Free trade and tariffs

Peter Theil was interviewed recently by Florian Schwab. Theil talks at one point about free trade and U.S. tariffs. I’m highlighting that exchange here because I’ve been trying to understand the relationship between an interest in free trade on the one hand, and the usefulness of tariffs to advance national policy on the other:

People are shocked by his imposition of tariffs.

At the center of this is the question with China. The US exports something like 100 bn a year to China, we import 475 bn. What’s extraordinary, is that if we had a globalizing world, we would actually expect the reverse to hold: you would expect the US to have trade surpluses with China and current account surpluses because we would expect that there is a higher return in China because it is a faster growing country than the US. This is what it looked, let’s say, in 1900, when Great Britain had a trade surplus of 2 percent and a current account surplus of 4 percent of GDP. And the extra capital was invested in Argentinean railroads or Russian bonds.

Clearly, today things are different.

The fact that the US does not have a surplus, that actually it has a massive deficit, tells you that something is completely wrong with the standard globalization picture that we have. It is sort of like: Chinese peasants are saving money and it is flowing uphill into low-return investments in the US and bonds in Europe with negative interest rates. There is something completely crazy about that dynamic.

What’s the problem with China?

It is certainly massive tariffs in China, trade barriers, informal controls, intellectual property theft, incredible restrictions on capital investments – it’s extremely hard to invest in China in any way whatsoever.

Still, free trade is a good thing.

In theory you always want to have free trade. I think it was Adam Smith who said that any country endowed with harbors would never throw rocks to them to make them not functioning. That is certainly the common sense dynamic. However, we are incredibly far from that world. And even if you are a doctrinaire, pro free-trade person, there is also an argument: How do you get from an unfair, partial free-trade to more free-trade? Maybe, there is a game theory and if you want to reduce barriers everywhere, you first need to impose tariffs, you have to escalate to de-escalate.

A paradox of free trade is that it isn’t free. It requires international organizations, it requires trust and enforcement mechanisms, it requires highly stable trade routes regulated by military powers, etc. Free trade and tariffs both seem useful to me insofar as they advance national policy or shared allied policies.


Hemingway on leisure

A great piece on Ernest Hemingway’s approach to leisure:

Hemingway had a zeal for making the most of life, not only in his professional vocation, but in his leisure time as well. Papa always wanted to be where the action was, not just as a spectator but as a participant; he wanted to experience what the world had to offer firsthand, with all five senses. In this he certainly succeeded, becoming not only a war correspondent and writer of classic novels, but a hunter, fisherman, sailor, amateur boxer and bullfighter, and world traveler. Few others in modern history have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched so much. …

Papa embraced what he called “the fiesta concept of life.” He was always seeking after excitement and adventure and looking to have a “hell of a good time.” Hemingway’s friend, A. E. Hotchner, “had never seen anyone with such an aura of fun and well-being. He radiated it and everyone [around him] responded.” He was always looking forward to what was around the corner, and began each day with high expectations for what it would bring. In fact, he typically stood on the balls of his feet, like a boxer, seemingly ever ready to move, to fight, to leap into action, to go.

To get at the fun he so relished, we popularly imagine Hemingway taking a loose, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, party-on kind of approach to life.

But as Hotchner explains, Papa’s philosophy of leisure was actually the opposite of spontaneous…

The gusto with which Hemingway attacked his “leisure” time not only created incredible adventures for himself, but for those who enjoyed the exhilaration of being pulled into his orbit. As one friend remembered, “He generated excitement because he was so intense about everything, about writing and boxing, about good food and drink. Everything we did took on a new importance when he was with us.”

The fact that Hemingway rigorously planned out his good times, Hotchner adds, did not mean that there was no flexibility.” A visit to Paris that was supposed to be a two-day trip, could turn into a two-month stay. But it did mean that Hemingway, whether at home or on vacation, had a detailed idea of what he wanted to do each day — the places he wanted to visit, the people he wanted to see, the activities he wanted to partake of, the restaurants and bars in which he wanted to eat and drink. As Hotchner observes, each day “was set up carefully before it dawned or, at the very latest, at its dawning.” …

Hemingway wanted a life filled with excitement, drama, and real interest, and understood that those qualities wouldn’t just happen — they had to be intentionally planned for and created.

It’s a secret to good livin’ that commonly goes unrecognized. Even those who plan out their work days, don’t think of planning out their leisure time. Folks head into the weekend without any idea of what they’d like to do with it, and end up piddling around the house, surrendering to the inertia of television, and feeling restless come Monday that they let another 48 hours of potential fun slip away. Or they take trips without a real itinerary in mind, spend the days a little aimlessly, and return home feeling like they could have made more of their rare vacation time.

Plotting your “off hours” can help you make much more out of them.

It doesn’t mean scheduling out each hour of your evenings or weekends, nor carrying around a clipboard of activities on your vacation, and continually checking your watch to keep yourself moving between them. It doesn’t rule out flexibility, changing plans, and taking unforeseen detours. It doesn’t even necessarily require planning too far ahead.

“Everything we did took on a new importance when he was with us.”


Giants v. A’s

A few scenes from the Oakland Coliseum last Sunday before I left California. We caught an Uber from the Marina District through Oakland to the Coliseum for the 1pm game, San Francisco Giants v. Oakland Athletics. It was my first time visiting either Oakland or the Coliseum. A hot afternoon in a fun atmosphere where functionally everyone there was a local, regardless of the team they were rooting for.

The A’s ended up winning 6-5 in the 10th inning on an error.


Goodbye, James Building

Penn State administrators plan to replace the James Building on South Burrowes Street in State College late next year. It’s a building that dates to 1920, but it’s a plain building that I think started out as a showroom for cars and I think I’ll be happy to see it replaced by something that will presumably be both more beautiful and make better use of space. Here’s the James Building from Google Street View:

123 South Burrowes- James Building.png

I’ve only ever set foot in there a handful of times. Once as an undergrad to meet with the editors of the Daily Collegian to talk about the threat that a Penn State student affairs administrator posed to free speech of campus media outlets, and another time or two for class or other reasons.

It’s historically interesting to me as the 1995-2003 home of The LION 90.7fm before the campus radio station moved on campus into the HUB-Robeson Center, the student union. I know a number of alumni from that era, and for their sake I’ll be a bit sorry to see this physical site of a brief era in Penn State student broadcasting history depart the scene. The campus radio station was housed one floor above the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper, and a joke from that era was something like, “Visit WKPS, Penn State’s campus station. We’re above the Daily Collegian, literally.”

It’s a building that sits at a remove from the street, and contributes to a deadness along with two other Penn State-owned buildings, two parking lots, and other unremarkable structures on this block of South Burrowes Street. I hope whatever Penn State selects to replace it will revitalize the experience of the street in this part of town, because it could really stand for improvement. Geoff Rushton with details:

The James Building in downtown State College has been home to the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student newspaper, for the past 30 years. But it won’t be for much longer.

Penn State plans to demolish the nearly 100-year old building at 121-123 S. Burrowes St. and replace it with a new, $52.8 million building that will serve as a hub for the Invent Penn State entrepreneurial and innovation initiative.

According to a request for letters of interest from design and engineering firms, the university anticipates construction on a new building to begin in November 2019 with completion in December 2020. Development plans would require approval from State College Borough Council.

In addition to the Collegian, the James Building also houses Bellisario College of Communications administrative offices and the Media Effects Research Lab. Each of the current tenants will be relocated to a new location, Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said in an email, though where has yet to be decided.

“The Office of Physical Plant indicates that multiple locations have been identified for these groups to potentially move into, so the space allocations are still somewhat in flux and subject to change,” Powers said.

The new building is expected to be 99,000 to 119,000 gross square feet, and “will support the Invent Penn State initiative by developing a multi-use Innovation, Making and Learning facility that will become the cornerstone of our entrepreneurial ecosystem,” according to the letter to architectural firms.

It would “maximize the allowable buildout” of the existing site and would include an estimated 29,000 gross square feet for maker and innovation space; 6,000 gross square feet for retail; and upper levels of at least 65,000 square feet for flexible office, learning activity and other spaces. …

On-site parking will be included with the new building, as required by zoning.

According to the OPP letter, goals of the project include developing “a new building in State College that will help create a ‘hub’ of activity and enhance the existing aesthetic and character of the urban site and tie into downtown at the adjacent [University Park campus]” and “to create a well-designed, unique, destination building that functions as a center for innovation and knowledge sharing,” that will serve community businesses, start-ups and students.

The building also is expected to be highly efficient with LEED certification.

The existing 30,000 square-foot, two-story brick building was constructed in 1920 and the university says it and its infrastructure “are at the end of their useful life.”

I’m hopeful. Growing from the existing ~30,000 sq ft to ~100,000 sq ft or more will be a good improvement, I just hope that grace and beauty come with size. And I also hope/expect sanity to prevail and for State College Borough to waive the zoning requirement for on-site parking. There are two enormous municipal parking decks within two blocks.


Decency, indecency, and sanction

Catherine Addington on being decent in an indecent age:

When a Christian is caught between a political economy hostile to human flourishing and a Church all too often comfortable with the status quo, it is demoralizing to have recourse to an ugly, embattled public square. Who wants to have life-or-death debates in a cold professional setting? In what universe is pitting hostile voices against one another conducive to Christian fellowship?

But by the time Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda met at Valladolid, Spain in 1550 to debate the morality of the conquest of America, the question had already been settled along with the continent. The debate was convened by Carlos V, king of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, who had not yet been born when Columbus arrived on Hispaniola nearly sixty years ago. The existence of America, and Spanish dominion over it, were facts of life for him. The Spanish were not seriously considering withdrawal from the Americas. There was no going back.

The debate was not about conquest, then, but colonization; it was not about the nature of indigenous people, but their treatment. Carlos V was not asking if he could conquer indigenous people, but if he could give them to his soldiers as slaves, along with their land, as a reward for their service to the crown. Sepúlveda argued that the conquest was a just war, so Carlos could keep the profits (land and people) and distribute them as he pleased. Las Casas argued that the conquest was unjust, so Carlos had to make restitution for it.

Neither man won the debate, and the issue was never resolved. The debate has mainly become famous in retrospect, metonymically standing in for the entire colonial project. At the time, though, it was politics. As such, the men’s writings have a curious dual nature as both catty interpersonal sniping from opposite sides of the political spectrum and incredibly high-stakes ethical discussions. …

Bartolomé de las Casas became a planter and owner of indigenous slaves at the age of 18, when he immigrated with his father to the island of Hispaniola in 1502. After becoming a priest, he experienced a profound conversion while meditating upon the book of Sirach: “If one sacrifices ill-gotten goods, the offering is blemished; the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.”

Abandoning his ill-gotten wealth, Las Casas returned to Spain as an anti-slavery activist. In the following years, he was granted a position as court adviser, given the title of Protector of the Indians, and testified before the legislature on the conquistadores’ abuses. (This testimony resulted in the abolition of indigenous enslavement, which was ignored by rioting colonists and repealed.) When Las Casas became Bishop of Chiapas, México, he attempted to enforce abolition by refusing the sacraments to slave owners. This proved so unpopular that he was forced to return permanently to Spain, where he continued his activism.

Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was Carlos V’s royal chronicler and chaplain. His writings in this capacity were nominally historical, but functionally defensive, providing an official version of the Spanish empire’s expansion in the Americas and a justification for its policies there. Before he took on that office, his career was a long string of academic treatises (anti: Desiderius Erasmus, Henry VIII; pro: Aristotle, Machiavelli). His first major work was a panegyric in honor of the emperor. Theologians saw him as compromised—to say the least—but he had the vigorous support of the emperor’s advisers, who had invested a great deal in the colonies.

Las Casas’ activism was the political question of the day, and everyone had an opinion. Sepúlveda just happened to be the one who got the guy’s attention.

In 1550, Sepúlveda released Democrates alter, a fictitious dialogue arguing that the Spanish conquest of America was a just war. It invoked Aristotle’s concept of “natural slavery” at length: “…the Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men, for there exists between the two as great a difference as … between apes and men.”

Before Las Casas even read the book, he had already written a response to it—or at least to the Spanish summary of it that came across his desk. “What blood will they not shed?” Las Casas began his Apologia, describing the soldiers allegedly emboldened by Sepúlveda’s words. “What cruelty will they not commit, these brutal men who are hardened to seeing fields bathed in human blood, who make no distinction of sex or age, who do not spare infants at their mothers’ breasts, pregnant women, the great, the lowly, or even men of feeble and gray old age for whom the weight of years usually awakens reverence or mercy?”

Las Casas blatantly broke the rules of procedure here. … Rejecting the time-honored temptation to make an idol of decorum, he put things plainly.

This exchange makes evident the clash of personality (let alone ideas) between the two men. Sepúlveda wrote a Socratic dialogue of Aristotelian ideas, branding himself the rational debater. He philosophizes. Las Casas wrote with strong language and evocative imagery, coming off as an impassioned firebrand. He preaches. Even though they both cited the Greek philosophers and the books of the Bible throughout their works, and even cited each other, they were fundamentally not having the same discussion. It’s a familiar disconnect today.

I know, functionally, nothing of the history of Spanish colonialism and debates surrounding it, so I enjoyed this piece for introducing me to it.


Capitalism, cultus, and culture

Michael Matheson Miller reflects on the question, “Does capitalism destroy culture?” Off the top of my head, if I had to answer this question in an elevator I might offer something like, “Yes, to the extent that markets and economic motives become the keystone of a society, then capitalism doesn’t so much destroy culture as displaces it in favor of material-driven competition.” But Miller’s piece is nuanced and a very helpful introduction to anyone considering this question seriously:

I will say from the outset that I support open, competitive economies that allow for free exchange, but I would not call myself a “capitalist.” Capitalism is generally a Marxist term that implies a mechanistic view of the economy and a false dichotomy between “capital” and “labor.” Capitalism also comes in a variety of forms and can mean many things. There is corporate capitalism, oligarchic capitalism, crony capitalism, and managerial-bureaucratic capitalism, such as we have in the United States. However, cultural critics of capitalism usually don’t make those distinctions and, even if they did, many would still be critical of an authentically free market.

So without trying to tease apart all of these strands at the outset and so risk never getting anywhere let me use the term “capitalism” and ask and answer the question with the broadest of brushstrokes. Does capitalism corrode culture? I think the answer is yes and no. …

… while capitalism does indeed transform, and even destroy, aspects of traditional cultural life, I would argue that the most destructive global forces of cultural transformation especially in the developing world come less from market economies than from the Western, secular, organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the NGO industry, and the U.S. and European governments. These powerful institutions wield “soft” and “hard” power to foist a reductionist vision of life upon millions of the world’s poor. People criticize McDonald’s and Walmart for cultural imperialism, but no one is forced to eat a Big Mac. Contrast this to activities of groups like the UN, UNICEF and Planned Parenthood, who impose secular ideas of family, motherhood, sexuality, abortion, contraception, and forced sterilization on the world’s poor. It is bad enough when a country like China does this to their own people, but when bureaucrats in Washington or Paris are manipulating poor families in the developing world, and tying aid packages to so called reproductive rights it is a naked act of cultural imperialism.

There now exists what the New York Times has called a “daughter deficit” and what The Economist has labeled “gendercide.” Millions of baby girls are being aborted in the developing world as people are encouraged by international agencies and NGOs to have small families. For a variety of cultural reasons, when forced to choose, many of the families choose to have baby boys and abort their unborn daughters. The consequences of the loss of all these human lives is of course incalculable, but that isn’t the extent of it. The birth ratio of boys to girls is now so skewed that this will have devastating social and political consequences.

This is not the result of free markets. It is a product of selfish consumerism, bad anthropology and faulty economics—an outgrowth decades of educational policy and top-down social and economic planning that grows out of the zero-sum-game fallacy, which in turn fosters an anti-natalist ideology that dominates development insiders. Not surprisingly, these insiders are rarely proponents of the free market, and if they do give the market a nod it is a kind of techno-bureaucratic capitalism ruled by elites who haunt Davos each year. …

While the market does enable people to indulge in a lifestyle marked by the illusion of radical autonomy, the main sources of such thinking and behavior are not market economics, but a number of harder to diagnose intellectual and spiritual crises that plague the west. These include things like reductionist rationalism that makes all questions of truth, beauty, and the good life a matter of personal predilection; a nominalist conception of human freedom where freedom is merely the exercise of the will separated from truth and reason; the radical individualism of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau; and radical skepticism (see David Hume) which makes reason a slave to the passions.

A market economy can help spread these ideas, but it is not their source. I am not arguing that a market is neutral. Markets have clear positive and negative effects, but exacerbating a problem is not the same thing as causing it and it is simplistic to attribute to capitalism alone the effects of a host of intertwined forces of social change. …

Capitalism has profound effects on culture and it is a mistake to think that that the market economy is neutral or that markets left to their own devices will work everything out for the best. It is also a mistake to blame capitalism as the cause of cultural destruction. Market economies come with trade-offs and cultural dysfunction and cultural renewal are complex and cannot be explained by economic analysis alone. As Christopher Dawson reminds us, it is not economics, but cultus, religion, that is the driving force of culture. It is also a mistake to think that secularism is neutral. Modern secular progressivism has become the cultus of Western life and this plays a much more potent role in shaping culture than economics.

Capitalism is not perfect. Like democracy, it needs vibrant mediating institutions, rich civil society and a strong religious culture to control its negative effects. But we wouldn’t trade democracy for dictatorship. Nor should we trade the market for some bureaucratic utopia.

A commenter on Miller’s piece offers a lengthy response, but this part in particular is worth thinking on. For all the bemoaning of corrosive forces on the one hand, or incredible opportunity afforded by international markets on the other, this gets at the heart of just how radical a shift industrialization represented for human life:

“the breakdown of the traditional family certainly is – of course not exclusively – related to the physical separation of work place and family life, and while the working day has been reduced considerably, distances have increased, in some cases requiring long hours on the road to and from work, or imposing weekend family life…”

In miniature, this is why we say that neither markets nor technology (understood maximally as techne) are neutral. They will always imply or demand shifts in the way human life is lived. Perhaps often for the better in material terms, but at incredible cost even if the total cost were only the shift in individual and family life described above.


Sonoma picnic

A few scenes from our picnic at Cline Cellars in Sonoma from Saturday afternoon. We were out of San Francisco for only a few hours, but they were warm, sunny, and reinvigorating hours after waking up in a city absolutely covered in dreary fog.

We drove back to San Francisco around 5pm.


Fort Mason and elsewhere

I’m back in Philadelphia today after a great few weeks on the West coast, first in Seattle, then Napa, and then around the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’ll share a few more scenes this week from the past few weeks. I stayed in North Beach/Fisherman’s Wharf area most of last week before meeting up with friends who moved from Lower Pacific Heights/Japantown into the Marina District. We checked out a beer garden/open house style night at the California Academy of Sciences; the penguins were my favorite part of that experience.

Spent some time working outside in Union Square during a beautiful afternoon/evening last Friday, before meeting up with friends and heading to Fort Mason’s “Off the Grid” event featuring gourmet food trucks, beer, etc. A somewhat chilly but good time.

I do love San Francisco, because despite the ways that it shares in the derivitivity of other major cities, so much of its aesthetic, architecture, and cultural character still seem distinct. That’s worth taking pride in, even if few can afford it.


Mission Dolores Park

If your timing is right, to visit Mission Dolores Park is to visit a place where the world seems to have more color. It was that way when I visited last week, as clouds swept over downtown San Francisco. The elevation of Mission Dolores, combined with its terrain, make it probably the most remarkable city park I’ve seen. It’s the sort of place that feels like a truly dignified public space, a part of the public square where everyone can put aside whatever it is that they do professionally, and be human beings together.

A trend I see in public parks in Philadelphia is that they are tending toward professionally managed public spaces, wherein some event is either about to begin or there are paid minders milling about. Dolores, Washington Square Park, Rittenhouse Square—these are public squares designed in the older model that seem resilient all on their own merit, even if they’re not.

Mission Dolores’s history is rich, since San Francisco assembled the modern parkland in the early 20th century, to its function as a Jewish cemetery in the 19th century, to its Spanish roots in the 18th century:

Mission San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores, is the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco and the sixth religious settlement established as part of the California chain of missions. The Mission was founded on October 9, 1776, by Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga and Francisco Palóu (a companion of Junípero Serra), both members of the de Anza Expedition, which had been charged with bringing Spanish settlers to Alta (upper) California, and evangelizing the local Natives, the Ohlone.

The settlement was named for St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, but was also commonly known as “Mission Dolores” owing to the presence of a nearby creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, meaning “Our Lady of Sorrows Creek.” …

The original Mission was a small structure dedicated on October 9, 1776 … located near what is today the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets, about a block-and-a-half east of the surviving Adobe Mission building, and on the shores of a lake (supposedly long since filled) called Laguna de Los Dolores. …

The present Mission church, near what is now the intersection of Dolores and 16th Streets, was dedicated in 1791. At the time of dedication, a mural painted by native labor adorned the focal wall of the chapel. The Mission was constructed of Adobe and part of a complex of buildings used for housing, agricultural and manufacturing enterprises (see architecture of the California missions). Though most of the Mission complex, including the quadrangle and Convento, has either been altered or demolished outright during the intervening years, the façade of the Mission chapel has remained relatively unchanged since its construction in 1782–1791. …

The Mission chapel, along with “Father Serra’s Church” at Mission San Juan Capistrano, is one of only two surviving buildings where Junípero Serra is known to have officiated…


Fisherman’s Wharf

Earlier this week I walked along Fisherman’s Wharf and eventually ducked into In-N-Out for lunch. I took my platter outside into the little Anchorage Square courtyard and enjoyed the summer afternoon along with my meal. Visitors from Asia, Latin America, and Europe passed by, speaking to one another in their native tongues, as I sat and ate. That’s one of my favorite things about San Francisco: it’s like an open-air version of New York, a place where the world comes to visit, but you have more of a chance to see and meet some of these folks out and about than you do in the comparatively denser and sometimes more claustrophobic New York streets.

That’s something else, specific to Fisherman’s Wharf, that I thought about. Namely that Fisherman’s Wharf feels like a much more relaxed, more tolerable Times Square. If you want to visit New York and pay for Olive Garden in Times Square, amidst the chaos and noise and gimmickry of Times Square, more power to you. You can do something of the same thing at Fisherman’s Wharf, but it’s an Applebee’s here, and generally most of the natural world worth admiring remains free. Avoid the junk.