Saturday, July 30, 2016

Why America Should Become Great Again

SOMETIMES SMALL stories capture large truths. So it is with the fiasco that is the repair of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square. Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million; four years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.

The Anderson Bridge is approximately one-sixth the length of the bridge Julius Caesar’s men built across the Rhine in 10 days in 55 BC. Caesar’s feat is admired not just for its technical mastery but also for its boldness. An allied tribe had offered boats to carry Caesar’s troops across the river, to avoid the difficult task of bridge-building. Yet Caesar rejected this offer, on the grounds that it would not be “fitting for the prestige of Rome.”
"A lesson on infrastructure from the Anderson Bridge fiasco" by Larry Summers
Peter Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and held it up. “I don’t consider this to be a technological breakthrough,” he said. “Compare this with the Apollo space program.”
No Death, No Taxes: The libertarian futurism of a Silicon Valley billionaire.
There are ways that the government is working far less well than it used to. Just outside my office is the Golden Gate Bridge. It was built under FDR’s Administration in the 1930s in about three and a half years. They’re currently building an access highway on one of the tunnels that feeds into the bridge, and it will take at least six years to complete.
"A Conversation with Peter Thiel" by Francis Fukuyama
It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon–and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio. The future felt limitless.

But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all. That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.

[...] When Donald Trump asks us to Make America Great Again, he’s not suggesting a return to the past. He’s running to lead us back to that bright future.
Peter Thiel’s Speech at the Republican National Convention
You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket.
Frank Sobotka from the Wire
In the United States, Federal Net Infrastructure investment last year, was zero. That was the lowest level since 1947 and it was zero. That cannot possibly be rational at a time of epically low interest rates.
"Reflections on the Productivity Slowdown" by Larry Summers
It's no secret that the MTA has been having some difficulty maintaining its century-old infrastructure—track fires, signal problems, and all-around calamity plague morning, evening, and off-hour commutes on a regular basis. And in a video released this week, the agency shows off just how horrifically ancient the machinery that runs one of the world's largest subway systems—most of the machines date back to the 1930s or before, and upgrades have been few and far between.
The NYC Subway System Is Controlled By These Vintage Steampunk "Interlocking" Machines
The MTA has a thankless and extremely difficult job: They have to keep the trains running. They have to do it with equipment from the 1930s, in a hostile funding environment, as administrations come and go, as public interest comes and goes, in the face of storms and accidents and pieces of aluminum foil. This they manage to do. 1.6 billion people every year take the New York subway.
Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks

The Straussian interpretation of the Republican Convention is the correct one, which is perhaps one reason why Peter Thiel will be speaking there. They are not saying what they are saying, in fact they are saying “the world is going to hell, and many of those amongst us have been traitorously disloyal. That is why we scream out stupidities, debase ourselves, and court attention by waving our arms in ridiculous ways. We are a small church seeking to become larger.” Is that not how many smaller churches behave? Is that not how some of the early branches of the Christian church behaved? Did they have any influence? See also the remarks of Cass Sunstein.
"Does Lucifer in fact inhabit the corpus of Hillary Clinton?" by Tyler Cowen

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Contrasting Argument

In the UK, and other common law jurisdictions, the executive and legislature are closely entwined. The Prime Minister and a majority of his or her ministers are Members of Parliament and sit in the House of Commons. The executive is therefore present at the heart of Parliament.

By contrast, in the USA, the President may not be a member of the legislature (Congress), and is elected separately from congressional elections. This may result in the President being a member of a different political party from the majority of members of Congress.

The UK’s integration of executive and legislature is said to provide stability and efficiency in the operation of government. It has been described as “a system that intentionally promotes efficiency over abstract concerns about tyranny”. For example, the Prime Minister is usually both head of the executive branch and leader of the majority party in the legislature, which gives the executive branch much more freedom of action than a president usually enjoys in a presidential system of government.
Briefing on the separation of powers from the Parliament of the UK

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Wisdom of Larry Summers

Lessons from Government Service 

KRISTOL: Any special tips you would have for people? I was at a much lower level position of having been a professor and suddenly being in government and having to do things and take responsibility for things. Any advice anyone gave you that was particularly useful? Any book you read that you would tell some 35-year-old Harvard or anywhere else professor who’s now going into the next administration to think about? Or just your own advice?

SUMMERS: I’d say some lessons I learned, Bill, are people – you should maintain a very strong presumption that people are acting reasonably by their lights. And that if it seems to you that somebody’s taking a position that’s completely stupid or unreasonably, it’s probably not because you’re smart and they’re stupid and you should just explain it to them.

It’s probably because given where they sit, given where they sit as part of the government of Japan or given where they sit as part of the Department of Commerce, or given as where they sit as part of General Electric, or given where they sit as a person with responsibility for getting reelected in six months, and that you will achieve your objectives much more effectively if you try to understand why other people are taking a position different than yours. Rather than just simply tell then they should take your position and take more arguments.

That was probably the most important lesson that was uncongenial to me. That in academics what you do is your persuade people with intellectual argument, and what I realized was people probably were taking positions that corresponded to their interest and you had to figure out how to make it work given their interest. That was probably the most important initial lesson learned.

Getting Stuff Done

Graduate school has provided you world-class training in quantitative skills. You are well versed in data analysis, game theory, decision matrices, and linear regression models.

This training offers an excellent foundation.

But what is really exciting about making public policy isn’t evaluating and analyzing and predicting.

It’s getting stuff done.

And if you really want to get stuff done outside the classroom, quantitative analysis needs to be to be complemented by qualitative analysis – the political, bureaucratic, behavioral, social, cultural, and ethical skills.
from “Getting Stuff Done” by Robert B. Zoellick

Addendum: An Insider’s Advice for Obama’s New Team

À une heure du matin

At last! I am alone! Nothing can be heard but the rumbling of a few belated and weary cabs. For a few hours at least silence will be ours, if not sleep. At last! The tyranny of the human face has disappeared, and now there will be no one but myself to make me suffer.

At last! I am allowed to relax in a bath of darkness! First a double turn of the key in the lock. This turn of the key will, it seems to me, increase my solitude and strengthen the barricades that, for the moment, separate me from the world. [...]

Dissatisfied with everything, dissatisfied with myself, I long to redeem myself and to restore my pride in the silence and solitude of the night. Souls of those whom I have loved, souls of those whom I have sung, strengthen me, sustain me, keep me from the vanities of the world and its contaminating fumes; and You, dear God! grant me grace to produce a few beautiful verses to prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.
from Baudelaire's Paris Spleen (Louise Varèse's translation)