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

To Save or Ruin Twitter

A decision that could fix Twitter or hasten its demise.

This is not the first article to suggest that Twitter can generate some revenues by charging its users, but perhaps we can offer some new angles to the discussion. To begin, it is helpful to differentiate between the different types of Twitter users. These seem to be:

  • Media firms publishing their stories and videos, for example CNN, the New York Times, etc.
  • Corporations marketing their products or making announcements.
  • Non-profit organizations and NGOs raising awareness on various issues.
  • Government institutions, agencies or individuals trying to inform the public.
  • Famous individuals looking to communicate with their fans, for example celebrity entertainers, politicians or opinion leaders.
  • Public or semi-public individuals looking to raise their visibility and to build their personal brand, for example journalists, consultants and academics.
  • Small or mid-sized businesses promoting their services and products.
  • Private individuals seeking a mode of expressing their thoughts and feelings, often anonymously through a pseudonym.
  • Private individuals who rarely or never tweet but visit Twitter frequently to read the news or other people’s tweets. Continue reading at Seeking Alpha >>>

Passive Funds Are Just Free-Riding Active Funds

If you and your neighbor have the same income and expenses except that he rides the bus for free every day while you pay a fare, he will be richer than you. Until recently, this was obvious: the neighbor is a free rider while you pay your way.

But now, the obvious is presented as a novelty. Plenty of people are extolling the benefits of free-riding without naming it as such and encouraging a large exodus from active to passive (or indexed) funds. The only problem is that proponents of this form of free-riding neglect to also mention the following corollary sub-plot.

Now your neighbor makes you feel like a fool and convinces you to also ride for free. Soon, your whole town has caught on to the idea and fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for the bus. After a while, the number of people supporting bus service with their dollars becomes so small that buses go out of business or fall into a state of disrepairContinue reading at Seeking Alpha >>>