Violence is rare and commonly occurs due to confusion and helplessness

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

Anne Nassauer — Assistant Professor of Sociology at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin — notes that video surveillance footage shows how rare violence really is:

Today, videos from closed-circuit television, body cameras, police dash cameras, or mobile phones are increasingly used in the social sciences. For lack of other data, researchers previously relied on people’s often vague, partial, and biased recollections to understand how violence happened. Now, video footage shows researchers second-to-second how an event unfolded, who did what, was standing where, communicating with whom, and displaying which emotions, before violence broke out or a criminal event occurred. And while we would assume such footage highlights the cruel, brutal, savage nature of humanity, looking at violence up-close actually shows the opposite. Examining footage of violent situations – from the very cameras set up because we believe that violence lurks around every corner – suggests violence is rare and commonly occurs due to confusion and helplessness, rather than anger and hate.

Armed robberies are an example in point. We would assume robbers to resort to violence if clerks fail to hand over what is in the register; after all, that is the fundamental proposition of the situation. Instead, video surveillance shows that robbers become afraid of the unexpected situation they are in and run away. It shows that criminals, like most people, rely on situational routines that offer familiarity and reassurance. In my research of surveillance footage of robberies clerks laughed at a robber’s assault rifle, and robbers, rather than shooting or hitting the victim, were startled and gave up. When a robber showed slight gloominess, a clerk cheered him up and the robber became even sadder, discussed his financial problems with the clerk and left. If clerks treat robbers like a child, surveillance footage shows how robbers may react according to this role and become hesitant and plead to be taken seriously. This means even in an armed robbery, where perpetrators are prepared and committed to the crime and clerks usually fear for their lives, robbers as well as clerks tend to make sense out of the situation together, avoid violence and get into shared rhythms and routines.

We can see similar patterns when looking at video recordings of protest violence and violent uprisings. In some protest marches, certain groups attend with the clear goal to use violence; they mask up and come prepared with stones to throw at police. In other protests, police decided on a zero-tolerance strategy and plan to use force at the slightest misstep by activists. Despite such preparations for and willingness to use violent means, violence rarely actually breaks out, and people usually engage in peaceful interactions. If violence does erupt, we see that it does so not because people are violent or cruel, but because routine interactions break down, which leads to confusion, distress, uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, and ultimately violent altercations.

Similarly, research on street fights, or mass shootings shows that most people that have the will to fight and kill are actually bad at “doing” violence –as are the great majority of humans. Only very few people in very specific situations manage to be violent effectively, and it is those outliers that make it to the news. Contrary to common belief, rates of violence and crime have never been as low in most Western countries, as they are today.

Such findings have implications; fear of people’s cruel nature and violence lurking around every corner perpetuate everyday actions, drive voting behavior, and impact policymaking through worst-case-scenario thinking. Fearing fellow humans as inherently violent and cruel not only lacks empirical grounding, but research also shows it leads people to make bad decisions. Surveillance videos and recent research on violence challenge this notion that we need to fear each other. They counter the idea that we need elaborate protection from each other and constant state surveillance, which not only tends to cost public funds but also often curtails civil and human rights (e.g., privacy, free speech, free movement, right of asylum). The optimistic outlook offered by scientific analyses of videos might mean we can spend our time more wisely; instead of fearing each other and investing time and resources to protect ourselves from exaggerated dangers, we could enjoy society and our remaining civil rights and freedoms a little more.

Randall Collins (The Sociological Eye), whom she cites, makes similar points in Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.

The Thule Society lives on

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

A “trans-Neptunian object” located in the Kuiper belt was recently named Ultima Thule and then rapidly renamed Arrokoth:

It is a contact binary 36 km (22 mi) long, composed of two planetesimals 22 km (14 mi) and 15 km (9 mi) across, nicknamed “Ultima” and “Thule”, respectively, that are joined along their major axes. Ultima, which is flatter than Thule, appears to be an aggregate of 8 or so smaller units, each approximately 5 km (3 mi) across, that fused together before Ultima and Thule came into contact. Because there have been few to no disruptive impacts on Arrokoth since it formed, the details of its formation have been preserved. With the New Horizons space probe’s flyby at 05:33 on 1 January 2019 (UTC time), Arrokoth became the farthest and most primitive object in the Solar System visited by a spacecraft.

[...]

