Month: June 2008

The history of America since 1980

Brad DeLong spells it out:

  1. The end of the Cold War
  2. Other winner-take-all factors that have, in combination with
    education, pushed American income polarization back to Gilded Age
  3. The failure of American taxpayers to support their state and local
    governments in expanding funding for public education–and the impact
    of reduced public education effort in sharpening the distinction
    between rich and poor.
  4. The computer revolution in productivity growth.
  5. The rise of China (and soon, we hope, India) as industrial powers.
  6. The extraordinary social liberalization of America–if you had told
    any Republican in 1980 that 2008 would see (a) a Negro with an
    Arabic-Swahili name beating a veteran fighter pilot in the presidential
    polls and (b) gay marriage as the big cultural issue of the day, said
    Republican would have blown several gaskets. And if you had said that
    this would have been the result of an "Age of Reagan" said Republican
    would have melted down completely.

I’m mostly on board (and read the broader post) but, in addition to mentioning Latinos, I’ll suggest two revisions.  First, on #3 I doubt if the stagnation of American lower education is the result of insufficient dollars.  It is notoriously difficult to find a convincing link between educational expenditures and educational quality and I don’t think that is econometric problems.  On #6 I never saw most of the Reagan Republicans as especially prudish or socially conservative; that was just a lie told to one of the interest groups attending the party.  Revolution in the Head — which is oddly enough a social history of the Beatles — is especially good on the connection between 1960s morals and the Reagan Revolution.

“eBay ordered to pay damages in sale of fake goods”

That’s the headline, the country is France.  Is there any efficiency rationale for this decision?  The alternative equilibrium involves a fair number of fakes, some good discounts for real items, an overconcentration of trading activity is easily verifiable or not worth faking items, and of course a diminution in the value of brand names.  The latter effect may even be welfare-improving once you consider price discrimination and the association of brand names with monopoly rents.  You can put the penalty on the seller but how is eBay to detect possible fakes?  Buy and inspect the wares?  Shut down trade in any fakeable item?  I would think it is also easy enough to "buy fakes" from your buddy, in essence keep the cash, give him a percentage, and then sue eBay for the "loss."  If the owner of the brand can sue would not the French court consider a suit from the buyer of the fakes as well?

Very good sentences

many of the same people who ridicule the idea that private-sector output is meaningfully reduced by higher taxes are convinced that private-sector output is meaningfully raised by higher subsidies.

That’s from Don Boudreaux.  You’ll also find that many proponents of hiking the minimum wage think that subsidizing low-wage jobs will work.  There are models where the relevant effects switch at just the right margins, of course; surely those models are true.

Markets in everything, cultural diplomacy edition

In Paraguay the latest hit record — and yes it is a hit — is by the U.S. Ambassador singing Paraguayan folk songs in the language of Guarani.  Crowds love it, though one Paraguayan critic compared it to "the monotone of a tired bird."  The ambassador had no previous professional singing experience.  One Paraguayan Senator is asking his Congress to denounce the diplomat.  "Paraguayans cry when they hear it" is another, more laudatory assessment.  Here is the interesting story.

Here is a speech by the ambassador, excerpt:

We are not building a military base………  We are not stealing the Guarani aquifer………….  We are not buying up the Chaco…………….

The truth is that our agenda is very positive, both for the region and for Paraguay.

With oil at $140 a barrel, can you still love Julian Simon?

Remember Julian Simon, the guy who argued that resource prices would fall, fall, fall in real terms?  I loved spending time with him and to this day he remains an underrated economist.  (By the way, the very first piece I ever wrote was a guide to using Julian Simon for high school debaters.)  But can we still advocate his major thesis?

The possible belief space includes the following:

1. There is still a good chance that future resource and oil prices will fall dramatically, so Simon should not be dismissed.  Still, the single best estimate today can be inferred from the current market price, which implies a good chance that resources will get more expensive.

2. Simon is right and futures markets currently indicate that the price of oil is expected to fall dramatically.

3. Simon is still right, the rest of the world is wrong, and betting on this is how I will get rich.

4. Simon is right but current markets don’t allow us to bet on his major claims.  Futures markets extend for only a few years’ time, not for say the twenty years or so that are needed to validate his prediction.

4b. The deliverance of plenty is truly far away and no one is willing to take those margin calls for the next 187 years; in this scenario the present expected value of the future improvement is pretty low.

5. Simon is right but nominal interest rates will soon fall so low that successive short selling of oil in the futures market won’t yield supernormal returns.  (This can mean, for instance, that you’d rather lock up all your money today at the higher rates, rather than short selling.)

No way does #2 work, though there is often slight backwardation in the futures price.  I’ve never heard anyone argue #5 and indeed most people haven’t even thought of it as an escape hatch.  My belief is closest to #1.  Bryan Caplan argues for #4 but Arnold Kling shows that doesn’t fly.  If you’re always rolling over a successively renewed short position in the futures market, sooner or later the price decline for oil will yield you supernormal profits; in the meantime your margin deposit is earning the rate of return on T-Bills, noting that you must buy into the new contract cycle before your old contract expires so as not to miss the window of opportunity.  OK there is margin call risk, etc. but if Simon is right that is small relative to your potential gains.

(Alternatively you might argue that if you are in contract cycle #3, the good news will arrive to affect the pricing of cycle #4 before you can buy in, adding on that even after the future good news is announced the MC curve is so steep that you don’t gain much on contract cycle #3.  That’s possible but a) ex ante you still have supernormal returns since it may not work out that way, and b) the reality is that huge good supply news, whether for oil or some other energy source, would lead to lots of pumping today and a plummeting oil price right away.)

I invite Alex to accept #1 or otherwise indicate his stance.

It’s amazing how much, on this issue, some people resort to what can only be called technical analysis — inferring future price movements from past trends — when they would scoff at that approach in almost any other context.  It’s OK to argue that belief #3 held for most of world history –before we all read Simon and perhaps before there were futures markets in oil — but I want to know if you are betting on #3 today and if not why not and also what other ways there are to get very rich that you can tell me about (does only the oil market malfunction so?).

I’ll also note that current oil prices hardly suggest (do click on that link) a level of bone-crunching, civilization-ending scarcity, so you can believe in #1 and still be an optimist overall, as indeed I am.  I’m just not nearly as much of an optimist as I was when oil was $10-$20 a barrel, wasn’t it even $8 a barrel for domestic oil less than ten years ago?

Also on belief #4 note that: forward contracts allow for longer bets than do futures contracts, contract length is endogenous to important events (though synthetic contract positions mean we don’t need all of the possible longer term contracts), and it is odd for libertarians — combinatorial prediction market fans at that — to suddenly cite missing markets to defend their broader position.

Addendum: Oh, yes, there is one more option.  I call it "#3 is correct but my wife won’t let us get rich."  I’ll say this in response: for all the virtues marriage has for men, when you look around and study it more closely, you’ll find the institution has even more virtues than you had thought.

Second addendum: Here is Jeffrey Sachs on this topic.

What determines fertility?

Here are some thoughts:

So there would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility:
the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American
one. Aassve put it to me this way: “You might say that in order to
promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The
U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in
terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social
stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially
accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very

By this logic, the worst sort of system is one that
partly buys into the modern world – expanding educational and
employment opportunities for women – but keeps its traditional
mind-set. This would seem to define the demographic crisis that Italy,
Spain and Greece find themselves in – and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea,
Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of the world. Indeed, demographers
have been surprised to find rapid fertility changes in the third world,
as more and more women work and modern birth-control methods become
standard options. “The earlier distinct fertility regimes, ‘developed’
and ‘developing,’ are increasingly disappearing in global comparisons
of fertility levels,” according to Edward Jow-Ching Tu…the birthrate in 25 developing countries – including Cuba, Costa Rica,
Iran, Sri Lanka and China – now stands at or below the replacement

Can past nuclear explosions advance art history?

