Month: January 2011

Cutting off communications in Egypt

Jeff writes:

The government in Egypt is cutting off communications networks, including mobile phones and the Internet.

The decision to get out and protest is a strategic one.  It’s privately costly and it pays off only if there is a critical mass of others who make the same commitment.  It can be very costly if that critical mass doesn’t materialize.

Communications networks affect coordination.  Before committing yourself you can talk to others, check Facebook and Twitter, and try to gauge the momentum of the protest.  These media aggregate private information about the rewards to a protest but its important to remember that this cuts two ways.

If it looks underwhelming you stay home.  And therefore so does everybody who gets similar information as you.  All of you benefit from avoiding protesting when the protest is likely to be unsuccessful.  What’s more, in these cases even the regime benefits enabling from private communication, because the protest loses steam.

Now consider the strategic situation when you lines of communication are cut and you are acting in ignorance of the will of others.  The first observation is that in these cases when the protest would have fizzled, without advance knowledge of this many people will go out and protest.  Many are worse off, including the regime.

The second observation is that even in those cases when protest coordination would have been amplified by private communication, shutting down communication may nevertheless have the same effect, perhaps even a stronger one.  There are two reasons for this. First, the regime’s decision to shut down communications networks is an informed one.  They wouldn’t bother taking such a costly and face-losing move if they didn’t think that a protest was a real threat.  The inference therefore, when you are in your home and you can’t call your friends and the internet is shut down is that the protest has a real chance of being effective.  The signal you get from this act by the regime substitutes for the positive signal you would have gotten had they not acted.

The other reason is that this signal is public.  Everyone knows that everyone knows … that the internet has shut down.  Instead of relying on the noisy private signal that you get from talking to your friends, now you know that everybody is seeing exactly the same thing and are emboldened in exactly the same way.  This removes a lot of the coordination uncertainty and strengthens your resolve to protest.

I would add that today's autocracies hire consultants who advise them on how to best stifle political dissent.  Clumsy errors are less common than in times past.  That increases the likelihood that the Egyptian government sees these protests as very serious indeed.

Solving the fiscal crisis at the state level?

Moving to dispel claims that President Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii, his supporters in the state's legislature have introduced a bill that would allow anyone to get a copy of his birth records for a $100 fee.

The idea behind the measure is to end skepticism over Obama's birthplace while raising a little money for a government with a projected budget deficit exceeding $800 million over the next two years.

Here is more.


There is some chance that 2011 will be the new 1989.  Cutting off the internet should signal to the populace that matters are dire and thus it may prove counterproductive.  Tullock might say it means they will start shooting soon.  It is difficult to put together a "Favorite Things Egyptian," at least for this American, once you get past Mahfouz and music.  Intellectually and culturally, Cairo has been punching below its weight for a long time.  Fortunately, there has been a resurgence in Egyptian cinema since 2007.  When I visited the country in the mid-1990s, I had an overwhelming impression of a cynical populace and a lot of cement.  Timur Kuran's work will rise in status and importance.  "Catch-up" remains the global story of the last ten to fifteen years.

Are criminals just stupid?

Kevin Beaver and John Paul Wright report:

An impressive body of research has revealed that individual-level IQ scores are negatively associated with criminal and delinquent involvement. Recently, this line of research has been extended to show that state-level IQ scores are associated with state-level crime rates. The current study uses this literature as a springboard to examine the potential association between county-level IQ and county-level crime rates. Analysis of data drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health revealed statistically significant and negative associations between county-level IQ and the property crime rate, the burglary rate, the larceny rate, the motor vehicle theft rate, the violent crime rate, the robbery rate, and the aggravated assault rate. Additional analyses revealed that these associations were not confounded by a measure of concentrated disadvantage that captures the effects of race, poverty, and other social disadvantages of the county. We discuss the implications of the results and note the limitations of the study.

Hat tip goes to Kevin Lewis.  Elsewhere, again via Kevin, people believe they have more free will than do others.

The Ethics of Economics

Ed Glaeser has a good post, The Moral Heart of Economics, on the underlying ethical theories of economics. Tyler and I also discuss this isssue in our chapter on ethics in Modern Principles.

Even though the predictions of economics are independent of any ethical theory, there are ethical ideas behind normative economic reasoning. An economist who rejects the idea of exploitation in kidney purchases, for example, is treating the seller of kidneys with respect–as a person who is capable of choosing for himself or herself even in difficult circumstances.

Similarly, economists don’t second-guess people’s preferences very much. If people like wrestling more than opera, then so be it; the economist, acting as economist, does not regard some preferences as better than others. In normative terms, economists once again tend to respect people’s choices.

Respect for people’s preferences and choices leads naturally toward respect for trade–a key action that people take to make themselves better off. As we saw in Chapter 9 on externalities, economists recognize that trade can sometimes make the people who do not trade worse off. Nonetheless, the basic idea that people can make decisions and know their own preferences leads economists to be very sympathetic to the idea of noncoercive trade.

Economists also tend to treat all market demands equally, no matter which person they come from. Whether you are white or black, male or female, quiet or talkative, American or Belgian, your consumer and producer surplus count for the same in an economic assessment of a policy choice.

None of this it to say that economists are always right in their ethical assumptions. As we warned you in the beginning, this chapter has more questions than answers. But the ethical views of economists–respect for individual choice and preference, support for voluntary trade, and equality of treatment–are all ethical views with considerable grounding and support in a wide variety of ethical and religious traditions.

Perhaps you have heard that Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian-era writer, called economics the “dismal science.” What you may not know is that Carlyle was a defender of slavery and he was attacking the ethical views of economics. Economists like John Stuart Mill thought that all people were able to make rational choices, that trade not coercion was the best route to wealth, and that everyone should be counted equally, regardless of race. As a result, Mill and the laissez-faire economists of the nineteeth century opposed slavery, believing that everyone was entitled to liberty. It was these ethical views that Carlyle found dismal. We beg to differ.

Zeno’s paradox

I did get stuck in The Great ???? — have they given it a name yet? — last night.  A ten mile commute home took me almost eight hours and from what I have read many people had it worse.  I thought of Keynes and liquidity.  The worst part came at the end when I saw the car crushed by a large, heavy tree, which also fell over the main road and turned four lanes and two directions into one lane and two directions.  For the most part human cooperation held up and people kept their places in line.  Bathroom norms evolved (and were improved), and I now know every station on my radio.  As the trip continued, the number of car corpses rose.

We at GMU are so dedicated they didn't even cancel classes.  And if a nuclear weapon is being launched at DC, I'm simply going down to the basement.

How much should the safety net grow? (and when?)

Lane Kenworthy thinks there is much more to be done.  For instance:

Early education (preschool, child care), beginning at age one, is a very good idea. Not all states have full-day kindergarten; few have preschool for four-year-olds; none have much in the way of public funding of education for kids age one to three.

Paid parental leave is available in only a few states and covers a relatively short period.

Sickness insurance: ditto.

Unemployment insurance covers too few of us.

Unemployment insurance should be supplemented by or folded into a new wage insurance program.

Social assistance benefits have been decreasing steadily over the past generation.

If markets are now structured in such a way as to severely limit real earnings growth for those in the bottom half of the distribution, we may need to massively expand the EITC.

We ought to do more for children, working-age adults, and elderly persons with assorted physical, cognitive, emotional, and social disabilities.

These questions could and should be debated with thousands of pages.  But, in the meantime, may I offer my little squib/splat of doubt?

At what wealth level are these protections supposed to arrive?  Now?  One also wonders which risks are considered to be insurable at the individual and family level, either through insurance proper or through social norms, savings, and other voluntary institutions.  What will be the implicit marginal rate of taxation on earning additional income in this new arrangement?  Has it been estimated?  What will happen to the savings rate?  What coercions will accompany these protections?  What will the pressures be, legal or otherwise, to send your kid away at one year of age?  Will job creation for women go down if there is mandatory paid parental leave?  Probably so. Will women end up better off?  Quite possibly not.  How many people would count as falling under these disabilities?  Is this all to be financed by higher taxes on the rich?  We probably can't even pay for our current bills in that manner.  If it is all done by VAT, how many people would prefer to have the government spend the money for them, as opposed to spending it themselves?  Just asking.  How about just sending the needy people some cash?  What is the likelihood that such benefits will, in the longer run, discourage our willingness to take in immigrants, the most effective form of aid we know?

Another way to ask the question is to look for the low-hanging fruit, when it comes to social welfare.  Let's take Social Security as more or less given, though it will see marginal adjustments.  Are the big gains to be had from some new social welfare program, or from showing that Medicare and Medicaid and other regulated health care institutions can work better than the public health systems of other wealthy nations, without running the United States into insolvency? 

In my view it is the latter, and I don't think that fruit is hanging especially low.  Can we agree on a truce, and first improve the programs we already have?  Will the new programs have the problems of the old?

If I were to pick some other piece of low-hanging fruit, I would cite the still-neglected problem of pandemic preparation.

On the Kenworthy post, here are comments from Matt.

Sentences to ponder

From the comments:

You do not need a Kindle device to read Kindle eBooks. You can download from Amazon and read on your PC, iPhone, Blackberry or iPad.

Another MR reader wrote:

free kindle for PC here:

You also can get an eReader here:,,9781101502242,00.html

And I am told that some foreign editions (including Canada!) will be ready soon.  I will keep you posted.

Matt Yglesias reviews *The Great Stagnation*

Tyler Cowen’s new ebook How The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better is a bravura performance by one of the most interesting thinkers out there. I also think it’s a great innovation in current affairs publishing–much shorter and cheaper than a conventional book in a way that actually leaves you wanting to read more once you finish it. My guess is that this is the future of books.

Here is much more, and again the book is here.  Here is coverage from Arnold Kling, though I think he (like some MR commentators) is spending too much time on impressions and not considering (at all) the numbers presented in chapter one.