What exactly is the problem these days?

In my latest Bloomberg column I tried to express the “model” in as few dimensions as possible.  Here is an excerpt:

I am increasingly worried that human success and failure are ruled by taste — the demand side, in economic terms. If there are fewer beautiful and charming residential post-World War II neighborhoods, it is because most people do not want to live in them. If there are fewer movies today with the dramatic impact and compositional rigor of “Citizen Kane,” it is because people do not very much want to see them. It is not that it is too difficult or expensive to make another “Citizen Kane.”

Again, this is not an argument for pessimism. Hollywood movies may be worse, but television programs are much better. Neighborhoods may look less interesting, but the insides of homes are more comfortable. For every potential lost Baroque concerto, there are gains in other areas of life.

Still, it is striking how much the quality of taste can decline — and stay there for long periods.

Social contagion plays a significant role in this process. That is, when some people become interested in a particular genre, many others may follow: Think of the rise of Beatlemania. The process also works the other way: Think of the decline of disco.

The question is why some particular tastes decline, and others rise. There are probably deep structural explanations, but for the most part those reasons are not transparent to our understanding. For all practical purposes, many shifts in cultural tastes are random.

It’s also important to realize that a lot of politics is about aesthetic tastes for a particular set of values, a particular set of people, a particular set of processes and outcomes. There was a series of democratic revolutions starting in the late 18th century, just as there were numerous fascist revolutions starting in the early 20th century and neoliberal revolutions in the 1990s. Social contagion can help explain those as well.

My fear, quite simply, is that we have entered an age in which the popular taste for good political outcomes, and fair political processes, is much weaker than it used to be. You might think that people would always want at least decent political outcomes, but that hypothesis has gotten increasingly hard to defend in the last 10 years, both in the US and globally. Attachment to democracy, for instance, seems significantly weaker, as does love for capitalism. People’s tastes are being pulled in different directions, whether it be the Proud Boys or the extremely woke.

All of which is to say, a rather simple and unglorified possibility is becoming more likely: People have stopped wanting good things to happen.

I realize this explanation is banal and does not hold much emotional appeal. Many people prefer conspiracy theories, or tightly structured theoretical hypotheses, or to pin the blame on some particular political faction, usually one they oppose. Or they focus on some very specific issue, such as climate change.

I view all of those problems, real though they may be, as downstream from the more fundamental issue: Why haven’t our systems of government responded better to whatever particular dilemmas concern us most?

Happy 4th!

 

Sunday assorted links

1. Chart of the Irish Enlightenment.

2. “The survey results indicated that time spent playing chords predicted desire for casual sex with women whereas perceptions of playing speed positively predicted intrasexual competitiveness (a desire to impress other men).”  Yes, that is a paper about heavy metal.

3. Scott Sumner movie reviews, always correct.

4. Jane Jacobs and dogs.

5. New Deirdre McCloskey book.

Mexican nearshoring is failing

Between 2018 and 2021 the proportion of manufactured goods imported into the US from Mexico barely changed according to data compiled by Kearney, the consultancy. Instead the rewards of the China boycott were reaped by low-cost Asian competitors including Vietnam and Taiwan. Asian countries other than China increased their share of US manufactured goods imports from 12.6 per cent to 17.4 per cent over the period.

And:

It is the only major Latin American economy whose output will still be below pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year, according to estimates from JPMorgan.

Here is more from the FT.  Note that Mexican immigration into the United States is rising again.

The FDA is Increasing Skin Cancer

Americans who travel to the beaches in France, Spain, or Italy routinely do something that is illegal in the United States–they buy and use European sunscreens to protect themselves from sunburn and skin cancer. Suncreens in Europe and Asia are better than in the United States because more ingredients are allowed and these create more effective and more pleasing suncreens. I’ve been writing about this since 2013! My view hasn’t changed:

My rule is very simple. I don’t think the FDA is better than the EMA so if any drug or device is approved in Europe it ought to be available for purchase in the United States with a label saying “Approved by the EMA. Not approved by the FDA.” (By the way, we do have reciprocity type agreements with Canada and New Zealand for food so this would not be unprecedented.)

