Archive

November 13th, 2015

Goldbugs take center stage at Republican debate

    Tuesday night's Republican debate on the Fox Business Network was the best debate of the season so far. The moderators asked good, tough questions that elicited differences on issues and weaknesses in policy positions without trying to place themselves, scoring points off the candidates, at the center of the show. It featured a substantial confrontation between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul over interventionist foreign policy, a tension within the Republican that deserves to be aired. All of the candidates were better prepared, though Ben Carson and Jeb Bush still conspicuously failed to shine.

    It also featured that eternal stalwart of the Republican fringe: carping about how the Federal Reserve is destroying the value of the dollar.

    "[A]s the Federal Reserve destroys the value of the currency," said Rand Paul, "what you're finding is that, if you're poor, if you make $20,000 a year and you have three or four kids, and you're trying to get by, as your prices rise or as the value of the dollar shrinks, these are the people that are hurt the worst"

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Future robots won't own you. You'll own the robot.

    The robots are not taking our jobs. Yet.

    There are few if any signs of this occurring. If robots were replacing us, we'd see significant increases in productivity, but productivity growth is slow everywhere in the world right now. If a mass replacement of humans by machines were happening it would probably cause a large investment boom. Instead, we're seeing an investment drought in rich countries, as companies sit on cash. In addition, there is little evidence that capital-labor substitutability -- the economics term for employers' ability to replace humans with machines -- is increasing.

    But that doesn't mean that the rise-of-the-robots scenario is unthinkable. It isn't happening today, but it's something that might take place 50, 75 or 100 years in the future. It would be an unprecedented change and maybe not all that worrisome: previous technological revolutions always ended up making the mass of humanity more valuable, not less. But technological progress often causes unprecedented things to happen. The Industrial Revolution was unlike anything that had gone before -- it broke all the so-called laws of economics. Those laws could be broken again.

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Debate shows Rubio's gift for avoiding traps

    If you want a headline for Tuesday night's Republican debate in terms of the horse race, it's this: Nothing much happened, and therefore the march of Republican party actors toward Marco Rubio most likely will continue.

    Oh, plenty happened, both in the matinee and the main event. Lots of candidates got in their prepared zingers; plenty of candidates did a good job discussing substantive policies; even more candidates sounded foolish on various subjects. But I recently noted that Rubio was moving up rapidly in endorsements from Republicans. Since then, he's added another senator and three more members of the House. It's still not certain that the party has decided for him, but it's looking better and better.

    And nothing on Tuesday night should change that. His debate skills are solid. He's especially good at knowing exactly which prepared answer to match to which question -- far better than any of his competitors, if not quite as good so far as Hillary Clinton (who, after all, has a lot more experience at this part of the game).

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College is not for coddling

    Trigger warning: I'm about to commit a micro-aggression. Maybe a macro one. Here goes: Yale students worked up over an email about Halloween costumes, grow up. Learn some manners. Develop some sense of judgment and proportion.

    The Yalies are all spun up over Halloween costumes -- specifically, an administrator's suggestion that an official email cautioning against offensive outfits was unwise and, indeed, infantilizing. The email, from Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis, was caveated and respectful.

    Still, she wondered, "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious? ... And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power?"

    Her husband Nicholas, the Silliman College master, suggested an alternate approach, Christakis wrote. "If you don't like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society."

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Carson's character is his 2016 campaign

    In the race for the Republican nomination for president, Ben Carson is running an "outsider" campaign, has no significant experience in politics or government and reveals little interest in, or understanding of, large swaths of public policy. Donald Trump is running similarly, with a nearly identical lack of experience or obvious interest in governing. Carson has said some things in books and elsewhere that appear to be misremembered, or possibly untrue. Trump has said some things in books and elsewhere that likewise appear untrue.

    In the end, Carson could lose support if his personal narrative proves untrustworthy. Trump? If he falters, it probably won't be due to re-evaluations of his character.

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Candidates tar legitimate press coverage with 'gotcha' epithet

    As the presidential campaign season intensifies, managers for the various competitors and some of the candidates themselves have angrily turned on the moderators and the television networks that host the debates.

    Predictable whining has come from the GOP front-runners, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, and others over supposedly "gotcha" questions meant to pin them down on this or that statement or contention about their records. Scrutiny of Trump's past business bankruptcies and of Carson's boasts of a combative childhood on Detroit's mean streets have been cited as unfair or irresponsible.

    Trump has largely fielded his questions as an accomplished counterpuncher accustomed to such verbal assaults and has been ready, willing and able to dish out as much or more than received, in his famously bullying style.

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Ben Carson For President? Let's Get Serious

    At the expense of spoiling all the fun, let's get real about Dr. Ben Carson's presidential campaign. Every four years, rural Iowa Republicans fall raptly in love with a Bible-brandishing savior who vows to purge the nation of sin. In 2008, it was Mike Huckabee; in 2012, Rick Santorum.

    Mr. Establishment, Mitt Romney, finished second both times.

    In the general election, Iowa voters supported President Obama.

    Soon after the New Hampshire primary, the holy candidate fades fast. Huckabee finished a weak third in New Hampshire; Santorum, fourth, with 9.5 percent of the vote. And that was basically the end of God's self-anointed candidates.

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A new monopoly game

    Like immense amoebas on the prowl, America's already huge corporations are combining like nobody's business. In recent months, Walgreens bought Rite Aid, uniting two of the nation's three largest drugstore chains; in beerland, Molson Coors is buying Miller; mega-health insurers Aetna and Anthem, respectively, bought mega-health insurers Humana and Cigna; Heinz bought Kraft, good news for those who take ketchup with their cheese; and American Airlines completed its absorption of US Airways, reducing the number of major U.S. airlines to four, which now control 70 percent of the air travel market. On Wall Street, the five biggest commercial banks hold nearly half of the nation's bank assets; in 1990, the five biggest held just 10 percent.

    Retailers that look to be rivals actually turn out to be brands of a single firm. A company called Luxottica owns LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Sunglass Hut, Sears Optical and Target Optical. Online shoppers for flights and hotels may be less than thrilled to learn that once the Expedia-Orbitz merger is completed, the combined company and Priceline will control all the online vendors. Hyatt is considering buying Starwood, itself the owner of the Sheraton, W and St. Regis brands.

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What 'hot deal' means on Singles Day in China

    China's economy is struggling, and come Wednesday the country's lonely hearts will do their best to put it back on track.

    It's Singles Day, when the country's bachelors and bachelorettes celebrate themselves with online retail therapy. Alibaba, which accounts for roughly 80 percent of all online sales in China, rung up $9.3 billion in sales on Singles Day 2014. By comparison, American retailers rang up a comparatively paltry $2 billion on Cyber Monday in 2014.

    There's a problem. A report delivered to Chinese lawmakers on Nov. 2 claims that more than 40 percent of the goods purchased online in China are counterfeit or of poor quality. Or both. Earlier government reports found similar levels of fakery in the past. Forty percent comes to $269 billion of the $672 billion in retail e-commerce sales that China, the world's biggest e-commerce marketplace, is expected to generate in 2015.

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Voters, You Can Have Everything!

    I confess, as much as I am troubled by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade tirades, I do find The Donald’s campaign strategy truly interesting. He’s not, as people say, an “anti-politician.” He’s actually caricaturing politicians. And like any great caricaturist, Trump identifies his subject’s most salient features and then exaggerates them. 

    In Trump’s case, the feature he’s identifying is the ease with which career politicians look right into a camera and lie or embellish. Since so many politicians had come to Trump’s office seeking his money or endorsement when he was just a businessman, and told him whatever they thought he wanted to hear, he’s obviously an expert in their shtick. And so Trump has just taken the joke to the next level. 

    Indeed, if I were writing a book about this campaign, it would open with Trump’s Sept. 27 CBS “60 Minutes” interview. Trump touts his plan for universal health care, telling Scott Pelley, “I am going to take care of everybody.” And when Pelley asks how, Trump gives the greatest quote so far of the 2015 campaign:

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