Thursday, October 01, 2009

How obviously wrong are Roman Polanski's defenders? Heck, even Nina Burleigh, of all people, recognizes that "[w]hat matters is that the rape of a 13-year old girl, in a nation of laws".

She does concede, however, that "Great Men - and other men - sometimes do find pliant, young flesh irresistible. Geniuses are usually forgiven for it." Well, she would know, wouldn't she?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The latest proof of the extent to which an aristocratic, ruling-class mindset has permeated the political left and its cultural allies is Ellen Ruppel Shell's new bestseller, "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture", which might as well be subtitled, "Let Them Eat Cake". It should no longer surprise anyone that a magazine writer with impeccable liberal credentials would casually accuse ordinary price-conscious shoppers of political ignorance, social irresponsibility and cultural philistinism, although I admit I would never have expected her to denounce, of all things, IKEA, the savior of many an impecunious urban snob--the Trader Joe's of furniture, if you will. (Perhaps the secret of IKEA has finally gotten out to the masses, ruining its cachet.)

What does surprise me, though, is the timing of this broadside against middle-class frugality. Sure, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation could ooze contempt for the unwashed peasantry and their appalling affinity for inexpensive, convenient, tasty food--in 2001, when even those who'd dropped a bundle in the tech crash had little reason to feel particularly vulnerable. But in these difficult economic times, is there really still such a large cohort of readers so insulated from financial concerns that they feel no discomfort while sharing Shell's snooty disdain for ordinary folks and their crude habit of saving money by shopping for the best deal?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Let's say you're the "supreme leader" of a large Asian country ruled by a party with a radical ideology based on a belief system that predicts that the entire world will one day submit to its precepts. Your charismatic predecessor led the overthrow of the nation's ruling monarchy and anointed you as his successor, but the regime you inherited retained some inconvenient vestiges of liberalism and some annoyingly unsubservient members of the ruling party--not to mention plenty of popular discontent. Now, with the help of the loyal thugs of your government's repressive apparatus, you've finally eliminated those remnants of liberalism and isolated and demoted your main rivals. What do you do next?

Well, if history is any guide, you launch a massive purge of your own party and all institutions with the potential to foster leaders or ideas that might challenge your absolute rule. This will certainly cement your hold on power for a while (as well as boost your personality cult), but it'll make your subjects' lives pretty miserable in the process. So if anyone out there happens to be living in a country that fits this description, now might be a good time to get out...

Monday, June 08, 2009

Should doctors be using computers?, Part 2
I discussed here the complaint by the New York Times about the administration's "headlong rush" towards the computerization of medical records. That was the Bush administration of course, and we all still have the whiplash to show for it. By contrast, Obama recently held a health-care summit at which "the flagship proposal ... was the national adoption of electronic medical records". This time it is the Wall Street Journal that is concerned. Apparently there is no reason to believe that computers should be used for medical records, any more than they were in the writing of that article. And of course, once mistaken medical decisions are committed to computer, they will tend to propagate. Perhaps we'd be better off if doctors wrote nothing down. (I do agree with the article, however, that this proposal will not yield great savings.) Interestingly, the New York Times is not (or at least was not) completely on board. It appears that some democrats want to make sure that the privacy issues are completely settled first. Right.

A friend of mine also feels that privacy issues must be perfected before we go ahead: "Just think about how bad a person with AIDS would feel if his medical information became public." This is true, of course, but I pointed out that there is another group of people for whom it is absolutely crucial that medical records be computerized: people with AIDS. It all comes down to the fact that there are two types of people in the world: those who think that people with AIDS primarily have a privacy problem, and those who think that people with AIDS primarily have a medical problem.

It should be clear that any system that makes it easier for good guys to access (medical) data will also make it at least somewhat easier for bad guys to access it as well. That is, we will lose at least some privacy when we computerize medical records. Also, in the initial version of the system, there will be horrible bugs; with time these will be decreased, but the system will never be perfect in any sense. I think it's worth it. If you don't, then you should explain just what degree of disorganization and inaccessibility you desire for medical records.

An interesting question is: why has this computerization not happened already? Surely the privacy-mongers are partly to blame, but there are many other reasons as well. Two culprits are the medical profession, and facts of life about how standards come about. I hope to write more about this in the future.

Monday, May 25, 2009

According to virtually every press account, the recent credit card law means trouble for customers who pay their balances in full every month. Deprived of extra profits from interest rate increases on heavy debtors, the logic goes, credit card companies will have to recoup the extra revenue from non-balance-carriers. Some commentators even go so far as to argue that monthly interest payers are "subsidizing" everyone else, and that the decline in revenue from the former will have to be made up by making the latter pay their "fair share".

Arguments of this type pop up every time something negative happens to the credit card industry. Yet here we are, with annual fees hovering around zero--often with "cash back" rebates of one percent or more--for customers who pay off their balances. If credit card companies could get away with charging balance-free customers annual fees, then why don't they already?

In fact, the supposed free ride enjoyed by non-borrowers is a product of two factors:
  • Whatever they may say, credit card companies make good money off non-borrowing customers. The transaction fee charged merchants for credit card purchases more than covers the costs and risks of serving those customers, given that their current balance and default risk is so consistently low.

  • Customers careful and stingy enough to pay off their balances every month are also typically willing to shop around for the best credit card deal, forcing credit companies to compete for their still-profitable business.

Neither of these factors is at all affected by the latest legislation. It's therefore a good bet that any future attempts on the part of the credit card companies to squeeze more money from low-risk customers will be feeble, short-lived and unsuccessful.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Madoff affair--in which prestigious Jewish financier Bernard Madoff bilked investors, many of them observant fellow Jews and Jewish foundations, out of billions of dollars via an elaborate, long-lived Ponzi scheme--is a fascinating lesson in the nature and evolution of social trust. Even before Edward Banfield made it a topic of social scientific research, the idea that the degree to which a society's members can trust each other affects their economic, social and political well-being was a matter of common sense. Recent popularizers such as Francis Fukuyama and John Kay have focused on the role of culturally nurtured social trust in economic prosperity, with Amy Chua (about whom I've written previously) concentrating on the economic success of certain minority populations.

One such population, of course, is the Jewish people, and the Madoff scandal illustrates the extent to which Jewish success is a result of what Fukuyama would call a "high-trust" culture, where norms and traditions cause members to expect and rely on high standards of behavior from each other. There is a downside to these expectations, though: Madoff was able to bilk so many people out of so much money precisely because they considered it implausible that someone so deeply embedded in, and respected by, the Jewish community could be such a crook.

This sort of "affinity fraud" is a familiar weakness of trust based on cultural norms. Trust is inherently brittle: the more weight it carries--that is, the greater the reliance that is placed in it--the greater the temptation for a Madoff type to come along and betray it for his own gain. Back in the days of family-owned banks and letters of introduction, for example, Madoff might have been able to wipe out the life savings of a few relatives and gullible acquaintances. But in an age of highly portable capital and global commerce, inhabited by much larger, richer networks of trust, Madoff was able to tap into, and ultimately destroy, an amount of wealth equivalent to the annual GDP of a small country.

And here's where Madoff's other cultural affiliation comes into play. America is exceptional in many ways, but one of them is that among high-trust cultures, it's the least rooted in cultural norms, traditions and expectations. As the world's most culturally diverse, individualistic and libertarian nation, it simply cannot, and collectively has no desire to, cultivate in its inhabitants the kind of rigid adherence to reliable behavioral norms that's inculcated in, say, every Japanese. Instead, America has built a remarkable infrastructure of trust out of a combination of private institutions and governmental regulations that effectively substitute for cultural norms as a way of mediating trust between parties that wouldn't otherwise trust each other.

Consider, for example, that quintessential American institution, the credit card. With it, an American can walk into an office thousands of miles from home and buy or rent very valuable goods--a luxury car, for instance--from a total stranger, without so much as a downpayment. Yet the card represents no personal acquaintance to speak of, either between the cardholder and the issuer, the issuer and the merchant's acquirer, or the merchant's acquirer and the merchant. The bonds that restrain their behavior are rather a combination of laws, commercial practices and incentives that successfully convince the participants--most of the time--that obeying the rules of the credit card game is in their interest.

Obviously, this type of behavioral restraint is less effective than the social norms of other high-trust societies, as America's stratospheric rates of crime, bankruptcy, lawsuits and other forms of conflict demonstrate. But its flexibility and libertarian commercialism seem to make it more efficient--in the dynamic modern world, at least--than trust based on tradition and social norms. In much of the world, in fact, financial structures have gradually been pulled towards American styles of operation, rather than vice versa.

On the other hand, the brittleness of trust doesn't go away just because it's mediated by commercial institutions rather than social norms. What affinity fraud has been to high-trust societies, financial bubbles have been to American-style economic trust systems. And the longer and more large-scale the mutual trust gets, the more catastrophic the shattering.

The recent (and ongoing) financial crisis , for example, apparently culminated in a massive run on money market funds. Money market funds are, of course, largely unregulated, uninsured funds that store trillions in ordinary depositors' money--money that could instead have been stored in government-guaranteed deposit accounts at banks. (Those government guarantees, let us remember, were put into place after similar runs on banks during the early 1930s.) Apparently, millions of depositors trusted the funds enough to prefer their higher returns to the comfortable security of government-guaranteed bank deposits--and would have collectively lost trillions of dollars as a result, had the government not intervened to protect them. Lulled into a collective overextension of trust, these investors came close to having their trust instantaneously and utterly destroyed--with all the inevitable economic consequences such a drastic drop in social trust can be expected to bring.

I've explained previously how expectations of continued economic prosperity can undermine that same prosperity. The effect of trust is similar: a continued boom inflates social trust, increasing the opportunities for exploiting it, until it suddenly shatters, leaving society much the worse off economically. As we observe the twin wrecks of a housing system built on trust in homebuyers' reliability, and a retirement savings system built on trust in the stock market's reliability, we would do well to remember that trust is as subject to bubble dynamics as any other valuable commodity.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A group of seventy-odd British residents "of Jewish origin" have written a letter to the Guardian comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, and urging British sanctions against Israel. No doubt they are highly atypical of their self-declared demographic, but then, out of a population of some 280,000, one could no doubt find seventy to endorse just about any point of view, including the view that Israel is treating Gaza too harshly, and should be punished for it.

But I find it fascinating that they felt compelled to identify their "Jewish origin" in their letter. Why should their ethnic roots matter? Would a group of seventy or so Americans of British origin ever get together to express their opposition to British policy? Do critics of the Chinese government who happen to be of Chinese descent (as opposed to, say, Chinese birth or citizenship) like to call attention to that fact?

Indeed, it's a good bet that the Guardian letter's signatories are predominantly secular leftists who disdain Judaism as a relic of arcane superstitions, consider Jewish peoplehood a reactionary chauvinism impeding international solidarity, and condemn Israel as a colonialist imperialist outpost. In other words, in any other circumstances, they'd take great pains to minimize the significance of their Jewish heritage. Why, then, would they mention it so prominently here?

The answer, I believe, has to do with one of the more minor, less well-known costs of the Holocaust: while powerfully discrediting (to say the least) anti-Semitism, it has also implicitly raised the bar, so to speak, for anti-Semites. Whereas previous Jew-hatred was founded on libels about Jewish religion, culture, moral character or group behavior, the Nazis went a step further, concocting elaborate theories of Jewish genetic inferiority. As a result, many classic anti-Semitic slurs--such as, say, conspiracy theories positing various Jewish plots to achieve world domination--have actually come to seem somewhat milder by comparison, to the point where their modern promulgators often straight-facedly claim that they're not really anti-Semitic at all, since they make no genetic claims about Jews. (One obnoxious commenter here at ICBW, for example, tried this tack, apparently in all sincerity.)

It is in this context that the Guardian letter writers' assertion of Jewish origin makes sense. If extreme hostility towards Israel is widely associated with anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is is widely associated with a belief in Jewish genetic inferiority, then rabid critics of Israel might be expected to attempt to insulate themselves against charges of anti-Semitism by identifying their own Jewish genetic heritage. In effect, they're saying, "Hitler would consider us Jewish--so when we say we think Israel is behaving like Hitler, you can believe us."

Perhaps they should stop letting Hitler set the standard for so many of their moral distinctions.