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What I’ve been reading

by on June 24, 2015 at 1:32 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.  Don’t judge Graeber by his mistakes or by how he responds (doesn’t respond) to criticism.  This one is still more interesting to read than most books.  In fact, most of us quite like bureaucracy.

2. John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom.  The usual dose of pessimism, with a choppier argument and a slightly larger typeface than usual.  It induced me to order Mr. Weston’s Good Wine.  In any case, I’ll still buy the next one, engaging with John Gray if nothing else has become a ritual.  I once predicted to Jim Buchanan that John would end up converting to Catholicism, but I still am waiting.

3. Juan Goytisolo.  I’ve tried to read a bunch of his books, so far they all bore me, in both Spanish and English, the fault is probably mine.  Various sophisticates suggest he is great, should I keep on trying?

4. Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.  He is one of the best non-fiction essay writers, and he remains oddly underrated in the United States.  It is no mistake to simply buy his books sight unseen.  I think of this book as “happiness for grumps.”

5. Harry G. Gelber, The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World, 1100 B.C. to the Present.  No, this isn’t the best Chinese history book.  But it is the one most written in a way that you will remember its contents, and in this context that is worth a lot.

Tuesday assorted links

by on June 23, 2015 at 11:36 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Computer-simulated baby?

2. Pepper sold out.  Derek Thompson on a world without work.

3. Dourado and Castillo on poor federal cybersecurity.

4. See-through truck (there is no great stagnation).  And the squeezable mayonnaise crisis is now over.

5. Face recognition without the face.

6. A short history of Pixar, in one tweet.

 One of the biggest threats it faces is the rise of smartphones as the dominant personal computing device. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 39 of the top 50 news sites received more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop and laptop computers, sales of which have declined for years.

This is a challenge for Wikipedia, which has always depended on contributors hunched over keyboards searching references, discussing changes and writing articles using a special markup code. Even before smartphones were widespread, studies consistently showed that these are daunting tasks for newcomers. “Not even our youngest and most computer-savvy participants accomplished these tasks with ease,” a 2009 user test concluded. The difficulty of bringing on new volunteers has resulted in seven straight years of declining editor participation.

In 2005, during Wikipedia’s peak years, there were months when more than 60 editors were made administrator — a position with special privileges in editing the English-language edition. For the past year, it has sometimes struggled to promote even one per month.

The pool of potential Wikipedia editors could dry up as the number of mobile users keeps growing; it’s simply too hard to manipulate complex code on a tiny screen.

That is from Andrew Lih.  We do indeed face the danger that the quality of our digital universe may be deteriorating.  The inframarginal users who are benefiting are those who highly value texting, Facebook, and mobile access.  The relative losers include…?

Burliuk

Monday assorted links

by on June 22, 2015 at 1:29 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Ben Bernanke on the no-hitter he saw.

2. The culture that is the Leningrad Cowboys Red Army Choir (song, bad).

3. Brink Lindsey on reforming regulation to boost American economic growth.

4. “…many social and personality psychologists said that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.”

5. What percentage of cross-state differences in per capita gdp stems from human capital differences?

6. Parts of Sicily are offering free houses.

7. SCOTUS strikes down the forcible appropriation of raisins.

Sunday assorted links

by on June 21, 2015 at 3:18 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. When to post on social networks.

2. Does shaming people about the Confederate flag work?

3. Markets in everything: toast whisperers.

4. Non-rapid human plus computer chess games are converging to 80-90% draws.

5. Maureen Dowd on TPP.

6. Save John Stuart Mill’s personal library!

Stein Ringen reviews The China Model, here is Gideon Rachmann.  He writes:

Daniel Bell, a Canadian political philosopher who has taught at Tsinghua University in Beijing for many years, is deeply influenced by this Chinese tradition. In his new book, he has set himself the ambitious task of making the case that Chinese-style meritocracy is, in important respects, a better system of governance than western liberal democracy.

