November 29, 2009

The Chimera That Is Chimerica

I'm currently reading Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It. It's interesting, in that it starts out as a fairly standard history of post-Maoist China, then abruptly turns into a disquisition on the inadequacy of traditional economic statistics in an age of transnational capitalism and production chains that span continents. Think of it as a gearshift book.

It's also interesting as a kind of non-fiction prequel to Firefly/Serenity, which posits a world in which Chinese and American cultures have intermingled: White characters curse in Mandarin, and so forth. But of course China and America haven't even arrived yet at a consensus about the nature of their relationship, much less begun cross-breeding their civilizations. You could argue, as Karabell does, that Chimerica as a bi-national self-conception is not so different than the sense of continental identity that animates the EU, which was also far-fetched when first proposed. Yet the physical and linguistic proximity, &c. of most European nations makes agglomeration a much more feasible task than in the case of Chimerica -- and even the EU is still disturbingly fragile, as the case of Greece demonstrates.

For the present, Chimerica is mainly the partnership of Chinese labor and American capital, as well as that of Chinese savers and American borrowers. As the late unpleasantness has shown, this isn't a very sustainable dynamic.1 The question is, how do we build on the current relationship in order to find more mutually beneficial terms of cooperation? In part, it's a matter of how the Chinese and the Americans conceive of themselves, and of each other. The current trade imbalance is viewed by many as a bad thing, not least because many Americans find it distasteful that any foreign country, let alone China, has so much potential influence over the US. (And the feeling seems to be mutual, if Chris Hayes is correct.) Getting past that discomfort means viewing interdependence as something to be desired rather than to be avoided, if only as a steppingstone to better things. America will be a better country for allowing China (and India, Brazil, et al) to assume a more prominent role in world affairs, rather than trying to maintain a stranglehold on hegemony.

But it's also worth asking how this interdependence -- which certainly has benefited the Chinese -- benefits Americans, especially those who aren't members of the investor class. It's hard to see, for example, a world in which American labor competes with Chinese labor on an apples-to-apples basis; at the least, the dollar would need to depreciate by a lot and the renminbi would need to appreciate by a lot. But how do we get there with the minimal amount of dislocation? It doesn't seem like anyone has a good answer for that.

1 See, for example, Tyler Cowen's column on a possible bubble in Chinese manufacturing, and what its bursting could mean for the US.

Paris. Notre Dame Cathedral Tower. Chimeras and Man originally uploaded to Flickr by Cornell University Library.

November 25, 2009

Notes on a Scandal

The controversy (see also here and here) over the stolen1 emails of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia has been tragically amusing: Amusing because of the way denialists have been huffing and puffing over something which, even in the most generous interpretation, doesn't alter the overwhelming nature of the evidence for climate change2; and tragic because that same huffing and puffing will likely further muddy the discourse on climate change in this country, which is saying something.

If you want a real scandal, however, check this out:
Large sums promised to developing countries to help them tackle climate change cannot be accounted for, a BBC investigation has found.

Rich countries pledged $410m (£247m) a year in a 2001 declaration - but it is now unclear whether the money was paid.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has accused industrialised countries of failing to keep their promise.

The EU says the money was paid out in bilateral deals, but admits it cannot provide data to prove it.
This could be really damaging -- trust between rich and poor countries is strained as it is, and the failure of the rich countries to account for the money pledged could potentially blow things up at Copenhagen, where establishing rich country aid for poor countries is a major point of contention. This is also why having a legally binding climate change treaty of some kind is so important: When you're dealing with financial transfers on the order of €100 billion a year (as the EU proposed recently), you need to have mechanisms in place to ensure that the money is going where it's intended.

1 Let's not lend to the people who broke into the CRU's email system any of the lovable moxie associated with the term "hacker," shall we? This was theft, pure and simple.
2 Though the underlying science is not affected, I agree with George Monbiot that CRU officials haven't been handling the controversy all that well.

November 14, 2009

Statistics as a Liberal Art

I recently came across this 11-year-old lecture (PDF) by David Moore which argues that statistics, as a mode of thinking, should be considered as a liberal art: That is, something that all educated people should understand, even if they never become professional statisticians:
That statistics is so often a guide to policy is testimony to the unusual prevalence of statistical issues in policy discussions. It is easy to think of policy questions to which (say) chemistry is relevant, and also easy to think of issues to which chemistry has nothing to contribute. I find it hard to think of policy questions, at least in domestic policy, that have no statistical component. The reason is of course that reasoning about data, variation, and chance is a flexible and broadly applicable mode of thinking. That is just what we most often mean by a liberal art.
Moore then goes on to discuss the nature of the liberal arts, which he divides into "philosophical" and "oratorical" traditions (one seeks the truth come what may, the other seeks to instill virtues that are valuable for citizenship); and he suggests that the liberal arts should be thought of as a sort of add-on to our evolutionary heritage. We can instinctively make out the features of a darkened room, say, but we need training to determine if the data in a scatterplot is strongly or weakly correlated.

I thought this was an interesting thesis, in that it's a kind of modern update of the medieval quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Paired with the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), it helped prepare students for the more difficult studies of philosophy and theology. (A style of education that, in turn, seems to derive from Socrates' curriculum for the guardians in the Republic.) We live in a post-metaphysical age, of course, so studying mathematical subjects is no longer about training the mind for understanding God, the Good, or Being. But having at least some background in quantitative methods is essential for understanding the modern world: To be able to answer questions about crime, health care, global warming, etc., means, in part, pulling oneself out of the realm of the anecdotal and personal, and knowing how to manipulate data responsibly. Perhaps a modern version of Plato's Academy would have inscribed on its gate, not "ἀγεωμέτρητος μηδεὶς εἰσίτω" (Let no one ignorant of geometry enter), but "ἀστατίστικος μηδεὶς εἰσίτω" (Let no one ignorant of statistics enter).

November 12, 2009

Top Chef 6.11: Ham and Jam and Spamalot

To nearly everyone's relief, Robin was eliminated last night (which the AV Club celebrated with the immortal phrase from the Simpsons, "Poochie's dead!"). It was past time for her to go; at the same time, her tearful exit made me feel for her, as she clearly wanted to prove she could compete with all the young upstarts there. But alas, it was not to be.

Jennifer's continuing on-air burnout is even more heartbreaking, given how high she was flying at the beginning. But badly cooked meat is unaccountable at this stage, and if she's eliminated next week, it may well be an act of mercy. I don't know what Eli was thinking -- maybe something along the lines of Hung's notorious cereal diorama from Season Three -- but his offering looked absolutely dreadful, straining even Nigella Lawson's preternatural poise and equanimity. Having won the Quickfire, however, he's still got some life in him.

It'll be interesting to see Kevin's traditionalism square off against Mike's more avant-garde (or "effeminate," (?!) as Toby Young put it) style in the next few weeks. Bryan seems to split the difference, so perhaps he'll pull through in the end.

November 10, 2009

Health Care for All Everyone but Working-Class Women!

In lieu of a proper response to the news of the anti-choice Stupak amendment being tacked on to the House health care bill -- I would suggest Michelle Goldberg's latest in the American Prospect as a place to start -- I want to note that the idea of an otherwise good bill being derailed by a bad amendment reminded me of this classic scene:
Kent: With our utter annihilation imminent, our federal government has snapped into action. We go live now via satellite to the floor of the United States congress.
Speaker: Then it is unanimous, we are going to approve the bill to evacuate the town of Springfield in the great state of --
Congressman: Wait a minute, I want to tack on a rider to that bill: $30 million of taxpayer money to support the perverted arts.
Speaker: All in favor of the amended Springfield-slash-pervert bill? [everyone boos]
Speaker: Bill defeated. [bangs gavel]
Kent: I've said it before and I'll say it again: democracy simply doesn't work.
A little unfair to the anti-abortion crowd, perhaps, but I get the sense that the Stupak amendment has less to do with preventing public dollars from funding abortions -- which is already prohibited under the Hyde Amendment -- and more to do with conservative Democrats trying to make the larger Democratic Party pay homage to them. After all, it's highly unlikely that the Stupak amendment will survive conference and make it in the final bill. I'd also note how bizarre it is for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to have intervened so strongly in support of the Stupak amendment, something you seldom see them do on other matters of social justice.

November 4, 2009

(Some) Progress in Macedonia

Some good news in Greco-Macedonian relations:
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov Wednesday sent an invitation to his Greek counterpart Karolos Papoulias to visit Macedonia, a move seen as a positive step towards resolution of the long standing name spat between the two neighbors.
The rapprochement gets a boost from the fact that the European Commission recently recommended that Macedonia begin the process of applying for EU membership, though no start date has been given. I was worried that the nationalist government in Skopje would continue to be intransigent after the last election, but perhaps the obvious benefits of joining the EU are trumping other priorities. Of course, it's not clear at all that there's been any progress on the name dispute with Greece -- short of changing the name from "Republic of Macedonia," I don't know what else Skopje could offer the Greeks to mollify them.

"Beckons you, to enter his web of sin..."

Does anyone seriously think Al Gore is going to become some kind of "Greenfinger" character -- that is, use his wealth to turn the world into some kind of eco-dystopia? One could be forgiven for thinking that after reading this terrible NYT piece about Gore's investments in clean energy. As Dave Roberts ably observed, the article can be boiled down to two propositions, each of which contradicts the other:
  1. Some people (read: A right-wing congresswoman and a former aide to James Inhofe) say that Gore is hyping up the threat of climate change in order to profit from his investments in green technology.
  2. Gore says that he donates all profits from his investments to his nonprofit group, the Alliance for Climate Protection.
That's a thin frame, needless to say, on which to hang a story. (Unless Gore is lying, but the NYT article gives no indication that he is -- probably because he's not.)

In fact, Gore's investments aren't even the most interesting thing about Al Gore. For that, you'll have to look at the latest Newsweek, which has a fascinating profile of Gore and how his views on climate change have evolved over the years. In particular, he seems to be coming to the position that reforming agricultural practices so that more carbon is sequestered and fewer methane emissions are released could be the most profitable near-term strategy for tackling climate change, moreso even than cutting carbon emissions in the commercial and industrial sectors. Of course, since most of the worst offenders in agriculture (and also forestry), in terms of GHG emissions, are in developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia, convincing them to change their ways will require some buy-in on our part: Carbon pricing, obviously, but also a re-evaluation of our own practices that contribute to the problem. Cutting down on, say, meat consumption, as Nicolas Stern recently suggested, would be one place to start.