Chinese Manipulations: a Weird View by mattsteinglass
January 27, 2009, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Bret Swanson in the WSJ thinks it’s not the Chinese who have kept their currency too low; it’s the US that flooded the world with too many dollars after 2005, after first failing to supply enough dollars in the late ’90s.

It looks at first glance as though when you have a country like China that mandates that every dollar exchanged for a yuan go through a central bank which sets an exchange rate by fiat, and another country that pretty much lets its currency float except for setting base interest rates by manipulating the government bond market, it’s the country that has the nonconvertible currency and the exchange rate set by government fiat that can be more properly said to be “manipulating” its currency. But what do I know? My greater concern is that the proliferation of potential reasonable and unreasonable interpretations of economic phenomena is potentially so great that nobody can ever coalesce around a reasonable view of what actually happened, and the potential for deliberate obfuscation in bad faith is insurmountable.

Chinese manipulations by mattsteinglass
January 24, 2009, 1:16 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Another few hours, another thing I don’t understand: Tim Geithner says China is “manipulating” its currency exchange rate, and James Fallows says Chinese will not “respond blandly” to being labeled “manipulators” when they hold over a trillion dollars in US debt. Here’s the thing: the Chinese are accused of using their management of currency exchange to keep the yuan artificially low against the dollar, to prop up exports to the US. Some people are muttering that the Chinese might retaliate for Geithner’s affront by dumping large amounts of US bonds. But the reason we’re afraid of that happening is that it would…cause the dollar to fall dramatically. Which would cause the yuan to rise against the dollar. Which would be a clear case of nasal face-spiting, since the whole point of the Chinese “manipulation” was to keep the yuan low against the dollar. And given that, how likely is it, really, that China is going to retaliate in this fashion? Doesn’t Geithner have the Chinese in a box, here?

Or am I, as usual, missing something?

Why only “shovel-ready?” by mattsteinglass
January 23, 2009, 6:08 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So here’s something I don’t understand. Supposedly, long-term infrastructure investments are useless as countercyclical recession-fighting stimulus because the money takes too long to get flowing. Only “shovel-ready” projects work.

But let’s look at the market for, say, high-voltage transformers. Right now there’s very little demand for high-voltage transformers, I imagine. So workers at companies that make them are probably getting laid off. But let’s say the government declared that three years from now, after planning and review are complete, there’s going to be a massive reconstruction of the national electric grid. Wouldn’t the guarantee of that future demand be a stimulus to companies to keep production capacity in place? I mean, if you knew the government was going to be ordering 10,000,000 widgets in 2012, wouldn’t you take out a loan and go into the widget business? And if you were a banker and somebody applied for a loan to start a widget company, and you knew the government was planning to order a lot of widgets in a few years, wouldn’t you be inclined to extend credit to that company? And isn’t this how investment gets going and carries a country out of a recession? Or am I missing something here?

Bankers can waste money faster than bureaucrats by mattsteinglass
January 23, 2009, 1:32 pm
Filed under: Economics

Megan McArdle asks:

How come progressives opposed to TARP II are very, very worried about the cost to the taxpayer, but not worried at all by the cost to the taxpayer of a massive fiscal stimulus, a lot of which is nearly guaranteed to be wasted by virtue of the speed with which the money must fly out the Treasury’s door?

It’s a fair question. Two responses come to mind. The first is that the spending contemplated in the fiscal stimulus bill largely consists of programs that progressives have been demanding, on their own merits, for many, many years now. That includes everything from increased spending on transportation infrastructure to expanding SCHIP. Conservatives may think these programs are wasteful, but progressives don’t, so that’s why they’re not so worried about wasting the money.

The second response is that TARP I has made it clear that financial institutions appear to be able to waste money at an astronomical pace that simply dwarfs the excesses of any government bureaucracy (except perhaps the Pentagon). $350 billion is literally (and by that I mean “figuratively”) enough money to fully fund every single proposal made by any wild-eyed progressive since 1992. That may be a bit off, but not by much. And we’ve thrown that money into Wall Street in just 3 months, and Wall Street is now largely unable and certainly unwilling to account for it; it is not clear that the money is being used for anything apart from propping up a few banks that ought to have failed. If we spend $350 billion on infrastructure, the American people will have bought a lot of infrastructure. Some may be useless, but most won’t. Instead we dumped it into financial institutions, and because the equity situation remains unclear, it’s not clear whether the American people bought anything. It appears that when you sign over large amounts of taxpayer money to Wall Street, one of the things that can happen to it is that it can simply cease to exist. As inefficient as some government agencies are, they can’t make money disappear that fast without any results.

The attitude shift here comes on top of what happened during the Iraq War, when it was revealed that while spending an extra couple of billion dollars a year to send every poor American kid to preschool was wasteful and unaffordable, we could easily come up with a trillion dollars for a rather useless war. At that point, a lot of progressives who had internalized valid conservative points about budgetary constraints and bureaucratic inefficiency decided to, well, de-internalize those points.

Subways are people-movers between shopping malls by mattsteinglass
January 23, 2009, 11:04 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Matthew Yglesias writes that for encouraging greater density and more urban transit, we don’t need to demand a whole lot of implausible new development right away, but we should start by scrapping the rules that prevent people from doing dense development. I’m not sure this is an ambitious enough rhetorical strategy for getting Americans more enthusiastic about funding transit, though maybe I’m just increasingly allergic to anything with even a hint of laissez-faire about it (Yglesias isn’t really saying “take away the bad rules and smart growth will arise naturally” but there’s sort of a suggestion of it).


Kowloon Station in Hong Kong is a rail station, shopping mall, and residential development with an airline check-in counter so you can check your bags before boarding the train to the airport.

Kowloon Station in Hong Kong is a rail station, shopping mall, and residential development with an airline check-in counter (at left) so you can check your bags before boarding the train to the airport. Photo Matt Steinglass 2008.



Anyway, my favorite example of brilliant transit development strategies is the Hong Kong model, where the developers pay for the construction of subway stations in exchange for the rights to build the massive shopping complexes on top of them. I think this points towards a misunderstanding in the US about what modern rail transit is. Modern rail transit is basically a people-mover that connects shopping malls to each other. It’s incredibly convenient — you can zip from one shopping mall to another without ever having to go outside or get back into your car. Then you can connect office complexes to those shopping malls for added convenience, and even residential condos for ultra convenience. In fact in the photo above what you’re seeing is a downtown shopping mall and residential and office complex that has a check-in counter for airline flights so you can actually check your bags at the subway station downtown before taking the train out to the airport. Obviously I don’t ever expect anything that perfect to be achieved in the backward US of A, but the point is clear: these shopping mall people movers called “rail transit” are incredibly convenient.

Plus it has all these incidental benefits, like saving Planet Earth. Anyway, this is why building rail systems that actually prohibit dense development next to the stations makes no sense at all; and I think when you conceptualize rail transit as a way of linking shopping malls to each other, which is really what it is in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even in Paris for that matter, then the whole thing makes a lot more sense to Americans who don’t live in New York or Boston or  SF or Washington, DC.

Courtney Hazlett, please examine the personal entertainment system on the seat back in front of you by mattsteinglass
January 23, 2009, 10:00 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The MSNBC culture reporter thinks only “elite, effete” people saw and liked “Frozen River”, because people who don’t live in effete, elite big cities would have to drive halfway across their state to find an art-house cinema where it played.

Guess where I saw it? On the plane. I watched it right after I watched another movie loved by elite, effete urbanites: “Batman: The Dark Knight”.

My new blog at by mattsteinglass
January 21, 2009, 11:21 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

This is notice that most of my Vietnam-oriented blogging efforts are now going to be posted here at, the very exciting new internet-based global news organization that’s just been launched by former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Charles Sennott. (This is GlobalPost’s front page. I’m GlobalPost’s Vietnam correspondent. My bloggish thing over there is a “Reporter’s Notebook”, where I’ll be posting frequently; my longer traditional journalism efforts will go up on the site’s main pages.)

With newspapers all over the place shuttering their foreign bureaus, GlobalPost is moving into a very underserved information market, and I think it’s a pretty exciting venture to be a part of. So go check it out.

Obama’s inaugural address and Vietnam by mattsteinglass
January 21, 2009, 11:10 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

There were three points in Obama’s inaugural address that were relevant to Vietnam, in different ways.

1. “For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.” The siege of Khe Sanh took place from late January to early April, 1968, at a remote US firebase in the mountains of northwestern Quang Tri province. Several divisions of North Vietnamese Army troops and armor attempted to surround and eliminate a couple of battalions of US Marines and South Vietnamese Army, and were ultimately held off, in one of the largest fixed battles of the Vietnam War. But here’s the thing: Concord, Gettysburg, and Normandy were all crucial American victories in wars we regard as historically vindicated. Khe Sanh, however, was an ambiguous engagement whose strategic meaning remains unclear 40 years later. For decades, some have argued that the siege of Khe Sanh was a diversionary tactic by the NVA to get the US to take its eyes off the ball, with the ball being the Tet Offensive that was launched a few days later by guerrillas who had infiltrated throughout the cities of South Vietnam. Khe Sanh certainly did attract the US’s attention: US commanding Gen. William Westmoreland believed the NVA were trying to replicate the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu and score a critical war-winning blow, and he poured tremendous resources into trying to defend the base rather than evacuate it. But the base itself had little strategic value, and it has never become clear whether its defense made any sense. So there’s a sense of ambiguity when one speaks of the men who “fought and died” at Khe Sanh: what did they fight and die for? Did we waste their lives?

On an intellectual level, the lesson of Khe Sanh goes to the distinction between tactics and strategy that’s so crucial in watching Obama, and it has implications for Iraq and Obama’s decision to withdraw with all deliberate speed from a war he considers strategically ill-advised. In the famous words of Marine General Lowell English, who disagreed with Westmoreland: “When you’re at Khe Sanh, you’re not really anywhere. You could lose it and you really haven’t lost a damn thing.” The lesson of Khe Sanh is that when the strategic costs of winning a tactical battle overwhelm the costs of losing it, you’re better off withdrawing. But on an emotional level, what’s notable about mentioning Khe Sanh is that, set next to Gettysburg and Normandy, it has a bitter quality. One thinks: clearly, the line had to include a modern battle that would nod to today’s veterans, but did it have to be that one? And then one thinks: well, what other big-name battles from the past 40 years could Obama have mentioned? Kuwait? Fallujah? They all have that bitter aftertaste. And that has its own significance.

Addendum: Just watched Arcade Fire cover Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” at Obama’s inaugural ball, and I’m sure they were conscious of the connection to the inaugural address in this stanza:

I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone…

2. “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Vietnam is an authoritarian one-party Communist state which periodically imprisons unruly journalists and political dissidents. It is also a fairly well-run country whose government genuinely cares about the popular welfare and national interest, and cooperates eagerly on the international scene; and it is friendly with the US, and was a big diplomatic favorite of the Bush administration. The Bush administration’s rhetoric of freedom and “regime change”, however, always sat awkwardly with its enthusiasm for Vietnam. What Obama is doing here is articulating a more coherent framework for US relations with authoritarian states. Saying the US will “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” creates room for constructive relationships while at the same time taking disagreements over human rights issues seriously.

3. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.” American rhetoric grows from the Western tradition of rights-based ethics. It is a rhetoric of freedom and the individual pursuit of happiness. Vietnamese rhetoric is more often rooted in a Confucian ethic of responsibilities. It is a rhetoric of duties and the collective good. One reason the world has come to mistrust America of late is a sense that Americans are irresponsible — they focus too much on their freedoms, and too little on their obligations. This problem influences perceptions of everything from Iraq to climate change to the global financial crisis. “A new era of responsibility” is a very Confucian slogan, and it’s an apt one for a time of multifaceted crises and widespread public mistrust. If the Obama administration can actually back up its Confucian slogan with some responsible behavior in the coming years, it will have a positive influence on attitudes towards the US in East Asia.

The skin trade by mattsteinglass
January 19, 2009, 10:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Abbas Raza, having just come back from a panel on the sex industry that included her idol, Gloria Steinem, asks:

Are all prostitutes coerced?

The answer is: no. I’ve never gone with a sex worker, but I have interviewed a couple of dozen in the course of researching articles on HIV, and most of those I’ve interviewed had entered the business voluntarily, out of economic necessity or a desire for greater earnings, and were not in coercive working arrangements at the time I interviewed them. My sample is skewed because I met many interviewees through sex workers’ empowerment organizations; I would imagine that many or most sex workers are involved in coercive relationships with pimps or madams. But even among sex workers I met by going into pickup bars or brothels and talking to them at random, most were in voluntary, non-coercive arrangements. I’ve been to one brothel, in Phnom Penh, where girls were clearly working under pressure; that was a horrible, sick place, and while I didn’t see anything violent, it fit the profile of the kinds of atrocious situations one hears about. I’m sure there are many, many, many such places all across Southeast Asia and the world.

But, the next night, I went into a pickup joint called “Martini Bar” and spent at least an hour speaking, in my lousy Vietnamese, with a 23-year-old Vietnamese woman named Huong who had come to Phnom Penh less than a year earlier, from her desperately poor village in Vietnam’s An Giang province, in order to work as a sex worker. In An Giang she hadn’t been tricking, she’d been working in rice fields and picking up seasonal jobs, and she’d been so poor you could see the legacy of childhood malnourishment in her face. For her, going to Phnom Penh was a decision she’d taken, a choice to make money the only realistic way she could. You can charge $20 a trick in Phnom Penh, she explained, where in An Giang you could only charge a dollar.

I talked to Huong at the bar, and after a minute a Vietnamese friend of hers came over, and the three of us sat down at a table while I bought them some dinner. It was a good, genuine conversation, the kind of interview that makes journalism feel rewarding, when someone who hasn’t had a chance to tell her story gets that chance, and starts laying it out excitedly. Huong had crossed over the Mekong, she told me, with a few dollars’ worth of Vietnamese dong in her pocket. She had to bribe the border guards to let her in, and hitch and walk her way up to Phnom Penh. She arrived in the city penniless, with nothing attractive to wear, she said. She knew nobody. And now here she was, a year later, with her own apartment, nice clothes, savings, money to send home to her parents every month. In her own eyes, she had taken an entrepreneurial gamble, and she’d made it work.

I am not comfortable writing about this. It’s a minefield. When I give credence to Huong’s own sense of pride in her achievements, it may look to the reader as though I am projecting onto her a sick male fantasy of the happy hooker. But I am confident that that’s not what happened in that conversation. I think Huong was genuinely proud, and I think that, at a minimum, I lack the expertise or standing to say that she shouldn’t be proud of it, or to hold out some other vision of how she might realistically have achieved something more worthy or less morally ambiguous. No, I don’t think Huong is representative of most sex workers; but I would be cautious about assuming anything about how “most” sex workers feel about themselves. And I don’t think it’s okay that the world is arranged in such a manner that Huong lacks any other realistic option for making a decent living. But here is what I would say: given that Huong does lack any other option, it would not do anybody any good to take that one option away from her by enforcing the laws against prostitution more stringently. And it might do Huong some good to let her practice that trade without legal harassment, since the kind of coercion she is most likely to experience would come from the police.

That said: what’s true in Cambodia is emphatically not true in the United States. The US has an economy in which girls and women have many realistic options for economic independence besides prostitution. The US has reliable, independent and non-corrupt legal systems and police forces. The US has a culture with, by world standards, highly egalitarian attitudes towards gender and towards individual rights. There are a certain number of women in the US who go into the various branches of the sex industry clear-eyed and freely, and they should be treated as adults. But there is no reason to let poor, poorly educated girls in the US be pressured into entering the sex industry — to let them get sucked into, in the immortal words of Tyra Collette on Friday Night Lights, “The Temple of Women with Low Self-Esteem”. We are a rich country with strong institutions, and we don’t need to treat our kids as if we were Cambodia.

Still not tarrying from their daily rounds by mattsteinglass
January 18, 2009, 10:47 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Megan McArdle says the only reason Matthew Yglesias is defending the performance of that socialist bastion, US Post Office, is that he’s not old enough to remember how bad it was before it had to compete with private companies like FedEx.

I’m older than Megan McArdle and I have essentially no idea what she’s talking about. I have a vague sense that it was either impossible or very expensive to get same- or next-day shipping before FedEx came along, but that’s a premium service for business customers, not a standard service for regular citizens. Moreover, UPS has been around since 1907 so Matthew Yglesias would have to be pretty darn old to remember the days before the Postal Service had private competitors. Since FedEx obviously isn’t going to take over low-margin businesses like shipping regular letters and magazines for $0.42 each to people who live in farming villages in Nebraska, it’s pretty obvious that we need a national government-run postal service. And as far as I know the one we have has always done a perfectly good job.


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