Current Affairs

This study compared perpetrators of seven mass killings during 2013–2017 with more than 600 celebrities over the same time period. Findings indicate that the mass killers received approximately $75 million in media coverage value, and that for extended periods following their attacks they received more coverage than professional athletes and only slightly less than television and film stars. In addition, during their attack months, some mass killers received more highly valued coverage than some of the most famous American celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Aniston. Finally, most mass killers received more coverage from newspapers and broadcast/cable news than the public interest they generated through online searches and Twitter seems to warrant. Unfortunately, this media attention constitutes free advertising for mass killers that may increase the likelihood of copycats.

That is from an Adam Lankford paper, via Rolf Degen.

I feel I am repeating myself, but these remain neglected:

1. The good outcomes for African immigrants to the United States mean we could and should take in more such immigrants, to mutual benefit.

2. In part these gains arise from selection, namely that it is not easy to get from Africa to the United States, at least not generally.  So we should not make it too easy, even though we should take in more migrants.  “Take in more, keep hard” sounds contradictory but it is not.  And if African outcomes decline in quality at the margin, that is a sign that policy is working (more entrants), not that policy is failing.

3. We cannot let everyone in, and so at the margin there will always be cruelties when it comes to those who are denied entry, sent back, and so on.  Right now even Canada may be sending back some Haitians (NYT).  Those cruelties are relevant for assessing an immigration decision, but they are not decisive.  If you cite the cruelties without also outlining a limiting principle for the appropriate margin where immigration ought to stop, you are arguing poorly and most of all fooling yourself.  It is a good recipe for never thinking clearly again about any policy issue.

4. Adopting a cosmopolitan ethic will increase the margin at which immigration should be allowed.  But still we cannot let everyone in, if only because of backlash effects.  And if backlash effects are the binding constraint, the degree of cosmopolitanism in your ethic may not matter much for finding the appropriate rate of immigration.

5. Just to repeat, we really should take in more immigrants.  Not only from Africa, but from many countries that are not major successes on the gdp or education front, India and Iran being two other obvious examples.

6. Will Wilkinson has an excellent NYT piece on making immigration deals with Trump.

A few points:

1. Facebook can now claim it is truly addressing the problems (way exaggerated in my opinion) associated with the 2016 election.  This looks decisive, and the company can present it as a turning point.

2. In essence, they are blaming the media, without having to throw the stones themselves.  Americans respond positively to attacks on the media, so this is a strong public relations move.  Facebook retains the option of blaming the media more explicitly for its previous troubles, if need be.

3. The news feed can always be reintroduced under another name or guise.  Two years from now, the entire dialogue about the major web companies is likely to be different, one way or another.

4. I do understand this may devastate some marginal media outlets, and in fact many media outlets are marginal these days in economic terms.  Still, in the longer run I prefer a scenario where other web sites try to compete with Facebook rather than being co-opted by it and dependent on it.

5. Does this mean more ads will turn up on Instagram, chat apps, Facebook Messenger, and other Facebook services?

There is also this angle (NYT, speculative):

Facebook’s pulling back from the news — which necessarily depends on conflict — and elevation of homier material may bolster the company’s attempt to enter China, where it has been met with stiff resistance.

“Facebook is just desperate to get into China, and it will never do that unless it censors news — and this is actually a neat solution to that,” Mr. Weisberg, the Slate chairman, said. “If you only have news on the platform shared by users, users who live under repressive regimes don’t have access to real news and can’t share it, because it’s legally prohibited.”

I’m not entirely happy about this last factor, but I also don’t see how it is better for China for Facebook to remain permanently outside the country.  And if the desire to enter China makes Facebook in some way worse for Americans, that is a potential problem, but I don’t see how this move makes the overall media environment worse for Americans.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Or consider Nigerian-Americans, Nigeria being the most populous nation in Africa. Their education levels are among the very highest in the U.S., above those of Asians, with 17 percent of Nigerian migrants having a master’s degree.

And:

Economist Edward Lazear suggests a simple experiment. Consider immigrants to the U.S. from Algeria, Israel and Japan, and rank them in order of most educated to least educated. The correct answer is Algeria, Israel then Japan. Although that’s counterintuitive at first glance, it’s easy enough to see how it works. If you are Algerian and educated, or aspire to be educated, your prospects in Algeria are relatively poor and you may seek to leave. A talented, educated person in Japan or Israel can do just fine by staying at home. These kinds of considerations explain about 73 percent of the variation in the educational outcomes of migrants.

Do read the whole thing.

Maybe not, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column:

The numbers instead indicate that lobbying hurts the underlying capital values of the corporations. Lobbying doesn’t increase the chance that favored bills are passed by Congress, and it isn’t associated with the company receiving more government contracts.

Those are the key results from a new study by Zhiyan Cao, Guy D. Fernando, Arindam Tripathy and Arun Upadhyay, published in the Journal of Corporate Finance and considering 1,500 S&P companies over the period 1998 to 2016. Neither spending money at all on lobbying nor spending more money on lobbying over those years seem to help companies, and for that matter contributions to political action committees don’t work either.

And:

If corporate lobbying is an unprofitable use of money, why does it happen? One possibility is that corporate leaders are using company resources to indulge their own ideological preferences. Other researchers have found that companies with weaker governance and more entrenched management are those more likely to spend on lobbying. This study finds that lobbying expenditures are higher when the percentage of CEO perks is higher and when the board of the company is larger.

It’s also possible lobbyists are ripping off companies with slick sales pitches, or that incompetent CEOs are spending money on lobbying so they seem to be doing something constructive.

Do read the whole thing, I also consider under what kind of hypothesis the lobbying actually might be paying off.

A company which supplied lingerie to the Queen has lost its royal warrant over a book which revealed details of royal bra fittings.

Rigby & Peller, a luxury underwear firm founded in London, had held the royal warrant since 1960.

It was withdrawn after June Kenton, who fitted bras for the Queen, released a book called ‘Storm in a D-Cup’.

Mrs Kenton said there was “nothing” in the book to “be upset about”, adding that it was an “unbelievable” decision.

Buckingham Palace said it did not “comment on individual companies”.

A statement from Rigby & Peller said it was “deeply saddened” by the decision, adding it was “not able to elaborate further on the cancellation out of respect for her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Warrant Holders Association”.

The Royal Warrants Association says 20 to 40 Royal Warrants are cancelled every year – and a similar number granted.

File under “elsewhere in the cosmos.”  And for the pointer I thank M.

A Twitter battle over the size of each “nuclear button” possessed by President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has spiked sales of a drug that protects against radiation poisoning.

Troy Jones, who runs the website www.nukepills.com, said demand for potassium iodide soared last week, after Trump tweeted that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” button than Kim — a statement that raised new fears about an escalating threat of nuclear war.

“On Jan. 2, I basically got in a month’s supply of potassium iodide and I sold out in 48 hours,” said Jones, 53, who is a top distributor of the drug in the United States. His Mooresville, N.C., firm sells all three types of the product approved by the Food and Drug Administration. No prescription is required.

Here is the full piece, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over individual members. Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than just ideology.

But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

But what if you’re a Democrat? In these days of Republican rule, you might have discovered a newfound love for stasis. Still, earmarks make it harder for, say, far-right party members to hold legislation hostage to their demands. In other words, party leadership can put up a more centrist bill and then buy off the extremists with local benefits rather than policy concessions.

There is much more at the linkAddendum: I thank Garett Jones for spurring my interest in this topic.

Here in the land of technology leadership and free-market enterprise, American regulation has more than doubled the cost of solar.

The regulation comes in three un-American guises: permitting, code and tariffs — and together they are killing the U.S. residential market. Modernizing these regulations, primarily at the local and state level, is the greatest opportunity for U.S. solar policy in 2018.

To highlight the opportunity, let’s look at Australia, where nearly 2 million solar systems have been successfully and safely installed.

As of early December, installed costs in the main Australian markets were at $1.34 per watt, compared to $3.25 per watt in the U.S. What does that difference stem from?

In Australia, there is no permitting process. You simply lodge your request for interconnection online and go install it. The figure below highlights the relative mass of valueless work required to satisfy current city-level bureaucracy in the U.S., which adds between two and six months to delivery time and 47 cents per watt of cost directly to the installed system. That’s more than the cost of the panels themselves!

…the U.S. National Electrical Code dictates a best practice that more than doubles the installation time relative to Australia, and adds incremental hardware expense — together adding 49 cents per watt to the cost of solar. There is no discernable difference in the quality and safety of solar installations overseas relative to the U.S.

…There are no tariffs on imported hardware in Australia because it’s obvious to all that the jobs in solar are in sales and installation, not in manufacturing. That’s another 21 cents per watt in the Australians’ pocket — and a thousand dollars back into the economy per system sold.

And because solar is so much cheaper, as well as faster and easier to buy, it’s also much cheaper, faster and easier to sell. Acquisition costs in Australia average $400 per installed customer, compared to $2,500 in the U.S.

At lower cost and without the two- to six-month wait time and all of the permitting complexity, cancellation rates are minimal, compared to an average of about 30 percent for reputable U.S. companies. How many other electronics purchases do you know of that take up to half a year to be installed? That’s another 42 cents per watt of lower solar costs.

From Andrew Birch, there is much more at the link, read it and weep.  Via Felix Yates.

…advocates of a new copyright term extension bill wouldn’t be able to steamroll opponents the way they did 20 years ago. Any term extension proposal would face a well-organized and well-funded opposition with significant grassroots support.

“After the SOPA fight, Hollywood likely knows that the public would fight back,” wrote Daniel Nazer, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an email to Ars. “I suspect that Big Content knows it would lose the battle and is smart enough not to fight.”

“I haven’t seen any evidence that Big Content companies plan to push for another term extension,” Nazer added. “This is an election year, so if they wanted to get a big ticket like that through Congress, you would expect to see them laying the groundwork with lobbying and op-eds.”

Of course, copyright interests might try to slip a copyright term extension into a must-pass bill in hopes opponents wouldn’t notice until it was too late. But Rose doesn’t think that would work.

Here is the full piece, via someone in my Twitter feed sorry I forget.

A number of Chinese mobile applications have been shut down after it was revealed women on their platforms were actually automated robots, it’s reported.

According to the Modern Express newspaper, police have closed down mobile apps associated with 21 companies and arrested more than 600 suspects operating across 13 provinces, after discovering that messages from some women were being automatically generated by computer programmes.

Police in southern Guangdong province began investigating in August 2017, after suspecting one app of fraudulently charging visitors to view pornographic videos which did not exist.

Further investigation found that technical personnel from at least one company had created fake “sexy girl” accounts. They wrote computer programmes which generated greeting messages and compliments from fake accounts, and targeted these at newly registered users.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.

I will be doing a Conversation with Charles (no public event), what should I ask him?  Charles is one of my favorite writers, as he is the author of 1491, 1493, and the new and excellent The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here is yet another excerpt from the latter book:

Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and inspiration.  Here is Charles’s home page, he also has many excellent magazine articles.

Security breach in India?

by on January 5, 2018 at 12:27 pm in Current Affairs, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

In 2010 India started scanning personal details like names, addresses, dates of birth, mobile numbers, and more, along with all 10 fingerprints and iris scans of its 1.3 billion citizens, into a centralized government database called Aadhaar to create a voluntary identity system. On Wednesday this database was reportedly breached.

The Tribune, a local Indian newspaper, published a report claiming its reporters paid Rs. 500 (approximately $8) to a person who said his name was Anil Kumar, and who they contacted through WhatsApp. Kumar was able to create a username and password that gave them access to the demographic information of nearly 1.2 billion Indians who have currently enrolled in Aadhaar, simply by entering a person’s unique 12-digit Aadhaar number. Regional officers working with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government agency responsible for Aadhaar, told the Tribune the access was “illegal,” and a “major national security breach.”

second report, published on Thursday by the Quint, an Indian news website, revealed that anyone can create an administrator account that lets them access the Aadhaar database as long as they’re invited by an existing administrator.

Here is the full story, via Brian Slesinsky.

Oregon has just passed a law that gives gas stations in rural counties the option of allowing self-pumping (in some rural counties this is allowed only between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.!) As you have probably heard, this incomplete lifting of an absurd restriction has some Oregonians upset and afraid.

“I don’t even know HOW to pump gas and I am 62, native Oregonian . . . I say NO THANKS! I don’t like to smell like gasoline!” one woman wrote.

“No! Disabled, seniors, people with young children in the car need help. Not to mention getting out of your car with transients around and not feeling safe. This is a very bad idea. Grrr,” another woman wrote.

“I’ve lived in this state all my life and I REFUSE to pump my own gas . . . This [is] a service only qualified people should perform. I will literally park at the pump and wait until someone pumps my gas.”

Most of the rest of the America–where people pump their own gas everyday without a second thought–is having a good laugh at Oregon’s expense. But I am not here to laugh because in every state but one where you can pump your own gas you can’t open a barbershop without a license. A license to cut hair! Ridiculous. I hope people in Alabama are laughing at the rest of America. Or how about a license to be a manicurist? Go ahead Connecticut, laugh at the other states while you get your nails done. Buy contact lens without a prescription? You have the right to smirk British Columbia!

All of the Oregonian complaints about non-professionals pumping gas–“only qualified people should perform this service”, “it’s dangerous” and “what about the jobs”–are familiar from every other state, only applied to different services.

Once we got familiar with self-pumping it didn’t seem like a problem, but it’s surprising we ever got self-pumping as it would have been easy to scare people into voting no. After all, the case for trained gas pumpers is far stronger than for licensed barbers. Perhaps we were less risk averse and complacent in the past. I don’t think we could build the Hoover Dam today either.

It’s easier to scare than to inform and we fear losses more than we desire gains so collective decision-making defaults toward stasis.

We have innovations like Uber and Airbnb and many others only because entrepreneurs didn’t have to ask for permission. Had we put these ideas to the vote they would have been defeated. Allow almost anyone with a car to drive customers around town? Stranger danger! Let any house be turned into a hotel? Not in my neighborhood! Once the innovations were brought into existence, the masses saw the benefits but they would not have seen those benefits if the idea had been put to a vote. Demonstration is more powerful than imagination.

More and more, however, the sphere of individual action shrinks and that of collective action grows. Thus, I do not laugh at the Oregonians and their fear of gas pumping freedom. We are all Oregonians in one form or another.

Yes, the Matt Levine who writes for Bloomberg.  The “the only greeting you need is “Only you can do what you do!”” Matt Levine.

That one (not the other one).  I’ll be having a Conversation with him, so what should I ask?

Did you know by the way that Matt can speak Latin?