Toothpick crossbow that can shoot iron nails more than 20 metres (65 feet) the latest must-have toy in China

Here is the story, via Mark Thorson.

C. inquires:

Why do we live in the golden age of economic history? Was there something identifiable that caused the subfield to grow in esteem? Some new technology that changed the costs of research (not that I can see)? Something else?

Mark Koyama should write a Medium essay on this, but in the meantime here are my thoughts:

1. We now know much, much more about the earlier economic histories of China, India, and some other locales.  The rise of more and better graduate students from the emerging economies, or for that matter from Europe, has been essential here.

2. Some of the turn toward economic history came with the financial crisis, and the search for longer-term parallels, which meant looking back in history, most of all to the Great Depression.

3. Although the advance of cliometrics started a long time ago, we are now finally at intergenerational margins where economic historians are as quantitatively well-equipped as most parts of the applied micro spectrum.

4. The stranger the time period, the more people will have to look to broader stretches of history for understanding.  Yes, this one is an uh-oh.

5. Some applied micro fields have become a little more boring, so that has helped a partial shift of status to economic history.  Public data sets have been exhausted, and a lot of economic history data sets are “weird or idiosyncratic” data sets, which now are “in” and I predict will stay “in” for a long while to come because they offer the possibilities of both new discoveries and moats.

6. An academic trend that hasn’t yet been exploited usually ends up exploited, sooner or later, once the right nudge comes along.

5b, 6b. In chess, the top players are opting for the Giuoco Piano once again.

7. Competing economic models are more “allowed” in the subfield — not everything must be neoclassical — which has opened economic historians to more wide-ranging questions.  Economic history remains a good place to pursue the questions about economics that initially interested many people as undergraduates.

8. Academic attention is more media-driven these days, and good economic history papers usually have a story of some kind, and perhaps also a historical personage, event, or institution of broader interest.

*Little Soldiers*

by on June 20, 2017 at 2:24 am in Books, Education, Uncategorized | Permalink

The author is Lenora Chu and the subtitle is An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.  It’s about what the Shanghai public school system really is like, from an American/Chinese-American point of view.  Here is one bit:

“Self-esteem” doesn’t exist in the Chinese lexicon, at least not in the way Americans use it.  In China, a child’s regard for herself is rarely as important as a stark evaluation of performance.  Almost as if child-rearing were an Olympic sport, the Chinese rank children on everything from work ethic to Chinese character recognition and musical skill.

Comparisons can be informal and conversational.

“He’s not as smart as his brother, but he’s a better singer,” my acquaintance Ming said to me once, nodding at one of her boys, in earshot of the less-smart brother.  Sometimes the desire to rank is combined with a threat. “Does your father love your brother more?” a Chinese teacher once asked my friend Rebeca’s daughter.  The question came after the girl had a bad showing on an in-class assignment.

By the way, according to the author:

Nearly half of all children outside of China’s large cities are high school dropouts.

An interesting read.

Here is his long post, here is the opening entry:


Pranab Bardhan, The Economic Theory of Agrarian Institutions. There was a time when development took theory seriously, and this book came out of that time. This book is a bit uneven (it’s an edited volume), but the introductory chapter by Joseph Stiglitz is probably the single, most important statement peasants in developing countries as rational human beings. In short: Whenever you find yourself thinking that some behavior you observe in a developing country is stupid, think again. People behave the way they do because they are rational. and If you think they are stupid, it’s because you have failed to recognize a fundamental feature of their economic environment.

In addition to its intrinsic interest, this post is a good meta-reflection of what actually influences the thinking of economists, or not.

I was sent an email asking what I myself thought of the recent Jeff Bezos charity query, and that email contained a number of questions.  I’m not at liberty to reproduce it, but with some minor edits I think you will be able to make sense of my responses, as given here:

  1. Since the marginal value of extra consumption by him (or even far less wealthy people) is essentially zero, there are many “good enough” charitable ventures.
  2. The rate of abandonment is high for charitable support.
  3. Often the key is for a super-productive person, with lots of stimulating opportunities at his or her disposal (if only running the status quo businesses, or say meeting other famous people), is to find something charitable that will hold his or her interest.  But how can it possibly be as fun as the earlier successes and extending them?
  4. I disagree with your descriptions of the philanthropic strategies offered in your email.  I suspect that most or all are attempted examples of my #3, namely what is actually short-run thinking.
  5. They are all super short-term strategies, once the attention constraint is measured.
  6. In this regard, there is nothing strange about Bezos’s plea and expressed desire to do some good in the short term, except its transparency.
  7. Perhaps earlier philanthropists, such as Carnegie, had many fewer opportunities for fun, if only because their times were so primitive and backward. That made it easier for them to keep up enthusiasm for truly long-term projects.
  8. I still think the real opportunities are for *true* long-run thinking, admittedly subject to the constraint that it keeps one’s short-term interest up.
  9. Cultivating one’s own weirdness, or having a lot of it in the first place, is one way to ease the congruence I mention in #8.
  10. Even truly smart and wise people often “give to people” rather than to projects.  This is for one thing a strategy for keeping one’s own interest up.

So to tie this all back in to Jeff Bezos, I don’t know what he should do.  I don’t know him personally, nor do I even have an especially strong knowledge of the second-hand sources about him.

But I think he is exactly on the right track to be thinking about what motivates him personally, and what is likely to hold his attention.  And I don’t think his approach is any more “short term” than most of the other philanthropy of the super-rich.

Here is the tweet link, here is the text:

This tweet is a request for ideas.  I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working for the long term.  For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now.  As one example, I’m very inspired and moved by the work done at Mary’s Place here in Seattle.  I like long-term — it’s a huge lever: Blue Origin, Amazon, Washington Post — all of these are contributing to society and civilization in their own ways.  But I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now — short-term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.  If you have ideas, just reply to this tweet with the idea (and if you think this approach is wrong, would love to hear that too).



After I see what you all come up with, and after I edit out the most brilliant ideas, I’ll tweet back your responses to him.  I’ll come up with something of my own as well.

Indifference Curves!

by on June 14, 2017 at 10:54 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

The latest video in our Principles of Microeconomics course at MRUniversity is on indifference curves (earlier videos covered marginal utility and budget constraints). In at least one way this video is better than any we have previously done.

As always, these videos go great with our beautiful textbook Modern Principles of Economics.

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.


LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.


LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.


Relative to my education, including self-education, I think of myself as commanding only a limited English-language vocabulary.  Some of this comes from having studied two foreign languages as an adult, which means picking up vocabulary in other languages instead, as the marginal value of a word in the foreign language usually will be higher.  Another factor is the complementarity of “direct speech” modes and a fairly modest vocabulary; it doesn’t make sense to talk common sense and suddenly interject “albescent.”

There is also a third reason.  I think of “flowery” vocabulary as operating against what Richard Hamming calls “compound learning.”  Compound learning occurs when your new learning, and your new analysis, builds steadily upon the old.  Over time, learning is a bit like compound interest and it cumulates.

When compound learning is possible, you wish to keep a relatively well-defined set of analytic pieces on the table.  It is fine and indeed essential to add to those pieces, but then the new piece should be one that will stick around for a while, again so that you may learn with it.  Furthermore it should be readily shared with other people, used with ease on the blog or Twitter, and stick in your mind without much if any effort.  It’s a bit like having a consistent programming language or micro model to share across a lunch table, or indeed with yourself over time.

Should I write of a “velleity,” or of a slight, non-fervent wish?

The former seems to me rather periphrastic.

Here is the article, here is one excerpt:

A new issue of Econ Journal Watch, an online journal, includes a symposium in which prominent economic thinkers are asked to provide their “most regretted statements”. Held regularly, such exercises might take the shame out of changing your mind. Yet the symposium also shows how hard it is for scholars to grapple with intellectual regret. Some contributions are candid; Tyler Cowen’s analysis of how and why he underestimated the risk of financial crisis in 2007 is enlightening. But some disappoint, picking out regrets that cast the writer in a flattering light or using the opportunity to shift blame.

Here again is the symposium, here is my contribution.

That is the new Journal of Economic Literature survey by Dennis Epple, Richard E. Romano, and Miguel Urquiola.  It is a fine piece, the best I have seen (and in fact one of the better survey pieces I’ve read on any literature), and it stresses such important distinctions as small- vs. large-scale voucher programs, and why that matters for interpreting various voucher tests.  Here is the abstract:

We review the theoretical, computational, and empirical research on school vouchers, with a focus on the latter. Our assessment is that the evidence to date is not sufficient to warrant recommending that vouchers be adopted on a widespread basis; however, multiple positive findings support continued exploration. Specifically, the empirical research on small-scale programs does not suggest that awarding students a voucher is a systematically reliable way to improve educational outcomes, and some detrimental effects have been found. Nevertheless, in some settings, or for some subgroups or outcomes, vouchers can have a substantial positive effect on those who use them. Studies of large-scale voucher programs find student sorting as a result of their implementation, although of varying magnitude. Evidence on both small-scale and large-scale programs suggests that competition induced by vouchers leads public schools to improve. Moreover, research is making progress on understanding how vouchers may be designed to limit adverse effects from sorting, while preserving positive effects related to competition. Finally, our sense is that work originating in a single case (e.g., a given country) or in a single research approach (e.g., experimental designs) will not provide a full understanding of voucher effects; fairly wide-ranging empirical and theoretical work will be necessary to make progress.
That is not nearly as negative a picture of vouchers as you might have seen floating around lately.  It is interesting that vouchers seem to work especially well in Colombia, much better than in the United States.  And here is from the conclusion:
…Vouchers have been neither the rousing success imagined by proponents nor the abject failure predicted by opponents…The most robust finding is that voucher threats induce public schools to improve.
Definitely recommended.

It was 1968, and Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.  I saw the funeral on television, at age six.  There was a casket, and a long line of soldiers or National Guardsmen (?), standing motionless with tight chinstraps and very serious expressions, or so I seem to recall.

I knew what death was, but otherwise I struggled to understand.  Suddenly my grandmother blurted out something like: “If one of those guys moves an inch, they’ll line him up and shoot him!”

An early instance of fake news you might say, but since that time I have sought to place that comment in a broader framework.  I have thought of a few options:

1. She thought this was the case.

2. She wished this was the case.

3. She felt the need to express the gravity of the situation to me and my sister, and this was the first thing that came to her mind.  Since I had not much of a framework for processing the comment, she didn’t regard it as a lie or falsehood, rather a dab of added meaning.

4. She had just read Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”

5. She sought to instill discipline in me, and was reaffirming her own role at the center of this process, and here was a didactic example to be cited.  A smaller penalty, such as a decrease in shore leave, I might not have understood.

6. She enjoyed lying.

7. I enjoy lying.

Of these, #3 seems the most likely, with a bit of #5 and maybe #2.

How much of our political discourse fits the general pattern of this exchange?

My second political memory is the evening of the Nixon-Humphrey election.

I still have fairly good political memories of the early 1970s, including (especially) Watergate, and now this knowledge is worth more than it used to be.

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

That is from Richard W. Hamming, invaluable throughout.  Hat tip is from Patrick Collison.  Here is the book by Hamming.

In the world of competitive spellers, Sylvie Lamontagne is known as a juggernaut. She placed fourth in last year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, and ninth in 2015. Last summer, she traveled to California and won the Spelling Bee of China’s North America Spelling Champion Challenge, a contest for kids in the United States and China.

Now that the 14-year-old from Denver is no longer eligible to compete in this week’s National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland — which is televised on ESPN and often turns kids like Sylvie into momentary celebrities — she’s focusing on a new vocation: spelling bee coach.

Sylvie’s rate? $200 an hour.

Hiring coaches isn’t new. But bee aficionados say a recent surge in competition, and a tightening of rules meant to limit co-champions, has spawned a demand for younger coaches such as Sylvie: high-schoolers or college kids, months or just a few years into their bee retirement, who can pass along fresh intelligence on words to memorize and how to decode bizarre words based on their language of origin.

That is from Ian Shapira at WaPo.

A king cursed: Kenneth Rogoff’s The Curse of Cash is assayed by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, and Rogoff responds.
Stationarity problem: Brendan Beare criticizes a Journal of Econometrics article purporting to model a time series of densities as a nonstationary cointegrated process.
Music piracy coda: Stan Liebowitz replies to Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf.
Got entrepreneurship yet?: Dan Johansson and Arvid Malm search textbooks and assigned readings at top Econ Ph.D. programs.
New entries extend the Classical Liberalism in Econ, by Country series to 15 articles:
My Most Regretted Statements, a symposium, contains these contributions:
  • Monique Bégin tells of a statement she often repeated in her time as Canada’s Minister of National Health & Welfare: “Canada is the Sweden of the Americas.”
  • Michael Boskin reflects on his time as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the hazards of misattribution, of not controlling op-ed titles, and of equations going missing.
  • Tyler Cowen reflects on his circa 2007 underestimation of the likelihood of a major financial crisis.
  • Jon Elster draws from his work on defective belief formation, illustrating with his own past errors, including about the electorate binding itself and about thinking of anti-communists “as a clock that is always one hour late rather than as a broken clock that shows the right time twice a day.”
  • Richard Epstein tells of his conversion to consequentialism.
  • Sam Peltzman relates his hardy forecast in 1988 of Michael Dukakis’s impending victory over George H. W. Bush.
  • Cass Sunstein begins: “I have said a lot of things that I regret.” And he ends: “A main job of academics is to float ideas and take risks, and if they do not make mistakes, or learn enough to change their minds, well, that’s really something to regret.”
Access the symposium here.
EJW Audio