March 15, 2014

2008 SAT scores by race by income

From the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education:
Racial Scoring Gap 
For both blacks and whites, family income is one of the best predictors of a student’s SAT score. Students from families with high incomes tend to score higher. Students from low-income families on average have low SAT scores. Because the median black family income in the United States is about 60 percent of the median family income of whites, one would immediately seize upon this economic statistic to explain the average 200-point gap between blacks and whites on the standard SAT scoring curve. 

This is on the once and future 1600 point scale, not 2400 points. The test was renormed in 1995 with the intention of having a mean of 1000 and a standard deviation of 200, although the standard deviation has usually been higher than that.
But income differences explain only part of the racial gap in SAT scores. For black and white students from families with incomes of more than $200,000 in 2008, there still remains a huge 149-point gap in SAT scores. Even more startling is the fact that in 2008 black students from families with incomes of more than $200,000 scored lower on the SAT test than did students from white families with incomes between $20,000 and $40,000. 
But the fact is that even when family income levels are similar, we are still comparing black and white students who are as different as apples and oranges in terms of educational sophistication, family educational heritage, family wealth, and access to educational tools and resources. The average white family in the same income group is far better equipped than the average black family to prepare their children for success on the SAT test.

On the other hand, some data suggests that black and white students with the same family net worth score about the same on the SAT. The concept of "regression toward the mean" may help explain these two findings.

"Asian-American backlash"

From the San Jose Mercury-News, a story on the wrench in the works of the Democratic super-majority in the California legislature's attempt to repeal Proposition 209.
Asian-American backlash: Measure restoring affirmative action on life support 
By Katy Murphy and Jessica Calefati

SACRAMENTO -- A legislative push to permit California's public universities to once again consider race and ethnicity in admissions appears to be on life support after an intense backlash from Asian-American parents who fear it will make it harder for their children to get into good schools. 
A planned referendum sailed through the state Senate in January without fanfare on a party-line vote, but three Asian-American Democrats who initially backed the measure are now calling for it to be "tabled" before the state Assembly has a chance to vote on it -- a highly unusual move. And it seems unlikely to get the two-thirds majority in the Assembly without the support of the five Asian-Americans in the lower house. 
Over the last several weeks, the three senators who have had second thoughts about the referendum -- Leland Yee, D-San Francisco; Ted Lieu, D-Torrance; and Carol Liu, D- La Cañada/Flintridge -- said they have received thousands of calls and emails from fearful constituents who believe that any move to favor other ethnic groups could hurt Asian-Americans, who attend many of the state's best schools in large numbers. A petition to kill the referendum now has more than 100,000 signatures, and email listservs for Chinese-American parents have been flooded with angry posts. 
Three days ago, the senators sent a formal letter to Assembly Speaker John Perez urging him to stop the bill from advancing any further. "As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children," the letter states.
White politicians would have to come up with some principled argument framed in Kantian terms for why legislation intended to hurt white children is bad for everybody. Asians can't be bothered.

The future isn't going to be terribly idealistic.

March 14, 2014

Putin's lawyerly furtiveness is a good thing

The "realist" foreign policy professor John Mearsheimer writes in the New York Times:
Getting Ukraine Wrong 

President Obama has decided to get tough with Russia by imposing sanctions and increasing support for Ukraine’s new government. This is a big mistake. This response is based on the same faulty logic that helped precipitate the crisis. 
Instead of resolving the dispute, it will lead to more trouble. 
The White House view, widely shared by Beltway insiders, is that the United States bears no responsibility for causing the current crisis. In their eyes, it’s all President Vladimir V. Putin’s fault — and his motives are illegitimate. This is wrong. Washington played a key role in precipitating this dangerous situation, and Mr. Putin’s behavior is motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States. 
The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West. The Russians have intensely disliked but tolerated substantial NATO expansion, including the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries. But when NATO announced in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Russia drew a line in the sand. Georgia and Ukraine are not just states in Russia’s neighborhood; they are on its doorstep. Indeed, Russia’s forceful response in its August 2008 war with Georgia was driven in large part by Moscow’s desire to prevent Georgia from joining NATO and integrating into the West. ...
The Obama administration then made a fatal mistake by backing the protesters, which helped escalate the crisis and eventually led to the toppling of Mr. Yanukovych. A pro-Western government then took over in Kiev. The United States ambassador to Ukraine, who had been encouraging the protesters, proclaimed it “a day for the history books.” 
Mr. Putin, of course, didn’t see things that way. He viewed these developments as a direct threat to Russia’s core strategic interests. 
Who can blame him? After all, the United States, which has been unable to leave the Cold War behind, has treated Russia as a potential threat since the early 1990s and ignored its protests about NATO’s expansion and its objections to America’s plan to build missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. 
One might expect American policymakers to understand Russia’s concerns about Ukraine joining a hostile alliance. After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere. 

The Ukraine is to Russia kind of like a cross between what Mexico and Canada are to the U.S. The U.S. tolerated Mexico being sullenly, passively anti-American but would never ... ever ... have let it discuss joining the Warsaw Pact. (Germany's 1917 invitation to Mexico to ally against the U.S., the Zimmerman Telegram, was a big part of the casus belli.)

You'll recall that America's Monroe Doctrine has been for 191 years extremely expansive about preserving the entire Western Hemisphere (North and South America) as America's sphere of influence. When Cuba dropped into the Soviets' lap around 1960, the U.S. response was to push uncomfortably close to the brink of nuclear war in 1962. When Communists got a toehold in a couple of tiny Central American countries a few doors south of Mexico at the end of the 1970s, the U.S. response was, shall we say, unneighborly.

You could say that that was an ideological struggle, but the U.S. military mucked around in banana republics even before the October Revolution in St. Petersburg. On the other hand, it wasn't all that clear the U.S. as a whole, rather than the United Fruit Company or Brown Brothers got much out of sending the Marines to take over the customs office in Guatelombia (the Panama Canal being the clear exception). FDR knocked off invading Latin American countries for business reasons, and I can't think of how that restraint harmed the U.S. as a whole, although maybe it did.
But few American policymakers are capable of putting themselves in Mr. Putin’s shoes. This is why they were so surprised when he moved additional troops into Crimea, threatened to invade eastern Ukraine, and made it clear Moscow would use its considerable economic leverage to undermine any regime in Kiev that was hostile to Russia.

If you were born in Lwow, you wouldn't want your country to be a satellite of Russia.

Henry Kissinger talks about Finlandizing Ukraine -- Western in economy, but neutral militarily -- but it's not obvious how to get there. I don't feel like I understand all the issues involved. How do you keep Russia from dominating economically when you can't afford to keep Russia from dominating militarily? Perhaps some Finnish or Austrian readers could contribute?
When Mr. Putin explained why he was playing hardball, Mr. Obama responded that the Russian leader “seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations.” But the Russian leader is obviously not talking with lawyers; he sees this conflict in geopolitical, not legal terms. 

Putin won't stipulate these are Russians
Not wholly. You'll notice that Russian troops started throwing their weight around in Crimea in unmarked uniforms, not in Russian uniforms. Moreover, Putin has insisted upon lying about them not being Russian troops, claiming they are some kind of indigenous Crimean militia that has sprung up spontaneously. In other words, Putin was talking with lawyers about the implications of his actions. That doesn't mean he's not going to go ahead and do what he wants to do, but it does mean he's concerned about the precedent he's setting.

For example, the population of parts of Siberia is increasingly Chinese. It's not in the long term interest of Russia to establish a precedent that the strongest kid on the block can force a secessionist referendum on a weaker neighbor's disaffected region.

The truth is that the world has done pretty well since 1945 with the understanding that changing borders militarily is frowned upon (which is what made the Kosovo escapade so reckless). Russia is not a densely populated country, so it benefits from the international presumption that borders are not, generally speaking, up for grabs.

Perhaps if Putin wins his referendum in Crimea, he'll ... uh ... graciously ... not act upon it de jure, merely having Crimea be de jure an autonomous part of Ukraine and de facto a Russian protectorate. (A lot of foreign policy problems are sidestepped by avoiding following out the logic to its de jure conclusion. For example, the Kurds have been impressively prudent in not declaring their de jure independence from Iraq, which would alarm Turkey. Similarly, the current de jure status of Taiwan doesn't make sense, but it's kept WWIII from breaking out for 42 years, and lots of people have made a lot of money in the mean time under the de facto situation.)
Mr. Putin’s view is understandable. Because there is no world government to protect states from one another, major powers are acutely sensitive to threats — especially near their borders — and they sometimes act ruthlessly to address potential dangers. International law and human rights concerns take a back seat when vital security issues are at stake.
Mr. Obama would be advised to stop talking to lawyers and start thinking like a strategist.

Personally, I am heartened by Putin's hypocrisy. His lawyerly furtiveness is a good thing. It shows he feels guilty about stepping over the line here and understands that the world is, on the whole, better off with lines intact.

I don't want to live in a Mearsheimer World in which the powers talk like the Athenians do in Thucydides' "Melian Dialogue." I want politicians to feel a little shame and foreboding.

The Melian Dialogue is stylized account by Thucydides, the exiled Athenian general turned historian, of an incident halfway through the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.

The Melian Dialogue has a kind of science fiction aspect to it, of pushing a certain logic to its extreme. The Athenian fleet descends upon the small island of Melos, a colony founded by Sparta that has so far sat out the war. The Athenians demand that the Melians surrender and pay them tribute, or have their city destroyed, their men killed, and their women and children enslaved. In a conference, the Athenians explain to the Melian leaders:
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences - either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede [Persians], or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us - and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians [Spartans], although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

The Melians respond that it would be dishonorable, after hundreds of years of liberty, to surrender. So, the Athenians sack the city, kill the men, and enslave the women.

You can't argue with Logic.

In the long run, however, this logic didn't work out so hot for the Athenians. From Wikipedia:
Yet the Melians are also correct in trusting their kindred, the Spartans, to ultimately come to their aid. After the fall of their city, the Spartans resettled the surviving Melians on the mainland. Within a few years the Peloponnesian War resumed between Sparta and Athens, and the Melian community in exile raised funds to contribute to the Spartan war effort, which successfully destroyed the Athenian empire. The Spartan general Lysander then retook Melos and restored the Melians to their homeland. 

March 13, 2014

An Englishman's view of Americans

In Tom Stoppard's short play New-Found-Land, two government clerks in London are reviewing an American immigrant's application to become a British subject. The more elderly reflects:
BERNARD: Americans are a very modern people, of course. They are a very open people too. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They don't stand on ceremony. They take people as they are. They make no distinction about a man's background, his parentage, his education. They say what they mean and there is a vivid muscularity about the way they say it. They admire everything [around] them without reserve or pretence of scholarship. They are always the first to put their hands in their pockets. They press you to visit them in their own home the moment they meet you, and are irrepressibly goodhumoured, ambitious, and brimming with self-confidence in any company. Apart from all that I've got nothing against them.

Running out the clock on mortgage fraud

From the NYT:
U.S. Criticized for Lack of Action on Mortgage Fraud 
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in 2012 that prosecutors had charged 530 people in cases related to mortgage fraud that had cost homeowners more than $1 billion, figures that turned out to be highly inflated. 
Four years after President Obama promised to crack down on mortgage fraud, his administration has quietly made the crime its lowest priority and has closed hundreds of cases after little or no investigation, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Thursday. 
The report by the department’s inspector general undercuts the president’s contentions that the government is holding people responsible for the collapse of the financial and housing markets. The administration has been criticized, in particular, for not pursuing large banks and their executives. 
“In cities across the country, mortgage fraud crimes have reached crisis proportions,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said at a mortgage fraud summit in Phoenix in 2010. “But we are fighting back.” 
The inspector general’s report, however, shows that the F.B.I. considered mortgage fraud to be its lowest-ranked national criminal priority. In several large cities, including New York and Los Angeles, F.B.I. agents either ranked mortgage fraud as a low priority or did not rank it at all. 
Mortgage fraud was one of the causes of the 2008 financial collapse. Mortgage brokers and lenders falsified documents, sometimes to make mortgages look safer, other times to make the property look more valuable. 
The inspector general focused much of its report and most of its recommendations on fixing internal systems that produced inaccurate data that wildly overstated the government’s results. 
Mr. Holder, for example, announced in 2012 that prosecutors had charged 530 people over the previous year in cases related to mortgage fraud that had cost homeowners more than $1 billion. 
Almost immediately, the Justice Department realized it could not back up those statistics, the inspector general said. After months of review, it became clear that only 107 people were charged. 
The $1 billion figure, it turned out, had been drastically inflated. It was actually $95 million, the inspector general said. Yet Justice Department officials repeated those claims for months, even after it was obvious the figures were wrong, the inspector general said. 
It appears that the statute of limitation on mortgage fraud was just five years until being increased to ten years in 2009. So, I guess, frauds that took place before the world blew up on 9/15/08 are now home free. (But I'm not your legal advisor so don't take my word for it.)

America's Shallow State wages World War G

In retrospect, we can see that World War G got kicked into gear in September 2012 when the Obama Administration appointed radical anti-heterosexual marriage activist Masha Gessen to run the Russian Service of Radio Liberty (which costs American taxpayers $92 million per year). From Wikipedia:
Masha Gessen

Gessen was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Moscow. In 1981 Gessen moved with her family to the United States.[2] She returned in 1991 to Moscow.[2] She holds both Russian and US citizenship. Her brothers are Keith Gessen, Daniel Gessen and Philip Gessen.[citation needed] 
Gessen is openly gay and an activist for the rights of sexual minorities. She served as a member of the board of directors for the Moscow LGBT rights organization "Triangle" from 1993 to 1998.[3] 
She has written on LGBT rights and Russian affairs. She writes in both Russian and English, and has contributed to The New Republic, New Statesman, Granta, Slate and Vanity Fair, and US News & World Report.

I've seen her byline a lot at
... Gessen covered Pussy Riot and their punk rock protest against Putin in her 2014 book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. [5] 
She was dismissed from her position as the chief editor of Russia's oldest magazine, Vokrug Sveta on 1 September 2012 after she refused to send a reporter to cover a Russian Geographic Society event featuring President Putin, claiming that it had become a mouthpiece of Putin's government.[6][7]

So, she was then put in charge of a mouthpiece of Obama's government:
In September 2012, Gessen was appointed as director of the Russian Service for Radio Liberty, a US government funded broadcaster based in Prague.[8][9] 
Shortly after her appointment was announced and a few days after Gessen met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, more than 40 members of Radio Liberty's staff were fired. Radio Liberty also lost its Russian broadcasting license several weeks after Gessen took over. Gessen's role in both of these events is unclear but has caused controversy.[9] 

The conservative Heritage Foundation, which of course is all for Radio Liberty, is highly critical of Gessen's takeover of RL's Russian Service, which involved her bringing her pals in (presumably at the expense of Heritage's pals): "Most importantly, Gessen, who was a consultant to RL for reorganization, managed to land the coveted RL Russian service directorship and then led the service straight into its nosedive by eliminating experienced broadcasters and bringing in with her a team of like-minded elitist print journalists, with little or no experience in radio broadcasting."

More from Wikipedia on Masha Gessen:
In December 2013 she moved to New York to avoid legislation in Russia that bans "homosexual propaganda". [10] [11] 
... She is however opposed to the existence of marriage at all, and advocates for the fundamental change of the institution of marriage, including her three children being legally able to have five parents. [13]

One interesting question is if the U.S. government was so committed to handing control of tens of millions of dollars per year in propaganda over to a Gessen, why not hire Masha Gessen's more sensible brother Keith Gessen, founder of the n+1 literary magazine? Here are extracts from Keith's 2013 obituary for Boris Berezovsky:
Boris Berezovsky, 1946-2013
The oligarch Boris Berezovsky was found dead in his home outside of London over the weekend, either a suicide or a heart attack. He was depressed over losing a lawsuit to his old business associate, Roman Abramovich; had failed to secure what he thought was his rightful property after the death of another, much closer associate, Badri Patarkatsishvili; was losing a decade-long battle to his former protege, Vladimir Putin; and was also, on top of all that, apparently running out of money. With him he took many of the secrets, and insights, and schemes, that nearly destroyed Russia in the decade after the Soviet Union fell apart. 
Berezovsky wasn’t just an oligarch: he was the first oligarch. He is sometimes referred to slightingly as a “former used car salesman”—this is a kind of joke. In fact Berezovsky was an accomplished mathematician, a corresponding member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, with a specialization in game theory. ... 
The incredible success of Berezovsky—he would have become a multi-millionaire when he started moving hundreds of thousands of cars, and a billionaire, at least on paper, when he won the Sibneft oil conglomerate in the rigged loans-for-shares auctions of 1995—represented the colossal failure of his generation of Russian liberals. He may not have been the best of this generation, morally speaking, but he may well have been one of the brightest (for a Jew of that generation to have made it as far as he did in Soviet academia was a tremendous accomplishment), and in certain important ways he believed what they believed: that capitalism was virtuous; that because capitalism was virtuous, those who succeeded at capitalism were the elect, and those who failed at it were the damned; that, politically speaking, all that was required for the liberation of the Russian people, after three hundred years of oppression, was to open the windows and let the free market in. What all this led to, in fact, was the enrichment of a very few and the immiseration of the populace, the reduction of life expectancy for Russian males by nearly a decade, and, as of last year, nearly a million suicides. And now it seems possible that Berezovsky is one more. 
What was criminal capitalism in Russia actually like? On the most fundamental level it was a series of protection rackets. If you sold vegetables on the street corner, eventually you’d be approached by some guys in leather jackets who would demand protection money. If you didn’t pay, they upset your vegetable stand; next time, they beat you up. If you paid them, they protected you. They didn’t do this particularly well, but they would try; if some other group of guys in leather jackets came along and tried to shake you down, they’d tell them to lay off, and if they didn’t lay off, they’d fight them. There was a lot of fist-fighting in those days, and most of the guys in the protection rackets were boxers or karate or wrestling champions, including, occasionally, a former Olympian. ...
My father, a computer programmer who emigrated to the US in 1981, went into business in the 1990s with two of his old computer programmer friends who had remained in Russia. They did “import-export”—they brought things into Russia that were much cheaper to get abroad (the classic example of this was personal computers, which were nonexistent in Russia in 1991, though relatively plentiful in the West), and exported things that were cheaper to get in Russia than abroad, like timber. After a few good years, my father and his partners closed up shop when the Russian economy collapsed in 1998. 
But my father had a great time; I suppose it was especially fun since he spent most of it in Newton, Massachusetts. He liked telling the story of how his partners got shaken down by a criminal gang. By this point they were an established business; they owned a beautiful old mansion right next to the Belarusskaya train station. But one day two men marched into the mansion and demanded protection payments. My father’s partner, a former computer programmer, explained that they already made payments to someone (which was true). The two gentlemen didn’t seem to care. They said they’d be back in two days for their money. 
My father’s partner called the security firm that was supposed to be guarding him, otherwise known as his krysha, or “roof.” The krysha was run by a former police colonel. Other such groups were run by former KGB colonels. Others still were run by former (or current) gangsters. In any case they were now all in the same game. This former police colonel listened to the story and said he would make some inquiries. “If it’s the Georgians,” he said, “we can deal with it. And if it’s the Izmailovo group, we can talk to them. But if it’s the Chechens, we can’t help you.” ...
... In 1998 and 1999, Berezovsky’s position—at this point he was not only a rich man, but a frequent visitor to the Kremlin and adviser to Boris Yeltsin—became tenuous. ... Berezovsky saw this happening and came up with a plan. The mood of the country was nationalistic, even militaristic. The oligarchs (or liberals, as Berezovsky thought of them) needed their own nationalist candidate, and he found one in a short, unassuming former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. He convinced Yeltsin to replace Primakov with Putin. ... 
To his credit, Putin disappointed Berezovsky’s expectation almost as soon as he assumed the presidency. He tried to bring the oligarchs to heel. Whatever else he was wrong about—which was everything—in this at least he was right. These were men who had been handed immense industrial fortunes by a desperate government. They became billionaires overnight. But they had not built these companies. The companies had been built by Soviet workers over the course of decades—some of these workers believed that they were building Communism, some of them were prisoners of the Gulag. All of them worked for pennies. For the oligarchs to pretend like they had earned their fortunes was tremendously insulting to the millions of people who had built them in actual fact. The best and fairest thing to do would have been to nationalize the giant oil companies right then and there. But Putin is a bully and he tried to bully the oligarchs. He began police inspections of Gusinsky and Berezovsky, and soon they had both fled the country; Gusinsky quietly and forever, Berezovsky loudly and with a promise to return. The other oligarchs agreed to behave themselves. The exception was Khodorkovsky, who neither left nor agreed to behave himself. He ended up in prison. 
... In recent years Berezovsky would often talk about how Putin was his biggest mistake—“I thought I knew people,” he would say, “but look at the mistake I made.” The implication being that if it weren’t for that one mistake, things would have turned out all right. But they had already not turned out all right, long before Putin. ...
I know that it’s a turn-on for Westerners, left and right, to pretend that big bad Putin ordered Berezovsky killed. The likelier scenario is more tragic and more internal: the self-reckoning of a man who had been given a magnificent mind, and limitless energy, and who devoted these, primarily, to destruction, speculation, and manipulation. With humor, panache, extraordinary inventiveness—but still.
Or is Keith Gessen just too reasonable for the purpose of waging World War G?

Andy Ferguson on the "Lean In Collection"

Andrew Ferguson writes in The Weekly Standard:
Brave New Stereotypes 
Behold the Lean In Collection 
MAR 17, 2014, VOL. 19, NO. 26 • BY ANDREW FERGUSON 
Partly because I’m a guy, partly because my professor insisted on holding our Feminism and Culture class at 8 a.m., making it impossible for me to attend, I find myself now, decades later, far behind the curve of gender empowerment. The curve is shifting heavily to the distaff side. Can I still say “distaff”?

The statistics proving the point come in bite-size, journalist-friendly squibs: ... Over the last 30 years, their wages have risen 25 percent while those of men have fallen 4 percent.  
I like to think that my Feminism and Culture professor, whatever became of her, would be pleased at the turn of events—view it indeed as a kind of triumph and vindication. But I can’t be sure. She might be pleased, or she might be one of those people who nod vigorously while reading the boffo bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. The book was released a year ago this month, and has been in the top 10 of the bestseller list ever since.

... Rich as Croesus, successful beyond the dreams of all but a handful of industrial titans, Sandburg is animated by the same itchy agitation and discontent that have always animated the feminist cause. She insists, as feminists always have, that there is always more to do to empower the sisterhood and herself. And she continues to try to spread the word. Having more money than she knows what to do with, she started a foundation, the Lean In Foundation.  
What does the foundation do? According to the mission statement, Lean In “is focused on encouraging women to pursue their ambitions” and “changing the conversation from what we can’t do to what we can do.” It is “offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.” It will “talk openly about the challenges women face and work together,” and thereby “change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.” 
Focusing, encouraging, supporting, offering, conversing, talking, changing, and working together: not much, in other words. The website also plays brief video lectures, such as “Be Your Own Hero,” “Own the Room,” and “Managing Difficult Conversations.” You can watch as many as you want, no charge. It’s on Sandberg’s dime. 
The foundation’s latest and most tangible initiative, announced toward the end of February, is a partnership with Getty Images, one of the world’s largest suppliers of stock photography—those generic, instantly forgettable pictures that editors use to illustrate their magazines and websites and that marketers use to make their advertisements irresistible to the plain folks. Getty is now curator of the Lean In Collection. Editors and marketers who can afford to will be able to buy stock photographs “devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls, and the people who support them.” Profits from the Lean In Collection will go to the Lean In Foundation, which supports the Lean In Collection. We can expect much focusing, offering, conversing, and talking in the years ahead.

... An hour with the Lean In Collection allows us to glimpse what our world will look like as it races toward perfection. The titles of the photos are self-explanatory. “Portrait of woman working in a machine shop.” “Female surgeon using digital tablet after work.” “Two women doing pushups with dumbbells in crossfit gym.” There’s a soldier, several surfers, some mountain climbers, and one nervy woman tiptoeing along a slackline. It’s important to note that “Female woodworker nailing custom cabinet in workshop” is working on a custom cabinet; artisanal craftsmanship replaces mass production in the Lean In world. 
They can afford it! When you see “Two smiling mature women sitting outside on patio having appetizers,” you will swoon over the rustic getaway and know that one of them bought it with cash.  ...
Even the old women (“Glamorous mature woman smiling”), while unavoidably wrinkly, toss cascades of glowing white hair and beam from tanned faces, suggesting the undying sensuality that is the Lean In woman’s birthright.

About a dozen years ago, I was hiking in Topanga Canyon when a beautiful woman in her mid-fifties with waist-length grey hair walked past. "Who looks like that?" Oh, yeah, Emmy Lou Harris of Topanga Canyon looks like that. And, indeed, it was the 1970s songbird.
... Pondering the images I thought again of my feminism teacher. I do think she’d be pleased with today’s state of affairs. The Lean In Collection makes our current condition plain. The collection isn’t about “empowering women”; it’s about flattering women who are already empowered, riding high in the saddle rather than marching in the streets, placards in hand. The collection itself is today’s placard. It says: “Congratulations .  .  . to me! I won!”
A huge fraction of culture has always consisted of flattering the powerful -- "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" But contemporary good taste consists of flattering the powerful not for being powerful per se, but for being empowered.

Notice the difference?

Me, neither.

World War G cranking up again?

From the NYT: 
Russia Massing Military Forces Near Borders With Ukraine 
By STEVEN LEE MYERS and ALISON SMALE 29 minutes ago 
Russia acknowledged significant operations in several regions abutting Ukraine on Thursday, even as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany assailed the Kremlin’s actions in some of her toughest language yet.

In the New Republic, New Yorker editor David Remnick is interviewed by Isaac Chotiner upon his return from the Sochi Olympics:
It is this reputation for humor and self-deprecation with his staff and the press that has, at least partially, ensured the laudatory coverage that greets him everywhere he goes. And is it ever laudatory. Check Twitter after a story of his goes online, and it’s like the Internet has emptied the thesaurus of all words relating to “genius.”

The adulation that the New Yorker editor receives from writers doesn't have anything to do with the New Yorker being one of last good-paying gigs left for writers.
IC: You mention his lack of Marxist-Leninism. Do you think he has any ideology? 
DR: Yes, I do. I think initially there was not an ideology. He is a state builder. It was all about reasserting the Russian state. But what you see since his return to power is a distinctly conservative Russian ideology, which you might call “Putinism.” What is it? It is a dog’s breakfast ideologically. He is capable of quoting Stolypin, Solzhenitsyn, and any number of people from the Russian or Russian Orthodox past, where useful.  
The anti-gay law is an aspect of this. In Stalinist times, as Masha Gessen points out, the convenient other was the Jew, or people from the Caucasus, but mainly Jews. For one reason or another, Putin is not hostile to Jews as such.

IC: He is a forward-thinking guy. 
DR: He is very flexible there and we all thank him for that. In Russia, the level of homophobia is extremely high, and so there it is.

World War G is all due to Russia suddenly becoming extremely homophobic (it doesn't have anything to do with radically changing American attitudes and demands, and the Western urge to find an excuse to up the confrontation ante), probably as a mask for its inexplicable (and likely temporary) lack of anti-Semitism at present. 

Real life conspiracies

Hollywood thrillers love conspiracy theories (the movie business largely consists of numberless ad hoc conspiracies, so participants enjoy dreaming up more permanent, all-encompassing ones), while academics do not. Academic Jeffrey M. Bale complains of this in:
Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics
Very few notions nowadays generate as much intellectual resistance, hostility and derision within academic circles as a belief in the historical importance or efficacy of political conspiracies. Even when this belief is expressed in a very cautious manner, limited to specific and restricted contexts, supported by reliable evidence and hedged about with all sorts of qualifications, apparently it still manages to transcend the boundaries of acceptable discourse and to violate unspoken academic taboos. The idea that particular groups of people meet together secretly or in private to plan various courses of action, and that some of these plans actually exert a significant influence on particular historical developments, is typically rejected out of hand and assumed to be the figment of a paranoid imagination. 
Most academic researchers clearly prefer to ignore the implications of conspiratorial politics altogether rather than deal directly with such controversial matters. A number of complex cultural and historical factors contribute to this reflexive and unwarranted reaction, but it is perhaps most often the direct result of a simple failure to distinguish between ‘conspiracy theories’ in the strict sense of the term, which are essentially elaborate fables even though they may well be based on kernels of truth, and the activities of actual clandestine and covert political groups, which are a common feature of modern politics. For this and other reasons, serious research into genuine conspiratorial networks has at worst been suppressed, as a rule discouraged, and at best looked on with condescension by the academic community. An entire dimension of political history and contemporary politics has thus been consistently neglected. ... 
If certain parties were to say, for example, that a secret Masonic lodge in Italy had infiltrated all of the state’s security agencies and was involved in promoting or at least exploiting acts of neo-fascist terrorism in order to help condition the political system and strengthen its own influence in the corridors of government, most readers would probably assume that that they were joking or accuse them of having taken leave of their senses. Twenty-five years ago this author might have had the very same reaction. Nevertheless, although the above statement greatly oversimplifies a far more complex pattern of interaction between the public and private spheres, not to mention between visible political institutions (‘the overground’ or ‘the Establishment’) and covert political groups (‘the underground’), such a lodge did in fact exist. It was known as Loggia Massonica Propaganda Due (P2), was affiliated with the Grand Orient branch of Italian Freemasonry, and was headed by a former Fascist militiaman named Licio Gelli.

I can recall reading about the various scandalous Italian conspiracies in The Economist in the early Eighties. Most enlightening.

(By the way, beginning one minute after I put up this post about "Propaganda Due" I've been flooded with spam comments in Italian offering genuine Gucci and Prada merchandise. Coincidence? You be the judge.)
Likewise, if someone were to claim that an Afrikaner secret society founded in the early decades of this century had played a key role in promoting the system of apartheid in South Africa, and in the process helped to ensure the preservation of ultraconservative Afrikaner cultural values and Afrikaner political dominance until the early 1990s, some readers would undoubtedly believe that that person was exaggerating. Yet this organization also existed. It was known as the Afrikaner Broederbond (AB), and it formed a powerful ‘state within a state’ in that country by virtue, among other things, of its exercise of covert influence over elements of the security services.

I hadn't heard of that before.

Here's a theory I just made up: these kind of deep state conspiratorial organizations are related in some sense to the relatively early retirement ages for soldiers and cops. Lots of colonels and police lieutenants get pensioned off while still in vigorous middle age, so in some countries they are enthusiastic about continuing to toil with their former colleagues as planners and organizers (i.e., conspirators). 

Bale goes on to explain that academics pay very little attention to such matters, while investigative reporters love this kind of stuff. So, this knowledge exists in a twilight world that screenwriters go nuts over, but doesn't seem respectable to enlightened opinion.

This leads to academic histories missing big chunks of the story. For example, Project Ultra, the giant WWII British codebreaking effort at Bletchley Park, which employed 9,000 people at one site by war's end, remained virtually unknown until 1974 (although traces of the story began appearing in the press from 1967 onward). I can recall it being a very big deal when it was revealed 29 years after the war ended. Was this hubbub due to the Watergate Era's hunger for conspiracy theories? Probably, but I wouldn't be surprised if journalists hadn't been telling each other about it in smoky bars for 29 years too, so they were well past primed to jump in when the official shackles were lifted in 1974.

In hindsight, I've noticed that Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison's official history of the Navy in WWII from the 1950s and 1960s contains a passage where he more or less taunts the reader to guess that the Allies had inside information on what the German U-boats were up to, but apparently nobody much noticed at the time.

Similarly, if you read newspapers and magazines closely, the whole NSA spying thing (which is a continuation of sorts of Ultra) was old news. Back in the day, the president of France was always denouncing the "Anglo-Saxon powers" and their perfidious Echelon for listening in on his phone calls.

March 12, 2014

"Stanley Fischer is the kindest, warmest, bravest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life" (Cont.)

From the New York Times:
Stanley Fischer, Fed Nominee, Has Long History of Policy Leadership 

WASHINGTON — Stanley Fischer has worked for much of his professional life to improve economic policy in the developing world. Now he is on the verge of a new role in a country with plenty of economic problems of its own: the United States. 
Mr. Fischer, nominated by President Obama to serve as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, is likely to move quickly through a confirmation process that begins with a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday morning. 
Assuming Mr. Fischer successfully negotiates that gantlet, he would join Janet L. Yellen, the Fed’s new chairwoman, in the difficult work of figuring out how much more the Fed can do to help the economy recover from the Great Recession. 
Ms. Yellen proposed his selection to the White House. ... 
Genial, courtly, self-effacing, Mr. Fischer is skilled at making sharp points without making enemies. 
Lawrence H. Summers, a former Treasury secretary, suggested at a November conference held by the International Monetary Fund in Mr. Fischer’s honor that there were fewer financial crises in the decades after World War II because people acted prudently. 
“Larry,” Mr. Fischer responded, “I wonder whether the 35 years after World War II had something to do with the fact that financial liberalization hadn’t yet happened.” 
Mr. Fischer’s prepared remarks before the Senate committee, released by the committee on Wednesday, focused on the importance of the Fed’s role as a financial regulator. “The Great Recession has driven home the lesson that the Fed has not only to fulfill its dual mandate, but also to contribute its part to the maintenance of the stability of the financial system,” he said. 
Mr. Fischer, now 70, is a widely respected figure in the world of economic policy. 
His academic work in the 1970s helped to provide the intellectual justification for today’s activist monetary policy. His students included the recently retired Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, and Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank. 
He subsequently began a career in policy-making, including a stint as second-in-command at the I.M. F. during the 1990s and, most recently, an eight-year run as governor of the Bank of Israel, a job he left in June. 
Along the way, Mr. Fischer, born into a family of shopkeepers in a small town in present-day Zambia, in a home without running water, amassed a fortune as the author of a best-selling economics textbook and a senior executive at Citigroup. 
Mr. Fischer in December disclosed assets worth $14.6 million to $56.3 million, including a residence in New York worth at least $5 million. He said that he would divest some stock and investment holdings if he were confirmed. 
Mr. Fischer has said that his upbringing in Mazabuka, then part of the British colony of Northern Rhodesia, imbued him with a passion for economic development.  
“One of the things that got me interested in economics, peculiarly, was that Dag Hammarskjöld was an economist,” Mr. Fischer recalled in a 2004 interview with his friend Olivier Blanchard, now the chief economist at the I.M.F. “When I was in high school, Dag Hammarskjöld was this great man. Then he was killed in the then-Belgian Congo, right next door. I knew he had done good in the world and my parents had brought me up to believe I should do good in the world. I realized that economics would help you do good.”

Charles Murray's upcoming Airport Book

For a long time, I've been pointing out that Malcolm Gladwell makes far more money lecturing at corporate events than does Charles Murray, even though Murray is enormously informed and insightful, while Gladwell is a wee bit obtuse. 

But now, via Marginal Revolution, we see that Murray has an Airport Book coming out in April:
The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life  
For those starting out in their careers—and those who wish to advance more quickly—this is a delightfully fussy guide to the hidden rules of the road in the workplace and in life.

As bestselling author and social historian Charles Murray explains, at senior levels of an organization there are curmudgeons everywhere, judging your every move. Yet it is their good opinion you need to win if you hope to get ahead.

Among the curmudgeon’s day-to-day tips for the workplace:

• Excise the word “like” from your spoken English
• Don’t suck up
• Stop “reaching out” and “sharing”
• Rid yourself of piercings, tattoos, and weird hair colors
• Make strong language count

His larger career advice includes:

• What to do if you have a bad boss
• Coming to grips with the difference between being nice and being good
• How to write when you don’t know what to say
• Being judgmental (it’s good, and you don’t have a choice anyway)
And on the great topics of life, the curmudgeon urges us to leave home no matter what, get real jobs (not internships), put ourselves in scary situations, and watch Groundhog Day repeatedly (he’ll explain).

Witty, wise, and pulling no punches, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead is an indispensable sourcebook for living an adult life.

Has the zeitgeist shifted enough for Murray to succeed on Gladwell's turf? Murray's last book Coming Apart was treated with respect by most reviewers, while his extraordinary 2003 book "Human Accomplishment" was largely ignored as punishment for The Bell Curve in 1994, so the mental atmosphere at the top may have improved enough.

It will be interesting to see if the intellectual climate has improved (e.g., Gladwell is going out of fashion -- even President Obama bought David Epstein's book attacking Gladwellism: The Sports Gene) for Murray to cash in on the Airport Book market. 

On the other hand, Gladwell has certainly made more money relative to his talents than Murray has, so if Charles is so smart, why isn't he rich?

Obviously, I'm both interested and not disinterested: the success or failure of Murray's The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead is relevant to the reception publishers will give to my Airport Book proposal tentatively entitled The Devil Incarnate's Guide to Being Poor and Hated. (Chapter One is: "Pick on Poor Stanley Fischer ... a Lot.")

JTA: "Putin's Jewish embrace: Is it love or politics?"

Last week, I argued that there were long-term trends pushing Russia and Israel closer together. From the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (the 97 year old international Jewish news agency):
Putin’s Jewish embrace: Is it love or politics? 
By Cnaan Liphshiz and Talia Lavin    March 11, 2014 5:32pm

(JTA) — When even Russian policemen had to pass security checks to enter the Sochi Winter Olympics, Rabbi Berel Lazar was waved in without ever showing his ID. 
Lazar, a Chabad-affiliated chief rabbi of Russia, was invited to the opening ceremony of the games last month by President Vladimir Putin’s office. But since the event was on Shabbat, Lazar initially declined the invitation, explaining he was prevented from carrying documents, among other religious restrictions.
So Putin ordered his staff to prepare an alternative entrance and security-free route just for the rabbi, according to one of Lazar’s top associates, Rabbi Boruch Gorin. 
“It is unusual, but the security detail acted like kosher supervisors so Rabbi Lazar could attend,” Gorin said. 
To him, the Sochi anecdote illustrates Putin’s positive attitude toward Russian Jewry — an attitude Gorin says is sincere, unprecedented in Russian history and hugely beneficial for Jewish life in the country. 
Others, however, see more cynical motives behind Putin’s embrace of Russian Jewry. 
“Putin has been facing international criticism for a long time now over human rights issues,” said Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli Knesset member who was born in the Soviet Union. “He needs a shield, and that’s the Jews. His warm relations with Russia’s so-called official Jews are instrumental.” 
In recent weeks, Putin has positioned himself as a defender of Jews as part of his effort to discredit the revolution that ousted his ally, former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. During a March 4 news conference, Putin called the anti-Yanukovych protesters “reactionary, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces.” 
While right-wing Ukrainian factions — including some that have embraced anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past — played a prominent role in the opposition movement, Ukrainian Jewish leaders have sharply disputed Putin’s characterization and condemned Russian incursions into Crimea. Some individual Jews, however, have told JTA that they agree with Putin’s analysis and welcomed the intervention by Russia. 
Few would dispute that Putin has been friendly to Jewish institutional life in Russia — especially to organizations and leaders that belong to the Chabad Hasidic movement. 
Gorin, a Chabad rabbi and chairman of Moscow’s $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, credits Putin personally for providing state funding for the institution, which opened in 2012. Putin also donated a month’s wages to the museum.

Well, I'm sure that was quite a sacrifice for Putin since his official salary is no doubt his only source of income.
... Putin’s relationship with the Jewish community is consistent with his larger strategy for governing Russia. His brand of Russian nationalism extends beyond just ethnic Russians to include the country’s many minorities. Putin has carefully cultivated relationships with Russia’s many subgroups and regions as a means of projecting his government’s authority.

In other words, Putin's Russia is far less a Russian ethno-state than a multiculturalist empire.
Mikhail Chlenov, secretary general of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, says Putin’s pro-Jewish tendencies are part of the reason that anti-Semitic incidents are relatively rare in Russia. In 2013, the Russian Jewish Congress documented only 10 anti-Jewish attacks and acts of vandalism, compared to dozens in France. 
Under Putin, harsh laws have led to a crackdown on ultranationalist groups that once had flourished in Russia. At the same time, anti-extremism legislation has been used as well to prosecute political protesters, including the punk rock collective Pussy Riot. 

I suspect from Putin's point of view, he's just being politically correct and trying to advance tolerance among the diverse elements of his country. He's not going to let Russian nationalist soccer hooligans insult Chechens like his close personal friend Ramzan Kadyrov, and he's not going to let Pussy Riot invade an Orthodox cathedral and insult the faithful, just as he'd arrest anti-Semites for doing the same thing in a synagogue. Putin's just promoting tolerance by cracking down on extremist provocateurs. But, the old KGB man just doesn't get just how Leninist the West has gotten in its Who-Whom thinking.
Some Russian Jews recoil at Putin’s authoritarian tendencies. Freedom of expression has been severely restricted and politically motivated prosecutions remain widespread under Putin, according to Amnesty International’s 2013 report on Russia. 
“Putin may be good for Jews, but he’s bad for Russia,” said Michael Edelstein, a lecturer at Moscow State University and a journalist for the L’chaim Jewish newspaper. 
Putin traces his earliest connection to Judaism back to his early childhood in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, when he befriended a Jewish family that lived in his apartment block. In his 2000 autobiography, Putin wrote that the unnamed family loved him and that he used to seek its company. 
... Another influential Jewish figure for Putin was his wrestling coach, Anatoly Rakhlin, who sparked the young Putin’s interest in sports and got him off the rough streets of Leningrad, where Putin would get into fights while his parents worked. At Rakhlin’s funeral last year, Putin, reportedly overcome by emotion, ditched his security detail and went on a short, solitary walk. 
Bronfman calls Putin’s childhood accounts “a smokescreen” and likens them to the Russian leader’s friendly gestures toward Israel, which he last visited in 2012.
Putin, who already led Russia to sign a visa waiver program with Israel in 2008, said during his visit to Israel that he “would not let a million Russians live under threat,” referring sympathetically to the regional dangers facing Israel and its Russian-speaking immigrant population.

Now, that's interesting. A general theme of Russian history for several hundred years has been Russia seeing itself as a "protector" of populations in foreign countries with some sort of connection to Russia: e.g., Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire at the time of the Crimean War, Slavs in Serbia in 1914, and now Russians (defined vaguely) in Crimea and perhaps other parts of Ukraine. (By the way, how did the Crimean War and the Great War work out for Russia?) Hence, this same vague logic could at some point be extended to Moscow becoming an ally of Israel in the name of helping protect all the Russians in Israel.
But at the same time Russia has criticized European sanctions on Iran, a major Russian trading partner, and negotiated the sale of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Syria. 
“It’s all pragmatic with Putin,” Bronfman said. “He says he regards the million Russian speakers living in Israel as a bridge connecting Russia to Israel, but when it comes to Russian interests in Syria or Iran, this friendship counts for very little.” 
... Shortly after taking office, the Putin government clashed with several prominent Jewish business moguls, including Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, both of whom went into self-imposed exile. 
“When he went after these oligarchs, Putin sensed that this could be interpreted as anti-Semitism,” Gitelman said. “He immediately, publicly, demonstratively and dramatically embraced Chabad.” 

March 11, 2014

Land Power v. Sea Power

From my new Taki's Magazine column:
While American geopolitical thought tends to divide the world up morally into the Democratic (whoever is on our side) and the Evil (vice-versa), Russians tend to strategize geographically in terms of Land (Mother Russia) v. Sea (those deplorable Atlanticists). ... 
With natural defenses and a high-tech military, sea powers generally didn’t need enormous conscript armies, martial discipline, and centralized economic control. Instead, sea power was conducive to liberty at home and adventure capitalism abroad. 
So what’s not to like? Why doesn’t everybody love us? ... 
The land v. sea division in Western thought goes back at least to the differing roles of the Spartan and Athenian allies in the Persian Wars of early fifth-century BC. The number-one movie at the box office last weekend was 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel to the 2006 hit 300, which was based on Herodotus’s history of the heroic delaying action the Spartan infantry fought at Thermopylae in 480 BC. The new film culminates with the subsequent Battle of Salamis in which the Athenian-led fleet, the “wall of wood” prophesied at Delphi, defeated the Persians.

Read the whole thing there.

By the way, here's Michael Blowhard's epic review of 300.

How to short sell stocks

A commenter on the post about Herbalife recommended the blog of short-seller John Hempton of Bronte Capital in Sydney. Here Hempton is explaining short-selling to his 12-year-old son:
We also talked at length for the first time about our business. We run a hedge fund. Our job is simple: make rich people richer through investing, trading in financial markets. 
Half of that is relatively easy to explain: we buy shares in good companies. ... 
But then the area our fund is best known for came up. I am a short seller.
I went through the mechanics of short-selling. I borrow a share from a broker. I sell it in the market. If the stock goes down I get to buy it back for less than I sold it. I repay the loan by returning the share and I keep the profit. I explained it does not work so well when the stock goes up. 
Then I got to the nub of the issue: I am a short-seller of frauds and stock promotes. I look for people in the stock market who have fake accounts and who are stealing from gullible shareholders (also known as marks, dupes, fools, day traders or mutual fund managers). There is a torrent of money being ripped off (many billions of dollars for instance in the case of the Chinese frauds a surprising amount of which came from Fidelity). Through short-selling I stick up my sail on my little boat in the hurricane of theft and some of that loot drops into the cabin. 
He asked me how I find all these fake accounts and fake companies and I told him a few of our methods (we have many). 
He asked if I ever dobbed the scammers in to regulators and I said I did sometimes but it was mostly not a satisfactory experience. To be a good short-seller I only need to be right about 90 percent of the time. If most the companies I short-sell have fake accounts I will do fine. However if I dob them into regulators I need to be absolutely right in that it does not bode well to dob an honest person into the authorities. So mostly I keep my gob shut and express my opinion (and it is an opinion) in a bet in the financial market. 
Moreover talking about which stocks you think are frauds is a dangerous thing. Regulators sometimes (even foolishly) have been known to investigate short-sellers for telling the truth. (Being short Lehman Brothers and vocal about it was a good way of getting an SEC investigation for talking truth to power.) Also crooks sue short-sellers giving you nasty and expensive legal bills. 
Silence is altogether a better strategy. 
But then he came to the nub of the issue. The easiest scammer to find is a repeat offender. We actively seek out people who promote dodgy stocks and who who are repeatedly involved in dodgy companies. The slogan is “once a scumbag, always a scumbag”. That slogan is probably not strictly accurate -  but we only need to be right 90 percent of the time to be fantastic at this business – and the recidivism amongst scammers is surprisingly high. 

Chris Brand talked about a "g factor" for committing crimes, that would be just plain dishonesty. It seems to be a pretty persistent character trait.

Hempton cites Steve Madden, the dodgy shoe designer in The Wolf of Wall Street, as his nightmare counterexample. Madden went to prison for crookedness involving his IPO, but has made a bundle since he got out designing shoes that teenage girls think make them look hot. The market cap of his company is now over $2 billion.
In that sense long sentences for people like Bernie Ebbers are not in my interest. I would prefer slime-bags to be back-in-business rather than in prison. More opportunities for me. 
So, perceptively my son asked whether it was in my interest to dob scammers into regulators – he asked whether the reason we did not do it much was because of the reasons stated above or because we liked the scammers to be free and profitable. Alas – and I had to confess it – at least part of it was that being a successful short-seller required that regulators were inadequate to the task of policing fraud. 
I did not talk about this with him – but it is becoming harder under Mary Schapiro. The SEC is getting better at their job – and that is not good for me. It would be better if regulators stayed hopeless. Alas they are getting better. 
So, says my son asks you like nasty people to steal from poor investors, mutual funds (and he did not say pension funds for school teachers) so that you can join them in taking the loot by being a short-seller – and you don't want the regulators to do anything about it because there are more opportunities for you? 
Sheepishly I confess yes. 
And he says with a mixture of admiration and horror: “daddy you are more evil than I thought”.

Putin's view: What Russia needs is more territory

Russia, the largest country on earth in territory, may be adding some more if it annexes Crimea. Granted, with its ice-free port, beaches, and scenery, Crimea would be fairly distinctive within Russia, but it does seem as if Russia were pretty far into diminishing marginal returns from acquiring more land.

I'm reminded of a 1914 conversation recorded in the memoirs of the French Republic's ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paleologue. Russia's former finance minister Sergei Witte, the formidable organizer of the Trans-Siberian railroad and negotiator of the favorable peace treaty that he conjured from the wreckage of the 1904-05 war with Japan, explains to Paleologue:
"This war's madness," [Witte] said. "It has been forced on the Tsar's prudence by stupid and short-sighted politicians. It can only have disastrous results for Russia. France and England alone can hope to derive any benefit from victory. . . . and, anyhow, a victory for us seems to me highly questionable." 
[The French ambassador replied:] "Of course the benefits to be derived from this war---as from any other war---depend upon victory. But I presume that if we are victorious Russia will get her share, and a large share, of the advantages and rewards. . . . After all, forgive me for reminding you that if the world is now on fire it is in a cause which interested Russia first and foremost, a cause which is eminently the Slav cause and did not affect either France or England." 
[Witte:] "No doubt you're referring to our prestige in the Balkans, our pious duty to protect our blood brothers, our historic and sacred mission in the East? Why, that's a romantic, old-fashioned chimæra. No one here, no thinking man at least, now cares a fig for these turbulent and vain Balkan folk who have nothing Slav about them and are only Turks christened by the wrong name. We ought to have let the Serbs suffer the chastisement they deserved. What did they care about their Slav brotherhood when their King Milan made Serbia an Austrian fief? So much for the origin of this war! Now let's talk about the profits and rewards it will bring us. What can we hope to get? An increase of territory. Great Heavens! Isn't His Majesty's empire big enough already? Haven't we in Siberia, Turkistan, the Caucasus, Russia itself, enormous areas which have not yet been opened up? . . . Then what are the conquests they dangle before our eyes? East Prussia? Hasn't the Emperor too many Germans among his subjects already? Galicia? It's full of Jews! Besides, the moment we annex Austria and Prussia's Polish territories we shall lose the whole of Russian Poland. Don't you make any mistake: when Poland has recovered her territorial integrity she won't be content with the autonomy she's been so stupidly promised. She'll claim ---and get---her absolute independence. What else have we to hope for? Constantinople, the Cross on Santa Sophia, the Bosphorus, the Dardanelles? It's too mad a notion to be worth a moment's consideration! And even if we assume a complete victory for our coalition---the Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs reduced to begging for peace and submitting to our terms---it means not only the end of German domination but the proclamation of republics throughout Central Europe. That means the simultaneous end of Tsarism! I prefer to remain silent as to what we may expect on the hypothesis of our defeat." 
[Paleologue:] "What practical conclusion do you come to?" 
[Witte:] "My practical conclusion is that we must liquidate this stupid adventure as soon as possible."

Another failed voice in 1914 against the war was Rasputin, who foresaw endless piles of dead Russian peasants.

By the way, French ambassador to St. Petersburg Maurice Paleologue is an interesting example for assessing economic historian Gregory Clark's new book on the persistence of high-status surnames. Paleologue had the crucial and difficult job in 1914 of holding together the ideologically bizarre alliance between his own Republic of France and the Czarist autocracy. It may not have hurt that he, the son of Romanian exiles, used as his surname his grandmother's maiden surname, a name with extraordinary dynastic resonance in Czarist circles:
The name became Paléologue in French language spellings; the family's relation to the Palaiologos Byzantines is doubtful (Alexandru's ancestors first claimed it at the end of the 17th century).[1]

The Palaiologos family was the last ruling dynasty of the Byzantine empire, 1259-1453. Sophia Palaiologina, the niece of the last Orthodox emperor in Constantinople, married the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan III, thus providing the genealogical link justifying Moscow's view of itself as the rightful Third Rome, heir to the Second Rome, Constantinople.

March 10, 2014

Playing the civil rights card for billions

Here's a rather overwrought article in the New York Times about hedge fund honcho William A. Ackman's jihad against the notorious multi-level-marketing firm Herbalife. Ackman has sold Herbalife short to the tune of a billion dollars and has been trying to get government regulators to go after it. Yet, Herbalife's stock has supporters who are not without influence either, such as George Soros and Carl Icahn, which may help account for the negative tone of the article on Ackman.

Ackman has frequently played the civil rights card in trying to get regulators to crack down on Herbalife. Pyramid schemes tend to exploit people with two-digit IQs, and Herbalife, which was founded in Los Angeles in 1980 by the late supersalesman Mark Hughes (1956-2000), has always gone hard after the Diversity market.

Not surprisingly, a lot of civil rights organizations seem to exist mostly to be bought off by one side or another in these kind of struggles among the rich and powerful. For example:
Brent Ashley Wilkes, Latino
Brent A. Wilkes, the national executive director of the Washington-based League of United Latin American Citizens, or Lulac, rejected any suggestion that he had become Mr. Ackman’s tool — even though his organization accepted a $10,000 contribution early last year, and since then has taken a position at the forefront of the anti-Herbalife campaign.

Instead, Mr. Ackman’s bet is just helping draw attention to longstanding abusive practices by Herbalife, said Mr. Wilkes, who acknowledged that he had never previously focused on the issue. 
“It’s not the Latino groups that are helping Bill Ackman,” Mr. Wilkes said. “Bill Ackman is helping the Latino groups. He has elevated this battle.” On Sunday evening, after questions from The Times, Mr. Wilkes said he had decided to return the donation, so there was no chance anyone could suspect he had undertaken the effort “for a mere $10,000 table purchase” at one of his fund-raising events.

Gone with the Wind
In case you are wondering, LULAC's national executive director Brent A. Wilkes is a graduate of Dartmouth, that hotbed of Latino-American culture.

One Latino civil rights organization's brilliant strategy is that rather than be paid by one side or the other for their assistance, they'd rather be paid by both sides to do nada:
In recent weeks, the back-and-forth donations by the two sides have generated something of a bidding war. 
For example, a top executive at the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute informed a member of Mr. Ackman’s consulting team in late February that he had already received a $30,000 donation from Herbalife. He then solicited payment of the same amount from Pershing Square in exchange for the group remaining “neutral.”

That should be my career goal: to be paid by all sides on all issues to not do any work.

New Scientist: "Instant Expert -- Intelligence"

James Thompson points to a nice resource that I hadn't seen before. New Scientist, a glossy magazine, commissions short summaries on various scientific topics called "Instant Expert." Their "Instant Expert: Intelligence" entry was authored by the estimable Linda Gottfredson. (No paywall, now.)

You probably won't learn too much that's new, but it's a highly respectable-looking resource to link to when debating proponents of the anti-scientific conventional wisdom

March 9, 2014

The Density of Los Angeles

Ann odd phenomenon of Southern California are regions of extreme density per room. You'll be driving through an area of one story houses and two story apartments, when suddenly there are people everywhere, with guys selling oranges on the corners of side streets.
L.A. and Orange counties are an epicenter of overcrowded housing

Sixteen-year-old Monica buried her face in a pillow, trying to rest for school the next day, as the clock ticked past 11 p.m. 
Sleep was a battle in the tiny apartment. Hunched at the other end of the family's only mattress, two of her brothers played a video game while a third lounged next to her, watching virtual soccer players skitter on screen. Her 2-year-old niece toddled barefoot near the door, toying with a pile of pennies. 
In all, seven people live in this wedge of space in Historic South-Central, including Monica's mother and the mother of the little girl — the longtime girlfriend of one of her brothers. They squeeze into an apartment roughly the size of a two-car garage, sharing a bathroom, a small kitchen and one common room.
"We're not comfortable," Monica's mother, Josefina Cano, said in Spanish. "But what can we do? It's better than being on the street." 
Cano and her family live in one of the most crowded neighborhoods in the country. Nearly 45% of the homes there are considered "crowded" — having more than one person per room, excluding bathrooms, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data spanning 2008 to 2012. Almost one home in six is severely crowded, with more than two people per room. 
Southern California is an epicenter for crowded housing: Out of the most heavily crowded 1% of census tracts across the country, more than half are in Los Angeles and Orange counties, a Times statistical analysis found. They are sprinkled throughout areas such as Westlake and Huntington Park around Los Angeles, and Santa Ana and Anaheim in Orange County. 
From the outside looking in, it is a largely invisible phenomenon. Places such as Maywood and Huntington Park, south of Los Angeles, look little like the high-rises of Chicago or Boston. Yet behind the closed doors of small bungalows or squat apartment buildings, they are home to thousands more people per square mile than those large cities. 
... Around South Gate and Huntington Park, Head Start instructors who visit children at home find they have trouble focusing amid the hubbub. In the Florence-Firestone area, longtime resident Paula Trejo said, street parking is always scarce. 
UCLA and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have found that children in crowded homes have poorer health, worse scores on math and reading tests and more behavioral and emotional problems — such as tantrums and depression — even when poverty is taken into account. 
"I don't think anyone really wants to live in overcrowded conditions," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival. "But people will endure it because they have no choice."

Every inch of the apartment that Cano and her family share is consumed: Bags of clothing are heaped in the only closet. Atop the heater, under a can once used to collect funeral donations, sits a box with the ashes of Cano's late son, who endured seizures and died in his teens. 
... Experts say building is unusually difficult in Los Angeles, one of the factors contributing to the affordable housing shortage.
The cramped conditions echo an earlier era, when urban reformers railed against teeming tenements. After World War II, bigger homes and better incomes afforded Americans more space, and the shrinking size of families fueled the trend by 1970. But crowding rates began creeping higher again after the immigration wave of the 1980s, census data show. 
In Southern California, "that boom drew in a lot of immigrants who were very poor when they arrived," USC demographer Dowell Myers said. "And they came into a market of very inflated prices." 
... Today, Latino households in the Los Angeles area are more than a dozen times more likely to be crowded than white ones. 
Some scholars argue that crowding tends to be higher among Latinos and Asians because it is more accepted in their cultures, providing a survival strategy when workers strain to cover the rent. ...
Mexican and Vietnamese Americans tend to have different views than whites or blacks do of what is "crowded," according to a 2000 study, but they still suffer worsening anxiety and depression as crowding increases. 
Gabriel Guerrero, for instance, complains that the noise is too much. Twelve people crowd the two-bedroom house in South Gate that he bought decades ago. After school, the clamor of the television and the chatter on phones overwhelms him. 
"To go to the bathroom, you have to take a number," the 60-year-old grandfather said with a sigh. At times, his son heads to the nearby grocery to use its restroom.
Sometimes Guerrero daydreams of selling the house and finding an apartment for just a handful of them. But then he thinks of his grown children, and their growing children, muddling along with meager paychecks or measly hours.
He sets the daydream aside. "They have nowhere to go," Guerrero said.

You can't understand the causes of the subprime housing bubble of the 2000s without keeping in mind the density of modern Los Angeles. LA spun off all sorts of people desperate to get away to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and the Inland Empire.