I’ve been seeing a lot of emotional reactions to this book, here are a few points:

1. The United States probably should have less democracy along some margins, if only fewer referenda in California and no state and local elections of judges, dog catchers, and the like.  If a writer cites “democracy” as obviously and always good for all choices, that writer isn’t thinking clearly.

2. More generally, the Western nations are relying on democracy less, as evidenced by the growing roles for central banks and also the European Union.  That may or may not be desirable, but it’s worth considering our own trends before putting the high hat on.

2. The key to long-term living standards is stability of growth, just look at Denmark.  There was never a heralded “Danish economic miracle,” but the country still has finished close to the top in terms of human welfare.  Whether ostensibly meritocratic non-democratic systems can deliver such outcomes remains very much up for grabs, and Bell’s book hasn’t convinced me any that they can.

3. Arguably a country’s best chance of achieving meritocracy is to have many smart individuals who are culturally central.  No system of government is going to overcome the lack of that.

4. Most humans in history seem to have favored meritocratic rule over democracy, and before the 19th century democracy was rare, even in the limited form of male-dominated or property owner-dominated republics.  It is possible that the current advantage of democracy is rooted in technology, or some other time-specific factor, which ultimately may prove temporary.  That said, I still observe plenty of democracies producing relatively well-run countries, so I don’t see significant evidence that a turning point against democracy has been reached.

5. To consider comparisons which hold a greater number of factors constant, I haven’t seen many (any?) serious people argue that Taiwan or South Korea would have done better to resist their processes of democratization.

Here you can buy The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy.

Saturday assorted links

by on June 20, 2015 at 1:02 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Republican candidates and the economists they are talking to.

2. Does more economist-mandated sex make people happier?

3. Is it that old people are just stubborn?

4. In praise of Keith Hall.

5. People trust business more than government.

6. Volcanoes on Venus?

Friday assorted links

by on June 19, 2015 at 10:40 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The world’s largest employers.

2. Rates of return seem to be falling.

3. ” I think it’s fair to say he doesn’t have any argument against my claim, because there are no good arguments against my claim.”  I agree.

4. Ben Casnocha on my dialogues with Thiel and Sachs.

5. Why various Republican proposals would make the problems with Obamacare worse.

6. More on Alice Goffman.

7. Virginia Postrel has further detail on the Paulson grant to Harvard.

8. William Upton on Kansas fiscal policy.  And what is the nature of Rand Paul’s tax plan?

Thursday assorted links

by on June 18, 2015 at 1:10 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Penguin nationalism.  And does gravity collapse the cat?

2. A public assembly facilities manager considers Jurassic World.  I thought the film was OK enough to watch, with some nice scenes, but not great or memorable.

3. An Italian parable: what is the financial future of Siena?

4. Noah Feldman has a good account of TPP and foreign policy considerations.

5. Photos of China.

6. What do surviving kamikaze pilots say?  (And should we trust their accounts of why they survived?)

7. Potential problems with the California Uber ruling; Tim Lee is more optimistic.

Wednesday assorted links

by on June 17, 2015 at 12:16 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Why are flamingos the most likely to escape a zoo successfully? (questions that are rarely asked)

2. Useful Chetty powerpoints.

3. Cheaper than dogs, department of why not?  But will it increase the number of ZMP canines?

4. Yes, aquifers are subject to the tragedy of the commons and yes it does matter.

5. Capsule hotels, hidden in Tokyo.

Tuesday assorted links

by on June 16, 2015 at 2:51 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Johann Hari at Five Books on addiction.

2. How much ad blocking are we seeing?

3. Michael Pettis and Chinese punk rock.

4. Derek Thompson on effective giving.

5. David Brooks on TPP, and Ashok Rao on TPP.  And Ian Bremmer.

6. Five-year retrospective on Dodd-Frank.

7. Martin Wolf, against the techno-optimists.

Stephen Curry set a record In May of this year:

It took Reggie Miller 22 games to set an NBA playoff record of 58 three-pointers for the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 playoffs. Now, Stephen Curry has broken that mark in just 13 games.

