Posts tagged ‘Japan’

The US Has The Best Rail System in the World, and Matt Yglesias Actually Pointed Out the Reason

Yglesias has a very good article on why passenger rail is not a bigger deal in the US.   In it, he says this (emphasis added):

Instead the issue is that the dismal failure of US passenger rail is in large part the flip side of the success of US freight rail. America's railroads ship a dramatically larger share of total goods than their European peers. And this is no coincidence. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, the railroad infrastructure is generally owned by freight companies — Amtrak is just piggybacking on the spare capacity.

It is a short article, so it does not go into more depth than this, but I have actually gone further than this and argued that the US freight-dominated rail system is actually far greener and more sensible than the European passenger system.  As I wrote years ago at Forbes:

The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China’s, 1/8 of Germany’s).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe and Japan are not even close.  Specifically, about 40% of US freight moves by rail, vs. just 10% or so in Europe and less than 5% in Japan.   As a result, far more of European and Japanese freight jams up the highways in trucks than in the United States.  For example, the percentage of freight that hits the roads in Japan is nearly double that of the US.

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail — not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make for a net energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel — especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real rail efficiency comes from moving freight.  As compared to passenger rail, more of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reason for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails. ....

I would argue that the US has the world’s largest commitment to rail where it really matters.  But that is what private actors do, make investments that actually make sense rather than just gain one prestige (anyone know the most recent company Warren Buffet has bought?)  The greens should be demanding that the world emulate us, rather than the other way around.  But the lure of shiny bullet trains and grand passenger concourses will always cause some intellectuals to swoon.

Which would you rather pounding down the highway, more people on vacation or more big trucks moving freight?  Without having made an explicit top-down choice at all, the US has taken the better approach.

Contact Lenses and Cronyism

Hooray for Veronica de Rugy, who is criticizing prescription requirements for contact lenses.

What makes the contact lens market unique — and also leaves it extra vulnerable to crony intervention — is the fact that customers are required by federal law to obtain a prescription from a licensed optometrist in order to purchase lenses.

It is a rare instance where prescribers are also sellers, which leads to a cozy relationship between manufacturers and the doctors who can steer patients toward their brand.

Prescriptions are brand-specific, which makes it difficult for consumers to shop around. Choosing a different brand would require paying for another exam in order to obtain a new prescription.

The simplest solution would be to do away with the gatekeepers altogether and allow the purchase of contact lenses without a prescription.

It works just fine that way in Europe and Japan

I feel like I have been the lone voice in the wilderness on this one, writing about my frustration with contact lens prescription requirements way back in 2007:

I drive into my local Shell station to fill up, and stick my card in the pump, but the pump refuses to dispense.  I walk into the office and ask the store manager why I can't get gasoline.  She checks my account, and says "Mr. Meyer, your Volvo fuel prescription has expired."  I say, "Oh, well its OK, I am sure I am using the right gas."  She replies, "I'm sorry, but the law requires that you have to have a valid prescription from your dealership to refill your gas.  You can't make that determination yourself, and most car dealerships have their prescriptions expire each year to make sure you bring the car in for a checkup.  Regular checkups are important to the health of your car.  You will need to pay for a service visit to your dealership before we can sell you gas."  I reply, "RRRRRRR."

OK, so if this really happened we would all scream SCAM!  While we all recognize that it may be important to get our car checked out every once in a while, most of us would see this for what it was:  A government regulation intended mainly to increase the business of my Volvo dealership's service department by forcing me to pay for regular visits.

So why don't we cry foul when the exact same situation occurs every day with glasses and contact lenses?

The Fed Wins!

I have observed before that the central bank of every major industrialized country is trying to devalue its currency.  Since in some sense this is a zero sum game, they are all locked into a race to the bottom, a competition to see who can be most successful in hammering their consumers and individual savers in order to boost sales of their domestic companies dependent on export markets.

It looks like the US is winning!  Yay for us, we have destroyed our currency the fastest!  Our government has been most successful in making our domestic consumers relatively poorer vs. those of other nations.  Who says the Obama Administration can't do anything right?

The article goes on to point out something I have been saying for years -- that the unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus steps that governments are taking today at the peak of the economic cycle (though admittedly a relatively weak peak) is going to leave the tank completely empty when it comes to the next downturn.

While the ECB’s initial move to cut interest rates into negative territory in June 2014 sparked a sharp plunge in the euro, further cuts last December and last week have had little effect on the currency.

“The ECB’s hand has been played out,” said Alan Ruskin, head of G-10 foreign-exchange strategy at Deutsche Bank AG. “The currency market isn’t as responsive to the ECB anymore.”

Similarly, markets have ignored the Bank of Japan’s hints at its monetary-policy meeting this week of more rate cuts to come. Not only has the mechanism transmitting ultraloose policy into the real economy appeared to be broken, but some unconventional policy tools—such as negative interest rates—have been deleterious to banks and rattled financial markets.

And maybe that's OK - maybe at some point some government starts thinking about fixing structural regulation, taxation, and government resource reallocation policies that are the true source of economic weakness.

China as a Test of Keynes vs. Hayek

Let's start by saying that I have an imperfect layman's view of Keynes and Hayek.  This is my understanding and over-simplification of how these camps deal with economic downturns.

  • Keynes:  Economic downturns result from some sort of failure of aggregate demand.  There are positive feedbacks in the system such that a small downturn can lead to a larger downturn if left unchecked (but on the flip side mean that a small stimulus can have a disproportionately large effect on demand).  The proper government response to a downturn is to create demand through government deficit spending.   Failure to emerge in a timely manner from a recession likely is the result of the government not being aggressive enough in its spending.
  • Hayek:  Economic downturns result from mis-allocation of savings and investment capital, often due to government policy by not necessarily so (one can argue the housing bubble was driven by government policy, but the first Internet bubble likely was not).  The proper government response to a recession is to stop any distorting government policy that drove it and let the economy sort itself out by restructuring.  Failure to emerge in a timely manner from a recession is likely due to interventions that slow this necessary restructuring (e.g. bailouts, government-directed investment programs).

I will say that if my Hayek description is not correct for the Austrians, it is correct for me -- this is what I believe happens.

That said, I have long thought the Japanese lost decade(s) were pretty much final proof of the Hayek vs. Keynes explanation, and I am sort of amazed people still argue about it.  I remember in the 80's people in the US admired the Japanese MITI system of industrial management that carefully directed investment into government-preferred industries and, by the way, stomped on the Japanese consumer (including laws that kept both the retail and agricultural sectors backwards) in favor of promoting the export market.

In the 20+ years since Japan slid into a downturn, they have been the poster child for Keynesian stimulation.  They have deficit spent like crazy and have driven up -- by a longshot -- the largest government debt as a percent of GDP of any of the industrialized nations.  Yet still they flounder -- I would argue precisely because they had an Austrian recession, based on years and years of government-enforced mal-investment, but have refused the Austrian solution.  Watching it evolve over the years, I have thought it impossible to miss the point, but it appears that Krugman-Keynesians can always argue, not matter how much government debt was run up, that the problem was that they just didn't spend enough.

Well, in my view we have another such test coming, perhaps even more stark -- in China.  China, perhaps more than Japan, has filled their economy with investment distortions -- the huge empty cities that get shown on the Internet seem to be one example.

China empty city

And over the past year or two, China has been deficit spending and stimulating like hell -- both at the central government level as well as with policies that have encouraged the accumulation of debt both locally and in industry.

This is why I think the crash is coming in China, and the longer they manage to delay it by artificial means, the worse and longer the crash will be.  There is probably a bet that could be had here, but I am not sure how it would be structured.

Keynesians Have Shot Their Only Bolt -- How Will They Spend Their Way Through The Next Crisis?

Governments have spent so much, to so little effect, to try to stimulate the current economy, I wonder where they will find the resources to spend more the next time?  Because you can be sure that despite the fact that we are likely near the top of a weak cycle, no one is paying back what was spent in the last recession or proposing to reduce central bank balance sheets.

This is a couple of years old, but tells the story pretty well:

The financial crisis that began in late 2007, with its mix of liquidity crunch, decreased tax revenues, huge economic stimulus programs, recapitalizations of banks and so on and so forth, led to a dramatic increase in the public debt for most advanced economies. Public debt as a percent of GDP in OECD countries as a whole went from hovering around 70% throughout the 1990s to almost 110% in 2012. It is now projected to grow to 112.5% of GDP by 2014, possibly rising even higher in the following years. This trend is visible not only in countries with a history of debt problems - such as Japan, Italy, Belgium and Greece - but also in countries where it was relatively low before the crisis - such as the US, UK, France, Portugal and Ireland.

So over a third of the debt that has been built up in all of history by Western nations was added in just a few years from 2007-2012.  At the same time, the central banks of these countries were adding to their balance sheets like crazy, essentially printing money in addition to this deficit spending.  In the US, the Fed's balance sheet as a percent of GDP hovered around 6% until the second half of 2008.   That had tripled to over 18% in 2012 (source).  At the same time, European central bank assets grew from about 7% to over 16% of GDP.

James Taranto has a regular feature named after a reporter named Fox Butterfield.  The feature takes statements such as "Despite Mary getting a PhD in Peruvian gender studies from Harvard, she has struggled to find a job" and argues that the "despite" should be replaced by "because".

This is certainly true of the statement that "despite record stimulus and Fed balance sheet expansion, the economy has remained sluggish".  That "despite" should be "because of".  The government continues to distort the allocation of capital and wonders why investment is sluggish and tends towards bubbles in certain assets.  Japan has stimulated for 25 years to absurd levels of debt and has gotten 25 years of sluggishness in return.

All this reminds me of a story in one of my favorite business books, "Barbarians at the Gate."  Back in the day, tobacco companies had a practice of jamming inventory into the channel just ahead of the semi-annual price increase.   They called this "loading."  The channel liked it because they got cheap product to sell at the new higher prices.  The tobacco companies liked it because it boosted quarterly revenues at the end of the quarter.  But that boost only happens once.  To show growth the next quarter, one must load even more.  Over time, they were jamming huge amounts of inventory into the channel.  I have never been a smoker, but apparently freshness is an issue with cigarettes and they can go stale.  Eventually, the company was loading so much their sales started to drop because everyone was buying stale cigarettes.

In find this a powerful metaphor for government interventions in the economy today.

Postscript:  I will give another example.  In Arizona, we are on a July-June fiscal year.  Years ago, some government yahoo had the bright idea to close a budget hole by passing a law that all businesses had to pre-pay their estimate of sales taxes due in July a month earlier in June.  For that one glorious year, politicians had 13 months of revenue to spend rather than 12.

But to set things aright the next year, they would have to live with just 11 months of revenue.  No way they were going to do that!  So they did the pull-forward thing again to get a full 12 months.  And they have done it every year since.  It has become an institution.  All this costs a ton of money to process, as the state must essentially process a 13th return each year, presumably paying overtime and temp costs to do it.  All for the benefit of one year where they got the use of one month of revenue early, we have been stuck with higher state operating costs forever.

The Worst New Idea of the 20th Century

I wanted to add something to my post on Hiroshima the other day.  The point of the post was not to argue for any comfort with atomic weapons or the killing of tens of thousands of civilians (mutual assured destruction has got to be the dumbest, scariest, craziest basis for international relations ever conceived).  The point was to argue that most arguments about Hiroshima are stripped of historical context, colored by our experience of the Cold War, and based on increasingly popular but incorrect assumptions about the rulers of Japan at the end of the war.

So as an adjunct to that post, I wanted to emphasize that I think civilian bombing (whether conventional or nuclear) to be the worst single new idea of the 20th century.  The absolute worst ideas of the 20th century were likely Marxism and genocide, but these were not new to the 2oth century.  But strategic bombing of civilian populations far to the rear of the front lines, whether convention or nuclear, by airplane or missile, was almost entirely new.  It was an awful, terrible idea that haunts us to this day.

It is in this context that I don't single out Hiroshima for particular opprobrium.  It was a change in technology in a horrendous program.  The worst of the lot in my mind was Arthur Harris.  Harris, head of the British strategic bombing effort through most of the war, did not even pretend to be targeting industries or factories.  He thought such precision bombing to be madness.  His very specific goal was to kill and "unhouse" as many civilians as possible, and he measured the British bombing effort in those terms.

Even Vox Can't Make A Very Strong Case For Streetcars

A reader sent me a link to this Vox article on streetcars.  What I thought was interesting is just how weak the case for streetcars is, even when made by folks are are presumably sympathetic to them.  This page is entitled "Why do cities want streeetcars."  The arguments are:

  • Tourists like them, because you can't get lost like you can on buses.  My response is, "so what."  Unless you are one of a very few unique cities, tourists are a trivial percentage of transit riders anyway.  Why build a huge system just to serve out-of-town visitors?  I would add that many of these same cities (e.g. Las Vegas) considering streetcars are the same ones banning Uber, which tourists REALLY love.
  • Developers like them.  Ahh, now we are getting somewhere.  So they are corporate welfare?  But not so fast, they are not even very good corporate welfare.  Because most of the studies they cite are total BS, of the same quality as studies that say sports stadium construction spurs all sorts of business.  In fact, most cities have linked huge tax abatement and subsidy programs to their streetcars, such that the development you get with the subsidy and the streetcar is about what you would expect from the subsidies alone.  Reminds me of the old joke that mimicked cereal commercials: "As part of a breakfast with juice, toast, and milk, Trix cereal has all the nutrition of juice, toast, and milk."
  • Good for the environment.  But even Vox asks, "as compared to what."  Since they are generally an alternative buses, as compared to buses that have little environmental advantage and often are worse (they have a lot more weight to drag around when empty).
  • The Obama Administration likes them.  LOL, that's a recommendation?  When you read the text, what they actually say is that mayors like the fact that the Obama Administration likes them, for it means the Feds will throw lots of Federal money at these projects to help mayors look good using other peoples' money
  • Jobs.  This is hilarious Keynesianism, trying to make the fact that streetcars are 10-100x more expensive than buses some sort of positive.  Because they are more inefficient, they employ more people!  One could make the exact same argument for banning mechanical harvesters and going back to scythes.   Left unquestioned, as Bastiat would tell us, is how many people that money would have employed if it had not been seized by the government for streetcar use.
  • Je ne sais quoi.  I kid you not, that is their final argument, that streetcars add that special something to a neighborhood.  In my mind, this is Vox's way of saying the same thing I did the other day -- that the streetcar's appeal is primarily based on class, in that middle and upper class folks don't want to ride on a bus with the masses.   The streetcar feels more upscale than buses.   The poor of course, for whom public transit is most vital, don't want to pay 10 times more for sexiness.  Oh, and watch this video of Washington streetcars blocking traffic and crunching parked cars and tell me what it is adding to the neighborhood.

Every argument I have ever been in on streetcars always boils down to something like "well, all the cool kids like them."  Once, after defending the US approach to rail (vs. Europe and Japan) as (correctly) focusing on productivity vs. sexiness, having gone into a lot of detail on the economics of freight vs. passengers, I got a one sentence answer from Joel Epstein of the HuffPo:  “You should get out of the country more often.”  That was it -- the cool cosmopolitan kids who vacation in Gstaad but never would be caught dead driving across Nebraska were all against me.

Celebrate the Strong Dollar

We are already seeing articles bemoaning the strong dollar as somehow a threat to the American economy.  Don't believe it.  Maintaining a weak dollar is yet another crony government program that benefits a tiny minority of admittedly vocal and politically connected Americans.

First, a bit of an aside.  It is amazing to me that the US dollar can be strong at all right now, given the actions of the Fed.  With its near infinite QE and zero-interest rate programs, one would expect the dollar to be weak (Oversimplifying, driving down the returns on financial assets reduces the overseas demand for them, thus reducing the demand for dollars, driving down the price of dollars).  But it turns out that the rest of the world (esp. Japan and the EU) are actually working twice as hard to trash their own currencies (they are actually heading into negative interest rate territory, not just zero) and thus on a relative basis, the dollar is stronger.

Companies that export or compete a lot with manufacturers in other countries hate the strong dollar.  It makes their domestically produced products more expensive vis a vis products manufactured in other countries.  Many of these companies have powerful political voices, and some have large unions with even more powerful political voices.  They lobby for a weaker dollar.  Part of that lobbying is often to portray other countries as nefariously "manipulating" their currencies to hurt the US.

What these countries that are weakening their own currencies are actually doing is trashing the prosperity of the vast majority of their citizens to protect the earnings of a few politically powerful producers.  Japan is a great example.  Japan is a country in which consumers have been stomped on from decades in order to reduce the price of the country's exports.  Japanese consumers pay far more for everything than we do, all so their exporters can lower their prices in the US.

This is the same in China.  We frequently host visiting Chinese students.  You know what every one of these kids do on their trip to the US?  They bring an empty suitcase that they fill up with electronic and fashion goods they buy here, many of which were actually manufactured in China  (I have never, ever have hosted a Chinese student that did not buy at least one Chinese-manufactured iPhone here).

So, we must oppose this currency "manipulation" that impoverishes Japanese, Chinese, and European citizens in favor of giving much lower prices to Americans -- Why?

We should celebrate the strong dollar.  It makes every one of us richer.  Not just when we buy Chinese electronics, but even when we buy American-made products that now must be less expensive to compete with foreign products and which benefit from cheaper inputs in their own manufacturing.

Years and years ago I wrote a hypothetical post about Chinese interventions to maintain a trade surplus form a Chinese consumer's perspective in a post from our sister publication Panda Blog.  I think it holds up really well.  It said in part:

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  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 on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

In China, It's 1928

I know I have been warning about a Chinese recession/depression for a while, but it takes a while (and still will take some time) for this disaster to play out.  But the warning signs are all there.  This article today in the WSJ is a great example.  

A little over a year ago, a Chinese credit agency downgraded a government-owned financing company in this dusty industrial city. Default—nearly unheard-of in China on government bonds—was a possibility, it said.

But during discussions with lenders, city officials made sure Wuhan Urban Construction Investment & Development Corp. could keep borrowing, officials with knowledge of the matter say. The city during those discussions said it backed the finance firm, essentially guaranteeing the debt, and helped the company restructure its assets to entice investors to lend more.

Borrowing by firms like Wuhan Urban is a big reason China’s debt load is expanding. The International Monetary Fund says China’s debt is growing more rapidly than debt in Japan, South Korea and the U.S. did before they tumbled into deep recessions. Local-government borrowing is responsible for one-fourth of the buildup in China’s overall domestic debt since 2008....

Even before its latest step, Beijing had put forward plans to slow local-borrowing growth. But China’s local governments have a surprising ability to resist policies. Another central-government priority—reducing excess production in steel, cement and other industries—has foundered due to local opposition.

“The guys running local government financing operations won’t roll over and die,” says Fraser Howie, co-author of “Red Capitalism,” a study of China’s financial system. “These companies take on a life of their own.”

Perhaps we should call this the looming Thomas Friedman recession, as China goes bankrupt doing exactly what Friedman admires - building more and more infrastructure and then taking out debt and building even more.

There is absolutely no reason to believe, as folks like Friedman do, that this investment in infrastructure automatically has a positive return, and in fact there are a lot of reasons to think it does not (ie gluts of housing and basic materials).  As I have written before, like light rail spending in the US, these infrastructure investments pay their benefits mostly in prestige to local government officials and rents for politically connected contractors and government workers and not in real returns to future economic growth.

I tend to accept the Austrian theory of recessions, which I would simplify (perhaps inaccurately) as mis-allocation of capital and labor investments leading to economic downturns as the economy restructures.  The longer the reckoning is put off, the worse the recession.   These mis-allocations can sometimes be due to private causes (e.g. over-euphoric investments in early Internet companies in the late 1990's) but they often have public causes (e.g. artificially low interest rates or government programs to promote investment in a single industry like, say, housing).

I am convinced this is what brought down Japan -- after years of admiration for Japan, inc. and MITI economic management, it turns out the government had directed all capital into a few export manufacturing industries, while continuing to protect retail and agriculture locally from any real change or competition.  Which is why 25 years of government directed deficit spending has not fixed the recession -- it just doubles down on the original cause.  For those of you too young to remember, the Friedman-types of the world were all praising Japan to the hilt in the late 80's as the model we should all be following.  People like this don't admit error, they simply shut up about Japan and started praising the same behaviors in China.

The same reckoning is coming to China.  Probably not this year or the next, but within the next 5 years almost for sure.  It is 1928 in China.

Postscript:  By 1928, I mean a year of apparent prosperity before the Great Depression in 1929.  I am not referring to the nominal reunification of China or start of the "republic" under Chiang Kai-shek.

Quantitative Easing and the Left's Relationship to the Rich and to Large Corporations

The Left spends a lot of time railing against the rich and large corporations.  But in practice, they seem hell-bent on lining the pockets of exactly these groups.  Today the ECB announces a one trillion plus euro government buyback of public and private securities.

Between Japan, the US, and now Europe, the world's central banks are printing money like crazy to inflate securities values around the world -- debt securities directly by buying them but indirectly a lot of the money spills over into stocks as well.  This has been a huge windfall for people whose income mostly comes from capital gains (i.e. rich people) and institutions that have access to bond and equity markets (i.e. large corporations).  You can see the effects in the skyrocketing income inequality numbers over the last 6 years.  On the other end, as a small business person, you sure can't see any difference in my access or cost of capital.  It is still just as impossible to get a cash flow loan as it always was.

Keynesian Moving Target on What Constitutes Austerity

The other day I said I was confused by what exactly creates Keynesian stimulus, and in reverse, what constitutes austerity.  I had thought that it was deficit spending that creates the stimulus, but then sometimes it seems to just be spending and in the case of the Kevin Drum post I was discussing, he says it is not the level of spending but only the first derivative of per capita real government spending (with no reference to whether it is debt or tax funded) that matters.

I figured that I was just confused because I had not formally studied economics past my undergrad years, but apparently practicing economists are also confused.  Here is Scott Sumner:

What is the proper measure of austerity?  The textbooks talk about deficits.  But most of the Keynesian bloggers focus on government purchases.  So which is it?  And if it’s purchases, why did these same bloggers claim that austerity would result from big tax increases in the US in 2013, and a big tax increase in Japan in 2014?  And why does the measure chosen (ex post) usually seem to be the one that best supports their argument in that particular case?

As a postscript, I will add that every climate skeptic can totally empathize with this Sumner concern:

A number of Keynesian bloggers have recently expressed dismay that the rest of us don’t buy their model.  Maybe it would help if they’d stop ignoring our criticisms of their model, and respond to our complaints.

Thoughts on the Japanese Economy

I would characterize long-term Japanese economic policy this way:

  • Technocratically planned economy where the government chose winners and losers and directed capital to industries favored for development (e.g. MITI with steel, autos, electronics).
  • Strong government favoritism for exports and exporters over the domestic economy -- export industries are heavily protected at the cost of raising costs for internal consumers and limiting competition in domestic markets.
  • Enormous, near Herculean commitment to deficit spending as stimulus.  With deficits consistently running in the 8% of GP range and total government debt a stratospheric levels, Japan is the poster child for Krugman's anti-austerity

To these three I would add something that is seldom mentioned, that Japan has a near Scandinavian GINI index, with income inequality well under that of the US.  Oh yes, and they were an enthusiastic adopter of CO2 limits.

And the result of all this has been... 25 years of stagnation.

I remember when every one of these three planks was enthusiastically lauded by the US elite.  I was at Harvard Business School in the late 1980's and much of the discussion was about the US needing to adopt MITI-like government industrial planning and management.  If pressed at the time, people might kind of sort of acknowledge that life wasn't so good for Japanese consumers, but we were in a Michael Porter big picture competitiveness-of-nations phase, and no one seemed to care that their definition of national success did not turn out so well for the people actually living there.

To me, Japan is a giant case study in Austrian economics.  It's like they set out to run a quarter-century test: "let's see if mispricing of credit and forced misallocation of capital is really the cause of recessions."  So it is amazing that no one seems to want to acknowledge the results of this experiment.  Paul Krugman appears weekly in the New York Times to frequently advocate for exactly this same economic plan.

Settled Science

I mostly ignore, and tend to be skeptical of, most pronouncements on foods that supposedly kill us and foods that are supposedly superfoods.  I have a solid love of meat and have never let the fear of saturated fat stop me from enjoying a good steak from time to time.

I had heard that a lot of the "settled science" on saturated fat was iffy but I had no idea it was this bad.

Our distrust of saturated fat can be traced back to the 1950s, to a man named Ancel Benjamin Keys, a scientist at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Keys was formidably persuasive and, through sheer force of will, rose to the top of the nutrition world...

As the director of the largest nutrition study to date, Dr. Keys was in an excellent position to promote his idea. The "Seven Countries" study that he conducted on nearly 13,000 men in the U.S., Japan and Europe ostensibly demonstrated that heart disease wasn't the inevitable result of aging but could be linked to poor nutrition.

Critics have pointed out that Dr. Keys violated several basic scientific norms in his study. For one, he didn't choose countries randomly but instead selected only those likely to prove his beliefs, including Yugoslavia, Finland and Italy. Excluded were France, land of the famously healthy omelet eater, as well as other countries where people consumed a lot of fat yet didn't suffer from high rates of heart disease, such as Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. The study's star subjects—upon whom much of our current understanding of the Mediterranean diet is based—were peasants from Crete, islanders who tilled their fields well into old age and who appeared to eat very little meat or cheese.

As it turns out, Dr. Keys visited Crete during an unrepresentative period of extreme hardship after World War II. Furthermore, he made the mistake of measuring the islanders' diet partly during Lent, when they were forgoing meat and cheese. Dr. Keys therefore undercounted their consumption of saturated fat. Also, due to problems with the surveys, he ended up relying on data from just a few dozen men—far from the representative sample of 655 that he had initially selected. These flaws weren't revealed until much later, in a 2002 paper by scientists investigating the work on Crete—but by then, the misimpression left by his erroneous data had become international dogma.

In 1961, Dr. Keys sealed saturated fat's fate by landing a position on the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association, whose dietary guidelines are considered the gold standard. Although the committee had originally been skeptical of his hypothesis, it issued, in that year, the country's first-ever guidelines targeting saturated fats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture followed in 1980.

Don't these guys know this is settled science?  These saturated fat skeptics must be in the pay of big cattle.

The cherry-picking and small sample sizes are unfortunately a staple of science, but I particularly laughed at the practice of assessing meat consumption during Lent.

Climate Alarmism In One Statement: "Limited Evidence, High Agreement"

From James Delingpole:

The draft version of the report's Summary For Policymakers made the startling admission that the economic damage caused by "climate change" would be between 0.2 and 2 percent of global GDP - significantly less than the doomsday predictions made in the 2006 Stern report (which estimated the damage at between 5 and 20 percent of global GDP).

But this reduced estimate did not suit the alarmist narrative of several of the government delegations at the recent IPCC talks in Yokahama, Japan. Among them was the British one, comprising several members of the deep green Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which insisted on doctoring this section of the Summary For Policymakers in order to exaggerate the potential for more serious economic damage.

"Losses are more likely than not to be greater, rather than smaller, than this range (limited evidence, high agreement)"

There was no evidence whatsoever in the body of the report to justify this statement.

I find it fascinating that there can be "high agreement" to a statement for which there is limited or no evidence.  Fortunately these are all self-proclaimed defenders of science or I might think this was purely a political statement.

Note that the most recent IPCC reports and new published studies on climate sensitivity tend to say that 1) warming in the next century will be 1-2C, not the much higher numbers previously forecast; 2)  That warming will not be particularly expensive to manage and mitigate and 3) we are increasingly less sure that warming is causing all sorts of negative knock-on effects like more hurricanes.  In other words, opinion is shifting to where science-based skeptics have been all along (since 2007 in my case).  No surprise or shame here.  What is shameful though is that as evidence points more and more to the lukewarmer skeptic position, we are still called evil heretical deniers that should be locked in jail.  Like telling Galileo, "you were right about that whole heliocentric thing but we still think you are evil for suggesting it."

Historical Revisionism

Revisionism on the causes of WWI seems to ebb and flow like a 20-year clock.  It was Germany's fault, no it wasn't, yes it was.  Etc.  Here is the latest iteration.

I have read quite a bit on the topic of late.  It was horribly complex, but here are a few thoughts.

  • At some level, it was everyone's fault, at least as measured by the enthusiasm that greeted the war in nearly every country.  It was the last war begun by folks who thought it would be incredibly romantic and glorious.
  • Austria simply has to bear a lot of the blame.  No doubt a crisis in the Balkans could have been started by Russia or Serbia, and in an alternative universe where the Archduke was not assassinated, they might well have.  But the fact is that Austria made this one happen.  They crafted a set of demands on Serbia that were supposed to be unreasonable.  They were meant to be a Casus Belli.  Austria had determined it was going to war with Serbia.
  • Much is made of the German blank check to Austria, but the key fact for me were the actions of Germany several weeks later.  In response to a building crisis in the Balkans to their southeast, the Germans entered the war attacking to the northwest, into Belgium and France.  With conflict inevitable in the Balkans, the Germans (with a helping hand from the Russians) helped turn a limited conflict into a World War.

The Germans were also responsible through bad decisions in bringing the US into the war, via a u-boat campaign that failed to achieve its goals (starve the Brits) but managed to bring US troops to Europe at almost the exact moment when British and French troops might have collapsed.  Incredibly, the Germans made the exact same mistake in WWII, declaring war on the US so they could initiate a u-boat campaign against US shipping, when Congress might well have been happy to keep America's war limited to Japan.

 

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.

For the Left, Do Asians "Count"?

I was filling out my EEO-1 forms the other day (that is a distasteful exercise where the government is leading us towards a post-racial society via mandatory reporting on the race of each of my employees).  For each employee there are five non-white categories:  Black, native American, native Hawaiian, Hispanic, and Asian.  I started to think how interesting it is that the Left supports numerous government interventions in support of the first four, but never mentions Asians.

This can't be solely due to lack of past discrimination.   Watch a movie from the 1930's or 1940's and you will see Asians shamelessly stereotyped** as badly as any other race.  And generations who lived and fought WWII had many members, even a majority, that harbored absolute hatred against one Asian people, the Japanese.  We only sent one group to concentration camps in the 20th century, and it was not blacks or Hispanics.  Of course "Asians" is an awfully broad categorization.  It includes Chinese, with whom we have had a complicated relationship, and Indians, for whom most Americans until recently probably have had little opinion at all one way or another.

One problem for many on the Left is the fact that Asians are considered a serious threat (both as immigrants and as exporters) to the Left's traditional blue collar union base.  Another is that they are an emerging threat to their little darlings trying to get into Harvard.  I have heard the squeakiest-clean, most politically correct liberals utter to me the most outrageous things about Asian kids.  Which is why I was not really surprised that white parents in California who claim to support merit-based college admissions immediately change their tune when they find out that this will mean that far more Asia kids will get in.

I have been working with some data on state voting and voter registration patterns by race in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision vis a vis the Voting Rights Act.  The Left went nuts, saying that blacks and Hispanics would again be discriminated against in the South, and the Obama Administration vowed to get on the case, saying that it would begin with Texas.

By the way, Texas may make perfect sense politically for Obama but is an odd choice based on the data.  Minority voter registration and voting rates as compared to the white population are usually used as an indicator of their election participation and access.  In the last election, according to the Census Bureau in table 4B, blacks in Texas both registered and voted at a higher rate than whites.  In Massachusetts, by contrast, in that same election blacks registered at a rate 10 percentage points lower than whites and voted at a rate about 7 points lower.

But if you really want something interesting in the data, look at the data and tell me what group, if we accept that low participation rates equate to some sort of covert discrimination, deserves the most attention (from the same table linked above):

US Voter Registration Rates (Citizens Only)

White:    71.9%

Black:    73.1%

Hispanic:     58.7%

Asian:     56.3%

US Voting Rates (Citizens Only, last Presidential election)

White:    62.2%

Black:    66.2%

Hispanic:    48.0%

Asian:    47.3%

 

** Postscript:  I am not an expert on discrimination, but I watch a lot of old movies and read a lot of history.  To my eye, stereotyping of Asians has been more similar to anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews than to stereotyping of blacks or Hispanics.  Blacks and Hispanics have most often been stereotyped as lazy and unintelligent.  Asians and Jews are more frequently stereotyped as scheming, plotting, and intelligent-but-evil.  Frank Capra, who directed a lot of good movies also directed a series of heavy-handed propaganda movies for the government during the war.  The one on Japan is interesting -- your gardener's quiet mien is actually masking a nefarious scheme.  Even in the 1940's Japan was portrayed as economically frightening to us.

Update:  Over the last couple of elections, Asians have shifted to voting fairly heavily Democratic.  So a cynical person would suggest that they might suddenly "discover" this group.  We shall see.

California Schadenfreude

From Zero Hedge:

The hoped-for April spike in personal income tax revenues for the State of California fell once again below theoveroptimistic assumptions used to get the budget to “balance.” Instead of the $9.4 billion that the government had counted on collecting in April, it only collected $7.4 billion, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. A 21% shortfall! In addition, corporate taxes were $450 million below forecast. After months of “disappointing” tax revenues, the total shortfall in income taxes now amounts to $3.5 billion for fiscal 2012 ending June 30.

The budget, supposedly balanced when it was passed last summer, had been spewing red ink from day one. Tax revenues were one problem. Expenditures were the other. The most recent re-revisions pegged the deficit at $9.2 billion. That was a few weeks ago. Now it’s going to be re-re-revised to nearly $12 billion.

Just how bankrupt does a budgeting process have to be for a budget that is supposedly in balance turn out to be $12 billion overdrawn barely 9 months later?  I have a California state tax refund on my desk -- better cash it quick or else its going to be replaced by scrip again.

The same article has this interesting tidbit about California high speed rail:

The CHSRA plan assumes that it would cost 10 cents per passenger mile (the average cost of carrying one passenger one mile at a given load factor) when international high-speed rail systems averaged 43 cents per mile, according to a report that just surfaced. The low-cost leader was Italy with 34 cents per mile; at the upper end were Germany and Japan with 50 cents per mile; Amtrak’s Acela Express, though not truly high speed, was in the middle with 44 cents per mile. And in California, it’s going to be 10 cents per mile?

The CHSRA correctly assumes that train tickets compete with air fares and the cost of driving, which, despite our incessant complaints, are lower in California than overseas. Thus, the US market requires cheaper tickets. And to make the project appear profitable, and thus more digestible for the taxpayer, the CHSRA lowered its projected operating costs to less than a quarter of the international average.

But if actual operating costs are 43 cents per mile and not 10 cents per mile, annual subsidies of $2 billion to $3 billion would be required just to keep the trains running, according to the report. Yet, AB3034, the California High-Speed Train Bond Act, makes these subsidies illegal. A conundrum that the Legislature, the Administration, and the CHSRA have so far successfully ignored.

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.

 

What I Should Have Said on TV About Rail

If I were any good at the two minute sound byte interview, I would have summarized this about the superiority of the current US private rail system vs. the systems in Europe and Japan:

Link here (sorry, for some reason the link did not show up the first time, probably something to do with my iPad)

 

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.

Post Hoc Prioritization

For a while, there has been a contrarian school of thought in historical study of WWII that FDR, wishing to have the US enter the way against a strong isolationist streak in the general population, purposefully ignored evidence of an impending Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in order to create a casus belli.  A few historians have used some intelligence warmings combined with the insane un-preparedness of Pearl Harbor as their evidence.   Instapundit links to a new declassified memo that warns of Japanese interest in Hawaii just three days before the attack.

This is a fun but generally foolish game.  The same game was played after 9/11, pointing to a few scraps of intelligence that were "ignored."  But the problem in intelligence isn't always lack of information, but too much information.  In late 1941, the US government was getting warnings from everywhere about just about everything.   It is easy as a historian to pick out four or five warnings and say they were stupidly (or purposely) ignored, but this fails to address the real point -- that those warnings were accompanied by a thousand false or misleading ones at the same time.  The entire Pacific theater had already had a whole series of alerts in the months leading up to Dec 7, one false alarm after another.  It is Monday morning quarterbacking that strips the intelligence problem of its context.  To prove that something unusual happened, one would have to show that these warnings were processed or prioritized in a manner that was unusual for the time.

And sure, the readiness issue at Pearl Harbor is inexcusable.  But while historians can always find a few people at the time who argued that Pearl Harbor was the most logical attack target, this ignores the thousands in and outside the military who thought the very idea of so audacious an attack that far from Japan was absurd.   Historians are failing in their job when they strip these decisions of context (if you really, really want to get on someone about preparedness, how about McArthur, who allowed most of his air force to be shot up on the ground despite having prior notification of the Pearl Harbor attack hours before).

It's Hard To Change Corporate DNA

Especially when the government is doing all it can to damp the forces of evolution and extinction.  Via Mickey Kaus

Dysfunctional–or at any rate, not-functional-enough–corporate cultures are hard to change. That would include both the culture of the Old GM and that of many of its suppliers. Obama should have been more skeptical about “New GM’s” ability to turn itself around with its same old workforce and same old union

I warned of something similar long before GM was rescued by Bush and Obama:

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM’s DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM’s of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM’s DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM’s assets from GM’s control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe’s productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe’s most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

A China Scare I Might Actually Entertain

I am not one for China-bashing (or Japan-bashing 20 years ago).  But it is interesting to consider just how sane and peaceful a country will be if it is dominated by 100 million men who can't get laid.

Labor and Capital Mobility, and the Recovery

I was thinking this weekend that one reason the US recovery may be slow is related to labor and capital mobility.

One substantial avenue to recovery in a recession has always been labor and capital mobility.  The fast labor and capital can be redeployed from losing industries to improving ones, the faster a recovery occurs.  One reasons Japan and certain European countries have had slower recoveries in the past than the US is that our mobility was higher and barriers to entrepreneurship lower.

But it strikes me that two things are going on in the US to endanger this advantage we have always enjoyed

  1. The government push for home ownership has turned out to be a trap.  Not only did it help create the bubble, whose bursting destroyed a lot of real and paper wealth, but it has greatly reduced labor mobility.  Home ownership makes labor mobility much harder even in a good housing market when one can sell his or her home easily.  In a bad market like today, very few feel they can pick up and move.  I might want to give up on the construction industry in Michigan and move to the oil patch of North Dakota, but how can I do that if I own a home that I can't sell?  A number of other actions, most notably the repeated extension of unemployment benefits, contributes to the lack of mobility.
  2. The government seems hell bent on doing everything it can to prevent, even reverse the tide, of capital mobility.  The government shifted tends of billions of capital into auto industry hands that had destroyed value for decades.  It continues to put the brakes on what should be an oil and gas exploration and production boom.  It kills health industries like light bulbs and shifts billions into useless politically powerful hands making ethanol.  The NLRB is preventing major American manufacturers from making factory investments in southern states.

In the late 1970's, the auto industry was in trouble but the oil patch was booming.  The Houston newspapers sold well in Michigan, popular for their help wanted ads.  From space, the Interstate highways between the Detroit and Texas probably looked orange from all the U-haul trailers.

The exact same dynamics could and should be occurring today.  Capital and labor should be shifting from, for example, the failing auto industry to the growing energy sector.  But the government today stands to block this reallocation. It is raising taxes on oil companies and placing barriers to their growth, while giving tax money to the auto industry and using every bit of power it can to sustain it.  Combine this type of barrier to capital flows (and auto/energy is but a couple of examples) with rising barriers to entrepreneurship, and it should be no surprise that growth is abysmal.

This is what happens in a corporate state.  Past winners retain huge amounts of power in the government long after their companies have become senescent in the marketplace.  Politicians argue for the power to pick winners and losers in the economy but generally use it only to protect current competitors and stand in the way of progress.