Political Science

And here is what it tells us:

In the most recent paper, and one published earlier in the year by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, these were among the predictive correlations:

■ The system was able to accurately predict income, race, education and voting patterns at the ZIP code and precinct level in cities across the country.

■ Car attributes (including miles-per-gallon ratings) found that the greenest city in America is Burlington, Vt., while Casper, Wyo., has the largest per-capita carbon footprint.

■ Chicago is the city with the highest level of income segregation, with large clusters of expensive and cheap cars in different neighborhoods; Jacksonville, Fla., is the least segregated by income.

■ New York is the city with the most expensive cars. El Paso has the highest percentage of Hummers. San Francisco has the highest percentage of foreign cars.

That is from Steve Lohr at the NYT, and here is a link to the earlier research as cited in the first sentence.

In other words, why don’t they put everything into Atlanta or Los Angeles?  Paul Krugman has a good blog post on that topic, here is one of his points:

…once upon a time dispersed agriculture ensured that small cities serving rural hinterlands would survive. But for generations we have lived in an economy in which smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out.

Krugman suggests that eventually many smaller cities will indeed fade away, although the process of equilibration may be a long and slow one.  All of his points are well-founded, nonetheless I can see a few factors favoring the continuing existence of small cities on a greater scale than many might be expecting:

1. As Alex points out on Twitter, rents are permanently lower, and many people don’t value big city amenities very much.

2. Congestion is likely to be lower.  Why should the larger city have worse traffic if it has proportionately more roads?  That may require a blog post of its own, but part of the problem is geographic specialization within the larger city, which is not simply some number of smaller cities placed side by side.  In other words, sometimes you have to drive all the way across town.  Many people don’t like geographic specialization, but wish to find most everything in a small downtown or Walmart (or on Amazon).   From this point you can see that Amazon may favor larger cities more than small towns.  If it bugs you that in a large city all the shopping of a particular kind is on the other side of town, just order those goods on-line and stay within your cozy neighborhood.

3. Governance may become worse in a very large city.  Furthermore, separate and specialized lobbies, as would correspond to geographically specialized parts of a large city, may be a bad influence.  Here is a paper on the public choice of mega-city governance.

4. Very large, rich, and famous cities tend to become financial centers, or perhaps movie-making centers, and that is not in the interest of all city residents.  Some of this is a matter of rents, in other regards a matter of culture and ethos.  Anonymity also increases with size, as does (I think) sexual promiscuity.  Smaller locales will have more faux conformism and more real conformism too, which some people prefer.  People not wanting to live amongst all the specialization of major cities really is a significant and enduring factor in these comparisons.

5. If you are building a firm for eventual export success, you will prefer to put that firm in a larger city to begin with (“built to scale”).  That in turn tends to price out companies and people with less interest in exporting.  The larger city will become all that much more globally oriented, which not everyone will wish to pay for or even wish to have at zero price.

6. If I were offered an extra 50% of total salary (nominal, to make this comparison in real terms across all goods and services eliminates the very difference in locales) to move from Fairfax to Washington, D.C. (15-20 miles away), I would decline the offer.

7. The very fact that smaller cities are used to consume non-pecuniary amenities suggests their inhabitants are more diversified than it may appear at first.  The shift of gdp into services further enhances this diversification, and the new crop of semi-small cities may be more resilient than the older lot dependent on manufacturing.

8. A significant and enduring trend is the move into warmer and sunnier climates.  So while Rochester and Flint decline, Chattanooga and Birmingham are on the rise.  I predict the more time you spend in the South, the more optimistic you will be about small and mid-size cities.

9. Here is a good Duranton and Puga piece on the costs and benefits of city size.  Here is a short McKinsey piece on complexity as a limit on size.  Here is a discussion of city size in Civilization VI.

1. Fez is perhaps the place in the world with the clearest continuous connections to the time of late antiquity.  Maimonides and Ibn Khaldun worked there, and walking through the medina that is not hard to imagine — you can dine in a small restaurant in the home of Maimonides (recommended, most of all the vegetables).  Fez has the world’s oldest university, dating from the 859, and the world’s oldest continuously operating library, from 1359.

2. The country has been remarkably stable relative to the rest of the region, whether you take that to be the Middle East, MENA, or Africa.  But the nature of the associated stability lessons remains unclear, read more here.

3 Social capital is higher than it was during my last visit twenty years ago.  That said, every transaction is still a potential swindle waiting to happen.  And if any English-speaking Moroccan climbs into your train cabin, and claims his brother is the most wonderful guide in town and offers up his phone number…simply decline any further contact.  Especially if the guy has a scar on his face.

4. From the OEC:

The top exports of Morocco are Cars ($2.95B), Insulated Wire ($2.46B), Mixed Mineral or Chemical Fertilizers ($1.83B), Phosphoric Acid($1.14B) and Non-Knit Women’s Suits ($1B)…

It could be much worse, but the dangers of premature deindustrialization are real.  Their exports are too dependent on Spain and France, two countries with many other trading partners and also relatively slow growth rates.  Agriculture still accounts for 40-45% of employment.  Tourism continues to grow, but service culture in the country is not top-notch.  They export a lot of marijuana too.

5. The country has the (distant) potential to evolve into an Atlantic economy — check the map — and I don’t just mean the history of Rabat/Salé as a pirate state.  Nonetheless the actual trade of the nation paints it as a Mediterranean economy, and most Mediterranean economies have not done very well lately.

6. Moroccans do not seem very religious.  Counterintuitively, that may be why, when they are living in Europe, they are especially vulnerable to radicalization. They are not already “filled up with belief,” and experience anomie, which is then exploited by terror groups.  Arguably the same is true for Uighurs in China, by the way, who are recruited by the thousands for foreign ISIS crusades and the like.

7. More and more of the country’s gdp is concentrating in and near Casablanca, which is underrated as a visit.  The famous Grand mosque, as Yana pointed out, in fact resembles a cavernous mosque-clock tower-opera house-French railway station, with even some elements of a medieval cathedral.  Not all devout Muslims are happy with it.

8. The best bistillah is in Meknes, where it is moister and less sweet.  In Casablanca I recommend the seafood stalls in the Grand Marché, and the roast chicken joints, always with french fries.

Building on an essay by Robert Nozick, here is Julian Sanchez:

If the best solutions to social problems are generally governmental or political, then in a democratic society, doing the work of a wordsmith intellectual is a way of making an essential contribution to addressing those problems. If the best solutions are generally private, then this is true to a far lesser extent: The most important ways of doing one’s civic duty, in this case, are more likely to encompass more direct forms of participation, like donating money, volunteering, working on technological or medical innovations that improve quality of life, and various kinds of socially conscious entrepreneurial activity.

You might, therefore, expect a natural selection effect: Those who feel strongly morally motivated to contribute to the amelioration of social ills will naturally gravitate toward careers that reflect their view about how this is best achieved. The choice of a career as a wordsmith intellectual may, in itself, be the result of a prior belief that social problems are best addressed via mechanisms that are most dependent on public advocacy, argument and persuasion—which is to say, political mechanisms.

…If the world is primarily made better through private action, then the most morally praiseworthy course available to a highly intelligent person of moderate material tastes might be to pursue a far less inherently interesting career in business or finance, live a middle-class lifestyle, and devote one’s wealth to various good causes. In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures.

Here is the full essay, via Jeffrey Flier.

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

The onset of a new year brings plenty of predictions, and so I will hazard one: Many of the biggest events of 2018 will be bound together by a common theme, namely the collision of the virtual internet with the real “flesh and blood” world. This integration is likely to steer our daily lives, our economy, and maybe even politics to an unprecedented degree.

For instance, the coming year will see a major expansion of the “internet of things”…


But whatever your prediction for the future, this integration of real and virtual worlds will either make or break bitcoin and other crypto-assets.


So far the process-oriented and Twitter-oriented foreign policies have coexisted, however uneasily. I see 2018 as the year where these two foreign policies converge in some manner. Either Trump’s tweets end up driving actual foreign policy and its concrete, “boots on the ground” realization, or the real-world policy prevails and the tweets become far less relevant.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of cyberwar,  China and facial surveillance technologies, and the French attempt to ban smartphones at schools.

Rabat notes

by on December 23, 2017 at 5:18 pm in Political Science, Travel | Permalink

Is Rabat the nicest city in the Arab world?  It sure seems to come close, but as a capital and major recipient of government largesse its recipe probably is not scalable.  They are building a new concert hall and also a high-speed rail line up to Tangier.  So many vistas are pleasant, the touts are absent, and the food never quite hits Morocco’s peaks, nor is there much in the way of crafts.

The city emits the vibe of not being especially religious.  The medina and kasbah are relatively empty of economic activity, having not yet reinvented themselves as yuppie or millennial shopping districts.  Other than public works projects, it doesn’t feel as if anything transformative will happen here anytime soon, economically or otherwise.  Morocco, of course, did not have an “Arab spring” in 2011, and the monarchy has proven remarkably stable, beyond many people’s expectations.  That is perhaps the #1 social science question about Morocco.

The citizens seem to compare themselves more to Spain and France than to say Egypt or Iran; I am not sure that is good for their happiness.

Nace en Rabat el primer hipopótamo concebido en cautividad en Marruecos.”

The Chellah ruins exhibit traces of Phoenician, Roman, and medieval Arabic pasts, the surrounding landscape design creates a perfect integration.  Winter temperatures are in the low to mid 60s.  If you have never been to Morocco before, doing the whole flight for a mere two days in Rabat is worth it, but neither is it the country’s leading highlight…

Andy was great, here is the text and audio, here is the introductory summary:

Before writing a single word of his new book Artemis, Andy Weir worked out the economics of a lunar colony. Without the economics, how could the story hew to the hard sci-fi style Weir cornered the market on with The Martian? And, more importantly, how else can Tyler find out much a Cantonese meal would run him on the moon?

In addition to these important questions of lunar economics, Andy and Tyler talk about the technophobic trend in science fiction, private space efforts, seasteading, cryptocurrencies, the value of a human life, the outdated Outer Space Treaty, stories based on rebellion vs. cooperation, Heinlein, Asimov, Weir’s favorite episode of Star Trek, and the formula for finding someone else when stranded on a lonely planet.

My favorite part was this, which Andy answered with no hesitation:

COWEN: What if there were two immortal people, let’s say it’s the two of us, placed on opposite sides of the Earth, an Earth-like planet, and we can wander freely with no constraints but just foot speed. How long does it take us to find each other?

WEIR: Can we collude in advance in any way?

COWEN: No, we cannot.


COWEN: But we know we’re trying to find each other.

WEIR: We know we’re trying to find each other. Well, we should both — but can we have a — are we both rational actors and we —

COWEN: We’re as rational as you and I are; take that as you wish.

WEIR: So, no?



WEIR: I think the best thing to do would be for both of us to pick an arbitrary great circle to walk, around the planet, and leave markings along the way denoting what direction you’re walking. So I would arbitrarily pick a direction to go and I would just go that direction with the intention of circumnavigating the entire globe, and I would walk at maybe half what is a comfortable speed for me. And you would do the same thing. Now, somewhere, our two — in fact, in two points — our great circles will intersect.

COWEN: Right.

WEIR: And when one of us reaches the other one’s, then they start following the markers at full speed, and then you get the guy. Right?

COWEN: And what’s your best guess as to how long that would take?

WEIR: Well, if you pick two points, I’m guessing one of us would have to walk probably about a quarter of the way around the planet before we found the other one’s great circle. And then you’d have to walk again. So in terms of circumnavigation times, it would take you 2x to get all the way around the planet, because my initial plan was you’d walk half-speed. So I’m guessing it would be a quarter of that, so one-half x to get to your great circle, and then a quarter x to find you along your great circle, on average, I’m guessing. So one-half plus a quarter, so .75x. So three-quarters of the time that it would take to circumnavigate the planet.

COWEN: OK, great answer.

WEIR: That’s my guess.

Do read/listen to the whole thing

Baseball has dominated the cultural and sporting life of Palau for almost 100 years, which is about four times longer than Palau’s been an independent nation. Over the years, Palauans have shaped the game to fit their island lives. Kids learn to play with bamboo bats and coconut-leaf balls. Pitchers chew betel nut instead of dip. Monsoons rain out not just games and series, but entire seasons of league play. Local traditions of witchcraft have crossed over into the country’s sporting life; even today, it’s not uncommon for accusations of black magic to fly after particularly contentious games. (I’ve been reporting on and off from Palau for seven years, so I’m used to it. THIS pitcher’s dad was a known wizard; THAT team’s manager caught women from an opposing village burning leaves over home base.) Baseball as it’s played in Palau is a decidedly Palauan thing.

But baseball has also shaped Palau. It’s more than a national pastime here. It’s an organizing principle—or, more accurately, a re-organizing principle. Before the 20th century, Palau was a matriarchy. Women controlled most aspects of society, and men were limited to fishing, fighting, and handling village-to-village diplomacy. Then colonial rule brought centralized government—and baseball—to the archipelago. Ever since, these two male-dominated worlds have fed on each other, with Palau’s baseball leagues serving as a kind of farm system for government service. Scores of congressmen, senators, diplomats, and heads of state have passed through Palau’s dugouts on their way to political power.

Here is much more, from David Walker, and here is Wikipedia on Palau.  For the pointer I thank Stephen Jonoes.

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

That’s the WaPo piece everyone is abuzz about.  A few observations:

1. This story may well be true, but I’d like more than “…according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing.”  Here is another account of what exactly is known.  Wasn’t “not publishing the article until it is better sourced” the evidence-based thing to do?

2. I don’t have a great fondness for the terms “evidence-based” or “science-based.”  When they are used on MR, it is often as a form of third-person reference or with a slight mock or ironic touch.  When I see the words used by others, my immediate reaction is to think someone is deploying it selectively, without complete self-awareness, or as a bullying tactic, in lieu of an actual argument, or as a way of denying how much their own argument depends on values rather than science.  I wouldn’t ban the words for anyone working for me, but seeing them often prompts my editor’s red pen, so to speak.  The most er…evidence-based people I know don’t use the term so much, least of all with reference to themselves.

3. In any case, the suggested replacement phrase — “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes” — I do not find offensive or anti-science, and I can imagine a plausible case that it is an actual improvement.  Science is (ought to be) value-free, yet CDC and more broadly federal policy should embody values too.  It should not think of itself as “the handmaiden of science.”

4. There is a fine line between “censorship” and “a bureaucratic organization which can be badly damaged by individual freelancing deciding to adopt uniform terminologies.”  I don’t doubt both might be going on here, but I’d like to see the extant Twitter takes show a little more subtlety on the broader point.  Don’t forget that the executive branch of government reports to the…executive, it is not a freestanding committee for debate, however much it might sometimes like to imagine otherwise.

5. The word “diversity” usually isn’t specific enough, or is channeling unstated preconceptions about how diversity should be interpreted.  We should improve our use of this word.  I have similar feelings about “vulnerable.”

6. People react to changes rather than levels.

7. “Fetus” — look, it is fine to disagree with the “pro-life view” (I’m not even sure what is the most neutral way of labeling it).  But is banning the use of the word “fetus” in institutional documents censorship?  What if an employee, during the Obama years, in an official CDC release had referred to a “fetus” as a “child”?  Would that have been changed back to fetus?  I am inclined to say yes.  Is it censorship in only one direction, or are both decisions censorship?  Or is this better seen as a disagreement over matters of fact?  A disagreement over values?  I am genuinely unsure, and I am unsure what a majority of the American public would think.  But I would say this is sooner worth a ponder than a rant.

8. If nothing else, Sam Altman can show up in China, post “here is my vulnerable entitlement diversity transgender fetus, who is evidence-based and science-based” on his Weibo account, and then go order some Chairman Mao’s braised pork belly.

9. What are the forbidden words in other parts of the federal government, whether de jure or de facto?  Will anyone be showing us a list?  Or is that list censored too?

Switzerland is a highly diverse society, especially among language groups, and with immigration it is becoming even more diverse. Yet Switzerland is also very peaceful. Why? The answer offered in this paper Good Fences created by geography, I find somewhat depressing. I would focus more on political decentralization as an explanation, that too is a function of geography but unlike geography it can be transplanted. I’m in Switzerland this week:

We consider the conditions of peace and violence among ethnic groups, testing a theory designed to predict the locations of violence and interventions that can promote peace. Characterizing the model’s success in predicting peace requires examples where peace prevails despite diversity. Switzerland is recognized as a country of peace, stability and prosperity. This is surprising because of its linguistic and religious diversity that in other parts of the world lead to conflict and violence. Here we analyze how peaceful stability is maintained. Our analysis shows that peace does not depend on integrated coexistence, but rather on well defined topographical and political boundaries separating groups, allowing for partial autonomy within a single country.

In Switzerland, mountains and lakes are an important part of the boundaries between sharply defined linguistic areas. Political canton and circle (sub-canton) boundaries often separate religious groups. Where such boundaries do not appear to be sufficient, we find that specific aspects of the population distribution guarantee either sufficient separation or sufficient mixing to inhibit intergroup violence according to the quantitative theory of conflict. In exactly one region, a porous mountain range does not adequately separate linguistic groups and that region has experienced significant violent conflict, leading to the recent creation of the canton of Jura. Our analysis supports the hypothesis that violence between groups can be inhibited by physical and political boundaries. A similar analysis of the area of the former Yugoslavia shows that during widespread ethnic violence existing political boundaries did not coincide with the boundaries of distinct groups, but peace prevailed in specific areas where they did coincide. The success of peace in Switzerland may serve as a model to resolve conflict in other ethnically diverse countries and regions of the world.

Are there genetic vulnerabilities for depression across cultures?

Genetic vulnerability differs substantially from country to country. East Asian contexts, for example, show a high prevalence of genes associated with depression. Yet, despite these vulnerabilities, they develop fewer cases of the disorder. One hypothesis is that genetic vulnerabilities have co-evolved with culture, creating extra protective factors (in this case, extra interdependence). However, when these people leave their cultural contexts, they have a higher risk of developing depression.

That is an interview with Yulia Chentsova-Dutton, associate professor of psychology at Georgetown, and a researcher in this area.  You can imagine further applications of this mechanism.  The interview has other interesting points, for instance:

What is the role of emotion regulation?

Emotion regulation is increasingly becoming understood as a core factor in all affective disorders. In western societies, we don’t see enough adaptive strategies like reappraisal: learning to tell yourself a different story that would eventually lead to different emotions. There is also not enough social regulation of emotion, which occurs by sharing our emotions with others. Research shows that cultures can facilitate functional regulation strategies. For example, Igor Grossmann’s work shows that Russians make rumination (generally considered a dysfunctional strategy) more functional by encouraging people to ruminate about the self from another person’s perspective, making rumination almost reappraisal-like in its quality.

Do read the whole thing.

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

I’ve seen hundreds of articles on President Donald Trump and trade, but the real significance of the Trump economic revolution — for better or worse — is a focus on investment. There is no coordinating mastermind, but if you consider the intersection between what the Trumpian nationalists want and what a Republican Congress will deliver, it’s this: wanting to make the U.S. a new and dominant center for investment, including at the expense of other nations.


In essence, a new kind of supply-side economics has been invented. The theory of the 1980s focused mainly on individuals, and lowering the tax rates they faced on labor income and capital gains. Cutting these rates was supposed to mobilize the power of those individuals, through more work or more investment. The idea today is that the real power of mobilization comes through corporate associations. Assuming the tax bill passes, that theory is about to get a major test.

Strikingly, the tax bill and the trade policies of the Trump administration can be viewed as having a similar underlying philosophy, whether entirely intended or not. One of the president’s first official acts was to withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although I favored that agreement, as did most other economists, it’s worth considering what the most intelligent nationalist case against the TPP looks like. It’s not about trade, because the deal wouldn’t have affected tariff rates faced by Americans very much (exports of beef to Japan aside). Rather, the TPP would have given American certification to Vietnam, Malaysia and eventually other emerging economies as stable repositories of foreign investment from multinationals. That could in turn draw investment away from the U.S.

Do read the whole thing, it is my favorite recent piece by me.

Doug’s new book Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy is the greatest book on trade policy ever written, bar none. and also a splendid work of American history more generally.  So I thought he and I should sit down to chat, now I have both the transcript and audio.

We covered how much of 19th century American growth was due to tariffs, trade policy toward China, the cultural argument against free trade, whether there is a national security argument for agricultural protectionism, TPP, how new trade agreements should be structured, the trade bureaucracy in D.C., whether free trade still brings peace, Smoot-Hawley, the American Revolution (we are spoiled brats), Dunkirk, why New Hampshire is so wealthy, Brexit, Alexander Hamilton, NAFTA, the global trade slowdown, premature deindustrialization, and the history of the Chicago School of Economics, among other topics.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here goes. The claim that 19th century American growth was driven by high tariffs. What’s your take?

IRWIN: Not really true. If you look at why the US economy performed very well, particularly relative to Britain or Germany or other countries, Steve Broadberry’s shown that a lot of the overtaking of Britain in terms of per capita income was in terms of the service sector.

The service sector was expanding rapidly. It had very high productivity growth rates. We usually don’t think as that being affected by the tariff per se. That’s one reason.

We had also very high productivity growth rates in agriculture. I’ve done some counterfactual simulations. If you remove the tariff, how much resources would we take out of manufacturing and put into services or agriculture is actually pretty small. It just doesn’t account for the success we had during this period.

COWEN: Is there any country where you would say, “Their late 19th century economic growth was driven by tariffs?” Argentina, Canada, Germany, anything, anywhere?

IRWIN: No. If you look at all those, once again, in late 19th century, they were major exporters, largely of commodities, but they did very well that way. You know that Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world in the late 19th century. It really wasn’t until they adopted more import substitution policies after World War I that they began to fall behind.

Definitely recommended, and here is Doug’s Wikipedia page.

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

Perhaps it’s not always an appetizing thought, but in many contexts wealth aids liberty, and the freedom to keep one’s wealth can limit political degeneration.

There are many possible outcomes here, and it is also possible that offshore finance can make tyranny worse.  But it seems to me opinion has turned against these institutions, without much serious consideration of the political economy issues.  By the way:

The top five countries on this list, [offshore wealth] measured as a percentage of GDP, are United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Argentina, based on estimates from 2007.

Worth a ponder.