Women and the Arab Spring

Some realistic thinking about what can be achieved in modernising attitudes in the Middle East even after the ‘Arab Spring’:

When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing — or divorce either.

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The sushi master’s obsession

Usually, fine dining doesn’t get me that excited (I do love food but prefer the fare prepared by short order cooks) but I think I can make an exception for sushi. I love the artistic minimalism of Japanese food and I do think I can tell the difference between run of the mill sushi and sashimi and that which is lovingly prepared by a craftsman such as the one profiled here. Just reading this set my tastebuds tingling:

One of the hardest reservations to get in the world is a seat at Jiro Ono’s sushi counter, a three-Michelin-star restaurant adjoining the entrance to the Ginza metro station, in the basement of a business building in Tokyo. A meal there, which consists of twenty pieces of sushi served one at a time, costs thirty thousand Japanese yen (about three hundred and seventy dollars), and lasts about fifteen or twenty minutes. (By contrast, a meal at Noma, probably the toughest get on the list, takes a good three to four hours). There are only ten seats, there is a set menu (no appetizers or modifications), and there are definitely no California rolls.

The question of what makes this hole in the wall so worthy is the subject of a gorgeously shot documentary opening today called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” directed by David Gelb. Jiro Ono was born in 1925, left home at the age of nine, and has been making sushi ever since. Though Japan has declared him a national treasure, he still says, at the age of eighty-five, “All I want to do is make better sushi.” He goes to work every day by getting on the train from the same position, he always tastes his food as he makes it, and he dislikes holidays. Jiro is described as a shokunin—a person who embodies the artisan spirit of the relentless pursuit of perfection through his craft.

Another Japanese term that came to my mind while I watched the film was kaizen, meaning “improvement” or “change for the better.” The concept is one of process, and it is often applied in business settings, like manufacturing and logistics, to ensure constant and never-ending improvement. Before cooking his octopus, Jiro used to massage it for up to thirty minutes. Now he will massage it for forty minutes, to give it an even softer texture and a better taste. Before a meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro, guests are handed a hot towel, hand-squeezed by an apprentice. The apprentices, who train for at least ten years under Jiro, are not allowed to cut the fish until they practice just handling it. One of the older apprentices says Jiro taught him to “press the sushi as if it were a baby chick.”

The other thing I can really identify with in Japanese culture is this tendency towards obsessiveness…

A documentary movie has been made about this remarkable 86 year old workaholic craftsman called Jiro dreams of sushi.

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China, the US and their extractive elites

This piece by professional contrarian Ron Unz has been doing the rounds in the paleo-conservative part of the blogosphere. Ron Unz compares and contrasts the US problem with its ‘extractive elites’ and China’s and contrary to what one might expect, doesn’t pronounce the US as necessarily having a cleaner bill of health.

Unz’s piece is certainly well researched and interestingly argued with facts and figures. For instance, he puts in perspective the corruption involved in China’s high speed rail project which led to the downfall of a Railways Minister, discusses China’s attempts at tackling healthcare reform and has an interesting case study comparing the Chinese media’s coverage of the recent infant formula scandal with the US media’s treatment of a similar public health disaster in the US (about which I literally knew nothing until I read it here).

Ultimately I think Unz overstates his case that the US may be doing less well under its extractive elites than China under party rule but the piece is well worth reading for the depth of research alone.

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The case for narrow banking?

John Quiggin makes the case for narrow banking in the pages of The National Interest:

Attempts to regulate the market for derivatives have been stymied by a mixture of determined resistance from the industry and the technical difficulties of defining and regulating such complex and opaque financial instruments. The “shadow-banking” system, associated with investment banks, hedge funds and other speculative financial institutions, is as large and dangerous as ever …

The problem with the shadow banks is not that they are “too big to fail” but that they are too interconnected to fail. The failure of an investment bank, no matter how large, is not a problem if it does not imperil the core functions of the financial system—taking deposits and lending to finance housing and business investment.

The answer is to separate these functions as completely as possible. Banks that benefit from publicly guaranteed deposit insurance should be excluded from any form of financial activity beyond the core functions of saving and lending.

Guaranteed banks should be precluded from operating as part of the shadow-banking system, not just through direct speculation but also from sharing ownership through holding companies and from exposing themselves to risk through loans or other forms of credit to shadow banks. Such institutions should be required to raise all their funds (not merely their equity) from high-wealth private investors capable of assessing the associated risks and bearing whatever costs result from failures.

On the other side of the fence, governments should give a binding guarantee not to rescue investment banks and hedge funds that get into trouble. Everyone involved in these institutions should be fully liable for losses, just as they get the full benefit of profits.

This is not a new idea. Economists as diverse as Milton Friedman and James Tobin advocated it under the name “narrow banking.”

I think the credibility of any ‘non-bailout guarantee’ is the central issue here. As long as such guarantees are not seen as politically credible there may be an unacceptable element of moral hazard present in the system and as long as this is so and can lead to crises such as the one we’ve just experienced, governments may find it difficult to commit to not bailing out the system which sets up the next round of moral hazard induced crises and so on …

While these function separation proposals may seem heretical to supporters of a market based approach, as a matter of pragmatism if non-bailout guarantees cannot be credibly committed to then they may be the least worst alternative.

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Asian welfare states

Joe Hockey has been stirring up debate suggesting that we might look less to Europe and more to Asian countries on how to configure our approach to delivering welfare services. While Hong Kong came up as the obvious reference point, there is probably a lot more written on Singapore. Both the late BA Santamaria and more recently Noel Pearson have advocated looking at the Singapore model. Singapore’s approach to welfare might also be more acceptable as a starting point for welfare reform even to our centre left and centrist thinkers as it isn’t as bare bones as the strawman ‘Brutopia’ models they may imagine. Pearson summarises the Singapore model as follows:

Central to the entire approach is the compulsory savings system of the country’s Central Provident Fund. The leaders of Singapore built around the CPF an array of individual and family solutions for home and apartment ownership, retirement funds and healthcare co-payment insurance funds. They mandated family-based solutions to welfare while subsidising those things that enhanced the earning and asset accumulation capacities of individuals.

By mandating a universal approach to compulsory savings and home ownership, Singapore included everyone in the society. The denizens of the shanties were not left to their own devices. They, too, were obliged and supported into apartment ownership

The Economist also had a profile of the Singaporean welfare system from a few years ago though I think it makes it sounds harsher than it actually yes. Here’s an extract:

Citizens are obliged to save for the future, rely on their families and not expect any handouts from the government unless they hit rock bottom. The emphasis on family extends into old age: retired parents can sue children who fail to support them. In government circles “welfare” remains a dirty word, cousin to sloth and waste. Singapore may be a nanny state, but it is by no means an indulgent nanny.

The government does run a handful of schemes directed at some of the needy, from low-income students to the unassisted elderly. But these benefits are rigorously means-tested and granted only sparingly. The most destitute citizens’ families may apply for public assistance; only 3,000 currently qualify. Laid-off workers receive no automatic benefits. Instead they are sorted into “workfare” and training schemes.

One thing to note about the Asian approach to welfare whether it’s Hong Kong, Malaysia or Singapore – it’s probably a lot easier for people to find new jobs in these countries because the costs of setting up businesses are lower and labour markets are more flexible and less regulated. This and the cultural norm of shame in taking handouts, at least in the entitlement based forms we see in Western welfare states rather than in the form of subsidised provision of ‘merit goods’ (such as Singapore’s polyclinics) help keep down dependency levels.

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Good governments, gangs and over-reach

Harry Clarke blogs about the very interesting Peter Robb book on Sicily which discusses the development of the Mafia, originally as a ‘protection agency’ because of the lack of proper rule of law. However, Harry comes up with some non-sequiturs in his post:

This is a cruel organization that has penetrated the highest levels of Italian politics. But as an economist what struck me was the enormous social inefficiency of meeting a ‘property rights failure’ in western Sicily with rule by a mob of hoods which instituted killing as the punishment for rule-breaking. This sort of social history is the ultimate anti-libertarian tract since the overwhelming implication is that strong central government, based on western-style democratic values, vastly outperforms rule by a mob of hoods. Self-interest decidedly does not drive the social advantage.

Firstly, if anything, the emergence of the Mafia because of government failure in protecting property rights originally in Sicily is a validation of libertarian social theory which argues that spontaneous protection agencies and enforcement of property rights will arise in the absence of ‘government’. And no one but the most hardened libertarian-anarchists among these social theorists would argue that anything that automatically emerges would be the most optimal arrangements.

Secondly, and related to addressing the strawman that Harry has sketched, the mainstream of libertarian or classical liberal theory accepts the need for a strong government. The common fallacy of non-libertarians is to equate ‘strong’ with ‘expanded’ or ‘unlimited’ government, something which Harry seems to do here. Libertarians believe in limited government and the strong rule of law (with thinkers such as Hayek devoting volumes of his works to explicating on these concepts), not weak government. If anything it can be argued that governments which do not ‘overreach’ and try to do too many things can do those few things it sets out to do better. Third world governments which cannot ensure basic sewage services or provide the clean rule of law but spend money on industrial white elephants and micromanage their economies would be the antithesis of this ideal. Thus the classical liberal theory prescriptions for the State should promote stronger government and governance.

Thirdly, as for the role of ‘democratic control’ in all this, I would argue that its main benefit as a check on the baser instincts of the governing body arises because of the ‘credible threat’ of removal it poses. However let’s not over-estimate its importance in promoting better decision-making as such.

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Random observations from Malaysia 1

I recently returned from a holiday trip to my birthplace of Malaysia which included a short stopover at Singapore. Here are some random observations:

1) Laotian live-in maids are the latest ‘in thing’  in Malaysia and have to some extent taken over from Indonesian maids. In KL live in maids are so common the newer houses in some neighbourhoods are actually constructed with maid housing out the back.
2) A lot of suburbs in KL are now gated communities but unofficial semi-legal gated communities if that makes sense. This means they weren’t designated as such but houses in the area pool their resources to hire security firms which then erect bloody annoying temporary security check points all over the place. They are temporary rather than permanent check points because of their semi-legal status. Because they are semi-legal this means that the agency running them is potentially liable to a lawsuit, if for instance, someone dies because an ambulance can’t get to someone in the neighbourhood in time because of the checkpoints.

Interestingly these arrangements are completely voluntary which means there are some ‘free riders’ who haven’t contributed but benefit nonetheless (though there are social pressures on them to chip in). I think people have gone a bit overboard with this.

The arrangements result in checkpoints being dotted all over neighbourhoods (but with their location being potentially subject to change) and some areas being closed off. This a nuisance for taxis and cars which just want to drop people off. Ironically they are
usualy manned by Indian immigrant security guards who ask for your licence no, etc everytime you drive in if they don’t recognise you.

3) A lot more Malay women are wearing headscarves nowadays. The ratio
seems to be increasing and they are now the majority in KL.

4) Perhaps related – in my day the middle class elites of all races sent their children to Catholic schools which had high academic standards and were still run by priests and nuns. These schools have now been integrated into the national system which means that most instruction in these Catholic schoolds is now in Malay rather than English (as it was in my day). Supposedly academic standards have also fallen.

Nowadays the gold standard in academic rigour which  middle class Chinese, even those who can’t speak a word of Mandarin like my people and were educated in the Catholic system send their children to are the Chinese parochial schools (where instruction is in Mandarin) . This is possibly not going to be a  good thing for the standard of English among the younger generation of Malaysians. It’s also unclear whether these Chinese schools would be as much of a melting pot for the different races as the old priest and nun run Catholic schools (because of the Mandarin instruction) though I hear that there are even Malays who are prepared to send their children to these schools because of the higher standards.

5) One of the states in Malaysia which has a Chinese majority is my place of birth, Penang. It is now governed by the opposition DAP which in the past was related to the PAP which rules Singapore. Apparently it’s been doing well under an opposition State govt. Foreign investment is booming. I wonder how it would do if it were to secede from Malaysia like another Chinese majority island called Singapore did long ago. Incidentally I’ll have more to say about Malaysian political developments in later posts. The Opposition seems to have gone from strength to strength and the unlikely alliance between the secular leftish and predominantly Chinese DAP and the Islamist PAS seems to have held with PAS even making overtures to non-Malays now by committing to abolishing race based preferences and replacing them with government help based on genuine need.

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