Monthly Archives: September 2007

Re-Doing the Map: Major Cities and Everywhere Else

Paul Salmonse, an American ex-pat who’s just moved to Berlin, has a great post up about how the urban core of Berlin feels more like the urban core of New York (or any other big city) than more rural parts of Germany.

This is one of the most interesting consequences of globalization — the increased interconnectedness and cultural homogeneity of "global cities" due to broadband internet and cheap air travel, among other things. As Paul points out, an American from Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York is likely to feel as or more at home in central Paris, Tokyo, or Moscow as he would in a small or mid-size town in the U.S.

All these global cities contain a tremendous amount of diversity. This is their commonality: you can eat any kind of cuisine, shop at any kind of store, see every ethnic group represented, consume high quality culture like art and concerts. As Tyler Cowen has argued, globalization has increased diversity within big cities even if comparative diversity has decreased. (Sure, Paris might seem more like San Francisco comparatively speaking, but the cultural diversity within each city has increased thanks to trade and markets.)

International travelers know that it is often easier to fly from global city to global city versus global city to small town. It took just as long for me to fly from San Francisco to upstate New York as it did to fly from San Francisco directly to Tokyo. Los Angeles to Stevens Point, Wisconsin (small airport in midwest) was only a tad shorter after connections and layovers than San Francisco to Frankfurt.

The question, then, related to my review of Sam Huntington’s book, is whether citizens of global cities feel more of an allegiance to their cities, cosmopolitan lifestyle, and globetrotting co-patriots than to their home country and suburban or rural residents, and whether the resulting decrease in nationalism and connectedness to vast swaths of the country’s population should be a cause for concern.


Quote of the Day: Steinbeck

"And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is the one thing which by inspection destroys such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it, and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If that glory can be killed, we are lost."

–Steinbeck, East of Eden, 131.

This reminds me of Andrew Sullivan's "This I Believe" segment, which still gives me goosebumps, as he talks about the individual and liberty.

The “Do You Blog?” Litmus Test

I’m trying to hone my ability at sizing someone up. My first impressions have been wrong often enough that I’ve been thinking…What questions can I ask and behaviors can I look for in the first 10 minutes of meeting someone to help me develop a baseline assessment of the person?

When I was in high school, I used to ask my friends what their parents did for a living. I was curious, sure, but it was also a litmus test: if somebody didn’t know what their daddy or mommy did for work, it signaled lack of caring about a basic force in their life. How else was food arriving on the table?!

Interestingly, whether someone blogs is also a good litmus test for me. When someone maintains a blog, it usually means their mind is cranking so quickly that they need one more outlet through which to channel that energy and express their thoughts. It usually means they’re engaged with the world and what’s happening. It usually means they like to write and believe in the idea-generation that comes from writing well. Yes, it probably means they’re a little self-involved and self-important, but I prefer that to someone who lacks self-confidence. In other words, I like people who have a "posture" in the world.

Asking someone about their politics is another litmus test. I don’t really care either way what someone’s views are (I’ll most likely respect them), but how they arrived at those views is important to me. Perhaps it will give insight into how they form beliefs in other parts of their life.

What other litmus tests do you use?  Are there subtle questions you ask someone new that helps you understand them? I realize that the best way to improve your intuition is to accumulate lots of experiences (the more people one meets, the better one gets at discerning quality), but are there "micro-hacks" one can use to facilitate all this?

Robert Day Donates $200 M to Claremont McKenna

Claremont McKenna College, where I am a student, today announced a $200 M gift from Robert Day. The gift, which will create the Robert Day Scholars Program, is the largest recorded gift to a liberal arts college, the largest gift in the field of economics and finance, and among the top 20 gifts ever given to a college or university. The Los Angeles Times writes about the gift on its front page:

His gift is unusual for its huge size in relation to the small college, which enrolls just 1,140 students and specializes in public policy and economics.

