Friday, June 30

Self-control is more important than brains

Psychologists Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman wanted to know what was the most important factor in school grades
The psychologists discovered it was self-control, by a long shot. A child's capacity for self-discipline was about twice as important as his or her IQ when it came to predicting academic success....

Some people are simply more susceptible to temptations and distractions, and we all sometimes reach the limits of our willpower sooner than we would like. "Programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement," psychologists Duckworth and Seligman conclude from their findings.

So what can we do to strengthen self-discipline, to transform ourselves from impulsive dollar-snatchers to lofty long-term investors in future success?

Help lies in seeing willpower as a muscle, recent research suggests. The "moral muscle", as it has been called, powers all of the difficult and taxing mental tasks that you set yourself.

[However,] studies show, if you draw on your reserves to achieve one unappealing goal - going for a jog, say - your moral muscle will be ineffective when you then call on it to help you switch off the television and start essay-writing.

What, then, can we do about this unfortunate tendency of the moral muscle to become fatigued with use? One option is to build it up and make it strong. Evidence is starting to accumulate that the moral muscle, like its physical counterpart, can become taut and bulging from regular exercise....

By regularly exercising self-restraint and virtue in all areas of life (moral muscle cross-training, we may call it), we will come to resist temptations with the same casual ease with which a world-class athlete sprints to catch a train.
Via Greg Mankiw


Hillary vs Bastiat

Via Greg Mankiw. I'm not a Hillary hater; in fact I thought Bill Clinton did pretty well. But
Last month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and nine colleagues (ranging from Barbara Boxer to Tom Coburn) endorsed a petition from...the domestic candlemaking industry asking the secretary of commerce to impose a 108.3 percent tariff on Chinese candle producers.

After the Commerce Department approved the candlemakers’ petition, Clinton said in a statement:
This is a real victory for the Syracuse candle-making industry. Our manufacturers deserve a level playing field and we owe it to them to make sure that others do not unfairly circumvent our fair trade practices. Syracuse has a proud history of candle production but attempts by importers to undercut our producers have put that tradition at risk. I am pleased that the Department of Commerce heeded our call to take action against these unfair practices and recognized the importance of this decision to local producers, especially here in Syracuse. We will continue to make the case on behalf of Syracuse candle-makers as the Commerce Department considers its final determination.
Shades of Barbara Ehrenreich.

dave meleney is right

Posting in response to the debate between Jason Furman and Barbara Ehrenreich on the impact of Wal-Mart, one dave meleney said
Barbara Ehrenreich, claims that she is unfairly pitted against a professional economist in her polite disagreement with Jason Furman about the "social benefits" of WalMart, but that doesn't stop her from claiming that: "The problem isn't Wal-Mart, we critics like to say, it's the Wal-Martization of the entire economy, which involves not only low wages at Wal-Mart itself but depressed wages throughout the company's whole supply chain as well as at competing companies (e.g., supermarkets)."

If you have traveled in China and seen how the suppliers to WalMart and the other big box retailers have been such a key force in the quadrupling of incomes in so many simply takes your breath away that such a smart and good hearted writer could speak as if these Chinese workers don't even exist. Isn't it ironic that those on the left who seem to care so passionately about the poor....don't even see the poorest among us?

How could she envision that "the company's whole supply chain" doesn't include the workers who actually make the affordable air conditioners, auto parts, and clothes that make life so much better for those of us who depend on WalMart every month.

Thursday, June 29

Some like to save, others don't

Stephen F. Venti of Dartmouth and David A. Wise of Harvard concluded that the primary reason for differences in retirement assets was differences in propensities to save. It is not unusual to see low-income households with high savings rates holding more financial assets at retirement than high-income households who saved a smaller fraction of their income.

[One] suggestion is to provide matching grants to low-income individuals.
In Saving Incentives for Low- and Middle-Income Families: Evidence From a Field Experiment With H&R Block,
about 14,000 low- and middle-income families in the St. Louis area were offered a 20 percent match on their contributions to an I.R.A., a 50 percent match or no match at all. Individuals could make a direct contribution or allocate part of their tax refund to an Express I.R.A. account offered by H&R Block.

Only 3 percent of the individuals who had no match — the control group — contributed to an I.R.A. But 8 percent of those with a 20 percent match rate contributed, and 14 percent of those with a 50 percent match contributed. The amount contributed was four times as much as the control group for the 20 percent match rate and seven times as much for the 50 percent match rate.
So what? even with 50% matching grants, three quarters still didn't contribute. And then, "four months after the initial contribution, over 90 percent of the individuals still kept the money in their I.R.A.'s." So less than a year later, nearly 10% withdrew the money?

They didn't mention Save More Tomorrow.

Goodbye, Kitty

The Chinese may not dine on cats or dogs in Europe or North America, but they do in China. Cat Meat Restaurant Closed
Banner-wielding animal rights protesters swarmed into a restaurant on Lianhua Road in Buji Subdistrict serving cat meat and forced it to shut down, Xinhua reported yesterday.

The 100 or so demonstrators, including women and children, held up banners reading "cats and dogs are friends of human beings" as they entered the Fangji Cat Meatball 方记猫肉丸店 restaurant and demanded the owner free any live cats on the premises, Xinhua said.

...In many parts of China, especially the southern regions, people have the tradition of eating cat meat. Previous reports said that in Guangzhou alone the residents eat 10,000 cats every day during the winter.
Still, articles in Chinese take a negative tone.

I was led to this by Mad Minerva, who also mentions Hello Kitty sushi. I was disappointed the kind she links to didn't use the variety of kamaboko pictured below, which I once saw used on sushi in Taiwan:

Trust Cues

I'm not sure I believe in Arnold Kling's entire argument on trust cues
When people in business meet for the first time to discuss a transaction, they often exchange what I call "trust cues" in order to reduce mutual suspicion. For example, they may recite empty phrases from popular business books, such as "win-win," "synergy," "principles," "customer-driven," or "raising the bar."

