that the IMF is prescribing such measures such as eliminating corporate tax shelters and introducing bigger energy taxes as the nation gears up for a presidential election, such unpopular policies suggested by an international organization are highly unlikely to gain much support among U.S. policymakers.
And as William H. Gross says,
We are trying to do too much, borrow too much, spend too much, and sooner or later we will have to suffer the consequences. We are a country in the beginning stages of what can best be described as hegemonic decay.
I'm pretty disgusted with Bush's spending. But the Democrats don't inspire much confidence, either.

Monday, January 12

According to Carol Giacomo,
U.S. officials said Chen may have decided to play
down, rather than highlight, the referendum now that a
public opinion poll has found 53 percent of Taiwanese
people oppose a referendum if the United States also
opposes it.
It sounds like wishful thinking to me.

Sunday, January 11

Who to believe? E-Skeptic magazine sent a version of Sandy Szwarc's article Don't Have a Cow, Man. It looks very convincing, but after the strange "Weighing Obesity" series that Michael Fumento ripped, I'm beginning to wonder if one can believe anything she says. And personal experience (I know, it's anecdotal) makes me doubt her contention that "exercise -- as necessary as it is for us -- won't make us thin".
An old article from the Economist on high-tech industry in China says
Why has China been so slow to climb the technology ladder? History is one explanation. Under communism, most technological development was state-directed and a disaster. State-owned enterprises still grapple with legacies of poor management and a lack of sophisticated systems. Most private companies are too small yet to pour much money into innovation.

...perhaps the biggest constraint, ironically, is also China's strength: its massive pool of low-cost labour. Arthur Kroeber, managing editor of China Economic Quarterly, argues that China has no real incentive to develop high-tech processes since, unlike Japan and South Korea, which were forced to grab markets from the West by sophisticated engineering and continuous process improvement, "China can compete for the next 50 years on labour costs."
Yeah, some say that the reason China didn't have an industrial revolution was that same massive pool of low-cost labor: no reason to have mechanization when it was cheaper to use human elbow grease.
Philip P. Pan on the PRC's implementation of the "one country, two systems" policy in Hong Kong:
...for the first time since more than 500,000 people participated in a huge anti-government rally in Hong Kong on July 1, China's Communist leaders stepped out of the background and made clear that they intended to control the pace of political change in Hong Kong.

By going public, China's leaders confirmed what many already suspected: Beijing is making key decisions in Hong Kong now, despite its promise of maximum autonomy for the former British colony. They have opened a new chapter in the mainland's relationship with the territory, one that makes them direct participants, and potential targets, in the decades-old fight over whether the people of Hong Kong should be able to elect their own leaders...

China's leaders have carefully avoided saying they oppose universal suffrage for Hong Kong, in part because they are worried such a statement would affect voters in Taiwan, analysts said. The island's pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian, is up for reelection in March and has argued that Hong Kong's experience under Chinese rule demonstrates the danger of unification with the mainland.

In addition, some in the Communist leadership have looked at Chen's strident, anti-China rhetoric and are worried that candidates in a democratic Hong Kong might behave similarly, according to one person who has been consulted by Beijing. Others are worried that democratic ideals might undermine the party's grip on power in the mainland, he said.
Now why was it that the CCP wanted Hong Kong back? It's becoming a growing headache. Serves 'em right. And I wonder how the many erstwhile pro-unification Hongkies feel now. Serves them right, too.
A couple of other interesting WaPo articles: Susan B. Glasser on Vladimir Arkhipov's collection illustrating life in consumer hell:
In Soviet times, the centrally planned economy begat chronic shortages and perpetual consumer angst -- a situation where a missing spare part could become a crisis for a factory and individual needs never registered in the deep recesses of the bureaucracy. With no obvious way to change the system, individual Soviets did what they could to live within it, and at-home inventors created a thousand items missing from the stores.
Theola Labbé: Iraqis of African Descent Are a Largely Overlooked Link to Slavery.
Julian Sanchez writes that politicians invoke religion to signal "I'm one of you" but the electorate also wants
political leaders to express deference to religious principles, even if we don't adhere to the same principles in our private lives.
He links to Toby Lester's article arguing that
the new century will probably see religion explode--in both intensity and variety...

The fact is that religion mutates with Darwinian restlessness. Take a long enough view, and all talk of "established" or "traditional" faith becomes oxymoronic: there's no reason to think that the religious movements of today are any less subject to change than were the religious movements of hundreds or even thousands of years ago. History bears this out. Early Christianity was deemed pathetic by the religious establishment....
He cites Rodney Stark's book Acts of Faith:
For nearly three centuries," he writes, "social scientists and assorted Western intellectuals have been promising the end of religion. Each generation has been confident that within another few decades, or possibly a bit longer, humans will 'outgrow' belief in the supernatural. This proposition soon came to be known as the secularization thesis.
And Colin Campbell:
it could be that the very processes of secularization which have been responsible for the 'cutting back' of the established form of religion have actually allowed 'hardier varieties' to flourish.
And Rodney Stark, on successful religious movements:
...success is really about relationships and not about faith. What happens is that people form relationships and only then come to embrace a religion. It doesn't happen the other way around.... You can never find that sort of thing out after the fact—because after the fact people do think it's about faith. And they're not lying, by the way. They're just projecting backwards.
Stark is also known for the rational-choice theory of religion:
People act rationally in choosing their religion. If they are believers, they make a constant cost-benefit analysis, consciously or unconsciously, about what form of religion to practice. Religious beliefs and practices make up the product that is on sale in the market, and current and potential followers are the consumers. In a free-market religious economy there is a healthy abundance of choice (religious pluralism), which leads naturally to vigorous competition and efficient supply (new and old religious movements). The more competition there is, the higher the level of consumption. This would explain the often remarked paradox that the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world but also one of the strongest enforcers of a separation between Church and State.
It looks like the Economist was reading Stark. And actually I saw it earlier, but didn't pay much attention to it.
Michael Kinsley on free trade explains comparative advantage, then goes on to say:
the most troublesome thing about free trade--apart from the difficulty of persuading people that it works--is the unequal distribution of its benefits. The whole country is better off, but there are winners and losers. Generally, the losers are lower-income workers, whose jobs are the easiest to duplicate in less-developed countries. It seems misguided to me to avoid a policy that makes the whole nation richer because it makes some individuals poorer. With more to play with, it ought to be easy to ease the burden on free trade's losers. Of course, under a Republican administration, we don't do nearly enough of that.
Fair enough. But then again, easing that burden is easier said than done. Then he goes on to explain why free trade is finding more enemies:
the losers in new-style trade are more likely to be people that U.S. senators and fancy economic consultants actually know. These are people with advanced degrees and high incomes. Their incomes will likely be above average for our economy even if they are driven down by competition from poorer economies. Under these circumstances, denying the benefits of free trade to the whole nation--and denying opportunity to the rising middle class in developing countries--in order to protect the incomes of a relative few seems harder to justify, not easier, than it was back in the days when our biggest fear was Japanese cars.
But then he says,
The reasonable free-trade position (i.e., mine) is that buying a product does implicate you to some extent in the process by which it was made. And there are working conditions so wretched and wages so low and practices, like child labor, so heartless that you do want your own government to ban imports of the product at issue, to avoid the taint of association and, with luck, to pressure the exporting nation to change.
So if we don't buy the products of child labor, their governments won't let them work?

Elsewhere, Alex Tabarrok links to Krugman on trying to get people to understand comparative advantage. One of his points that may have encouraged him in his political writing:
Adopt the stance of rebel: There is nothing that plays worse in our culture than seeming to be the stodgy defender of old ideas, no matter how true those ideas may be. Luckily, at this point the orthodoxy of the academic economists is very much a minority position among intellectuals in general; one can seem to be a courageous maverick, boldly challenging the powers that be, by reciting the contents of a standard textbook. It has worked for me!
Anyway, I wonder who Krugman will support for president. I suppose his hatred of Bush will trump his support for free trade.

Saturday, January 10

In One Nation, Under Secularism SUSAN JACOBY points out that
the framers of the Constitution deliberately omitted any mention of God in order to assign supreme governmental power to "We the People."
Hear, hear.
The NYT has an article that mentions the "online scientific salon,," which is asking, "What's your law?"
  • Clifford Pickover: "Every law ever made "has been broken or will crumble after a time."

  • Paul Steinhardt: "Good science creates two challenging puzzles for each puzzle it solves."

  • The physicist Anton Zeilinger's Fundamental Law: "There is no Fundamental Law."

  • David Gelernter's Third Law: "Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions."

  • Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns: the evolution of technology is exponentially accelerating and will take human evolution along with it.

  • John Maddox: "Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author's work are the least likely to draw attention to its achievements, but are prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos."

  • Ernst Pöppel: "We take life three seconds at a time."

  • John D. Barrow's First Law: "Any Universe simple enough to be understood," proposes this mathematical physicist, "is too simple to produce a mind able to understand it."
The BBC's Tim Luard presents China's fight against the Sars virus as
a Maoist-style "patriotic extermination campaign" against civet cats, badgers, raccoon dogs, rats and cockroaches.
Then he goes on to compare it to Mao's "four pests" campaign, in particular the anti-sparrow campaign:
Villagers were told to rush out to the fields, banging on pots and pans and screaming at the tops of their voices.

The sparrows took to the air, and as the pandemonium continued, stayed there, too terrified to land, until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

The only trouble was that sparrows are a vital link in the food chain and are particularly fond of locusts. With no sparrows left to eat them, there was a plague of locusts, the crops were ruined and millions of people died in the ensuing famine.
That's not right; other factors were also involved, like collectivization:
In October 1955, Mao ordered Chinese peasants to be organized into collectives of 100-300 families. He would later order even larger collectives to be organized. As a result, in 1956 grain yields fell by up to 40 percent. Not satisfied, Mao ordered farmers to put into practice several Lysenko-ist practices, which combined with the collectivization, decimated Chinese agriculture.
Not to defend the current sillines, but the anti-sparrow campaign was only one factor.
My father tells me not to eat beef, and so do some of our friends. But as Alison Young notes, the problem is not mad cows:
In the week since mad cow disease was discovered in the United States, more than a million Americans were sickened by food they ate.

About 6,000 became so ill they were hospitalized and nearly 100 died, according to federal health estimates. But mad cow disease wasn't the culprit. Indeed, not a single American is known to have contracted the human form of the disease from eating food in this country.
N.M. Papers to Substitute 'B.C.' Strip
LOS ANGELES - Two New Mexico newspapers won't be running an upcoming installment of the caveman comic strip "B.C." because it makes a potentially insensitive pun on a Chinese name, the newspapers' publisher said.

The Jan. 19 strip - by artist Johnny Hart - depicts two cavemen discussing unseen Asian brothers who fail in their attempt to build a working airplane. The punchline: "Two Wongs don't make a Wright."
Idiotic hypersensitivity. Ultimately everything is "potentially insensitive."

Friday, January 9

Mao the mass murderer by Jonathan Mirsky
It is impossible to imagine official homage in Germany for Hitler or in Russia for Stalin. And yet Mao was a destroyer of the same class as Hitler and Stalin. He exhibited his taste for killing from the early 1930's, when, historians now estimate, he had thousands of his political adversaries slaughtered. Ten years later, still before the Communist victory, more were executed at his guerrilla headquarters at Yan'an.

Hundreds of thousands of landlords were exterminated in the early 1950's. From 1959 to 1961 probably 30 million people died of hunger - the party admits 16 million - when Mao's economic fantasies were causing peasants to starve and he purged those who warned him of the scale of the disaster.

Many more perished during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao established a special unit, supervised by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, to report to him in detail the sufferings of hundreds of imprisoned leaders who had incurred the chairman's displeasure.

One of the chairman's secretaries, Li Rui, wrote recently, "Mao was a person who did not fear death, and he did not care how many were killed." The writers of the Kaifang article tell us what this meant for China: "Mao instilled in people's minds a philosophy of cruel struggle and revolutionary superstition. Hatred took the place of love and tolerance; the barbarism of 'It is right to rebel!' became the substitute for rationality and love of peace. It elevated and sanctified the view that relations between human beings are best characterized as those between wolves."
A study claims that
Farm-raised salmon, a growing staple of American diets, contains significantly higher concentrations of PCBs, dioxin and other cancer-causing contaminants than salmon caught in the wild, and should be eaten infrequently
Not surprisingly, fishing industry officials immediately took issue with the findings, but then so did the Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, the study was funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, which is enamored of such causes. Moreover, the researcher David O. Carpenter has convinced himself that PCBs are evil:
A lot of my work focuses on some of the detrimental effects PCBs have on IQ. PCBs cause many of the same kinds of problems that exposure to lead does. We see children with ADHD, shorter attention spans and more disruptive school behavior. PCBs are carcinogenic, and the resulting cancers are seen primarily in adults.
Asked if there a "toxic" level of exposure to PCBs, or a threshold amount at which health is affected, he says,
I interpret the evidence to suggest that there is not a threshold effect. If it's not normally present in the body, it's not doing anything that's good for you.
What happened to "the dose makes the poison?" As I understand it, PCBs aren't proven human carcinogens:
Several regulatory and advisory agencies have categorized PCBs as animal carcinogens; however, studies of workers exposed to high doses of PCBs over long periods of time have not demonstrated an increased cancer risk. In fact, the only health effects that could be attributed to PCBs were skin and eye irritation.
Of course, that's from the American Council on Science and Health, whose opponents will claim you can't believe because it's industry funded.

Wednesday, January 7

The Simpsons Archive via David Bernstein.
I've just discovered The Daily Ablution (via Eugene Volokh), which tells us plutonium is not that poisonous, and debunks the supposedly horrific effects of depleted uranium.
What else did we see recently? The highly over-rated Mystic River, which tried to cover too much and seemed to think it was very deep. I was particularly annoyed by the non-talking wife, together with the mute brother, and the suspect who wouldn't make it clear he was innocent. Then there was the notion that the long-ago crime inevitably led to the modern tragedy--except it didn't have too. It was just a misunderstanding. Anyway, I found it was just too long and ponderous.

Chinese movies: Hero: I liked the comic-book, Matrix-like flavor of some of the scenes, but the praise of Qin Shihuang was really a little disgusting; Blind Shaft was pretty good for an art movie; Together, about the kid with the violin wasn't bad, either.
Writing about Gibraltar, Thomas D. Grant says,
The People’s Republic of China (prc) demands control over Taiwan. In this seemingly nonnegotiable position, the prc draws from the same legal well as Spain in demanding Gibraltar. Both argue that the doctrine of territorial integrity trumps the right of self-determination, so Taiwanese and Gibraltarians alike can have no say in what happens to the lands they call home. The final disposition of the two territories, in the Chinese and Spanish views, is automatic, not democratic. And the automatic result that their reading of the law and history dictates is reversion.

Territory in an international context, however, is no longer a thing to be traded freely without reference to the rights of incumbents well-installed there or disposed of according to ancient parchments. Rights to territory with no existence outside the abstraction of treaties or historical arguments do not translate into a case for contemporary control. In the modern understanding, where an old claim has had no practical reality on the ground for a very long time — admittedly, international law leaves uncertain exactly how long — it seldom, if ever, can spring up to claim some afterlife. The Beijing and Madrid views are archaic and run against modern international law.

They also, intertwining, reinforce one another. Giving in to Spain’s claim to Gibraltar bolsters Beijing’s most intransigent demands over Taiwan, even possibly provoking an aggressive lurch where America wisely has long urged care and tact. Anybody doubting whether China would notice the fate of the rock should recall that Beijing’s lawyers and strategists watched carefully to see what happened to Argentina’s similar territorial integrity arguments 20 years ago in the Falklands. Argentina claimed that its ancient rights to title to territory, notwithstanding generations of dormancy, nullified any present-day rights of Falkland Islanders to determine their own fate. When Argentina attempted to convert this theory into practice, it met fierce resistance from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The overwhelming majority of bystanders either accepted the uk position tacitly or applauded it. China’s grand strategists had to go back to the drawing board, the legitimacy of a wanton strike across the Taiwan Straits having been cast into serious doubt.

The United States has consistently maintained that the prc must not resort to military means to bring about a settlement of its differences with Taiwan — and has not ruled out use of force in response to an assault on the island democracy. The United States, moreover, has expressed the view that preservation and promotion of the democratic nature of Taiwan constitutes a priority of American policy in the East Asia region. The Bush administration in particular has reiterated and reemphasized the American position that Taiwan-China relations must take place in a peaceful framework and with respect for the democratic and self-governing nature of Taiwan.
(Emphasis mine; link via Tyler Cowen.)

Saturday, January 3

My parents

(I wrote this January 03, 2004 to my sister but didn't post it here until 6 months later)

It's pretty messy here, even if it looked as if Daddy had tried to clean things up a little. It's not just the unswept floors and the smell of urine fermenting in kotices (plural of kotex), not to mention the clothing that they rarely change. We've through the usual drill of cleaning up the Aegean stables (I get that Herculean strength from lifting weights, he says modestly).

Mommy's increasingly out of it. One day, as she left us in the kitchen to take one of her several daily naps, and said, "If you need anything, just ask your Aunt Margie." So I asked her if she knew who my mother was, and she was a little unsure. I asked if Daddy was my father, and she said, no, he's your grandfather. I didn't get around to asking who my father was. (Much less who I am.) Or one day she poured herself a slug of Armagnac, thinking it was wine, and the next ate one of the dried hot peppers Daddy insists on keeping on the table.

One time when we're all in the kitchen, either Mommy or Daddy brings up Mommy's memory problem, which Daddy insists are panic attacks. The important thing was to focus on the positive, as if rebuking me for even bringing that earlier lapse to his notice. Not that I disagree about being positive, and I truly admire him for his patience, but I've heard them going through his memory exercises, and they're pretty painful. She really doesn't remember much at all.

A couple of days later "someone" left a 2" turd on the WC floor, which I duly cleaned up. I figured I'd let it go this time (well, I did clean it up). A couple of days after that, there's _another_ turd on the WC floor, and shortly thereafter, I noticed a brown smear on the bathroom basin. Then when I was with both of them in the kitchen it smelled pretty unpleasant, and it seemed worse than their usual dirty clothes smell. Daddy sniffed at Mommy until he found the shit on the sleeve of that b & w checked jacket she wears all the time now, and he said that could happen to anyone. I pointed out that she'd shit on the WC floor twice in the past few days, and he said in a panicky way, "Well, what do you expect me to do--send her to the insane asylum?" I was pretty surprised, because you know how he likes to keep cool. "No, but you could change your clothes more often." "Oh, yes." (I think he's gotten so used to fooling me that when I questioned him, he wasn't prepared. Anyway, apparently for Daddy, it's either look after Mommy himself or send her to a horrible place he'll never visit.)

Victory? Of a sort. A few days later, Mommy was wearing the b & w checked jacket, which hadn't been washed. So gritting my teeth, I called their attention to the shitty sleeve, and Daddy said that he thought he'd told Mommy to wash it.

And don't think she's not confused. They'll come back from the Galway and she'll ask if they're going out, or I'll hear her say weird stuff while they're in bed--like she'd "like to go home". She sometimes gets up in the middle of the night to go out. Daddy told me that "she hasn't done it recently", and that he's replaced the magnets on the chain with a little padlock (he gave me a key, but we'll probably all get burned up some night). During a very windy night that rattled the windows for several hours, I heard her say to Daddy she didn't "feel at ease here". And then she said, "You're an OK guy, but a little odd--but so am I." (I'm pretty sure she didn't know who he was.) So he says, "No, you're not." (My theory is that he's afraid if she feels she's odd, she will be.) Anyway, he cajoles her into staying for the night, and she wants to sleep in the living room, but he convinces her to sleep in their bedroom, although she says, "I don't want to be attacked."

The next day she actually remembered and was a little disturbed about it, but Daddy insisted that it was a panic attack.

I dunno. Maybe it's partly because she sleeps almost all day. Now she's all achey, and I wonder if that isn't also from lying in bed all day. But what's that alternative? For her to exercise, she'd need minute by minute supervision, and he already does plenty of that. In some ways, she'd be better off with someone supervising her 24/24, but she'd be miserable if Daddy weren't there, too, so I guess this is the best of all possible worlds. Yippee!
I share David Stanway's disappointment in the growing Chinese fondness for Christianity, but many might have predicted, 40 years of aggressive, official atheism enshrined in the national constitution was wholly counter-productive. Christianity somehow became the movement of choice for a nation's young rebels. It serves to prove that repression is not only wrong in itself, but also gets you nowhere.
He also refers to Lightning from the East, a sect profiled in Time here:
Its followers, who say they number 300,000 but whom observers measure in the tens of thousands, believe that Jesus has returned as a plain-looking, 30-year-old Chinese woman who lives in hiding and has never been photographed. They credit her with composing a third testament to the Bible, writing enough hymns to fill 10 CDs and teaching that Christians who join her will ascend to heaven in the coming apocalypse. They see signs of doom everywhere.... targeting Christian believers it is flourishing--even though its belief that the female Jesus has updated the Bible for China violates core Christian tenets. The appeal seems to be the group's claim to have improved the Christian faith by putting the end of the world into a Chinese context and offering believers a path to immediate salvation. Official Christian churches, by contrast, downplay the Final Judgment, emphasizing instead codes of behavior. That, plus the sect's insistence that China is "disintegrating from within," appeals to peasants, many of whom are poorly grounded in Christian principles and are angry at a government that has failed to raise their incomes or curb corruption...

The unavailability of rural health-care means that "seven out of 10 converts come to faith through illness" after people pray for their recovery, estimates Faye Pearson, a teacher at China's biggest seminary, in Nanjing. Many of these converts have scarcely read the Bible. Without strong doctrinal leadership, it's a prescription for heterodoxy.
I'll say. And I don't much like the orthodox Christians.

OMF, some kind of Christian evangelical site, has more.


The sect is known as dongfang shanguang 东方闪电 in Chinese; I'm not sure it's still going strong; on the internet its opponents have a bigger presence than it does.

Friday, January 2

Eugene Volokh writes of Abigail Thernstrom's & Stephan Thernstrom's "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning":
black and Hispanic high school graduates tend to have test scores similar to those of Asian and white 8th-graders, a result that shows what an awful racial gap there really is.
He goes on to cite Clarence Page, whose column I'll cite directly. After talking about the racial academic achievement gap, he concedes
whites are not the top performing group. As the Thernstroms point out, the gap between white and Asian-American student performance is actually wider than the gap between blacks and whites, with Hispanics performing about as poorly as blacks.

Among the most intriguing possible reasons for this disparity is an intriguing group difference in the way students measure their family's "trouble threshold," according to one study that the Thernstroms cite. The "trouble threshold" is the lowest grade that students think they can receive before their parents go volcanic with anger and start clamping down on TV time, etc. In the survey by Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University social scientist, published in his 1996 book, "Beyond the Classroom," most of the black and Hispanic students surveyed said they could avoid trouble at home as long as their grades stayed above C-minus.

Most of the whites, by contrast, said their parents would give them a hard time if their children came home with anything less than a B-minus.

By contrast, most of the Asian students, whether immigrant or native-born, said that their parents would be upset if they brought home anything less than an A-minus.

Unlike most non-Asian parents, who tended to think of academic success in terms of innate ability, good fortune, teacher bias or other matters "outside their personal control," Steinberg found that Asian parents tended to believe that academic performance depended entirely on how hard they worked.
Absolutely. While there are no doubt incompetent teachers, there are also many students who simply don't work very hard.
Peter S. Goodman returns from vacation with Financial Enterprise In China at Odds With Party Politics, another summary of the Sun Dawu case and its implications.

Oops. I meant to point out,
the relative lenience of Sun's sentence has been construed as a signal that creative finance will be tolerated as the only way to relieve the credit crunch vexing private companies -- now the source of two-thirds of Chinese jobs.
New National Identity Emerges in Taiwan. OK, it's not entirely Chen Shuibian, but
Zhang Dachun, a popular novelist in Taiwan who describes himself as Chinese, said Chen risks a backlash if he pushes too far. According to Zhang, many voters believe the president is fanning Taiwanese nationalism to distract voters from his poor performance in office. In some ways, Zhang said, Chen is no better than the Communists in Beijing who bluster about Taiwan because they rely on nationalism to stay in power.
That's it in a nutshell.

Thursday, January 1

Michael Kelly's gots some new posts up (well, new to me, anyway), but Around the Galleries really cracked me up.
Christopher Lockwood reviews Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost by Jonathan Fenby (via Arts & Letters Daily):
As one contemplates China at the opening of the 21st century, it is Chiang's vision, not Mao's, that has triumphed. There is nothing recognisably communist about China any more: few countries in the world, and certainly no developing country, are so nakedly capitalistic. Inequalities are deepening unchecked. The economy is growing at 8 per cent or more a year, the consequence of rapid integration with the outside world of which Mao was so suspicious.

...the decade of the "Nanking Republic", Fenby finds, was the nearest thing to good government China saw in the 20th century. It is possible to believe that had world events not interfered so calamitously, much progress might have been made.
Michael Scott Doran on Saudi Arabian politics (via Arts & Letters Daily):
It is often claimed that the recent growth of anti-Americanism in the Middle East has been due to U.S. policies themselves. The fact that the suicide bombing of an American compound in Riyadh turned into a crackdown on Saudi reformers and that the bombings continued even after the announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal, however, should give us pause. These events strongly suggest that the jihad against the United States is actually a continuation of domestic politics by other means. The Saudi religious classes and al-Qaeda use it to discredit their indigenous enemies, who, given half a chance, would topple the clerics from power.


Al Qaeda's nightmare scenario is that the Americans and the Iraqi Shi`ites will force Riyadh to enact broad reforms and bring the Saudi Shi`ites into the political community. There is no question that many hard-line Saudi clerics share precisely the same fears. Even before the United States attacked Afghanistan, Saudi clerics preached the doctrine of a Jewish-American conspiracy to destroy Islam. Now that American forces have unshackled the Iraqi Shi`ites, it would be naive to expect those clerics to take a more benign view of U.S. intentions.


The United States has no choice but to press hard for democratic reforms. But the very attempt to create a more liberal political order will set off new disputes, which will inevitably generate anti-American feelings. Saudi Arabia is in turmoil, and -- like it or not -- the United States is deeply involved. As Washington struggles to rebuild Iraq it will thus find, once again, that its closest Arab ally is also one of its most bitter enemies.
Indian Soybean Farmers Join the Global Village By AMY WALDMAN:
More than two-thirds of India's people still depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. With little chance of the huge manufacturing boom that has employed many rural poor in China, the challenge is to increase farmers' productivity.
Huh? Why not? At least two-thirds of China's people are farmers.
Kevin Sullivan: Teachers Bring School to Mexico's Streets; Program Targets Working Children
Ana Maria Anguiano, a professor at the University of Guadalajara, which offers a degree in street education, said there are about 1,500 street teachers now working in Mexico, and many more in such countries as Brazil and Peru. She said they are funded by private groups and governments that increasingly see the approach as a practical and innovative way to deal with Latin America's chronic problems of poverty and street children.
One mother says of her son,
"I want him to know more than the street, but it's so expensive," she said, referring to the costs that parents must pay for uniforms, books and other school supplies.
Not to get all wild with government money, but there are some things the government can help with.