A journal editor speaks about referees (and authors)

What are the most common errors that reviewers make when reviewing health papers for you?

There are three errors that reviewers make. First, many junior reviewers write really long reviews to show that they were thorough. This doesn’t help—if the paper has 8 problems then the editor is often most interested in the top two.

Second, some reviewers can also have really high standards in a way that creates lots of Type II errors—never accepting a paper. At the Review of Economics and Statistics, we were writing to accept more papers, but reviewers made this hard by using an impossible standard for identification.

Finally, and this is rare, but a by-product of the “triple-aim” (described above): some reviewers write reports with innuendo and meanness—I never went back to them and still think very poorly of these individuals. To be mean, when protected by the veil of an anonymous review process, is a deep pathology.

My advice is: write short reviews—don’t over referee or rewrite the paper—you are the reviewer, not the author. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Kindness is not the same as low standards, but posing questions and raising challenges with curiosity and humility. Always remember that an editor is reading the review, sharing it with other editors, and one’s nastiness is noted and remembered especially when directed towards a new member of the profession.

That is from an interview with Amitabh Chandra of ReStat.

Do social media drive the rise in right-wing populism?

Abstract: Many observers are concerned that echo chamber effects in digital media are contributing to the polarization of publics and in some places to the rise of right-wing populism. This study employs survey data collected in France, the United Kingdom, and United States (1500 respondents in each country) from April to May 2017. Overall, we do not find evidence that online/social media explain support for right-wing populist candidates and parties. Instead, in the USA, use of online media decreases support for right-wing populism. Looking specifically at echo chambers measures, we find offline discussion with those who are similar in race, ethnicity, and class positively correlates with support for populist candidates and parties in the UK and France. The findings challenge claims about the role of social media and the rise of populism.

That is from a new paper by Shelley Boulianne, Karolina Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber, via somebody on Twitter.

The wealth tax and non-profits

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

Or imagine how art markets might be affected by a wealth tax. Rather than keeping their art collections private, many more billionaires would donate that art to museums and other nonprofits. This appears to be a good outcome. But it would exacerbate one of the art world’s worst problems, which is inflated appraisals for tax purposes. At any rate, America’s museums do not have the space or resources to display and look after all of these paintings and sculptures; it is already common for a museum to display no more than 5% or 10% of its collection.

Essentially, a lot of art would be removed from circulation, stored in warehouses largely for tax reasons. Along the way, Christie’s and Sotheby’s might go bankrupt, as well as many art galleries, as the demand to buy art would plummet. You may think that the demise of a few galleries and auction houses is a small price to pay to reduce wealth inequality. But consider that artists, too, need to make a living…

The U.S. has created the most dynamic and effective nonprofit sector in the world. It rests on a delicate balance of private support and some indirect (not too much) government subsidy. America interferes with that balance at its peril.

There is much more at the link.

Favorite jazz listening for 2019

Most of all, I discovered jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson this year.  Start with Code Girl or Meltframe, or of course YouTube.

This year I also enjoyed:

Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, The Other Side of Air.

Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings.

Two out of three picks being women is unusual for jazz, but for the better.  I will note that I do not select on the basis of “quotas,” so what I list is truly what I am recommending.

I’ll also stick by my view that current times are the very best for jazz, ever, even though jazz is no longer culturally central and Miles Davis is dead.  Your ability to see an amazing jazz concert for less than $50 — often much less — and from top-quality seats has never been greater.  Jazz music represents an amazing arbitrage opportunity (unlike paying through the nose to see either Taylor Swift or Boomer classic rock groups), at least if you know what you are doing and you have access to the proper cities, most of all NYC but by no means only.

On fentanyl, from the comments

I always find it helpful to recall that the US was the not the first country to be hit by fentanyl. Estonia, for instance, had a massive wave of fentanyl deaths that started before the US, without all the US prescription opioid consumption, and peaked sooner. Currently, their opioid supply has moved beyond fentanyl to derivatives that are even less safe.

It seems to me that the problem was not overprescription per se. Rather, as in Estonia, there seems to be spiral where opioids are seen as acceptable drugs of abuse (entering into the space of marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, and ecstasy), illicit suppliers elect to increase the addictiveness and potency of their drugs, and we end up with much more deadly drugs.

The biggest problem US docs created was removing the social stigma against opioid use and abuse. We created a perception that being addicted to opioids was no big deal, mostly safe, and something that people could do without losing all their social standing.

Does decriminalization work? Nowhere near as well as cultural barriers. Portugal, for instance, has safe injection and all the rest, yet it is experiencing a new wave of heroin use as old addicts return to heroin thanks a weakened economy. And lest we forget the difference in price for legitimate opioids and heroin/fentanyl is not all that high. Legitimate heroin supplies are going to cost at least as much as black market opioids so I suspect we will still have a lot of users who end up on fentanyl derivatives (for which there are no safe prescribing guidelines, nor even data for simple things like LD-50).

As with most major problems, the cause and solution are likely to be social. Historically, these sorts of epidemics die down as people die and the younger users decide to not try the things that killed all their older peers. Quite possibly all our “harm reduction” strategies and treatments will delay this process and leave more people dead; a first pass analysis of mass naloxone treatment suggested that it was associated with difference in difference increase in the opioid death rate due to increased use.

Unfortunately, I see no way out of the current situation that does not risk leaving many, possibly more than current rates, people dying.

That is from a commentator named Sure.

Problems with the TFP concept, from my new paper with Ben Southwood

Here is another excerpt from “Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?”:

First, many scientific advances work through enabling a greater supply of labor, capital, and land, and those advances will be undervalued by a TFP metric. Let’s say someone invents a useful painkiller, and that makes it easier for many people to show up to work and be productive. Output will rise, yet that advance will show up as an increase in labor supply, rather than as an increase in technology or scientific knowledge. Similarly, a new method for discovering oil may boost output, but that will be classified as an increase in oil supply, even though it does properly represent a form of scientific progress. TFP is best at measuring scientific and technological advances that are superimposed on top of an existing supply of the other factors of production. If, for instance, you imagine a series of capital and labor resources at a factory, and someone develops a new formula for combining those resources more effectively, this will be picked up very effectively by standard TFP measures.

The more general problem is that many scientific and technological advances are embodied in concrete capital goods. Again, the TFP measure does best when the supply and nature of capital is fixed, and a new idea makes that capital (and associated labor) more effective. But what happens when the new idea is itself embodied in a concrete capital good? If a hospital equips its surgeons with iPads, or with Augmented Reality glasses, to make them more effective in the operating room, as a first order effect that measures as an increase of capital expenditures by the hospitals rather than as an innovation. Health and later output will increase, but will we really know if it is due to better ideas or just more investment? It will appear to measure as new investment. Capital expenditures and TFP are not so easily separated, whether at the conceptual or the practical measurement level.

Similarly, separating TFP from labor expenditure is not always so simple either. If a worker generates and carries forward a new scientific idea for producing more with a given amount of labor, that measures the same way as the worker being taught greater conscientiousness and producing more. Yet the former is (ideally) TFP and the latter is not, but both will count as an increase in the quality of labor input in the same way.

Here is my original post on the paper.  Here is the paper.

China fact of the day

China is set to add new coal-fired power plants equivalent to the EU’s entire capacity, as the world’s biggest energy consumer ignores global pressure to rein in carbon emissions in its bid to boost a slowing economy.

Across the country, 148GW of coal-fired plants are either being built or are about to begin construction, according to a report from Global Energy Monitor, a non-profit group that monitors coal stations. The current capacity of the entire EU coal fleet is 149GW.

While the rest of the world has been largely reducing coal-powered capacity over the past two years, China is building so much coal power that it more than offsets the decline elsewhere.

Here is more from Leslie Hook at the FT.

My podcast with Shaka Senghor

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of the “most different” Conversations with Tyler and also one of the most interesting.  Here is part of the summary introduction:

Shaka joined Tyler to discuss his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, what it was like to return to society not knowing the difference between the internet and a Word document, entrepreneurialism and humor in prison, the unexpected challenges formerly incarcerated people face upon release, his ideas for helping Detroit, what he connects with in Eastern philosophy, how he’s celebrating the upcoming anniversary of his tenth year of freedom, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SENGHOR: Early, when I first went to prison, you can get all types of books. As I got deeper into my prison sentence, they started banning a lot of those books. Malcolm’s book is probably one of the most popular books in prison because it’s, to me, the one book about personal transformation that just permeates that environment. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Native American, whatever. It’s something about his redemptive story that just resonates with people who are incarcerated.

Oftentimes, we exchanged books with each other, and we would buy books. I would order books from different outlets that sold books to men and women in prison. The prison library — it varies from prison to prison. Some are better than others.

Back in the day, you used to get books donated by people. They will have estates, and they would just say, “Hey, let’s donate these to the local prison.” But now it’s becoming more and more restrictive in terms of what you can read, specifically around books that reflect black culture, which was really something that was shocking to me.

A lot of those books I read in the early stages of my incarceration are now banned. You can’t get Donald Goines books the way that you used to. Their excuse is that it talks about crime and things like that. But I’m like, “You can’t get that, but you can get Stephen King, which is murder and mayhem.”

COWEN: Can you get Shakespeare? That’s also murder and mayhem.

SENGHOR: Yeah, murder and mayhem. Yeah, you can definitely get all the Shakespearean classics and things like that. This just reflects the contradictions in larger society.

COWEN: I think you were seven years total in solitary, in one period of four years running. Toward the end of that four-year period, did you feel like you were going crazy? Or did you have some greater, stoic sense of calm?

And:

COWEN: The individuals who are incarcerated — what are their senses of humor like? Is it different on the inside or just the same? Are they funnier?

SENGHOR: It is probably one of the most fascinating, quick-witted spaces you can imagine. I did an interview some years back with Trevor Noah, and I remember telling him like, “Prison is hilarious.” And he was like, “No, no, no. That doesn’t seem like quite a good narrative.” [laughs] But what I would always explain to people is that you can’t survive that environment without the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it, the ability to laugh at the craziness of it, the creativity of it.

And you have some brilliant, brilliant comedians in that environment. There’s actually a comedian who’s free now, Ali Siddiq, who’s just an incredible storyteller, and he’s a great comedian. And that talent is abundant in that environment. Guys crack jokes all the time. The officers crack jokes. It’s one of the things that is universal — laughter — and you need that in order to survive hardship.

My favorite part of the dialogue starts with this:

COWEN: It seems to me, from my great distance, that a lot of men in prison have women on the outside who are very strongly attracted to them. How do you think about that? Why do you think there’s a special attraction to men in prison?

His answer was excellent, but too long to reproduce here.

Eliminate Journal Formatting on First Submission!

Many years ago I was incredulous when my wife told me she had to format a paper to meet a journal’s guidelines before it was accepted! Who could favor such a dumb policy? In economics, the rule is you make your paper look good but you don’t have to fulfill all the journal’s guidelines until after the paper is accepted.

In The high resource impact of reformatting requirements for scientific papers Jian et al. calculate the cost of reformatting–it’s $1.1 billion dollars annually! True, the authors simply surveyed 203 authors for the time it took to reformat and then multiplied that by an hourly wage and then multiplied that by all article submissions so, at best, this is a back of the envelope calculation. What is beyond doubt, however, is that reformatting typically takes several tedious hours for a high-wage professional.

Our data show that nearly 91% of authors spend greater than four hours and 65% spend over eight hours on reformatting adjustments before publication…Among the time-consuming processes involved are adjusting manuscript structure (e.g. altering abstract formats), changing figure formats, and complying with word counts that vary significantly depending on the journal. Beyond revising the manuscript itself, authors often have to adjust to specific journal and publisher online requirements (such as re-inputting data for all authors’ email, office addresses, and disclosures). Most authors reported spending “a great deal” of time on this reformatting task. Reformatting for these types of requirements reportedly caused three month or more delay in the publication of nearly one fifth of articles and one to three month delays for over a third of articles.

And for what? Most papers will be rejected so the reformatting serves no purpose.

What frustrates me about this inanity is that, as far as I can tell, almost no one benefits! We simple seem stuck in an inefficient equilibrium. What hope is there to deregulate zoning or pass a carbon tax–where benefits exceed costs but you can understand why the process is difficult because some people gain from the inefficiency–when we can’t even fix wasteful journal formatting policy? Can Elsevier or other publishing heavyweight not unilaterally move us to the Pareto frontier! Pick up those $1.1 billion bills! Come on humanity, just do it!

Addendum: Economics is good on the reformatting score but n.b. “A prior survey-based research study on biomedical journal publications times noted a median time of first submission to acceptance of five months but this seemingly included all delays in the publication process (including review time and changes to improving scientific content).” Five months would be unheard of speed in economics where you are lucky if you get referee comments in five months!

Progress Studies tranche of Emergent Ventures

Due to a special grant, there has been a devoted tranche of Emergent Ventures to individuals, typically scholars and public intellectuals, studying the nature and causes of progress.

Here are the winners of those awards so far:

Pseudoerasmus, for general excellence and his on-line writings on progress and development. He has donated the funds to the Economic History Society.

Alice Evans, Professor, King’s College London, for her work on social change and despondency traps, and podcasting, and general excellence.

Jason Crawford, to boost his writings and career as public intellectual on topics of progress and the benefits of economic growth and industrialism.  Here is his blog The Roots of Progress.

Tanner Greer, to help him move from Taiwan to Virginia/GMU, and to write a book on the last twenty years of U.S. history and its significance.  Here is Tanner on Twitter.

Adam Green, budding public intellectual, to study the pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos.

Ville Vesterinen, Finland, to produce podcasts and YouTube videos on the nature of progress and economic growth.

Leopold Aschenbrenner, 17 year old economics prodigy, to spend the next summer in the Bay Area and for general career development.  Here is his paper on existential risk.

Byrne Hobart, to write a book on technological progress with Tobias Huber.

Saloni Dattani and ,Sam Bowman, to set up a website on progress and progress studies, possibly a progress-related podcast.

Here is further information on the progress studies tranche of Emergent Ventures.

I’ll be announcing more winners soon, from the regular rather than the progress studies tranche of Emergent Ventures (both remain open).

Tuesday assorted links

1. North Korean restaurants in Russia fail to draw diners.

2. Repeat link, but corporate taxes do seem to discourage investment.  Just in case you had forgotten, or in case you had starting believing that correlation implies causation, or that lack of correlation implies lack of causation.  Or something like that.

3. EV winner Lama Al Rajih works with Culdesac, a start-up that just premiered (WSJ), devoted to walkable, carless residential neighborhoods.

4. Caplan responds to Garett Jones on open borders.

5. Here is a serious pro-Morales take covering recent events in Bolivia.

6. Transcript of new Peter Thiel talk.

Are central banks manipulating asset prices?

That case still needs to be made, here is Cullen Roche:

1) Are Central Banks “pushing money” on people? 

The whole premise of the first paragraph is that Central Banks have implemented QE and forced money onto people which has resulted in a lot of asset chasing.¹ I’ve never understood this mentality to be honest. When the Fed engages in QE they expand their balance sheet and buy a bond from the private sector. In a low inflation environment bonds become increasingly similar to cash so these sellers of bonds are selling one cash-like instrument for another. As a result, the private sector ends up holding more low interest bearing cash-like instruments and the Fed holds higher interest bearing cash-like instruments. So the whole basis of this theory is that if someone who was already holding a risk averse asset then sells that risk averse asset for something very similar then they will suddenly become less risk averse and run out and drive up stocks? That doesn’t even make sense. If I have a moderate risk tolerance and hold a portfolio of 50% bonds and 50% stocks and I want to sell my bonds because I read a scary article about how bonds are super risky because interest rates are going to rise (more on this later) then I will swap out some part of my 50% bonds for cash or something else that’s relatively low risk (to maintain my moderate risk profile). I don’t swap out my whole bond position for a stock position or a role of the dice at the roulette wheel.

Anyhow, the evidence doesn’t even mesh with this. Global Central Banks have been implementing QE for 10 years now. The average annual return of the Vanguard Total World Index is 8.9% per year over that period. That is 0.02% higher than the average 35 year return. So, if investors are acting crazy today then they’ve been crazy for 35 years. Which might be true. It’s probably true. I actually think investors are usually kind of crazy. But they’re not any crazier today than they were 35 years ago.

Sensible throughout.

The real inflation inequality of our time

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and it is not (mainly) about rich and poor:

Consider people who love to consume information, or, as I have labeled them, infovores. They can stay at home every night and read Wikipedia, scan Twitter, click on links, browse through Amazon reviews and search YouTube — all for free. Thirty years ago there was nothing comparable.

Of course, most people don’t have those tastes. But for the minority who do, it is a new paradise of plenty. These infovores — a group that includes some academics, a lot of internet nerds and many journalists — have experienced radical deflation.

Here is another bit:

So who might be worse off in this new American world?

People who like to spend time with their friends across town are one set of losers. Traffic congestion is much worse, and so driving in Los Angeles or Washington has never been such a big burden. In-person socializing is therefore more costly. On the other hand, the chance that you have remained in touch with your very distant friends is higher, due to email and social media. Those who enjoy less frequent (but perhaps more intense?) visits are on the whole better off for that reason. It is easier than ever to go virtually anywhere in the world and have someone interesting to talk to.

Another group of losers — facing super-high inflation rates — are the “cool” people who insist on living in America’s best and most advanced cities. Which might those be? New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco? You can debate that, but they have all grown much more expensive. Many smaller cities, such as Austin, Washington and Boston, are going the same route.

And this summary point:

What is the common theme here? It is that those who love or need “the new” are often doing relatively well. Those who value the old standbys — the crosstown friend, the Manhattan brownstone, the uncomplicated visit to the local doctor to have a broken ankle set — are in a more dubious position.

There is much more at the link.  You might also see my earlier 1998 Kyklos article with Alex, “Who Benefits from Progress?“, and my book The Age of the Infovore.

Classical musical recordings of the year

We are approaching the year-end “best of” lists, so why not start with the one you care about least?  I had a very good year for classical music listening, with the following as new discoveries:

John Cage, Two2, by Mark Knoop and Philip Thomas, now perhaps my favorite Cage work?

Alvin Curran, Endangered Species, two CDs of jazz and popular song classics but done with piano distortion, plenty of spills and turns, a genuinely successful hybrid product.

James Tenney, Changes: 64 Studies for Two Harps, more listenable than you might think.

As for old classics, the Marek Janowski recording of Bruckner’s 4th is my favorite in a crowded (and impressive) field, recommended as a Bruckner introduction too.

This year I also started to enjoy Szymanowski for the first time, though that remains a work in progress.

I usually do a Fanfare meta-list, namely the recordings recommended the most by the critics of this outlet for classical music reviews.  This year there were three clear winners represented on the lists of multiple reviewers:

Poul Ruders, The Thirteenth Child (Danish opera, sung in English).

Feodor Chaliapin, The Complete Recordings, 13 CDs (not my thing).

Wilhelm Furtwängler, The Radio Recordings, 1939-1945 [sic].  James Altena writes: “…layers of aural varnish have been stripped away to uncover the true glories of one incandescent performance after another, from the conductor’s most inspired period of music-making during the horrors of the Nazi regime and World War II.”  Other critics concur, so political correctness has not yet come to classical music reviewing.  If you are reluctant to spend so much money, you can always try the Furtwängler 1942 “Hitler’s birthday” recording of Beethoven’s 9th and see how offended you feel.  So far I can’t bring myself to buy this one.  (By the way, even the Nazis still played Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza to the Beethoven violin concerto…Kreisler was Jewish).

I’ll turn to other musical genres soon.