Before the flyby on 1 January 2019, NASA invited suggestions from the public on a nickname to be used. The campaign involved 115,000 participants from around the world, who suggested some 34,000 names. Of those, 37 reached the ballot for voting and were evaluated for popularity – this included eight names suggested by the New Horizons team and 29 suggested by the public. Ultima Thule, which was selected on 13 March 2018, was proposed by about 40 different members of the public and obtained the seventh highest number of votes among the nominees. It is named after the Latin phrase ultima Thule (literally “farthest Thule”), an expression referencing the most distant place beyond the borders of the known world. Once it was determined the body was a bilobate contact binary object, the New Horizons team nicknamed the larger lobe “Ultima” and the smaller “Thule”.

The nickname was criticized due to its use by Nazi occultists as the supposed mythical origin of the Aryan race, although it is commonly used in ancient Greek and Latin literature as well as the historical Inuit culture of the Thule people. The Thule Society was a key sponsor of what became the Nazi Party, and some modern-day neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right continue to use the term. A few members of the New Horizons team were aware of that association when they selected the nickname, and have since defended their choice. Responding to a question at a press conference, Alan Stern said, “Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it.”

Oh, but we are.

If they don’t turn up to school, it doesn’t make the slightest difference

Friday, November 15th, 2019

You often hear people lament that children should be allowed to roam free. Ed West’s radical proposal is that child labour should be reintroduced:

But it only sounds radical because we associate child labour with past times of extreme poverty and poor working conditions. For my generation it’s Rik from The Young Ones castigating an elderly woman about the “good old days” when you had “four-year-old kiddies digging coal”. And those days were indeed awful. Dan Jackson’s brilliant recent book The Northumbrians recalled the heart-breaking tragedy of the 1862 Hartley Mining Disaster where the bodies of young boys were found with their tiny arms around their brothers.

Not even an ironic reactionary like me would lament the decline of infant mortality and workplace fatalities brought about by health and safety legislation. We obviously wouldn’t allow children to do dangerous work in factories today, and many of the most horrific roles once done by kids are obsolete anyway.

[...]

But for children a bit older, the working environment allows them to interact with adults, adopt adult social norms and learn skills when their brain is rapidly absorbing information. They could also earn money at a time in life they really want it.

I suspect that a lot of teenage crime in London exists because boys reach an age when they want disposable income but there’s no way for them to legally earn it. They’re also mentally and physically under-stimulated by schoolwork they know brings them little tangible benefit. (This is arguably more acute among boys because they’re generally more goal-driven, respond when stakes are high, and easily give up when they’re not). Instead, during those crucial developmental years, they often learn negative behaviour through frustration and drift, so that by the time they’re finally allowed to enter the labour force, they’re already unsuited to it.

At the moment, almost half a million people aged 16-24 are unemployed, but many might not be, if they’d been allowed to start work a bit earlier — with a lower minimum wage. Experience would make them more attractive to employers; it would also get them in the habit of work, so they’d be more likely to adjust to working quickly and stick to it.

Prolonged education also cuts adolescents off from wider society. One of the worst aspects of British society — and where it contrasts poorly with Catholic cultures like Italy or Ireland (still, just about) — is that we have a great deal of generational separation. Young people benefit from working and socialising among those older than them, not only because they’re a calming influence but because they can subtly instruct them on how to behave.

Working young helps insulate children from one of the biggest pitfalls of modern life: extended or even permanent adolescence, which happens when people learn responsibility too late. It also helps a person form a place in a society. Not having enough money is pretty much the worst thing in the world — and reducing poverty should be the central “social justice” aim of governments — but not having a role or purpose is almost as bad.

Teenage boys like to feel needed. This really hit me a few years back when during an unexpected snowfall — there hadn’t been snow in London for well over a decade — all the cars in our area were stuck, and the drivers, many of them mothers with children, stranded. It was obvious that the boys on their way home from the nearby secondary school loved all this — for once, wider society actually needed them.

Having a job, going to an office and earning money — and with it the opportunity to work, and earn, even more — gives teenagers a role. If they don’t turn up for work, the company suffers; if they don’t turn up to school, it doesn’t make the slightest difference except for the purpose of government statistics.

It was something we could all talk about together

Wednesday, November 13th, 2019

Television defined the American median:

It was something we could all talk about together.