Here’s the latest from Amanda Mull writing in the Atlantic:

Newer, better UV-blocking agents have been in use in other countries for years. Why can’t we have them here?

In formal statements and position papers, doctors and cancer-prevention advocates express considerable interest in bringing new sunscreen ingredients to the American market, but not a lot of optimism that any will be available soon.

…In 2014, Congress passed a law attempting to speed access to sunscreen ingredients that have been in wide use in other countries for years, but it hasn’t really worked. “The FDA was supposed to be fast-tracking these ingredients for approval, because we have the safety data and safe history of usage from the European Union,” Dobos said. “But it seems to continually be stalled.” According to Courtney Rhodes, a spokesperson for the FDA, manufacturers have submitted eight new active ingredients for consideration. The agency has asked them to provide additional data in support of those applications, but none of them has yet satisfied the agency’s requirements.

“In the medical community, there is a significant frustration about the lack of availability of some of the sunscreen active ingredients,” Henry Lim, a dermatologist at Henry Ford Health, in Michigan, told me. The more filters are available to formulators, the more they can be mixed and matched in new ways, which stands to improve not just the efficacy of the final product, but how it feels and looks on your skin, and how easy it is to apply. On a very real level, making sunscreen less onerous to use can make it more effective. “The best sunscreen is going to be the one you’re going to use often and according to the directions,” Dobos said. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, and by one estimate, one in five Americans will develop it in their lifetime.

Hat tip: Joe.

Is The Army racially egalitarian? (model this)

This paper links the universe of Army applicants between 1990 and 2011 to their federal tax records and other administrative data and uses two eligibility thresholds in the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) in a regression discontinuity design to estimate the effects of Army enlistment on earnings and related outcomes. In the 19 years following application, Army service increases average annual earnings by over $$4,000 at both cutoffs. However, whether service increases long-run earnings varies significantly by race. Black servicemembers experience annual gains of $$5,500 to $$15,000 11–19 years after applying while White servicemembers do not experience significant changes. By providing Black servicemembers a stable and well-paying Army job and by opening doors to higher-paid postservice employment, the Army significantly closes the Black-White earnings gap in our sample.

Here is the full paper by Kyle Greenberg, et.al., via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Marijuana Legalization and Fertility

State-level marijuana legalization has unintended consequences, including its effect on fertility. Marijuana use is associated with behaviors that increase fertility as well as physical changes that lower fertility. In this paper, I use a difference-in-differences design that exploits variation in medical and recreational marijuana legalization across states and over time to study the effects of marijuana legalization on fertility. This paper is the first to study the effects of recreational marijuana legalization on fertility. I find that legalizing recreational marijuana decreases a state’s birth rate by an average of 2.78% while increasing the probability that an individual is sexually active by 3.6 percentage points. [emphasis added by TC] Together, my findings show that the physical effects of marijuana use have the dominant effect on fertility. By contrast with the existing literature, I find that medical marijuana legalization does not affect the birth rate, although it increases the frequency of sexual activity by 1.6 sexual encounters per month. Neither type of marijuana legalization affects male gonorrhea cases or the probability of having sex with a stranger.

That is from a new paper by Sarah Papich, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  And note that in this paper marijuana legalization predicts lower auto insurance premia.

*Empires of Ideas*

The author is William C. Kirby and the subtitle is Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China.  The shocker is that this is actually a good book.  In contrast, hardly any books on these topics are good.  This book is substantive on virtually every page, the author actually understands how universities work, and, get this…you have to read the book to know what is inside it.  The material covers why early German universities became so successful, why they declined and stayed low quality, why they revived somewhat in more recent times, which American universities have gotten better and richer and why (with respect to their governance), and what is going on with Chinese universities and their rise to eminence.  The latter part does feel a bit out of date, but overall an impressive performance.  Perhaps the sum total of all this work is a bit more desultory than what the author intends, but I will take desultory substance any day of the week.  Especially in such a “crummy book area” as this one.  The author by the way is a China specialist (good background for understanding universities!) and a former Dean at Harvard.

Institutional Review Boards Should be Curtailed

A good piece on IRBs from CSPI by Willy Chertman:

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are ethics committees, ideally composed of scientific peers and lay community members, that review research before it can be conducted. Their ostensible purpose is to protect research subjects from research harms. But oftentimes, IRBs are costly, slow, and do more harm than good. They censor controversial research, invent harms where none exist, and by designating certain categories of subjects as “vulnerable,” cause a corresponding diminishment in research on those subjects. There is even a plausible legal argument that they violate researchers’ First Amendment rights. Because previous attempts to spur the responsible federal executive agencies into streamlining IRBs have been unsuccessful or only had limited success, a targeted legislative solution that does not depend on bureaucratic implementation is needed.

Chertman has a number of suggestions for reform. At the very least social science should not be under the purview of IRBs at all.

…a more sweeping approach would be removing social science from IRB jurisdiction altogether. Historian Zachary Schrag, who worked intensely to lobby federal agencies on the Common Rule revisions from 2009-2017, proposes this in his book, Ethical Imperialism. As he documents, the Belmont Report, and subsequent regulatory developments, were not designed with social science in mind. Congress could fix this historical oversight by changing the wording of HHS regulations. This would free IRBs to focus on truly high-risk research instead of wasting time on low-risk social science research. Since social science more often touches on political questions, this would also extricate government-mandated oversight boards (IRBs) from the delicate position of regulating politically charged research.

Removing IRBs from social science research is particulary important now because politically sensitive research can be crushed under the pretense that it could “harm” participants.

Read the whole thing.

Scottish Enlightenment vs. Irish Enlightenment

The Scottish Enlightenment seems like a real enlightenment to most observers, the 18th century Irish Enlightenment (Swift, Berkeley, Burke, toss in James Barry too) does not.  In my admittedly unorthodox view, I think the Irish Enlightenment simply had different concerns but was no less of an enlightenment.  Much of the Scottish Enlightenment was concerned with the following:

1. Increasing market size and division of labor

2. Martial virtue and security against foreign enemies

3. Sympathy

That all makes broad sense when you realize that Britain was indeed building the world’s largest economic market, and furthermore had to worry about its enemies on the Continent.  Regular social interactions were becoming normal enough that one could ask basic questions about sympathy, and assume that some degree of sympathy was present.

None of those conditions held true for Ireland.  Market size was small, and external market relations typically were controlled by the British.  As for military issues, Britain could dominate you in any case, so martial virtue was of secondary import, at least until later civil wars.  And sympathy was not to be assumed at all, for reasons of religious, political, and class prejudice.

My “standing on one foot” version of the Irish Enlightenment would be a concern with:

1. Is toleration at all possible?  Toleration needed before sympathy!

2. Can we expect there to be progress at all?  James Barry argues for the universality of progress, but Swift doubts whether moral progress is likely.  Burke wishes to take progress in baby steps.  Berkeley is skeptical altogether.  If you are ruled by the Brits, the richest society to date, but they are still bastards to you, maybe you will be more skeptical about moral progress.

3. A sense of terror from difference, as mirrored both in Burke’s aesthetics of the sublime and the voyages in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Everyone is running around deeply afraid of “the other,” and this concern surfaces also in Burke’s fears for the French aristocrats.  The enthusiasms of the French revolutionaries reminded Burke all too much of the earlier Irish civil wars and rebellions and massacres, even though in both cases he knew the privileges of the nobles were not deserved.  Swift is consistently asking whether one culture can understand the other at all.

