The Great Successor: Inside North Korea

I highly recommend Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor.  It’s full of information about not only the life of Kim Jong Un, but what’s happened inside North Korea since his ascent to the Red Throne.  Most readers will be shocked by her description of the North Korean hell-state, but that’s all old hat to me.  Here’s what surprised me in Fifield’s book:

1. Kim Jong Un didn’t just attend a fancy English-language school in Switzerland.  After his expat guardians – his maternal aunt and her husband – defected, Kim was actually switched over to a German-language Swiss public school.  Weird.

2. Kim’s top interest as a boy was basketball.  His eagerness to befriend American basketball stars really is the fulfillment of a childish dream.

3. “Kim Jong Il spoke in public only once, and then only a single phrase, during his entire seventeen years in power.  ‘Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!’ he said during a military parade in 1992.”  Kim Jong Un started giving lengthy public speeches almost immediately.

4. Kim Jong Un has deliberately fostered a revolution of rising expectations:

North Koreans “will never have to tighten their belts again,” the Great Successor declared when he delivered his first public speech, marking the occasion of his grandfather’s one hundredth birthday.  Kim Jong Un told the bedraggled populace that they would be able to “enjoy the wealth and prosperity of socialism as much as they like.”

5. Kim’s execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek was part of a much larger purge.  “Dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of Jang’s associates disappeared around the same time.  Some of them were not just purged from the system but more likely executed.  Those outside North Korea at the time fled.”  Note: This probably means that the runners’ families were sent to slave labor camps or executed.

6. Just as Stalin stole Trotsky’s economic plan after purging him, Kim went on to implement Jang’s vision of watered-down Deng-style economic reforms.  The Communist elite now openly enjoys a much higher standard of living.  Some of this gain is trickling down to the commoners.

7. Kim Jong Un is eager to win over the millennial elite with capitalist luxuries and entertainment.  “It was fun to be a rich kid in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.  The richest kid of all was making sure of it.”

8. Kim rushed to get a credible nuclear deterrent, then declared himself satisfied.  And his behavior seems consistent with his intentions.

Just a week before his summit meeting with South Korea’s President Moon, Kim Jong Un delivered a speech to a Workers’ Party meeting in Pyongyang in which he declared the “byungjin” or “simultaneous advance” policy to be over.  He no longer needed to pursue nuclear weapons – he had achieved them.  He declared an immediate end to nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missiles launches…

From now on, Kim Jong Un said, he would be focusing on a “new strategic line.”  He would be concentrating on the economy.  And for that, he would need an “international environment favorable for the socialist economic construction…

In 2013, he had boldly elevated the economy to level pegging with the nuclear program after decades of “military first” policy.  Five years later, almost to the day, he was unequivocally making economic development his top priority.

Before reading this book, I was already 85% confident that Kim Jong Un would rule North Korea for life.  Now I’d go up to 90%.  Despite his youth, he’s a skilled tyrant.  However, I’m not quite as pessimistic about the fate of the North Korean people.  Kim has dramatically relaxed the regime’s war on consumerism, and it is very hard to confine this rising abundance to the inner circle.  People who think Kim will give up his nuclear arsenal are dreaming (or lying); while he lives, the best nuclear outcome we can hope for is “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”  Kim may die young due to poor health; he might even be assassinated, though I doubt it.  When he dies, North Korea – and the world – will get to throw the dice one more time.  Until his death, however, Kim will stay the course.

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Malevolence and Misunderstanding

Lancelot:  Your rage has unbalanced you. You, sir, would fight to the death, against a knight who is not your enemy. Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around.

Arthur:   So be it. To the death!

               —Excalibur

Question #1: How many times in your life have you lost a friend because one of you malevolently decided to hurt the other?

Question #2: How many times in your life have you lost a friend over a misunderstanding?

I am glad to report that I have lost few friends in my life.  But as far as I can tell, all of the rare exceptions were driven by misunderstandings.  Someone spoke rashly, which hurt someone’s feelings, which led to retaliation, which led to more hurt feelings, and so on.  Or, someone acted as they thought proper, but someone else perceived otherwise, which led to offense, which led to counter-offense.  The same goes for all the people I know well.  They’ve lost many friends, but years later they flounder to explain the casus belli.

Is my corner of the world unusually free of sheer evil?  Probably.  Still, I doubt my experience is unusual.  I bet that most readers have lost at least five times as many friends to misunderstandings as they have to malevolence.

How can you tell the difference between malevolence and misunderstanding?  Try this a helpful thought experiment.  Imagine both sides calmly describe what they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears to a neutral outsider.  If the outsider would tell both sides to forget the dispute and stay friends, you had a misunderstanding.  If the outsider would say, “This is a bad match,” you still had a misunderstanding; just one that’s likely to recur.  But if the outsider would tell one of you, “Get away from this toxic person,” you saw – or were – malevolence.*

Why appeal to “neutral outsiders”?  Well, the main reason misunderstandings arise is because most human beings rush to assume malevolence.  Indeed, this is built into the very concept of the “misunderstanding”!  Sure, I sometimes speak rashly.  Sure, I’m no mind reader.  When my friends speak rashly to me, or fail to understand my feelings, however, the default explanation is not that they spoke hastily or failed to see the world from my perspective.  The default explanation is that they consciously decided to make me suffer.

Yes, it’s childish to think this way.  But what can I say?  People are childish.

Small example: Friday I was shopping with my sons.  My back was hurting, so they were pushing the cart.  When I got in line, a women immediately pulled up her cart behind me.  By this point, my sons were ten feet away.  When I asked her to make room for our cart, she grew angry: “Well that’s strange!”  Even my highly visible back brace was not enough to make her wonder about my situation.  When I meekly got out of the way and offered to let her go ahead of me, she huffed and moved to the next lane.  To me, this was a textbook example of a misunderstanding.  Still, I suspect she went home and told her family about how awful I was.  I made the effort to understand where she was coming from, but somehow she gazed into the heart of a total stranger and saw malevolence.

You could object, “Yours is hardly an original point.  Parents and teachers routinely alert children to the risk of misunderstandings.”  Fair enough.  My claim, however, is that this lesson rarely sinks in.  Adults remain prone to misinterpret mere misunderstandings as malevolence.  Indeed, there are mighty social and political movements that angrily strive to amplify this error – to ascribe malevolence recklessly, and demean those to ask us to mimic the perspective of a neutral outsider when conflict arises.

These days, the Me Too movement is the highest-profile example.  When you carefully listen to the public accusations, their severity varies tremendously.  The case of Bill Cosby is light-years from the cases of Louie C.K. or Aziz Ansari.  Is it possible that the latter two celebrities were involved in misunderstandings that bizarrely became national crises?  Entirely possible.  But most Me Too activists don’t just gloss over this possibility; they view those who muse, “Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding” with hostility.  At risk of creating a new misunderstanding, my reaction to most Me Too scandals is precisely, “Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding.”  Indeed, I maintain that we should presume that conflicts are misunderstandings in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary.

How far should we apply this insight?  Far indeed.  Even tiny slights, uncharitably interpreted, often spiral out of control.  So let us assess behavior with perspective and charity.  Much conflict between Democrats and Republicans rests on misunderstandings.  Much of the conflict between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter conflict rests on misunderstandings.  So does much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, part of the reason why I’m a pacifist that so many international conflicts are plainly rooted in misunderstandings.  (If you can’t wait to scoff, “So the Nazis just had a big misunderstanding with the rest of Europe?,” you are fostering a misunderstanding between us.  Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around).

If we fully accepted the prevalence of misunderstandings, couldn’t a malevolent person take advantage of us?  I’m afraid so.  Fortunately, that’s a minor danger compared to the opposite mistake.  Remember: When you lose a friend over a misunderstanding, you don’t merely mistreat a friend.  You deprive yourself of friendship in a lonely world.

