Tyler Cowen

Friday assorted links

by on November 17, 2017 at 11:23 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. “…broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea.” Link here.

2. “Our bland, featureless Midwest—on some level, it is a fantasy.

3. Does a study of Twitch.tv indicate net neutrality is a bad idea?

4. A dozen business lessons from Waffle House.

5. Tweetstorm on Cheesecake Factory design.

6. “Jones’ choice of hosiery proved most offensive, according to the editor. For the occasion, Jones had chosen a pair of tights — not in a neutral black or gray as is common in the halls of Vogue — but rather a pair covered with illustrated, cartoon foxes.”  Link here.

The Berkshire Museum, yes.  They were going to sell 40 paintings at Sotheby’s, including two very special Norman Rockwells, but at the last minute a court decision halted the sale, claiming (with only thin justification) that the sale would violate the museum’s trusts.  That is the setting of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The sad truth is that the people running the Berkshire Museum just don’t care that much about American art any more, at least not from an institutional point of view. Given that reality, it’s actually better if they are not entrusted with important artworks.

The court’s decision now means it will be hard to pull off the sale with fully clear rights to the titles, although the court’s judgment will be re-examined in December. Both the uncertainty and the surrounding negative publicity will scare off buyers and may spoil the market for a long time to come.

There is much more at the link.  The argument against selling, of course, is that in a world of frequent sales all museums will find it hard to make credibly binding commitments to their donors, who often do not want their donated works recycled in the marketplace.  But the equilibrium of zero selling is one that will destroy a great deal of value in the art world.  Note that this problem will become increasingly relevant as the clock ticks and the number and inappropriateness of past museum commitments piles up.  If nothing else, sooner or later insolvency sets in.  Rust never sleeps.  And so on.

Should churches really own all that land in the downturns of major American cities?

Greg Irving emails me:

Hello Prof. Cowen,

I wonder if you might be tempted to create a blog post, at your convenience, of Spanish language works, ideally read in the original, that have most impacted either a) your appreciation for some till then unknown nuance or beauty in the language or b) your knowledge of/appreciation for some aspect of life in general. Might you?

Quizás obviamente, soy alguien que va aprendiendo el idioma poco a poco sólo de interés y no de necesidad. Si usted se digna a crear una respuesta por este correo electrónico, o en su blog, me alegraría mucho. Gracias por todo el conocimiento que nos da en sus escritos y por leer mi nota.

My Spanish-language reading is slow, but these are the works I found it profitable to devote a great deal of time to.  They have influenced me significantly, and mostly I found the English-language version a poor substitute.  Here goes:

1. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones.  This was super-slow going, but it is one of my favorite books of all time, philosophical and conceptual and in Spanish deeply hilarious.  OK in English, but this book alone is almost reason enough to study Spanish.

2. Juan Rulfo, Pedro Paramo.  Imagine redoing parts of Dante, with more narrative, in rural Mexico and with lots of comedy.  The English-language version does not come close.

3. Julio Cortázar, Rayuela [Hopscotch].  One of my very favorite 20th century novels, again unsatisfying to me in English, I would not recommend that you try at all.  Also try his short stories, most of all Bestiario and Historias de cronopios y de famas.

4. Jose Donoso, El obsceno pájaro de la noche [The Obscene Bird of Night].  A masterpiece, quite neglected in the U.S., I found this one so hard I often had to juxtapose it with the English-language text to read it at all.

5. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Noticia de un Secuestro [Notice of a Kidnapping], and Vivir para contarla [Living in Order to Tell It].  Oddly, I think his greatest works are the non-fiction.  But these are at least pretty good in English too, unlike what is listed above.

6. Pablo Neruda.  Non-Spanish readers certainly have heard of him, or maybe like him, but don’t really have a sense of how he is one of the very greatest poets of all time.  It is Canto General, a book-length narrative poem retelling of the story of the New World, that influenced me most, but I love all the classic Neruda poems.

I don’t find it so profitable to read 17th century Cervantes in Spanish, though the defect is likely mine.  The Savage Detectives and One Hundred Years of Solitude I find as good in English as in Spanish; Marquez himself suggested that was true for this work.  Vargas Llosa is “good enough” in English, except perhaps for the inscrutable Conversation in the Cathedral, which I cannot follow in either language.  Javier Marías I find “good enough” in English.  The Goytisolo brothers are often too hard for me, not fun in English but I can’t quite manage the Spanish, perhaps in my dotage.  Fuentes has never clicked for me, period.  Hombres de maíz, by Asturias, is especially good in Spanish and pretty much neglected in the English-speaking world.

What else?

It is in the new issue of the Times Literary Supplement (a wonderful periodical of course), right now this link is ungated, for how long I do not know.  I thought the book was very well-written and especially impressively researched.  But on the side of economics and conceptual framework, I found it too biased.  Here is one excerpt from my review:

In a book with almost 400 pages of text, it is striking that government fraud is not seriously discussed, with the exception of the critical take on the Comstock movement, under which the Post Office took up a moral crusade against mail fraud, directed by the evangelical Anthony Comstock. Yet if consumers are so impetuous and ill-informed as to be frequent victims of business fraud, might not voters and even activist citizens be prone to similar manipulations? Balleisen mentions that such a view was held by the nineteenth-century Spencerian Edward Youmans, but he doesn’t do much more than mock it and then move on. Yet arguably the biggest fraud of the early part of the twentieth century was the selling of the First World War to the American public on mostly false pretences. Progressives led this sales pitch, through spokesmen such as Herbert Croly, and of course the President Woodrow Wilson, telling the American people that war was a noble cause that would revitalize the nation and save the world.

In Balleisen’s narrative, however, the Progressives show up only as critics of fraud.

And is corporate fraud really going up these days?:

Take lives lost in the workplace. An employer more or less promises that a job is relatively safe, and if it turns out to be dangerous that may reflect a kind of fraud or at the very least a major disappointment. Yet jobs in America have never been as safe as today, and furthermore the rate at which job safety increases does not seem to have been affected by the creation of the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA). Or what about food poisoning, which you also might take as a sign of a fraudulent transaction? Again, overall, the opportunity to buy truly transparently safe food supplies seems greater than ever before, notwithstanding the fact that more consumers are voluntarily taking chances with sushi, non-pasteurized cheeses and home-made raw milk. The nice thing about mortality statistics is that a death pretty much always reflects a disappointment with the transaction, but for most metrics (opioid markets being one significant exception) mortality is down over the past few decades.

Do read the whole thing.

Thursday assorted links

by on November 16, 2017 at 11:14 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

“A Perfect Fit,” by Isaac Asimov

by on November 16, 2017 at 2:03 am in Books, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

Gold said, “You underwent due process in great detail, and there was no reasonable doubt that you were guilty–”

“Even so!  Look!  We live in a computerized world.  I can’t do a thing anywhere — I can’t get information — I can’t be fed — I can’t amuse myself — I can’t pay for anything, or check on anything, or just plain do anything — without using a computer.  And I have been adjusted, as you surely know, so that I am incapable of looking at a computer without hurting my eyes, or touching one without blistering my fingers.  I can’t even handle my cash card or even think of using it without nausea.”

Gold said, “Yes, I know all that.  I also know you have been given ample funds for the duration of yoiur punishment, and that the general public has been asked to sympathize and be helpful.  I believe they do this.”

“I don’t want that.  I don’t want their help and their pity.  I don’t want to be a helpless child in a world of adults.  I don’t want to be an illiterate in a world of people who can read.  Help me end the punishment.  It’s been almost a month of hell.  I can’t go through eleven more.”

That is from the short story “A Perfect Fit,” from 1981, reproduced in the volume The Winds of Change and other stories.  I’ve been rereading some Asimov lately, in preparation for my chat with Andy Weir, and much of it has held up remarkably well.

