Month: August 2015

The ghost in the machine

I visited two wonderful churches in Barcelona. The first, of course, was La Sagrada Familia. Ramez Naam put it best, this is “the kind of church that Elves from the 22nd Century would build.” I can’t add to that, however, so let me turn to the second church.

The Chapel Torre Girona at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona is home to the MareNostrum, not the world’s fastest but certainly the world’s most beautiful supercomputer.


Although off the usual tourist path, it’s possible to get a tour if you arrange in advance. As you walk around the nave, the hum of the supercomputer mixes with Gregorian chants. What is this computer thinking you wonder? Appropriately enough the MareNostrum is thinking about the secrets of life and the universe.

In this picture, I managed to capture within the cooling apparatus a saintly apparition from a stained glass window.

The ghost in the machine.


Hat tip: Atlas Obscura.

Will marriages for economic reasons become more or less common?

At the top of the income scale, perhaps they will become more common.  The more markets take on a superstar structure, with high returns at the very top, the more important it is to have an effective team of two.  That can mean hiring a good “coach,” or support spouse, rather than another high earner.

On the other hand, if you are earning the subsistence wage no matter what, you might as well marry the person you want.

*The Almost Nearly Perfect People*

The author is Michael Booth and the subtitle is Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia; please note the book is (at times) as much tribute as critique.  I found it interesting and informative throughout, here a few passages:

Right now, the Danes are especially preoccupied with role playing — dressing up like Gandalf or elves and acting out violent narratives deep in the woods with their foam “boffers” (the name given to role-play weapons).  There are also 219 folk dancing clubs in Denmark, but do not worry, as with the pigs, you very rarely see them.

Here is a not funny to outsider satiric video about the Danish language, cited by the book, which refers to its “declining intelligibility.”  The video has about five million views.

On Finland:

You have got to love a country that enters Lordi into the Eurovision Song Contest and wins, which consumes more ice cream per capita than any other European country (14 litres a year), and has more tango dancers than Argentina.

I enjoyed this fragment of a sentence:

The Finns’ obmutescence seemed especially to go hand in hand with that other most famous Finnish characteristic…

On economic issues, the author thinks Denmark in particular is overextended and in denial about the need for reform.  Overall I found the Danish sections to be the most interesting and detailed, the chapters on Sweden to be the least deep, and the Iceland and Finland sections to have the most new information.

Recommended, it is fun plus you will learn something.  Imagine “Bill Bryson goes to Scandinavia,” as The Christian Science Monitor put it.

New York City fact of the day

New York, for example, is by some measurements the most unequal of American major cities: Gotham’s 1 percent earns a third of the entire city’s personal income—almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country.

I am sometimes amused by the large number of people who profess to both hate income inequality and love New York City.

That is from Joel Kotkin, most of the piece is a look at what Jane Jacobs got wrong about cities.

Thursday assorted links

1. Sauna in the sky, and other photos.

2. John Cochrane on the regulatory state (pdf).

3. Black Silent Majority.  Pre-order the book here, I just did.

4. Product Hunt on Average is Over.

5. European wild boar wash their food: “pigs can discriminate between soiled and unsoiled foods and that they are able to delay gratification for long enough to transport and wash the items.”

6. Sent to jail for fighting a war against lie detectors.

Chinese merchants and the inroads of globalization

China Star is situated next to the Ibn al-Khattab Mosque, and not long before the first call sounded for sunset prayer a sheikh arrived at the shop. He was tall and fat, with strong, dark features, and he wore a brilliant blue galabiya, a carefully wrapped turban, and a pair of heavy silk scarves. He was followed by two large women in niqabs. The sheikh planted himself at the entrance of the shop while the women searched purposefully through the racks and the rows of mannequins. Periodically, one of them would hold up an item, and the sheikh would register his opinion with a wave of his hand.

…The two women in niqabs quickly found two items that the sheikh approved of: matching sets of thongs and skimpy, transparent nightgowns, one in red and the other in blue.

An excellent piece from Peter Hessler in the New Yorker that begins with a teaser on how the Chinese pioneered the market for lingerie in Egypt and just expands from there. Lots of lessons on development economics, foreign policy and more.

Hat tip: David Zetland.

Stanford is the top producer of Nobel Laureates in this century

And that is by a clear margin.  Columbia is number two.  Harvard is number eleven.  UCSB > MIT.  None for Oxford.

The list is here, excluding literature and peace prizes.

As for countries, the United States is a very clear number one and the UK is number two.  Other than Japan, Asia barely has any at all.

The pointer is from Michelle Dawson.  Here is my previous post on Stanford.

Regulation, imperfect competition, and the U.S. abortion market

There is a newly published paper by Andrew Beauchamp:

The U.S. abortion market has grown increasingly concentrated recently, while many states tightened abortion laws. Using data on abortion providers, I estimate an equilibrium model of demand, price competition, entry and exit, to capture the effect of regulation on industry dynamics. Estimates show regulations played an important role in determining the abortion market structure and evolution. Counterfactual simulations reveal increases in demand-aimed regulation were the most important observed factor in explaining recent abortion declines. Simulating Utah’s regulatory regime nationally shows tightening abortion restrictions can increase abortions in equilibrium, mainly through tilting the competitive landscape toward low-price providers.

There are ungated versions here, and for the pointer I thank the excellent K.

Has the SNP done a good job with Scotland? (Scotland facts of the day)

Maybe not:

How does Scotland use the relative flexibility afforded by its fiscal settlement? In 2013/14 it spent about 6.5 per cent more on health per person than the UK average, down from 16.5 per cent in 1998/1999. While allowing the extra amount it spends on health—and on education—to fall, the Scottish government has dramatically increased spending in other areas. For example, Scotland spends more than twice as much per person on “enterprise and economic development” and agriculture than the UK average, three-quarters more per person on transport and approximately one-half more on “recreation, culture and religion.”

One might expect the Scottish government to reduce the extra amount it spends on core public services if Scotland’s health service, education system and police force were noticeably better than those in England. But there is little evidence that this is the case.

That is from John McDermott’s lengthy critique of SNP, there is much more at the link, an excellent piece.  There is this part too:

In PISA, the influential international education tests, “Scotland’s performance was significantly worse in 2012 than it had been in 2000,” noted Keir Bloomer, an education expert and one of the authors of the country’s curriculum. The previous government shares responsibility for these results, but it was the SNP who withdrew Scotland from two other important cross-country tests: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS). Bloomer added: “It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Scotland has chosen to make itself less accountable by ceasing to take part in the surveys in which it tended to do less well.”

Bloomer also says that contrary to the SNP’s claims, the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils has widened. Referring to PISA results, Bloomer said that reading and maths scores declined by more among poorer pupils, and the only reason equity increased in science results is because those of richer students fell further than those of poor pupils. Referring to Scottish data, Bloomer added that “there is no evidence that the gap has narrowed.”

This kind of critical analytic reporting, backed by economic reasoning and data, should be more common.

Hat tip goes to the essential Gideon Rachmann.

From the comments, on Greek imports

Greece’s economy is almost a dream example of the point [that imports matter for exports]. Look at their exports (in a handy visual form from Wikipedia):

Their largest export is refined petroleum/oil, at 9.4% of the total. Greece isn’t making that oil, it’s importing it, refining it, and sending it along. They’re also major exporters of aluminum products, which I understand to be a ‘byproduct’ of their relatively large sources of energy, but they import the bauxite. I also can’t see how the packaged medicament industry in Greece doesn’t require imports of capital for everything from industrial fermenters to ovens, etc., but I’d suspect that most of that is pretty durable and so more imports won’t be needed for a while (though capital controls make would paradoxically make it almost impossible for a successful company to add capacity). Greece also exports a lot of agricultural products, but imports the farm machinery needed to make modern agriculture work.

Greece could print new drachmas until the cows came home and these industries would be unable to expand without new import to capital.

That is from TimH.

Balkans fact of the day

Which three economies in Europe have the lowest employment to population ratio, circa 2013?

Greece, Croatia, and Serbia comes in last.

That is from the World Bank and ultimately Eurostat, see p.5 (pdf).

You will note of course that Croatia and Serbia have their own floating rate currencies.  In Serbia the measured unemployment rate is about nineteen percent and a few years ago was above twenty-five percent.

While I do usually favor floating currencies, there are limits to what they can accomplish when other policies are bad.  If you are wondering, the rate of inflation in Serbia has been falling from an average of about seven percent to about two percent.  Wages in the country are often sticky and public sector jobs on average pay higher than private sector jobs (see the first link).  Exports and productivity are weak.

By the way, here is my earlier post which covers unemployment in Jamaica.