The gift, which has sparked some debate on campus, would create Claremont McKenna’s first graduate program, a one-year master’s for 50 students that would entail the hiring of eight professors. In addition, as many as 50 students from all five undergraduate schools at the Claremont Colleges consortium would be eligible for senior year grants requiring them to take courses in finance, accounting and leadership psychology.

Day said both programs, collectively called the Robert Day Scholars, would offer financial training to future leaders of business, government and nonprofits, with an emphasis on ethics. The goal is to create a cadre of young people "who show leadership and who have judgment, which is the hardest thing to find," he said Wednesday.

CMC has long been among the most distinguished undergraduate colleges in the fields of economics, government, and leadership. With this gift, Claremont will maintain its eminence in these fields. It is no mystery that Claremont’s intellectual roots are in the classical economics tradition. Ward Elliot, professor government, wrote about the econ department ten years ago:

Also, the economics department has been profoundly different from, and hence nicely complementary to, our Straussian government department. Its heroes have been the classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo and their great Chicago-school expositors, such as Frank Knight, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell. All of these were eloquent defenders of consumer and investor sovereignty in the economic realm. None was bashful in the least about judging the high — government policy — in the light of the low — impact on ordinary people’s economic options. De gustibus non est disputandum was the title of a famous essay by Chicago Nobelist George Stigler, and CMC economist Procter Thomson put it even more tersely: "Greed," he said, echoing Adam Smith, but defying Leo Strauss, "is good."

But, like the government department, the economics department differed from "mainstream" Keynesian economics departments, and it helped its students grasp many things to which most other departments were blind. And it, too, has had massive impacts on public policy (IV below). I owe one of my own principal discoveries, congestion charges and HOT lanes, to our econ department, and I am almost embarrassed at the frequency with which visiting social scientists oblivious to the economic dimensions of public-affairs issues, get mauled by our students in question-and-answer sessions, simply because our students, even non-economists, are much better trained in economic perspectives than most people from other colleges.

Our econ department has been one, again not the least, of a half-dozen or so departments in the country which did not go completely Keynesian in the postwar years — others being Chicago itself, UCLA, University of Virginia, and, more recently, Clemson, Auburn, and George Mason. I don’t know whether any of the others on this list have their own journals. They have had more regard for producers, savers, risk-takers, and market-equilibrium mechanisms than most mainstream departments have had, and less regard for government command-and-control regulations, especially wage and price controls and import restrictions. They have paid more attention than most to monetary policy — printing dollars — and have been more skeptical than most about government subsidies, guarantees, and entitlements, and Keynesian pretensions to "command" or "fine-tune" the economy. They have been more inclined to expand the range of economic choices than to restrict it. They have been more doubtful than most about the power and enforceability of collusion, whether among competing domestic firms or among nations trying to enhance their oil revenues with cartels. They have also been more doubtful than most that the government could spend people’s dollars better than people could spend them themselves.

I will comment more on Claremont, this gift, and higher ed in the near future.

Book Review: Who Are We? by Sam Huntington

From time to time I write longer book reviews on books I find particularly interesting. Some previous formal book reviews have been on national security, the CIA and Afghanistan, the prodigious mind of David Foster Wallace, 21st century college life according to Tom Wolfe, the 4 Hour Workweek, and Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family?. This review is about Huntington’s latest book on American identity and immigration.

Samuel Huntington, in Who Are We?, offers the following argument. America historically has defined itself through race, ethnicity, ideology, and culture. As we are now a multiethnic and multicultural society, our two remaining pillars of unity are our Anglo-Protestant culture and our ideology (or creed). Our Anglo-Protestant culture is being fractured by the proliferation of the Spanish language and Latino culture, and by cosmopolitan elites who subordinate their American identity to a global variation. Without a common culture, our sole unifying factor is the American Creed, something not strong enough to maintain a national identity. American identity, then, will evolve in one of a few directions: a purely creedal America; a bifurcated America with two languages and cultures; an exclusivist America once again defined by race; or, Huntington’s clear (and ambiguous) preference, “a revitalized America reaffirming its historic Anglo-Protestant culture, religious commitments, and values and bolstered by confrontations with an unfriendly world.”

I believe his book succeeds in raising the important issue of immigration and the many challenges it poses for America. Yet it fails on four fronts. First, he exaggerates the isolation and lack of assimilation of Mexican culture in America. Second, he incorrectly juxtaposes “cosmopolitanism” and “nationalism” as mutually exclusive. Third, he undervalues the integration power of just an American Creed. Finally, he fails the test of realism: he describes many problems but offers no solutions. When the issue is immigration, the train has already left the station, and pragmatism should reign.

The crux of Huntington’s argument concerns recent Mexican immigrants’ lack of assimilation. Whereas past immigrants learned the English language, adopted American customs, and identified themselves foremost as “Americans,” Huntington thinks today’s Mexican immigrants are doing none of these things. This is highly arguable. Kwame Anthony Appiah, in discussing his book Ethics of Identity, says, “New immigrants, like the old, learn English…Not only do Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States learn English de facto, they believe in learning English. 97% of Spanish-speaking immigrants say it is very important for their children to learn English.”  Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, devotes a chapter of his book refuting Huntington’s charges. He tells the American Enterprise Institute: “While only one in three foreign-born Latinos describe themselves as American, this rises to 85 percent among their US-born children–and 97 percent among the US-born kids of US-born Latino parents.”  So, Huntington overstates Mexican-Americans’ lack of assimilation.

Huntington’s second failure is opposing “nationalism” with “cosmopolitanism”. He repeatedly bashes the elites who hold cosmopolitan views. These elites consider themselves citizens of the world and consider their multi-national corporations as global entities rather than strictly American ones. So what? I consider myself cosmopolitan. I have traveled widely, sampled diverse cultures, and project an identity that is a synthetic of many tastes, products, personalities, and beliefs. I also consider myself American. Contrary to what Huntington says, it is the very essence of Americanism – its porous nature – that allows someone to have one foot in his national culture and one foot out in the world. Appiah has argued: “I defend a cosmopolitanism that recognizes that we have collective human identity and also the crucial importance of many more local forms of identity, and that many forms of identity crosscut national identities.”  I would concede that my commitment to national interests has diminished as a result of my more global attitudes, but it has not disappeared. Nationalism and national identity has its place, but Huntington does not explain why it has to exist alone rather than alongside of a cosmopolitan worldview.

Huntington posits that American identity can not sustain on the Creed – or political principles – alone. It must, in other words, maintain the Anglo-Protestant culture. I disagree. First, it is not clear what Anglo-Protestant culture actually entails. As Alan Wolfe points out in his Foreign Affairs review, “Protestants have disagreed vehemently with each other over what that culture is.”  Second, even if there were consensus, I don’t think it needs to be the common thread. We should welcome diverse cultures for the excitement and indeed economic advantages such diversity confers, so long as all immigrants adopt a few core ideas. The most important of which, according to Appiah, is the celebration of individuality and the “individual conscience as sovereign” a la John Stuart Mill. This is a value that influenced the Founding Fathers and as such they placed an individual’s liberty and related skepticism of government at the center of their concerns. This is the American creed. It is unique. It is accessible to anyone who chooses to believe in it. If you do, and you live in America and pay your taxes, you are American.

Finally, Huntington fails the realism test. Sure, we should be grateful he tackles these important issues with focused passion. The impact of immigration is important and worthy of debate more serious than the politically charged back-and-forth that occurs in Washington. But serious passion is not enough. Solutions are better. Huntington, in his advanced age, will not experience the impact of all the immigration he details. We young bucks will. How, exactly, should we screen and integrate immigrants? How should dual-nationality work? How do we continue doing a better job than Europe at assimilating Muslims? Like it or hate it, immigrants will continue flooding over the border; regular people (not just elites) will gain exposure to more and more global cultures and probably become more cosmopolitan thanks to cheaper travel options; and America will continue to accommodate these changes by changing itself. Huntington’s last paragraph begins: “America becomes the world. The world becomes America. America remains America. Cosmopolitan? Imperial? National?” This is a false choice, una pregunta falsa. The answer is all of the above. The better question is, What are we going to do about it?

The World in Seven Pictures

I loved these seven pictures of the world. Very much worth viewing!

Elsewhere in the world of photos, here’s a stunning photo of Shanghai at night. (Could it be doctored?)

Quote of the Day from the Bible

Like many Americans, I look to the Bible for insight and comfort. Each day I try to glean wisdom from the well-worn pages. While I may never know who actually wrote the words, I still have trust because, well, it is the Bible after all.

Naturally, I’m referring to The Economist. The biting humor of the Brits continues to provide loads of entertainment. Here’s The Economist on Petraeus’s testiomony and Iraq:

The Democrats also have another, deeper problem. They won both houses of Congress last year by promising to end the war in Iraq. Despite strong public support, they have not even come close to doing so. Mr bin Laden, who has apparently been reading Noam Chomsky in his cave, says this is because America is ruled by large corporations. Others prefer a less sinister explanation.

I love it. bin Laden reading Chomsky in his cave. Only one publication would have the balls to say something like that in the middle of a serious article about Iraq.

On a related note, one of the negative consequences of having access to the second largest university library on the west coast is that I find myself reading all sorts of periodicals and newspapers from around the world. With basically every publication available free for reading, I can’t help myself. Control yourself, Ben, control yourself.

Hispanic Culture in the U.S.

Cynthia Gorney, a prof at Berkeley j-school, has a good article in Sunday’s NYT Magazine about the Hispanic advertising market in the U.S. and Hispanic immigration and assimilation more generally. It exposes the varying degrees of assimilation, generational differences, and ends with a provocative quote on a dicey issue: "I think we might become a bilingual nation. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing." (Highly debatable whether that’s not a bad thing.)

I am absolutely convinced that the conversation around immigration and Hispanic culture in America will only grow in intensity in the coming years, and that it will stretch beyond immigration policy debate in D.C. and into deeper cultural issues like what constitutes American identity and culture. On Wednesday, I will post my formal review of Sam Huntington’s book on this topic. Huntington believes American identity as we’ve known it is disintegrating in the face of an onslaught of Hispanic influences and non-assimilating immigrants.

I think a young person who wants to prepare himself for the real world with an eye toward business would be as well served learning Spanish and understanding Latin American culture as he would be learning Chinese and understanding Chinese culture.

Admittedly, I’m biased. I’ve decided to study Spanish in college. I’m going to travel to Latin America this winter. I’m speaking in Chihuahua, Mexico in a few weeks. I’m motivated to become fluent.

Inverse Correlation: Certainty and Existential Importance

My friend Stan James has a great post on his blog about the inverse correlation between certainty and existential importance, and he extends this theory to some current internet / tech themes in what he calls "The rise of subjectivity on the web." Excerpt:

Paris is the capital of France. Your friends care about you.

Both statements are probably true, right? But one statement is more objective, more verifiable. The other statement is more important to you, more meaningful to your life.

You can find evidence for one statement in Wikipedia. You can find evidence for the other in Facebook.


The Importance of Admitting a Big Mistake

Eliezer hits it on the head again:

After I had finally and fully admitted my mistake, I looked back upon the path that had led me to my Awful Realization.  And I saw that I had made a series of small concessions, minimal concessions, grudgingly conceding each millimeter of ground, realizing as little as possible of my mistake on each occasion, admitting failure only in small tolerable nibbles.  I could have moved so much faster, I realized, if I had simply screamed "OOPS!" 

And I thought:  I must raise the level of my game.

There is a powerful advantage to admitting you have made a large mistake.  It’s painful.  It can also change your whole life.

It is important to have the watershed moment, the moment of humbling realization.  To acknowledge a fundamental problem, not divide it into palatable bite-size mistakes.

Do not indulge in drama and become proud of admitting errors. It is surely superior to get it right the first time.  But if you do make an error, better by far to see it all at once.  Even hedonically, it is better to take one large loss than many small ones.  The alternative is stretching out the battle with yourself over years.  The alternative is Enron.