Samuel Bazzi, Martin Fiszbein, and Mesay Gebresilasse have a new NBER working paper on that theme, here is the abstract:

In a classic 1893 essay, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier promoted individualism. We revisit the Frontier Thesis and examine its relevance at the subnational level. Using Census data and GIS techniques, we track the frontier throughout the 1790-1890 period and construct a novel, county-level measure of historical frontier experience. We document skewed sex ratios and other distinctive demographics of frontier locations, as well as their greater individualism (proxied by infrequent children names). Many decades after the closing of the frontier, counties with longer historical frontier experience exhibit more prevalent individualism and opposition to redistribution and regulation. We take several steps towards a causal interpretation, including an instrumental variables approach that exploits variation in the speed of westward expansion induced by national immigration inflows. Using linked historical Census data, we identify mechanisms giving rise to a persistent frontier culture. Selective migration contributed to greater individualism, and frontier conditions may have further shaped behavior and values. We provide evidence suggesting that rugged individualism may be rooted in its adaptive advantage on the frontier and the opportunities for upward mobility through effort.

I am very much a proponent of this line of reasoning.

Acclaimed legal scholar, Harvard Professor, and New York Times bestselling author Cass R. Sunstein brings together a compelling collection of essays by our nation’s brightest minds across the political spectrum—including Eric Posner, Tyler Cowen, Noah Feldman, Jack Goldsmith, and Martha Minow—who ponder the question: Can authoritarianism take hold here?

With the election of Donald J. Trump, many people on both the left and right feared that America’s 240-year-old grand experiment in democracy was coming to an end, and that Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel, It Can’t Happen Here, written during the dark days of the 1930s, could finally be coming true.

Is the democratic freedom that the United States symbolizes really secure? Can authoritarianism happen in America? Sunstein queried a number of the nation’s leading thinkers. In Can It Happen Here? he gathers together their diverse perspectives on these timely questions and more.

In this thought-provoking collection of essays, these distinguished thinkers and theorists explore the lessons of history, how democracies crumble, how propaganda works, and the role of the media, courts, elections, and “fake news” in the modern political landscape—and what the future of the United States may hold.

Due out in March, pre-order here.  The book also has Jon Elster, Timur Kuran, and Jonathan Haidt, dare I call it self-recommending?

Here is the transcript and podcast, I enjoyed this chat very much.  Here is part of the opening summary:

Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape.

Our conversation considered the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her time as a revolutionary, New York City lifestyle and neighborhoods and dining, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, Halldor Laxness, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City subway conductor, among other topics.

Here is one sequence:

GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.

[laughter]

GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.

It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?

COWEN: Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: Lee Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?

GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.

COWEN: Management books.

GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.

COWEN: You don’t?

GIDLA: No.

GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.

And this toward the end:

COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?

GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”

Strongly recommended.  I was pleased to see that Publisher’s Weekly named Sujatha Gidla’s book as one of the ten best of 2017, you can order it here.

Wednesday assorted links

by on November 15, 2017 at 2:40 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Who’s sitting next to you on the subway?

2. New results on the returns to education.

3. Meet the people who listen to podcasts at super speed.

4. Those with a college degree gain more from freer trade, but not actually by that much.

5. “Consistent with the reduced form results, the model estimates imply that labor supply factors are responsible for nearly the entire rise of in-and-outs, while changes in labor demand have contributed little…”  Link hereAnd “Our estimates suggest that the decline in product reallocation through these margins has contributed greatly to the slow growth experienced after the Great Recession.”

6. Absent-mindedness as dominance behavior.

7. MIE Hyderabad spot-a-beggar.

Gifts of the Immigrants, Woes of the Natives: Lessons from the Age of Mass Migration (2017). JOB MARKET PAPER
Abstract: In this paper, I show that political opposition to immigration can arise even when immigrants bring significant economic prosperity to receiving areas. I exploit exogenous variation in European immigration to US cities between 1910 and 1930 induced by World War I and the Immigration Acts of the 1920s, and instrument immigrants’ location decision relying on pre-existing settlement patterns. Immigration increased natives’ employment and occupational standing, and fostered industrial production and capital utilization. However, it lowered tax rates, public spending, and the pro-immigration party’s (i.e., Democrats) vote share. The inflow of immigrants was also associated with the election of more conservative representatives, and with rising support for anti-immigration legislation. I provide evidence that political backlash was increasing in the cultural distance between immigrants and natives, suggesting that diversity might be economically beneficial but politically hard to manage.

That is from Marco Tabellini, job market candidate at MIT.