There was a comforting sense of homogeneity to the TV of this era. It didn’t ask too much of you, and it was always there when you needed it, a friendly and familiar presence. It wasn’t designed to be great; it was designed to be consistently fine.

The apotheosis of this style of television was the long-running, insanely popular 1990s sitcom Friends, a show that literalized the idea of what television was in its title. Friends was a show about a bunch of attractive and mildly glamorous but essentially ordinary white people hanging out and talking about their lives. It was a show you could watch and engage with but also one that you could just have on as background noise, with the characters’ idealized, fictional, not-too-difficult lives serving as the backdrop to your own. That was television’s reason for being: to keep ordinary people company in their own homes.

Unlike broadcast networks, Netflix knew exactly what subscribers were watching, and when, and how often:

The company had three major revelations.

The first was that television-style content, which on both cable and broadcast had always been delivered on a specific schedule, in a linear sequence over the space of weeks, could be divorced from time. Netflix not only allowed viewers to watch its shows whenever they wanted, it posted entire seasons online at once and then encouraged viewers to “binge-watch,” or consume the whole thing all in one go. Appointment TV, in which you regularly dated a show you liked, was no more; Netflix was TV as a series of intense one-night stands.

The second revelation was that TV could be portable. Netflix was an app, not a channel, which meant you could watch it on your computer, on your phone, in your car, and possibly even on your refrigerator. Netflix shows came to you, wherever you were. The service was platform agnostic.

Finally, Netflix realized that demand for new scripted content was practically infinite and began producing accordingly. In 2013, the year Netflix committed itself fully to originals, the total number of scripted series produced annually across all of Hollywood jumped by 17 percent.

In the 1980s and 1990s, fewer than 50 original scripted television series were produced each year. In 2008, there were more than 200. By 2018, the number was just shy of 500, and streaming networks were the biggest producers. Netflix, which will reportedly spend $15 billion on content this year, wasn’t competing with ABC and NBC and CBS. It wasn’t even really competing with HBO. It was competing with the entire rest of one’s life, with 24 hours of things to do that aren’t watching Netflix. CEO Reed Hastings said in 2017, “We actually compete with sleep.” Then he added, perhaps not entirely kidding, “And we’re winning!”

Liberalism according to The Economist

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019


In Liberalism at Large Alexander Zevin explores the world according to the Economist:

He shows how its editors and contributors pioneered the revolving doors that link media, politics, business, and finance—alumni have gone on to such jobs as deputy governor of the Bank of England, Prime Minister of Britain, and President of Italy—and how such people have defined, at crucial moments in history, liberalism’s ever-changing relationship with capitalism, imperialism, democracy, and war.

A capsule version of this thesis can be found in the career of James Wilson, The Economist’s founder and first editor. Wilson, who was born in Scotland and became the owner of a struggling hatmaking business, intended his journal to develop and disseminate the doctrine of laissez-faire—“nothing but pure principles,” as he put it. He was particularly vociferous in his opposition to the Corn Laws, agricultural tariffs that were unpopular with merchants. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, three years after the magazine first appeared, and Wilson began to proselytize more energetically for free trade and the increasingly prominent discipline of economics. He became a Member of Parliament and held several positions in the British government. He also founded a pan-Asian bank, now known as Standard Chartered, which expanded fast on the back of the opium trade with China. In 1859, Wilson became Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer. He died in India the following year, trying to reconfigure the country’s financial system.

During his short career as a journalist-cum-crusader, Wilson briskly clarified what he meant by “pure principles.” He opposed a ban on trading with slaveholding countries on the ground that it would punish slaves as well as British consumers. In the eighteen-forties, when Ireland was struck with famine, which was largely caused by free trade—the British insisted on exporting Irish food, despite catastrophic crop failure—Wilson called for a homeopathic remedy: more free trade. With Irish intransigence becoming a nuisance, he advised the British to respond with “powerful, resolute, but just repression.” Wilson was equally stern with those suffering from rising inequality at home. In his view, the government was wrong to oblige rail companies to provide better service for working-class passengers, who were hitherto forced to travel in exposed freight cars: “Where the most profit is made, the public is best served. Limit the profit, and you limit the exertion of ingenuity in a thousand ways.” A factory bill limiting women to a twelve-hour workday was deemed equally pernicious. As for public schooling, common people should be “left to provide education as they provide food for themselves.”

