Month: May 2016

Immigration and the savings glut

If there truly is a savings glut, more immigration from lesser-skilled countries ought to do wonders.  Those laborers would soak up more of this capital investment as if they are a free lunch.  No domestic worker would have to end up with less capital invested, precisely because of the glut.  And by drawing down the “glutted” stock of savings through conversion into productive investment, the immigrants start to pull the economy out of a liquidity trap.  It seems also that the conversion of capital into immigrant wages should boost consumption, which at times has become the new (and wrong?) stand-in for aggregate demand.

I should stress that I do not find the “savings glut” terminology to be useful.  But if.  Do the advocates of the savings glut argument in fact draw this conclusion?  Isn’t this actually a good form of (indirect) fiscal policy?

Addendum: You’ll notice that if the savings glut is global, you do need lesser-skilled immigrants because they have to come from countries where less capital is invested per worker.  But if the savings glut is better understood as a regional or national phenomenon, immigrant labor from Sweden would do the trick too.

The dominance of the New York City subway

Perhaps the most incredible thing about the New York City Subway has been its utter dominance of the well-publicized national transit ridership increases of the last decade. According to annual data published by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), ridership on the New York City Subway accounts for all of the transit increase since 2005. Between 2005 and 2015, ridership on the New York City Subway increased nearly 1 billion trips. By contrast, all of the transit services in the United States, including the New York City Subway, increased only 800 million over the same period. On services outside the New York City subway, three was a loss of nearly 200 million riders between 2005 and 2015…

That is from Wendell Cox.  And note that use of the NYC system peaked in the late 1940s!

subway

For the pointer I thank the estimable Chug.

Some Good News on Organ Donation

Representative Matt Cartwright (D-PA 17th District) has introduced the Organ Donor Clarification Act. The act would:

  • Clarify that certain reimbursements are not valuable consideration but are reimbursements for expenses a donor incurs
  • Allow government-run pilot programs to test the effect of providing non cash incentives to promote organ donation.  These pilot programs would have to pass ethical board scrutiny, be approved by HHS, distribute organs through the current merit based system, and last no longer than five years.

Importantly the legislation has been endorsed by the American Medical Association and a number of other groups including Fair Allocations in Research Foundation, Transplant Recipients International Organization and WaitList Zero.

See my piece on the organ shortage in Entrepreneurial Economics and previous MR posts for more.

Friday assorted links

1. Museum of the Flat Earth opens in Newfoundland.

2. Interview with Matt Gentzkow.

3. Can a Chinese “straddling bus” carry one thousand people?  And China’s scientific ambitions — scale, scale, scale!  The latter is an important piece, deserving its own post though it is too hard to excerpt and thus it ends up as a link.

4. Can you catch terrorists by using machine learning to analyze faces?

5. “The first rule of Friends of Abe,” members are told at their induction meeting, “is don’t talk about Friends of Abe.”  Link here.

6. Henry on vindictive billionaires (and me).  I worry more about vindictive non-billionaires.  More directly to Henry’s point, I think there is a pretty clear libertarian mode of discourse about excess legal damages.  And while libertarians may not have a good “public choice” solution to that problem, it is hardly the case that the bad outcomes there have been driven by billionaires, quite the contrary.  The net effect of billionaires is to keep down the size of legal awards, for obvious reasons, and that tendency is likely to continue.

7. Profile of Dani Rodrik (pdf).

Neerav Kingsland on the new Robin Hanson book

Here is an excerpt from a longer post, which also includes a summary:

Here are some of the most interesting ideas in the book:

1. Mind speeds: I had not previously spent much time thinking about how our brain’s hardware affects the speed at which we think. As it happens, our minds are spectacularly slow compared to what’s feasible with other materials! Better hardware, as well inequalities of hardware across individuals, will likely drive many parts of em society.

2. Death in the time of copies: An individual’s relationship to death is much different when you can make and store copies of yourself. Given how much of our current lives and societies are wrapped in who dies / how they die / when we die – a world where death is less central has major implications for identity, values, and relationships.

3. Security concerns are paramount: Theft (making copies of you without your permission) thus becomes almost more of an issue than death. As such, laws and cultural taboos will shift with security becoming more central to em value systems.

4. Less democratic: In a short period of a time, a well run non-democratic regime can outperform your average democracy. However, in the modern human world, these regimes often implode on themselves before they can dominate the rest of the world. But in the em world, things will move so fast (economic doubling rates are incredibly fast, every month or two!), that the rewards to short bursts of effective non-democratic regimes may be very high.

5. Religion: I tend not to think of robots as religious, but Robin makes the case that the utility of religion (nicer hard-working people) and the values of the em world (more farmer like) should lead to increased religiosity.

