Posts tagged ‘china’

It is Historically Unusual for China NOT to be the Largest Economy on Earth

A couple of quick thoughts on this map from this Vox article edited by Matt Yglesias

click to enlarge

  1. I hate to diss my old cohorts at McKinsey, but isn't this entirely arbitrary to how you draw the map?  If you made the map break in, say, the Atlantic Ocean with the Ivory Coast on the far left of the map and Newfoundland on the far right, won't this look different?
  2. People seem to want to get freaked out about China passing the US in terms of the size of its economy.  But in the history of Civilization there have probably been barely 200 years in the last 4000 that China hasn't been the largest economy in the world.  It probably only lost that title in the early 19th century and is just now getting it back.  We are in some senses ending an unusual period, not starting one.

Is Bing Censoring US Searches on Chinese Topics?

The other day I had a little fun with Bing's search results on Windows 8 problems.  But this seems much more serious.  From a reader:

No comment.

That’s Microsoft’s response to new revelations that the search engine is censoring Chinese searches in the United States — not just in China. Searches on Chinese topics in the U.S. now produce markedly different search results than Google, results that mimic those  in China. China broadly censors the Internet, blocking topics like the Dalai Lama and Tiananmen Square.

The censorship blog Greatfire.org was the first to point out  that Bing’s search results display information propagated by Chinese authorities. A Chinese language search in Bing for the Dalai Lama (达赖喇嘛 in Chinese) produces two results from China’s Wikipedia (Baidu Baike) and one from the state-owned television station CCTV. In Google, the same search returns two Wikipedia entries and the Dalai Lama’s official site.

Click here to see the results in Bing, versus the results in Google.

Even more shocking, a search for the anti-censorship software FreeGate produces the result: “Due to restrictions on Chinese laws and regulations, we removed the results of these search terms. For more information, see here.”

Microsoft responded to a request from Charlie Smith’s Greatfire to explain the discrepancy. At first, the  software juggernaut replied: “We’ve conducted an investigation of the claims raised by Greatfire.org. First, Bing does not apply China’s legal requirements to searches conducted outside of China. Due to an error in our system, we triggered an incorrect results removal notification for some searches noted in the report but the results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China.”

But after finding the “due to Chinese laws and regulations” search result, Microsoft replied: “Thanks for your inquiry. We have no comment on this topic.”

Much more detail at the link, with examples and screenshots

Arnold Kling Provides An Interesting Framework for Economic Growth

I thought this was a useful simple picture from Arnold Kling, vis a vis countries and their economies:

Low Creation High Creation
Low Destruction Corporatist Stagnation Schumpeterian Boom
High Destruction Minsky Recession Rising Dynamism

He suggests the US may currently be in the lower-left quadrant.  Europe and Japan in the upper left.   My sense is that China is in the upper right, not the lower right (too much of the economy is controlled by the politicians in power for any real destruction to occur).

Once a government gains powerful tools for economic intervention, it becomes politically almost impossible to allow destruction to occur, no matter how long-term beneficial it can be.  The US is one of the few countries in the world that has ever allowed such destruction to occur over an extended period.  The reason it is hard is that successful incumbents are able to wield political power to prevent upstart competition that might threaten their position and business model (see here for example).

It takes a lot of discipline to have government not intervene in favor of such incumbents.  Since politicians lack this discipline, the only way to prevent such intervention is by castrating the government, by eliminating its power to intervene in the first place.  Feckless politicians cannot wield power that does not exist (though don't tell Obama that because he seems to be wielding a lot of power to modify legislation that is not written into my copy of the Constitution.).

Wealth and China Through History

The media tends to talk about the growth of the Chinese economy as if it is something new and different.   In fact, there probably have been only about 200 years in the history of civilization when China was not the largest economy on Earth.  China still held this title into the early 18th century, and will get it back early in this century.

This map from the Economist (via Mark Perry) illustrates the point.

economic map

 

Of course there is a problem with this map.  It is easy to do a center of gravity for a country, but for the whole Earth?  The center in this case (unless one rightly puts it somewhere in the depths of the planet itself) depends on arbitrary decisions about where one puts the edges of the map. I presume this is from a map with North America on the far left side and Japan on the far right.  If one redid the map, say, with North America in the center, Asia on the left and Europe on the right, the center of gravity would roam around North America through history.

Want to Save The Ice in the Arctic?

I wrote below about Chinese pollution, but here is one other thought.  Shifting Chinese focus from reducing CO2 with unproven 21st century technology to reducing particulates with 1970s technology would be a great boon for its citizens.  But it could well have one other effect:

It might reverse the warming in the Arctic.

The reduction of Arctic ice sheet size in the summer, and the warming of the Arctic over the last several decades, is generally attributed to greenhouse warming.  But there are reasons to doubt that Co2 is the whole story.   One is that the sea ice extent in Antarctica has actually been growing at the same time the Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking.  Maybe there is another explanation, one that affects only the northern hemisphere and not the southern?

I don't know if you have snow right now or even ever get snow.  If you do, find some black dust, like coal dust or dark dirt, and sprinkle it on a patch of snow.  Then come back tomorrow.  What will you find?  The patch of snow you sprinkled in dark dust melted a lot in comparison to the rest of the snow.  This is an albedo effect.  Snow takes a while to melt because it reflects rather than absorbs solar radiation.  Putting black dust on it changes that equation, and suddenly solar radiation is adsorbed as heat, and the now melts.  Fast.  I know this because I run a sledding hill in the wintertime, where snow falls on a black cinder hill.  The snow will last until even the smallest patch of black cinders is exposed.  Once exposed, that small hole will grow like a cancer, as it absorbs solar energy and pumps it into the surrounding ground.

By the way, if you have not snow, Accuweather.com did the experiment for you.  See here.  Very nice pictures that make the story really clear.

So consider this mess:

china_pollution_ap971430398958_620x350

Eventually that mess blows away.  Where does it end up?  Well, a lot of it ends up deposited in the Arctic, on top of the sea ice and Greenland ice sheet.

There is a growing hypothesis that this black carbon deposited on the ice from China is causing much of the sea ice to melt faster.  And as the ice sheet melts faster, this lowers the albedo of the arctic, and creates warming.  In this hypothesis, warming follows from ice melting, rather than vice versa.

How do we test this?  Well, the best way would be to go out and actually measure the deposits and calculate the albedo changes from this.  My sense is that this work is starting to be done (example), but it has been slow, because everyone who is interested in Arctic ice of late are strong global warming proponents who have incentives not to find an alternative explanation for melting ice.

But here are two quick mental experiments we can do:

  1. We already mentioned one proof.  Wind patterns cause most pollution to remain within the hemisphere (northern or southern) where it was generated.  So we would expect black carbon ice melting to be limited to the Arctic and not be seen in the Antarctic.  This fits observations
  2. In the winter, as the sea ice is growing, we would expect new ice would be free of particulate deposits and that any new deposits would be quickly covered in snow.  This would mean that we should see ice extents in the winter to be about the same as they were historically, and we would see most of the ice extent reduction in the summer.  Again, this is exactly what we see.

This is by no means a proof -- there are other explanations for the same data.  But I am convinced we would see at least a partial sea ice recovery in the Arctic if China could get their particulate emissions under control.

Update:  Melt ponds in Greenland are black with coal dust

 

Global Warming Folly

I have not written much about climate of late because my interest, err, runs hot and cold.  As most readers know, I am in the lukewarmer camp, meaning that I accept that Co2 is a greenhouse gas but believe that catastrophic warming forecasts are greatly exaggerated (in large part by scientifically unsupportable assumptions of strong net positive feedback in the climate system).  If what I just said is in any way news to you, read this and this for background.

Anyway, one thing I have been saying for about 8 years is that when the history of the environmental movement is written, the global warming obsession will be considered a great folly.  This is because global warming has sucked all the air out of almost anything else in the environmental movement.  For God sakes, the other day the Obama Administration OK'd the wind industry killing more protected birds in a month than the oil industry has killed in its entire history.  Every day the rain forest in the Amazon is cleared away a bit further to make room for ethanol-making crops.

This picture demonstrates a great example of what I mean.   Here is a recent photo from China:

20131211_china1

 

You might reasonably say, well that pollution is from the burning of fossil fuels, and the global warming folks want to reduce fossil fuel use, so aren't they trying to fight this?  And the answer is yes, tangentially.   But here is the problem:  It is an order of magnitude or more cheaper to eliminate polluting byproducts of fossil fuel combustion than it is to eliminate fossil fuel combustion altogether.

What do I mean?  China gets a lot of pressure to reduce its carbon emissions, since it is the largest emitter in the world.  So it might build a wind project, or some solar, or some expensive high speed rail to reduce fossil fuel use.  Let's say any one of these actions reduces smog and sulfur dioxide and particulate pollution (as seen in this photo) by X through reduction in fossil fuel use.  Now, let's take whatever money we spent in, say, a wind project to get X improvement and instead invest it in emissions control technologies that the US has used for decades (coal plant scrubbers, gasoline blending changes, etc) -- invest in making fossil fuel use cleaner, not in eliminating it altogether.  This same money invested in this way would get 10X, maybe even up to 100X improvement in these emissions.

By pressuring China on carbon, we have unwittingly helped enable their pollution problem.  We are trying to get them to do 21st century things that the US can't even figure out how to do economically when in actuality what they really need to be doing is 1970's things that would be relatively easy to do and would have a much bigger impact on their citizen's well-being.

Obama's "Nixon Goes to China" Moment

Barack Obama is the worst possible thing that could have happened for civil liberties in this country.  Not necessarily because he promotes the worst possible policies -- As bad as he has been (drone strikes, domestic spying, aggressive prosecuting of whistle blowers, indefinite detentions, executive orders, arbitrarily ignoring legislation, cutting myriad special favors, and overturning the rule of law in the auto bankruptcies), I could imagine others being worse  (Lindsey Graham -- eek!).

But Obama is the worst because he is beloved almost unconditionally by the very factions who are the natural defenders on the Left of civil liberties and opponents of creeping (non-economic) state control.  With all this insane cr*p coming from Obama, the opposition one would expect to these policies has been slow and muted.  The anti-war movement, for example, effectively dissolved once George Bush was in office -- the ACLU and a few others continue to public reports on civilian drone deaths but the stories don't make the front page now that Obama is President.  Only recently, with the press itself under attack, has anyone woken up, but even with recent revelations about the NSA and harassing leakers, the last press conference was still dominated by softballs everyone in the room would have been embarrassed to have asked George Bush.

The Left seems to believe that this is all OK as long as their guy wields the power, but that cannot last forever.  And you can be damn sure that neither President Hillary or the next Republican in the White House is going to eschew or reverse the precedents established by Obama.  We have to end them right now, or we are stuck with them forever.  It may be too late already.

 

** The title refers to the idea that only Nixon, an anti-communist Republican, could have opened up relations with Communist China in the early 1970's and defused opposition to the move by the Right, the natural opponents of such a move at the time.  A President McGovern would have been skewered.  In the same way, Republican President Bush was rightly attacked whole-heartedly by the Left for intrusions on civil liberties and military activities.  On the other hand, having these same type of actions taken -- really much worse actions -- taken by a Liberal President has mostly diffused the opposition.

National Adolescence

I have been toying with a concept I am calling national adolescence.  My emerging theory is that civilizations go through phases much like that of a human male, and the most dangerous to all around it is adolescence.  Adolescent males can do crazy, unproductive things to show off, to count coup, to bolster their ego and perceived status.  They are more prone to being violent and dangerous, to pick stupid fights to prove their alpha-maleness rather than to achieve rational goals.

Nations often go through an adolescent phase.  Sometimes it can last for decades or centuries.  Two symptoms of this phase are 1) Imperialism and over-readiness to fight and 2) monument-building and other such show-offery.

I have written a number of times about monument building, for example here.  We see it in countries trying to build record-tall buildings -- note who is doing it, they are always the nouveau riche (e.g. Dubai).  We see it in cities wanting to have light rail systems in order to be considered a real city (ie as a status project).  We see it in every Thomas Friedman column about China doing big things while we are not.  And we see it now in the fear that somehow having China sending men into space 50 years after the US and USSR did so somehow is a marker in the decline and fall of the US.

I don't buy it.  What you are seeing, what Thomas Friedman is seeing, is adolescence.  We may regret lacking as much youthful vitality, but we should not aspire to the adolescent's poor judgement.  Our sixties space program went exactly nowhere, except to let us count coup on the rest of the world and cement our status.  The Chines space program as currently configured will achieve nothing more.

PS-  The Egyptians may be a good example.  All the great Pyramids were built when the Egyptian civilization was really young.  There are a variety of reasons why pyramid building ended, but surely a maturing confidence in their civilization's greatness must be one.

KFC and China

Apparently YUM Brands stock is falling because investors are worried about KFC's prospects in China.  I am not a YUM supporter particularly, nor am I a patron of KFC, but from some exposure to China I can say that KFC in China is like Taco Bell in the movie Demolition Man.  They own the market.

War and Stimulus

I had an argument about the (economic) stimulative effect of war the other night.  As usual, I was not entirely happy with how I argued my point in real time (which is why I blog).  Here is an attempt at an improved, brief answer:

One of the reasons that people often believe that war "improves" the economy is that they are looking at the wrong metrics.  They look at unemployment and observe that it falls.  They look at capacity utilization and observe that it rises.  They look at GDP and see that it rises.

But these are the wrong metrics.  What we care about is if people are better off: Can they buy the things they want?  Are they wealthier?

These outcomes are hard to measure, so we use unemployment and GDP and capacity utilization as proxies for people's economic well-being.  And in most times, these metrics are reasonably correlated with well-being.  That is because in a free economy individuals and their choices guide the flow of resources, which are dedicated to improving what people consider to be their own well-being.  More resources, more well-being.

But in war time, all this gets changed.  Government intervenes with a very heavy hand to shift a vast amount of the resources from satisfying people's well-being to blowing other people up.  Now, I need to take an aside on well-being in this context.  Certainly it is possible that I am better off poor in a world with no Nazis than rich in one dominated by Nazis.  But I am going to leave war aims out of the concept of well-being.  This is appropriate, because when people argue that war stimulates the economy, they are talking purely about economic activity and benefits, and so will I.

What we find is that in war time, unemployment is down, but in part because young people have been drafted (a form of servitude) to fight and die.  Are they better off so employed?  Those who are left find themselves with jobs in factories with admittedly high capacity utilization, but building things that make no one better off (and many people worse off).  GDP skyrockets as government goes deeply in debt to pay for bombs and rockets and tanks.  This debt builds nothing for the future -- future generations are left with debt and no wealth to show for it, like taking out a mortgage to buy a house and then having the house burn down uninsured.  This is no more economically useful than borrowing money and then burning it.  In fact, burning it would have been better, economically, as each dollar we borrowed in WWII had a "multiplier" effect in that it destroyed another dollar of European or Asian civilian infrastructure.

Sure, during WWII, everyone in the US had a job, but with war-time restrictions and rationing, these employed people couldn't buy anything.  Forget the metrics - in their daily lives Americans lived poorer, giving up driving and even basic staples.  This was the same condition Soviet citizens found themselves facing in the 1970s -- they all had jobs, but they could not find anything to buy.  Do we consider them to have been well off?

There is one way to prosper from war, but it is a terrible zero-sum game -- making money from other people's wars.  The US prospered in 1915 and later 1941 as Britain and France sunk into bankruptcy and despair, sending us the last of their wealth in exchange for material that might help them hang on to their existence.  Ditto in 1946, when having bombed Japanese and German infrastructure into the stone age. we provided many of the goods to help rebuild them.  But is this really the way we want to prosper?  And is this sort of vulture-like prosperity even possible with our inter-woven global supply chains?  For example, I can't see a China-Japan war being particularly stimulative for anybody nowadays.

Non-Precautionary Principle: Debt Denialists

Kevin Drum begins this post by making a point I have made forever -- that selling debt to Chinese investors does not somehow put the US in China's power.  In fact, one can argue just the opposite, that Chinese policy options vis a vis the US are circumscribed to some extent by the desire to get paid back on all this lending some day.

However, he goes on to make this incredible statement:

Rising U.S. debt hasn't caused inflation. It hasn't sent interest rates skyrocketing. It hasn't reduced Chinese demand for American bonds. It hasn't reduced demand for long-dated bonds. Really, it hasn't done any of the things that conservatives have been predicting with apocalyptic fervor for the past four years.

I am left agog at the incredible blindness of this position, and find it intriguing how it contrasts with Drum's position on rising atmospheric CO2 levels.  In the latter case, he constantly argues that lack of warming today is not an excuse for inaction, that CO2 is dangerous and its production must be greatly curtailed.  He takes this position despite any real historic evidence of harm from CO2 levels -- ie future harm is hypothetical and without precedent.  But still he wants action now.

On the other side, there is plenty of historical evidence for what rising deficit spending and government debt will do to a country and an economy.  Heck, you don't even have to look at history -- it is being pushed in our face every day by Greece and Spain and Italy.  And yet he councils full steam ahead.

Even most climate skeptics (including myself) would not make a statement about CO2 as denialist as Kevin Drum makes about debt.  We acknowledge CO2 is rising, believe it has some impact on rising temperatures, but differ from the most alarmist in the amount of future temperature increases expected.  We expect more modest anthropogenic temperature increases that make more sense to deal with by adaption -- but we don't generally deny its effect altogether (crazy talk show host and a few prominent bloggers notwithstanding).

 Postscript:  The Weimar Republic went from relative normalcy to hyperinflation in less than three months, the time between two quarterly meetings of the Fed.  In Europe, one day there was no problem in Greece and Spain and Italy and a day or a week later, boom, the crisis is upon them.

Demand at Price = $0

These two articles were back to back in my feed reader this morning.  First, Joe Biden argues that medical procedures should be free if you feel you need one

“Everyone knows, everyone in this room knows that President Obama has increased the benefits available to people on Medicare by the action he took,” Biden said. “You are now able to go get a wellness exam, and guys, if you conclude you need a colonoscopy because of the feeling you had or you need a breast health examination, you don’t have to pay a co-pay for that.”

And then I got this from China

As part of its 8 day Golden Week celebration, China's central planners decided to do a good thing for the people and remove all tolls from expressways. That was the populist explanation. The fundamental one was that this act would somehow spur the economy. Alas, while the same people may have saved some transit money in the process, what they did not save was on transit times. As South China Morning Post reports, millions were promptly stuck in traffic jams as a result of the politburo's generosity. From SCMP: "A bid by authorities tostimulate the economy by suspending road tolls for the "golden week" holiday brought huge tailbacks across the mainland yesterday as almost 86 million travelers took to the roads. That's 13.3 per cent more than on the first day of the National Day holiday last year." And then the fun began.

"One traveller blogged that he could only move 200 metres in an hour on the Zhengzhou to Shijiazhuang expressway in Henan province. Others said the queue of cars on the Guangzhou to Shenzhen expressway was 40 kilometres long. All roads leading out of Guangdong were jammed, with cars moving at about a kilometre an hour in front of some toll gates. Provincial traffic-management authorities estimated traffic on expressways would increase by 40 to 80 per cent compared with the same period last year, the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily reported. The People's Daily reported dozens of accidents on 24 highways across the mainland, further aggravating the congestion."

Since the government still keeps hammering down doctor supply, through enforcement of tough licensing procedures and through price caps (that keep getting cut) on doctor visits, we should soon be seeing the equivalent of this highway traffic jam in medicine.  Which is why every socialized medicine country in the world has queues and why their citizens keep flying to the US for treatment.

Moral Hazard in the Drone War

I missed Tom Junod's original article on targeted killing, but his response to Andrew Sullivan's defense of the Obama Administration is terrific:

I did not -- and do not -- condone the use of torture any more than Sullivan does. But the moral risk of torture is not so different from the moral risk of targeted killing. Indeed, the moral risk of torture provides a template for the moral risk of targeted killing. What was introduced as an option of last resort becomes the option of first resort, then the only option. Sullivan always understood that torture was a temptation, and that the day would come when it was applied not in emergency, "ticking-clock" situations, but as a matter of routine. Well, that day has come, only now with targeted killing, where the option of first resort meets the court of no appeal.

Yes, killing is a part of war, and torture isn't. But what if the the kind of militant who was captured and tortured under Bush is the kind of militant who is simply being killed under President Obama? The Obama Administration vigorously denies this, just as it vigorously denies that it is combating terrorism by practicing a policy of extermination against terrorists. But the numbers -- the thousands killed by drone and raid against the single high-value asset captured and interrogated outside the theater of war in Afghanistan -- tell a story that can't simply be shrugged off. Interrogation has been replaced by assassination.

Moreover, I talked to a source familiar with the targeting process who told me that the people involved in the life-or-death decisions of the Obama administration often do not know the credibility of intelligence sources. This was a highly informed and involved source who, when asked the most essential question -- "how good is the intelligence?" -- paused and finally couldn't answer. In fact, when I raised the question of whether those who were once captured are now being killed, the source suggested that it was the wrong question:

"It's not at all clear that we'd be sending our people into Yemen to capture the people we're targeting. But it's not at all clear that we'd be targeting them if the technology wasn't so advanced. What's happening is that we're using the technology to target people we never would have bothered to capture."

Unfortunately, I think targeting killing is here to stay, by the "only Nixon could go to China" logic.  By having a Democrat start this policy, it has avoided a lot of critique from the usual defenders of humanity against arbitrary power, for the simple reason that many of these folks consider Obama to be "on their team."  Just look at Andrew Sullivan, for God sakes, defending the practice.   The Left spent more time criticizing Bush over looting at the Bagdad museum than it has over Obama's targeted killing (Glen Greenwald being a notable exception).  Having set the precedent under Obama, there will be no going back under either party in the future.

Danger of the Mono-Culture

The problem with the media is not outright bias, but an intellectual mono-culture that fails to exercise the most basic skepticism when stories fit their narrative.

By the way, I find it likely that there are factories in China making products with household names for western markets that have practices from wildly unsafe to outright slavery that deserve shaming and boycotts, as a minimum, when discovered.

But I often find the discourse around "sweatshops" to be colored by weterners' middle class notions of what our own personal alternatives are.  "I would never work for a $1 a day..."  Sure, but your alternative is not 15 hours a day in a rice paddy with the constant threat of outright death and starvation for your entire family if one years' crops fail.

Just When You Thought China Might Be Joining the Modern World

from the HuffPo via Q&O

In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." But beyond the irony lies China's true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, and to quell the region's Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country. By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.

Update:  Maybe he will be reincarnated in Avignon:

At 72, the Dalai Lama, who  has lived in India since 1959, is beginning to plan his succession, saying that he refuses to be reborn in Tibet so long as it’s under Chinese control. Assuming he’s able to master the feat of controlling his rebirth, as Dalai Lamas supposedly have for the last 600 years, the situation is shaping up in which there could be two Dalai Lamas: one picked by the Chinese government, the other by Buddhist monks.

Trade is Cooperation, Not War

First, I will admit that this was probably a throwaway line, but it does represent the worldview of a lot of Americans.  In an article showing a funny story about poor preparation of college students, Kevin Drum ended with this:

This does not bode well for our coming economic war with China, does it?

Trade is not war.  Trade is cooperation, exactly the opposite of war.   By definition, it benefits both parties or it would not occur, though of course it can benefit one more than the other.

Treating trade like war is a very dangerous game engaged in by some politicians.  At best, it leads to protectionism that makes the country poorer.  At worst, it can lead to real war.

Consider two examples of a country treating trade like war, both from Japan.  In the 1930's, Japan developed an imperial desire to directly control all the key resources it needed, rather than to trade for them.  The wealthy ports of China and iron-rich Manchuria were early targets.   This desire was compounded when the US used trade embargoes as a policy tool to protest Japanese invasions and occupation of China.  This eventually led to war, with Japan's goal mainly to capture oil and rubber supplies of southeast Asia.  Obviously, this effort led to Japan essentially being left a smoking hole in the ground by late 1945.

The second example was in the 1980's, as Japan, via MITI, actively managed its economy to promote trade.  The "trade as war" vision was common among Japanese leaders of the time.  The results was a gross, government-forced misallocation of resources and bubble in the real estate and stock markets that led to a couple of lost decades.

 

Final Indicator, if You Needed One, of a Looming China Crash

Here is what I remember from the late 1980's - just about every technocratic pundit of the leftish bent, and a number on the right, all hailed Japan as the government economic planning model the US should follow.  One fawning essay after another lauded Japan's MITI and its top-down approach to economic investment.

Practically within hours of when these editorials peaked, the Japanese economy began to crumble.  We know now that MITI and other Japanese officials were creating gross distortions and misallocations in the economy, and inflating an economic bubble with gobs of cheap credit.  These distortions have still not been entirely cleared from the Japanese economy 20 years later, and the country experienced what was called "the lost decade" which may become the lost two decades.

For over a year, it has appeared to me (and many other observers more knowledgeable than I) that China was headed for a crash for many of the same reasons as Japan.  I am now sure this is true, as today Andy Stern (formerly of the SEIU) writes an essay lauding the Chinese top-down state-planned economic model.

The current debates about China's currency, the trade imbalance, our debt and China's excessive use of pirated American intellectual property are evidence that the Global Revolution—coupled with Deng Xiaoping's government-led, growth-oriented reforms—has created the planet's second-largest economy. It's on a clear trajectory to knock America off its perch by 2025....

There is no doubt that China will pass the US in total economic size -- it has three times more people than we do.  But their success is clearly due to the small dollops of free enterprise that are allowed in a statist society, and advances are made in spite of, not because of, the meddling state.

Exactly how much economic progress had China made before its leaders brought in the very free market ideas Stern says are dead?  None, of course.  To read China as a triumph of statism and as the death nell of capitalism, when in fact it is one of the greatest examples in history of the power of capitalist ideas and how fast they can turn around a starving and poverty-stricken country, is just willful blindness.

I will include just one other excerpt

While we debate, Team China rolls on. Our delegation witnessed China's people-oriented development in Chongqing, a city of 32 million in Western China, which is led by an aggressive and popular Communist Party leader—Bo Xilai. A skyline of cranes are building roughly 1.5 million square feet of usable floor space daily—including, our delegation was told, 700,000 units of public housing annually.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government can boast that it has established in Western China an economic zone for cloud computing and automotive and aerospace production resulting in 12.5% annual growth and 49% growth in annual tax revenue, with wages rising more than 10% a year.

My first thought on reading this was that Houston used to look exactly like this, with cranes all over the place building things, until we had an Administration that actively opposed expansion of domestic oil production.  My second thought is that this reads so much like the enthusiast essays written by leftists when they used to visit the Soviet Union and came back telling us Russia was so much superior to the US -- just look at the Moscow subway!

The emergence of hundreds of millions of people in China and India from poverty is exciting as hell, and at some level I don't blame Stern for his excitement.  But I fear that what he is seeing is the US housing bubble on steroids, a gross misallocation of capital and resources driven by a few technocrats who think they can manage a billion person economy from their office in Beijing.

Disclosure:  I seldom do anything but invest in generic bond funds and US stock funds, but right now I am out of US equities and I have a number of shorts on Chinese manufacturing and real estate.

Dispatches From the Corporate State: Apparently, Taxpayers Don't Give Enough Money to Solar Companies

Well, it appears that Solyndra has not scared solar companies off from feeding at the state trough

More subsidies for the solar industry in Arizona are crucial to avoid being left behind by other states and China, a Phoenix business leader said today at a solar-power conference.

Tax incentives and loan guarantees "make a lot of sense" right now in Arizona, which is already a leader in the industry, said Barry Broome, president and CEO of theGreater Phoenix Economic Council at the Solarpraxisconvention.

Despite the high-profile financial failure of the Solyndrasolar plant this year in California, Broome told a packed conference room that solar power is destined to be a major force in Arizona and elsewhere. The only question, as he sees it, is whether sunny-skied Arizona will take full advantage....

Behind Broome on an overhead screen, a chart showed that Texas, Oregon, Nevada and other states provide more "aggressive economic development tools," (a.k.a. public money), for solar power than Arizona, and the state can't compete without doing the same thing.

What is this, a football game?  This strikes me as turn-of-the-century small town boosterism updated to the 21st century, with a dollop of tribal rivalry thrown in. He's talking mainly about manufacturing of solar components.  I am left with a couple of questions

  • Why should the fact that Arizona has sunny skies have any bearing on whether or not it is an appropriate spot to manufacture solar panels.   Should Seattle subsidize umbrella manufacture because it is rainy there?   My sense is that transportation costs are a small part of the price to end users.  Arizona clearly will be a great spot for solar panels to be installed -- why does that mean we need to manufacture them?
  • If other states like Oregon or China are subsidizing solar products that we might buy, shouldn't we celebrate that?  Thanks, taxpayers of Oregon, for forking over your tax money so we can buy solar panels cheaper in Arizona.  Why in the hell should be try to out-do them at this?  Now we can go invest our capital in a business that actually makes money.
  • I am obviously not a fan of government-led economic/industrial policy, but if I were, why in the hell would I want to direct my state's capital and manpower towards a business that requires subsidies, ie can't make a profit  on its own in the marketplace?

Its just too easy to snipe at about everything in this article, but this caught my eye in particular

To help move the industry's message, Broome said, solar advocates must stop infighting over their competing technologies and present a unified and positive position.

Normally, I think an economist would argue that in an immature (both market-wise and technologically) product, competition and creative destruction between various competitors is critical to ultimate success.  So in fact this advice is totally senseless, unless you see the industry as a taxpayer-money-magnet rather than a real business, and then it makes perfect sense.  Politics, after all, demands simple sound bytes and a unified front.

Update:  In the first week of Harvard Business School, I learned a lesson from strategy class, in a series of two cases, that still may be the most important thing I learned there.  The cases were a hot, sexy electronics company, and a boring, dull as dirt water meter company.  To cut to the chase, the electronics company sucked as an investment, and the water meter company was a gold mine.  The moral, among several takeaways, is don't get fooled into thinking the hot, sexy business of the moment is necessarily a good investment.  Our development agencies in AZ are making this mistake in spades.  In fact, the entire history of government economic development efforts in Phoenix has been to chase sexy businesses at the top of the market, spend taxpayer money to get some plant relocations, and then see the businesses struggle.  We certainly did this with semiconductor fabs a couple of decades ago.

China Bubble Bursting

I don't have time today to link all the evidence, but the combination of crashing real estate markets and the Chinese government jamming liquidity into its banks tells me the China bubble is bursting as we speak.

This is an interesting test of the Austrian view of depressions vs. the Keynesian / Krugman / Thomas Friedman / MITI view of government-orchestrated prosperity.  If the latter are right, then China is doing more right to keep their economy going than any country in history and you should go invest all your money in Chinese real estate.

However, if one believes the Austrian model about government-enforced mis-allocation of capital and labor leading to bubbles and crashes; if one believes that the technocrat-beloved MITI was largely responsible for the Japanese lost decade; if one believes that the US govenrment through articially low interest rates and government-directed reductions in underwriting quality helped create the housing bubble -- then the mother of all crashes is looming in China.  Because no country has done more to reallocate resources and capital based on the whims of a few technocrats  and well-connected industrialists than has China.  After all, this is why Thomas Friedman loves China, that it does not rely on the judgement of millions of individuals to allocate capital, but instead on the finger pointing of a few at the top.

Mind of the Statist

David Roberts (via Kevin Drum) gives us a simply outstanding view of the mind of a statist:

In these grim economic times, one U.S. industry has defied gravity. Not only is it growing, it's thefastest growing industry in the country. It now employs 100,000 Americans at 5,000 mostly small businesses spread across all 50 states. Unlike in so many others, in this industry the U.S. has a positive trade balance with China; it is a net exporter of high-tech manufactured products....

The startling counter-cyclical growth of this industry had been unleashed by a modest bit of economic stimulus: a cash grant program that helps project developers compensate for the crippling credit crunch. In contrast to the familiar tax credits -- which tend to go to large, mature companies that have enough profit to benefit from them -- cash grants help small, innovative, growing businesses that are plowing revenue into growth. In fact, a recent study found that they work twice as well as tax credits. In 2009, this cash grant program pulled in $4.50 of private capital for every public dollar it invested.

The cash grant program expires at the end of the year. Extending it for a single year could support 37,000 additional jobs over and above the industry's baseline. And here's the capper: Since the cash grant program is simply repurposing money that's already devoted to a tax credit program, it requires no new federal revenue.

So you'd think this would be a home run, right? At a time when jobs are at the top of every politician's mind, surely a bit of low-cost economic stimulus that doesn't increase the deficit and leverages tons of private capital and creates tens of thousands of jobs can serve as the rare locus of bipartisan cooperation. Right?

Except the industry in question is the solar industry. And because this industry involves clean energy rather than, I dunno, tractor parts, it has been sucked into conservatives' endless culture war. Rather than lining up to support the recession's rare economic success story, Republicans are trying to use the failure of a single company -- Solyndra -- as a wedge to crush support for the whole industry. Odds are they're going to succeed and the cash grant program (Sec. 1603) won't be renewed next year.

Do you see the basic assumption -- if we don't take money from taxpayers and give it to businesses in a certain industry, that means we don't like that business.  Really?  That means that there is not a single industry in this country that I like, since I don't support subsidies for any of them.   Unless you believe the state is mother and father to us all, the fact that I don't support state subsidies does not mean that I don't like the industry somehow.  Kevin Drum even goes so far as to say that opposition to solar power subsidies is an aspect of the culture wars.  Huh?   Oh and by the way, the politicization of this loan process is just amazing to me.  More and more people at Solyndra seem to be fund raisers for Obama, and here is a story of how a cleaning products company turned donations to Democratic candidates into taxpayers subsidies for themselves.

It is interesting that he would mention tractor parts.  Guess what, folks who don't like the solar subsidies probably don't support subsidies for tractor parts either.  I was going to say something like, "guess what, we don't subsidize tractor parts" but in our screwed up corporate state, we probably do at some level, like with some special export program snagged by a John Deere lobbyist.  But I can pretty much guarantee that we don't subsidize anywhere near the total value of the tractor parts industry like we do the solar industry.

In one silly passage, he says

"In addition to being successful, this industry is wildly popular with the American public, across regions, demographics, and political parties. It has been embraced by mainstream institutions from Walmart to the U.S. military"

I could say the same thing for iPods too, but no one is rushing to provide grant programs for their manufacture.  If it is so wildly popular, why does its use require so many government incentives and subsidies.  Because the author pulls the trick of looking at one narrow solar program, and attributing the entire solar industry growth to that one program.  And then he says, see, look how much benefit we get from this tiny sensible expenditure.

But solar's growth (I don't have the data, but I am willing to be real money that his "fastest growing industry" claim is BS) is due not to just this tiny programs but to a plethora of federal, state, and local subsidies and mandates.  The government gives money to capitalize companies, and then then provides tax credits for up to 30-50% of their customer's purchase, and then through public utility commissions enforce above-market feed-in tariff rates for solar power.  One reason we export so much (the export market for US solar is nearly entirely to Europe) is that European governments have feed-in tariffs for solar power more than 5 times higher than the market rate for electricity.   They are paying something like 70 cents a kilowatt for solar electricity.

So of course solar is growing.  If the government were to buy small cars for $150,000 each, there would be big growth in car manufacturing. This does not mean the product makes sense -- in fact, the necessity for so many government supports at every step of the process means almost by definition that it does not make sense economically.  Look at corn ethanol.  Corn ethanol is the stupidest product ever, but it has grown like crazy due to the same combination of government subsidies, price floors, and mandates.

By the way, I am a huge fan of solar, in theory.  I honestly think that solar will some day be the power system of choice in this country, as companies figure out how to roll solar sheets out of the factory as cheaply and quickly as carpet comes out of Dalton, Georgia.  We are not there yet, and I am not at all convinced that the current approaches are anything but dead end technologies.  Beyond wasting a lot of money, there is a real risk the government actually slow ultimate implementation of sensible and economic solar, just as I would argue they did by forcing manned space flight and the transcontinental railroad ahead of their time.

Chinese Consumers Thank the US Senate

From my Forbes post today, the following letter:

From:  The Consumers and Small Businesses of China

To:   The United States Senate

Re:  Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2011

Dear Senators:

Thanks!  For years, our government has pursued a currency and trade policy that has subsidized your American consumers at the expense of our own here in China, and while we are unsure exactly why you would want to end this arrangement (we presume due to powerful lobby by your large manufacturers), we are happy that you are doing so....

A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields and creating inflationary pressures.

Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a transfer of wealth from Chinese citizens to Americans, and we are tired of it.

Read it all.

More Corporate Welfare, in the Form of a Currency War

From the Hill, the ghost of Hawley-Smoot returns

 The Senate voted Monday to advance legislation pressuring the Chinese government to stop undervaluing its currency, a practice most economists agree is giving the country an unfair trade advantage and is costing the U.S. jobs.

The Senate voted 79-19 to end debate on a motion to proceed to the bill, the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2011. While the vote does not mean the bill has passed, the strong show of support suggests it could well be approved in the upper chamber by the week’s end. Passage through the House is less clear, however, and GOP leaders have given no indication they will move forward with it.

Senate Democratic leadership, responsible for bringing the legislation to the Senate floor, heralded it as a way to create jobs and right a long-standing trade imbalance with China.

“China is by far the biggest exploiter of predatory currency practices,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday. “[T]hese currency policies artificially raise the price of U.S. exports and suppress the price of imports into the United States, undermining the economic health of American manufacturers and their ability to compete at home and around the globe.”

This is a great example of how a group, in this case the Democratic Party, can say they are against corporate welfare, but in fact be 100% behind it simply by changing the terms used.

Look at the sentence in bold.  Another way to write this would be "we want a law to help a few visible and influential manufacturers who most compete with China, but hurts consumers (ie every single American) and every business that uses imported raw materials.

Protectionism like this is corporate welfare for a few large manufacturers.  I find it amazing the reporter can say that "most economists agree" an undervalued Chinese currency is costing us jobs.  My sense is that most economists don't agree with this statement.  All this law will do is unilaterally increase consumer prices and raw material costs, and I know few economists who think this is stimulative.

A cheap yuan is a direct subsidy of American consumers by the Chinese, and I am not sure why we shouldn't let it continue as long as they are dumb enough to keep doing it.

Owning Solyndra

Kevin Drum makes a pleas for liberals to, in effect, rally around Solyndra and be proud of the investment.  I am sure Republicans would give the same advice to liberals.  I want to look at a few of his arguments.

First, for libertarians like myself, the argument that Republicans did it too, or the Republicans started it, are a non-starter.  In particular, I actually thought the Obama Administration's attempt to blame Bush for Solyndra was an Onion article, since its almost a caricature of this administrations refusal to take responsibility for anything.  Unlike Republicans, I don't see this so much as an Obama failure as a government failure, and I don't really care if it is of the red or blue flavor.

Second, the fact that private investors put their own money into it is irrelevant.  Private investors poured money into Pets.com too.  Obama was pouring my money into Solyndra, and yes the fact that it is my money makes a difference.

Further, private investors put their money into Solyndra years before the taxpayer did.  It may well have been that they had a reasonable expectation at that time of investment returns.  That is their problem.  Our problem is that by the time Obama put our money into the company, it was pretty clear to everyone in the industry that Solyndra was going nowhere.

Drum and his source, Dave Roberts, attempt to argue that the drop in silicon prices and addition of low-cost solar capacity in China didn't occur until months after Obama's decision to fund Solyndra.  But that is a tortured argument.  In point of fact, everyone in the industry saw this coming - after all, the capacity Roberts describes as coming online in June was under construction months and years before that, and was known to be coming by everyone in the industry.  When I was in a global manufacturing business, we kept up with everyone's plans for capacity additions -- I can't even imagine waking up one day and saying, "huh, a bunch of capacity just opened in China."  (by the way, it is pretty typical of liberals to see prices as a given, rather than as a part of a feedback system where high prices lead to actions that might well lower prices over time).

This timeline is therefore pretty disingenuous

March 2009: The same credit committee approves the strengthened loan application. The deal passes on to DOE’s credit review board. Career staff (not political appointees) within the DOE issue a conditional commitment setting out terms for a guarantee.

June 2009: As more silicon production facilities come online while demand for PV wavers due to the economic slowdown, silicon prices start to drop. Meanwhile, the Chinese begin rapidly scaling domestic manufacturing and set a path toward dramatic, unforeseen cost reductions in PV. Between June of 2009 and August of 2011, PV prices drop more than 50%.

I am sure that this is wildly logical to a journalism major, but someone in business would laugh off the implication that what happened in June was wholly unforeseeable in March.  Want more proof?  The loan guarantee itself is proof.   Years earlier, the company attracted a billion dollars of private capital.  Now it takes a government guarantee to get capital?  And you think nothing had changed with the insider's perception of the opportunity?

A good analogy might be if I invested in Greek bonds today.  And then in 3 months the Greek government defaults and I lose all my money.  I suppose I could craft a timeline that said the default did not happen until months after my investment, but could anyone living right now say that I really had no reason on September 16, 2011 to expect a Greek default?

The real howler in the article is this one:

There was no scandal in the loan process, and there's nothing unusual about having a certain fraction of speculative programs like this fail. It's all part of the way the free market works.

First, I agree there is no scandal here if one defines scandal as something out of the norm.  Republicans want to count political coup on Democrats so they want to say this is fraudulent.  But fraudulent implies that we could find honorable technocrats who could have avoided this problem.  We can't.  This kind of failure is fundamental and inseparable from the act of government trying to pick winners, and would exist no matter what people were in place.

Second, calling this "the way free markets work" is obscene.   Free markets don't use force on investors to make them put money into certain investments.

But more importantly, government loan guarantees go only to those companies who the free market has chosen NOT to fund.  If the free market was willing to toss another half billion into Solyndra, its owners would not have been burning a path back and forth to Washington.  So by definition, every single government loan guarantee in this program is to a company or a technology that the free market, knowledgeable investors, and industry insiders have rejected as a bad investment.  For the program to work, one has to believe that Obama, Chu, and some career energy department bureaucrats have a better understanding of commercializing technologies than do private investors (who are investing with their own money) and industry experts.

Postscript:  I have to also comment on this from the timeline:

February 2011: Due to a liquidity crisis, investors provide $75 million to help restructure the loan guarantee. The DOE rightly assumed it was better to give Solyndra a fighting chance rather than liquidate the company – which was a going concern – for market value, which would have guaranteed significant losses.

The author glosses over it, but this is the $75 million I discussed the other day that dropped the US out of the senior position and guaranteed that the taxpayer would lose everything rather than only a portion of the investment

The notion of giving it more time was absurd.  Even closed with everyone laid off the company is burning a million a week in cash.  How much was it burning when open? And if it was totally clear at this point that the market had fundamentally shifted and the company could not compete, what the hell was the time going to help?  Maybe they were hoping to win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes?  I suppose it could have been to give them time to try to sell the company, but there is no evidence any such discussions were taking place.

In fact, it is pretty clear that the US Government got played with that $75 million investment.  Any private lender who had allowed someone else to grab the senior position for a trivial investment in a company on the express train to chapter 7 would be fired immediately.

And if you want fraud, you might look at Solyndra's summer asset sales.  All the company's assets of any liquidity and value were sold over the summer to Argonaut, who also happens to be the owner of the majority state AND the company who invested $75 million in return for the senior position.  Depending on the sale price for this self-dealing, one could argue that the time the $75 million bought was merely the time needed to loot the company of any valuable assets before it went bankrupt.

Postscript #2:  I have written before about how much expertise about business tends to be claimed by liberal journalists and places like Think Progress.  I had a funny thought trying to imagine the Think Progress business school and what it would teach.  Might be a parody I need to write sometime.

Cloudy with 100% Chance of Corporate State

It does not appear that Rick Perry is the guy to dismantle our growing corporate state.

The LA Times investigates the big-money culture of Texas politics, which has gotten even bigger and money-er since Rick Perry became governor:

Perry has received a total of $37 million over the last decade from just 150 individuals and couples, who are likely to form the backbone of his new effort to win the Republican presidential nomination....Nearly half of those mega-donors received hefty business contracts, tax breaks or appointments under Perry, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Perry, campaigning Monday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, declined to comment when asked how he separated the interests of his donors from the needs of his state. His aides vigorously dispute that his contributors received any perks. "They get the same thing that all Texans get," said spokesman Mark Miner.

Nearly half! And this doesn't even include anything about David Nance and the largesse Perry distributes via his $200 million state-managed venture capital slush fund. Doling out political favors in industrial quantities is obviously something that isn't frowned upon by Texas political culture, and Perry has taken it to whole new levels.

Kudos to the LA Times and folks like Kevin Drum for digging this up, but everyone involved should be embarrassed by just how partisan outrage on this kind of thing can be.  The same folks who are rightly upset at Perry actively cheered on Obama as he took ownership of GM away from the secured creditors and handed it to his major campaign supporters in the UAW.  His stimulus program has been a trillion dollar slush fund to pay off nearly every liberal constituency, and while I find the idea of a state-run venture capital fund horrifying, I see no difference here with Obama's green job investments, many of which have gone triends, campaign supporters, and even spouses of prominent administration officials.

As I asked the other day, if the President is really supposed to be our VC in chief (an absurd thought) who in the hell would pick Obama for the job?  As one random example out of my feed reader:

Last year, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced the city had won a coveted $20 million federal grant to invest in weatherization. The unglamorous work of insulating crawl spaces and attics had emerged as a silver bullet in a bleak economy – able to create jobs and shrink carbon footprint – and the announcement came with great fanfare.

McGinn had joined Vice President Joe Biden in the White House to make it. It came on the eve of Earth Day. It had heady goals: creating 2,000 living-wage jobs in Seattle and retrofitting 2,000 homes in poorer neighborhoods.

But more than a year later, Seattle's numbers are lackluster. As of last week, only three homes had been retrofitted and just 14 new jobs have emerged from the program. Many of the jobs are administrative, and not the entry-level pathways once dreamed of for low-income workers. Some people wonder if the original goals are now achievable.

"The jobs haven't surfaced yet," said Michael Woo, director of Got Green, a Seattle community organizing group focused on the environment and social justice.

"It's been a very slow and tedious process. It's almost painful, the number of meetings people have gone to. Those are the people who got jobs. There's been no real investment for the broader public."

At the same time, heavily subsidized Evergreen Solar is going bankrupt.

Bloomberg News reports that the firm Evergreen Solar will file for bankruptcy and close its operation in Midland, Mich. The maker of solar cells cites over-capacity in the industry, competition from China and fewer government subsidies as contributing factors. According to Bloomberg, the firm has 133 employees worldwide.

Given a Michigan location and participation in a politically faddish industry, readers won't be surprised that Evergreen was the beneficiary of special state subsidies and a local tax break. Specifically, three years ago Evergreen Solar was offered a $1.8 million "refundable" tax credit by the Michigan Economic Growth Authority. For firms with little or no tax liability, this amounts to an outright cash subsidy, contingent on attaining certain employment and investment milestones. Evergreen Solar's specific tax liability is not public information.

The deal was based on crystal-ball projections from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation using a software program known as REMI, which predicted that an Evergreen deal would create exactly 596 direct and "spin-off" jobs by 2018, producing $18.5 million in new state tax revenue.

The city of Midland also granted property tax abatements worth $3.9 million over 12 years, according to Mlive.com. It's not known how much, if any, of these subsidies and tax breaks were ever collected by the company.

This actually understates the total subsidies, as it ignores subsidies to its customers, incoluding above market geed-in tariffs, to buy the solar panels.

Closer to home, a Tucson solar panel manufacturer that was opened to great fanfare with the help of Janet Napolitano and Gabby Giffords just closed after being open barely 2 years.  They scored some subsidies, got some large government and utility contracts on the promise of local employment, and then packed up shop for China.  Apparently they were attempting to compete in the commodity solar panel market on a strategy of having a higher fit and finish on their product, a product that sits on the roof and no one ever looks at.  Good plan.

PS-  Yes, private investments fail all the time, but they are 1) not using my money, unless I voluntarily offer it and 2) there are real consequences for those who make bad investments

What Thomas Friedman Wants for America

When it comes to high speed rail, the Left tends to have a Santa Clause mentality.   They want the rail, but refuse to even discuss its costs vs. benefits, as if it is going to be dropped in place by Santa Clause.

I have actually had pro-high-speed rail writers call me a dinosaur for taking a cost-benefit approach.  After a reasoned article on why our rail system, with its focus on freight, makes more sense than China and Europe's focus on high speed passenger rail, Joel Epstein wrote me that I should get out of the country more, as if I am some backwoods rube that would just swoon if I saw a nifty bullet train.  For the record, my actual experience on a high-speed rail train in Europe confirmed that it was a nice experience (I knew it would be) and that it was a financial mess, as my son and I were the only passengers in my car.  I would be all for HSR if Santa Clause dropped in down from the North Pole, but it costs a lot of real money.

How much money?  Well take the system in China that Friedman and Epstein and many others have begged the US to emulate:

The rail ministry that builds and operates the trains has an incredible 2.1 million employees, more than the number of civilians employed by the entire U.S. government. Moreover, the ministry is in debt to the tune of 2.1 trillion yuan ($326 billion), about 5 percent of the country’s GDP.