The most triumphant example of a trope is the Trope Codifier

Monday, November 11th, 2019

The first use of a trope is the Ur-Example. The first intentional use of a trope is the Trope Maker. The most triumphant example of a trope is the Trope Codifier:

It means “Example that has fingerprints of influence on all later examples of the trope”. The true marker of a Codifier is that it invents some unique spin on the trope that all later examples have some reaction to. Take, for example, Werewolves. There were earlier examples of werewolf stories, but it is with 1941′s The Wolf Man that we first see werewolves as an infection (previously, it was a curse or part of a Deal with the Devil), silver vulnerability (previously, it was vampires or ghosts who were usually associated with weakness to silver), made the werewolf a human cursed to turn into a wolf-man (previously, all kinds of variations were available, from wolf that turns into a man, to man who was permanently turned into a wolf), and tied the wolf to the night of the full moon (previously, they either focused on the three nights around the full moon, or had little to do with the phase of the moon). Almost all later examples of Werewolves bear some of these subtropes, which originated with The Wolf Man, or at least discuss them in order to explain why Our Werewolves Are Different. Thus, we can state with confidence that it is the Trope Codifier.

(I wish I’d stumbled across this just before Halloween.)

Rick Baker, Monster Maker

Sunday, November 10th, 2019

The Internet has taught me that I’m a very casual fan. I didn’t know Rick Baker by name, but I enjoyed his interview with Joe Rogan, where he talks about making movie monsters, like the eponymous American Werewolf in London. He’s retired now, but he has a massive new two-volume book out, Rick Baker: Metamorphosis.

One amusing bit of trivia from the interview is that he supplied some masks that got used in Star Wars‘ iconic cantina scene — and the band was not there. The band was filmed in another country, much later, in post-production.

The Church made us WEIRD

Saturday, November 9th, 2019

A new study, The Church, intensive kinship, and global psychological variation, published in Science, makes the point that HBD Chick has been making for some time now:

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions and that populations characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual. People from these societies tend to be more individualistic, independent, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty. Although these patterns are now well documented, few efforts have sought to explain them. Here, we propose that the Western Church (i.e., the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church) transformed European kinship structures during the Middle Ages and that this transformation was a key factor behind a shift towards a WEIRDer psychology

Church vs. Cousin Marriage

The two Jonathan co-authors are new colleagues of Tyler Cowen‘s at GMU economics.

Start with a big blatant neglected fact

Friday, November 8th, 2019

How does Bryan Caplan pick book topics?

How do I pick book topics? On reflection, I usually start with what appears to be a big blatant neglected fact. Then I try to discover whether anything in the universe is big enough to explain this alleged fact away. If a laborious search uncovers nothing sufficient, I am left with the seed of a book: One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts.

Thus, my Myth of the Rational Voter starts with what appears to be a big blatant neglected fact: the typical voter seems highly irrational. He uses deeply flawed intellectual methods, and holds a wide range of absurd views. Twist and turn the issue as you please, and this big blatant neglected fact remains.

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, similarly, begins with a rather different big blatant neglected alleged fact: Modern parenting is obsessed with “investing” in kids’ long-run outcomes, yet twin and adoption researchers consistently conclude that the long-run effect of nurture is grossly overrated. Yes, the latter fact is only “blatant” after you read the research, but once you read it, you can’t unread it.

What’s the One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts in The Case Against Education? This: education is highly lucrative even though the curriculum is highly irrelevant in the real world. Yes, it takes a book to investigate the many efforts to explain this One Big Fact away (“learning how to learn,” anyone?). But without One Big Fact, there’d be no book.

Finally, the big motivated fact behind Open Borders is that simply letting a foreigner move to the First World vastly multiplies his labor earnings overnight. A Haitian really can make twenty times as much money in Miami the week after he leaves Port-au-Prince – and the reason is clearly that the Haitian is vastly more productive in the U.S. Which really makes you wonder: Why would anyone want to stop another human being from escaping poverty by enriching the world? Giving this starting point, anti-immigration arguments are largely attempts to explain this big blatant neglected fact away. Given what restrictionist arguments are up against, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t measure up.

