Claims about polarization

…when it comes to moral issues, the prominent change is a partisan secular trend, in which both Democrats and Republicans are adopting more progressive views on moral issues, although at a different rate. While Democrats are early adopters of progressive views, Republicans adopt the same views at a slower pace. This secular change can be easily (mis)interpreted as a sign of polarization because, at the onset of the process, the gap between party supporters broadens due to faster pace at which Democrats adopt progressive views, and only toward the end, the gap between partisan supporters decreases.

That is from a new paper by Baldassari and Park, via Gaurav Sood.

Not your grandpa’s talent show

Hosted by Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, the four-hour entrepreneurial talent show had all the production values of The Apprentice.

But the glitzy televised extravaganza, in which 10 contestants battled for $1m in prize money in front of a boisterous audience, took place neither in the US nor China. The action unfolded instead on a stage in Ghana, the first of what is set to be an Africa-wide annual contest as one of China’s best known businessmen scours the continent for younger versions of himself…

Mr Ma came up with the idea of the $1m prize — and the Africa Netpreneur television show to go with it — after meeting young Kenyan entrepreneurs on his first trip to the continent as a special adviser to the UN agency Unctad in 2017…

The Netpreneur show is due to be broadcast in mid-December on two channels with a pan-African presence, South Africa’s DStv and StarTimes, a Chinese media company. During the filming, Mr Ma sat on a raised dais next to three fellow judges: Strive Masiyiwa, the billionaire Zimbabwean founder of telecoms and media company Econet Wireless, Ibukun Awosika, chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, and Joe Tsai, executive vice-chairman of Alibaba.

Where are the Smothers Brothers?  Here is the full David Pilling FT story.

My debate with Žižek

It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:

I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06.  After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.

The Holberg people put on a great event.

Sunday assorted links

What I’ve been reading

Roderick Floud, An Economic History of the English Garden.  Every page of this book does indeed have economics.  It just does not have interesting economics.  Which may mean that gardens are not so interesting from an economic point of view.  Which in turn would make this a good book.  But not an interesting book.

Ajantha Subramanian, The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India.  A critique of casteism and growing inequality, this book also doubles as a fascinating history of IIT.  Best read in Straussian fashion as a sympathetic story of origins.

Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion & The Future of Clothes.  Some parts of this book have bad economics and extreme mood affiliation, but in general it has more actual information than other books on the same topic and at times the author makes decent external cost arguments against the current system of clothes production.  So a qualified recommendation, at least I am glad I read it, even though some parts are obviously too sloppy.

Razeen Sally, Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island.  People do not think enough about Sri Lanka, including in the social sciences!  It is a richer and nicer country than what most people are expecting, and it is good for studying both conflict and ethnic tensions.  This memoir — information rich rather than just blather — is one good place to get you started.

David Goldblatt, The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-First Century.  Football meaning soccer of course, this book covers how soccer interacts with politics in many particular countries, including Africa, and just how much the game has grown in global markets.  Mostly informative, good if you wish to read a book about this topic (I don’t).

Conversations with Zizek.  Maybe the best introduction to why Žižek is a richer thinker than his critics allege?  The book serves up insights on a consistent basis, and there is a minimum of jargon.  Marcus Pound had a good blurb: “Audacious and vertiginous, this book is everything one expects from him, a heady mix of psychoanalysis, politics, theology, philosophy, and cultural studies that will leave the reader both exhausted and exhilarated.”

News of the Weird

SlateStarCodex sums it up:

You might already be following the Navy UFO thing: over the past few years, the Navy has encouraged its pilots to come forward with UFO accounts, signal-boosted the reports, and sponsored UFO research organizations, as if they’re trying to stoke interest for some reason. Now the plot gets weirder: a Navy scientist has filed a patent for a quantum superconducter antigravity drive capable of UFO-like feats of impossible aeronautics. When the Patent Office rejected it as outlandish, the Chief Technical Officer of naval aviation personally wrote the Patent Office saying it was totally possible and a matter of national security, after which the Patent Office relented and granted the patent. The patent thanks UFO researchers in the acknowledgements, includes a picture of a UFO recently sighted by Navy pilots, and does everything short of print in capital letters ‘THIS COMES FROM A UFO’. Scientists who were asked to comment say the proposed drive is “babble” and none of the supposed science checks out at all. Has the Navy fallen victim to conspiracy-peddlers, are they deliberately trying to stoke conspiracy theories for some reason, or what?

Germany fact of the day

Germany owns no nuclear weapons. It renounced the very idea when it reunified in 1990. But if war were to break out in Europe today, German pilots could clamber into German planes, take off from Büchel Air Base in Rhineland-Palatinate and drop nuclear bombs on Russian troops.

The Luftwaffe can do that thanks to Nato’s nuclear-sharing scheme, under which America quietly stations nuclear bombs across five countries in Europe.

Here is more from The Economist, mostly covering Turkey and the tactical nuclear weapons stored there.

*The Korean Mind: Understanding Contemporary Korean Culture*

This is a weird book, published primarily in Singapore, and somehow not fitting the canons of what people “are supposed to do” (NB: it is not at all racist, just bolder in its cultural generalizations than is currently in vogue).  Nonetheless I learned a great deal from the book, while taking some parts with a grain of salt.  Here is one interesting bit of many:

Since 1948 the government in North Korea has been dominated by people from North Hamkyong Province, where the late Il Sung Kim, founder of the North Korean regime, was active as a guerrilla leader during World War II.  Since that time people from the North Korean provinces of Hwanghae and Kangwon, which are the closest to South Korea, have been virtually banned from high government offices because they are considered untrustworthy and unfit.  In South Korea government has been controlled mostly by natives from North Kyongsang Province in the Youngnam (formerly Shilla) region.

…Ongoing competition and conflicts between people from Cholla and Kyongsang Provinces are said to be serious enough that they have significant negative impact on national politics, the economy, and life in general.

The author is Boye Lafayette de Mente, and he seems to know a lot about Korean bowing.  Do note the book is mainly about South Korea.  Reviewers, by the way, complain that there are significant mistakes in the Korean characters.  Recommended nonetheless, albeit with caveats, you can buy it here.

Friday assorted links

Principles for Amazon (and other?) censorship

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

Focus on whether the merchandise contributes to further understanding, one way or another, rather than whether it might embody evil.


This principle runs counter to how the world of social media works, I realize. “Cancel culture” tends to issue decisions based on the worst aspects of a product, writer or public figure, because that is what is endlessly circulated and condemned. But there is another way of thinking about the problem — namely, by focusing on the positive.

It is still possible, for example, to buy Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” on Amazon, either through third-party merchants or Amazon itself. That book is more offensive than an Auschwitz bottle opener, as it directly calls for the extermination of the Jews and the conquest of Europe, and it probably still inspires neo-Nazis today. Nonetheless, I hope “Mein Kampf” continues to be for sale.

For all of its evil, “Mein Kampf” is an essential document for understanding the rise of Nazism and Hitler. As such, it should be allowed in spite of its potential downside. There is both intrinsic and utilitarian value in maximizing public access to as much knowledge as possible.

In contrast, it is hard to argue that an Auschwitz-themed mouse pad has anything positive to offer, whether to our historical knowledge or otherwise. At best, it is an act of obnoxious trolling and thus it was appropriate for Amazon to take it down.

It is fine to watch Leni Riefenstahl and listen to Richard Strauss, for instance.  But most private platforms — if they can — should ban sheer trolls.

Are we undermeasuring productivity gains from the internet?, part II

From my new paper with Ben Southwood on whether the rate of progress in science is diminishing:

Similarly, the tech sector of the American economy still isn’t as big as many people think. The productivity gap has meant that measured GDP is about fifteen percent lower than it would have been under earlier rates of productivity growth. But if you look say about the tech sector in 2004, it is only about 7.7 percent of GDP (since the productivity slowdown is ongoing, picking a more recent and larger number is not actually appropriate here). A mismeasurement of that tech sector just doesn’t seem nearly large enough to fill in for the productivity gap. You might argue in response that “today the whole economy is incorporating tech,” but that doesn’t seem to work either. For one thing, recent tech incorporations typically involve goods and services that are counted in GDP. Furthermore, there is a problem of timing, namely that the U.S. productivity slowdown dates back to 1973, and that is perhaps the single biggest problem for trying to attribute this gap mainly to under-measured innovations in the tech sector.

Other research looks at “worst case” scenarios from the mismeasurement of welfare adjustments in consumer price deflators and finds a similar result: a significant effect that nonetheless does not reverse the judgement that innovation has been slowing. 

The most general point of relevance here is simply that price deflator bias has been with productivity statistics since the beginning, and if anything the ability of those numbers to adjust for quality improvements may have increased with time. For instance, the research papers do not find that the mismeasurement has risen in the relevant period. You might think the introduction of the internet is still undervalued in measured GDP, but arguably the introduction of penicillin earlier in the 20th century was undervalued further yet. The market prices for those doses of penicillin probably did not reflect the value of the very large number of lives saved. So when we are comparing whether rates of progress have slowed down over time, and if we wish to salvage the performance of more recent times, we still need an argument that quality mismeasurement has increased over time. So far that case has not been made, and if you believe that the general science of statistics has made some advances, the opposite is more likely to be true, namely that mismeasurement biases are narrowing to some extent. 

You will find citations and footnotes in the original.  Here is my first post on whether the productivity gains from the internet are understated.

Claims about real rates of return

With recourse to archival, printed primary, and secondary sources, this paper reconstructs global real interest rates on an annual basis going back to the 14th century, covering 78% of advanced economy GDP over time. I show that across successive monetary and fiscal regimes, and a variety of asset classes, real interest rates have not been “stable”, and that since the major monetary upheavals of the late middle ages, a trend decline between 0.6-1.8bps p.a. has prevailed. A consistent increase in real negative-yielding rates in advanced economies over the same horizon is identified, despite important temporary reversals such as the 17th Century Crisis. Against their long-term context, currently depressed sovereign real rates are in fact converging “back to historical trend” – a trend that makes narratives about a “secular stagnation” environment entirely misleading, and suggests that – irrespective of particular monetary and fiscal responses – real rates could soon enter permanently negative territory. I also posit that the return data here reflects a substantial share of “nonhuman wealth” over time: the resulting R-G series derived from this data show a downward trend over the same timeframe: suggestions about the “virtual stability” of capital returns, and the policy implications advanced by Piketty (2014) are in consequence equally unsubstantiated by the historical record.

That is from a new paper by Paul Schelzing, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.