Purity or Universalism?

This article first appeared at Quillette.

A few days after his recent passing, the Manhattan Institute reposted a speech by V. S. Naipaul from October 1990. The title, “Our Universal Civilization,” captured the triumphal and optimistic spirit of that moment, nearly one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In order to render this universal civilization in greater relief, Naipaul related the following about his travels in Asia [emphasis added]:

Traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world, that I had been growing into on the other side of the world. I was among people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith. I was among people who wished to be pure.

If we had read this paragraph without knowing its date or the subjects’ actual geography, religion, and history (in this case colonized non-Arab Muslims), we might have surmised that Naipaul was talking about parts of America and Europe that he had perhaps visited in the months preceding his death. “People whose identity was more or less contained in the faith” could easily apply to certain constituencies in the West today, the more so if one allows some latitude in the definition of the word ‘faith.’

Nearly 30 years after he delivered this speech, Naipaul’s assumption that this was primarily a religious or Muslim phenomenon seems quaint. Today, we can see that the wish to be pure has emerged in opposition to universalism in many parts of the world including our own. We can no longer claim that it is just Islam that has grown resistant to the universal civilization envisioned by the West in the late twentieth century. Some groups within the West itself have also rediscovered their own craving for purity. Continue reading at Quillette >>>

Soccer for Americans

Three rule changes to turn American soccer into a big money maker.

The experience of watching a soccer game rarely lives up to the anticipation. You go in hoping for a 4-3 cliff-hanger (as with Argentina vs. France recently) but too often you end up with 1-0 or worse, a draw, or much worse, a draw that is resolved through a penalty shootout. This chronic letdown explains why Americans prefer watching other sports.

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Photo by Torsten Bolten.

Except for anxiety-ridden upper middle-class moms trying to steer their teenage sons away from (American) football practice, most Americans don’t really care about watching soccer. If this is changing, at about the pace of a glacier inching down an Alaskan ravine, it is mainly because the percentage of immigrants in the US population has been on the rise in recent decades. These immigrants or their parents often come from countries where soccer is the leading spectator sport. It follows then that with the current crackdown on immigration, the future of American soccer is looking as frail as ever. NFL bosses need not lose much sleep.
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Cronyism and its Scapegoats

Cronyism destroys trust and assigns the blame to scapegoats of its own creation.

Only a fiercely committed left or right-winger would fail to recognize that there is today a social and political divide that does not easily fit within the traditional mold of left vs. right. If, loosely speaking, the left leans socialist and the right leans capitalist, there is a third branch, cronyism, that is characterized by the rising power and wealth of rent-seeking industries and individuals. In the past, this branch was dominant mainly in poorer countries with weaker institutions. But today it has also gained significant strength in a number of developed countries, including the United States.

In fact, if the Republican Party has been hijacked by Trumpism, as some allege, then we could say that capitalism has been similarly hijacked by cronyism. In our view, this parallel is nearly seamless, given that the GOP is traditionally pro-capitalism – in words if not always in deeds – and that the incumbent administration is largely populated with captains of rent-seeking industries. Read more

Cronyism Damaged Venezuela before Chavez

Venezuela is bankrupt, having just defaulted on three interest payments. And much of the world is pointing fingers at the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez and those of his successor, the incumbent Nicolás Maduro. This laying of the blame is not wrong but it is incomplete.

The kindest thing you could say about Mr. Chavez is that he was a talented demagogue who brilliantly identified his opportunity and judiciously seized his moment. But, as previously argued by Fred McMahon of the Fraser Institute, Chavez did not start Venezuela’s downward spiral. He was instead one of the final acts in the country’s decades-long devolution from laissez-faire capitalism to cronyism and finally to socialism. Cronies undermined Venezuela’s economy for decades and opened the door to Chavez’s socialism. Read more

Capitalism Did Not Win the Cold War

This article first appeared at Foreign Affairs.

Why cronyism was the real victor.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 26 years ago, it was generally agreed that the West had won the Cold War. This was affirmed by the prosperity and possibilities awaiting citizens of Western countries, as opposed to the political and economic stagnation experienced by those in Communist states. A natural conclusion, much repeated at the time, was that capitalism had finally defeated communism.

This sweeping statement was only partially true. If one took capitalism and communism as the only two protagonists in the post–World War II struggle, it was easy to see that the latter had suffered a mortal blow. But there was a third, stealthier protagonist situated between them. This was a system best identified today as cronyism. For if capitalism did win over the other two contenders in 1991, its victory was short-lived. And in the years that have followed, it is cronyism that has captured an ever-increasing share of economic activity. A survey of the distribution of power and money around the world makes it clear: cronyism, not capitalism, has ultimately prevailed. Continue reading at Foreign Affairs >>>

Why Buffett Won His Bet Against Hedge Funds

QE had a lot to do with it.

Active fund manager billionaires Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have been critical of active fund manager millionaires for their very high fees and chronic underperformance. It is not unusual for the ultra wealthy to trash the merely wealthy for their avarice. After all, ultra wealth is so rare that it can be seen as an act of God, whereas mere wealth is the product of human toil and vanity, arduous and earthly.

Buffett and Munger are all-in on their recommendation that investors should dump active strategies and instead invest in passive indexed mutual funds or ETFs that simply mimic the S&P 500. Although this is a popular line among many seasoned investors, it has been getting long in the tooth and has turned what was once a good idea into a crowded trade, with hundreds of billions of dollars shifting from active to passive.

In our view, Buffett’s advice represents last year’s thinking. This year’s thinking, we argued previously, should be that passive funds are merely free-riding active funds and that past a certain market share, passive strategies will bite investors as badly or worse than active ones. Continue reading at Seeking Alpha >>>

Father of the Bernie Sanders Presidency

President Trump’s elite-managed populism opens a path for a more genuine version.

On the usual political spectrum, there are left and right, people who call themselves progressive or conservative, socialist/social democrat or capitalist. But these labels seem to mean less today than in the past. The Trump phenomenon highlighted another divide that has little to do with the historic left and right. Crudely speaking, we can call it coastal vs. non-coastal, urban vs. rural, ethnically diverse vs. more homogeneous, elitist vs. populist. This at least is the way the dominant media sees it.

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At the same time, the old labels are not completely dead. So if we try to overlay the new on the old and to categorize the Trump following, we could say that some of the old guard conservatives joined forces with the new rural populists. This is a little complicated and barely makes sense given that the former include some of the elites, in other words the very same people who have angered the populists for the past decade. Many people who want lower taxes and free trade and globalization voted for the same person, Donald Trump, as did people who want import tariffs and restrictions on the flows of people, capital and goods. Some of the same people who survived in 2008 thanks to Wall Street bailouts voted for the same candidate as did people who are still seething over the bailouts. Read more

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”.

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The Economics of Dependency

This article first appeared at Foreign Affairs.

How countries hit the demographic sweet spot.

Demographics are among the most important influences on a country’s overall economic performance, but compared with other contributors, such as the quality of governance or institutions, their impact is underappreciated. Demographic factors, such as the age structure of a population, can determine whether a given economy will grow or stagnate to an even greater extent than can more obvious causes such as government policy.

One of the most consequential aspects of demographics as they relate to the economy is a phenomenon known as the “demographic dividend,” which refers to the boost to economic growth that occurs when a decline in total fertility, and subsequent entry of women into the work force, increases the number of workers (and thus decreases the number of dependents) relative to the total population. The demographic dividend has contributed to some of the greatest success stories of the twentieth century, and countries’ ability to understand and capture this dividend will continue to shape their economic prospects well into the future. Continue reading at Foreign Affairs >>>

Trump Country: Where the Immigrants Aren’t

Trump did best in the states with the lowest percentages of foreign-born residents.

“I love the poorly-educated”, gushed Donald Trump after winning the Nevada primary in February. But in the end, what happened in the primary, stayed in the primary. Come November, Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton, a turn that is explained by the fact that there is a higher percentage of foreign-born residents in Nevada than in any state won by Trump, save Florida.

In fact, Trump won the general election because he carried almost all of the states where there are few foreign-born residents. His anti-immigration message resonated most in the parts of the country that have the fewest immigrants. Of course, he also won immigrant-heavy Arizona, Florida and Texas, but mainly by prevailing in rural counties. He lost in the counties that include the major urban centers of Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. He did win in Maricopa county where Phoenix is located but perhaps not in Phoenix itself. (Maricopa county encompasses a lot more than Phoenix as it is larger by itself than the entire state of New Jersey, and larger than Connecticut and Delaware put together.) Read more