My Conversation with Vitalik Buterin

Obviously his talents in crypto and programming are well-known, but he is also a first-rate thinker on both economics and what you broadly might call sociology.  You could take away the crypto contributions altogether, and he still would be one of the very smartest people I have met.  Here is the audio and transcript.  The CWT team summarized it as follows:

Tyler sat down with Vitalik to discuss the many things he’s thinking about and working on, including the nascent field of cryptoeconomics, the best analogy for understanding the blockchain, his desire for more social science fiction, why belief in progress is our most useful delusion, best places to visit in time and space, how he picks up languages, why centralization’s not all bad, the best ways to value crypto assets, whether P = NP, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you could go back into the distant past for a year, a time and place of your choosing, you have the linguistic skills and immunity against disease to the extent you need it, maybe some money in your pocket, where would you pick to satisfy your own curiosity?

BUTERIN: Where would I pick? To do what? To spend a year there, or . . . ?

COWEN: Spend a year as a “tourist.” You could pick ancient Athens or preconquest Mexico or medieval Russia. It’s a kind of social science fiction, right?

BUTERIN: Yeah, totally. Let’s see. Possibly first year of World War II — obviously, one of those areas that’s close to it but still reasonably safe from it…

Basically, experience more of what human behavior and what collective human behavior would look like once you pushed humans further into extremes, and people aren’t as comfortable as they are today.

I started the whole dialogue with this:

I went back and I reread all of the papers on your home page. I found it quite striking that there were two very important economics results, one based on menu costs associated with the name of Greg Mankiw. Another is a paper on the indeterminacy of monetary equilibrium associated with Fischer Black.

These are famous papers. On your own, you appear to rediscover these results without knowing about the papers at all. So how would you describe how you teach yourself economics?

Highly recommended, whether or not you understand blockchain.  Oh, and there is this:

COWEN: If you had to explain blockchain to a very smart person from 40 years ago, who knew computers but had no idea of crypto, what would be the best short explanation you could give them, basically, for what you do?

BUTERIN: Sure. One of the analogies I keep going back to is this idea of a “world computer.” The idea, basically, is that a blockchain, as a whole, functions like a computer. It has a hard drive, and on that hard drive, it stores what all the accounts are.

It stores what the code of all the smart contracts is, what the memory of all these smart contracts is. It accepts incoming instructions — and these incoming instructions are signed transactions sent by a bunch of different users — and processes them according to a set of rules.

The Misallocation of International Math Talent

Wealthier countries allocate a greater proportion of their workers to science and engineering, fields which produce ideas that often benefit everyone. This is one reason why we all gain when other countries become rich. It’s not just the number of scientists and engineers that matters, however. In a clever paper, Agarwal and Gaule demonstrate that equally talented people are more productive in wealthier countries.

Agarwal and Gaule collect the scores of thousands of teenagers who entered the International Math Olympiad between 1981 and 2000 and they follow their careers. Every additional point earned at the Olympiad increases the likelihood that a participant will later earn a math PhD, be heavily cited, even earn a Fields medal. But Olympians from poorer countries are less likely to contribute to the mathematical frontier than equally talented teens from richer countries. It could be that smart teens from poorer countries are less likely to pursue a math career–and that could well be optimal–but Agarwal and Gaule find that many of the talented kids from poorer countries simply disappear off the world’s radar. Their talent is wasted.

The post-Olympiad loss is not the largest loss. Most of the potentially great mathematicians from poorer countries are lost to the world long before the opportunity to participate in an Olympiad. But it is frustrating that even after talent has been identified, it does not always bloom. We are, however, starting to do better.

You can see from the graph that upper-middle income countries are as good as turning their talent into results as high-income countries. Agarwal and Gaule also find some evidence that the low-income penalty is diminishing over time.

As incomes increase around the world it’s as if the entire world’s processing power is coming online for the first time in human history. That, at least, is one reason for optimism.

Hat tip: Floridan Ederer.

My take on the Statue of Liberty

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Cleveland described the statue as “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” This is not exactly warm rhetoric — the plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming the “huddled masses” to America was not added until 1903 — and although Cleveland supported free trade, he opposed Chinese immigrants, as he regarded them as unable to assimilate. The statue was never about fully open borders.

We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that’s not necessarily the case. In her forthcoming “Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty,” Francesca Lidia Viano points out that you might take the torch and aggressive stance of the statue as a warning to people to go back home, or as a declaration that the U.S. itself needs more light. Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.

There are other interpretations of the statue’s purported message based on the details of its design. You plausibly can read the statue as a Masonic icon, a homage to the family coat of arms of Bartholdi the sculptor, a hearkening back to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a celebration of Orientalism, Orpheus and Samothracian civilization, and as a monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War. The statue also contained design clues celebrating the now-French city of Colmar (home base for Bartholdi), and threatening revenge against the Germans for taking Colmar in 1871 from the Franco-Prussian war.

And that does not even get us to the main argument.  In the meantime, I would stress what a wonderful and splendid book is Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.  It is entirely gripping, and one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.

Stripe Press

Stripe partners with hundreds of thousands of the world’s most innovative businesses—organizations that will shape the world of tomorrow. These businesses are the result of many different inputs. Perhaps the most important ingredient is “ideas.”

Stripe Press highlights ideas that we think can be broadly useful. Some books contain entirely new material, some are collections of existing work reimagined, and others are republications of previous works that have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today.

Link here.

What did 17th century food taste like?

I didn’t realize until recently that broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and collard greens are all technically the same species, Brassica oleracea. The substantial differences between these sub-species are all due to patient intervention by human farmers over millennia. Many of these changes are surprisingly recent. Early versions of cauliflower may have been mentioned by Pliny and medieval Muslim botanists, but as late as 1600, a French author was writing that cauli-fiori “as the Italians call it” was “still rather rare in France.” Likewise, Brussels sprouts don’t appear to have become widely cultivated until the Renaissance.

That is from a longer post by Benjamn Breen at Res Obscura.  And here is his post on when California was the Bear Republic.

Tuesday assorted links

Jack Goldsmith on cybersecurity and international law

…the U.S. intelligence services break into computers and computer networks abroad at an astounding rate, certainly on a greater scale than any other intelligence service in the world.

How will the United States respond when Russia and China and Iran start naming and indicting U.S. officials?  Maybe the United States thinks its concealment techniques are so good that the type of detailed attribution it made against the Russians is infeasible.  (The Shadow Brokers revealed the identities of specific NSA operators, so even if the National Security Agency is great at concealment as a matter of tradecraft that is no protection against an insider threat.)  Maybe Russia and China and Iran won’t bother indicting U.S. officials unless and until the indictments actually materialize into a trial, which they likely never will.  But what is the answer in principle?  And what is the U.S. policy (if any) that is being communicated to military and civilian operators who face this threat?  What is the U.S. government response to former NSA official Jake Williams, who worked in Tailored Access Operations and who presumably spoke for many others at NSA when he said that “charging military/gov hackers is dumb and WILL eventually hurt the US”?

The post has many other points of interest, a number of them uncomfortable truths.

Madagascar fact of the day

Madagascar, one of world’s poorest countries, has the fastest broadband internet speed in Africa and has average speeds much faster than some of the world’s wealthiest nations, according to a broadband speed league table from UK analytics firm Cable, which collects data from 200 countries.

At 24.9 megabits per second, Madagascar’s broadband speed is more than twice the global average. Not only does this mean the African island nation has the fastest internet speed on the continent, but it places 22nd in the world, out-pacing Canada, France, and the UK.

Here is the full story.  Here is the previous installment of Madagascar fact of the day, namely that per capita income was almost twice as high in 1960.

Crack cocaine as a cause of violence

Crack cocaine markets were associated with substantial increases in violence in the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s. Using cross-city variation in the emergence of these markets, we show that the resulting violence has important long-term implications for understanding current levels of murder rates by age, sex and race. We estimate that the murder rate of young black males doubled soon after crack’s entrance into a city, and that these rates were still 70 percent higher 17 years after crack’s arrival. We document the role of increased gun possession as a mechanism for this increase. Following previous work, we show that the fraction of suicides by firearms is a good proxy for gun availability and that this variable among young black males follows a similar trajectory to murder rates. Access to guns by young black males explains their elevated murder rates today compared to older cohorts. The long run effects of this increase in violence are large. We attribute nearly eight percent of the murders in 2000 to the long-run effects of the emergence of crack markets. Elevated murder rates for younger black males continue through to today and can explain approximately one tenth of the gap in life expectancy between black and white males.

That is from William N. Evans, Craig Garthwaite, and Timothy J. Moore.

Is NIH funding seeing diminishing returns?

Scientific output is not a linear function of amounts of federal grant support to individual investigators. As funding per investigator increases beyond a certain point, productivity decreases. This study reports that such diminishing marginal returns also apply for National Institutes of Health (NIH) research project grant funding to institutions. Analyses of data (2006-2015) for a representative cross-section of institutions, whose amounts of funding ranged from $3 million to $440 million per year, revealed robust inverse correlations between funding (per institution, per award, per investigator) and scientific output (publication productivity and citation impact productivity). Interestingly, prestigious institutions had on average 65% higher grant application success rates and 50% larger award sizes, whereas less-prestigious institutions produced 65% more publications and had a 35% higher citation impact per dollar of funding. These findings suggest that implicit biases and social prestige mechanisms (e.g., the Matthew effect) have a powerful impact on where NIH grant dollars go and the net return on taxpayers investments. They support evidence-based changes in funding policy geared towards a more equitable, more diverse and more productive distribution of federal support for scientific research. Success rate/productivity metrics developed for this study provide an impartial, empirically based mechanism to do so.

That is by Wayne P. Wals, via Michelle Dawson.

Monday assorted links

1. How not to scout for soccer talent.

2. NIMBY isn’t just CA: “Philly’s 43,000 vacant lots face a fresh political battle.

3. The new economics of Chinatowns: “Chinese restaurant jobs tend not to be in places with a high concentration of Chinese immigrants, but rather in places with a high proportion of non-Hispanic whites. In addition, the farther the jobs are from New York City, the higher the salary.”

4. MIE: Board game about alpacas.

5. IQ predicts how you vote in Denmark (multi-party system) but not America.  But note this: “In both countries, higher ability predicts left-wing social and right-wing economic views.”

6. Why Sacha Baron Cohen won’t be funny any more.

Good-bye soccer moms? (and dads)

Or U.S.A. fact of the day:

Over the past three years, the percentage of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer regularly has dropped nearly 14 percent, to 2.3 million players, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which has analyzed youth athletic trends for 40 years. The number of children who touched a soccer ball even once during the year, in organized play or otherwise, also has fallen significantly.

…In general, participation in youth sports nationwide has declined in the past decade, as children gravitate to electronic diversions and other distractions…

“It’s lost more child participants than any other sport — about 600,000 of them,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program.

That is from Joe Drape at the NYT.

Are wages rising slowly because of a pool of reserve labor?

I see this claim in my Twitter feed pretty often, but I don’t get how it is supposed to run.  Let’s try an analogy with the non-human animal kingdom.

Right now there are many cows in the world, and even more potential cows to be bred, or cows in low-value situations that could be moved around by boat or even helicopter, if need be.  Call it the “moo reserve army of the unemployed.”  If the market as a whole increased its demand for cows, the price of cows would go up.  It would not make sense to say “that happens only when all the cows are busy all the time and there are no extra cows or potential cows left.”  Very likely, there is an upward-sloping cost curve for mobilizing more cows.

To be sure, under a constant cost assumption, the price of cows would not go up, following an increase in demand.  The quantity of eligible, working cows would rise, stifling upward price pressure, and possibly this would take the form of a Malthusian equilibrium.  But note: in this situation you should expect the price of cows never to go up, as the cost structure is preventing that.

Alternatively, you might think that demand for cows and the cost structure for cow expansions interact in some very particular way.  If you pinned this down in just the right manner, you could model a situation where an increase in demand for cows won’t boost the price of cows now, but in broader situations the price of cows can sustainably rise.  Indeed that is possible, I just don’t see particular reason to believe that such a convoluted construction is doing most of the explanatory work for current labor markets.

I look at it this way: measured wages for male labor near the median haven’t gone up much in decades, and this is poorly understood (you may or may not think the same is true for actual real wages, and for women the story is somewhat more complicated).  So if measured wages for non-supervisors are not going up much now, that is hardly a huge shock.  The fact that we don’t understand it well doesn’t mean some remaining particular hypothesis — in this case about the size of reserve armies — has to be the true one.

Most cow parables, upon closer examination, collapse into structural explanations anyway.  And in labor markets, it is almost always both blades of the scissors that matter.

Addendum: You might try a matching model.  Imagine that potential workers are fully passive, stoned so to speak, but will accept credible good offers from well-capitalized employers.  The cost structure of the workers, or worker search, does not influence the outcome.  Over the course of the recovery, employers invest more in searching for the right workers because their profits are higher and they make a successively greater number of offers to well-suited workers, but at constant wages.  The number of employed keeps on rising, wages stay flat, but longer-run wages nonetheless may rise with productivity (and with enough bids for their labor, workers move out of passive strategies).  I’m not saying this is a good representation, only that it might capture the claimed mix of flat wages and a large reserve pool of labor, yet without forcing wages into a longer-run flatness.  It also suggests, by the way, that some measure of monopoly/high profits has been good for social welfare, as it has boosted employment.