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Sunday assorted links

by on January 15, 2017 at 11:50 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Why is California so closely connected with melancholy?  Here is a smart, critical review of La La Land, but I think it misses the point: the movie is a critique and indeed subtle reflection of what is (supposedly) an all-pervasive mediocrity of contemporary life and art.  Setting the opening musical number in a traffic jam plays up the contrast with the older, “more glorious” musicals quite deliberately.  At the same time, the movie questions whether the past was ever so glorious after all.

2. Librarians report on what is the strangest thing they have found in a library book.

3. Might Peter Thiel run for governor of California?

4. An Arkansas city won’t let them live in a $1500 trailer, minimum legal value there is $7500.

5. Trump, Strauss, and Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People.”  And would you leave Parliament to run the V&A?

What I’ve been reading

by on January 15, 2017 at 12:34 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Ousmane Oumar Kane, Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa.  This excellent book clarified many aspects of West African and also Nigerian history for me, most of all how it connects to the earlier North African civilizations.

2. Sheelah Kolhatkar, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street.  I cannot vouch for the contents and allegations, which focus on Steven A. Cohen and his hedge fund career, but this is a highly engaging and better researched than usual look at the legal case against him.

3. Mark R. Patterson, Google, Yelp, LIBOR, and the Control of Information.  Data fraud, data fraud, data fraud, welcome to 2016 yes you should be reading more books on this topic.

4. Kevin Vallier, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation, “…public reason liberalism, properly understood, realizes foundational liberal values while according religion a prominent and powerful role in public life.  I claim that, in theory and practice, public reason liberalism is far friendlier to religion in public life than both its proponents and opponents believe.”  There is a Straussian reading of this book too.

5. Aurelian Craiutu, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes.  A much-needed perspective these days, from a very thoughtful scholar.

6. Gary Taubes, The Case Against Sugar.  My intuitions agree with this argument, plus jelly donuts don’t taste that good anyway.

A philosophically-minded MR reader writes to me:

Tenure ought to be an occasion to explore radically new intellectual paths, ones not pre-approved by one’s field and ones that could, perhaps, do something to bridge the chasm between academic and non-academic intellectual life–and yet as a matter of fact what seems to happen is that people either stop working altogether or continue barreling down the groove they wore themselves into to get tenure.  (You mentioned this issue in a post last year: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2016/06/does-tenure-encourage-risk-taking.html)  But I want to hear more.

So: why does this happen, how can we prevent it at the University/ departmental level, and, most of all, how can we prevent it at the personal level?  (Keeping in mind that most of us are not cognitively capable of processing information at the speed to go your route!)   The idea that we are incentivized to keep working by the prospect of being promoted to full Professor seems silly, given the increased administrative responsibilities.

Related problem: as one moves up the tenure hierarchy, the administrative responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on fewer and fewer people,  b/c there are lots of deadbeats. I repeatedly see the few responsible people overwhelmed with administrative tasks which they refuse to delegate to those they know will not take them seriously.  (And I observe these responsible people are disproportionately women, even in a field–like mine–that is disproportionately male.)

I have a few suggestions, all feasible but only a few are practical:

1. All schools should copy the committee obligations policy of the school, within their quality tier, that has the fewest committee assignments for faculty.  Yes this can be done.

2. I don’t know how to operationalize this one, but on average give women half the committee assignments that men have.  That still won’t equalize the total work burden (women on average work harder per committee assignment), but it is a start.

3. Study your lecture preparation, and experiment with cutting parts of it out.  See if that matters.

4. Each year take at least one trip to a place you didn’t think you wanted to visit.

5. Go to some Liberty Fund conferences.

6. Refuse to have colleague lunches based around local politics, politics, small talk, sports (unless of the analytic variety), and campus gossip.  Just don’t do it.  Also avoid lunches with too many people attending.

7. Of the five or so smartest people you hang out with (family aside), try to ensure that no more than half of them are in your department.

8. Change the ratio of foreign-to-domestic TV shows you watch, in favor of the foreign.

9. Hang at least one piece of non-cheery art on your wall that will remind yourself of an ever-pending death.  Change its angle every now and then, or better yet change the picture, so you don’t get too used to it and stop noticing it altogether.  If need be, supplement this with Brahms’s German Requiem.

10. Write a periodic blog post, if only a secret and non-published one.  If you don’t find this process is going well, ask yourself what is wrong.

11. Worry if no one thinks you are crazy.  Supplement this with actually being crazy.

12. What else?

Saturday assorted links

by on January 14, 2017 at 12:33 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. How is the Nigerian anti-corruption campaign going?

2. This four-year-old girl knows how to read books fast and with superior comprehension.

3. Bernie Madoff dominates the hot chocolate market in prison.

4. What happens when algorithms design a concert hall?

5. David Brooks on markets in health care (NYT).

6. “As superlow rates reduce loan revenue, a Japanese lender branches out into farming, pinball, broadcasting, rice cultivation and blueberry jam; ‘If you’re going to go to the bank, it should be fun’”, WSJ link here.  And Basil Halperin on market monetarism.

7. “The ‘Krispy Kreme Familia’ and the black market doughnuts of Juarez.”

Friday assorted links

by on January 13, 2017 at 12:25 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Do lenders of last resort really make financial systems that much safer?  And the bullfighting economist and Federal Reserve governor.

2. Disney negotiating with Carrie Fisher’s estate for more Princess Leia.

3. Seoul opens a bookstore with no employees and no prices.

4. “Virginia man spends $1,000 to deliver 300,000 pennies to Lebanon DMV.”  (The penny, and wheelbarrow, as rent-seeking behavior…):

Still, Stafford had one final act planned. After collecting the hundreds of rolls of pennies he needed, he hired 11 people to help him break open the paper rolls with hammers Tuesday night. It took four hours and he paid each person $10 per hour, costing him $440.

Stafford also purchased five wheelbarrows to deliver the pennies. The wheelbarrows cost $400, and he wasn’t going to dump the coins on the DMV’s floor, so he left the wheelbarrows there, bringing his expenses to $840.

He also paid $165 for the three lawsuits, which means he spent $1,005 to get 10 phone numbers and the satisfaction of delivering 300,000 pennies.

Via Annie Lowrey.

5. Maybe the AIIB is better after all:

William Faulkner’s novels in particular stuck with Mr. Jin, now the president of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a major force in the country’s rush to secure a leading role in the world’s financial architecture. An underlined copy of “Absalom, Absalom!” is on his office bookshelves, along with Shakespeare and the Bible. He said he found inspiration in Faulkner’s complex human relationships.

NYT link here.

A few years ago I wrote this about Bolivia:

It is much debated in Bolivia whether corruption is going up or down.  I believe it is going up, but partially for good reasons.  For instance the construction sector is doing well, and construction tends to be corrupt in many countries, for reasons intrinsic to the activity itself (e.g., lots of big contracts, easy to claim invisible expenses, etc.).  That means higher corruption but also a better corruption than the penny ante bribes of a shrinking economy.

I still think that is correct, and at the time it didn’t meet up with mass moral opprobrium, even though with some very very small chance I may have condemned the citizenry of Bolivia to corrupt, exploitative rule for ever and ever.  I should add that such points are standard fare in the literature, see for instance the book on corruption by Susan Rose-Ackerman.

Now, these days, with more American status relationships on the line, everyone is up in arms because Peter Thiel had the following exchange with Maureen Dowd:

When I remark that President Obama had eight years without any ethical shadiness, Mr. Thiel flips it, noting: “But there’s a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring.”

As I interpret Peter, he is not saying it would have been good to have an exogenous increase in the corruption of Obama the individual.  Rather, had some other conditions been different/better, the overall level of corruption in government would have been higher and that combination might very well have been a net plus.  If you would like a “left wing example,” had the fiscal stimulus been twice as large, corruption in government probably would have been higher too (pointing out “the stimulus wasn’t very corrupt” is missing the point and in fact is a sign that you are a rampant mood affiliator, determined to restore the mood you feel is just, rather than tracing the analytic point at hand).  In other words, Peter’s point is entirely defensible and probably correct.  He’s not saying that “corruption is good.”

Now, to be sure, there is another dimension here.  The incoming Trump administration is showing too many signs of being corrupt, and many people are condemning it on these grounds.  Peter’s remark does not fit into that narrative and Peter has been a significant Trump supporter.  But let’s think about this a little more.   First, is there a role for some outsiders who eschew the dominant moral choruses of approbation and condemnation, in favor of making other, different points?  I certainly hope so, because often I try to be one of them (though unlike Peter I have not supported Trump).  Second, Peter is not an outsider in this process, rather he has taken on an important position on the Trump transition team.  Given that reality, you can’t expect him to produce a quotation here condemning Trump.  So he instead makes some other (valid) outsider-like point about corruption.  Now, you might object to Peter’s role on the transition team, but that is old news at this point.  You shouldn’t be holding any extra grudge against him for his corruption answer.  And above all, keep in mind these are reporter-chosen excerpts from a four-hour dinner/interview, and so we don’t know the surrounding context and qualifications and possibly accompanying off the record statements.

People, you need to pick your targets.  Get upset about the things worth getting upset about, such as the absence of a sustained foreign policy plan to head off imminent volatility in global relations.

How many of you have been expecting that heading?  Of course it involves cows:

A Dutch woman has seen her request for Swiss citizenship refused for the second time by local residents who object to her media campaigning against cowbells and other Swiss traditions.

Nancy Holten, 42, was born in the Netherlands but grew up in Switzerland from the age of eight, speaks fluent Swiss German and has children with Swiss citizenship.

A vegan and supporter of animal rights, she gained a reputation in her community of Gipf-Oberfrick, in the canton of Aargau, after campaigning against cowbells, claiming they were damaging to cows’ health.

She has also objected to hunting and piglet racing, and complained about the noise of church bells in the village, campaigns that have seen her regularly interviewed in the Swiss press over the past few years.

Last November, Holten had her citizenship application turned down for the second time by the residents’ committee.  That’s despite her meeting all legal requirements and the municipal and cantonal authorities having no formal objection.

In Switzerland local residents often have a say in citizenship applications, which are decided primarily by the cantons and communes where the applicant lives, rather than federal authorities.

In Holten’s case it seems her campaigning has not won her many friends in the village, with the president of the local branch of the Swiss People’s Party, Tanja Suter, telling the media that Holten has a “big mouth”.

The commune did not want to give Holten the “present” of Swiss citizenship “if she annoys us and doesn’t respect our traditions”, said Suter.

Is this not what politics should be about, namely the relationship between man and nature?  Here is Gipf-Oberfrick, the community in question:

swiss

Here is the full story, with a variety of interesting points and examples at the link, via Ted Gioia and Dan Wang.

Thursday assorted links

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

Wednesday assorted links

by on January 11, 2017 at 1:51 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Tuesday assorted links

by on January 10, 2017 at 11:56 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Esther Duflo’s Ely lecture, “The economist as plumber.”

2. Disappearing markets in everything: the last disco ball maker (there is noisy sound at the link).  And how bad is authoritarianism really?  And David Brooks on Bannon vs. Trump, I am always happy to see actual analysis of the Trump administration.

3. The best economic history works in the last decade? (pt. I)

4. AI now wins in heads-up, no-limit Texas hold’em poker.  That is a game of asymmetric information.

5. The books some Australian guy is looking forward to.

6. If they had served this up as parody, I would have thought it too exaggerated.  Did Darwinian processes really produce this?  I guess so.

7. Long Piketty blog post on productivity in Germany and France.  It does seem he is now blogging in English (and French) for Le Monde.

Here is what I wrote in 2007, when Prospect magazine asked me to name the most underrated cultural development of the year:

The iPhone. The world really did change…We now have handheld personal computers and personal entertainment centres, yet they are no larger than a thin pack of cards. And no, I’m not a techie, a gadget freak or an Apple lover. The device itself is beautiful as well.

And here was my “overrated” answer:

Overrated: Hollywood movies. US ticket sales recovered this year, but to what end? This was a year for microculture, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The bigger visual productions of the year won’t much stand the test of time. On the bright side, television drama continues to rise in quality.

I am pleased to have bought an iPhone on the first day, I felt at the time it was like seeing the premiere of a Mozart opera.  Many people laughed at me for suggesting such an analogy, and they chided me for my infatuation with such a toy.  I recall Alex walking into my office, asking me what I thought, and I told him the product really did deliver what it promised and that it would change the world.

The funny thing is, I hardly use my iPhone anymore, much preferring the larger iPad.  I haven’t even bothered to order one of the larger iPhones, as for me it isn’t large enough and I marvel that others can use it as much as they do.  In other words, now that I have experience using the product my forecast, if I were to make one historically “blind,” but with that accumulated personal experience in pocket, would be far less accurate than what I said at the time.

Monday assorted links

by on January 9, 2017 at 11:55 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Public land would be interesting.

That was a request for topic coverage from Ryan, from last night.  Here is a 2014 CRS survey piece with good background information.

I can think of a few reasons for federal government ownership of public land:

1. For some specific purpose, such as a national park or a nuclear weapons facility or the White House.

1b. There is a conservation argument for land holdings, but again I think it has to be for a specific purpose, thus collapsing into #1 proper.

2. As a revenue-maximizing strategy, a’la Irvine Company, so the government can sell off pieces of land successively, over time, to take in more revenue than if it sold off everything all at once.

3. To hold land off the market and thus force more people to squeeze into cities, thereby reaping extra returns to scale and density, shades of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

4. To limit rent-seeking games, since much of the land might be low value in the present, but a race to homestead it would consume resources.  In the longer run, that homesteading race would lead to suboptimal owners, since we don’t now know exactly what the land will be good for.

5. It’s the only way we can run an asset surplus, since cash would be grabbed by the political process and redistributed.  Think of it as akin to those poorer villages where you save in the form of cows or pigs, because your uncle cannot come to you when he needs to fund a wedding and demand a piece of the pig.

I say #1 is unproblematic and can be decided on a case-by-case basis.  #2 is fine if the government were doing that, but they’re not.  #3 would seem to require much more federal ownership of land than what we have.  It’s still much, much cheaper to live in Idaho.  #4 is an OK argument, but I don’t see why it would apply to properly done land auctions, which is indeed how federal disposal of the land has evolved.

So #5 is actually the main argument, at least once we get past #1.

Overall, I don’t see why the federal government needs to own about 28% of the country.  Nonetheless, in the meantime the government does allow grazing and mining to take place on those lands, often at below-market rents.  (By the way, for now I am putting on hold a possible #6: “federal land ownership is the most efficient way to regulate mining and fossil fuel extraction.”  It raises issues far beyond the scope of the current discussion, though it is significant.)

You will note that the federal government owns 47% of the land in “the West,” but only 4% of the land east of the Mississippi.  Unfortunately:

Congress in 1976 passed a law declaring that “the remaining public domain lands generally would remain in federal ownership.”

Though note a few days ago the House acted to ease land giveaways, so this may be changing.  Yet I feel no great thrill at simply giving this land to the state governments, though that may be an intermediate step toward privatization.

I would prefer to lower the percentage of federal land ownership in the West, but in the meantime I don’t see this as an incredibly pressing issue.  The government can either waste some of your land or some of your money, take your pick.  I do think the gdps of Nevada and Idaho could be higher, just not by that much.  Alaska may be a story of its own.

map_of_all_u-s-_federal_land

He summarizes the plan as follows:

The central concept put forward by Mr Ryan, which appears to have the support of Mr Trump, is to turn corporate income tax from a tax on the return to capital into a tax only on extraordinary profits. This would be done by taxing corporate cash flows. In addition to the major reduction of the overall rate, the system would change in three fundamental ways. First, all investment outlays can be written off in the year they occur rather than over time. Second, interest payments to bondholders, banks and other creditors will no longer be deductible. Third, companies will be able to exclude receipts from exports in calculating their taxable income and will not be permitted to deduct payments to foreign suppliers or affiliates from income.

I found this to be the paragraph I had not seen elsewhere:

Second, the tax change will capriciously redistribute income, increase uncertainty and place punitive burdens on some sectors. Think of a retailer who imports goods from abroad for 60 cents, incurs 30 cents in labour and interest costs, and then earns a 5 cent margin. With a 20 per cent tax, and no ability to deduct import or interest costs, the taxes will substantially exceed 100 per cent of profits even if there is some offset from a stronger dollar. Businesses that invest heavily, hire extensively and export a large part of their product will have negative taxable income on a chronic basis. It is hard to imagine that the political process will allow annual multibillion-dollar refunds, so they too may be victimised. Then there are the still unresolved questions of what the rules will be on interest deductibility for banks and of the treatment of businesses organised as partnerships that do not pay corporate taxes.

Here is the FT link, probably gated for most of you, WaPo link here.  Summers also argues the plan will worsen inequality, strengthen the dollar (possibly leading to EM crises), lead to a trade war, and erode the long-term tax base.

Just to refresh your memories here is Jared Bernstein on the same plan (mixed but mostly negative), and Martin Feldstein (positive).

Sunday assorted links

by on January 8, 2017 at 12:03 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink