Cognitive consistency

One of the few points on which I agreed with Donald Trump during the election campaign was on his statements to the effect that the US should not get involved in Middle Eastern wars. Of course, Trump being Trump, he made the contradictory promise to “have a plan to defeat ISIS within 30 days.” (There some ambiguity as to whether the 30 days was the time taken to produce the plan, or whether he already had the plan and would have ISIS beaten in 30 days. As of day 78, it scarcely matters). But one point that came across reasonably clearly was that Trump wasn’t going to do anything about removing Bashir Assad from power, and was going to increase co-operation with Putin, Assad’s patron.

All that has now gone by the board, but it is unclear what is going to replace it. Following the horrific poison gas attack a few days ago[1], Trump responded in thoroughly Trumpish fashion. His missile attack was big enough to mark a clear, and possibly irreversible, escalation of US involvement, but not big enough to have any military effect. A day after their airbase was attacked, Syrian Air Force planes were flying out of it to launch more strikes against their opponents.

I don’t have a solution to the current mess other than the Irish advice “if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here[2]”. But, at least I now have the cognitive consistency of knowing there is now no policy issue of importance on which I agree with Trump.[3]

fn1. Very probably, though not certainly, undertaken by Assad’s regime. I don’t want to be derailed by this and will delete, with prejudice, any comments seeking to ventilate alternative theories.

fn2. Obvious wrong turnings on the way to where we are start with the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1915 and go all the way to the Iraq war.

fn3. I was happy that he refused to sign TPPA. But it’s now clear he’s pursuing the standard corporate agenda on trade, including ISDS and strong IP.

China, me old China

One of the reasons I like blogging and opinion writing is that I’m better at thinking up ideas than at the hard work needed to turn them into properly researched journal articles, which is the core business of being an academic. So, it’s great when an idea I’ve floated in a fairly half-baked form in a blog or magazine article gets cited in a real journal article. Even better when it’s a colleague or, in this case, former colleague who cites me.

James Laurenceson, formerly of UQ and now Deputy Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS, has an article just out in the Australian Journal of International Affairs (paywalled, unfortunately, but well reading if you can get access), on Economics and freedom of navigation in East Asia, which cites a short piece I wrote last year and reproduced here. My key points were
* Contrary to many claims, China has no interest in blocking trade in the South China Sea, since most of it goes to and from China
* For the smaller volume of trade between other countries, the cost of taking a more roundabout route is so small that China could not exert any significant leverage by restricting access to the South China Sea
* There’s nothing special about this case. The whole idea that navies are vitally needed to keep sea lanes open is nonsense

Where I based the first two claims on a bit of Google searching and a couple of academic papers, James has developed the argument in convincing detail, addressing a wide range of possible counterarguments. If I could find someone to do the same thing for my third claim, I’d be very happy.

Trumpism and religion (crosspost from CT)

One of the striking features of Donald Trump’s election victory was the overwhelming support he received from white Christians, rising to near-unanimity among white evangelicals, where Trump outpolled all previous Republican candidates. In thinking about the global rise of Trumpism, I’ve been under the impression that the US is a special case, and that the rise of Trumpism in a largely post-religious Europe suggests that the link between Christianism and Trumpism is a spurious correlation.

But, on reading a bit about the Dutch election, I found the suggestion that there is a long tradition of confessional politics in the Netherlands (maybe Ingrid could explain more about this) and that support for the racist PVV is centred on Limburg, and inherited from the formerly dominant Catholic party there. And, re-examining my previous position, it’s obvious that being “largely post-Christian” does not preclude the existence of a large bloc of Christian, and therefore potentially Christianist voters.

So, I’m now thinking that Trumpism can be seen, in large measure, as a reaction by white Christians against the loss of their assumed position as the social norm, against which assertions of rights for anyone else can be seen as identity politics, political correctness and so on. As is usual, as soon as I formed this idea, I found evidence for it everywhere. Obvious cases are Putin and Russian Orthodoxy, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and Fillon in France. Looking a bit harder, I found that British Christians voted strongly for Brexit. And, in my own backyard, all the Trumpist parties I described in this post (except, I think, Palmer’s) are strongly Christianist.

Of course, there’s nothing distinctively Christian in the actual politics of Trumpism, so the analysis applies equally well to Islamists like Erdogan (and al-Baghdadi for that matter) and Hindu nationalists like Modi. In fact, looking over the recent upsurge of Trumpists, the only counterexample I can find to the analysis is Duterte in the Phillipines, who has been denounced by the Catholic Church and has returned the compliment in spades.

What does this mean for the future of Trumpism?

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Decent conservatives

Since Trump’s election victory, there’s been a lot of concern trolling (and maybe some genuine concern) that resistance to Trump will alienate decent conservatives who held their noses while voting for Trump, but might be attracted away from him by a suitably respectful presentation of a centre-right Democratic agenda. A notable recent entry is a piece in the New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, which profiles three such voters, only one of whom has any criticism to make of Trump. The others complain that liberals have been mean to them, but make it pretty clear they would vote for Trump regardless. As is inevitable in such a piece, Jonathan Haidt gets a run – he’s the only expert quoted by name.
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The economics of open borders

A colleague recently sent me a paper on the economics of open borders, by John Kennan, which I hadn’t known of before, though it came out in 2013.
Kennan’s conclusion is striking

Liberal immigration policies are politically unpopular. To a large extent, this is because the beneficiaries of these policies are not allowed to vote. It is also true, however, that the enormous benefits associated with open borders have not received much attention in the economics literature.20 Economists are generally enthusiastic about free trade. But if free movement of goods is important, then surely free movement of people is even more important.
One conclusion of this paper is that open borders could yield huge welfare gains: more than $10,000 a year for a randomly selected worker from a less-developed country (including non-migrants). Another is that these gains are associated with a relatively small reduction in the real wage in developed countries, and even this effect disappears as the capital–labor ratio adjusts over time; indeed if immigration restrictions are relaxed gradually, allowing time for investment in physical capital to keep pace, there is no implied reduction in real wages.

So, is Kennan right about the benefits of open borders? And if so, is there a way of transferring some of those benefits to already-resident wage earners who would otherwise lose, or at least not gain, from expanded migration?
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