He is now up in the 80s I believe.  Curry, by the way, is NBA MVP and his team is probably on the verge of winning the Finals.  The three-point strategy seems to be working: for Curry, for the Golden State Warriors, and also for last year’s champions, the San Antonio Spurs.

Yet the three-point shot has been in the NBA since 1979 (!), and for most of those years it was not a dominant weapon.

What took so long?  At first the shot was thought to be a cheesy gimmick.  Players had to master the longer shot, preferably from their earliest training.  Coaches had to figure out three-point strategies, which include rethinking the fast break and different methods of floor spacing and passing; players had to learn those techniques too.  The NBA had to change its rules to encourage more three-pointers (e.g., allowing zone defenses, discouraging isolation plays).  General managers had to realize that Rick Pitino, though perhaps a bad NBA coach, was not a total fool, and that the Phoenix Suns were not a fluke.  People had to ponder the expected value concept a little more carefully.  Line-ups had to be smaller.  And so on.  Most of all, coaches and general managers needed the vision to see how all these pieces could fit together — Arnold Kling’s patterns of sustainable trade and specialization.

In other words, this “technology” has been legal since 1979, yet only recently has it started to come into its own.  (Some teams still haven’t figured out how to use it properly.)  And what a simple technology it is: it involves only placing your feet on a different spot on the floor and then moving your arms and legs in a coordinated (one hopes) motion.  The incentives of money, fame, and sex to get this right have been high from the beginning, and there are plenty of different players and teams in the NBA, not to mention college or even high school ball, to figure it out.  There is plenty of objective data in basketball, most of all when it comes to scoring.

Dell Curry, Stephen’s father, was in his time also known as a three-point shooter in the NBA.  But he didn’t come close to his son’s later three-point performance.

So how long do ordinary scientific inventions need to serve up their fruits?  I am a big fan of Stephen Curry, but in fact his family tale is ultimately a sobering one.

Addendum: Tom Haberstroh fills in the history.

Monday assorted links

by on June 15, 2015 at 6:17 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The Essential Hayek, by Don Boudreaux.

2. Claims about dementia.

3. www.clickhole.com is a funny site and probably the best critique of the web I have seen.  Here is Slate on the site.

4. Larry Summers on TPP makes perfect sense.  I haven’t seen anything on the anti- side coming close to this level of analysis, and in a short column at that.

5. There is a skills gap and the Beveridge curve has shifted.

6. How and why Facebook automates.

7. Scott Sumner has two excellent posts on state taxes, here and here.

Sunday assorted links

by on June 14, 2015 at 1:53 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Virtual reality is being used to train quarterbacks.

2. Can we learn anything from the China of 1640? (speculative)

3. Models of models: “The most ideal model-producing places, she surmises, have lots of interracial marriage, a high G.D.P. (predictive of good teeth) and protein-rich diets (good for turning out tall but trim citizens).”

4. Classic Robin Hanson.

5. How Todd Kliman reads a menu.

6. Lessons from the Stanford prison experiment.

MR commentator Patrick L. has a go at it:

OK I’ll bite.

In nominal terms, between 2002 and 2012 state receipts grew 50%. Inflation in this period was 28%, and probably significantly lower for Kansas, while population growth has only been about 10% since 2000. Even the “low” 2014 receipts are $1.5 billion more in revenue from when Sebelius first took office and the government started rapidly growing. In the past 15 years expenditures have grown over 50%, exceeding $6 billion today. The shortfall is $300 million, or about 5%. While the growth of the Kansas government in the past 15 years is smaller than other governments in the country, it still explains the shortfall. We can justify this increase by saying that education and health are rising faster than everything else, but that is not a revenue problem. Tax rates have to rise because education and health costs are growing faster than our economies. That says nothing at all about the optimum size of taxation for state governments with regard to growth, jobs, or even revenue. The tax and spending levels Brownback choose would have been adequate ten, maybe even five years ago. With a bit of luck, he could have ignored the shortfall because of variance, which for receipts can be a few hundred million a year.

Republicans should be wise enough to not depend on luck, and they should be wiser predicting how trend lines go. Cutting the size of government was never a serious option.

I haven’t looked at the votes in depth, but it looks like a classic case of urban // rural split that typically troubles the state’s politics. Just under half the state’s population lives around Kansas City or Wichita, which are both five times than the next largest city. These places have as many votes as the rest of Kansas combined, but their needs are radically different.

Rural Kansas has two unique problems. First, there’s the problem of population collapse, which all farm states are seeing. What few children are born move out when they come of age and new people are not moving in. Fixed costs like “We need at least one school building” or “We need at least one teacher per grade” start to add up for small towns of 1000 or less. Those are the obvious problems, not to mention any number of federal or state concerns dealing with food, medical, or disability services that have to be met. As a matter of geography, 98% of the state is rural, and I think I heard 25% of the state is in towns less than 2500 – with over 400 municipal governments servicing less than 1000 people it’s probably the highest per capita in the country (This is FIVE times the national average).

This is a non-trivial growing problem related to scale government services that has been an issue of intense legal debate in the state. Wichita School District’s scale is such it can use its buses to deliver free or low cost lunches to children in the summer. Small cities don’t have buses. Is that fair? How should taxes be structured to compensate? The only political viable solution to this problem has been to spend more money. If all the small towns could magically consolidate into a super smallville, taxes would (back of the envelope) be 10-15% lower.

Government services to low population areas are subsidized by high population areas, and it costs much more to deliver the same services to small towns. The US Postal Service paid for delivery to small towns across the country by charging monopolistic prices on first class letter mail in cities (Which cost almost nothing to deliver). NPR’s national budget mostly goes to setup stations in small towns. The small towns in Kansas are both relatively and in many cases actually getting smaller, older, and poorer. They are costing more and delivering less.

The other problem is that some rural areas are *growing*, but they’re growing because of immigration attracted to the agriculture and food packaging industries. Which is not the same as growing from a resource boom which can be taxed heavily to compensate. Liberal, KS is the largest per capita immigrant community in the United States. While this influx of people is necessary for the health of these places, the new population has more expensive demands on government services and pays less in taxes. Some of these small towns are the same ones that a decade ago were collapsing. Services and infrastructure might have been allowed to lapse or removed, and now rapidly needs to be replaced. That’s expensive! In the long run this problem might replace the first problem, but for now it’s the worst of both worlds.

The economy of the small cities is based largely around food production, which mostly can’t move, and food packaging, which probably can’t for logistical reasons. These places are poorer, getting relatively poorer per capita, and demanding more in services both directly (immigration / aging) and through scale issues. Their populations are either getting very old or very Hispanic, or both.

In contrast, Kansas City is a stable metropolis whose economy depends on manufacturing is built around a national centralized hub for trains. It also has some finance and telecom sprinkled in, though those guys can probably go anywhere. Wichita, is a moderately growing city based around aircraft manufacturing. When state taxes can’t provide enough government services, local taxes for these areas easily rise to compensate. Their economic concerns are how to stop businesses from going across the border to Omaha, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Springfield, or Kansas City, Mo – places which are functionally identical and just as close. Given their dependence on manufacturing, they also have to consider movement across international borders to China and Mexico. Their demography is much closer to the national averages rather than the extremes. They are large enough that they can take advantage of scaling for government services, without being so large that there is decreasing actual returns. I don’t have figures, but I’d guess income rates in the urban areas to be between 150 and 200% those of the rural areas, which are themselves typically around 2/3rds the national average. This is an industry effect, a farmer in Kansas City and an aeronautical engineer in Greensburg, KS would not make much money. The cities are richer, but they’re richer because they have industries that are becoming increasingly easier to move.

On a political level, normally cities become more liberal, and poorer as you go deeper into the city – a leftover of 19th century industrialization competing against 20th century transportation. Deep urban cores produce these deep blue constituencies that act as checks on conservative suburban rings. In some states this manifests itself as a coalition between the poor rural areas and the poor urban areas against richer suburban areas allowing normal American class politics to balance itself. Cities produce political equilibrium: The richer and denser it becomes, the more liberal, which pushes more money and voters to suburbia, diluting the power. In short, declining rural power (D) and rising urban power (D) offset each other, but rising urban power (D) enhances suburban power (R), and so at a state level you get a balance.

The problem is that the inner core of Kansas City is in Missouri, so Kansas only gets the rich (Republican) suburban ring and a tiny blue part. Typical democratic concerns like maintaining a progressive tax structure can’t really find a foundation. While Wichita also has an urban core that does provide a Democratic representation, the city isn’t constrained geographically by anything (No ocean, mountain, lake, and transportation goes around, not through, the city) means concentration, an ingredient for populist politics, is lessened. The city spreads, and the poor can easily move up the class structure by moving further and further out. Wichita has half the population density of Syracuse and two thirds that of Madison, two close sized metropolitan areas. I haven’t done a county level comparison, but I suspect that Sedgwick has half the density of the ‘average American county with half a million people’ in it. There are other places in America like that, but guess how they vote.

Nor are either cities big university cities, like Madison or Boston. The two big universities in the state are in the small towns of Lawrence and Manhattan, which are quite separate from the rest of the state. Urban centers are places of “Commanding Heights” industries, like health and education that can’t easily move, but Wichita and Kansas City are based around manufacturing.

The political outcomes are not that surprising at all. There is nothing ‘the matter with Kansas’. The power structure easily shifts between slim majorities formed from predominately suburban populations who are wealthier, and whose jobs are most likely to move, and slim majorities formed from the small urban cores and rural parts of the state.

There’s no possible political coalition that you could form that would pass a constitutional amendment allowing a floating balanced budget over a 10 year period. Nor are the populist pressure strong enough to push against regressive taxation. You have ‘fiscal hawks’ in the rural areas who never vote for cuts, and suburban conservatives who never vote for taxes. When the storm gets too bad, they vote a nice moderate democrat in to raise taxes and crack down hard on whatever (Non manufacturing / agricultural) big business they can put pressure on. Obviously something that can’t move easily like Health Insurance.

In summery, this really is an issue of Urban vs Rural politics. Unlike other cities, the kind of industries around Kansas City and Wichita can move. The jobs in the rural areas can’t. The rural areas require more per capita government services, and the urban areas have more money. They both have half the vote. Solve for equilibrium.

== As for the deal:

It’s mostly a .4% sales tax increase, which is less than some of the more fanciful projects done by local governments in the past 15 years, which have included sports arenas, loans to movie theaters, and waterfront improvement. A half cent increase in sales tax does move the state into the top 10 for the country, but the overall tax burden is still quite low. The real problem is that city/county sales taxes are a function of distance from Wichita, and the inverse of population. The smaller your city, and the farther you are from Wichita, the more the county depends on sales taxes. In places like Junction City, this could put the sales tax close to 10%! The real disparity is going to be at the border towns: After the change there will be a .7% difference between KC, KS and KC, MO, though I bet the Missouri side will raise taxes to compensate. After the increase, there’s a 1.5% difference between Pittsburg, KS and Joplin, MO – big enough that I could see some people consider driving for purchases more than $300 (Biweekly grocery shopping for a large family?), especially if retailers on the Missouri side are not dumb. As a general rule, the money and the shopping is on the Kansas side of the border, so stuff isn’t going to transition immediately, but I expect some Laffer curve effects here for local governments, and I would hope they’ll respond by dropping taxes to compensate.

This is probably WHY such a deal was able to pass. Most of the damage goes on the poor and rural parts of Kansas, which is where most of the balance budget hawks are. The rich living near Kansas City will have the easiest time dodging the increase and avoid it more often. A regressive tax, but an efficient one.

As for the other parts of the deal, $90 million in itemized deductions are being removed. I don’t actually think this will amount to much, since there aren’t many itemized state deductions left. What remains are things like adoption, historical preservation, or disabled access. I don’t see much money coming in this way, and the state will almost certainly reverse itself the first chance it gets (As it did the last time it got rid of the adoption credit).

Whew!