What I’ve been reading

by on November 26, 2015 at 1:02 am in Books | Permalink

1.Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic.  Too much hermeneutics for my taste, but intelligent and interesting throughout.  The authors downplays the prescriptive side of Islam and plays up the experiential and polyvalent aspects of the religion.  If you are reading books in this area, this one should be part of your program.

2. Adam Sisman, John Le Carré: The Biography.  Entertaining, and puts him in the proper context, deserves its strong reviews.

3. Simon Critchley, Memory Theater. Very short book, hard to explain, often brilliant, here is one bit: “Hegel’s philosophy is a mnemotechnic system in the ancient and Renaissance tradition.  The difference is that what Hegel adds to his memory theater is time, that is, the experience of becoming.”  Not for everyone.

Arrived in my pile are:

David E. Bernstein, Lawless: The Obama Administration’s Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

Edward Lucas, Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet.

Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the 15th Century to the 21st.

Elaine C. Kamarck, Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates its Presidential Candidates.  From a quick glance, appears to be very useful.

I can’t say I understand this FT article so well, but I suppose that is the point.  Which are two groups/persons implicated in buying oil from ISIS, or otherwise enabling such trades to take place?

First, Syria.  Or is that “Syria.”

Second, the head of the world chess federation, namely Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: “he is best known for his belief in aliens — he has repeatedly recounted an instance when he was abducted in 1997 by “people in yellow spacesuits”.”  And this:

Mr Ilyumzhinov has a diverse business empire, stretching from sugar to banking, and a network of contacts to match. He regularly meets the Dalai Lama, and he played chess with Libyan president Muammer Gaddafi shortly before his overthrow.

He also has been working with the Syrian central bank.  Here is NYT coverage, here are other sources.  As the old Haitian proverb states, if you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on…

Wednesday assorted links

by on November 25, 2015 at 12:53 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Book hotel in Japan.  That is book used as a noun, not a verb.  And good photos of Porto, Portugal.  Zach Lowe: how small can the NBA go?

2. The world’s largest cloning factory, guess where?  Yesterday my paper copy of the FT printed on its front page the pun “Factory to turn out 1m cows a year as China raises steaks in cloning research,” though I cannot find it on-line.  And “Biologists induce flatworms to grow heads and brains of other species.

3. “Why, then, is 29-year-old Laurence the only full-time forensic pollen analyst in the United States?

4. Schmalensee and Stavins survey the history of cap and trade programs (NBER).

5. What do we know about ultra high net worth individuals?  And Republicans prefer politicians with deep voices.

6. Henry Aaron argues that ACA is still doing OK.

Kidney-DiseaseThe latest issue of the American Journal of Transplantation has an excellent and comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of paying kidney donors by Held, McCormick, Ojo, and Roberts. Earlier, Becker and Elias estimated that a payment of $15,000 per living donor would be sufficient to eliminate the US waiting list. The authors adopt a larger figure of $45,000 for living donors and $10,000 for deceased donors and find that even at these rates paying donors generates benefits far in excess of costs.

In particular, a program of government compensation of kidney donors would provide the following benefits (quoting from the article):

  • Transplant kidneys would be readily available to all patients who had a medical need for them, which would prevent 5000 to 10 000 premature deaths each year and significantly reduce the suffering of 100 000 more receiving dialysis.
  • This would be particularly beneficial to patients who are poor and African American because they are considerably overrepresented on the transplant waiting list. Indeed, it would be a boon to poor kidney recipients because it would enable them to reap the great benefits of transplantation at very little expense to themselves.
  • Because transplant candidates would no longer have to spend almost 5 years receiving dialysis while waiting for a transplant kidney, they would be younger and healthier when they receive their transplant, increasing the chances of a successful transplantation.
  • With a large number of transplant kidneys available, it would be much easier to ensure the medical compatibility of donors and recipients, which would increase the success rate of transplantation.
  • Taxpayers would save about $12 billion each year. Dialysis is not only an inferior therapy for end-stage renadisease (ESRD), it is also almost 4 times as expensive pequality-adjusted life-year (QALY) gained as a transplant.

Greg Ip on why safety can be dangerous

by on November 25, 2015 at 3:44 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Greg Ip presented his new book Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe at Mercatus/GMU, with an emphasis on financial crises and a bit on forest fires too.  I was the moderator, and the commentators were Alex J. Pollock and Jared Bernstein.

The video and short summary is here.  My previous review of Greg’s book is here.

My thoughts on this topic are extremely tentative, hypothetical I would say, but I’ve seen so much other bad commentary I thought I would lay out a possible “model” for what is going on.  I offer this with what I consider to be more than just caveats and qualifications, if you wish simply consider this an exercise in constructing some possibilities to think through.  These are “in my opinion the most likely to be true, compared to alternatives,” but still quite low in terms of their absolute chance of being true.  Here goes:

1. I don’t view Islam as essential to the conflict, though it helps explain some of the second-order causes and effects.

2. I think first in terms of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which also saw the collapse of an untenable-once-placed-under-pressure nation-state, followed by atrocities.  Building a successful nation state seems to be a “win big, fail big” proposition, and both Yugoslavia and Syria failed.  The West also had its failures leading up to and during the two World Wars, though with a happyish ending.

3. Syria also has become a playground for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia (among others).  Being a playground for a proxy war is a bad place to be, just ask Vietnam, El Salvador, or Nicaragua.  The mix of #2 and #3 accounts for many of the key features of the crisis, plus as conflict proceeds trust frays and human beings are brutalized, worsening the dynamic.

3b. The proxy war heated up due to a rising Iran, a falling Saudi Arabia, and the collapse of creative ambiguity over roles and responsibilities in what were previously buffer zones.

4. It is very hard to model ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, whatever you wish to call it (the most thoughtful approach I have seen is from Shadi Hamid).  Maybe the group is one fraction crazies, one fraction semi-rational power brokers, and one fraction “momentum traders” who wanted higher status for their local terrorizing and never expected it to get this far and simply could not climb off and stop.  It is hard for groups to back out of strategies which have delivered consistent institutional growth.  In any case, I don’t think of the group as having transitive preferences, even in the intra-profile sense, much less the Arrovian inter-profile sense.

5. I view ISIS as “modern,” or even “hypermodern,” rather than a “return to barbarism.”  The medieval Arabic world was more advanced than Europe in most ways, yet still Islamic ideologically.

6. Islam has the important secondary effect of tying Syria and other Middle Eastern conflicts to disaffected (Muslim) groups living in Western Europe, most of all France and Belgium.  Labor market deregulation, people!

7. Islam has another significant effect.  By melding the political and the theological, it renders the conflict more complex and harder to resolve, and that effect is fundamental to the ideological structure of Islam.  It also helps motivate the proxy war sides taken by Iran (Shii’te) and the Saudis (Sunni).  But note this: when the political order is not up for grabs, Islam does not have the same destabilizing effects.  The merging of the legal and the theological therefore may create greater stability in some equilibria (e.g.,much of Ottoman history, the Gulf monarchies), while less stability in others.

8. The Laffer curve, resource extraction path of ISIS will weaken with time, causing a fiscal starvation and thus a further move toward mean-reducing, variance-increasing strategies.

9. This won’t end well.  Now go read a book on the Taiping rebellion.

Your thoughts are welcome, please try to stick with the analytical and avoid posturing.  And what Russia is up to in Syria is another mystery, best considered another time.

Douglass North links

by on November 24, 2015 at 8:28 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. David Henderson on North.

2. A Fine Theorem on North.

3. Michael Sykuta on North.

4. NYT obituary of North.

5. Henry Farrell on North.

6. Dan Klein on North.

7. Art Carden on North.

8. Arnold Kling on North.

9. Ryan Avent on North.

10. Check Barry Weingast’s Facebook page, I believe the post on Doug is open.

11. John Nye on Doug North.  And yet another take from Nye.

If there are new good links on North, I’ll addend them tomorrow morning, so check back if you are interested.  He was a frequent visitor at George Mason and also at Mercatus, so many of us will miss him very much.

Tuesday assorted links

by on November 24, 2015 at 1:52 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Interview with James Poterba.

2. South Korean zombie companies?  And good WSJ survey piece on premature deindustrialization., and the Dani Rodrik paper again, revised (pdf).

3. How agriculture shaped human DNA (NYT)

4. The market-oriented reformist wins in Argentina.

5. Anne-Marie Slaughter on the Wilson School renaming controversy (not my views, by the way, but she has run the Wilson School and worth reading how she sees the world).

6. “At 12:45 p.m., a window pops open on a system called FedTrade and plays a sequence of musical notes—F-E-D—to open trading, traders said.

7. Why are engineers more likely to become terrorists?

Here is notice from Washington University.  A great man and a great scholar as well.

My latest piece is on the Syrian refugees and I’m delighted that it’s in Playboy. Next step is to get invited to the Mansion. Here’s the opening:

refugeeEven 4-year-old Syrian orphans are too dangerous to welcome to the United States, says New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. What sort of man turns away desperate orphans out of fear? Christie’s words and actions are shameful and unbecoming of a great nation—as are those of 25 other governors who said they will work to keep Syrian refugees from moving to their state. Is America no longer the home of the brave?

Since 9/11 we have been told many times that our nation is at war. Our troops understand, and they have fought bravely whenever and wherever they have been called upon. Not once have they backed down or refused the call. Yet, when faced with the risk of orphan refugees, some of our leaders protest that the risk is too great. How can we ask so much of our troops but so little of ourselves?

Do read the whole thing. The link is surprisingly safe for work, at least when I clicked, but use at your own risk.

Opioids for the masses?

by on November 24, 2015 at 1:45 am in Data Source, Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

This has long seemed to me an understudied topic, so I was interested to read the job market paper of Angela E. Kilby, who is on the market this year from MIT.  And she does what I like to see in a paper, namely try to figure out whether some practice or institution is actually worth it.

The background is this: “…In the face of concerns that undertreatment of pain was a “serious public health issue,” medically indicated use of these drugs over the past 15 years has increased dramatically, and attitudes have liberalized towards the use of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain.”

When it comes to the increased use of opioids, she finds the following trade-offs:

1. Since 1999, there has been a fourfold increase in drug overdose deaths linked to opiod pain relievers.  In 2013, the number of opiate-linked overdose deaths was 25,117, a higher number than I was expecting.  (But note that most of these can no longer be reduced by the feasible interventions under consideration.)

2. The increased use of opioids seems to pass a cost-benefit test, compared to the passage of a tougher Prescription Monitoring Plan.  With a host of caveats and qualifiers, she measures the pain reduction and other benefits from looser regulation at $12.1 billion a year and the costs of higher addiction rates, again from looser regulation, at $7.3 billion per year.

There is much more to it than what I am reporting, and in general I believe economists do not devote enough attention to studying the topic of pain.

*The Midas Paradox*

by on November 24, 2015 at 12:28 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

That is the forthcoming book by Scott Sumner, and the subtitle is Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression.  Here is one of Scott’s brief capsule descriptions of the book:

I will show that if we take the gold market seriously we can explain much more about the Great Depression than anyone had thought possible.  Three types of gold market shocks generated much of the variation shown in Table 1.1: changes in central bank demand for gold, private sector gold hoarding, and changes in the price of gold.  The remaining output shocks are linked to five wage shocks that resulted from the New Deal.  This is the first study to provide a comprehensive and detailed look at all high frequency macro shocks during the Great Depression.

I would stress that Scott devotes far more attention to asset price reactions than do many other studies of economic history; that is perhaps his main methodological innovation, in addition to the economics.

Scott also insists — correctly in my view — that the artificially engineered real wage increases of the New Deal were a true disaster.  This point is underemphasized in most competing accounts, or perhaps even actively denied by many Keynesians.  Yet the evidence here is overwhelming.

This is a very good book, one of the best on the economics of the Great Depression ever written.

Against a financial transactions tax

by on November 23, 2015 at 2:08 pm in Economics | Permalink

Maria Coelho, job market candidate at UC Berkeley, studied this topic and came up with this:

This paper analyzes the effect of the introduction of financial transaction taxes in equity markets in France and Italy in 2012 and 2013, respectively, on asset returns, trading volume and market volatility. Using two natural experiments in a difference-in-differences design, I identify bounds on elasticity estimates for three categories of avoidance channels: real substitution away from taxed assets, retiming (anticipation of transaction realizations and portfolio lock-in), and tax arbitrage (cross-platform and financial instrument shifting). I find large responses on all margins, that account for significantly lower revenues than projected. By far the strongest behavioral response comes from high-frequency trading lock-in on regulated exchanges, with a high tax elasticity of this type of turnover in the order of -9. The results shed light on overlooked features of optimal FTT design, suggesting they may be poor instruments for both revenue-raising and Pigouvian objectives.

The paper is called “Dodging Robin Hood.”  This is consistent with earlier findings on Sweden’s transactions tax, and that proposal continues to be one of the more overrated ideas in American Progressive political discourse.

Monday assorted links

by on November 23, 2015 at 12:13 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Liquidity premium > carrying costs, all of a sudden.

2. Debt to gdg ratios, and the distribution of how they change (China fact of the day).

3. The aging of the NPR audience.

4. Why doesn’t NYC know where its subway trains are?

5. “Lord’s Prayer advert banned before ‘Star Wars’…In a snub to the Church of England, an advert that was planned to coincide with the new film “The Force Awakens,” has been rejected by most UK cinemas due to fears it could be offensive.”  I call that one Ross Douthat bait…

6. The age-related savings glut is about to reverse.

Principles of Macroeconomics, the new course by Tyler and myself, has just launched at MRUniversity. We will be covering unemployment, inflation, business cycles, growth and much more. The first section which is up now covers GDP including

As usual, all the videos are free and will work with any textbook although of course they go best with the best textbook, Modern Principles.

Here is the introduction to GDP: