Month: May 2015

Who here mourns the destruction of the Serapeum?

After the pagan fighters left their stronghold, a crowd of  Christian Alexandrians and soldiers swarmed the hill.  One of them took an axe and with all his strength struck the jaw of the monumental statue of Serapis…The crowd then hacked the rest of the statue into pieces and dragged the fragments off to each of the city’s regions to be burned.

…The destruction of the Serapeum [A.D. 392] was a momentous event, second perhaps only to the Gothic sack of Rome in 410 for the amount of attention it received from contemporary sources.

That is from the new and excellent book The Final Pagan Generation, by Edward J. Watts.  Watts tries to reconstruct the worldviews and impressions of the pagans who witnessed the onset of Roman state-sanctioned Christianity; an underlying theme of the work is how weak a sense we have of what is truly significant in our time, or not.  I often find Roman histories to be difficult to parse, but this one is a model of lucidity.

Here is Wikipedia on that temple and its destruction.  Here is another discussion.

Serapeum

 

Which students repay their student loans?

Fans of Game of Thrones know that “a Lannister always pays his debts.” So too do nearly all alumni from Notre Dame, Vassar, Harvey Mudd, and Brigham Young, at least when it comes to federal student loans.

There is more here, from Brookings, via Matthew C. Klein.  Ahem…and for whatever reason, students from St. Johns do well too…

Deaths in police custody, research results

The limited data available do not suggest a recent overall increase in the number of homicides by police or the racial composition of those killed, despite the high-profile cases and controversies of 2014-2015, according to a New York Times analysis. But a January 2015 report published in the Harvard Public Health Review, “Trends in U.S. Deaths due to Legal Intervention among Black and White men, Age 15-34 Years, by County Income Level: 1960-2010,” suggests persistent differences in risks for violent encounters with police: “The rate ratio for black vs. white men for death due to legal intervention always exceeded 2.5 (median: 4.5) and ranged from 2.6 (95% confidence interval [CI] 2.1, 3.1) in 2001 to 10.1 (95% CI 8.7, 11.7) in 1969, with the relative and absolute excess evident in all county income quintiles.”

And this:

For the most recent period where statistics are available (2003-2009), the BJS found that 4,813 persons “died during or shortly after law enforcement personnel attempted to arrest or restrain them… About 60% of arrest-related deaths (2,931) were classified as homicides by law enforcement personnel.” However, among these 2,931 homicides by law enforcement personnel, 75.3% were reported to have taken place in response to a violent offense — constituting a force-on-force situation, such as an intervention with an ongoing assault, robbery or murder: “Arrests for alleged violent crimes were involved in three of every four reported homicides by law enforcement personnel.” Still, 7.9% took place in the context of a public-order offense, 2.7% involved a drug offense, and among 9.2% of all homicides by police no specific context was reported.

There is much more of interest at the Harvard Kennedy School link.

Pritchett’s Postulates and Urbanization

After promoting women’s groups in West Bengal as a route to development a West Bengali woman asked Lant Pritchett:

You all are from countries that are much richer and doing much better than our country so your country’s women’s self-help groups must also be much better, tell us how women’s self-help groups work in your country.

Pritchett’s inability to answer the question led him to what I call Pritchett’s postulates of development, four criteria to decide whether factor X is an important determinant of development.

  1. More developed countries must have more X than less developed countries.
  2. The developed countries must have more X than when they were less developed.
  3. Recent development successes must have more X than development failures.
  4. Countries that are developing rapidly must have more rapid growth of X than those that are developing slowly.

Since more developed countries don’t have noticeably more women’s self-help groups, this idea fails Pritchett’s postulates. Indeed, so do many fashionable development ideas being tested by RCTs which is one reason why Pritchett’s postulates are controversial in the development community.

Paul Romer, however, (whose important blog post led me to Pritchett’s postulates) has a different approach. Instead of dismissing ideas that fail the Pritchett postulates let’s look for ideas that pass them.

