Singapore as an independent nation will be fifty years old this August 9.  In the comments, a number of you have asked me why I find Singapore so special.

I would cite three features of the country above all else:

1. It is a place where large numbers of people are obsessed with both food and economics.

2. The citizens and leadership of Singapore have an unparalleled knowledge and understanding of economics, engineering, and public policy.  In this regard the polity is distinguished in world-historic terms, and anyone who visits is enjoying a remarkable privilege to see this in action.  In my admittedly idiosyncratic view, this is one of the best and most important sights of the contemporary world, more interesting than most natural wonders.

3. Singapore has created what is possibly the highest quality bureaucracy the world has seen, ever.  Imagine a country where you can have a serious debate as to whether there is a brain drain into the government rather than out of it!

Singapore of course, like all places, has various problems and imperfections, but I believe its significance does not receive enough recognition from outside commentators.

Here is a good article about how Singapore is seeking to export its own expertise.

Monday assorted links

by on August 3, 2015 at 12:04 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Krugman reviews the “new” Piketty book.

2. The economics of microbial trade (speculative).

3. When a company experiments with a yearly minimum wage of 70k.

4. Will self-driving cars benefit Los Angeles the most?  And an architectural review of the new 405 freeway improvements.

5. The great sushi craze of 1905.

6. Perry Anderson on Russia, lots of stuff.  And Hernando de Soto on Piketty’s political economy.

7. Chinese textile production is returning to the United States, but please be careful not to overinterpret this story.

Private schools for the poor are growing rapidly throughout the developing world. The Economist has a review:

PrivateSchoolingPrivate schools enroll a much bigger share of primary-school pupils in poor countries than in rich ones: a fifth, according to data compiled from official sources, up from a tenth two decades ago (see chart 1). Since they are often unregistered, this is sure to be an underestimate. A school census in Lagos in 2010-11, for example, found four times as many private schools as in government records. UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for education, estimates that half of all spending on education in poor countries comes out of parents’ pockets (see chart 2). In rich countries the share is much lower.

Overall, there is good evidence that private school systems tend to create small but meaningful increases in achievement (e.g. herehere, here, here) and especially good evidence that they do so with large costs savings. The large costs savings suggest that with the right institutional structure, which might involve vouchers and nationally comparable testing, an entrepreneurial private sector could create very large gains. Karthik Muralidharan who has done key work on private schools and performance pay in India puts it this way:

Since private schools achieved equal or better outcomes at one-third the cost, the fundamental question that needs to be asked is “How much better could private management do if they had three times their current level of per-child spending?”

The Economist notes that another promising development is national chains which can scale and more quickly adopt best practices:

…Bridge International Academies, which runs around 400 primary schools in Kenya and Uganda, and plans to open more in Nigeria and India, is the biggest, with backers including Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. Omega Schools has 38 institutions in Ghana. (Pearson, which owns 50% of The Economist, has stakes in both Bridge and Omega.) Low-cost chains with a dozen schools or fewer have recently been established in India, Nigeria, the Philippines and South Africa.

Bridge’s cost-cutting strategies include using standardised buildings made of unfinished wooden beams, corrugated steel and iron mesh, and scripted lessons that teachers recite from hand-held computers linked to a central system. That saves on teacher training and monitoring.

The Economist is somewhat skeptical of scripted lessons, known as Direct Instruction in the education world, but in fact no other teaching method has as strong a record of proven success in randomized experiments (see also here and here).

Need I also point out that online education can bring some of the best teachers in the world to everyone, everywhere at low cost? An article in Technology Review titled India loves MOOCs points out that students from India are a large fraction of online students (fyi, we are also finding many Indian students at Marginal Revolution University)

Throughout India, online education is gaining favor as a career accelerator, particularly in technical fields. Indian enrollments account for about 8 percent of worldwide activity in Coursera and 12 percent in edX, the two leading providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Only the United States’ share is clearly higher; China’s is roughly comparable.

Education is changing very rapidly and its the developing world which is leading the way.

Imagine if I wrote a post that just served up a list like this:

The people who deserve to be raised in status:

Norman Borlaug, Jon Huntsman, female Catholics from Croatia, Scottie Pippen, Yoko Ono, Gordon Tullock, Uber drivers, and Arnold Schoenberg,


The people who deserve to be lowered in status:

Donald Trump, Harper Lee, inhabitants of the province Presidente Hayes, in Paraguay, doctors, Jacques Derrida, Indira Gandhi, and Art Garfunkel

You might get a kick out of it the first time, but quickly you would grow tired of the lack of substance and indeed the sheer prejudice of the exercise.

Yet, ultimately, the topic so appeals to you all.  So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status.  It’s pretty easy — too easy in fact — to dissect most Paul Krugman blog posts along these lines.  It’s also why a lot of blog posts about foreign countries don’t generate visceral reactions, unless of course it is the Greeks and the Germans, or some other set of stand-ins for disputes closer to home (or maybe that is your home).  Chinese goings on are especially tough to parse into comparable American disputes over the status of one group vs. another.

I hypothesize that an MR blog post attracts more comments when it a) has implications for who should be raised and lowered in status, and b) has some framework in place which allows you to make analytical points, but points which ultimately translate into a conclusion about a).

Posts about immigration, the minimum wage, Greece and Germany, the worthiness of entrepreneurs vs. workers, and the rankings of different schools of thought or economists all seem to fit this bill.

Sometimes I am tempted to simply serve up the list and skip the analytics.

Addendum: Arnold Kling comments.

Arrived in my pile

by on August 2, 2015 at 4:28 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece.  This new history of ancient Greece has an intriguing estimate of living standards during that time, I hope to spend more time with it soon.  Ober argues there was plenty of economic growth at the time and that the Greeks lived at well above subsistence; I agree with both of those claims.

Here is the book’s home page.  Here is one useful review, though its carps at the books’ economism.  Other reviews are here.  As a first-order approximation, you can think of this book as how an economist might think about ancient Greece.

Sunday assorted links

by on August 2, 2015 at 1:54 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. There is no KFC Bluetooth great stagnation.

2. Breaking Smart, a technology analysis site.

3. Did the 1936-37 boost in reserve requirements actually hurt bank lending?

4. The life of Philip Glass.

5. Camille Paglia, part III, with links to the rest.  Her best interview in quite a while.

6. Are the “China plays” over?

*The Meursault Investigation*

by on August 2, 2015 at 12:37 pm in Books, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

This new book, by Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, starts with Camus’s The Stranger, and then retells the story from the point of view of the brother of the Arab murder victim.  It’s both commentary on the original and a compelling narrative in its own right.  The Guardian called it “an instant classic and Michiko Kakutani described it as “stunning.”  Here is Roger Cohen on the novel.  You can buy it on Amazon here.  Unless your memory is very good, I recommend a refresher on The Stranger first.  Daoud has produced one of this year’s must-reads.

That is the new and excellent book by Sebastian Strangio, which you can think of as a post-Sihanouk look at the country from a political economy point of view.  Here are just a few bits:

The cruelty and callousness that allowed jilted wives to order and commit such brutal attacks on young women also had its echo in history.  As the historian Michael Vickery has written, patterns of sudden and extreme violence had deep roots in Cambodia, especially against those groups and individuals defined in some way as enemies.  Through cruel violence found its fullest expressions under Pol Pot, it long predated Democratic Kampuchea, stemming from cultural notions of face, honor, and revenge, in which personal grudges (kum) could elicit a disproportionate and overwhelming response.


Hun Sen’s rise over the past two decades has been accompanied by the rise of what might be called HunSenomics — a blend of old-style patronage, elite charity, and predatory market economics.  Since the transition to the free market in 1989, Hunsenomics has succeeded in forging a stable pact among Cambodia’s ruling elites, but has otherwise done little to systematically tackle the challenges of poverty and development.


Because Hunsenomics provides few incentives for sustainable agricultural development, Cambodia’s land and water resources remain drastically underutilized.  Just a third of Cambodia’s total land area is currently under cultivation — a much lower proportion than in neighboring countries.  Only 18 percent of this  land was irrigated as of 2005, compared to 33 percent in Thailand and 44 percent in Vietnam, and due to lack of maintenance only a fifth of irrigation systems were fully functional.  As a result, rice yields per hectare lag far behind the likes of Vietnam and Thailand.

Definitely recommended, and as Dan Klein and I used to say to each other “You so much learn the whole book.”

Saturday assorted links

by on August 1, 2015 at 12:39 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Princeton math oral exams.  This link is for only a few of you.

2. Personal injury lawyer birthday party for two-year olds.  This link is for a somewhat greater number of you.

3. Peter Brook returns to the Mahabarata.  See the remark at #1.

4. “…more than half of the participants who receive their check straight away instead of waiting two weeks for a reasonably larger amount, subsequently take more than two weeks to cash it…”  This link is for all of you.

5. Americans are a disproportionately large share of trophy hunters.

Belgrade bleg

by on August 1, 2015 at 7:54 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

What to do?  What to see and where to eat?  How to think about the place?  Thanks in advance for your assistance…and is Novi Sad worth a day trip?

Prior to 1800 or so there were no large differences in per-capita GDP between nations, differences were perhaps on the order of 2-3 at most. As modern economic growth took hold in some nations and not in others, between-country inequality increased dramatically with differences in per-capita GDP between nations of up to a factor of 100. As more and more nations enter a modern economic growth phase–which now includes a very rapid catch-up phase–between-country inequality has started to decline. In the future we may return to much smaller differences in per-capita GDP between countries.

As MacAskill points out in Doing Good Better (review here see also here) this means that we live today in an unusual time when charity is very cheap. Today, for example, it’s possible to save a life for as little as $4000. As other nations become rich that will no longer be true. More generally, the average person in a developed country can do a lot of good today by giving up relatively little. As MacAskill writes:

Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beer for five dollars or buy someone else a beer for five cents. If that were the case, we’d probably be pretty generous–next round’s on me! But that’s effectively the situation we’re in all the time. It’s like a 99-percent-off sale, or getting 10,000 percent extra free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in you life.

From the comments

by on August 1, 2015 at 4:09 am in Economics | Permalink


Isn’t it funny how so many people hold these two opinions in their heads at the same time:

1) Wall Street is just focused on the next quarter and they push corporations to have short term motives.

2) There was a stock market bubble 15 years ago built around bidding up prices to unprecedented levels for an entire basket of firms which had never been profitable and had no near-term plans for being profitable.

That is from Kevin Erdmann, Kevin’s blog is here.

Tsuyoshi Shimmura, Shosei Ohashi, and Takashi Yoshimura have a new paper:

The “cock-a-doodle-doo” crowing of roosters, which symbolizes the break of dawn in many cultures, is controlled by the circadian clock. When one rooster announces the break of dawn, others in the vicinity immediately follow. Chickens are highly social animals, and they develop a linear and fixed hierarchy in small groups. We found that when chickens were housed in small groups, the top-ranking rooster determined the timing of predawn crowing. Specifically, the top-ranking rooster always started to crow first, followed by its subordinates, in descending order of social rank. When the top-ranking rooster was physically removed from a group, the second-ranking rooster initiated crowing. The presence of a dominant rooster significantly reduced the number of predawn crows in subordinates. However, the number of crows induced by external stimuli was independent of social rank, confirming that subordinates have the ability to crow. Although the timing of subordinates’ predawn crowing was strongly dependent on that of the top-ranking rooster, free-running periods of body temperature rhythms differed among individuals, and crowing rhythm did not entrain to a crowing sound stimulus. These results indicate that in a group situation, the top-ranking rooster has priority to announce the break of dawn, and that subordinate roosters are patient enough to wait for the top-ranking rooster’s first crow every morning and thus compromise their circadian clock for social reasons.

In case you had any doubts.  The pointer is from Michelle Dawson.

The subtitle is Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, and the editor is Elizabeth D. Samet.  Here’s the shocking truth: these really are writings by our greatest thinkers!  Usually I am allergic to the topic of leadership and all the more allergic to edited volumes.  But this book has well chosen excerpts from Thucydides, Cervantes, Borges, Marcus Aurelius, Tolstoy, Milton, Plutarch, and Shakespeare, among many others, and a variety of moderns, including Mandela, Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, and Osip Mandelstam’s poem on Stalin.

This is actually a remarkable book.

Friday assorted links

by on July 31, 2015 at 11:33 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Mark Turner part one, and part two.

2. Musical preferences are linked to cognitive styles (speculative).

3. Don’t take a selfie with a bison.

4. The leading horses are those with the most friends.

5. Noah Smith praises Berkeley.

6. Claims about ants.

7. The boom in mini-organs.