November 24, 2012

Israel: where the 1970s never ended

Filed under: Middle East — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:15

Kathy Shaidle reports on her recent trip to Israel:

Folks who say visiting Israel is like traveling back in time don’t know the half of it.

Say: Do you find yourself missing the 1970s — even though, like me, you vowed you never would?

That is: Do you miss litter, graffitti, off-leash dogs, free range cats, smoking on the beach, 13 TV channels, no wheelchair ramps — plus polyester everything?

Because if so, Israel is the 70s with cellphones! You’ll love it! Heck, the same war’s still going on!

Seriously: This shiksa just got back from her second trip to Israel — not a moment too soon, from the looks of things — and I’m here with the first of a series of articles that will go from macro to micro.

PJMedia’s own Barry Rubin literally wrote the book on Israel. I read it before I left and recommend it highly. But he’s a Jew who has lived there for years. I’m writing as a gentile two-time visitor.

To that end, I’ll start off with an overviews of major cities and regions in Israel, then drill down in the coming weeks, to cover specific attractions; define words that don’t mean what you (or more accurately, your dorky grad student nephew) think they mean (i.e., “check point,” “settlement,” “refugee camp”); then offer tips on food, language, manners and more.

Japan’s demographic time-bomb has detonated

Filed under: Economics, History, Japan — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:58

Remember the Japan of the 1970s and 1980s? The world-spanning colossus of economic might? The nation that had Wall Street wetting its collective pants with every bold move?

That was then. This is now:

Less than a quarter-century ago, Japan was the economic envy of the world. In 1989, Tokyo-listed shares represented nearly half the planet’s equity value, while the land beneath the city’s royal palace was worth more than all of California. American nightly news anchors practically misted up when they had to report that Rockefeller Center was turning Japanese.

Two lost decades and massive property- and stock-bubble explosions later, Japan is a one-word cautionary tale. Caught in economic and demographic atrophy — and stewarded by countless false-start prime ministers — the country has become a hub for zombie banks, a generation of disenchanted youth, and fading brands such as Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic.

Last year, for the first time, sales of adult diapers in Japan exceeded those for babies.

Tim Worstall: Cosmic fun-spoiler

Filed under: Economics, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:42

Writing in The Register, Tim Worstall brings his evil economist gaze to the SF fan’s irrational belief that asteroid mining is the way of the future:

Isn’t it exciting that Planetary Resources is going to jet off and mine the asteroids? This is every teenage sci-fi geek’s dream, that everything we imbibed from Verne through Heinlein to Pournelle is going to come true!

But there’s always someone, isn’t there, someone like me, ready to spoil the party. The bit that I cannot get my head around is the economics of it: specifically, the economics of the mining itself.

In terms of the basic processing of what they want to do I can’t see a problem at all, just as all those authors those years ago could see how it could be done.

Asteroids come in several flavours, and the two we’re interested in here are the ice ones and the nickel iron ones. The icy rocks, with a few solar panels and that very bright 24/7 sunshine up there, can provide water. That’s the first thing we need in abundance if we’re going to get any number of people up off the planet for any appreciable amount of time. And we’d really rather not be sending the stuff up out of the Earth’s gravity well for them.

It’s also true that those nickel iron asteroids are likely to be rich in platinum-group metals (PGMs). They too can be refined with a bit of electricity, and they’re sufficiently valuable (say, for platinum, $60m a tonne, just as a number to use among friends) that we might be able to finance everything we’re trying to do by doing so.

All terribly exciting, all very space cadet, enough to bring tears to the eyes of anyone who ever learnt how to use a slide rule and, as the man said, once you’re in orbit you’re not halfway to the Moon, you’re halfway to anywhere.

Except I’m not sure that the numbers quite stack up here. I’m sure that the engineering is possible, I’m certain that it’s all worth doing and most certainly believe that we want to get up there and start playing around with other parts of the cosmos over and above Gaia. But, but…

The disappointment of the WalMart protest

Filed under: Business, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:11

Megan McArdle says that the turnout for yesterday’s nation-wide protest outside WalMart stores fell well short of expectations, but that this shouldn’t be surprising:

There’s an irony to labor organizing: the best time to get workers fired up is during economic downturns, but this is probably the worst time to actually organize them. People are most interested in union actions when jobs are scarce and they feel economically insecure, but of course, that’s when they can ill-afford to take economic changes. Unions made big gains during the Great Depression, to be sure, but they had a host of new laws and a labor-activist FDR administration throwing heavy weight behind those efforts. Without that political help, it’s hard to see how unions could have made such big gains — and of course, arguably, the higher wages that FDR’s policies pushed for helped prolong the Great Depression.

Recessions are also a time when employers don’t necessarily have a lot of profits to give up. Walmart’s $446 billion of revenue last year was eye-popping, but its profit margins are far from fat — between 3% to 3.5%. If they cut that down by a percentage point — about what retailers like Costco and Macy’s have been bringing in — that would give each Walmart employee about $2850 a year, which is substantial but far from life-changing. Further wage improvements would have to come out of the pockets of Walmart’s extremely price conscious shoppers. Which might be difficult, given how many product categories Amazon is pushing into.

The other potential strategy is to mobilize those customers — to cost Walmart business unless they up their wage-and-benefit game. But the Black Friday bargain hunters apparently simply pushed past the scattered protests in search of cheap flat-screen televisions — and the progressives who seem most on fire about this campaign are not really very likely to be Walmart shoppers. Which could be a metaphor for the whole US labor movement.

Regulating food container size as a form of soft protectionism

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:54

Terence Corcoran talks about the 1970s-era food packaging regulations that have suddenly become topical:

What started out looking like a regulatory non-event, the Harper government’s plan to repeal scores of petty federal rules governing the size of containers for packaged food in supermarkets, has suddenly become a great national food fight.

It’s industry against industry, food processors versus supply management, Heinz battling Campbell’s, baby-food makers against corn canners — all part of a war over jobs and trade and consumer dollars. Nominally over antiquated federal regulations, it’s also a war that highlights another reason why Canadian consumers pay more for products at the retail level.

[. . .]

Never mind peanut butter. Ottawa has detailed container specs for what looks like every food product on store shelves: canned vegetables, fruit juices, vacuum-packed corn, tomato juice, maple syrup, frozen spinach, pork and beans, bagged potatoes, soups, desserts, pies, sauerkraut, horseradish sauce, wine — and many more.

It is unclear why these detailed container-size regulations exist, but one explanation is that they are a result of Ottawa’s mass conversion to metric measure in the 1970s under then prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Under the metrication rules, the law mandated metric for all prepackaged food products.

Whatever the intent of the detailed regulations, the effect has been to erect trade barriers that have created protected industries that are now opposing the proposed changes. The Food Processors of Canada set up a web page, KeepFoodJobsInCanada, promoting an email campaign to force Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz to block the plan to repeal the container-size regulations. It seems to have worked, so far.

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