A former curator from the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg
believes they can. She has developed a new method for dating paintings
in collaboration with Russian scientists which, she says, provides
“indisputable” evidence of whether a painting was made before or after

According to the inventors, the new patented technology is based on the
idea that man-made nuclear explosions in the 1940s and 1950s released
isotopes into the environment that do not occur naturally. The tiniest
traces of these isotopes, Caesium-137 and Strontium-90, permeated the
planet’s soil and plant life, and eventually ended up in all works of
art made in the post-war era because natural oils are used as binding
agents for paints.

Therefore, they believe that any work of art
originally believed to pre-date World War II, but which registers trace
amounts of Caesium-137 and Strontium-90, can be “definitively” declared
a post-1945 forgery.

Here is the full story.  It’s worth noting that many categories in the art world show rates of forgery approaching 50 percent or higher.

More on speculation

Here is Paul Krugman’s model, Mark Thoma covers related ground.  I view this as an intertemporal Hotelling model and not as analogous to a currency model as Krugman suggests.  In the bottom right hand graph of the four graphs in Krugman’s post, I don’t understand what institutional force hinders a market-clearing price.  More concretely, if expected future price goes up (or interest rates fall), the supply curve in that graph should shift back to the left (wait and pump more later for the higher price) and/or the demand curve in that graph should shift out to the right (buy now rather than later at the higher price).  Measured inventories will rise to the extent the demand curve does the shifting; if the supply curve does the shifting the "excess inventories" stay in the ground.

It is possible to derive Krugman’s desired result through another and indeed simpler channel.  Define speculation as the desire to hold more oil because of the perception that oil now has a greater convenience yield.  As Jeffrey Williams points out, a big part of convenience yield is the option value of selling the oil on favorable terms.  If you’re guessing that option value will pay off, it’s not unreasonable to call that speculation.  We now have a one-line proof: because of "speculation" the demand to hold oil goes up, and so the stocks of oil held will rise.

This again illustrates the value of starting with Holbrook Working when analyzing futures markets.

And it’s fair to say, as Krugman still does, there is no evidence that this mechanism is what is driving the higher oil prices.  Of course the people who are blaming "speculation" don’t seem to have any coherent definition of the concept in mind; that’s another problem with their argument. 

Ching Ching Desserts

If you are ever in Hong Kong try the cream of almond and black sesame soup at Ching Ching Desserts on Electric Street just around the corner from the Tin Hau metro.  It’s like drinking marzipan – with a little garnish and served in style this dessert soup could find its way onto the menu of any five star restaurant in the world but you can get a bowl in Hong Kong for less than three bucks. 


Eating lunch in a working man’s restaurant in Hong Kong I hear mostly Cantonese but with occassional English words, "passion," for example.  Borrowed words or loanwords surely tell us something important about ideas or concepts that the first language lacks.  Most loanwords are for things (e.g. mouse for a computer device), it’s pretty easy to explain the adoption of such words.  But what about words for which the thing has always existed but not the word?  Chinese speakers tell me that there is a word for love but passion is more difficult to translate.

What are some of the major conceptual loanwords?  What do loanwords tell us about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? What loanwords does English need?  There appears to be a large literature in linguistics on the adoption and evolution of loanwords but less on the cultural significance of loanwords.  Comments?

How to bargain with aliens

Let’s say you meet up with an alien race and you need to bargain with them by radio or some other method of signaling.  You don’t have any other information other than your knowledge of human beings.  What traits should you think are overrepresented in humans, relative to what a rerun of evolution can be expected to produce in an intelligent being?  Would you expect them to be more or less benevolent than humans?

Should it matter if they have demonstrated superior technology?  Should such achievement make you think they are more or less cooperative toward "outsiders"?

Let’s say the "alien beings" are designed robots, like Cylons.  How would that change your answer?  But unlike in BSG you know only that they were once designed.  What if you know the robots were designed not by evolved beings but by other designed robots?  Does it matter how many levels of robot design enter the picture?


Better than better than good.  It is, however, not recommended for children.  WALL-E is to film as Moses and Aaron is to opera, albeit cast with two robots and a bunch of figures from a Botero painting.  The first week gross will be high but I fear that next week some bold genius at Pixar will be fired.

Addendum: Here’s one financial analysis of the movie’s prospects.  And note that movies with no dialogue in the first half hour are not ideal for DVD sales to children.