6. Increased utility: The sheer number of ems, coupled with their high mind speeds – as well as the likelihood that there lives will be ok in terms of meaning and happiness – suggests that the transition to an em world will be a positive utility move.

You can order the book here.  Here is my earlier review.

Altruism toward others can hinder cooperation

Altruism toward others can inhibit cooperation by increasing the utility players expect to receive in a noncooperative equilibrium. To test this, we examine agricultural productivity in West African polygynous households. We find cooperation, as evidenced by more efficient production, is greater among co-wives than among husbands and wives. Using a game-theoretic model, we show that this outcome can arise because co-wives are less altruistic toward each other than toward their husbands. We present a variety of robustness checks, which suggest results are not driven by selection into polygyny, greater propensity for cooperation among women, or household heads enforcing others’ cooperative agreements.

That is a new paper by Akresh, Chen, and Moore, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  Here are some ungated versions.

Notes from Changsha, Hunan province

Changsha is the ugliest and most ungainly Chinese city I have seen, which is saying something.  Nonetheless for a food pilgrimage it is a serious rival for #1 spot in the world, perhaps surpassing Chengdu for the quality and novelty of its dishes.  Very little effort is required to do well, and some of my best courses I had at the Hunan restaurant in the Sheraton, also the only time I saw an English-language menu.

Even at major hotels, hardly anyone speaks passable English, much less good English.  But you can find many hanging portraits of Chairman Mao, who converted to communism in this city.

Carry an iPad, so you can look up and communicate the Chinese characters for “eggplant with orange chilies on top.”

There were plans to erect the world’s tallest building, and ground was broken, but the foundations were not extended and they have since been repurposed as a fish farm, hail Friedrich Hayek.

When they set their minds to it, they can build towers at the rate of three stories a day.

Changsha

The marginal value of entering a park here is high, as I stumbled upon card games, group exercise sessions, dance clubs, and performances of traditional music, all at higher rates than in most other Chinese cities I have visited.  At the entrance to one I read on the sign: “Don’t sneeze into the face of others,” and also I was ordered to reject “feudal superstitious practices.”

The people seem…different.  I feel the cab drivers often are on the verge of cackling, except when they are cackling.  Then the verge disappears.  The word “rollicking” frequently comes to mind, which of course is a sign you would not want to be governed by this province.

Kind of like New York.

Thursday assorted links

Environmental lawsuits and the vengeance donors

There are so, so many environmental lawsuits, often brought by non-profits backed by philanthropists.  These institutions, among other things, target polluting corporations and bring lawsuits against them for purposes of constructing a deterrent against yet more pollution.  The Sierra Club and Greenpeace would be two examples, and of course a big chunk of the funds comes from the relatively wealthy.  How is this for one example of many?:

On 7 October, Greenpeace filed a lawsuit in Superior Court for the District of Columbia against Dow Chemical, Sasol North America (owned by the South African State Oil Company), two public relations firms – Dezenhall Resources and Ketchum – and four individuals.

On top of that, it is easy enough to be an anonymous donor to these groups, and to stay anonymous.  That said, I have heard tales — apocryphal perhaps — of donors who gave to environmental causes because they too earlier in their lives had suffered under the adverse effects of pollution.  In back room whispers they are sometimes called “vengeance donors,” and it is suggested that because of the vengeance donors soon enough all companies will go out of business or at the very least be at the mercy of the whims of the wealthy.

Now, to be sure, many of these environmental lawsuits are excessive, or unfair, or would fail both a rights and cost-benefit test and we should condemn them, as indeed you see happening with equal frequency on the Left and on the Right.  Many companies have gone out of business because of environmental lawsuits or the threat thereof, or perhaps the companies never got started in the first place because they couldn’t afford large enough legal departments.  I can safely say that just about everyone sees the problem here.

But we shouldn’t condemn the good lawsuits, right?  Right?  Or is this whole philanthropic lawsuits business simply out of control and needs to be stopped altogether?

And oh, that Greenpeace lawsuit I linked to above?  It actually wasn’t about environmental pollution at all, at least not directly.  It was because Greenpeace felt it was under secretive and privacy-intruding surveillance.  You should have seen my Twitter feed light up when the vengeance donors let on their role in that one.

A life cycle theory of status-seeking, and why do billionaires complain?

One strategy I sometimes recommend to people is that early in their career they live in the place where their industry is headquartered. Bay Area for tech, New York for finance and publishing, LA for movies, Michigan for furniture and cars, Nashville for country music, etc. Soak up everyone’s expertise. Study. Learn. Even if you don’t want to start the next Google, you’ll learn a lot by way of “network intelligence” from physically living in Silicon Valley. But feel free to leave and join a lower-cost-of-living secondary market if and when you begin to feel perpetually not-quite-good-enough. This doesn’t mean moving to the boonies, but to a place where there’s plenty of industry activity but less happiness-hurting status jostling.

