genocide in California?

May 29th, 2016

University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor reminds us of the cruelty and suffering native peoples endured at the hands of European ‘immigrants’. The Spanish were famously cruel, but California natives suffered even more after 1846, when the United States annexed vast tracts of Mexican land, justified by the doctrine of ‘Manifest Destiny’. Read the rest of this entry »

Mennonites and Nazis

May 28th, 2016

I am continuing to read Quakers and Nazis. It is a well-researched, fascinating history, but difficult to read. One reason the reading is difficult is that its author tends to wander away from his main subject (the Quakers in Nazi Germany). One example is his brief mention of strong Mennonite support for the Nazis. This surprised me. I found this difficult to believe, since Mennonites are pacifists, and often collaborate with Quakers in projects to promote peace. Here is the passage that disturbed me: Read the rest of this entry »

universal basic income

May 27th, 2016

Regular readers of TdJ will know that I support universal pensions. These amount to nothing less than provision of a universal basic income for older people. Provision of a universal basic income (UBI) to all adults, possibly with smaller sums for each child, is an even older idea. It could mean the end of ‘welfare’ as we know it, i.e. the end of means-tested benefits. Everyone, regardless of employment or wealth, would be entitled to a basic income, subject to payment of tax on earned income. The tax on earned income could be levied at a flat rate, since the existence of UBI makes the system progressive. Net taxes (UBI less tax on earned income) are negative for those who are unemployed or have low incomes.

Although the idea of UBI has a long history, no country has yet implemented it, except in the form of a universal pension (UBI for older people, who are not expected to work). Swiss citizens will soon vote on introduction of a UBI of SFr30,000 ($30,275) a year, but opinion polls suggest the June 5th referendum will be defeated. Read the rest of this entry »

universal pensions and Hong Kong values

May 25th, 2016

Some Hong Kong businessmen are very mean-spirited. Moreover, they fail to understand that means-tested benefits are ‘welfare’, whereas universal benefits are not. Examples of universal benefits in Hong Kong are basic schooling and health care. Both are provided freely to all legal residents regardless of income or wealth.

Prominent members of the Hong Kong business sector have decried universal welfare as going against Hong Kong values during a forum on retirement protection held by the Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

Addressing fellow attendees, including Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, chairman of the Chamber Stephen Ng said, “Welfare which everyone can get is not the Hong Kong spirit.”

SCMP [South China Morning Post] reports that many present at the forum “lamented” that government policies (like minimum wage) had “created hardship” f

overpriced hedge funds

May 25th, 2016

It was the shot heard around the hedge fund world. After the New York City Employees’ Retirement System decided to cash all its investments in hedge funds, Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, delivered a message to the industry straight out of Occupy Wall Street: “Let them sell their summer homes and jets and return those fees to their investors.”

Hedge funds, she said last month, “believe they can do no wrong, even as they are losing money”. If they truly cared about New York’s pensioners, “they would never charge large fees for failing to deliver on their promises”. ….

Flows of money from big institutions have transformed hedge funds, which were once primarily a vehicle for rich families. Today, large pension funds account for about a quarter of the money managed by hedge funds. Since the market hit its post-crisis bottom in March 2009, passive, low-cost equity fund investors have thrived while hedge fund returns have underperformed the S&P 500 by 51 percentage points.

John Authers and Mary Childs, “Hedge funds: Overpriced, underperforming“, Financial Times, 25 May 2016 (metered paywall).

This is an update on the high cost -with no visible benefit- of actively managed funds (also known as ‘hedge funds’). TdJ has covered the topic numerous times in the past, for example here, here and here.

hedge funds

pensions are really, really simple

May 25th, 2016

FT columnist Merryn Somerset Webb, tongue-in-cheek, explains that retirement pensions are easy to understand. Read the rest of this entry »

who is Donald Trump?

May 24th, 2016

Martin Wolf has the most concise description of Trump that I have seen. Also, it is very accurate (in my opinion).

Mr Trump is a rightwing populist. Populists despise institutions and reject expertise. They offer, instead, charisma and ignorance. Rightwing populists also blame foreigners. Mr Trump adds to all this a zero-sum view of “the deal”.

Martin Wolf, “How to defeat rightwing populism“, Financial Times, 25 May 2016 (metered paywall).

The remainder of Martin’s column consists of suggestions on how to defeat Mr Trump. It is worth reading, though difficult to summarize. Martin is relatively optimistic. One suggestion in particular caught my attention: “If rightwing populism is to be defeated, one must offer alternatives.” Indeed. But the alternatives must be attractive.

On this same subject (Donald Trump), Gideon Rachman has an FT column that is less optimistic, and less original, but well-written and worth reading:

Traditionally, American leaders have made a fetish of US “credibility” in international affairs. ….

Mr Trump, however, has made it clear that he wants America to become more unpredictable. In his writings on business, he has extolled the virtues of making extravagant demands or promises as an opening bid, before eventually finding a compromise. This approach might work well in real estate. But it is potentially a formula for disaster in international politics, where America’s friends and foes should believe that the US says what it means, and means what it says. Anything else could prompt dangerous miscalculations by US rivals, leading to uncertainty, instability — and, ultimately, war.

Gideon Rachman, “Donald Trump’s retreat from American greatness“. Financial Times, 24 May 2016 (metered paywall).

the need for language skills

May 19th, 2016

English is so widely spoken that anglophones often believe there is no point in them learning a foreign language. FT columnist Michael Skapinker disagrees. So do I.

You can get away with speaking English if you make occasional visits to a country or if you meet people at international conferences.

But if you live in a place, as a diplomat or business person [and, I would add, teacher, researcher], you need to speak the language. You cannot understand the country and its people if you don’t. You may think you can, speaking to locals in English, but when you have learnt enough to talk to them in their own language you realise that they are deeper, funnier and more rounded.

Michael Skapinker, “How to achieve language skills for a local television grilling“, Financial Times, 19 May 2016 (metered paywall).

Mr Skapinker provides readers with five learning tips, in addition to formal lessons. Here is the first:

Immerse yourself in local media. It used to be easy to avoid English language news. When I spent a month in deepest Provence in the early 1990s, there was, apart from the BBC World Service, no alternative to buying French newspapers and watching and listening to local television and radio. ….

Today, English is everywhere, from your television screen to your phone. So you have to make an effort. Watch or listen to a local news bulletin at least once a day. Read at least one full news article a day in the language of the country.

Years ago, I was able to attain fluency first in Spanish (living in Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico), then in Portuguese (living in Brazil), with almost no access to English language newspapers, radio or TV. The communications revolution has changed that. I used to blame old age and an English-speaking work environment for my slow progress many years later in learning German. I now believe that access to English programmes on cable TV and English language newspapers on the internet was a more important obstacle – or at least a contributing factor. What is that old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention”? So true, in so many ways.

unleashing Donald Trump

May 18th, 2016

When a calm, reasonable man like Martin Wolf dreads the thought of Donald Trump in the White House, it is time for all of us to worry. It is sad and frightening to see democratic governance fail in a powerful country. Martin blames not Trump, but “elites on both sides [who] promoted economic changes that ended up destroying trust in their competence and probity”.

Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president. He might even become president of the US. It is hard to exaggerate the significance and danger of this development. The US was the bastion of democracy and freedom in the 20th century. If it elected Mr Trump, a man with fascistic attitudes to people and power, the world would be transformed.

Mr Trump is a misogynist, a racist and a xenophobe. He glories in his own ignorance and inconsistency. Truth is whatever he finds convenient. His policy ideas are ludicrous, where they are not horrifying. Yet his attitudes and ideas are less disturbing than his character: he is a narcissist, bully and spreader of conspiracy theories. It is frightening to consider how such a man would use the powers at the disposal of the president.

[…]`

Economic, social and political changes have brought the US to the point at which a significant part of the population seeks a strongman. ….

Mr Trump realises that his supporters have no interest in the limited state beloved of conservatives. Their desire is rather the restoration of lost economic, racial and sexual status. His response is to promise massive tax cuts, sustained spending and reduced debt. But he does not need logical consistency. That is for the despised “lamestream media”.

Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate, tainted by her husband’s failings and her position in the establishment, and short on political talent. She ought to win but might not.

Martin Wolf, “Failing elites are to blame for unleashing Donald Trump“, Financial Times, 18 May 2016 (metered paywall).

US vs UK healthcare

May 17th, 2016

FT journalists Aimee Keane in New York and Hannah Murphy in London compare healthcare systems in the two cities. Their article compares the experiences of one man in each city, aged 28 and 27 respectively, who fall ill and are diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Each system has flaws. An important distinction is costs – and who bears them. The New York patient was fortunate to have private insurance through his employer. His diagnosis was speedy (one day), but he had to pay the first $2,000 of the $14,367 bill for a single day of care. The British patient, with access to universal healthcare (NHS), had to wait two months for a diagnosis, but paid nothing out-of-pocket.

In the US, access to affordable medical care is a critical factor. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the US, 70 per cent of MS patients report “some difficulty” paying for healthcare and 16.4 per cent report “a lot of difficulty”.

The US healthcare system is run largely by the private sector. For those who do not qualify for the government assistance programs designed to help low-income families and the retired, access depends on insurance plans offered by an employer or on Healthcare.gov, the online insurance marketplace created through the Affordable Care Act of 2010, otherwise known as “Obamacare”.

The Milliman Medical Index, which measures the out-of-pocket cost of healthcare for a typical American family of four, on an average employer-sponsored plan, came up with a figure of $24,671 for 2015. According to Milliman, the actuary that publishes the index, this number has almost tripled since it began tracking these costs in 2001, an increase attributed in part to a spike in prescription drug costs in the US over the past few years.

Aimee Keane and Hannah Murphy, “Managing multiple sclerosis: a transatlantic tale of healthcare in US v UK“, Financial Times, 16 May 2016 (metered paywall).

Keane and Murphy fail to mention that UK residents can use private hospital and clinics, and purchase private insurance, if they desire. Speedy attention is available in the UK – at a price. The UK healthcare system is analogous to the two-tier system in effect almost everywhere for primary and secondary education: ‘free’ government schools operating as an alternative to private schools that charge tuition.