Uncategorized

What I’ve been reading

by on December 20, 2014 at 12:15 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.  How quantum effects can matter for biological phenomena.  No, it doesn’t mean Roger Penrose was right (and this book usefully tells you why not), but still this is a stimulating book for tying together two apparently disparate areas of inquiry and two apparently disparate areas for popular science books.

2. Michael Oakeshott, Notebooks, 1922-86.  Lots about Aristotle, lots about love, good for browsing.  He wrote “‘The cowboy costume remains mysteriously sexy’.  Yes, but how much better it was when it was felt but not recognized to be so.”  That was from 1964.

3. James Hamilton, A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain.  Another era — this time Turner and his contemporaries — falls under the commerce and culture treatment.  A nice background to the forthcoming Mike Leigh biopic of Turner.  This book made a number of best of the year lists in the UK, it comes out in the U.S. in 2015.

4. James Booth, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love.  A very good multi-dimensional biography for people already interested in Larkin and knowledgeable about his life, not necessarily a great introduction.

5. Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.  A superb book, one of the very best appreciations of poetry and introductions to poetry of the 20th century.  This book has received raves in the UK, it is not yet out in the U.S.

Arrived in my pile are:

6. Alex Nowrasteh and Mark Krikorian, Open Immigration Yea, and Nay.  This book is structured as a debate with two separate parts.

7.  Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe, and Ronnie Schöb, Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, from MIT Press.

8. F. Bailey Norwood, et.al., Agricultural & Food Controversies: What Everyone Needs to Know.

9. Andrew Zimbalist, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.

Assorted links

by on December 19, 2014 at 11:46 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The troubles of Russia.  And Krugman’s notes on Russian debt.

2. Searching for (Canadian) Elizabeth Gallagher.

3. Qatar soccer markets in everything.

4. Prosecutors and defense lawyers on Serial.

5. “It’s the people that are carrying stuff like chainsaws that make me wonder.”

6. The 109-year-old tuatara virgin.

7. George Clooney on Sony and North Korea.

8. “Everything in her working life is organized around the illness…”

Predatory Fining and Mass Surveillance

by on December 19, 2014 at 11:40 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

In Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison I noted that Ferguson raises an unusually high rate of revenues from fines.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

It doesn’t inspire confidence, therefore, when we learn that Ferguson plans to increase its reliance on police fines as a source of revenue.

Ferguson, Missouri, which is recovering from riots following the August shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman, plans to close a budget gap by boosting revenue from public-safety fines and tapping reserves.

Missouri’s attorney general, however, wants to enforce limits on predatory fining:

Missouri’s attorney general announced lawsuits against 13 of this city’s suburbs on Thursday, accusing them of ignoring a law that sets limits on revenue derived from traffic fines. The move comes after widespread allegations of harassment and profiteering by small municipal governments against the poor and minorities.

…demonstrators have frequently complained about a perceived hypervigilance to minor traffic violations in St. Louis County’s patchwork of 90 municipalities. Many of those cities have their own courts and police departments, but some are only a few square blocks in size and have populations smaller than some high schools.

“When traffic ticketing is used to promote public safety, that’s appropriate,” Mr. Koster said. “When traffic tickets are used to promote revenue, that’s inappropriate.” Such practices, he said, are “predatory.”

(Technically Ferguson isn’t one of the smaller governments being sued but the battle lines are being drawn.)

The current focus on predatory fining and minorities is well justified but these issues are also the spearhead for important changes being brought about by the intersection of policing and mass surveillance. We all commit multiple felonies regularly, no one is innocent. Today most of our violations are simply ignored, never discovered nor prosecuted, but when the eye turns to us we won’t have a defense. As a result, as Stephen Carter wrote in a superb editorial, technological change and the law puts us all in the same danger as Eric Garner.

Hat tip: Michael Cohen.

Assorted links

by on December 18, 2014 at 12:25 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Don’t let your Texas plumber truck end up in the Syrian war.

2. An outsider looks at the upcoming AEA job market.  And Yakut ponies are cold.

3. The best book covers of 2014?

4. Vera Te Velde says visit Cuba now.  And Daniel Drezner on Cuba.

5. Mobile phone data and African food consumption.

6. “There is such negativity about clouds written into our language…”  And don’t be too shocked: “Half of Cloud Appreciation Society members – the group celebrates its 10th anniversary next year – are British.”

7. Jonathan R. Macey on the Bebchuk/SEC kerfluffle (I agree with him).

This cracks me up:

The illustrations on the banknotes show generic examples of architectural styles such as renaissance and baroque rather than real bridges from a particular member state, which could have aroused envy among other countries. “The European Bank didn’t want to use real bridges so I thought it would be funny to claim the bridges and make them real,” Stam told Dezeen.

The article headline is “Fictional bridges on Euro banknotes constructed in the Netherlands.”  Perhaps this will prove a broader and subtle metaphor for making the eurozone actually work…

For the pointer I thank Joel Cazares.

Felix Salmon writes:

Facebook’s algorithm is already working overtime on trying to slim down a virtually infinite range of possible News Feed posts to a much smaller number. A significant chunk of the NewsFeed is already ads, so in order to make it into the News Feed if you’re not an ad, you need to be really, really good. Like, one close friend announcing her engagement, or a video of another friend pouring a bucket of ice water over her head, or a long and hilarious comment thread on a third friend’s status update. What’s not really, really good? A link to some random website which has a user experience which Facebook can’t control, and which is probably suboptimal on mobile.

In 2015, then, the winners of the Facebook attention lottery are going to be more videos, as well as genuinely native, in-app content from advertisers. The losers are going to be external websites who have become reliant on the Facebook traffic firehose. That traffic is going to start falling, in 2015, for the first time. And the repercussions are likely to be huge.

And here is a very good Nicholas Carson piece on the future of Google, I found this point (among others) interesting:

The only reason search makes money for Google is that people use it to search for products they would like to buy on the internet, and Google shows ads for those products. Increasingly, however, people are going straight to Amazon to search for products. Desktop search queries on Amazon increased 47% between September 2013 and September 2014, according to ComScore.

I often find that people take the current landscape of the web for granted when they try to imagine the future of media.

Assorted links

by on December 17, 2014 at 12:08 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Jeff Bezos is smart.

2. Hyper-realistic cartoon eyeballs.

3. A variety of reflections on Jean Tirole (pdf).

4. The poor do indeed face higher rates of inflation.

5. There is no hidden bottle of scotch in your shoe stagnation.

6. Why isn’t Germany a bigger fashion player?

David Cay Johnston takes a trip to Disneyland some 60 years after his first visit. It looks better than ever, even as America has declined.

broken fountain detroitEvery night Disneyland gets freshened up. When the park closes at midnight, the lights go up, and crews steam gum off the sidewalks, daub fresh paint where needed, water the flowers, polish the streetlights and examine the walkways. I had to look hard just to find unrepaired cracks on Main Street and the paved walkways. By chance, I got to walk backstage, where the asphalt and concrete surfaces were in near perfect shape, the walls painted, the handrails free of rust.

…Yet outside the gates, America fails to invest in its infrastructure, costing us lives from accidents, floods, sinkholes from water-main failures and explosions from faulty natural gas lines. Sidewalks buckle or heave after winter freezes, making many hazardous to walk on. America’s roads deteriorate, costing the economy in efficiency, though the front-end-alignment shops and tire dealers do well.

…The water fountains at Disneyland all worked, while in city halls and airports, many barely dribble because there is no budget to replace their filters before sediment clogs them.

Johnston’s piece is titled America should be more like Disneyland but instead of thinking seriously about what this means he fumbles on the 20 yard line and concludes that what makes Disneyland different is….happy thoughts. If only we were more like W.D., he says, “we could make America into a happy place.”

No, what makes Disney invest in infrastructure is not happy thoughts. Johnston is in fact clear about this:

The Walt Disney Co. invests in infrastructure because it makes the company money.

The problem with America is that our public infrastructure has been turned over to a fickle political process that is not governed by a rational calculation of cost and benefit, market test and experimentation but by a pursuit of power, glory and advantage that only rarely coincides with the public interest.

America should be more like Disneyland and to do that we need to develop institutions that allow more infrastructure to built by the private sector. Most ambitiously we need more cities as hotels, more proprietary cities. As Rajagopolan and I wrote in our study of India (in Cities and Private Planning):

The lesson of Gurgaon, Walt Disney World, and Jamshedpur is that a system of proprietary, competitive cities can combine the initiative and drive of private development with the planning and foresight characteristic of the best urban planning. A proprietary city will build infrastructure to attract residents and revenues. A handful of proprietary cities built within a single region will create a competitive system of proprietary cities that build, compete, innovate, and experiment.

I received this email:

A colleague forwarded your post this morning, and there is an easy reply to your concerns.

Nothing in our analysis implicates academic freedom in the least, and the paper addresses this point directly in the text at page 12:

“The Harvard Proposal’s incomplete and categorical analysis of the academic literature could be published in any academic journal without raising any risk of violating the federal securities laws. But when scholars avail themselves of SEC regulations to force issuers to place statements describing academic research in the corporation’s proxy materials, the scholars voluntarily subject themselves to standards of legal liability that do not apply in other venues. There is no “professor exemption” from the requirement that a proxy proposal not be materially false or misleading.”

Thus, the salient point is that the proposal appears in the proxy only because the Harvard SRP voluntarily decides to avail itself of an SEC rule that forces the company to put the statement on the company’s proxy. In order to benefit from this rule, the proponent has to agree to abide by SEC rules that prohibit proposals from making statements that suffer from material omissions. The Harvard SRP can write or say whatever it wants without any of the concerns raised in the paper, provided that those statements don’t appear in Rule 14a-8 proposals. But, once the statements are submitted as a Rule 14a-8 proposal, they have to abide by the same rules as any other 14a-8 proposal.

The article’s analysis therefore suggests no constraint on academic freedom. We academics can write and say what we want without any concern regarding any of these SEC rules, provided we are not submitting shareholder proposal. And, for what it’s worth, to the best of my knowledge, the Harvard SRP is the only university-run program that engages in Rule 14a-8 campaigns, and no research by any Harvard scholar is at all affected by our article’s analysis, other than the materials that appear within the four corners of the shareholder proposals voluntarily submitted by the SRP.

Indeed, as an academic who benefits from academic freedom, I too would be concerned about any suggestion that our analysis has any effect on academic freedom whatsoever. It doesn’t.

Hope that’s responsive to your concerns.

Here is the home page of Joseph A. Grundfest.  Here is his Wikipedia page.

Tuesday assorted links

by on December 16, 2014 at 1:27 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The opening chord from Hard Day’s Night.

2. Dutch bankers take religious oaths.

3. Restaurant discounts based on weight (can you guess which way they go?)

4. Can the umbrella be improved? (yes)

5. Do neural networks now have a chance of beating the best human players at Go?

6. Should they rid New Zealand of non-human mammalian predators?

There is a new article by Seitz, Tarasov, and and Zakharenko:

This paper develops a quantitative model of trade, military conflicts, and defense spending. Lowering trade costs between two countries reduces probability of an armed conflict between them, causing both to cut defense spending. This in turn causes a domino effect on defense spending by other countries. As a result, both countries and the rest of the world are better off. We estimate the model using data on trade, conflicts, and military spending. We find that, after reduction of costs of trade between a pair of hostile countries, the welfare effect of worldwide defense spending cuts is comparable in magnitude to the direct welfare gains from trade.

There are ungated versions here, and for the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.  Kevin also directs our attention to this paper: “…these results provide evidence for a relationship between feelings of disgust and the endorsement of equality-promoting political attitudes.”

Assorted links

by on December 15, 2014 at 1:03 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Daniel Klein talk on libertarian argumentation.

2. Data on Christmas songs.

3. Ted Gioia’s favorite albums of 2014.  The Cass Sunstein behavioral economics movie awards for 2014.

4. Operating on a ten-year-old pet goldfish to remove a head tumor.

5. The decline of the movie quotation.

6. The role of technology in the movie Aliens.

From Arthur R. Kroeber, here is the summary on his economics:

This popular reading is unduly negative. Here is another that fits the facts at least as well: After a brief scare, the property market stabilized, in large measure thanks to the removal of unreasonable restrictions on house purchases, rather than an unsustainable blowout in credit growth. By the end of the year the economy was still growing at the fastest pace of any major economy (7.3 percent), although a slowdown next year seems likely given the apparent intention to constrain credit growth. In June the Politburo approved the biggest fiscal reform in 20 years, which aims to restructure troublesome local-government debts and revamp the tax structure to cut back on perverse incentives. November saw a significant opening of the capital account, as the “Hong Kong-Shanghai Stock Connect” program permitted investors in those two financial hubs to put money directly in each others’ stock markets. Partly in anticipation of this event, Chinese stocks staged a big rally in the second half of the year which made Shanghai the world’s second best performing market in 2014. And in December the People’s Bank of China released draft rules for deposit insurance, setting limits on the government’s unlimited guarantee of the financial system and setting the stage for full deposit-rate liberalization in the next year or two.

That is not exactly my view, but this is an intelligent, optimistic account of the current China.  The post is interesting throughout, and most of it is not on economic issues at all: “This record is stronger than that of any other major world leader in the last two years”  Recommended.

Those are the topics of a new paper by Güell, Mora, and Telmer, which is interesting on multiple levels.  The abstract is here:

We propose a new methodology for measuring intergenerational mobility in economic well-being. Our method is based on the joint distribution of surnames and economic outcomes. It circumvents the need for intergenerational panel data, a long-standing stumbling block for understanding mobility. It does so by using cross-sectional data alongside a calibrated structural model in order to recover the traditional intergenerational elasticity measures. Our main idea is simple. If ‘inheritance’ is important for economic outcomes, then rare surnames should predict economic outcomes in the cross-section. This is because rare surnames are indicative of familial linkages. If the number of rare surnames is small this approach will not work. However, rare surnames are abundant in the highly-skewed nature of surname distributions from most Western societies. We develop a model that articulates this idea and shows that the more important is inheritance, the more informative will be surnames. This result is robust to a variety of different assumptions about fertility and mating. We apply our method using the 2001 census from Catalonia, a large region of Spain. We use educational attainment as a proxy for overall economic well-being. A calibration exercise results in an estimate of the intergenerational correlation of educational attainment of 0.60. We also find evidence suggesting that mobility has decreased among the different generations of the 20th century. A complementary analysis based on sibling correlations confirms our results and provides a robustness check on our method. Our model and our data allow us to examine one possible explanation for the observed decrease in mobility. We find that the degree of assortative mating has increased over time. Overall, we argue that our method has promise because it can tap the vast mines of census data that are available in a heretofore unexploited manner.

There are ungated versions here.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Assorted links

by on December 14, 2014 at 12:29 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Dutch marriage proposal gone awry markets in everything.

2. The British Film Institute list of the best movies of 2014 is very good and useful.

3. Robofish?

4. Have we reached “peak trade”?

5. Counter-cyclical capital controls don’t work so well in practice.

6. Megan’s annual kitchen gift guide.

7. WSJ best books of the year.

8. Droplets and quantum mechanics?