Here is more from Ben Casnocha.  Here is an email I wrote to Ben about related themes:

Talk, though, I think is in this case deceiving.

Take non-billionaires.  They (like billionaires) gossip an enormous amount.  Yet it is still ultimately a self-centered activity.  It is a way of processing the self. I am not saying there is *no* concern for other people involved, but talking about other people is very often mainly a way of talking about the self.

Now, if one billionaire says “isn’t XXXX a bigger billionaire than I am?,” I think this is often somewhat similar.  It is still a way of consuming being a billionaire.

It’s a bit like how people enjoy complaining.  When people complain about events on their vacation, that is very often (not always!) their mode of enjoying.

It’s as if being a billionaire isn’t real until you complain about it, and compare yourself to the others.  Think of “manufacturing vividness” as what is going on here, in the ultimate anthropological sense, more than just mere status games.

Hi from Hunan!

I agree that status is addictive, but I do not in general think of it as zero-sum.

Jason Willick on Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and Peter Thiel

Hogan’s lawsuit was not “frivolous”—at least, not in the mind of the judge, who allowed the suit to proceed over Gawker’s many appeals, nor in the minds of members of the jury, who were so disgusted by Gawker’s conduct that they ordered the mischievous media mavens to pay Hogan tens of millions of dollars more than he asked for. And it is not at all clear that Thiel and Hogan did anything to menace to press freedom: As the legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky told the New York Times when the verdict came out: “I think this case establishes a very limited proposition: It is an invasion of privacy to make publicly available a tape of a person having sex without that person’s consent.”

It’s also not clear what policy response Gawker’s outraged defenders would recommend. Put caps on the amount of money people can contribute to legal efforts they sympathize with? That would put the ACLU and any number of advocacy groups out of business. It would also represent a far greater threat to free expression than a court-imposed legal liability for the non-consensual publication of what is essentially revenge porn. If Marshall and others are worried about the superrich harassing critics with genuinely frivolous lawsuits—as, yes, authoritarian characters like Donald Trump have attempted to do—they would have more success backing tort reform measures to limit litigiousness overall than attacking Thiel for contributing to a legitimate cause he has good reason to support.

Here is more.  Here are Thiel’s own words (NYT), here is one bit:

“It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” he said in his first interview since his identity was revealed. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”

Mr. Thiel said that Gawker published articles that were “very painful and paralyzing for people who were targeted.” He said, “I thought it was worth fighting back.”

Mr. Thiel added: “I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category. They usually attack less prominent, far less wealthy people that simply can’t defend themselves. He said that “even someone like Terry Bollea who is a millionaire and famous and a successful person didn’t quite have the resources to do this alone.”

Jinan and Qufu notes

Jinan is the second largest city in Shandong province, and a good place to see “normal China”; it is much more in the “concrete and motorbikes” mode than is Qingdao.

Qufu is the birthplace of Confucius, and a longstanding home of the Chinese nobility and Chinese scholars, with monument-building visits by various emperors.  Reputedly the town is full of fine-featured individuals with very exact patterns of speech.  In any case downtown is pleasant to walk and shop in, and has relatively few environmental problems.

confucius

The tomb of Confucius was my favorite site.  There is a continuity of civilization (if not regime) for over 2500 years, and visiting the tomb drives this point home.  Even the Cultural Revolution did not much damage this area of homage, in part because of loyalty to Confucius, itself a form of Confucian behavior.

Many of the flowers on the tomb were left by the national television station, perhaps as advertising and also signaling loyalty to Confucian ideals.

But that is not China’s oldest heritage, far from it:

This research reveals a 5,000-y-old beer recipe in which broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears, and tubers were fermented together. To our knowledge, our data provide the earliest direct evidence of in situ beer production in China, showing that an advanced beer-brewing technique was established around 5,000 y ago.

One local functionary said to me: “We think Trump will win.  You always surprise us — he is the next surprise.”

Incentives in Action

A nice example of incentives in action from Jason Furman speaking at the World Bank (based on a good GAO report):

tobacco

 

Prior to the [2009] law’s enactment, the tax rates on roll-your-own tobacco and pipe tobacco were the same. After the law’s enactment, the tax rate on roll-your-own tobacco was over $20 per pound higher than the tax on pipe tobacco. And, as you can see in the figure below, sales of roll-your-own tobacco plummeted after the law and sales of pipe tobacco increased by a factor of ten.

Hat tip: Justin Wolfers.