Evading the Hard Truth of Globalization

Lexington tells the grim truth:

In rich country after rich country, under governments both of the left and of the right, the biggest worry for voters is that middle-class incomes are stagnating and the job-for-life is dead. Politicians instinctively blame their domestic opponents’ wicked or foolish policies. They cannot all be right.

Global capitalism has been a boon to hundreds of millions of people in China and India, but it has hollowed out the industrial base of developed economies. The post-war, competition-light economic boom that enriched the Western developed world — especially the U.S. — is over for good. In its place is extraordinarily intense, globalized competition to provide goods and services. National policies may make the new reality somewhat easier or harder for people who used to work in steel mills, factories and coal mines, but nothing will bring back the era when the U.S. had the world at its feet.

Politicians do not want to acknowledge this. Rather, they persist in blaming someone else (usually immigrants) for how the world has inexorably changed. As Lexington notes, left-wing and right-wing politicians are equally keen to assign responsibility to their ideological enemies:

Your columnist has covered elections on four continents, and the same themes keep cropping up. [Senator Mitch McConnell's anti-Obama] speech in Kentucky reminded him of one given in 2011 by Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, a leftwinger with whom Mr McConnell ought to have little in common. Mr Miliband accused Britain’s Conservative-led government of betraying the “British Promise” of upward mobility, tempered with egalitarianism.the fall from grace.

In Brussels, your columnist used to watch politicians defend what some called the European Dream, involving lots of “solidarity”—ie, farm subsidies, industrial policies to prop up favoured firms, welfare, transfers from rich countries to poor ones and a dose of protectionism. Voters needed a more protective Europe, thundered Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president from 2007-12, or they would reject it as a “Trojan horse” for globalisation.

It’s hard to win elections by saying that the past in gone forever (lots of people just don’t want to hear that), but that why we call it political courage. Much of the political class of the developed world seems content to tell the public nostalgic fairy tales when what we need are fundamentally new ways to provide for ourselves in the brave new world in which we all live.

Economist fail

No, not “an economist”, the magazine.  In a long discussion of winners and losers from low oil prices, we find what has to be the stupidest assertion in a mainstream publication this month, maybe even ever, who knows:

But the overall economic effect of cheaper oil is clearly positive.

Really. This is hard to even talk about without insulting the intelligence of our readers, but it’s in The Economist, for Pete’s sake. How does that work? Does The Economist think ‘overall economic effects’ just end in a few decades, before the, um, economic effects of climate change really kick in? Has a radical Christian sect with a line on the rapture schedule taken them over?  Or has the law of demand been repealed when we weren’t looking, so lower prices cause people to use less instead of more?


If you’re in NYC: Hawken on RCTs and day-to-day public management

NYU Marron Institute, this Tuesday at 1pm.
http://marroninstitute.nyu.edu/events/detail/angela-hawken …

More canaries in the media coalmine

Two big journalism stories broke today that seem to have nothing to do with each other, but are actually the same chicken coming home to roost and coming home to roost. Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia fraternity rape story in Rolling Stone is falling apart, and as it happens, so is The New Republic.  Why are these chapters of the same book?  Because both are what happens when text, in a digital world, has no viable economic framework.  Magazines used to pay fact checkers and editors to ride herd on reporters and skeptically demand backup, sources, confirmation, and evidence: Rolling Stone can’t afford that stuff any more and left its reporter out on a limb without an essential support system.  The New Republic is a whole enterprise, a paper magazine, that can’t support itself the old fashioned way, so a tech millionaire who knows about journalism from Facebook is going to take the name and use it for something completely different.  How different? His new CEO admits he can’t read more than 500 words of anything at a time, and the staff has all hit the street.  I predict with confidence that the new New Republic will cost Hughes so much money to keep afloat that he will euthanize it within two years, unless he just want to pay for a hobby mouthpiece.

These are not the first nor the last times we will see the reality that content is a non-rival public good will make itself known.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Cry Danger

YWsOLKpWhat the difference between a first time directorial outing by a former film editor versus that of a movie star? In general, about 10-20 minutes of unnecessary footage. As directors/producers, movie stars tend to have too much sympathy with the actors (especially if they have cast themselves in the film) and not enough with the audience. A number of good films with actor-directors, for example Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, Ed Harris’ Pollock and Jack Nicholson’s The Two Jakes, did not achieve greatness simply because they were far too long.

Former film editors tend to understand that most movie scenes can be shorter and some movie scenes can be eliminated entirely. That doesn’t stop them from making long movies (David Lean was a former film editor) but it does prevent them from making flabby ones. A background as an editor was thus ideal for making an economical film noir in just 22 days, which is what Robert Parrish did in this week’s film recommendation: Cry Danger. I highlighted Parrish’s Oscar-winning editing in my recommendation of Body and Soul and am happy to report that he also clearly knew what to do behind the camera.

The plot of the film is near-boilerplate for these sorts of cinematic outings. Two noir staple characters, an ex-con named Rocky Mulloy who was wrongly convicted of a crime (Dick Powell) and a disillusioned ex-GI (Richard Erdman), team up to find the still-hidden loot from the robbery for which Rocky was framed. They tussle with the crime boss whom they suspect of being behind the original job (William Conrad, as usual a welcome film noir presence). Meanwhile, Rocky comforts his ex-girlfriend (Rhonda Fleming), who is now married to his best friend, who was sent upriver with Rocky and still remains in the Big House. Rocky is tempted by his ex- in more ways than one, but never lets himself be dissuaded from his mission of taking vengeance on those who framed him.

I have written before about how former song-and-dance men Dick Powell and John Payne repackaged themselves as noir tough guys after the war, and how Payne did so more credibly. Powell always seemed to me too Father’s Knows Best-ish to carry off morally murky or cynical noir roles, and his mien of near-continual faint amusement undermined his efforts to be an intimidating tough guy. But those problems are irrelevant here due to Erdman’s well-scripted part as Powell’s alcoholic friend, which is in Erdman’s hands is extremely funny (Fans of the TV show Community will not be surprised). Powell’s efforts to get his friend to sober up, and to be wary of the floozy (Jean Porter) who keeps stealing his wallet, turn Powell’s paternal demeanor into a strength rather than an annoyance, and the humor of these exchanges is only better for Powell’s frequent smirks.

Despite those light elements, there is still plenty of noirish content and mood on display here, as well as some pleasing mystery and action elements. The “surprise resolution” of the story is not hard to guess, but that will not diminish enjoyment of this tightly-constructed, well-directed crime melodrama.

p.s. As of this writing, Cry Danger is available for free for Amazon Prime customers.

Will synthetic drugs change drug markets?

Synthetic drugs are becoming more common in markets previously composed entirely of drugs that originate from plants (e.g., heroin, cocaine, marijuana). In Estonia, the powerful opioid fentanyl is now more widely used than heroin. In the U.S., synthetic cannabinoids have become more widely used by adolescents, and as everyone knows, we also have an epidemic of addiction to prescription opioids.

It’s an intriguing exercise to speculate what the world of drugs and drug policy would be like if synthetic drugs end up supplanting the old agriculturally-derived standbys. There would be no programs of crop eradiction and international interdiction. Law enforcement efforts might be entirely domestically focused. This might be a more just world of drugs in that the costs of drugs and drug control would fall at home rather than being exported overseas (Although on Twitter, policy maven Alejandro Hope pointed out that synthetic drugs could still be traded internationally, just as meth currently is between Mexico and the United States).

I mull these possibilities over at Washington Post’s Wonkblog. The piece is more speculative than what I usually write, so I could very easily be wrong about the future of synthetic drugs. At the same time very few industries don’t go through dramatic changes now and then, and the shape of current drug markets has been fairly stable for an awfully long time.

Apologies in Advance

beesOutside my office at the public hospital is a small gardening area that was used by resident patients when the building was a long-term care facility. It occasionally experiences infestations of bees and/or yellowjackets, to which I am quick to respond because I have two anaphylactic colleagues to whom one sting could be fatal.

To respond to the last infestation, the guy from pest control sprayed their nest with poison and also hung this trap. He said “They smell the bait and go in to look for it. They never get out because they’re stupid”.

Seeing the resultant slaughter, I couldn’t help but think: Continue Reading…

New Data on the Effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous

meetingsSelection bias is the principal problem that has bedeviled Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) effectiveness research for decades. Countless studies show that problem drinkers who attend AA have much better outcomes than those who do not, but how does one tell whether that it is an effect of AA or is merely a reflection of those who go to AA being different sorts of people than those who do not? (e.g., more motivated to change, less psychiatrically impaired etc.).

One way to get around this problem is to conduct trials in which people are randomly assigned to interventions designed to encourage AA involvement and then use an instrumental variables analysis (Austin Frakt’s explanation here) to get a selection-bias free estimate of AA’s impact.

My colleagues and I took this approach using 6 datasets on about 2,400 alcohol dependent people participating in randomized clinical trials. Five of the datasets had a similar result, namely that AA significantly increased the likelihood of abstinence at 3 month and 15 month follow-up even when self-selection bias is not a factor. In the sixth dataset, which included a sample with long histories of treatment and AA involvement, further AA participation did not affect outcome one way or the other. This is probably because if AA hadn’t worked for these people over many years of their trying it off and on, it wasn’t likely to start doing so, and if it was working for them, even more AA on top of their high involvement couldn’t help them any more than it already had (i.e., You can’t be sober more than 100% of the time.).

The study is available ungated on line. It’s one of many in the past decade that support AA’s effectiveness.

Reclaiming the street for Real Americans

Some things are central to being a Real American, things that make us the best country; others are not.  In the first category, as any RBC reader will agree, are driving alone anywhere I want;  with light traffic, few stoplights, and no tolls, pedestrians, or bicycles; parking free when I get there; and two-dollar gasoline.  The way things were for a few years in Southern California, back in the day. Now that that’s established, the bad news: ugly facts are undermining our core values:
(1) Roads are free and a basic human right, but even patriotic politicians like Sam Brownback can’t figure out how to get them without (trigger alert, I know this is a family blog) taxes.
(2) Even if we pay for them, it seems we can’t lane-mile our way back to the golden age; every beautiful new freeway or widening is immediately congested to the pre-existing crawl.  And people are less and less willing to have neighborhoods bulldozed for highways.
What to do?  Many cities are looking at ways to get some large undeserving classes of people out of cars, leaving room for us Real Americans on the road.  I’m thinking about the ungrateful hipsters who are refusing to be their kids’ chauffeurs for  twenty years, leaving their cars behind in the Pleasantvilles where they grew up and flocking with bicycles to places like Boston and San Francisco and Brooklyn and Portland. Also poor people. A lot of these folks vote Democratic, by the way, so prima facie don’t deserve the freedom to sit alone in traffic listening to the radio.
An obvious way to do this is (another trigger alert) public transit, and not just buses stuck in traffic with the cars.  What we had all over every big city when we fought and won World War II, built Hoover Dam and the TVA, had free public universities people were proud of, and all that Commie stuff.  One form is surface light rail,  which doesn’t require tunnels, and runs in the street.  Because we trashed so much of this and lost our expertise over a half-century (especially how to build it), we are learning old lessons and reinventing wheels.
Halfway down the story, we learn that

Unlike in Europe, the United States lacks uniform standards for the basic features of a streetcar. That means customers might ask for longer, wider or faster vehicles or those that can handle different loads or ride on different suspensions. “You’re essentially designing a new vehicle. [It’s] very expensive to set up a manufacturing line and only build three or five of a particular product type,” said Yraguen, the Oregon Iron Works president.

Way back in the ’30s, the most successful streetcar in history, fairly described as the DC-3 of  urban transport, was designed by a committee of street railway company representatives and made by different companies all over the world.  About 5000   were built, and the PCC cars, as they are called, are still operating, in the US and elsewhere.
Maybe the federal government could create more value by coordination than by just sending checks?

When you are white in America, anything is possible….

Last week, I attended the American Society of Criminology annual meetings. (Mark Kleiman, Johann Koehler, Keith Humphreys, and others were also in attendance.) My friend Peter Reuter and I got bored and decided to take a walk. Not far from the conference, we encountered the Moscone convention center. A door was propped open. So we went inside. We spotted some sort of football-field-size convention hall at the bottom of a long escalator.

We went inside, where we encountered people setting up for a big auto show. There were maybe one hundred Porsches, Ferraris, and other fancy sports cars, classic cars from the 1930s, and more. We strolled around for about thirty minutes, taking pictures among the people polishing the cars. It was a very pleasant self-service private session at an upcoming auto show of some kind.


We wore our ASC conference badges, which of course had nothing to do with whatever everyone else was wearing around us who were actually supposed to be there.

We left the same way we came in. No one gave us a second look. Maybe they would have given us one of the cars, if we had only asked for the keys.

Continue Reading…