Twofish's Blog

August 28, 2009

Getting news wholesale – Notes on the New York Times article

Filed under: china — Tags: — twofish @ 2:07 am

The blog post that I did a few days ago on the Sanlu trial got me into an interesting argument over Chinalaw, but while I was researching this, I found some interesting coincidences between a NYT article and a SSRN article on punitive damages,

Looking at the NYT article and the SSRN paper, it seems obvious what the NYT reporter did. You can do a fact by fact comparison, and every fact and point in the NYT article seems to have originated in the journal article that was the basis for SSRN paper.  The NYT reporter does cite and credit the paper and its author John Y. Gotanda for one quote, but he doesn’t mention that basically all of the facts in the article come from that one paper.

They started with the SSRN paper, and then used this to as a template in which they tracked down some of the people mentioned in the SSRN article and then interviewed them.  This isn’t a bad way of writing a news article, and the NY Times article does have some “value added” in that they went through and interviewed the people involved in some of the cases.

But I do wonder if this is a particularly got way of doing journalism.  The thing that sort of annoyed me was that they didn’t hyperlink the NYT article to the paper, which would have saved me a lot of time.  One problem with hyperlinking the article is that at that point it would have been obvious how much of the article was actually written and researched by the law professor rather than the reporter.

This gets at the problem about why newspapers are failing.  The problem is that newspapers still think of themselves as a monopoly on information.  I read the article on punitive damage awards and think to myself.  Gee, I want to know more about punitive damages awards, where can I find it?  At that point the news monopoly just says “sorry, you just get your news from us.”


August 26, 2009

After the revolution – Notes to Brad Delong

Filed under: politics — twofish @ 4:27 pm

One problem that revolutionaries have is that they often are the last to be able to adapt when the revolution happens.  I’ve been reading Brad Delong’s blog, and it’s gotten less interesting since he is still bashing Republicans when they really don’t matter much to the health care debate.  The big battles are between “Business Democrats” and “Progressive Democrats” with Obama being a “Business Democrat” and the “Progressive Democrats” being the opposition party.

What basically happened in the 1980’s until 2008 is that Reagan put together a coalition of big business, religious conservatives, and Cold War hawks, and that coalition lasted until 2008 when it totally broke apart.  After the Cold War, the hawks became neo-conservatives, and the Iraq war destroyed them.  The other big realignment is more interesting.  After the crash of 2008, there was a huge shift in the interests from big business from the Republicans to the Democrats.  If you want to understand the current debates, follow the money…..

Look at who the insurance companies, big pharma, and banks have given money to.  It’s not the Republicans, and so the current health care debate is basically an argument within the Democratic Party.  It’s even more striking if you look at the trend numbers.  Through out the 1990’s and up until the last election, business interests were overwhelming Republican.  Now the split is 55-45 favoring Democrats.

This also explains why the Republicans seem “nutty” to anyone that is on the outside.  As long as you had the Reagan coalition, you had different people, and so the Republicans had to appear “not nutty” to get the support of different groups.  If you have a small group of ideologically similar people, they are going to appear weird to outsiders.  In 2000-2006, the Republicans had an incentive to look “sane”, but right now they don’t.

August 20, 2009

After the Great Obama Realignment

Filed under: politics — twofish @ 5:26 am—-the-liberal-revolt.html

The Republicans at this point have become irrelevant. The real argument within the Democratic Party between the “Rubin Democrats” and the “Nader Democrats.” Right now you have the White House for the most part run by “Rubin Democrats” and the “Nader Democrats” are the opposition party. Ronald Reagan created a coalition of the religious right, corporate and financial interests, and Cold War hawks. Obama destroyed that coalition.

The big shift in the last election was that corporate and financial interests basically gave up on the Republican Party and voted Democratic in a big way, which means that the only people left in the Republican Party are fanatics, which can make a lot of noise, but are otherwise irrelevant.

The big debates in health care are between various groups of people within the Democratic Party. The Republicans aren’t part of the equation at all.

Notes on the NY Times news cycle and wikipeda

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — twofish @ 5:12 am

Also I’ve seen very similar things happen with the online stories of the New York Times. If you follow a story through the day, it makes it seem a lot like a wikipedia article. With most of the stories on China, it’s gotten to the point that I can almost identify the various people making changes.

One thing that is cool is that I have seen differences in tone from the people on the ground in China and the New York Times HQ. What happens is that you end up with a story that gets posted in the evening US time, and then it stays there for a few hours, before people in NY get up and change it. It’s really quite fascinating to watch.

August 19, 2009

Best and the worst – The Sanlu Settlement

Filed under: china — twofish @ 3:16 am

The last article was about the worst of Chinese law.  This article is about something that I think was handled very, very well, which is the aftermath of the Sanlu milk scandal.  This discussion came out of a post on Chinalawblog on Chinese food safety.

In response to a statement that SanLu milk should have gone bankrupt, I mentioned that:

SanLu *did* go bankrupt as a result of the milk scandal. Two of the executives got death sentences. Nineteen other executives got various sentences from five years to life. The basic procedure to settle the civil claims was something very similar to what the US government did to setlle the 9/11 lawsuits. The government and the dairy association brokered a settlement in which people could either accept a cash settlement, or else go to court. Most people want to get on with their lives so they took the settlement.

We can talk about US-style class action lawsuits. One of the problems in these mega-lawsuits is that if you win a huge judgment and then the company goes bankrupt, then most defendants may end up with nothing. The other problem is that while the litigation goes on, the company is under a cloud and cannot rebuild.

What happened with the Sanlu case is far far batter than having a massive class action wind its way through the legal system taking years with no one making money except for the lawyers. The nightmare you want to avoid is what happened with asbestos litigation. The first case was filed in 1966, and it’s *still* going on. Sort of like “Jarndyce and Jarndyce”

Among the problems, what if the companies goes bankrupt during the court proceeding? What happens if the company *threatens* to go bankrupt in order to impose a settlement. And as far as I know, all US litigation has been civil litigation. None of the executives involved in the asbestos case (or in the tobacco cases) have every been personally tried. One problem here is that if you are an executive whose company goes bankrupt, so what? That’s why I think it’s important to have personal liability (i.e. people go to jail).

Also while the US uses “class action lawsuits” to deal with consumer liability issues, “class action lawsuits” are not common in most European countries, all of whom have different ways of dealing with the issue.

As I said above, as far as the actual settlements and consequences, I do think that the Chinese government handled things quite well, and I’d like for people that are critical of the legal aftermath to explain what the Chinese government could have done better. Yes, one could argue that the payouts where low, but as it was, it totally bankrupted the company responsible. If you mandate US-style damage awards, then the whole thing becomes a lottery, in which people that are the first to file or who have particularly good lawyers get the bulk of the money, and everyone else spends years fighting over the scraps that remain. (What happened with asbestos.)

Also if you have a long nasty class action lawsuit, then most of the money ends up with the lawyers (there is an entire industry devoted to asbestos lawsuits). In the mean time, honest dairy farmers and dairy workers who weren’t involved in the scandal are hurt because the company gets pounded into dust.

August 18, 2009

On the legality of black jails

Filed under: china — twofish @ 6:50 am

Comment I made on this story

I’ve often heard the statement that the black jails system by which petitioners are detained before being released is illegal.  It is true that it *should* be illegal, but just because something *should* be illegal, doesn’t mean that *is* illegal.  There is in fact a very solid legal justification for black jails under the Chinese criminal procedure law.

Article 63. Any citizen may immediately seize and deliver to the public security organ, the people’s procuratorate or the people’s court for handling:

1. any person who is committing a crime or is discovered immediately after having committed a crime; or

2. any person who is on the wanted list; or

3. any person who has escaped from the prison; or

4. any person who is being pursued for arrest.


What this means is that if someone is reported as wanted by the police in jurisdiction A, then it is legal for any citizen to detain them in another jurisdiction until they can be transferred home.  All they have to do is to get the PSB at the home town to state that someone is wanted for questioning, and Article 63 kicks in.

This law has a huge loophole and is obviously being abused and needs to be changed. Among other things Article 63 allows people to do an end run against all of the time limits in the criminal procedure law.

But it is the law… (Don’t shoot the messenger) Just because something should be illegal doesn’t mean that it is….

The situation with Sun Zhigang is different. Under Article 8 of the Legislation Law, you can only detain someone as a result of a law that is passed by the NPC. Custody and repatriation was passed as a result of a State Council regulation, which made that regulation legally challengable. This isn’t the case with black jails.

Also the politics is very different. There is very, very little sympathy among urban Chinese for migrants and petitioners from rural areas. In Sun Zhigang’s case, he was seen as an urban intellectual (i.e. one of us) which caused outrage. Rural migrant petitioners are usually seen as “one of them” and so get a lot less sympathy.  Let me ask an inconvenient question.  How may people do you think died in custody before Sun Zhigang,  Sun was different because from the point of view of the intelligentesia, he was not one of them.  Sun Zhigang was by no means the first person to die under C&R regulations, but he was the first “urban intellectual” and so the sense was, “if it can happen to him, it can happen to us.”

Unfortunately (and again don’t shoot the messenger), that’s very unlikely to happen in a “black jail.” If you are an urban dweller, all you have to do is to call the local PSB, and you will be released. The system is set up so that only “one of them” is likely to get caught in the system.

Now as far as arguments that my legal analysis is incorrect.  I’d be interested in hearing them, but you have to remember legal arguments only matter if you can get a Chinese judge to agree with them, and if you come up with nice logical argument, you need to explain why a Chinese judge would look at your argument and given the political pressure I mentioned look at my argument, and accept your argument.

The other problem is that we can true to change things legislatively but that has some limits.  If you talk to some urban dweller in China, they likely are going to have some prejudices against rural petitioners. They may nod their heads in agreement while you tell them how its a bad thing, but deep down, I think that they’d rather petitioners just go home.  So when it comes time to pass a change to Article 63, people are going to come up with a thousand excuses to keep things they way they are.


Filed under: china — twofish @ 3:15 am

So says this article….

This is a great article for summarizing everything the bogus notions that I’ve seen about the Chinese economy.  It briefly goes over pretty much every single fallacy of the Chinese economy.  Two of them are:

1) the false analogy.  In particular bad things happen when you compare a company with a nation.  Nations can do things like print money, and if you end up with an overproduction problem, then the rational thing to do is to start dropping money from the skies so that the factories are producing.  If you really have overcapacity, don’t worry about borrowing money.  Just print it.

2) overgeneralization – One building in Shanghai fell down and therefore the entire Chinese economy is doomed.

Also if you google for “China” and “bubble” you end up with this article from 1994

August 11, 2009

There is no Asian Development Model

Filed under: china, finance — twofish @ 1:18 am

There is no Asian development model and talking about one obscures confuses things greatly.  The Japanese economy is as different from the economy of Hong Kong as one can possibly get.  The one thing that Japan has in common with Hong Kong is that both ran massive trade surpluses with the United States, but then again everyone runs massive trade surpluses with the United States, and so relations with the United States has more to do with the United States than with Hong Kong or Japan.

Also Germany and Saudi Arabia ran trade surpluses with the United States, but no one calls them Asian.  It is true also that most countries in East Asia feel more comfortable with government intervention with the economy than the United States, but again that’s a peculiarity of the United States than with East Asia.

The problem with talking about an Asian development model is that people see something that Japan does and assumes that China does the same thing and vice versa which is not true.  For example, because Japanese companies have captive banks in a corporate group structure people assume that Chinese companies do the same thing, when this is not the case.  In  fact that Chinese banking system has many more similarities with the United States than it does with Japan, largely because the critical era in which major decisions where being made happened between the Japanese property crash and Enron.

The problem with talking in terms of development models is that you end up with two or maybe three models, and that ignores the fact that there are many ways of getting it right and many ways of getting it wrong.

Overproduction is a problem ????

Filed under: china, finance — twofish @ 12:55 am

It’s always seems to be bizarre to me when people say that the Chinese economy has a problem with overproduction that must be resolved or else China is doomed.  It sounds like a parody of Stalinist propaganda.  Our factories are too efficient and productive, please save of.  The fact that the big problem that people see right now is that people save too much and factories are too efficient should tell you that China is *not* a Soviet style centrally planned economy.  Soviet propaganda lived in a world of overproduction, but Soviet reality was one of chronic shortages.

Anyway there is one solution to overproduction which is trivial economically but hard to do politically:

  • Pay people to do nothing.

That’s actually quite hard to do politically.  The political problem is that people get quite upset if they see their neighbor getting paid to do nothing while they aren’t getting the money.  Figuring out who gets paid to do nothing is quite tricky, but there are ways around it.  One way of doing this is to make people think they are doing something useful, when they aren’t.

The other problem is that paying people to do nothing, or worse yet getting people to think that they are getting paid to do something when they are doing nothing tends to become a habit, and if you have to change so that you are no longer in a situation of overproduction, you have a problem.

One alternative way of saying “pay people to do nothing’ is to say “be less efficient” which is why I think it is weird when a lot of the people who say that the problem with the Chinese economy is that it overproduces also come up with ideas to make the economy more efficient.  If the real problem is overproduction, you really want to make the economy *less* efficient.  Sometime less efficiency is a good thing.  A power saw is more efficient than a hand saw, but it leaves a bigger mess if something goes wrong.

Anyone some other things that I disagree with Michael Pettis about:

a) In general, I don’t think that the government is pumping money into the economy to create “excessive investment.”  In fact I would argue that with banking policy, it’s doing the reverse.  Lending interest rates are high, which discourages borrowing while borrowing interest rates are low, which discourages savings.  The reason people save is that they are looking forward to retirement, and the reasons that companies are saving is because they are making profits, and make investments out of retained earnings because it cost them a great deal of money to borrow from banks.  The one area that the government could change policy to reduce investment is by taking some money in the form of dividends, but as I point out later there are good reasons not to do that.

b) Also it’s interesting that the examples, that Pettis gives to argue that the government is biased toward investment really show no such thing, and the policies that he proposes to remove this bias also do not fix the problem.  It’s true that China make be keeping it’s exchange rate low, but keeping it’s exchange rate low doesn’t change the consumption/investment ratio.  Also it is also true that banks are biased toward large enterprises, but again if the Chinese government removed this bias it wouldn’t change the consumption/investment ratio, and if this bias changes so that small and medium enterprises such that interest rates go down, this will actually increase investment.

The big problem here is that people when they talk about China, they aren’t talking about China, but rather Japan and Korea which had very radically different economies.

c)  Finally, I do not think that China is overinvesting.  The danger in thinking that you are more efficient than you really are is that it leads to Great Leap Forward type situations, in which you cut back on production, and later found that this was a bad idea.  What worries me about statements that China should consume more is that they fail to take into account China’s very rapidly aging population.  Once the baby boom generation ages, then all of that previous investment is suddenly going to prove useful.

One final thing.  Michael Pettis likes to use the phrase “it has never happened before.”  That doesn’t prove anything with regard to China.  In the case of China, there are so many things that have never happened before in human history, that “it’s never happened before” is just not an argument.

August 5, 2009

There are worse things in the world than NPL’s

Filed under: china, finance — twofish @ 2:14 am

OK, you’ve been pushed out of an airplane and are plummeting to the ground.  You want to pull on the parachute ripcord, but there is this economist that says that you shouldn’t because you might break your arm, and in any case you can’t keep pulling ripcords and expect a parachute to come out.

But you tell the economist to go stuff it, you pull the rip cord, it turns out that you did break your arm, and then the economist tells you ‘ha ha I told you so.”

That’s basically the story of the Chinese economy over the last few months.  The government pulled the parachute, it came up, and now people are worried about non-performing loans.  It’s not clear whether you have a broken wrist, a broken arm, or are just sore.

If the government keeps pumping the accelerator, yes it will have an NPL problem, but I don’t see one happening if it takes its foot off the accelerator and starts gently tapping on the brakes.  Even if you do have an NPL problem its better than the alternative.

Two comments:

People keep on talking about the massive NPL’s that the government ran up in the “last loan expansion”  Actually it didn’t.  Since the 1998 reforms, there have been two periods of massive lending.  One in 2001 and one in 2005.  Neither of them seem to have resulted in massive amounts of NPL’s.  This time you can argue that because of the massive expansion of the Chinese economy, you have more NPL’s, maybe but…….

I’m going to say something shocking…

*Running up massive NPL’s in the early 1990’s was the right policy*

In economics, there are no good or bad policies, only better and worse ones.  The massive bank loans of the early 1990’s lend to a problem that took China about a decade to solve, but it was better than what happened to Russia.  Because Russian banks didn’t issue massive NPL’s, you ended up with hyperinflation combined with huge unemployment.  In the case of China, the NPL’s kept the system going long enough so that it could be dismantled in an orderly way.

Right now we don’t how bad China’s new NPL problem is or whether it has one at all.  Personally, I think it’s important to worry about it, and now that you aren’t going to fall to your death, you can start worrying about your arm.  I don’t think it’s going to be that bad, but however bad it is, it is better than the alternatives.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Create a free website or blog at