On reflection, my current book project, Poverty: Who To Blame doesn’t seem to fit this formula. The book will rest on three or four big blatant neglected facts rather than one. Yet perhaps as I write, One Big Fact that Overawes All Doubts will come into focus…

A vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

I don’t think this Atlantic piece on “porch pirates” in San Francisco is meant as an ad for Ring video doorbells (and Nest cams, too), but it achieves that goal nonetheless:

It was only about nine months later, in May 2017, when one of Fairley’s neighbors plastered photos of her, “Wanted”-style, on Nextdoor, that Fairley realized things were about to get worse. Nextdoor is an online ticker tape of homeowner and tenant concerns, and the grievances can be particularly telling in a city of Dickensian extremes like San Francisco, whose influx of tech wealth is pitting suburban expectations against urban realities. The city’s property-crime rate is among the highest in the United States. Nextdoor posts about dogs slurping from a public drinking fountain and Whole Foods overcharging again (“Be on guard”) show up alongside reports of smash-and-grab car break-ins, slashed tires, and an entire crime subgenre of “porch pirates,” the Artful Dodgers of the Amazon age.

Fairley and her neighbor do not agree — will likely never agree — on what happened in the minutes prior to the photos of Fairley going up on Nextdoor. Fairley has sworn that the boxes she picked up were from down the street, where they had been laid out for the taking, and that her 6-year-old daughter was helping to haul them to their home in the public housing down the block.

Julie Margett, a nurse who lives on the street, in a purple cottage with a rainbow gay-pride flag and a black lives matter sign in the window, said she was leaving her garage and spotted Fairley coming down her neighbor’s stairs carrying boxes with various addresses on them. Surmising that they were stolen, she asked Fairley warily, in her British accent, “What are you doing?”

Fairley called her a racist (in fact, she still does) and told her she was in the middle of moving. “That was what was so disarming about her,” Margett told me. “Before you know it, she’s torn you to shreds and she’s off down the block.” Margett snapped photos of the mother-daughter haul act — in one, the young girl sticks her tongue out at the camera — and, after calling the police, uploaded them into a Nextdoor post: “Package thieves.”

So, Fairley told me two years later, sitting in an orange sweatsuit in a county-jail interview room, that was the real acceleration of the epic feud of Fairley v. Neighbors of Potrero Hill, a vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance that would tug at the complexities of race and class relations in a liberal, gentrifying city. The clash would also expose a fraught debate about who is responsible, and who is to blame, for the city’s increasingly unlivable conditions. As Fairley says, “It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Parts of potrero hill feel like the sort of charmed place where Amazon deliveries could sit undisturbed on your stoop. The hill’s western ridge, overlooking the city, is filled with cozy bungalows and Victorian houses that once were affordable for San Francisco’s working and artistic classes but have appreciated during the tech rush; now most of them sell for well over $1 million. The public hospital where Fairley was born is now named after Mark Zuckerberg.

Meanwhile, the hill’s eastern and southern flanks are still lined with decrepit 1940s-era bunkers of public housing between patches of scruffy grass and concrete patios. The unhoused have set up camp around the neighborhood too, the city’s homeless population having spiked 30 percent in the past two years. This sometimes has led to hostile and politically divisive clashes, like when a luxury auction house at the foot of Potrero turned its sprinklers on the tents clustered outdoors in 2016. (The auction house claimed that the sprinklers were meant to clean the building and sidewalks, and were “not intended to disrespect the homeless.”)

When the cognoscenti make a fracas

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

I was listening to the audiobook version of The Everything Store, when the narrator (Pete Larkin) caught my attention by pronouncing cognoscenti in a more-or-less Italian manner — with a ny and a sh — which I had honestly never heard before.

Later, he pronounced fracas with a long first A, which I hadn’t heard either. In both cases, these are the supposedly preferred pronunciations. In both cases, the word comes from Italian. In the first case, the preferred pronunciation is roughly Italian, in the second, not so much.

Mother of invention

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

Apparently the Economist has an offshoot 1843 magazine, which profiled Elon Musk’s mother, naming her the mother of invention:

Musk, a striking woman with cropped white hair, glowing skin and brilliant blue eyes, does not mince her words. As a dietician she has no truck with fads. As a mother — of Elon, the world’s most famous inventor, Kimbal, a tech and food entrepreneur, and Tosca, a film director who recently started a streaming service to bring romance novels to television — she has a similarly robust attitude.

Unlike most women of her generation — she is 69 — maternity has not defined Maye. She has run her own nutrition business for 45 years and has been a model for 54 years. In an era in which parents and children are ever more closely intertwined as they navigate the hazards of competitive education, she has a refreshing enthusiasm for her and her children’s independence.

Thanks to business’s growing enthusiasm for older models, she seems to be getting more, not less, successful. She has been on a cereal box, featured in a Beyoncé video and starred in a campaign for Virgin America. Once you have seen her unusual face, you find yourself recognising it in adverts.

Maye Musk

Maye’s own childhood was not a standard one. Family holidays were often spent flying over the Kalahari desert in Namibia in her father’s single-engine plane — “mostly airsick” — looking for a legendary lost city. The plane was her father’s passion, not a rich man’s toy: her parents were not wealthy but she remembers a home with mulberry trees, peaches, plums, oranges and lemons. At schools she was a “science nerd”, and teachers would send her to demonstrate mathematics to classes of older children. Her brains made her a magnet for bullies — South Africa was a rough place — but her larger and more athletic twin, Kaye, fought them off.

Independence came early, thanks to her striking features. She was modelling at 15 but expected the work to dry up by 18, so she studied dietetics. By 21 she had her own practice.

A year later, in 1970, she married an engineer, Errol Musk. Elon arrived nine months later, Kimbal arrived about a year after that, and not long after came a daughter, Tosca.

Maye’s marriage lasted nine years. After the divorce, she took the children and started on her own as a single, working mother. Money was particularly tight. The family couldn’t afford many things, such as eating out and movies. Maye managed by juggling her private practice as a dietician, wellness talks and modelling.

[...]

Left to explore the world for themselves, each child spontaneously developed strong — and very different — interests. Elon was an obsessive reader and thinker from an early age, so absorbed in his own world that his parents thought he might have a hearing problem and took him to the doctor. Drawn to computers he sold his first computer program when was 12. He struggled to make friends at school and was badly bullied. But he developed strong, lifelong bonds with his brother and sister which, to this day, seem to serve as a stabilising influence in his life. After Thanksgiving, he posted a picture of himself and Kimbal in the Rockies, arms around each other with the message “love my bro”.

Tosca, too, had her enthusiasms lit at a young age. When she was four she watched the musical fantasy film “Xanadu”, which gave her a passion for movies. By the age of 18 she had landed a job in a studio and from there went on to become a film director. As for Kimbal, Maye recalls taking the children to a grocery store when the boys were in their early teens. “Elon would take a book and read. Tosca would hang around me, and Kimbal would be picking up the peppers and smelling them and saying ‘aaah’.”

[...]

Led by Elon, the brothers created home-made rockets and explosives. They raced their dirt bikes so hard that Kimbal fell into a barbed-wire fence. They walked door to door at night in a dangerous country selling Easter eggs at a scandalous mark-up: Kimbal told customers sceptical of the price, “you are doing this to support future capitalists.” They tried to start up a video arcade. Parental attention didn’t always point them in the right direction: their father took them to a casino (gambling was illegal).

He never intended to become a political dissident

Monday, November 4th, 2019

He never intended to become a political dissident, but then Xu Xiaodong started beating up tai chi masters:

Since 2015, Xu has been the director, producer, and host of a lively one-man martial arts talk show called Brother Dong’s Hot Takes that he self-distributes via his various social media accounts. Each episode features Xu speaking, sometimes quite passionately, about whatever is riling him up that day. One recurring bit that initially gained Hot Takes a cult following was Xu’s profanity laced call-outs of “fakes,” or pianzi, in the Chinese martial arts world.

These callouts were inspired by what Xu calls a “bad wind” of fake tai chi masters penetrating the national consciousness. This was largely thanks to government intervention. Traditional Chinese martial arts (wushu), and tai chi in particular, are a core component of what President Hu Jintao called in 2007 the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Since rising to power in 2013, President Xi Jinping has redoubled efforts to promote and spread “traditional Chinese culture”—which includes tai chi as well as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)—through a battery of subsidies, policy interventions, and good old-fashioned propaganda. Last year, it became mandatory for students in southeastern China’s Fujian Province to prove mastery of 24 tai chi moves in order to graduate from high school. Only a few months ago, state mouthpiece People’s Daily announced the establishment of the “People’s Tai Chi Development Alliance,” which purports to be aimed at making tai chi “fashionable” for young people and showcasing the accomplishments of Chinese civilization to the world.

