Stray Links for 20 August 2010

* Check out this extraordinary article by The New York Times’ Paul Vitello on what a diverse group of Muslim New Yorkers think about the Cordoba controversy. One gets the impression that these New Yorkers, not necessarily a representative sample, have pretty nuanced views that are not quite what you might expect. They sound far more like my friend Ross Douthat than the people who’ve been characterizing him as a sinister Islamophobic bigot. Part of this could reflect the fact that Ross, a religious believer, has more in common with the Muslim Americans profiled in the article than he does with critics who see appeals to cultural sensitivity as fundamentally Nazi-like. Not surprisingly, most Muslim Americans, like most Americans, are allergic to culture war politics. 

At the risk of wading back into this thicket, I was thinking about Quebec. In Canada, francophone self-assertion has been linked to a wide range of ugly sentiments, including anti-Semitism and intense xenophobia. After advocates of sovereignty lost the last major referendum on Quebec’s status in 1995, Jacques Parizeau memorably blamed the narrow defeat on “money and the ethnic vote.” Moreover, the legal regime that has emerged to protect Quebec’s francophone identity really does restrict the freedoms of the province’s anglophone and allophone minorities. Yet few really question the democratic legitimacy of Quebec’s language laws, or the notion that the state has an interest in securing the “cultural survival” of a distinctive ethnocultural community. 

* Steve Coll offers invaluable context on the floods in Pakistan in The New Yorker. And he also introduces an interesting counternarrative to the radicalization thesis:

The Pakistanis who are being washed away in the worst ways now—the ones least likely to own cattle or shops or have a hectare of their own—lived on the margins of a terrible rural political economy in the best of times. Mueenuddin fears they will become radicalized by their latest suffering. I wonder if the politics of floods might leave them, instead, stifled and muted, and as they have so long been, slipping under.

Though I can’t say Coll would agree with my post on Pakistan, his post reinforces the notion that the case for intervention, such as it is, rests first and foremost on humanitarian grounds, and not on strategic grounds. The truth is that radicalism is generally a byproduct of rapid, uneven modernization, not dire poverty. 

* Jay Cost offers some perspective on the sources of President Obama’s political woes.

* Uwe Reinhardt has written a post on the use and abuse of the term “efficiency” that draws some useful distinctions, but that also smuggles in an idea I find pernicious:

Suppose a restructuring of the economy has the effect of increasing the growth of average gross domestic product per capita, but that the benefits of that growth accrue disproportionately to a minority of citizens, while others are worse off as a result, as appears to have been the case in the United States in the last several decades. Can economists judge this to be a good thing?

First, I think this is an eccentric interpretation of the findings of Dew-Becker and Gordon. From the Abstract:

We argue that economists in their explanations of growing income inequality have placed too much emphasis on “skill-biased technical change” and too little attention to the “economics of superstars,” i.e., the pure rents earned by the top CEOs, sports starts, and entertainment stars. This source of divergence at the top, combined with the role of deunionization, immigration, and free trade in pushing down incomes at the bottom, have led to the wide divergence between the growth rates of productivity, average compensation, and median compensation.

Surely the extraordinary upward mobility of the foreign-born U.S. poor should be taken into account. And of course numbers matter. The top half of the income distribution is much wealthier in the U.S. than in other OECD economies. The bottom 10 percent is arguably somewhat poorer than in a handful of other rich economies, particularly when you factor in the quality of public services. This means we can do much better. But should we completely dismiss the relative affluence of the top half? To be sure, the top 1 percent and the top 0.05 percent have done even better still. At a deep level, I just don’t see how the explosion in wealth and income at the top — driven by the “economics of superstars” — is a bad thing, provided we’re working to improve the quality of public services and the life prospects of those in the bottom 10 percent. Public sector cartels make this problem very difficult, as does a lack of spending discipline that leads to a marked lack of organizational discipline.

* Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy links to Gallup’s Population Net Migration Index. If people could move wherever they’d like, the Index suggests that U.S. population would increase by 60 percent while Japan, one of the world’s richest countries, would only see its population increase by 1 percent. This puts an interesting spin on Japan’s notorious resistance to immigration. 

* Tim O’Reilly’s Twitter feed pointed me to a wonderful article by Frank Thadeusz on Eckhard Höffner’s new research on what you might call the power of free culture in 19th century Germany

Höffner has researched that early heyday of printed material in Germany and reached a surprising conclusion — unlike neighboring England and France, Germany experienced an unparalleled explosion of knowledge in the 19th century.

This explosion was driven in large part, Höffner suggests, by a copyright-free environment. 

* Peter Suderman on the new line on PPACA:

So what are activists to do? The presentation suggests that when making the case for ObamaCare, advocates must reassure seniors that Medicare benefits won’t be cut (which isn’t strictly true). And it suggests they focus on the recent decision to force insurers to offer “free preventive care” (never mind they these benefits aren’t criticized major media outlets for reporting that really free). But whatever they do, the final slide of the presentation warns, activists should not “say the law will reduce costs and deficit”—which is probably a smart idea given how unlikely the administration’s claims about the deficit have always been.

* Megan McArdle on the stimulus:

I’d like to think that had Democrats focused on alleviating suffering, rather than chasing “shovel ready” stimulus projects, Republicans might have gone along more easily.  I have no reason, however, to think that this is actually true–any more than I have reason to think that Democrats would have seriously considered projects they couldn’t plaster their names all over come election time.  I am, in fact, extraordinarily depressed by the extent to which arguments over stimulus seem to be proxy wars over the permanent level of government spending, rather than serious attempts to address the problem at hand.

* Two takes on polycentric cities — a one I dislike, and one I like

* Michael Pettis gets consumption and the Chinese economy completely right:


Chinese households are happy to consume, but they own such a small share of total national income that their consumption is necessarily also a small share of national income.  And just as the household share of national income has declined dramatically in the past decade, so has household consumption.   This isn’t to say households are getting poorer.  On the contrary, they are getting richer, but they are getting richer at a much slower speed than the country overall, which means their share of total income is declining.

The solution, Pettis suggests, is a massive surrender of state power:

I guess we will just have to wait and see who is right, but I am confident enough to say that unless GDP growth plummets to below 5% annually on average, and probably even then, there is no way consumption will represent 47% of GDP in ten years.  I say this with one caveat – if Beijing were to engineer a huge shift of state wealth to the household sector, say in a massive privatization program, it could boost household consumption significantly, but I suspect that this will be politically difficult to do. [Emphasis added.]

The only way China’s authoritarian government can keep the economy humming over the long-term is to become less authoritarian. If they don’t, prepare for trouble. 

P.S. A reader makes a good point below re: China:


That’s not quite the bargain Pettis lays out. Economic reforms are unlikely to make the government “less authoritarian”. Central and provincial government control of major industries doesn’t have a clear political control rationale; rather it is driven by complex political, economic and personal forces.

I was definitely oversimplifying matters. More thoughts to come. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Film & TV

Why We Can’t Have Wakanda

SPOILERS AHEAD Black Panther is a really good movie that lives up to the hype in just about every way. Surely someone at Marvel Studios had an early doubt, reading the script and thinking: “Wait, we’re going to have hundreds of African warriors in brightly colored tribal garb, using ancient weapons, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Science & Tech

Set NASA Free

The Trump administration has proposed shifting the International Space Station from a NASA-exclusive research facility to a semi-public, semi-private one. Its plan would nix all government funding for the ISS by 2025 and award at least $150 million per year to NASA to help with the transition. This would be a ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More