* A worse, but still tolerably good rule of thumb: If your own complaints against your former friend seem less compelling to you years later, you probably had a misunderstanding.  If your complaints actually seem more compelling years later, malevolence is more plausible.

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CPI Bias and Happiness

Our nominal income rises every year.  But what about our real income – our “standard of living”?  In order to answer that question, we have to accurately measure inflation.  If we understate inflation, we’re getting richer at a slower pace than we think.  If we overstate inflation, we’re getting richer at a faster pace than we think.

Most economists, sadly, just forget about the issue and pretend that standard measures of inflation are solid.  Most specialists, however, have long believed that the standard CPI does indeed overstate inflation- and this consensus keeps getting stronger.  CPI Bias is alive and well, so we’re materially much better off than we think.  “There is no Great Stagnation” – say it non-ironically, as you should.

On reflection, however, there is a shocking implication.  Happiness researchers – yes, even Justin Wolfers! – have almost uniformly found little effect of income on happiness.  If official statistics understate real income growth, what should we conclude?

Simple: Income’s effect on happiness is even smaller than it looks! According to Winship, for example, U.S. real income from 1969-2012 plausibly rose not by 16% (the standard estimate) but 45%.  Yet our happiness still barely budged.

How is this possible?  The leading possibilities:

1. Hedonic adaptation.  As Epicurus would predict, human beings quickly psychologically adapt to greater riches.  The more you have, the more you take for granted.

2. Relative income.  Another possibility is that human beings mostly care about how much they have compared to others.  So it doesn’t really matter if the price index says we’re 45% richer or 16% richer; either way, what we really want is to be in the top 1%.

3. False consciousness.  If you keep falsely telling people their income is stagnant, they’ll believe you and feel disappointed.

Where, though, does the truth lie?

The overwhelming factor, in my view, is hedonic adaptation.  Materially, Americans are far better off than they were during my childhood in the 1980s.  Yet hardly anyone appreciates the wonderful new and improved products they’ve received.*

The relative income story, in contrast, is frail indeed.  Why?  Because income has little effect on happiness even at a single point in time.  As I explained in my discussion with Wolfers, his results imply that raising happiness by one standard deviation requires an increase in annual income of over $800,000.  So stop conflating indifference with envy.

What about false consciousness?  I doubt it’s a huge factor, because most of us lack the patience to heed so-called “opinion-makers.”  The people too pragmatic, and the pundits are too boring.  Still, I can easily believe that doomsayers make us feel 10% poorer than we really are.  And in a well-functioning culture, I can easily believe that honest recognition of our good fortune could multiply this effect by negative one.  In other words, a shift from our pessimistic narrative to an optimistic one would make us feel about 20% richer than we currently do.  (Remember, though, how small a change in happiness that implies!)

At this point, I can picture Tyler Cowen remarking, “You’re a bigger pessimist than I am.  According to you, we’re richer than we think, but riches don’t matter much for happiness, so who cares?”  The whole point of optimism, though, is to say, “You may not be happy, but you should be.”  If you want to meme that as, “Optimism is pessimism about the dangers of pessimism,” so be it.

* Aside: Thank you, oh great producers, for the wonderful new and improved products I have received at your hands.  For verily you have redeemed my adulthood from the gray bleakness of my youth, and blessed me with vibrant abundance.

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You’re All A Bunch of Socialists

A fun figure from Tetlock et al.’s “The Psychology of the Thinkable”.

 

Background:

Participants were told that the goal of the study was to explore the attitudes that Americans have about what people should be allowed to buy and sell in competitive market transactions:

Imagine that you had the power to judge the permissibility and morality of each transaction listed below. Would you allow people to enter into certain types of deals? Do you morally approve or disapprove of those deals? And what emotional reactions, if any, do these proposals trigger in you?

Respondents then judged two types of trade-offs: routine (secular-secular) and taboo (secular-sacred). The five secular-secular trade-offs included “paying someone to clean my house,” “buying a house,” “buying food,” “paying a doctor to provide medical care to me or my family,” and “paying a lawyer to defend me against criminal charges in court.” The nine secular-sacred trade-offs included buying and selling of human body parts for medical transplant operations, surrogate motherhood contracts (paying someone to have a baby whom the buyer subsequently raises), adoption rights for orphans, votes in elections for political offices, the right to become a U.S. citizen, the right to a jury trial, sexual favors (prostitution), someone else to serve jail time to which the buyer had been sentenced by a court of law, and paying someone to perform military service that the buyer had a draft obligation to perform.

Libertarians are notorious for gratuitously alienating everyone who doesn’t agree with them.  Looking at diverse critics and sneering, “You’re all a bunch of socialists” is a classic example.  Figure 1 shows, however, that there is a more than a kernel of truth in this unfriendly observation.  Conservatives, liberals, and socialists are all highly and almost equally hostile to creative expansions of the domain of the free market.  Is this because the “unthinkable” proposals are too radical to appeal to anyone who isn’t a libertarian?  Not really; many economists with zero libertarian sympathies would be on the same page.

Could the socialists analogously gripe, “You’re all a bunch of capitalists”?  Not easily.  Even self-conscious socialists are only moderately outraged by routine trade-offs – and this outrage tapers off almost linearly as we move from liberals to conservatives to libertarians.  At least in this data set, libertarians are clear outliers – and the disagreements between conservatives, liberals, and socialists are marginal.  I wish it were otherwise, but it rings true.

Last point: Tetlock et al.’s data helps explain why so many people falsely imagine that most economists are libertarians.  How so?  Because they are the only two groups that routinely transgress anti-market taboos.  Even left-wing economists, for example, have been known to endorse a market in human kidneys.  Even if they disagree, most will politely discuss an issue that almost everyone else considers beyond the pale.  Upshot: When libertarians tell mainstream economists, “You’re all a bunch of socialists” they’re not merely being undiplomatic.  They’re being wrong.

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Monopolize the Pretty Lies

Why do dictators deny people the right to speak freely?  The obvious response is, “The truth hurts.”  Dictators are bad, so if people can freely speak the truth, they will say bad things about the dictator.  This simultaneously wounds dictators’ pride and threatens their power, so dictators declare war on the truth.

But is this story right?  Consider: If you want to bring an incumbent dictator down, do you really want to be hamstrung by the truth?  It’s far easier – and more crowd-pleasing – to respond to a pack of official lies with your own pack of lies.  When the dictator claims, “I’ve made this the greatest country on earth,” you could modestly respond, “Face facts: we’re only 87th.”  Yet if it’s power you seek, you might as well lie back, “The dictator has destroyed our country – but this will be the greatest country on earth if we gain power.” Even more obviously, if the current dictator claims the sanction of God, the opposition doesn’t want to shrug, “Highly improbable.  How do you even know God exists?”  Instead, the opposition wants to roar, “No, God is on our side.  Our side!”

What then is the primary purpose of censorship?  It’s not to suppress the truth – which has little mass appeal anyway.  The primary purpose of censorship is to monopolize the pretty lies.  Only the powers-that-be can freely make absurdly self-aggrandizing claims.  Depending on the severity of the despotism, you may not have to echo the official lies.  But if you publicly defend alternative absurdly self-aggrandizing claims, the powers-that-be will crush you.

Why, though, do dictators so eagerly seek to monopolize the pretty lies?  In order to take full advantage of their subjects’ Social Desirability Bias.  Human beings like to say – and think – whatever superficially sounds good.  Strict censorship allows rulers to exploit this deep mental flaw.  If no one else can make absurd lies, a trite slogan like, “Let’s unite to fight for a fantastic future!” carries great force.  Truthful critics would have to make crowd-displeasing objections like, “Maybe competition will bring us a brighter future than unity,” “Who exactly are we fighting?,” or “Precisely how fantastic of a future are we talking about?”  A rather flaccid bid for power!  Existing rulers tremble far more when rebels bellow, “Join us to fight for a fantastic future!”

George Orwell has been a huge influence on me.  When you read his political novels, you often get the feeling that dictators fear the truth above all.  If only Winston Smith could take over the Ministry of Truth and tell all Oceania that it needlessly lives in poverty and fear.  In the broad scheme of things, however, unvarnished truth is only a minor threat to tyranny.  After all, rulers could respond to ironclad fact with a pile of demagoguery: “Smith is slandering our great country!”  “He’s a willing tool of Eurasia!”  Or even, “We’re not rich because the greatest country in the world is too proud to sell itself.”  The real threat to the regime would be a rival set of demagogues offering Utopia after a brief bloodbath sends a few wicked, treasonous leaders straight to the hell that they so richly deserve.

Doesn’t this imply that free speech is overrated?  Yes; I’ve said so before.  While I’d like to believe that free speech leads naturally to the triumph of truth, I see little sign of this.  Instead, politics looks to me like a Great Liars’ War.  Viable politicians defy literal truth in virtually every sentence.  They defy it with hyperbole.  They defy it with overconfidence.  They defy it with wishful thinking.  Dictators try to make One Big Political Lie mandatory.  Free speech lets a Thousand Political Lies Bloom.

Yes, freedom of speech lets me make these dour observations without fear.  I’m grateful for that.  Yet outside my Bubble, dour observations fall on deaf ears.  Psychologically normal humans crave pretty lies, so the Great Liars’ War never ends.

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UBI: Some Early Experiments

The Universal Basic Income is only a tangential interest of mine.  Yet when I’ve debated it, I’ve been consistently impressed by how little the eager advocates try to teach me.*  Case in point: I learned more from reading three paragraphs in Kevin Lang’s Poverty and Discrimination than in my typical conversation with a UBI enthusiast:

Because the stakes involved in instituting a negative income tax were so high, policy analysts convinced the federal government to conduct experiments in which some people were randomly assigned to be eligible for the negative income tax while others were randomly assigned to remain subject to traditional welfare. In the experimental group, there was also variation in the generosity of the program. Four experiments were conducted in the United States and a fifth in Canada. The largest of these is known as SIME/DIME (the Seattle Income Maintenance Experiment / Denver Income Maintenance Experiment).

Many policy analysts found the results of the experiments disappointing. Although the labor supply response was modest, it added substantially to the cost of the program. Depending on the generosity of the program evaluated in SIME/DIME, the labor supply response could account for over half of the costs. The least generous program would save $4 billion but would make 95 percent of recipients worse off. A program that would guarantee support at the poverty level and tax-back benefits at a rate of only 50 percent would still make one-fourth of recipients worse off and would exceed the cost of the welfare program then current by $30 billion, an enormous increase.

There were also some “unintended consequences,” the social science equivalent of medical side effects. In particular, the divorce rate rose among recipients randomly assigned to the negative income tax. The combination of the costs of the labor supply effects and the effect on marriage led Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an early supporter of the negative income tax, to withdraw his support.

If I were an enthusiastic UBI advocate, I would know this experimental evidence forwards and backwards.  Almost all of the advocates I’ve encountered, in contrast, have little interest in numbers or past experience.  What excites them is the “One Ring to Rule Them All” logic of the idea: “We get rid of everything else, and replace it with an elegant, gift-wrapped UBI.”  For a policy salesman, this evasive approach makes sense: Slogans sell; numbers and history don’t.  For a policy analyst, however, this evasive approach is negligence itself.  If you scrutinize your policy ideas less cautiously than you read Amazon reviews for your next television, something is very wrong.

*Exception: Ed Dolan

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