Romer provides evidence that urbanization passes all of Pritchett’s postulates. I think he is correct and that suggests that policies to increase the rate of urbanization could have a very big payoff for development.

We are used to thinking about urbanization as a consequence of development but it is surely also a cause. Consider, for example, the micro evidence. It’s not that rich people move to cities, it’s poor people who move to cities to become rich. We also know that cities are engines of innovation.

We can have too much urbanization or too much in one place as when we get a bloated capital city. Nevertheless, it seems that we could speed the rate of urbanization by reducing the cost of urban development – both the obvious costs like improving land allocation in say India but also improving sanitation and air quality in order to lower the health costs of urbanization. Similarly, well planned, efficient, even beautiful cities increase the benefits of urbanization. Urbanization policy in general becomes growth policy.

How else can we increase the rate of urbanization in developing countries?

The predecessors of Bitcoin and what we can learn from them

There is a new paper on this topic, by Thomas Kim:

To examine whether the recent price patterns and transaction costs of Bitcoin represent a general characteristic of decentralized virtual currencies, we analyze virtual currencies in online games that have been voluntarily managed by individuals since 1990s. We find that matured game currencies have price stability similar to that of small size equities or gold, and their transaction costs are sometimes lower than real currencies. Assuming that virtual currencies with a longer history can provide an estimate for Bitcoin’s prospects, we project that Bitcoin will be less influenced by speculative trades and become a low cost alternative to real currencies.

I remain more skeptical, as I do not see where the significant, non-speculative demand for Bitcoin comes from, outside a game setting.  Imagine a future where the Chinese have removed capital controls and the private clearing houses preempt and take on a version of real time clearing, based on a (partially) publicly available ledger.  Can that be more than five years away?  Maybe less?

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The ongoing rise of temping

From The Economist:

The ever larger “staffing industry” may be having a similar effect. It is important across a much wider swathe of the economy than is often realised; having started out in the 1960s supplying office temps, today temping companies like Kelly Services, Adecco and Randstad mainly supply light manufacturing and industrial workers. In 2013 Kelly Services was America’s second-largest private-sector employer, after Walmart, with 750,000 staff. America’s 2.9m temps account for 2% of its jobs.

Temping is flourishing across the G7. In Japan, once the land of the shûshin koyô, or job for life, transient employment is ever more common; in 2014 Recruit, the country’s largest temp agency, listed for $19 billion on the Tokyo stock exchange. In Britain everything from the Olympics on down comes with temporary security guards supplied by G4S and temporary caterers provided by Compass, the country’s largest and third-largest private employers, respectively.

The industry provides flexibility for both workers and firms, and its ability to match workers on its databases to jobs may be very helpful: the 2010 Nobel prize was awarded for work showing how better job search and matching could lower unemployment. But labour aggregators that compete for business on the basis of helping lower clients’ staff costs have an incentive to keep pay low. In 2014 a report by Rebecca Smith and Claire McKenna of the National Employment Law Project, an American lobby group, claims that staffing agencies cut temps’ bargaining power.

The feature story is of interest more generally, much of it on when real wages will start to rise again by significant amounts.

Monday assorted links

1. Master branding has limits.

2. Robbing banks by request.

3. Brad DeLong defends Obamacare.

4. Ice cream truck plays Arnold Schoenberg.

5. What questions did people have in 1690?

6. The global labor glut.

7. Justin Wolfers on the new Chetty and Hendren study, which as far as I can tell sides with Steve Sailer on what is the biggest problem with poverty, namely that you usually end up living near other poor people.

How disruptive will the Tesla battery be?

Ramez Naam has an opinion, backed up by some reasonable estimates:

For most of the US, this battery isn’t quite cheap enough. But it’s in the right ballpark. And that means a lot. Net Metering plans in the US are filling up. California’s may be full by the end of 2016 or 2017, modulo additional legal changes. That would severely impact the economics of solar. But another factor of 2 price reduction in storage would make it cheap enough that, as Net Metering plans fill up or are reduced around the country, the battery would allow solar owners to save power for the evening or night-time hours in a cost effective way.

That is also a policy tool in debates with utilities. If they see Net Metering reductions as a tool to slow rooftop solar, they’ll be forced to confront the fact that solar owners with cheap batteries are less dependent on Net Metering.

That same factor of 2 price reduction would also make batteries effective for day-night electricity cost arbitrage, wherein customers fill up the battery with cheap grid power at night, and use stored battery power instead of the grid during the day. In California, where there’s a 19 cent gap between middle of the night power and peak-of-day power, those economics look very attractive.

And the cost of batteries is plunging fast. Tesla will get that 2x price reduction within 3-5 years, if not faster.

Read the whole thing, and note the discussion of India too.

Jon Stewart Wrong on Education in Baltimore

“If we are spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, we can’t, you know, put a little taste Baltimore’s way. It’s crazy.”

–Jon Stewart, “The Daily Show,” April 28, 2015

The Fact Checker column at the Washington Post rightly awards Jon Stewart four Pinocchios for this howler. It’s not close to being true and even as hyperbole it lends support to the common misperception that foreign aid is a large percentage of the Federal budget.

Let’s forget the off-the-cuff comparison to Afghanistan, however, and focus on a more relevant comparison. Is it true, as Stewart suggests, that Baltimore schools are underfunded relative to other American schools? The National Center for Education Statistics reports the following data on Baltimore City Public Schools and Fairfax County Public Schools, the latter considered among the best school districts in the entire country:

school data2

Baltimore schools spend 27% more than Fairfax County schools per student and a majority of the money comes not from the city but from the state and federal government. Thus, when it comes to education spending, Baltimore has not been ignored but is a recipient of significant federal and state aid.

Do people underestimate how much they will enjoy doing things alone?

Roberto Ferdman reports:

Ratner has a new study titled ‘Inhibited from Bowling Alone,’ a nod to Robert Putnam’s book about Americans’ waning participation in group activities, that’s set to publish in the Journal of Consumer Research in August. In it, she and co-writer Rebecca Hamilton, a professor marketing at the McDonough School of Business, describe their findings: that people consistently underestimate how much they will enjoy seeing a show, going to a museum, visiting a theater, or eating at a restaurant alone. That miscalculation, she argues, is only becoming more problematic, because people are working more, marrying later, and, ultimately, finding themselves with smaller chunks of free time.

Might part of the problem be narcissism?:

“The reason is we think we won’t have fun because we’re worried about what other people will think,” said Ratner. “We end up staying at home instead of going out to do stuff because we’re afraid others will think they’re a loser.”

But other people, as it turns out, actually aren’t thinking about us quite as judgmentally or intensely as we tend to anticipate. Not nearly, in fact. There’s a long line of research that shows how consistently and regularly we overestimate others’ interest in our affairs.

There is more here.  For the pointer I thank Claire Morgan.

Sunday assorted links

Will the Black Panthers make a comeback?

In my spare time I was reading some Huey Newton, and it struck me how contemporary his ideas were in some regards, in particular the risk of arbitrary violence at the hands of the police.  Here is an excerpt from Revolutionary Suicide:

As our forces built up, we doubled the patrols, then tripled them; we began to patrol everywhere — Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, and San Francisco.  Most patrols were a part of our  normal movement around the community.  We kept them random, however, so that the police could not set a network to anticipate us.  They never knew when or where we were going to show up…The chief purpose of the patrols was to teach the community security against the police, and we did not need a regular schedule for that.  We knew that no particular area could be totally defended; only the community could effectively defend and eventually liberate itself.  Our aim simply was to teach them how to go about it.  We passed out our literature and ten-point program to the citizens who gathered, discussed community defense, and educated them about their rights concerning weapons.

By the way, Hillary Clinton worked as a young intern for the Huey Newton legal defense team (he was accused of shooting a policeman).