I view the two Enlightenments as embodying different kinds of skepticism.  The Scots, such as Hume and Smith, hold a deep epistemic skepticism, which led them to recipes for decentralization and mechanism design.  The Irish had a more practical skepticism, doubting whether moral progress in human beings was all that likely.

The Irish and Scottish Enlightenments perhaps clashed most directly when Burke took issue with David Hume’s accounts of the Catholic 1641 “massacres” in Ireland, arguing that a more nuanced understanding of Irish history was needed.  Burke considered writing his own history of Ireland.

Burke, like Swift, understood the point of view of “the settled” fairly well, arguably better than the Scots did:

Beyond Irish affairs, Burke also began the impeachment of Warren Hastings over his actions as governor-general of India. The fourteen-year impeachment clearly displayed his obsessive nature, but it also finds him arguing against the imposition of British laws and manners on India. Instead, he defends the native civilisations, their institutions and religious beliefs.

Bishop Berkeley is a more complicated fit in this story, and might require a blog post of his own.  But think of him as telling everyone that everything they think they know is wrong, and they actually exist in a simulation in the mind of God.  A prospect to strike terror into the hearts of many!  Even the supposed truths of mathematics and the calculus melt away on close examination.  As for politics, Berkeley worried a great deal about corruption and factions, and he favored extensive government interventions, both social and economic, to make life stable again and human beings virtuous.  He feared that perhaps progress was not possible, as growing wealth would lead to luxurious and corrupted tastes.

Overall, the Irish Enlightenment wasn’t nearly as optimistic as its Scottish counterpart.  But it was far more mindful of the perspective of the victim, presaging more modern developments.  And later in the 19th century, the Irish Enlightenment turned its attention to themes of depopulation and excessively high land rents, both extremely relevant to current times as well…

The Irish Enlightenment is, dare I say, underrated?

The marginal value of informal access to health care

To assess the importance of unequal access to medical expertise and services, we estimate the causal effects of having a child who is a doctor on parents’ mortality and health care use. We use data from parents of almost 22,000 participants in admission lotteries to medical school in the Netherlands. Our findings indicate that informal access to medical expertise and services is not an important cause of differences in health care use and mortality.

That is from “Do Doctors Improve the Health Care of Their Parents? Evidence from Admission Lotteries,” by Elisabeth Artmann, Hessel Oosterbeek, and Bas van der Klaauw, in the new American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.  Here are earlier, ungated versions.

What Caused the Murder Spike?

I think there’s clear evidence that the current murder spike was caused primarily by the 2020 BLM protests. The timing matches the protests well, and the pandemic poorly. The spike is concentrated in black communities and not in any of the other communities affected by the pandemic. It matches homicide spikes corresponding to other anti-police protests, most notably in the cities where those protests happened but to a lesser degree around the country. And the spike seems limited to the US, while other countries had basically stable murder rates over the same period.

I agree with Scott Alexander, although I would emphasize a little more the mediating factor of the police pullback.

I would also add that each step in the mechanism–protests lead to police pullback which leads to an increase in murders–is well supported on its own in the academic literature. Step one, for example, is that protests lead to police pullback. In The effect of highly publicized police killings on policing: Evidence from large U.S. cities Cheng and Long document exactly this:

Our regression discontinuity and difference-in-differences estimates provide consistent and strong evidence that those high-profile killings reduced policing activities, including police self-initiated activities and arrests.

That’s step one. Step two is that police on the street reduce crime which you can find from my research using the terror alert level as well as that of many others. Step one plus step two leads to a spike in murders following the 2020 BLM protests.

As Alexander noted, we also have plenty of evidence on a micro level. For example, I showed clear evidence of police pullback–a “blue strike”–and consequent increase in crime in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray protests. Put it all together along with the timing and other evidence and the case is strong that the 2020 BLM protests led to police pullback which led to a spike in murders, especially in black communities.

Photo Credit.

My Conversation with Barkha Dutt

Here is the link, and here is part of the CWT summary:

Barkha joined Tyler to discuss how Westerners can gain a more complete picture of India, the misogyny still embedded in Indian society, why family law should be agnostic of religious belief, the causes of declining fertility in India, why relations between Hindus and Muslims seem to be worsening, how caste has persisted so strongly in India, the success of India’s subsidized institutes of higher education, the best city for Indian food, the power of Amar Chitra Katha’s comics, the influence of her English liberal arts education, the future of Anglo-American liberalism in India, the best ways to use Twitter, and more.

And from the conversation:

COWEN: Many outsiders have the impression that relations between Hindus and Muslims and the aggregate in India have become worse over the last 10 to 15 years. If you put aside particular actions of particular political personalities, and you try to think of a structural reason why that might be true — because normally the intuition is, people grow richer, they’re more tolerant, there’s more commercial interaction, there’s more intermingling — what would be your structural account of why, in some ways, that problem has become worse?

DUTT: You just spoke of intermingling, Tyler. I think that one of the biggest reasons for the worsening relations, or the othering, as it were, of communities that are not your own is the ghettoization of how people live. For example, if there were neighborhoods where people live cheek by jowl — that still happens, of course, in many cities, but it also happens less than it used to, and that is true. We are seeing a Muslim quarter, to give an example, or a Christian quarter in a way that we wouldn’t have before our cities were so ghettoized.

I think that kind of intermingling, of living in the same housing societies or neighborhoods, participating in each other’s festivals as opposed to just tolerating them — those are the structural changes or shifts that we are witnessing. It’s also true that it is tougher for a person from a religious minority — in particular, an Indian Muslim — to get a house as easily as a non-Muslim. I think I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that. Also, the last point is interfaith marriages or interfaith love. This is a deeply politicized issue as well.

While I’m talking to you, in the last 24 hours in the Southern city of Hyderabad, one of our big technology hubs, we’ve had reports of a Muslim family that attacked a Hindu man for marrying a Muslim woman. In reverse, we see Muslim women also targeted all the time if they choose to marry Hindus. This is not helped by the fact that you’ve had several states now talking about what they call love jihad. That’s the phrase they use for marriages that are across religious communities, in particular between Hindus and Muslims.

The percentage of Indians marrying not just outside their religion but also outside their caste — which in Hinduism is a hierarchical system of traditional occupation that you’re born into — is woefully low. I don’t know if I remember my data correctly, but I think less than 5 percent of Indians actually marry outside of their own communities. I would need to go back to that number and check it, but that’s what I remember off the top of my head.

Those are the structural reasons: the fact that people don’t love or have relationships outside of their community, don’t live enough with people of diverse faiths, and don’t participate in each other’s lives.

We used to have this politically correct phrase called tolerance, which I actually just hate, and I keep nudging people towards the Indian military. The Indian military actually has a system of the commanding officer taking on the faith of his troops during religious prayers. The military has multireligious places of worship. It even has something called an MMG, which is not just a medium machine gun but a Mandir Masjid Gurdwara, which is all the different faiths praying together at the same place. We don’t see a lot of that kind of thing happening outside of the military.

Another survey done by Pew reinforced this when it spoke of Indians today being more like a thali than khichri. Let me just explain that. A thali is a silver tray where you get little balls of different food items. Pew found that Hindus and Muslims — when surveyed, both spoke of the need for religious diversity as being a cornerstone of India. They like the idea of India as a thali, where there were different little food items, but separate food items. The khichri is rice and lentils all mixed up and eaten with pickle. The khichri is that intermingling, the untidy overlapping.

We are just seeing less and less of that overlapping. In my opinion, that is tragic. Where there is social interdependence, where there is economic interdependence, where there is personal interdependence is when relationships thrive and flourish and get better. But when they remain ghettos, separations just tolerating each other — that, I think, remains in the realm of othering.

Recommended, interesting throughout.