…sons crowd out human capital acquisition by daughters.  If all daughters of self-employed men experienced the “sisters-only” level of transmission, the overall gender gap in self-employment would be reduced by nearly 20 percent.

That is from Elizabeth Mishkin, on the job market from Harvard.

While we are on related topics:

I establish that women in U.S. counties with heavier casualties were more active in starting new businesses after the war [WWII] ended and this difference persists to this day. I also find that single women were more likely to start new businesses than war widows. Evidence in favor of the marriage market channel suggests that reducing opportunity cost is more effective in encouraging women to start new businesses than merely providing financial subsidies.

That is from Patrick Luo, also on the job market from Harvard.

Tuesday assorted links

by on November 14, 2017 at 12:35 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Average is over, installment #6372.

2. Does the home mortgage deduction limit the demand for (other) redistribution?

3. Corporate influence in World Bank lending.

4. Why is everyone interested in Djibouti?

5. “What sorts of workplace-related issues have been suppressed by 3-4 decades of a tough environment for workers?”  More here from Conor Sen.

6. “Nearly every other city in California performs better than San Francisco in educating low-income students, and it’s not like most of the cities are knocking it out of the park.” Link here.

7. The Trump administration is shifting back toward fee-for-service health payments (NYT).

8. IV uh-oh.

The dystopia of Malcolm Harris

by on November 14, 2017 at 1:56 am in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

He is the author of the new and interesting Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials.  Most of the book is about millennials as the generation that invests in itself.  Towards the end he lays out a somewhat separate discussion of what a future dystopia might look like, I am very briefly summarizing his seven points, noting that some of the headings are my rewordings:

1. The equitization of human capital.  This will start out as “win-win” transactions, but eventually will become “subprime human capital.”

2. The professionalization of childhood.  Kids will start preparing for fairly specific and very locked-in careers at quite young ages, and find it difficult to deviate later on.

3. “Climate privilege.”  The ability to live somewhere insulated from most of the costs of climate change will become a major marker of class and privilege.

4. Discrimination by algorithm.

5. “The Malfunctioning.”  “America will need institutions for people who just can’t make it….I don’t think this will be “funemployment” of a guaranteed minimum income.  It’s more likely to be an unholy combination of mental asylum and work camp.”

6. Misogynist backlash.

7. Fully tracked.  The “data self” will increasingly approach the “real self.”

Worth a ponder.

The subtitle is Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy, and the author is leading Syrian intellectual Yassin Al-Haj Saleh.  Imagine having a well-written book, totally conversant in the arguments of the social sciences, that set out to explain the Syrian tragedy to an intelligent reader.  Here is one typical bit:

The extremely decentralized nature of the Syrian revolution stemmed from nearly half a century of regime-enforced seclusion and isolation of Syrian society.  It was also occasioned by the regime’s forcible domination over all social interaction — and so a divide-and-conquer strategy was used by the Assadist oligarchy to confront the revolution right from the start.  Such strategies made any protest activities in central squares obviously impossible because this would have permitted the gathering of Syrian society’s diverse groups, and perhaps would have also allowed a degree of discussion, exchange of opinions, and general building of trust.  Keeping this in mind, it becomes clear that the extreme, forced fragmentation of the revolution’s activities is an additional factor that has facilitated the spread of the nihilist synthesis of complete distrust and a propensity for violence.

Where else can you find a book that compares and contrasts ISIS nihilism to 19th century Russian nihilism, or Sultanic principles in Syria vs. Lebanon?:

Lebanon is a neo-Sultanic state without a Sultan, and should either fill the gap and assign a Sultan with a well-developed general security shield, or turn the page of the sectarian patronage system and evolve toward a state of citizenship and equality.  In the context of present interconnections between the two Sultanates, Lebanon is the incomplete one with a large ‘security branch’ (i.e. Hezbollah) that is leaning more towards Sultanism, and the complete model is currently beset by a revolution.

Strongly recommended.  And as the author himself suggests in closing: “It is always necessary to demystify sectarian fraud…”

You can order the book here, though please note I do not sympathize with the author’s career or overall views in many respects.  He was a political prisoner from 1980-1996.  “Worthy of Gramsci…”  This book remains under-reviewed by mainstream outlets.