Meanwhile, grandmasters from across China’s martial arts schools were called on to hype up tai chi in the media. In a 2013 program called The Showdown Show, the famed 12th-generation Chen-style tai chi master Wang Zhanhai showed how he could harness his energy to fling off four musclebound attackers in a single movement. On another episode of the show, the 76-year-old pressure point (dianxue) master Zhang Zhenling showed up a group of skeptical, strapping young kung fu students by causing one to double over in pain with a single touch to the ribs. (Zhang then cured the humbled student by touching a pressure point in his neck.)

Xu was unimpressed by all of this. In early 2017, he started honing in on the young Yang-style tai chi grandmaster Wei Lei, who had recently come to national attention thanks to a CCTV-4 program called Real Kung Fu, in which Wei was featured performing such feats as turning the inside of a watermelon into mush without penetrating its skin and keeping a live pigeon perched on his hand from flying away through a personal force field. Xu called Wei Lei “brainwashed” and “a dumbass.” In retaliation, Wei Lei, or one of his associates, published Xu’s personal information, including his address and phone number online. Xu, enraged, flew to the southwestern city of Chengdu, where Wei is based, walked into the tai chi master’s gym, and demanded they fight right there on the spot.

Corruption may or may not be illegal

Sunday, November 3rd, 2019

Michael Munger explains Gordon Tullock’s joyfully contrarianism thoughts on corruption:

Corruption may or may not be illegal, but it’s always a bad thing. Isn’t it?

Some think of corruption — the misuse of public trust in the powers of political office for private gain — as comparing (a) the honest services and choices of a public official with (b) actions “corrupted” by considerations that are not legitimate. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has claimed that a decision is corrupt if the official is improperly, even if only subtly, influenced by the anticipation of some sort of economic gain or loss. Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout has claimed that if a public official acts in consideration of a private benefit outside of the standard compensation for his or her office, the action is automatically corrupt.

Suppose, though, you are an entrepreneur in a developing nation and you have a good idea for a new company. It normally takes six months to have a telephone or internet line set up, because the state monopoly utility company is notoriously inefficient. But if you pay lagay (“speed money” in Tagalog), or if you khilana para (“feed him” in Hindi), a happily willing, competent work crew will be there tomorrow. Who will actually cough up the cash? Whoever values the service most. Which means that the most economically productive firms and the best new ideas will get to jump the queue.

In a system with bad rules or limited state capacity, tacit endorsement of corruption improves the working of the system. The more inefficient the system, the greater the efficiency increase in the near term, as scarce resources are directed first to higher-value uses.

But as Tullock asks, “And then what?” In this case, two things happen. First, because the scarcity of the resources is artificial and discretionary, the state actors who formally and informally control those resources will adjust access strategically so as to increase the quantity of “rents” (i.e., undeserved benefits) they receive. In my example, the phone company might announce a mandatory two-year waiting period, increasing the value of access to the “informal” workaround of bribes. Second, those with control over the resources and thus access to the rents will start competing — very likely by offering bribes of their own — to maintain their lucrative positions.

Tullock noticed this phenomenon for himself at several points during his career. When he was briefly in private practice as an attorney in Chicago, his job as a junior associate involved paying bribes to minor officials in the Kelly-Nash political machine to ensure that his firm had fast access to records that might otherwise take weeks to secure through normal channels. Later, while working for the U.S. Foreign Service in Tientsin, China, he had the experience of being there on the ground during the Communist takeover of 1948–49.

Tullock was struck by a presentation from an academic who decried the corrupt practices of the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan but lauded the new Communist regime on the mainland. In particular, the academic pooh-poohed the supposedly “restrictive” travel policies of the Communists, noting that it was easy to bribe officials to obtain passes.

To Tullock, both regimes seemed corrupt. But he also realized that corruption, far from being an immediate problem, was the only thing that made the cumbersome Rube Goldberg governing mechanisms work at all. “While corruption usually meets with disapproval,” he wrote in Contemporary Economic Policy in 1996, “it may have some redeeming features. It may make possible smaller or no salary payments to officials who, if carefully supervised, will still carry out their functions on a fee-for-service basis. The purchase of government jobs usually is thought to be corrupt, but in some cases, it has worked out quite well.”

He filed this lesson away in the late 1940s and often came back to puzzle over it for the next 65 years. If corruption is actually a benefit — at least in countries with bad institutions or sharply limited state capacity — then what is the problem? All we need to do is suggest that developing nations cultivate corrupt systems and voilà! Problem solved.

Of course, that’s not right, and this realization is what led Tullock to his signature contribution to the study of public policy: the problem of “rent-seeking.” In China, he said, officials write laws with the explicit expectation of selling “permits” that would exempt the “customers” from having to obey the regulation. In addition, officials may purposely limit the total number of exemptions so they can auction them off to the highest bidder. In the short term, corruption is a workaround for bad government, but in the long run corruption locks in bad government and encourages abuses of state power.

Tullock used the example of an official in Fukien (now Fujian), a province from which many citizens illegally traveled to Indonesia to work, returning with substantial sums of cash and goods. Local officials set up elaborate programs under which going abroad to work was technically not allowed but in fact actively encouraged for those who could expect to earn good wages. Officials charged licensing fees that were high enough to substantially enrich the “sellers,” but they made sure the cost was not so high that it would deter workers from traveling abroad in the first place.

The problem is that the system became firmly entrenched, and the bribes came to be capitalized in the “prices” for getting a job as a local official in Fukien. In fact, the “salaries” of government officials could be rendered as negative numbers. The opportunity to collect bribes was so lucrative that the positions were essentially sold as franchises, with officials paying their superiors, who paid their superiors, and so on.

This system, once in place, is nearly impossible to root out. In open, noncorrupt systems, parents might save or borrow to pay for law school or some other training for their children. But in a corrupt system, people save or borrow to pay the bribes necessary to get the kinds of jobs where bribes from citizens provide a good living. If a new, reform-oriented government comes into office, the reaction from government officials is likely to be fierce, possibly violent. After all, they paid for their corrupt jobs fair and square, and they expect to be able to collect.

“Evidence suggests that officials tended to draw a large part of their personal income from bribes,” Tullock wrote in his 1996 paper. “Indeed, it is almost certain that once a government structure has been set up so various people make profits, changing the structure in such a way to shrink the profits will be extremely hard, regardless of whether the profits are legal or not. Firing civil servants may be even harder than firing college professors.”

A passage from a recent New York Times article on illegal “sand-mining” in India puts the situation in stark relief: “Construction is the business where criminals have the best opportunities to launder the most money, [one real estate agent] explained, and a cascade of bribes go ‘to the topmost levels in the government.’…You pay 6 percent in bribes up front. Then, after the first payment, you pay another 7 percent, half of which goes to the state’s top politicians. The development authority’s junior engineer gets 3 percent. The associate engineer gets 1.5 percent. The senior manager gets 3 percent, and so on — until the total reached an astonishing 30 percent.”

For Tullock, the really interesting question is not why so many governments are corrupt. Instead, the puzzle is how any government manages to solve this problem and avoid corruption. The benefits, to those in power, of creating arbitrary restrictions and then selling indulgences to exempt the wealthy and powerful seem irresistible. The U.S. Internal Revenue Code is replete with relatively high income tax rates, at least on paper. But as each industry or investment group pays its “bribe” to Congress by organizing voting support, making campaign contributions, and the like, the actual rates to which it is subject are reduced, often sharply, via esoteric subsidies, tax credits, or deductions.

In the early 16th century, Martin Luther recognized this kind of corruption in the Catholic Church. In his “Thesis 27,” Luther complained of priests “who say that as soon as the coin jingles into the money box, the soul flies out of purgatory.” He was referring to an actual jingle, dating to long before Mad Men — perhaps the first ever used in advertising. A little rhyme, attributed to a German monk named Johann Tetzel (1465–1519), translates to: “As soon as the money in the chest rings, a soul from purgatory to heaven springs.” The very idea of judgment had been hijacked by some members of the Church as a way to increase their revenue, selling “Get out of purgatory” cards.

A lot of work has been done since Tullock first wrote about this problem. Our understanding of the temptations of corruption, especially in developing nations — he called it “the transitional gains trap” in a famous article in 1975 — is now standard economics. But Tullock saw the problem clearly in the 1950s.

Arrows explode on impact

Saturday, November 2nd, 2019

A team of experts tests arrows versus armour and finds that a breastplate does the job it was designed to do — well enough to produce spectacular results: