Wednesday Briefs – 14 April 2021

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THIS WEEK: Most People are Very Smart; Back to the Border; Podcast: Lebanon in Crisis.

Most People are Very Smart

A sociologist whose name we cannot recall once wrote that “most people are very good drivers”. This seemed like an unusual and provocative statement since the opposite view is widely held. To be sure, most Americans see themselves as very good drivers but they also see others as bad drivers. In a survey by Allstate Insurance, 64% of Americans rated themselves as “excellent” or “very good” drivers, and rated only 22% of other drivers as excellent or very good.

Commentators of the survey have dwelled on the notion that the survey respondents are overconfident and essentially mistaken about their own driving ability. To deflate this self-confidence, it was pointed out that 89% have driven over the speed limit; 45% have driven while excessively tired and 15% while intoxicated; 34% have texted while driving. While these are bad and potentially dangerous habits, they do not on their own prove that the miscreants are bad drivers. In fact, if we define bad driving as “being in an accident or causing an accident”, the low incidence of accidents relative to these percentages would bolster the notion that most people are in fact very good drivers. Their superior driving skills got them safely to their destinations in spite of their bad habits.

In the same vein, most people rate themselves as intelligent or very intelligent and rate others less favorably. And here again, it is possible that they are right about themselves and wrong about others, instead of the opposite. The view that people are in general stupid is very widespread; so widespread in fact that numerous books have been written about human stupidity. This harsh judgment is probably wrong however. It is more likely that humans are in general very smart but not in the same way.

This is not the same as saying that everyone should get an A in math. It continues to be true that only some people (say 10 to 15%) are very good at math and an even smaller percentage (less than 1%) are truly excellent. But other people are smart at other things that may not be as prized by society at the moment. Only very few are smart in the way of say Albert Einstein or Bill Gates. But opportunities in every avenue will appear limitless if we consider that most people are very smart, and that most are smart in ways that we do not immediately understand.

There is comfort in believing that other people are stupid. See for example how people reflexively call each other stupid over the most minor political disagreement. Sinclair Lewis wrote in It Can’t Happen Here “every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on”. But every man is not a king and this comfort is delusional, naive and counter-productive.

Back to the Border

In the Wednesday Briefs – 20 January 2021, we suggested that a more complex foreign policy would return with the new administration. President Trump’s foreign policy had been unconventional but straightforward in its broad lines regarding China, North Korea, Russia, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, ISIS and others. The last three months confirm a change of tack and a return of complexity.

Parenthetically, a more complex or more nuanced approach is often desirable in other endeavors, but not necessarily in foreign policy. A straight and simple message is sometimes preferable when international relations are fraught with misunderstandings across language and cultural barriers. A sensationalist media can also exacerbate these misunderstandings. Whatever the case, we seem to be back to the future, or at least to the pre-Trump approach.

Russia is a renewed concern due to the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and his deteriorating health, and due to the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. North Korea is launching missiles again. Iran and the US are resuming talks about Iran’s nuclear program but Iran is enriching uranium again. China is raising its voice on Taiwan and other issues. Myanmar had a miltary coup. Europe is generally pleased with the departure of Donald Trump and America’s renewed involvement in climate talks. Central America is again sending its children to the US border. Africa is getting insufficient attention as always, despite its rapidly growing population.

When the pandemic lifts, we are likely to see this renewed complexity morph into one or two challenges overseas. It is possible that the worldwide lockdown contained potential crises and that this pent-up energy will be released when the virus subsides.

Lebanon in Crisis

Last Sunday, we published a podcast with the Beirut-based financier Joe Issa El Khoury. Lebanon’s most recent troubles started in 2019 with a perfect storm, part economic, part financial, part political. But this storm was then compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020.

Issa El Khoury explains the sequence of events that led to the present, and offers a possible way forward.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

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Lebanon in Crisis, with Joe Issa El Khoury

“Historically, Lebanon prospered as a result of inflows of people and funds – people who came to take refuge in Lebanon and also funds. If we look at the post World War 2 period when modern Lebanon became independent and also at previous periods that Lebanon went through – and I mean over the past 100 or 200 years – one thing that was common to all these eras is its liberal economic system that was adopted by all who lived on this land. The constant was the liberal economic system.”____ Joe Issa El Khoury

Sami J. Karam speaks with Joe Issa El Khoury, a Beirut-based financier, about the tragic events that have unfolded in Lebanon since 2019. A sharp fall in the currency, a banking freeze, a political crisis, hyperinflation, and widespread street protests made 2019 a difficult year. But these events were then compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020.

Issa El Khoury explains the sequence of events that led to the present, and offers a possible way forward.

Topics include:

  • 0:00 Introduction of Joe Issa El Khoury
  • 2:25 What is it like right now on the ground in Beirut?
  • 8:33 Why did Lebanon have a golden period in 1945-75; why was it later so prone to crisis?
  • 17:40 The Rafik Hariri era and the return of growth 1990-2005
  • 20:00 What explains the weakness of the Lebanese state: geography and demographics
  • 26:30 Lebanon’s diversity as a source of wealth; Example of Lebanese cuisine
  • 30:40 Crossing the line from a laissez-faire economy to a crony economy
  • 35:05 The real estate boom of 2007-11
  • 36:55 The impact of the Syrian civil war
  • 39:10 Crowding out the private sector
  • 44:10 The proximate factors that led to the meltdown
  • 46:15 The current condition of the banking sector; Role of the Central Bank
  • 51:00 Will depositors suffer a haircut? The Lazard and other plans
  • 54:45 Talk of privatization of state assets
  • 59:45 Political patronage in the public sector
  • 1:01:50 “All roads lead to Washington DC and the acronym IMF”
  • 1:05:20 Political reform and the role of the diaspora

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

The Pandemic as a ‘Gray Rhino’ Event, with Michele Wucker

“The paradox of the Gray Rhinos is that the further they are down the road, the less likely you are to do something about them. But that is the time when it will cost the least and you are most likely to be successful.” ____ Michele Wucker

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Sami J. Karam speaks to best-selling author Michele Wucker about her 2016 book The Gray Rhino and how its method and lessons apply to the coronavirus pandemic. Gray Rhino threats are highly probable, highly impactful but often neglected until it is too late or until the cost of dealing with them becomes very high.

Topics include:

  • 0:00 Introduction of Michele Wucker
  • 1:05 When will we be able to travel to Asia or Europe again?
  • 3:10 Explaining the concept and examples of Gray Rhino events
  • 9:00 Various reactions to the spread of the pandemic
  • 15:50 Was the virus predictable?
  • 19:20 Why should we have been readier for the virus when it is so rare?
  • 22:00 Why we ignore what is “over there”. Did it start “over there” or over here?
  • 25:35 How could we have prepared for the pandemic?
  • 31:00 The current catch-22: deaths by virus vs. deaths of despair
  • 44:10 Stages of a Gray Rhino event applied to the pandemic
  • 50:10 What other Gray Rhino events do you worry about? A triad of Gray Rhinos
  • 55:45 How alarmists help avert deep crises
  • 59:40 Conclusion

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

(photo of Michele Wucker by Hal Shipman)

Talking About Cities, with Aaron Renn

“You go to some of these places [Midwestern cities], the question they ask when they meet you is ‘where did you go to high school’?… The fact that where you went to high school is a social marker places you in a community. You go to Washington DC and nobody cares where you went to high school… In New York, they ask ‘where are you from?’ because it is assumed that you are not from here. Some of these places in the Midwest… need more outsiders to come in because outsiders are the natural constituency of the new.” _____Aaron Renn

AaronRennAaron Renn, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, speaks to Sami J. Karam about US cities. What makes the large coastal cities so successful? What are the prospects for mid-sized and smaller cities in the Rust Belt? What is the current state of play for mass transit? What role does immigration play in the development of cities?

Among the cities discussed, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Francisco, Charlotte, Minneapolis-St Paul, Nashville, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Madison, Iowa City, Rochester (MN), Singapore, Paris.

Topics include:

  • 0:00 Introduction of Aaron Renn
  • 1:15 What makes the large coastal cities so successful at creating wealth?
  • 8:30 Can a large city become dominant in a new sector? (e.g., New York in tech)
  • 13:00 How would you categorize non-coastal cities in terms of their prospects?
  • 16:30 Why some cities are struggling while others are restructuring successfully
  • 20:55 Will some smaller cities turn into ghost towns within twenty years?
  • 26:35 What is going on with Detroit’s recovery?
  • 30:40 The role of new immigrants in the development of a city
  • 36:50 Immigration policy in Canada and Australia compared to the US and UK
  • 43:50 What is the future for mass transit?
  • 48:00 The lack of city to city benchmarking in infrastructure costing and execution
  • 53:40 Is there anything going on in high-speed rail, other than in California?
  • 59:40 The decline of trust in institutions and the problem of cronyism.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

Outsmarting Crime Together: CityCop CEO Nadim Curi, 23 March 2017

IMG_7676Sami J. Karam speaks to Nadim Curi, CEO of the anti-crime app CityCop.

Powered by its successful rollout in Latin America started in 2014 and further boosted by funding from startup accelerator techstars, CityCop has staked a claim to turn its “social platform for community watch” into the global leader in crime reporting and public safety.

Curi explains:

What Waze has done for traffic globally, we have done the same for public safety.

What we are doing at CityCop is to make all of this information [about crime incidents] that today is private or is lost, to make it public. The criminals have always taken advantage of this lack of information. They have always the same modus operandi, in the same areas, at the same hours, against the same unaware people. CityCop is making all of this information public for the people to be much better informed of what is happening.

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Starting in Austin, CityCop plans to expand to San Francisco, Chicago, New York and other cities. Curi’s ultimate ambition is to turn CityCop into a global “Waze against crime”.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

India’s Disruptive Gamble

by Ravi Srinivasan

(Ravi discussed this post at the BreakingBank$ podcast. His segment starts at 20:10.)

Modi’s demonetization was the other November 8th global earthquake.

A thorough historical record will show that not one but two man-made events shook the world on 8 November 2016. One was of course the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency against the predictions of nearly all polls and pundits. The other was the Indian government’s shock and awe decision to withdraw from circulation all ₹500 ($7.3) and ₹1,000 ($14.6) rupee bank notes, equivalent to 85% of the country’s paper money. Although the first event dominated the headlines, the second will have a greater impact on over a billion people in India and elsewhere.

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500 rupee banknote, an endangered species since 8 November 2016.

This process known as demonetization is the latest in a series of initiatives by the Modi government to modernize Indian society and to increase financial inclusion and digitalization. Along the same lines in the past two years, other government efforts have included the ambitious and unprecedented Aadhaar national identification system started in 2012, the Aadhaar-based remittance system offered by the National Payments Corporation of India in 2013, and the Jan Dhan Yojana drive to bring financial services to lower-income segments of society. Some private players such as Paytm, Citrus Pay, Mobikwik and Freecharge have also moved in lockstep with public initiatives. Read more

On White Collar Prosecutions, with Jesse Eisinger

“The government no longer has the will and ability to prosecute top corporate executives across a wide variety of major industries.”______ Jesse Eisinger

photo_7887Jesse Eisinger is a senior reporter at ProPublica and a former reporter at the Wall Street Journal. He has studied, investigated and written extensively on the 2008 financial crisis, its causes and consequences. In 2011, he and a colleague won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. In addition, he has won the 2015 Gerald Loeb Award for commentary.

Eisinger is the author of a forthcoming book on white collar prosecutions, to be published next year by Simon & Schuster. He speaks to populyst’s Sami J. Karam about the reasons why there have been few such prosecutions in recent years. Among these reasons, Eisinger identifies ‘elite affinity’, a revolving door between government and business, and a resource shift that took place at the FBI after 9/11. The conversation closes with Eisinger’s discussion of current anti-trust issues and some comments on the 2016 US presidential race.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

How Demographics Explain the Economy

Aaron M. Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal, invited founder Sami J. Karam to discuss populyst and the populyst index. Topics include the economies of America and China, Europe’s demographic stagnation and Africa’s population explosion.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

Learning from Medellín with Alejandro Echeverri

“I think, if you want to write a new narrative at some specific moment in the story of a city, it is important that you have to feel the transformation and see the transformation. So the physical transformation is important but always there is more a spiritual thing, as happens with emotional connections and inspirational things.” ______Architect Alejandro Echeverri.

EcheverriPhotoIf you have an interest in Latin America or in urban matters, you will have read by now that the city of Medellín, Colombia has undergone a startling transformation in the past fifteen years. In the 1980s and 1990s, the name of Medellín evoked fearsome drug cartels, violence and terrorism.

But in the 2000s, Medellín took a dramatic turn for the better. In 2012, it was selected from 200 contenders as Innovative City of the Year in a survey organized by the Wall Street Journal and the Urban Land Institute. Today, it features regularly among lists of forward-looking cities and must-see destinations. Read more

Talking About Brexit with Andrew Stuttaford

“So far as the original founders are concerned, the journey [of European integration] continues. The problem is it is not what most British people thought they were signing up for.” ____Andrew Stuttaford.

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 6.15.53 AMAndrew Stuttaford is a British-born contributing editor at National Review and a frequent writer on British and European topics. In recent months, he has been an advocate of ‘Brexit’, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. A few days before the June 23rd referendum, Stuttaford explains the factors that made him increasingly wary of further European integration. Read more