Nicholas Wade provides a readable, wide-ranging survey of the impact of recent advances in genetics on anthropology. In one chapter, he argues that the origins of what I observe in business behavior can be found in early religious rituals. Religions produce trust cues. Trust cues are necessary for large societies and trade among strangers to emerge. They serve to protect people from cheaters and liars.

What I am going to suggest in this essay is that political beliefs can serve the function of trust cues. Political beliefs may have at best a tenuous empirical basis, but they function to demonstrate one's membership in a trusted group.

Wade says that the evolutionary value of trust cues is that they facilitate peaceful interactions among strangers. When I offer a trust cue, I am saying that even though we do not know one another, I am a member of a trustworthy group. I value my membership in that group, and I know that lying to or cheating another member of that group could cause me to be excommunicated from the group. Since you are also a member of the group, you can trust me not to lie to you or to cheat you.
So far, so good. I'm not good at using these "trust cues", for whatever reason, or mine aren't common currency (I didn't see any of the Lord of the Rings movies or the Titanic). Most Americans like the local sports team ("How 'bout them Yankees?"), and liberal academics love to dump on Bush, Republicans, and conservatives, which I think is silly. But then he says that
The most trustworthy groups are groups where membership is valuable and excommunication is costly. They are groups that monitor the behavior of their members closely.
I'm not so sure. But there is much to agree with here:
Although empiricism has become a standard philosophy in the West, dogma persists. I believe that the main reason that non-verifiable ideas survive is that they serve as trust cues. People still need to demonstrate their commitment to membership in groups, and recitation of dogma is a low-cost method of doing so.
The actual consequences of political policies are rarely discussed. Instead people tend to accuse their opponents of belonging to an outcast group. The reason for this is that people are not trying to persuade each other rationally. Instead, they are using trust cues to indicate that failure to agree implies excommunication from the group.

The Lord of the Rings is Boring

I read over two hundred pages of The Fellowship of the Ring, and found it dreadfully heavy going. Dry, pretentious, bloated, boring, and humorless are words that come to mind. Meanwhile I love Terry Pratchett. But others like them both.

Anything the US supports must have a secret agenda

Inspired by Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus
[John Bolton, America's ambassador to the United Nations] sat down with UN diplomats from seven other countries, including China and India but no Europeans, to rank 40 ways of tackling ten global crises. The problems addressed were climate change, communicable diseases, war, education, financial instability, governance, malnutrition, migration, clean water and trade barriers.

After hearing presentations from experts on each problem, they drew up a list of priorities. The top four were basic health care, better water and sanitation, more schools and better nutrition for children. Averting climate change came last.

The ambassadors thought it wiser to spend money on things they knew would work. Promoting breast-feeding, for example, costs very little and is proven to save lives. It also helps infants grow up stronger and more intelligent, which means they will earn more as adults. Vitamin A supplements cost as little as $1, save lives and stop people from going blind. And so on.

For climate change, the trouble is that though few dispute that it is occurring, no one knows how severe it will be or what damage it will cause. And the proposed solutions are staggeringly expensive.

...[Whether] Mr Bolton can persuade the UN of this remains to be seen. Mark Malloch Brown, the UN's deputy secretary-general, said on June 6th that: "there is currently a perception among many otherwise quite moderate countries that anything the US supports must have a secret agenda...and therefore, put crudely, should be opposed without any real discussion of whether [it makes] sense or not."

The Chinese are starting to travel abroad.

Most first-time travellers from the mainland [Is this writer from Taiwan?--ed.] are deeply frugal. Typically, a Chinese tour group will choose the cheapest hotel—even if it is 50km (30 miles) outside a city—travel by bus and eat only Chinese food.... They visit only the most famous attractions and even these often get only a cursory glance...

At a recent conference organised by the European Tour Operators' Association, hotel owners complained that the Chinese were pushing down room prices.

Chinese tourists are willing to put up with hard beds and cold noodles for a reason: they are champion shoppers who prefer to concentrate their spending on luxury branded goods, which are cheaper than back home and guaranteed not to be fakes. In 2005 they spent more on shopping, per day and per trip, than travellers from Europe, Japan or America.

The biggest winners of the Chinese tourist boom are therefore likely to be international retailers and luxury-goods manufacturers. In Germany the second most visited place by Chinese tourists after Berlin is Metzingen, a small town in the Black Forest unknown to most Germans, but home to a giant Hugo Boss discount store—since joined by another 20-odd factory outlets for designer labels. Big, diversified luxury-goods groups—including LVMH, Richemont and Swatch—which are present in duty-free outlets and big cities worldwide and have established brands in China itself, should also do well....

Those that do best, though, understand that Chinese shoppers can be tough customers, says Mr Arlt. "Compared with the Japanese
[What to the Japanese have to do with it? Don't tell me you thought all East Asians were the same!--ed.]
, Chinese mainland tourists coming to Europe for the first time are ruder, louder and more demanding," he says, citing a tendency to smoke under "no smoking" signs, haggle over prices and rip off packaging at the checkout to be sure that everything is in the box. "All that makes sense in China, but European salespeople think it is very rude," says Mr Arlt.

Monday, June 19

The trouble with central planning

Procter & Gamble...noticed an odd thing about Pampers, its well-known brand of disposable nappies: although the number of babies and the demand for nappies remained relatively stable, orders for Pampers fluctuated dramatically. This was because information about consumer demand can become increasingly distorted as it moves along the supply chain. For instance, a retailer may see a slight increase in demand for nappies, so he orders more from a wholesaler. The wholesaler then boosts his own sales forecast, causing the manufacturer to scale up production. But when the increase in demand turns out to have been only a blip, the supply chain is left with too much stock and orders are cut back.
It's even harder for Communists.

The American Dream is alive and well

[Many] worry about the health of the American Dream. Can immigrants still work their way up from the bottom? Can they become American?

Many fear that, for the latest wave of mostly-unskilled immigrants from Latin America, the answer is no. Some fret that the newcomers are too ill-educated and culturally alien to prosper or assimilate. Others are convinced that immigrant workers are horribly exploited or trapped forever in low-wage jobs. Both worries are largely unfounded.

Consider Alberto Queiroz, who crept across the border 12 years ago. After a stuffy ride in the boot of a car, he found his first job in a Chinese-owned clothes factory in Los Angeles. Workers with papers were paid the minimum wage, he recalls. Having none, he had to make do with $2.50 an hour. Though unlawfully stingy, this was much better than he could have earned back home in Mexico...

Slaughterhouses are harsh and dangerous places to work...and illegal immigrants, who form a large chunk of the workforce, find it hard to defy abusive employers.

Mr Queiroz takes a more benign view. Yes, the work is hard. The line goes fast and you have to keep cutting till your hands are exhausted. And yes, it is sometimes dangerous. He says he once saw a co-worker lose a leg when he ducked under the disassembly line instead of walking round it. But many occupations are risky. Taxi-drivers are 34 times more likely to die on the job than meatpackers.

Mr Queiroz does not think Smithfield was a bad employer. Wages of more than $10 an hour enabled him to buy a house back in Mexico. Cutting up pigs was easier than picking blueberries, he says, because he did not have to toil under the sun all day. And when he had had enough, he quit and set up a taco stand with his brother. That was five years ago. Now he owns a Mexican restaurant. America, he says, is “the land of opportunity”.

...In some areas, the newcomers strain local services. Cindy Evans, director of a county clinic for children in Raleigh, says the percentage of her patients who are Hispanic has leapt from perhaps 2% a decade and a half ago to about 65%. The clinic is full of bilingual signs. Next to one, someone has scrawled: “Speak English!”.

...Fear of immigration is akin to fear of globalisation. Unemployment may be low, but many Americans fear losing their jobs to someone cheaper in Bangalore, or someone who took the bus up from Tijuana. Meanwhile, the benefits of immigration, like those of globalisation, are often taken for granted. “Americans just assume they can have a pizza delivered for $9,” says Federico van Gelderen, a Raleigh-based executive for Univision, a Spanish-language television station.

Accurately measuring the economic consequences of immigration is hard. Looking only at North Carolina, John Kasarda and James Johnson recently found that Latinos paid $756m in taxes annually and cost the state government $817m. That works out as a net burden of $102 per head. Anti-immigrant agitators will seize on this figure, worries Mr Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School. But it is dwarfed by the positive impact of Latino spending in North Carolina, which he estimates at $9.19 billion in 2004. That translates into nearly 90,000 new jobs, he says.

The worry that America is importing a new Hispanic underclass, as some claim, is also probably unfounded. Granted, foreign-born Hispanics are less educated and earn less than the average American. But that is hardly surprising, given that so many were until recently Mexican peasants. What matters is whether they are socially mobile, and it seems that they are. Although, by some measures of income and education, the Hispanic average is not improving much, that average is dragged down by a steady influx of poor Mexicans. A better way of gauging progress is to look at inter-generational differences.

First-generation male Mexican immigrants earn only half as much as white men. But the second generation have overtaken black men and earn three-quarters as much as whites. They enjoy more benefits than the first generation, too: they are twice as likely to have employer-provided pensions and one-and-a-half times more likely to have health insurance. And the adult daughters of Mexican immigrants, having learned English, are much more likely to have jobs than their mothers were. absolute terms, Mexicans have grown much richer by coming to the United States. If they had not, they would go home. And their children are doing even better. Whereas only 40% of first-generation Mexican immigrants between the ages of 16 and 20 are in school or college, nearly two-thirds of the second generation are. Between the ages of 21 and 25 the leap is even more striking, from 7.3% to 24.4%.

Hating yourself

Marko Attila Hoare's review of Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies
As an eighteen-year old Trotskyist and 'anti-imperialist' at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, I can testify to the empowering sense of self-righteousness I felt as I demonstrated against the US and its allies, in the course of which my views became increasingly extreme: I fervently believed that the US-led intervention was by far a greater evil than Saddam's occupation of Kuwait; that it would be a blessing for humanity if the US and its allies were defeated; that such a defeat would trigger revolutionary outbreaks across the Middle East and even in the West.

...It was only when my own mother's country, Yugoslavia, was torn apart by local fascists that I gradually comprehend the political and moral bankruptcy of 'anti-imperialism'. It is very easy to be ideologically purist when it is someone else's country that is at stake; much more difficult when it is one's own, and one's own people are being slaughtered.

...Anti-imperialism is itself an expression of an imperialist mind-set. Anti-imperialists are fundamentally uninterested in the rights or wrongs of a conflict in a foreign country; their sole concern is their own geopolitical agenda. Thus, over Yugoslavia, they tended to support Milosevic's Serbia on an 'anti-imperialist' basis, sacrificing the rights of Milosevic's Croatian, Bosnian or Kosovar victims to the 'higher' anti-imperialist cause (in fact, the Western powers themselves aided and abetted Milosevic - but that's another story). Likewise, the anti-imperialists would be happy to consign Iraq to rule by Islamic fundamentalist mass-murderers - just so that the US can suffer a defeat. This is called subordinating the interests of non-Western peoples to Western political concerns, and is the direct counterpart of the readiness of Western Cold Warriors to support every brutal right-wing dictator - Somoza, Fahd, Marcos, Pinochet, Suharto - provided he was anti-Communist. For the Western imperialists of the left and of the right, non-Western countries are mere battlefields for the struggle against their own enemies - whether 'imperialist' or Communist. Anti-imperialists differ from right-wing imperialists in their choice of enemies, yet the two camps are mirror-images of each other, not opposites.

...Anti-imperialism slips effortlessly into opposition to Western values. It is perfectly possible to oppose the negative aspects of Western policy abroad - such as unfair trade rules or the bombing of civilians - while upholding the values of Western liberal democracy: parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, separation of powers, multi-party elections, equality of the sexes, gay rights, free trade unions, etc. Yet the anti-imperialists tend to see Western values themselves as a form of oppression. They prefer the regimes of China, Belarus, Zimbabwe or Cuba to those in the West, and oppose not merely the means by which the US seeks to introduce democracy in Iraq, but the goal itself. They rage against the 'colour-coded revolutions' that overthrew the neo-Communist regimes of Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan - not because they genuinely fear these countries will be 'enslaved by imperialism', but because they hate Western-style liberal democracy. The anti-imperialists object little, if at all, to genuinely imperialist crimes by non-Western states: China's colonialism in Tibet; Argentina's invasion of the Falklands; Iraq's occupation of Kuwait; Serbia's wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo; Russia's assault on Chechnya. Ultimately, anti-imperialism is not really about opposing imperialism, but about something else.

It is the last of these practical problems with anti-imperialism that indicates its ideological and psychological origins. As Buruma and Margalit show in Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (first published in 2004 by Atlantic Books as Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-westernism), anti-imperialist ideas can form part of a larger phenomenon of 'Occidentalism': the ideology of violent opposition to Western political and moral values; not just democracy and political pluralism, but also individualism, the emancipation of women and sexual freedom. The authors discuss a wide range of regional case-studies under the umbrella of Occidentalism.... All these groups arose in opposition to a perceived Western enemy; in one way or another, they all sought to understand the reasons for Western success - both technological and organisational - and apply them to resist the Westernisation of their own societies. ...

Buruma and Margalit discuss the Occidentalists' hatred of the Western city, with its relaxed social mores and sexually liberated women, which they find deeply threatening. At the psychological level, therefore, Occidentalism is related to sexual insecurity and fear of the body. Discussing the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb and the stay in the US which shaped his subsequent ideology, the authors note: 'In his letters home, Qutb was particularly distressed by the 'seductive atmosphere', the shocking sensuality of daily life, and the immodest behaviour of American women' (p. 32); 'He found the spectacle of young women dancing to a current hit, "Baby, It's Cold Outside", horrifying.' (p. 118). This psychological dislike of the Western lifestyle is linked to a political dislike, as the Western cultural system involving individual choice, personal autonomy and the acceptance of difference and a degree of selfishness makes individuals immune to the fundamentalist or totalitarian temptation: 'The Occident, as defined by its enemies, is seen as a threat not because it offers an alternative system of values, let alone a different route to Utopia. It is a threat because its promises of material comfort, individual freedom, and the dignity of unexceptional lives deflate all utopian pretences.' (p. 72) Occidentalism therefore involves some political and psychological themes that are fundamental to the human condition.

[Buruma and Margalit] point out that 'Neither capitalism nor liberal democracy ever pretended to be a heroic creed' (p. 71); they contrast the Occidentalists' thirst for heroism, self-sacrifice and martyrdom with the liberals' acceptance of the ordinariness of everyday life for the majority of people: 'Liberals, in line with a Puritan tradition, have learned to accept this. More than that, as witnessed by seventeenth-century Dutch painting and English novels, they recognise that the unexceptional, everyday life has dignity too and should be nurtured, not scorned.' (p. 71). ..
The whole thing is worth reading. In a similar self-hating vein, from John Stossel:
Science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once wrote, "In declaring his love for a beaver dam (erected by beavers for beavers' purposes) and his hatred for dams erected by men (for the purposes of men) the 'Naturist' reveals his hatred for his own race -- i.e., his own self-hatred." The "Naturist" religion, which today we call "environmentalism," elevates every other form of life above human life. The Constitution was written to protect human beings' rights to life, liberty and property, but environmentalism says those rights must be subordinated to the protection of other species. And men and women who count on their land to support them must live at the mercy of the regulators.

The Danish economy has compensated for the boycott

I've always suspected that it was wrong for journalists to pay much attention to terrorists, so I don't think much of Christopher Hitchens' martyrizing the dead guy. But this is good news he cites:
Danish exports to the United States have increased by 17 percent and...overall, the Danish economy has more than compensated for the results of the unjustified Muslim boycott.

Sunday, June 18

A Waste of Money?

Tyler Cowen on why donors do not focus on whether they actually end up improving the world:
  • Donors to charities tolerate high administrative costs, fail to monitor charities and do not insist on measurable results.
  • Donors often prefer simply feeling good about their generosity and deceive themselves into thinking that all is going well.
  • Many donors seek a sense of affiliation and wish to be a part of large and successful organizations.
And there's also this nugget: Relatively attractive women who ask for donations get more. (Attractive people get more of everything, don't they?)

I'm attempted to adopt what Daniel Akst calls the Ayn Rand approach:
which is to invest the dollar in whatever business seems most promising because capitalism produces the greatest good for the greatest number, and the marketplace rewards those things people need and want most. Thus, a successful investment by definition does the world all kinds of good—and throws off funds for doing more good still. In this day of globalization, that good is increasingly likely to be shared by workers in China and Ecuador and Bangladesh because so many products are manufactured in such places.

Wednesday, June 14

81% of Chinese satisfied with China's national conditions

Opinions about threats to global peace also reflect regional
concerns.... The Japanese are particularly concerned about North Korea
- 46% say the government there represents a great danger to world
peace. Those concerns are not shared nearly as much in China, which
borders North Korea; just 11% of Chinese feel that the current
government in Pyongyang poses a great danger to Asian stability and
world peace.

...there is no evidence of alarm over global warming in either the
United States or China - the two largest producers of greenhouse
gases. Just 19% of Americans and 20% of the Chinese who have heard of
the issue say they worry a lot about global warming - the lowest
percentages in the 15 countries surveyed. Moreover, nearly half of
Americans (47%) and somewhat fewer Chinese (37%) express little or no
concern about the problem.

The survey finds the most publics surveyed are dissatisfied with
national conditions. But China is a notable exception - 81% of Chinese
say they are satisfied with the way things are going in their country,
up from 72% in 2005.
So should Hu Jintao call for free elections?


The Consumers Foundation (中華民國消費者文教基金會) yesterday urged the government to establish an effective mechanism to forestall the chronic surges in vegetable and fruit price whenever heavy rains or typhoons hit the island.

The foundation also set up a special phone encourage consumers to report cases in which the suppliers, distributors or retailers illegally jack up prices on the market.

Foundation officials stressed that the mechanism should be able to prevent the irrational price hikes beforehand. The measures in the system should include increasing supply from the government's stores and stern crackdown down on the exploitation of middlemen to protect consumers.
Showing the Taiwanese are as dumb as Americans with our blaming Price Gouging. The phrase they should learn is 需求與供給.

The Inherent Superiority of the French

Carrefour 家樂福 in Kaohsiung 高雄 sells its own brand of dark chocolate with candied orange peel. It's labelled in the original French as "Chocolat noir aux écorces d'oranges confites" with a pasted-on label in Chinese reading 柑橘黑巧克力 (further translated into English as "Black Chocolate with Orange Candy"). It sells for NT$59, as opposed to dark chocolate with hazelnuts, which sells for NT$69 (I guess the Taiwanese think the orange is weird). Either way, that's pretty cheap. Of course they've got similar chocolate available at places like Carrefour and ED in Paris at about the same price. (Although I should add that Carrefour's are tastier than Ed's.) Anyway, no need to go to Fauchon, as Lulu did.

Anyway, the chocolate is absolutely delicious.

Tuesday, June 13

I'm not an economist, but I'll bite

Jeffrey Alan Miron suggests the following spending cuts; the numbers are the approximate annual savings in 2006 dollars:
  • Agricultural Subsidies ($20 billion)
  • Social Security for the Well-Off (Cut Social Security expenditure by introducing a modest degree of means-testing; $100 billion.)
  • Medicare for the Well-Off (Raise premiums, deductibles, and co-pays in a means-tested manner to save 20% of current expenditure; $60 billion.)
  • Higher Education for the Well-Off (Set a high tuition rate and offer discounts on a means-tested basis; $50 billion.)
  • Pork ($70 billion)
He concludes:
Democratic economists will no doubt claim these cuts are politically unlikely. That is correct. But that is precisely why Democratic economists, and all other economists, should use their blogs, and their op-eds to highlight the enormous scope for welfare-enhancing cuts in government expenditure.
It's not just the Democrats. The Republicans love pork, too, and I'm guessing farm state Republicans like the ag. subsidies, so I think this is all a pipe dream.
And by the way, higher ed. is more a state thing than a national one, although many states, including Illinois, are spending less and less on that; student tuition and charitable contributions make up the bulk of our funding. It's not that I'm opposed to means-testing, but this item really doesn't belong on this list.

Take a Deep Breath

Unless China finds a way to clean up its coal plants and the thousands of factories that burn coal, pollution will soar both at home and abroad. The increase in global-warming gases from China's coal use will probably exceed that for all industrialized countries combined over the next 25 years, surpassing by five times the reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol seeks...

To make matters worse, India is right behind China in stepping up its construction of coal-fired power plants — and has a population expected to outstrip China's by 2030...

For all the worries about pollution from China, international climate experts are loath to criticize the country without pointing out that the average American still consumes more energy and is responsible for the release of 10 times as much carbon dioxide as the average Chinese. While China now generates more electricity from coal than does the United States, America's consumption of gasoline dwarfs China's, and burning gasoline also releases carbon dioxide.

An Insatiable Demand?

The Chinese are still far from achieving what has become the basic standard in the West. Urban elites who can afford condominiums are still a tiny fraction of China's population. But these urban elites are role models with a lifestyle sought by hundreds of millions of Chinese. Plush condos on sale in Shanghai are just a step toward an Americanized lifestyle that is becoming possible in the nation's showcase city.


For millions of Chinese to live...with less damage to the environment, energy conservation is crucial. But curbing that usage would be impossible as long as China keeps energy prices low. Gasoline still costs $2 a gallon, for example, and electricity is similarly cheap for many users.

With Chinese leaders under constant pressure to create jobs for the millions of workers flooding from farms into cities each year, as well as the rapidly growing ranks of college graduates, there has been little enthusiasm for a change of strategy.

Indeed, China is using subsidies to make its energy even cheaper, a strategy that is not unfamiliar to Americans, said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China specialist at the University of Michigan. "They have done in many ways," he said, "what we have done."

Monday, June 12

A Lack of Transparency

In addition to allegations of corruption about people connected to President Chen Shui-bian, Philip Bowring notes
[The Taiwanese] legislature itself has become the playground of individuals and factions promoting themselves more than their party policies. Deals are done secretly in legislative committees so that, according to American Chamber of Commerce executive director, Richard Vuylsteke, "conflicts of interests are shielded from public scrutiny."

Indeed, in a recent report the American Chamber accused legislators of intervention in bidding processes, regulatory issues and law enforcement - charges reflected in the lack of competition, outdated rules and slow pace of the financial sector.

...unless legislators and their parties willingly submit to the kind of transparency they are demanding of Chen and the executive, Taiwan's democratic experiment will be seriously flawed, and its economy, now overly dependent on its extraordinarily dynamic electronics industry, held back.

Saturday, June 10

One Reason We Read Fiction

As it happens, there's a rich new book out on precisely that topic: Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, by Lisa Zunshine, who teaches English at the University of Kentucky. Zunshine is a Russian emigre who earned her Ph.D. at University of California at Santa Barbara, where she worked with two of the major players in evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Zunshine uses recent developments in cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" to explain why human beings are drawn to both the creation and consumption of narrative texts. "Theory of Mind," writes Zunshine toward the end of her book, "is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allows us to navigate our social world and also structures that world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focused ways, our Theory of Mind."

In a recent email exchange with me, she explains further. We have an "evolved cognitive predisposition to attribute states of mind to ourselves and others" that is also known as "mind-reading." "These cognitive mechanisms," writes Zunshine, "evolved to process information about thoughts and feelings of human beings, seem to be constantly on the alert, checking out their environment for cues that fit their input conditions. On some level, works of fiction manage to cheat these mechanisms into believing that they are in the presence of material that they were 'designed' to process, i.e., that they are in the presence of agents endowed with a potential for a rich array of intentional stances."

In a sense, then, we read novels about Meursault and Heathcliff, Montana Wildhack and Elizabeth Bennett, because they allow us to practice what we do elsewhere in our lives: Figure out the world by figuring out, or at least trying to figure out, what other people are thinking and feeling.

"Weird" Values

I don't care for baseball and football anymore than cricket and soccer, but still I'm impressed by our oddness.
Americans like to think of themselves as global trendsetters and standard-makers. But a raft of opinion polls since the Iraq war have demonstrated that America is not so much a trendsetter as an outlier—more individualistic, more religious, more nationalistic, more anti-government and more gung-ho about the use of force than other countries.

This evidence of American exceptionalism has provoked a fierce debate within the United States between "red" Americans, who are proud of their country's oddness, and "blue" Americans (mostly Democrats), who think that America should pay more attention to the rest of the world. It has also provoked an even fiercer backlash in other countries against America's "weird" values, such as its support for the death penalty and its predilection for unilateral action.

Disturbing and Annoying

According to an online study by The Washington Post,
Americans are more willing to provide extended government assistance to white victims of Hurricane Katrina than to African Americans and other minorities -- particularly blacks with darker skin. Overall, the "penalty" for being black and a Katrina victim amounted to about $1,000....
That's the disturbing item.

The annoying one is associated with Are You a Know-It-All?, which includes a question about one's political background. But I don't know whether to classify myself as "liberal" or "conservative":

By the way, I didn't do all that well on the test. Part of the problem was ignorance about sports news and drunken models.

A Grotesque Carnival

John Derbyshire reviews Ramesh Ponnuru's Party of Death, mentioning
...the grotesque carnival surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo last year, when a motley menagerie of quack doctors, bogus "Nobel Prize nominees," emoting relatives, get-a-life monomaniacs, keening mobs of religious fanatics, death-threat-hissing warriors for "life," dimwitted TV presenters straining to keep their very best my-puppy-just-died faces on while speaking of "Terri" as if they had known her personally from grade school, pandering politicians, and shyster lawyers all joined forces in a massive effort to convince the American public that [Right to Life] was a thing no sane citizen ought to touch with a barge pole while wearing triple-ply rubber gloves...

[Ponnuru] tells us, to take one example from many, that Michael Schiavo won a $1.1 million settlement in a negligence suit against his wife's doctors, without also telling us that Mrs. Schiavo's parents fought like cats to get their hands on their daughter's estate; or that Mr. Schiavo offered (in writing, in documents deposited with officers of the court) to sign over that estate—which was anyway much diminished by legal bills—to a registered charity if his in-laws would withdraw their lawsuits; or for that matter that Mr. Schiavo was a well-paid working professional well able to support himself, while his in-laws were chronically broke, at least until the big [Right to Life] foundations showed up with checkbooks a-flapping. And of course Ponnuru does not mention the few seconds of misleading videotape, carefully selected from over four hours' worth, released (in violation of a court order!) by the in-laws to the media, and endlessly replayed on sensationalist TV news programs.

In fact, Ponnuru has nothing to say at all about the monstrous character assassination, carried out by utterly unscrupulous RTL propagandists, of a decent man who coped humanely and well with a terrible life calamity. Well, not quite nothing: "It cannot be denied that pro-lifers were guilty of some excesses," Ponnuru murmurs. Some excesses? I would say. Here the author sounds like nothing so much as a Soviet Communist Party apparatchik, circa 1960, offering a grudging admission that Stalin and his cronies might, just once or twice, have been a tad over-zealous in dealing with class enemies....

I wonder again: Who, actually, is the Party of Death? Here I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life. Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy. Let her go, everyone begs him, and his own conscience cries; and at last he does, whichever way the law will permit. Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime's misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.

The [Right to Life]-ers would tell me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and—I do not doubt it—sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach!—one that would take from the living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.

For [Right to Life] is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality. that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties.

Friday, June 9

So did we make a mistake?

To kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, U.S. forces first found his spiritual adviser.
He had a spiritual adviser? Doesn't that mean he's OK?

Tuesday, June 6

10% human and 90% bacterial

You'd be nothing without the trillions of microbial minions toiling in your large intestine, performing crucial physiological functions that your highfalutin human cells wouldn't have a clue how to do.

That's one of the humbling truths emerging from the most thorough census yet of the bacterial tenants homesteading in our bodies. The new view, made possible by cutting-edge DNA screening methods, shows that the vaunted human genome -- all the genes in our cells -- is but a fraction of what it takes to make a human.

In fact, it's time to stop thinking of yourself as a single living thing at all, say the scientists behind the new work. Better to see yourself as a "super-organism," they say: a hybrid creature consisting of about 10 percent human cells and 90 percent bacterial cells. it turns out, no small number of [the biological functions many of these microbes are performing] are crucial to human survival.

Sunday, June 4

Live like a king

In the autumn of 1685, Louis developed an agonising and persistent toothache, and his doctors decided to extract the offending molar. However, they were ignorant of the importance of post-operative hygiene, and infection set in: the king’s gums, jawbone and sinuses became dangerously inflamed. A committee of nervous physicians concluded that drastic measures were called for. Louis underwent a truly terrible ordeal: they removed all the teeth from the top layer of his mouth, then punctured his palate and broke his jaw. This was all completed without anaesthetic, the king being fully awake throughout the procedure. The most powerful man in Western Europe was helpless before the primitive medical knowledge of his time. At least the wounds were kept clean on this occasion – cauterised with red-hot coals. The Sun King never fully regained his former dignity. He had to be careful when drinking, in case the contents of his goblet reappeared out of his nose.

Saturday, June 3


Looking up "渝香園" 高雄 on the web (in Kaohsiung on the corner of 一心一路 and 凱旋路), it seems mostly associated with vote-buying by city council candidate 洪學海.

No matter. The food is pretty good, although a just a little sweeter and a little less spicy than genuine Sichuan 四川 food. Still, it's a lot better and more inexpensive than The Ambassador Hotel's 國賓大飯店 蜀珍宴 supposedly Sichuan 四川 food.

Also, it's completely non-smoking.

Friday, June 2

Cribbed from Jeffrey Alan Miron

1. Subsidizing alternative crops does not materially reduce production of the banned crop. Governments rarely provide sufficiently large subsidies, so most farmers keep growing the banned crop. Even with sufficient subsidies many farmers take the subsidies but then grow the banned crop anyway since enforcement is weak.

2. Crop bans breed corruption.

3. Crop bans generate easy income for precisely the groups the U.S. opposes (the Taliban in Afghanistan, the FARC in Colombia). These groups sell protection services to farmers and drug traffickers. Absent the bans, groups like the Taliban and the FARC would be much poorer.

Without freedom of speech

From The Times:
PRESIDENT Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan…saw his popularity ratings plunge to new lows this week with more than 80 per cent of the island's 22 million residents saying that they had lost confidence in their leader.

Mr Chen has battled to recover his credibility since officials detained his son-in-law on May 25 in the insider-trading scandal.

He faced pressure from the opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalists, and his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). On Wednesday the leader who has made it almost a point of pride to enrage China with his policies to edge the island towards formal independence, announced that Su Tseng-chang, the Prime Minister, would take charge of setting government policy.

David Lee, Mr Chen's spokesman, said: "The scandal is unstoppable. In this society, if there's a scandal about a member of your family it's a shame to the whole family."

Mr Chen, who wields executive powers, will retain the diplomatic and military portfolios and have a say in the issue of ties with China, which claims sovereignty over the island…

The decision by the President to cede many of his powers reduces sharply the likelihood that Taiwan will take decisive action and could even help to take the chill off ties with the mainland that have been effectively frozen since he swept to power six years ago.

Emile Sheng, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei, said that the move signalled the effective end of Mr Chen's authority. "Chen Shui-bian is definitely a lame duck. He can no longer enact any substantive policy in the next two years."
That's nice. But more interesting, while the communist press has enjoyed the scandal, I'm sure the Chinese people can read between the lines, as The Taipei Times suggests
Although the scandal involving alleged insider-trading by the president's son-in-law Chao Chien-ming (趙建銘) made headlines on China's state-run CCTV station last week, the legislator who first blew the whistle on the case was last night prohibited from giving a speech on the matter at Peking University.

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅), who was scheduled to deliver a speech at Peking University last night, informed the press yesterday that the university had cancelled his speech at around 12:30am on Saturday.

"I believe [the reason for the cancellation] was the subject that I wanted to address -- freedom of speech -- which is what made it possible for the recent scandals to come to light," Chiu said...

Chiu said that he attributed his successes in exposing the scandals to the nation's freedom of speech, and wanted to make this the main theme of his speech in China.

"Without freedom of speech, I wouldn't be who I am today and it is unlikely [that the scandals would have been made public], even if there were 10 Chiu Yis," Chiu said.

Chiu said the scandals were a phenomenon of the nation's "crony capitalism" -- a pejorative expression describing a close relationship between government and business -- saying that the same phenomenon was emerging in China.

"I wanted to use the speech to teach the Chinese public how to fight corruption, as corruption is also a serious problem in China," Chiu said.

Chiu said that he was not surprised that the Chinese authorities had prevented him from making the speech at the last moment, as he had feared such a consequence after he revealed the main theme of his speech to the press in Beijing.

"Although A-bian [Chen] might hate me, he wouldn't go so far as to use the power of the state apparatus to suppress my freedom of speech," he said.

Thursday, June 1

Is this something to be proud of?

For Lindsay Waters, "The very idea of criticism was to drag all the oppressive ideas that had dominated intellectual life before the court of reason by treating none of them piously." In The Lure of the List, Waters expresses dislike for the idea of a once revolutionary journal compiling a list of the greatest literary theorists:
What did the editors hope to gain, and was it worth giving up so much credibility to put pseudoscience where words should have been, to substitute accounting methods for critical judgment? [ed: Pseudoscience? Take a look at what some of these clowns write.] Humanists should know better...
Critical Inquiry published an essay last winter that purported to rank the greatest literary theorists in its pages (and, by implication, the world).... How? By counting citations to theorists. Behind the rhetoric about discovering "the identity of our journal" lies an implicit assumption: If you're cited in Critical Inquiry, you're the best of the best.
According to the article, the eight most frequently cited theorists are Jacques Derrida (177), Sigmund Freud (174), Michel Foucault (160), Walter Benjamin (147), Roland Barthes (92), Jacques Lacan (80), Fredric Jameson (79), Edward Said (77). Consider these people in order:

Wikipedia's Criticism of Derrida mentions that
Noam Chomsky has expressed the view that Derrida's work is essentially pointless, because his writings are deliberately obscured with pretentious rhetoric to hide the simplicity of the ideas within. Chomsky has frequently grouped Derrida within a broader category of the Parisian intellectual community which he has criticized for acting as an elite power structure for the well-educated through difficult writing.... Chomsky has indicated that he may simply be incapable of understanding Derrida, but is suspicious of the possibility, maintaining that in the majority of cases he is able to ask a colleague to explain the work in clearer terminology, such as a new theorem in physics.
The Economist similarly characterized Derrida as obscurantist, and given to bombastic rhetoric and illogical ramblings, and point out that
Derrida's style of deconstruction flowered especially in American departments of comparative literature, where it became interwoven with Marxism, feminism and anti-colonialism. Although by the early 1980s French academics had largely tired of trying to make sense of him, America's teachers of literature increasingly embraced Mr Derrida. Armed with an impenetrable new vocabulary, and without having to master any rigorous thought, they could masquerade as social, political and philosophical critics.
As for Freud, Cecil Adams argues
Freudian practice is pseudoscience (quackery, if you will) because it fails an essential test of a true science--that is, it does not produce propositions that, in principle, can be shown to be false. Here it seems to me that Crews and his allies are on unassailable ground. One finds in Freud's work only a charade of the scientific method. Having cooked up some arcane notion through introspection, he would proceed to "confirm" it in sessions with patients. A key procedure in analysis was (and remains) free association, in which the analysand says whatever pops into his head in response to a stimulus. On hearing about a patient's dream, for example, Freud would ignore the dream's manifest content and instead ask the patient to free-associate in order to recover its latent (i.e., real) import. From the blather that followed Freud would pluck a few key words or images that in his opinion revealed the dream's true meaning, which in turn would shed light on the roots of the patient's neurosis. The analysand might resist or deny the interpretation, but this merely showed the strength of his mechanisms of repression. Freud would bear down and eventually the analysand would cave. Bingo: confirmation of Freud's hunch (and by extension his theory). There's a bit more to the process than that, but on the whole Freud's critics have persuaded me that it's not much more. How can anyone prove such a conclusion wrong when the only proofs that it's right are a function of the therapist's insistence?
Wikipedia's Criticisms of Foucault:
Many thinkers have criticized Foucault.... While each of these thinkers takes issue with different aspects of Foucault's work, all of these approaches share the same basic orientation: Foucault clearly seems to reject the values and philosophy associated with the Enlightenment while simultaneously secretly relying on them.
and also list Marx as an influence, but try to excuse it:
Marx's influence in French intellectual life was dominant from 1945 through to the late 1970s. Foucault often found himself opposing Marxists, but claimed that he still quoted Marx without acknowledging him during this time as a kind of game.
"A kind of game"--that's what a lot of these theorists were engaged in. Maybe Foucault was not a Marxist, but both Wikipedia and The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia characterize Walter Benjamin as one.

Wikipedia on Barthes; He:
accuse[d] the old, bourgeois criticism of being unconcerned with the finer points of language and capable of selective ignorance towards challenging concepts of theories like Marxism.
and he
consider[ed] the limitations of not just signs and symbols, but also Western culture’s dependency on beliefs of constancy and ultimate standards.
Indeed, Wikipedia's Marxist view of the bourgeoisie:
Arguably one of the most influential of...criticisms came from Karl Marx, who attacked bourgeois political theory and its view of civil society and culture for what he believed to be its falsely universal concepts and institutions; in Marx's view, these concepts were only the ideology of the bourgeoisie as a new ruling class, which sought to reshape society after its own image.
As for Lacan, according to Wikipedia, he considered his work to be an authentic "return to Freud". In Fashionable Nonsense (1997), Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont accuse Lacan of abusing scientific concepts. Chomsky called him a "perfectly self-conscious charlatan".

Wikipedia characterizes Fredric Jameson as "a Marxist political and literary critic and theorist.... [He has] described postmodernism as the claudication of culture under the pressure of organized capitalism. Jameson's best-known books include Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism...." "Late capitalism"! I guess it's not surprising that a Marxist can claim to know that capitalism is on its last legs.

Finally, Edward Said's overpraised Orientalism tended towards overdrawn assertions, hyperbole and oversimplification, was pretentiously written and drenched in jargon. Like the postmodernists who inspired him, he insists that objectivity is impossible.

So let's see: the top eight are obscurantist, pseudoscientific, reject the Enlightenment, Marxists, charlatans, and disbelieve in objectivity. I hope the time has come for all the oppressive ideas that have dominated intellectual life to be hauled before the court of reason.

I can't believe I'm citing Chomsky as an authority. It's not the first time. Still it's significant that even though he is a hard leftist, he criticizes postmodernist writing in general: "extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish."