Sunday, August 30, 2015


The Bank of Japan prints Yen, so the Yen falls against the Singapore dollar, so it's cheap to fill my fridge with Asahi and have a party! Germans take note: the role of central banks is to provide cold smooth delicious liquidity.
When my head of department came to the party, he remarked that this was less like taking advantage of a sale and more like commodities trading.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Chuck Schumer would be a nuclear disaster as Senate Democratic Leader

A few months ago, some lobbyists told me that Chuck Schumer was likely to become Senate Democratic Leader after Harry Reid steps down. This had me deeply disappointed. A lot of Schumer's rise to the leadership has involved getting money from Wall Street (his home state is New York) and using it to buy power within the Democratic Party. But it didn't look like there was any way to stop his rise. I'm generally a look-on-the-bright-side kind of guy, so I tried to content myself with the thought that we might make progress on other issues by using his ill-gotten money to maintain control of the Senate, even if he blocked financial regulation and higher taxes on the financial sector. It didn't really work -- those issues are important.

Now he's announced that he's going to vote against President Obama's astoundingly good Iran treaty. And he's spreading misinformation that originated on Fox News and other right-wing media sites against the treaty. His claim that "you have to wait 24 days before you can inspect" is highly inaccurate -- there are lots of ways for inspections to happen faster than 24 days even if Iran doesn't want them to, and if Iran tries to delay the inspections repeatedly, there are mechanisms for the international community to reimpose sanctions. As arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis writes,
Some of us might think it’s good that the agreement puts defined limits on how much Iran can stall and explicitly prohibits a long list of weaponization activities. Opponents, like Schumer — apparently for want of anything better — have seized on these details to spin them into objections. A weaker, less detailed agreement might have been easier to defend against this sort of attack, perhaps. 
... The claim that inspections occur with a 24-day delay is the equivalent of Obamacare "death panels." Remember those? A minor detail has been twisted into a bizarre caricature and repeated over and over until it becomes "true."
This treaty isn't just important for eliminating the threat that Iran will use nuclear weapons -- it's important for preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East where nations like Saudi Arabia build nuclear weapons to deter Iran. In such an unstable region, the fall of a nuclear-armed state could easily put nuclear arms in the hands of some people who could do a great deal of harm. Perhaps Schumer's solution to those problems will be along the lines of his 2002 vote of support for the Iraq War. (Hillary Clinton, who also voted for the Iraq War, supports the Iran nuclear treaty.)

Fortunately, the Democratic wing of the Democratic party is mobilizing against his ascension to the party leadership. I don't know whether they'll be able to stop him, as he looked certain to succeed Harry Reid until recently. But it matters a great deal, and I'm more confident in the need to keep Schumer out of the leadership than in my opinions on the Democratic primary. I'll explain why.

I think Bernie Sanders has a small but real chance of defeating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary. If both sides play perfectly, she wins by coming out with enough interesting left-wing policy that she doesn't alienate the Democratic primary electorate on substantive issues, and electability issues and her enormous funding put her over the top. But campaigns don't always do a perfect job, and she fails to make reasonable-looking leftward moves, she could lose. Obviously we need to see a lot more general election polling to figure out whether Sanders could defeat Walker or Bush or (this probably won't happen, but...) Trump in a general election, but if the polling doesn't make a good case for Sanders, I can see a lot of Democrats being worried about whether he can win when the time comes. And it's so terrifying to imagine a national version of what Scott Walker did to Wisconsin that it could be a rational decision to play it safe with Hillary rather than going for the big risk/reward with Sanders.

But set all that aside. Suppose we're watching a Bernie Sanders inauguration in January 2017, and we have a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress! This would be an utterly spectacular outcome. You'd expect awesome legislation to follow. Except it turns out that Bernie can't get meaningful financial regulation through Congress, and also can't make progress on a variety of foreign policy issues, because Schumer is obstructing financial regulation and peace in the Middle East as Senate Majority Leader. As far as I can tell, this is what ends up happening in a Sanders administration, if the Schumer ascension goes through as planned and the Senate is in the hands of someone more conservative than Hillary Clinton with oceans of Wall Street money behind him. And that's why it's so important -- perhaps more important than the Clinton/Sanders primary -- that Schumer be stopped. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The 10 most harmful jobs

My friends at 80,000 Hours try to calculate what the most socially beneficial jobs are, for career advising purposes. The site is called 80,000 Hours because that's the amount of time the average person spends on work over their lifetime. 

They recently put up a post about the 10 most harmful jobs. The list includes weapons research, tax minimization for super-rich people, and patent trolling. (These and the others strike me as sensible choices.) Also interesting is their discussion of jobs that they considered but didn't put on the list.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Singapore's government built transit infrastructure, and the infrastructure built Singapore

Today is the 50th anniversary of Singapore's founding, and a day of massive celebration. As part of the festivities, everyone gets free rides on public transit today. The government keeps buses and subways very cheap here by any other First World city's standards, so it doesn't make much of a difference. You can go from one end of the island to the other on the subway for under 2 US dollars, with shorter journeys under $1. But it's been fun to watch people board city buses and smile a little about getting something literally for free.

Western media sometimes describes Singapore as having a fundamentally capitalist economy. I wish they'd tell people that everyone rides elephants to work here instead. That would be equally false, but much more entertaining. From transit to health care to food to housing, the best things about this island have been built with a great deal of government involvement and planning -- often at levels unheard of in the US. Going into detail about health care, food, and housing (80% of Singaporeans live in government-owned public housing!) would prevent me from watching National Day festivities with my friends and drinking whiskey, so I'll just talk about transit for now.

Public transit systems everywhere are government projects, and Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit system (the subway) is no different. As far as I can tell, the hero of the MRT was a Minister named Ong Teng Cheong, who convinced the government to spend billions of dollars building it in the early 1980s. Here's Mr. Ong at the time, talking about what was to come:
"this is going to be the most expensive single project to be undertaken in Singapore. The last thing that we want to do is to squander away our hard-earned reserves and leave behind enormous debt for our children and our grandchildren. Now since we are sure that this is not going to be the case, we'll proceed with the MRT, and the MRT will usher in a new phase in Singapore's development and bring about a better life for all of us."
I also like his quote about positive externalities:
"the Government has now taken a firm decision to build the MRT. The MRT is much more than a transport investment, and must be viewed in its wider economic perspective. The boost it'll provide to long term investors' confidence, the multiplier effect and how MRT will lead to the enhancement of the intrinsic value of Singapore's real estate are spin-offs that cannot be ignored."
That's what happens when you build good transit. Lots of the stuff around major transit nodes becomes much more valuable, because people can easily access it and interact with it in positive-sum ways. They say that the three most important determiners of real estate values are location, location, and location. By building good transit, you can put huge immobile structures in a better location! Who knew that you could do that? Well, Mr. Ong did, and he made it a focus of Singaporean government policy.

If anyone wants to see a map of the MRT system, here it is in all its interconnected subway glory:

There's basically no way to get everyone where they're going in this place with cars. The island is basically 20 miles east-west and 15 miles north-south with 5-6 million people, so if everyone had a car you'd probably have to pave the entire island for them to get anywhere. That's why Singapore imposes car taxes of epic proportions. To buy a car, you have to pay a tax that's usually around 100% of the car's value. On top of that, you have to buy a "Certificate of Entitlement" to own the car for ten years, and those usually go over $50K apiece in USD. In the end, owning a Toyota Prius will cost you over a hundred thousand US dollars. The government rakes in the revenue from rich people who have lots of money to blow on cars, and then pours it back out into building transit for people who don't have cars.

I'd say that Singaporean transit is every US lefty urban planner's dream come true, but that isn't quite accurate. Their wildest dreams fall far short of the Singaporean reality. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lady Lamb, "Billions of Eyes" + Ibn Battuta

I've spent a lot of time on the road this year, and now I'm back in Singapore. At the end of my journey I was listening to a lot of Lady Lamb, and particularly Billions of Eyes, which has a lot of travel-related lyrics. And really there's a lot of lyrics -- I admire how Aly Spaltro just packs a lot of her songs full of as much nonrepetitive lyrical content as she can.
The kind of high I like is when I barely make the train
And the people with a seat smile big at me because they know the feeling
And for a millisecond we share a look like a family does
Like we have inside jokes
Like we could call each other by little nicknames
I think I've started smiling at strangers a little more often when something like this happens and I feel like smiling at them. Anyway, this video has the lyrics. "It's June where you sleep, July where I land" was one of the travel lines that really resonated with me.
Ibn Battuta was one of the great travelers of the medieval world, visiting places from West Africa to Sumatra in the 1300s. He describes how he left Morocco to visit Mecca in the beginning of his travels:
I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveller in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose part I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries. So I braced my resolution to quit my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests. My parents being yet in the bonds of life, it weighed sorely upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow at this separation.
I like this line he wrote at the end about his life:
I have indeed—praise be to God—attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Killers, "Spaceman" + Nixon's Moon disaster speech

"Spaceman" sounds like a thoughtful reflection on having been abducted by aliens, set to a fun poppy beat. There's one or two Killers songs I really like per album, and this is my favorite on Day & Age.

Before the moon landing, speechwriter William Safire wrote a stirring speech for President Richard Nixon to give if something went wrong and the astronauts weren't able to return to Earth. Here it is:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. 
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. 
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. 
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. 
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. 
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. 
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind. 
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be. 
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to "the deepest of the deep," concluding with the Lord's Prayer.
I like xkcd's suggestions for speeches Nixon could have given in other unfortunate scenarios, including "IN EVENT ASTRONAUTS ABSCOND WITH SPACECRAFT".