Month: May 2008

Who Owns Antiquity?

If by chance a scholar came across the Rosetta Stone in a private collection, she would be discouraged from publishing it in today’s leading English-language, archaeological journals.  Those journals have policies against serving as "the initial place of publication or pronouncement" of any unprovenanced object acquired by an individual or institution after December 30, 1970, unless it was in a collection prior to that date, or there is evidence that it was legally exported from its country of origin…Not being acquired or published, and thus neither studied nor deciphered, the Rosetta Stone would be a mere curiosity, Egyptology as we know it would not exist…

That is from James Cuno’s excellent Who Owns Antiquity: Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage.  The book criticizes nationalistic identity politics, calls for measures to broaden international access to antiquities, and argues that museums should again be allowed to acquire undocumented antiquities.  In other words he favors a cosmopolitan, property rights approach.  Here is the book’s web page.  Here is an interview, with incisive questions.

Collier on the Food Crisis

Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion was my pick for best economics book last year (not written by a dear friend), it was smart, hard-hitting and unconventional.  Collier hasn’t lost his touch as a great comment, more like an op-ed, on the food crisis over at Martin Wolf’s Economic Forum illustrates.

The remedy to high food prices is to increase food supply, something
that is entirely feasible. The most realistic way to raise global
supply is to replicate the Brazilian model of large, technologically
sophisticated agro-companies supplying for the world market…. There are still many areas of the world that
have good land which could be used far more productively if it was
properly managed by large companies…

Unfortunately, large-scale commercial agriculture is unromantic. We
laud the production style of the peasant: environmentally sustainable
and human in scale. In respect of manufacturing and services we grew
out of this fantasy years ago, but in agriculture it continues to
contaminate our policies. In Europe and Japan huge public resources
have been devoted to propping up small farms. The best that can be said
for these policies is that we can afford them. In Africa, which cannot
afford them, development agencies have oriented their entire efforts on
agricultural development to peasant style production. As a result,
Africa has less large-scale commercial agriculture than it had fifty
years ago. Unfortunately, peasant farming is generally not well-suited
to innovation and investment: the result has been that African
agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing
productivity frontier of the globalized commercial model.

Read the whole thing.  Many more oxen are gored.

An interesting view on bank regulation

It starts with this:

…there are few crises I have known from the inside that would not have happened if only there was more disclosure. People knew that sub-prime was a poor risk – it is called sub-prime, after all.

Then it moves here:

The alternative model rests on three pillars. The first recognises that the biggest source of market and systemic failure is the economic cycle and so regulation cannot be blind and deaf to the cycle – it must put it close to the centre. Charles Goodhart and I have proposed contra-cyclical charges – capital charges that rise as the market price of risk falls as measured by financial market prices – and a good starting point for implementation of such charges is the Spanish system of dynamic provisioning (Goodhart and Persaud 2008).

The second pillar focuses regulation on systemically important distinctions, such as maturity mismatches and leverage, and not on out-dated distinctions between banks and non-banks. Institutions without leverage or mismatch should be lightly regulated – if at all – and in particular would not be required to adhere to short term rules such as mark-to-market accounting or market-price risk sensitivity that contribute to market dislocation. Bankers will argue against this, saying that it creates an unlevel playing field, but financial markets are based on diversity, not homogeneity. Incentivising long-term investors to behave long-term will mean that there will be more buyers when banks are forced to sell.

The third pillar is requiring banks to pay an insurance premium to tax payers against the risk that the tax payer will be required to bail them out. If such a market could be created, it would not only incentivise good banking and push the focus of regulation away from process to outcomes, but it would provide an incentive for banks to be less systemic. Today, banks have an incentive to be more systemic as a bail out is then guaranteed. The right response to Citibank’s routine failure to anticipate its credit risks is not for it to keep on getting bigger so that it can remain too big to fail, but for it to whither away under rising insurance premiums paid to tax payers.

Carbon tax splat

A few of you asked me for more commentary on this linked articleWill is on board but I think it is provocative but unconvincing.  Here are a few points: oddly, the author doesn’t mention the strongest argument against such a tax, namely that the Chinese and others may not follow suit.  I don’t worry much about one-time compliance costs if energy improvements bring a sounder long-run state of affairs; admittedly a big if.  The side deals from a tax will be bad and I expect an inefficient version of whatever happens; that said this does not disfavor reform vs. the status quo since the status quo has very bad side deals too; whether those side deals get worse, or by how much, depends on how the counterfactual is specified.  Under some scenarios the side deals in fact get better.  Uncertainty alone does not favor inaction, rather it favors action as a kind of insurance policy against very bad outcomes.  And uncertainty about long chains of causation most definitely does not, per se, favor reliance on market prices, rather it favors agnosticism about market vs. government.  Waiting does seem very costly to me; read Six Degrees.  I am far from convinced that the Nordhaus model is the best way to think about the costs of warming.  The author of the post is at his best when arguing: "a tax is unlikely to work," at his weakest when arguing "this means the best course of action is no tax at all."

The bottom line is that the whole thing is likely to end very badly for at least one billion of the world’s people, no matter what we do within the feasible set.  In the meantime we can tell them they ought to get richer, and of course they should, but that’s hardly a solution either.

Markets in everything, Thorstein Veblen edition

A watch that doesn’t tell time.  Oh, it costs $300,000.  And:

He added that anyone can buy a watch that tells time – only a truly discerning customer can buy one that doesn’t.

And here’s the best part: The watch sold out within 48 hours of its launch.

I thank Darren Klein for the pointer.

Addendum: I am reminded of Borges on Veblen: "When, many years ago, I happened to read this book, I thought it was a satire.  I later learned it was the first work of an illustrious sociologist."

Should smart men prefer the fiction of the past?

Razib thinks so:

I think that it is somewhat peculiar that many
of us find fiction from the past more engaging than popular
contemporary works. Aupelius’ Golden Ass gets my attention; most contemporary fiction does not.  I
am arguing here that this is partly due to the fact that in the past
those who read copiously were, on average, much more like me than they
were like the typical human
. Not only were readers by and large
men (usually of some means and comfort), but they were often also
disproportionately eggheads who were eccentric by their nature. How
many elite scholars were there such as Claudius
who were not attracted to the public life of politics and do not appear
in the annals of history? With the printing press, cheaper paper, and
the rise of mass literacy, things changed, the distribution of taste shifted.  And so did the distribution of genres.

Read the whole thing.  I believe that literary "market taste" was closest to mine in the 1920s, a remarkable decade that saw the publication of major works by Proust, Mann, Joyce, Rilke, Kafka, and numerous other masterpieces.  That may be more a "spirit of the times" effect than an audience composition effect, since I prefer it to earlier and more elite periods as well.  (Or maybe only by then did fiction get dumbed down to my level!)

When it comes to Roman literature there is also a significant selection effect, namely what later manuscript collectors thought was worth preserving and protecting.  Many novels were written during Roman times, but not many of them have come down to us and thus the average quality of Roman literature may look artificially high, just as the average quality of today’s literary menagerie looks artificially low.

Charles Tilly dies at 78

Here is one obituary.  Tilly was a historical sociologist but he had an influence on economic history as well, including the New Institutional Economics:

Dr. Tilly mined immense piles of original documents for raw data and
contemporary accounts – including municipal archives, unpublished
letters and diaries – that he used to develop theories applicable to
many contexts. A particular interest was the development of the nation
state in Europe, which he suggested was partly a military innovation.
In his 1990 book “Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990”
(Blackwell), he argued that the increasingly large costs of gunpowder
and large armies required big, powerful nation states with the power to
tax.

In 1985, he gave early indications of his argument that war
made states in an article that said nation states, with their
monopolies on violence, function like gangsters’ protection rackets. He
said that governments emphasize, create and stimulate external threats,
then ask their citizens to pay for defense.

I think of his mid-career work as being most important, such as his The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  In any case America has lost one of its leading social scientists.  Wikipedia offers good links.  Here is Tilly on how to do social science work, recommended.

Make dentistry cheaper

Can you see what is coming?:

But to the Alaska Dental Society and the American Dental Association, the clinic is a place where the rules of dentistry are flouted daily. The dental groups object not because of any evidence that the clinic provides substandard care, but because it is run by Aurora Johnson, who is not a dentist. After two years of training in a program unique to Alaska, Ms. Johnson performs basic dental work like drilling and filling cavities.

Here is much more.  Get this:

The number of dentists in the United States has been roughly flat since 1990 and is forecast to decline over the next decade. A study last year from the Centers for Disease Control showed that Americans’ dental health was worsening for the first time since statistics began to be kept.

In Alaska, the A.D.A. and the state’s dental society had filed a lawsuit to block the program that trained people like Ms. Johnson, who are called dental therapists. The groups dropped the suit last summer after a state court judge issued a ruling critical of the dentists. But the A.D.A. continues to oppose allowing therapists to operate anywhere in the lower 49 states. Currently, therapists are allowed to practice only in Alaska, and only on Alaska Natives.

The opposition to therapists follows decades of efforts by state dental boards, which are dominated by dentists, to block hygienists from providing care without being supervised by dentists.

The dental associations say they simply want to be sure that patients do not receive substandard care. But some dentists in public health programs contend that dentists in private practice consider therapists low-cost competition. In Alaska, the federally financed program that supplies care to Alaska Natives pays therapists about $60,000 a year, one-half to one-third of what dentists typically earn.

The Alaska program is small, with fewer than a dozen therapists practicing so far. But the early results are promising, according to dental health experts who are studying the program.

As someone who has spent a lot of time at the dentist, I very much like the assistants and I think of the dentist himself as a kind of middle-level manager and salesman.

I thank Greg Rehmke for the pointer.

Eminent Domain and Civil Rights

“[t]he burden of eminent domain has and will continue to fall disproportionately
upon racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and economically disadvantaged.”
Unfettered eminent domain authority, the NAACP concluded, is a “license for
government to coerce individuals on behalf of society’s strongest interests.”

That is the NAACP quoted in an op-ed by David Beito and GMU law prof Ilya Somin. 

Hat tip to The Beacon.

Exporting Electrons

Everyone knows that Caterpillar is an exporter.  But last week Google reported record profits and Google stock rose nearly twenty percent.  Why were profits up?  Google’s foreign revenues shot head of its U.S. revenues because of a weaker dollar.  Google is an exporter.  Who knew?  And what does Google export?  Patterns of electrons.

Thanks to David Levy for discussion.

How to behave when you’re old

Bryan Caplan presents us with his dilemma:

When I’m old, I want to be the octogenarian that the Young Turks
come to with their crazy new ideas. I don’t want to be the senior
professor that the whippersnapper assistant profs avoid. Above all
else, I never want to be a lunch tax – I like lunch too much.

Unfortunately, by the time I’m 80 I’ll probably be too befuddled to
figure out how to do any of this. So I want to figure it out now, tape
it on my office wall, and refer to it when the time is ripe.

Not mentioning any names, what
are the biggest social mistakes elderly faculty make? What are some
simple strategies for them to ingratiate themselves to the next
generation? If you’ve got some good advice, I’ll thank you when I’m 80.
If I remember!

I remain a fan of Richard Posner’s book on old age, one of his best.  I ask Bryan: would he still take the advice that his 12-year-old self might have taped to a door?  Neurological changes aside, the elderly simply have less incentive to be deferential and to court their younger colleagues; Aristotle knew this too.

Bryan’s best lunchtime bet is that, when he is eighty, I am still around at ninety.

An alternative strategy is to find — today — the eighty-year olds who are still fascinating and run your new ideas by them.  Most of them will gladly receive you.  I used to fly out to Ann Arbor occasionally to meet with the great Marvin Becker, but in general I haven’t done much of this in my life.  Call that my failing but it’s another reason why so many eighty-year-olds don’t bother to appeal to Young Turks as a constituency.

Overall I am struck by how little beneficial trade there is between the generations.  I find this one of the most striking stylized facts of the social sciences; one simple model is that people don’t want to leave groups that produce fun and high relative status for them, and that is what switching across the generations usually entails.

Do you all have any other advice for Bryan?