I mean for the West, not for emerging economies.  Obviously we need to know future trajectories, and that is hard to do.  But try this simple question: since 2000 or so, have the predictions of the optimists or the pessimists come closer to being correct and insightful?

At a dinner party two nights ago, the unanimous opinion, even from the optimists, was that the pessimists had been doing better in the predicting game.  Of course, that does not mean the pessimists will be correct going forward.  The optimists might try these counters:

1. There isn’t much of a true structure period, so a bunch of correct pessimist predictions doesn’t mean much.

2. The optimists had the better predictions for the 1980s and 1990s.  Perhaps the sides simply alternate being correct every now and then.

3. The recent correct predictions of the pessimists are mostly noise.  Soon, optimistic predictions are likely to start being correct again.

4. Since 2000, the pessimists didn’t actually predict as well as you might think.  They failed to see how quickly the internet would spread, the power and reach of smart phones, and furthermore peace has continued, at least among the advanced economies.  GDP still grew.

I don’t see #1 as giving a huge boost to a structurally-rooted optimism.  Note that for #2, it is usually cheaper to destroy than to build.  They are not the bleakest scenarios either, but still a big comedown for the optimists, I would think.

#3 cannot be ruled out, but it’s not a huge amount of evidence for optimism either.  It does allow the optimists, however, to keep their structural models intact.

#4 runs the risk of “if this is what optimism looks like…”

I believe many optimists wish to invoke an inconsistent mix of #1 and #3.

I thank Veronique de Rugy for pushing me on this point in the conversation.

How much should the predictive ability of a group matter anyway?  People who are good at predicting may or may not be good at understanding.

Facts about Qatar

by on June 11, 2017 at 12:34 am in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink

1. Qatar is about the size of Yorkshire or Connecticut.

2. The United States and Qatar have been friendly only since the first Gulf War; before then, the relationship was somewhat hostile or at least problematic.  But Qatar was keen to invite in American troops, and the country took the lead in condemning Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

3. The British left only in 1971, so modern Qatar had a relatively short window of time with no foreign/Western troops in the country.

4. Qatar does not charge the U.S. for these bases, and “Qatar has never been able to guarantee its own security by itself.”

5. In the new century, Qatar turned itself into a major provider of hostage negotiator services.  That it is Sunni, yet has friendly relationships with Iran, Lebanon, and the United States has made it a useful go-between, and the Qatari leadership has used this as one of many ways to build up Qatari soft power.

6. “Qatar has no history of animosity towards the Shia movement…”

7. Qatar owns 20 percent of the London Stock Exchange and 20 percent of Heathrow airport.

8. The country’s main revenue is a natural gas field it shares with Iran.

9. “Al Jazeera can be seen as one of Qatar’s most significant means of antagonising Saudi Arabia…”  One can view the much-vaunted “press freedom” of the outlet as part of a more calculated balancing strategy.

10. The government of Qatar came out early for regime change in both Libya and Syria.

11. “Qatar’s history has long been punctuated by challenges emanating from modern-day Saudi Arabia.”

12. “…Qatar’s policy is worryingly dependent on two or three individuals, giving the state little strategic depth or institutional back-up capability.  The personalised nature of politics marginalises the structures in place to inform and support decision-making.  This cycle is exacerbated by Qatar’s youth as a country, which means it has only had a meaningful bureaucracy for a generation, while its educational system has been mediocre at best.”

Those are all from David B. Roberts, Qatar: Securing the Global Ambitions of a City-State, an excellent book, just out, recommended reading for you all.

Church said “almost all” of his visionary ideas and scientific solutions have come while he was either asleep or quasi-asleep, sometimes dreaming, at the beginning or end of a narcoleptic nap. Such as? The breakthrough during graduate school that ushered in “next gen” genome sequencing, a fast and cheap way to “read” DNA. “Writing genomes,” or constructing them from off-the-shelf molecules as a way to improve on what nature came up with. Innovations in editing genomes.

These brainstorms, and more, occurred while he was “either daydreaming or night dreaming or in that period when I’m really refreshed right afterward,” said Church, who will be 63 in August. “It took me until I was 50 or 60 years old” to realize that narcolepsy “is a feature, not a bug.”

In 2017, Time magazine named Harvard professor George Church one of the 100 most influential people.  Here is the article, interesting throughout, via Michelle Dawson.

Saturday assorted links

by on June 10, 2017 at 3:11 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Jason Kottke reports:

On the website for the book, you can browse the solutions in a ranked list. Here are the 10 best solutions (with the total atmospheric reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions in gigatons in parentheses):

1. Refrigerant Management (89.74)
2. Wind Turbines, Onshore (84.60)
3. Reduced Food Waste (70.53)
4. Plant-Rich Diet (66.11)
5. Tropical Forests (61.23)
6. Educating Girls (59.60)
7. Family Planning (59.60)
8. Solar Farms (36.90)
9. Silvopasture (31.19)
10. Rooftop Solar (24.60)

Refrigerant management is about replacing hydro-fluorocarbon coolants with alternatives because HFCs have “1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide”. As a planet, we should be hitting those top 7 solutions hard, particularly when it comes to food. If you look at the top 30 items on the list, 40% of them are related to food.

Here is the background context:

Environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken has edited a book called Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming which lists “the 100 most substantive solutions to reverse global warming, based on meticulous research by leading scientists and policymakers around the world”.

I will however order the book.

Here is the article, here is one excerpt:

A new issue of Econ Journal Watch, an online journal, includes a symposium in which prominent economic thinkers are asked to provide their “most regretted statements”. Held regularly, such exercises might take the shame out of changing your mind. Yet the symposium also shows how hard it is for scholars to grapple with intellectual regret. Some contributions are candid; Tyler Cowen’s analysis of how and why he underestimated the risk of financial crisis in 2007 is enlightening. But some disappoint, picking out regrets that cast the writer in a flattering light or using the opportunity to shift blame.

Here again is the symposium, here is my contribution.

Friday assorted links

by on June 9, 2017 at 11:18 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Patrick Collison on Charlie Rose.

2. “They showed me that they have an assassination list, and Paul Simon was at the top of it.”

3. A techie makes apps to randomize his life: “Max lived a randomized life for the better part of two years. In fact, he went global. He created an app that chose the places he would live, travel and eat. When he traveled, he continued using the Facebook events app to find random activities.”

4. “Russian malware communicates with systems it infects by leaving comments on Britney Spears’ Instagram

5. Do we live in a very large void?  Speak for yourself, I say.

6. When do American buses outcompete trains?

Car fact of the day

by on June 9, 2017 at 3:00 am in Web/Tech | Permalink

Twenty years ago, cars had, on average, one million lines of code. The General Motors 2010 Chevrolet Volt had about 10 million lines of code — more than an F-35 fighter jet.

Today, an average car has more than 100 million lines of code. Automakers predict it won’t be long before they have 200 million.

That is from Nicole Perlroth at the NYT.

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

When we make personal decisions, we usually compare a choice to the best possible alternative, not the worst. Imagine if you suggested to your spouse that you go out to the movies, and your spouse asked why that might be a good idea. It wouldn’t be much of an answer to say that the movie is better than the very worst show on television at home. Rather you should focus on comparing the movie to the next best thing you might do, like watching your favorite TV show or going to a new restaurant you want to try.

The upshot is that we should compare anti-poverty programs to other anti-poverty programs, and favor only the prioritized ones. But just how much of a priority does a program need to be?

One way to proceed is to ask: If we expand some programs, what is the most likely political response? It could be either lower spending in some other program or, in fact, raising taxes on the wealthy. But the evidence on the “fiscal gap” — the space between what the government owes and what it collects — suggests that the opportunity cost of expanding one transfer program is likely some government spending elsewhere, rather than expensive handbags for the wealthy.

Do read the whole thing.


1832, in imitation of U.S. black speech; extended form of Lord as an interjection.

Source here.

What does a speaker mean if he/she exclaims “Lawdy me!”? I noticed this exclamation when I was reading a short story “the Conscience of the Court” by Zora Neale Hurston. There was one brown-skinned woman who was charged with felonious and aggravated assault and he exclaimed “Lawdy me!” during the court session by musing it inside herself. I haven’t found much information on my own search and I know only that Lawd and Lawdy are the non-standard spellings of Lord and Lordy and they have been used in black speech. These two words “Lawdy” and “me” attached together doesn’t make any actual sense for me, but I have my own guessings what they could mean: 1)”Lord help me!”, 2)more polite and more invisible way to exclaim “Oh my God” without referring to direct begging of the God, 3)”My dear God, forgive me my sins!” or 4) “Lawdy me!” is only an interjection used to express surprise, shock or the strength of feeling in a case that the person is completely non-religious.

Source here.  Here is more on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.”  And here is a story on Comey’s work as a student journalist.

This note sets out situations where there has been no overall control in the House of Commons during the twentieth century. It considers precedents and conventions governing how the monarch might decide which party should form a government in such a situation, and when a request for a dissolution might be granted. It includes references to the Cabinet Office draft chapter of the Cabinet Manual and the evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 24 February 2010. The note also considers how a minority government or coalition might affect the work of Parliament. It looks briefly at the formation of coalition governments in Scotland and Wales. Lastly, it lists some sources of further information on situations of no overall control.

That is the best piece I know on hung Parliaments, prepared by Lucinda Maer for members of Parliament, from the Parliament and Constitution Centre.

Thursday assorted links

by on June 8, 2017 at 2:06 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. A review of the new Amazon bookstore: ““Wow, am I inside the Internet? Is this how the characters in TRON felt when they first entered the game?” I thought, more than a few times.”

2. More detail on the Kansas Republican tax hike.

3. “Around two thirds of Brits own a shed; of those who don’t, 44% would like to.”  Link here.

4. Are bigger labs better?

5. Chinese influence in Australia.

6. Cheap Talk on Comey leaks and bombshells.

Ray Lopez told me “Blog on it!”  So I posed that query on Twitter, here is the background, here are some of the answers, check my mentions for more and for credits:

Great filter perhaps more likely to be behind us, if it took us 295,000 years to start having anything like civilization?

We’re slower learners

Civilization is precarious and the great filter from apes to higher intelligence is worse than we thought.

Initially & erroneously, I read ‘president’ instead of ‘present’.

Great question. Certainly the concept of civilization is an incredibly late concept, and not necessary for human flourishing.

Based on a single data point, the advanced from anatomical modernity to civilization is 50% harder than previously thought.

The moral arc of history is…even longer and bends even more gradually

That current rates of productivity growth are somehow abnormal

That there’s a bigger delta between our current environment and the one we evolved in.

We don’t have _nearly_ the cultural bandwidth to transmit all the wonderful wisdom developed over _300k years_. Much has been lost.

Our first revision might be that we have good certainty on the age of mankind. Perhaps it’s 500,000 years? What other fossils might we find?

interbreeding with Neanderthals was even freakier than we thought?

That rather than being rare – ‘the end of the world’ is a horrifyingly repetitive phenomenon for human civs.

Lower probability that other intelligent species lived long enough to develop interstellar travel or communication

That 140 characters, instead of flying cars, is an even bigger disappointment. I mean, seriously, after 300,000 years?

The longer we have been evolving with our unique set of Sapiens traits the more time evolution has had to make them elaborate and distinct.

That it took twice as long to start the process of civilization than previously thought. Let’s not blow it.

That we really should know better.

Apologies if I missed yours!

At Cato Unbound I argue for libertarian social engineering:

The better markets work, the less the demand for the state. By improving markets and other voluntary organizations, libertarians can make their political vision more attractive while at the same time making people better off.

Modern libertarianism began after many of the market institutions that we take for granted had already been developed. Fee simple property, for example, dates to 1290. Could we have a libertarian society without fee simple property? In theory, yes. In practice, the free society is attractive because it generates wealth. Without fee simple property it is, at the very least, more difficult to create a rich, industrialized society. The limited liability company dates much later than fee simple property, to the 19th century.  Without the limited liability company, it would probably have been much more difficult to raise large amounts of capital. As a result, without limited liability, markets would be at a great disadvantage compared to the state in conducting economic activity on a large scale. Thus fee simple property and the limited liability company are among the technological/legal institutions that have made a free society possible, not because they are constitutive of a free society, but because they make a free society work better and compete better against statist alternatives.

So how can we improve markets? Public goods are one of the biggest challenges to markets and it was long thought that because of the free rider problem markets could not produce public goods. In Tabarrok (1998) I showed that such reasoning was wrong; a large class of public goods can be produced voluntarily using what today would be called a crowdfunding contract with a refund bonus or what I called at the time, the dominant assurance contract (DAC). My piece at Cato Unbound describes the DAC and also some other ideas for libertarian social engineering in more detail.

What’s important about dominant assurance contracts is not simply that they solve the public good problem but that:

Dominant assurance contracts open the provision of public goods to entrepreneurship, innovation, and the market discovery process.

I consider that question in my latest Bloomberg column, and actually contrary to conventional wisdom the rationality of extreme presidential tweeting cannot be ruled out.  Here is just one bit in a longer argument:

On top of all that, now imagine that you consider nationalism, resurrecting America as it once was, negotiating from strength, returning to older notions of masculinity and “building a wall” as the major issues of the day. You don’t see the traditional Republican concerns with cutting taxes and repealing Obamacare as all that salient for reversing America’s deterioration, even if you are willing to go along with those reforms. Nor, given your nationalism and unilateralism, do you see alienating allies as a major cost of opining so openly.

In that rather pessimistic view of the world, it might make sense to give up entirely on the idea that your administration will accomplish much in the way of policy, at least as the concept is traditionally understood. Instead, you might be thinking of shifting the window of policy debate over a 10- to 20-year period. That is, you might be hoping the American public will be thinking in more Trumpian terms a few administrations from now, even if outwardly they have rejected your legacy. It then will be the case that mainstream politicians will work to implement some Trumpian ideas through more traditional channels.

Do read the whole thing.