My personal moonshot

by on January 31, 2018 at 12:03 am in Economics, Education, Philosophy, Web/Tech | Permalink

That is a short piece I wrote for the inauguration of a new Mercatus website The Bridge.  The focus of the piece is how I think about my own career and “moat”, excerpt:

My view, or at least hope, is that these diverse outputs [listed at the link] exploit two synergies.  First, my work in any one of these areas publicizes what I am doing in the others.  Second, what I learn from each task boosts my productivity in the others.  Overall, I think of these activities as a kind of collective intellectual blitzkrieg.

I will step out of my modest demeanor for a moment and suggest that relatively few people can construct and manage such a broad portfolio, and so this gives me some kind of competitive advantage or “moat” in the world of ideas.  My moonshoot, in essence, is trying to push as hard as possible on that advantage with this blitzkrieg.


By the way, I love it when people describe writing a blog, or writing on the internet, as “popularizing” economics or something similar.  That is a sign they don’t understand what is going on, that they don’t understand there is such a thing as “internet economics,” and also a sign they will not be effective competition.  It’s really about “the internet way of writing and communicating” vs. non-internet methods.  The internet methods may or may not be popular, and may or may not be geared toward a wide audience, so they are not the same as popularizing.  One point of the internet is to find an outlet for super-unpopular material.  What’s important right now is to develop internet methods of thinking and communicating, and not to obsess over reaching the largest possible numbers of people.

I would note that tylercowensethnicdiningguide.com fits into the picture too, although this essay was too short to explain the larger schema with that one.

Soon I will be having a conversation with Robin Hanson — the Robin Hanson.  What should I ask him?  The jumping-off point will be his new book with Kevin Simler, but of course we won’t stop there.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit about why they might not:

In any of these Washington area locations, Amazon is taking an implicit stance on the nature of talent and education. It’s well known that the D.C. area has high education levels, including in science and technology fields. At the same time, it has not bred a lot of rapidly scaling, dynamic startups comparable to, say, Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas. The work ethic and competition here are strong, but the orientation is too much toward the government as customer and arbiter. If Amazon settles in or near Washington, the company is betting that educated human beings are flexible and can reorient their priorities and ethos to a changing business environment. If there is any argument against Amazon picking the D.C. area, it’s this one.

There are many more points at the link.

Here is the video of my 30-minute debate — and yes it was a debate not really a dialogue — with Luigi Zingales on this question (click through for the video).  At the link is an associated transcript too, though the vigor of the back and forth was lots of fun.

I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect.  Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature.  Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:

…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.

Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use.  Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.

And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.

So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.


COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?

DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.

The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?

And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —

COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.

DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.


I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.


COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

On another topic:

I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me.  Do read or listen to the whole thing.

And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.

A few points:

1. Facebook can now claim it is truly addressing the problems (way exaggerated in my opinion) associated with the 2016 election.  This looks decisive, and the company can present it as a turning point.

2. In essence, they are blaming the media, without having to throw the stones themselves.  Americans respond positively to attacks on the media, so this is a strong public relations move.  Facebook retains the option of blaming the media more explicitly for its previous troubles, if need be.

3. The news feed can always be reintroduced under another name or guise.  Two years from now, the entire dialogue about the major web companies is likely to be different, one way or another.

4. I do understand this may devastate some marginal media outlets, and in fact many media outlets are marginal these days in economic terms.  Still, in the longer run I prefer a scenario where other web sites try to compete with Facebook rather than being co-opted by it and dependent on it.

5. Does this mean more ads will turn up on Instagram, chat apps, Facebook Messenger, and other Facebook services?

There is also this angle (NYT, speculative):

Facebook’s pulling back from the news — which necessarily depends on conflict — and elevation of homier material may bolster the company’s attempt to enter China, where it has been met with stiff resistance.

“Facebook is just desperate to get into China, and it will never do that unless it censors news — and this is actually a neat solution to that,” Mr. Weisberg, the Slate chairman, said. “If you only have news on the platform shared by users, users who live under repressive regimes don’t have access to real news and can’t share it, because it’s legally prohibited.”

I’m not entirely happy about this last factor, but I also don’t see how it is better for China for Facebook to remain permanently outside the country.  And if the desire to enter China makes Facebook in some way worse for Americans, that is a potential problem, but I don’t see how this move makes the overall media environment worse for Americans.

The future of blockchains?

by on January 9, 2018 at 2:38 pm in Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

I also think it is noteworthy that actual cryptocurrency exchanges exist to get around the limitations of blockchain-based settlement. It’s hard to short bitcoins or buy bitcoins on margin, which is why exchanges exist and use off-blockchain methods (lending you money, keeping custody of your bitcoins, etc.) to allow you to do those things. (Sometimes that’s a mess!) It’s not like you’re using the blockchain to buy bitcoins with dollars on a cryptocurrency exchange; you’re using your credit card. If you want to rebuild the regular financial system along blockchain principles, you have to wrestle with the fact that even the bitcoin financial system doesn’t really operate on blockchain principles.

That is from Matt Levine.

A number of Chinese mobile applications have been shut down after it was revealed women on their platforms were actually automated robots, it’s reported.

According to the Modern Express newspaper, police have closed down mobile apps associated with 21 companies and arrested more than 600 suspects operating across 13 provinces, after discovering that messages from some women were being automatically generated by computer programmes.

Police in southern Guangdong province began investigating in August 2017, after suspecting one app of fraudulently charging visitors to view pornographic videos which did not exist.

Further investigation found that technical personnel from at least one company had created fake “sexy girl” accounts. They wrote computer programmes which generated greeting messages and compliments from fake accounts, and targeted these at newly registered users.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.

Policing nature

by on January 6, 2018 at 2:12 am in Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

Lasers are to be deployed against Britain’s biggest bird of prey to stop them taking sheep.

Farmers will be able to apply for licences to fire the beams on to hillsides on the west coast of Scotland to discourage sea eagles from areas where they are believed to be feeding on lambs. The method is being trialled by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and its partners in response to concerns among the crofting and farming communities.

White-tailed sea eagles were reintroduced to Scotland in the 1970s and the population stands at an estimated 106 breeding pairs. It is thought that the figure could double within ten years.

According to sheep farmers and crofters, the birds are not only taking large numbers of lambs but threatening rural livelihoods. Laser licences will be granted to farmers in areas where lambs have been taken by the birds.

The beams create patterns that disorientate the birds and make them fly away. The lasers cause the birds no harm and deter other predators from preying on farm animals.

That is from the London Times.  And from Jonathan Franzen.

Security breach in India?

by on January 5, 2018 at 12:27 pm in Current Affairs, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

In 2010 India started scanning personal details like names, addresses, dates of birth, mobile numbers, and more, along with all 10 fingerprints and iris scans of its 1.3 billion citizens, into a centralized government database called Aadhaar to create a voluntary identity system. On Wednesday this database was reportedly breached.

The Tribune, a local Indian newspaper, published a report claiming its reporters paid Rs. 500 (approximately $8) to a person who said his name was Anil Kumar, and who they contacted through WhatsApp. Kumar was able to create a username and password that gave them access to the demographic information of nearly 1.2 billion Indians who have currently enrolled in Aadhaar, simply by entering a person’s unique 12-digit Aadhaar number. Regional officers working with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government agency responsible for Aadhaar, told the Tribune the access was “illegal,” and a “major national security breach.”

second report, published on Thursday by the Quint, an Indian news website, revealed that anyone can create an administrator account that lets them access the Aadhaar database as long as they’re invited by an existing administrator.

Here is the full story, via Brian Slesinsky.

Yes, the Matt Levine who writes for Bloomberg.  The “the only greeting you need is “Only you can do what you do!”” Matt Levine.

That one (not the other one).  I’ll be having a Conversation with him, so what should I ask?

Did you know by the way that Matt can speak Latin?

The city recently cracked down on delivery robots — autonomous devices such as those tested by Yelp’s Eat24 service last year, that travel on the sidewalk to distribute food and other essentials to customers. New rules limit them to a speed of three miles an hour, and require a human operator nearby. Moreover, only nine delivery robots can be tested in the city at any time, dashing the hopes of start-ups that had envisioned fleets of self-driving bots taking hot pizza to hungry millennials.


The pet shelter initially reported good results from the security robot, with fewer car break-ins. However, controversy arose over its powers of surveillance, and at one point it was kidnapped. Unknown assailants covered the robot with a tarp and smeared barbecue sauce on its sensors to block them. The president of the pet shelter at first alleged the perpetrators came from a nearby homeless encampment but later said she wasn’t sure.

That is from Leslie Hook at the FT.

Facebook announced that it will no longer use “Disputed Flags” — red flags next to fake news articles — to identify fake news for users. Instead it will use related articles to give people more context about a story.

Why it’s happening: The tech giant is doing this in response to academic research it conducted that shows the flags don’t work, and they often have the reverse effect of making people want to click even more.

That is from Noah Berger at Axios.

A while ago I promised you my take on Bloomberg View [BV], and why I decided to work for them.  They don’t know I am doing this post, I don’t in any official or even unofficial way speak for Bloomberg View or for the broader company, and I hope they don’t get mad at me for attempting this brief capsule treatment.  And it is fine if you wish to dismiss this as biased pleading, because it is.

One of the most striking features of BV, from my personal point of view, is how many of the writers I was actively reading and following before they started with BV.  For instance:

1. A few years ago I tracked down Adam Minter for a Sichuan lunch in Shanghai, to talk with him about recycling, China, the metals trade and used goods, and his general take on things.  Adam is one of the very best writers for mastering small, apparently obscure details, based on years of personal travel and research, and then showing how they reflect broader and more important truths.  Adam later started writing for Bloomberg.

2. Megan McArdle and I have had periodic lunches and chats since I first met her in 2004 (?), when I was presenting an early version of Stubborn Attachments to Victor Niederhoffer’s Junto seminar in New York City.  She was one of the very first economics bloggers, along with John Irons and Brad DeLong.  The next time I see her we will again debate when and whether the world is going to end, and whether Panda Gourmet really does have the best cold noodles in Washington, D.C. (yes).

3. I met up with Christopher Balding for a lunch in Hong Kong, as he came over from Shenzhen.  I was a fan of his China blog and research, and lo and behold Christopher ended up writing for Bloomberg.  Here are his New Year’s resolutions.

4. Cass Sunstein is one of the polymaths of our time, and the #1 cited legal scholar, not to mention a Star Wars fan, and I interviewed him for Conversations with Tyler.  I don’t have to tell you where he writes now, or that his favorite musician is Bob Dylan.

5. I’ve had periodic email contact with Stephen R. Carter, of Yale Law School, as the two of us share many common interests and reading habits.  He’s now with Bloomberg View.

6. Virginia Postrel is a “dynamist” thinker of major significance, and I’ve been following her work for more than twenty years.  I hope she does more with the topic of textiles.  Here is a 2014 video she and I did together (mostly her) on the topic of glamour.

7. A few years ago, Noah Smith and I decided to get together at the AEA meetings, most of all to talk about Japan (Noah is fluent in Japanese and lived there for a good while).  He was then still a professor before he made the decision to work for Bloomberg full-time.  Last year, I took a long Uber ride to meet Noah for Thai food in Berkeley.

8. Conor Sen started blogging, and I thought: “This guy is awesome and has unique perspectives rooted in finance and housing and demographics and Atlanta.”  Soon enough, Bloomberg hired him.  Conor deservedly made this list of the year’s most interesting people.

8. I was a fan of Stephen Mihm’s work on history and economic history, before he started with BV.

9. And now we have Ramesh Ponnuru and Michael Strain, two of the very best market-oriented, right of center yet also eclectic columnists.

I don’t mean to neglect all the other people who write for Bloomberg View, as this list is determined by whom I knew before there was any Bloomberg connection.  As for some of the others, Leonid Bershidsky is an amazing polymath, the “every column is full of information” Noah Feldman has a new and wonderful book on James Madison, there is Joe Nocera and Justin Fox and Barry Ritholz, and I am trying to schedule a Conversation with the great Matt Levine, who always knows more than you think he does, even after taking this clause into account.  When I met Matt I simply uttered: “Matt Levine, only you can do what you do!”  Is any other greeting required?

One day I woke up and realized these people write for Bloomberg View, or that people like them were going to, and then it occurred to me that maybe I should too.  And there are still Bloomberg View writers I haven’t really discovered yet.  (By the way, one reason all these people are so good is because of the consistently excellent editors.)

What is the common element behind all of these writers?  I would say that Bloomberg View tends to hire reading-loving, eclectic polymaths, with both academic knowledge and real world experience, and whose views cannot always be predicted from their other, previous writings.

Over the last year, I think I would nominate Ross Douthat as The Best Columnist.  But overall I think Bloomberg View has assembled the most talented and diverse group of opinion contributors out there, bar none.

On top of all that, BV is perhaps the least gated major opinion website.

In addition to the writing, I also very much enjoy working for a great company.  Not all media outlets can offer that.

Anyway, forgive the biased rant, that is my take for today!  They also serve nice snacks and have an amazing art collection in the NYC building.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

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.