Month: January 2017

Sunday assorted links

1. Why is California so closely connected with melancholy?  Here is a smart, critical review of La La Land, but I think it misses the point: the movie is a critique and indeed subtle reflection of what is (supposedly) an all-pervasive mediocrity of contemporary life and art.  Setting the opening musical number in a traffic jam plays up the contrast with the older, “more glorious” musicals quite deliberately.  At the same time, the movie questions whether the past was ever so glorious after all.

2. Librarians report on what is the strangest thing they have found in a library book.

3. Might Peter Thiel run for governor of California?

4. An Arkansas city won’t let them live in a $1500 trailer, minimum legal value there is $7500.

5. Trump, Strauss, and Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People.”  And would you leave Parliament to run the V&A?

Seasteading Deal with French Polynesia

The Seasteading Institute has signed an MOU with French Polynesia.

[French Polynesian and the Seasteading Institute will].. pool their efforts for the implementation of a pilot project
for floating islands in French Polynesia. The development of this project involves various studies addressing the technical and legal feasibility of the project in French Polynesia as well as the preparation of the special governing framework allowing the creation of the Floating Island Project located in an innovative special economic zone…..

Seasteading1

The Floating Island Project will develop innovative and sustainable floating platforms. It will promote the development of new technologies in the terrestrial Anchor Zone and in the Floating Islands Zone. The Floating Island Project will respect the environmental standards defined by French Polynesia. It will use renewable energies. It will welcome the development of innovative technologies for the protection of the environment. It will not be interested in any land or ocean mineral resource. The platforms aim to attract direct and indirect investments in French Polynesia and host numerous businesses and research projects. The project will allow international experts to collaborate in French Polynesia to develop platforms capable of minimizing the effects of rising sea levels. It will have to have a favorable and significant impact on the local economy with the establishment of a special economic zone that will facilitate the creation and management of companies.

The focus of the project is on building new communities to deal with rising sea levels but will also include a special governing framework to allow for greater experimentation with the rules of social organization. The technology, of course, my also scale.

Peter Thiel was an early backer of the Seasteading idea, although he is no longer involved. More than one of his unlikely bets has paid off recently.

Here are previous MR posts on Seasteading from both Tyler and myself.

What I’ve been reading

1. Ousmane Oumar Kane, Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa.  This excellent book clarified many aspects of West African and also Nigerian history for me, most of all how it connects to the earlier North African civilizations.

2. Sheelah Kolhatkar, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street.  I cannot vouch for the contents and allegations, which focus on Steven A. Cohen and his hedge fund career, but this is a highly engaging and better researched than usual look at the legal case against him.

3. Mark R. Patterson, Google, Yelp, LIBOR, and the Control of Information.  Data fraud, data fraud, data fraud, welcome to 2016 yes you should be reading more books on this topic.

4. Kevin Vallier, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation, “…public reason liberalism, properly understood, realizes foundational liberal values while according religion a prominent and powerful role in public life.  I claim that, in theory and practice, public reason liberalism is far friendlier to religion in public life than both its proponents and opponents believe.”  There is a Straussian reading of this book too.

5. Aurelian Craiutu, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes.  A much-needed perspective these days, from a very thoughtful scholar.

6. Gary Taubes, The Case Against Sugar.  My intuitions agree with this argument, plus jelly donuts don’t taste that good anyway.

Those old (ZMP) service sector jobs

Austrian hermit edition:

An Austrian town is looking to employ someone to live in a hermitage that has no heating nor running water in what appears to be one of the worst jobs in the world.

Saalfelden in the state of Salzburg is looking for a candidate to move into a 350-year-old building, that is built into a cliff-face, to meet and greet Christian pilgrims who frequent the site’s chapel for prayer and self reflection.

Local resident Alois Moser and Saalfelden’s mayor Erich Rohrmoser, will select the new hermit and have told a radio station the traits they are looking for in their new employee.

Moser told state broadcaster ORF that they want ‘a self-sufficient person who is at peace with their self, and willing to talk to people, but not to impose’.

He also said the successful candidate should have a Christian outlook and be ready to greet visiting pilgrims and locals who make their way up the steep cliff face to the house.

The chosen candidate will be selected more on the basis of personality than training and professional experience but will need to be prepared to live without a computer and television, job specifications say.

The parish have stressed the position, which runs from April to November each year, is unpaid despite the sacrifices one would have to make when accepting the post.

Although it appears to be an unattractive proposition the role was has been widely coveted in the past.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

A chat with Nobel Laureate Oliver Hart

I especially enjoyed the part about his interior decorating, this segment was fun too:

Hart’s appetite for complex contract negotiations has also served him well at home. He and his wife embarked on a major renovation of their house several years ago, adding new rooms to the ground floor and expanding the kitchen and backyard. Though he admits that his wife spearheaded the design, which included an open kitchen and new sitting room just off the main entrance, Hart says he negotiated the contract with the builders. “You learn right away that nothing will be completed when they say it will,” he adds with a wry smile. “So there are lessons that even I can learn.”

Here is the full FT story.  Here is The Economist covering Rita Goldberg’s second-generation Holocaust memoir; she is Hart’s wife.

Tenure traps and how to avoid them

A philosophically-minded MR reader writes to me:

Tenure ought to be an occasion to explore radically new intellectual paths, ones not pre-approved by one’s field and ones that could, perhaps, do something to bridge the chasm between academic and non-academic intellectual life–and yet as a matter of fact what seems to happen is that people either stop working altogether or continue barreling down the groove they wore themselves into to get tenure.  (You mentioned this issue in a post last year: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2016/06/does-tenure-encourage-risk-taking.html)  But I want to hear more.

So: why does this happen, how can we prevent it at the University/ departmental level, and, most of all, how can we prevent it at the personal level?  (Keeping in mind that most of us are not cognitively capable of processing information at the speed to go your route!)   The idea that we are incentivized to keep working by the prospect of being promoted to full Professor seems silly, given the increased administrative responsibilities.

Related problem: as one moves up the tenure hierarchy, the administrative responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on fewer and fewer people,  b/c there are lots of deadbeats. I repeatedly see the few responsible people overwhelmed with administrative tasks which they refuse to delegate to those they know will not take them seriously.  (And I observe these responsible people are disproportionately women, even in a field–like mine–that is disproportionately male.)

I have a few suggestions, all feasible but only a few are practical:

1. All schools should copy the committee obligations policy of the school, within their quality tier, that has the fewest committee assignments for faculty.  Yes this can be done.

2. I don’t know how to operationalize this one, but on average give women half the committee assignments that men have.  That still won’t equalize the total work burden (women on average work harder per committee assignment), but it is a start.

3. Study your lecture preparation, and experiment with cutting parts of it out.  See if that matters.

4. Each year take at least one trip to a place you didn’t think you wanted to visit.

5. Go to some Liberty Fund conferences.

6. Refuse to have colleague lunches based around local politics, politics, small talk, sports (unless of the analytic variety), and campus gossip.  Just don’t do it.  Also avoid lunches with too many people attending.

7. Of the five or so smartest people you hang out with (family aside), try to ensure that no more than half of them are in your department.

8. Change the ratio of foreign-to-domestic TV shows you watch, in favor of the foreign.

9. Hang at least one piece of non-cheery art on your wall that will remind yourself of an ever-pending death.  Change its angle every now and then, or better yet change the picture, so you don’t get too used to it and stop noticing it altogether.  If need be, supplement this with Brahms’s German Requiem.

10. Write a periodic blog post, if only a secret and non-published one.  If you don’t find this process is going well, ask yourself what is wrong.

11. Worry if no one thinks you are crazy.  Supplement this with actually being crazy.

12. What else?

Saturday assorted links

1. How is the Nigerian anti-corruption campaign going?

2. This four-year-old girl knows how to read books fast and with superior comprehension.

3. Bernie Madoff dominates the hot chocolate market in prison.

4. What happens when algorithms design a concert hall?

5. David Brooks on markets in health care (NYT).

6. “As superlow rates reduce loan revenue, a Japanese lender branches out into farming, pinball, broadcasting, rice cultivation and blueberry jam; ‘If you’re going to go to the bank, it should be fun’”, WSJ link here.  And Basil Halperin on market monetarism.

7. “The ‘Krispy Kreme Familia’ and the black market doughnuts of Juarez.”

The Duke summer History of Economic Thought Institute

Bruce Caldwell emails me:

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer from June 4 – 16, 2017. The program is designed for students in graduate programs in economics, though students in graduate school in other fields as well as newly minted PhD’s will also be considered. Students will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive free housing and reading materials. The deadline for applying is March 3. Travel stipends for those coming from afar will be considered on a case by case basis.

We are very excited about this year’s two week program, which has a somewhat different format from other years. The first week Bruce Caldwell will be the sole lecturer, and will present a mini-history of economic thought class, providing both content and tips on how to set up such a course. The second week is thematic. Steve Medema will present a history of the concept of market failure, and Kevin Hoover will present a history of macroeconomics. Applicants may sigh up for either week, or both. More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website, http://hope.econ.duke.edu/

Friday assorted links

1. Do lenders of last resort really make financial systems that much safer?  And the bullfighting economist and Federal Reserve governor.

2. Disney negotiating with Carrie Fisher’s estate for more Princess Leia.

3. Seoul opens a bookstore with no employees and no prices.

4. “Virginia man spends $1,000 to deliver 300,000 pennies to Lebanon DMV.”  (The penny, and wheelbarrow, as rent-seeking behavior…):

Still, Stafford had one final act planned. After collecting the hundreds of rolls of pennies he needed, he hired 11 people to help him break open the paper rolls with hammers Tuesday night. It took four hours and he paid each person $10 per hour, costing him $440.

Stafford also purchased five wheelbarrows to deliver the pennies. The wheelbarrows cost $400, and he wasn’t going to dump the coins on the DMV’s floor, so he left the wheelbarrows there, bringing his expenses to $840.

He also paid $165 for the three lawsuits, which means he spent $1,005 to get 10 phone numbers and the satisfaction of delivering 300,000 pennies.

Via Annie Lowrey.

5. Maybe the AIIB is better after all:

William Faulkner’s novels in particular stuck with Mr. Jin, now the president of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a major force in the country’s rush to secure a leading role in the world’s financial architecture. An underlined copy of “Absalom, Absalom!” is on his office bookshelves, along with Shakespeare and the Bible. He said he found inspiration in Faulkner’s complex human relationships.

NYT link here.

Ransomware Goes Big Time

Washington Post: The cyberattack struck Los Angeles Valley College late last month, disrupting email, voice mail and computer systems at the public community college in Southern California. Then, school officials found a ransom note.

The missive advised the college that its electronic files had been encrypted and that the files could only be unlocked with a “private key.” The attackers would supply the key after receiving payment in the valuable digital currency known as bitcoin, which can be used anonymously without a centralized bank.

“You have just 7 days to send us the BitCoin after 7 days we will remove your private keys and it’s impossible to recover your files,” the attackers warned, according to a copy of the note obtained by The Washington Post.

Leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District decided to pay the ransom.

The college paid $28,000 and the files were restored.

ArsTechnica: According to the FBI, ransomware payouts in the United States jumped from $25 million in all of 2015 to over $209 million in just the first quarter of 2016.

Clearly, this is just the beginning.

Would you rather be ruled by the people or the experts?

In my latest Bloomberg column I consider William F. Buckley’s old conundrum:

William F. Buckley famously said he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University.

Here is part of my take:

For better or worse, direct rule by Buckley’s 2,000 American citizens probably would mean a slower pace of immigration, less emphasis on free trade, more law and order politics, and a blunter form of nationalism in foreign policy.

Those don’t match my policy preferences (I am more of a globalist, and also a professional academic), but I fear what the Harvard faculty could bring. I can imagine an America closer to Bernie Sanders’s vision, with single-payer health insurance, levels of taxation exceeding 50 percent of GDP, levels of immigration unsustainable with a large welfare state, too many aggressive attempts to legislate equal treatment for various groups, excessive fondness for a universal basic income, and too many humanitarian interventions abroad.

Don’t forget:

It’s a good rule of governance that policy cannot race too far ahead of the citizenry, and I don’t view faculty as a class of people well-suited for that kind of humility.

But for the Fed and the EPA, among other areas, I very much want Harvard.  My conclusion is this:

The real issue here isn’t intellectuals versus populism writ large. There is a time and place for populist sentiment, but an excess can be counterproductive on its own terms. As expertise is pushed out the door, the citizenry itself gets a bad name, precisely when we most need it to step up to the plate and demand some excellence.

Do read the whole thing.

I should note that on this topic I have been very much influenced by my colleague David Levy and also his work with Sandra J. Peart, see for instance their newly arrived book Escape from Democracy: The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy.

Scott Sumner has some questions on the border tax adjustment

Martin Feldstein had a recent piece in the WSJ that defended the idea of a border tax adjustment, which would be a part of the proposed corporate tax reform. He points out that if imports were no longer deductible, and exports received a subsidy, then the border adjustment would not distort trade. Rather the effect would be exactly offset by a 25% appreciation of the dollar. I certainly understand that this would be true of a perfect across-the-board border tax system. But is that what we will have?

1. Will the subsidy apply to service exports? (Recall that services are a huge strength of the US trade sector.) Let’s take Disney World, which makes lots of money exporting services to European, Canadian, Asian and Latin American tourists visiting Orlando. Exactly how will Disney determine the amount of export subsidy it gets? Do they ask each tourist what country they are from, every time they buy a Coke? That seems far fetched—what am I missing? If Disney doesn’t get the export subsidy, then the 25% dollar appreciation would hammer them, and indeed the entire US service export sector.

2. What about all those corporate earnings that are supposed to be repatriated? (And future earnings as well.) If the dollar appreciates by 25%, then doesn’t this hurt multinationals? Or am I missing something?

Update: It just occurred to me that corporate cash stuffed overseas is probably held in dollars. But future overseas earnings may still be in local currency.

Keep in mind that the prediction of 25% dollar appreciation is from the supporters of the plan, like Martin Feldstein. If you did this sort of adjustment without any dollar appreciation, the impact would be devastating on companies like Walmart. Given the Fed’s 2% inflation target, how could they pass along a (effective) 25% tariff on almost everything they sell?

There are other points of value at the link.  I agree with Scott’s most general claim that the case for this tax has not yet been made.

Is it boring to have too little corruption?

A few years ago I wrote this about Bolivia:

It is much debated in Bolivia whether corruption is going up or down.  I believe it is going up, but partially for good reasons.  For instance the construction sector is doing well, and construction tends to be corrupt in many countries, for reasons intrinsic to the activity itself (e.g., lots of big contracts, easy to claim invisible expenses, etc.).  That means higher corruption but also a better corruption than the penny ante bribes of a shrinking economy.

I still think that is correct, and at the time it didn’t meet up with mass moral opprobrium, even though with some very very small chance I may have condemned the citizenry of Bolivia to corrupt, exploitative rule for ever and ever.  I should add that such points are standard fare in the literature, see for instance the book on corruption by Susan Rose-Ackerman.

Now, these days, with more American status relationships on the line, everyone is up in arms because Peter Thiel had the following exchange with Maureen Dowd:

When I remark that President Obama had eight years without any ethical shadiness, Mr. Thiel flips it, noting: “But there’s a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring.”

As I interpret Peter, he is not saying it would have been good to have an exogenous increase in the corruption of Obama the individual.  Rather, had some other conditions been different/better, the overall level of corruption in government would have been higher and that combination might very well have been a net plus.  If you would like a “left wing example,” had the fiscal stimulus been twice as large, corruption in government probably would have been higher too (pointing out “the stimulus wasn’t very corrupt” is missing the point and in fact is a sign that you are a rampant mood affiliator, determined to restore the mood you feel is just, rather than tracing the analytic point at hand).  In other words, Peter’s point is entirely defensible and probably correct.  He’s not saying that “corruption is good.”

Now, to be sure, there is another dimension here.  The incoming Trump administration is showing too many signs of being corrupt, and many people are condemning it on these grounds.  Peter’s remark does not fit into that narrative and Peter has been a significant Trump supporter.  But let’s think about this a little more.   First, is there a role for some outsiders who eschew the dominant moral choruses of approbation and condemnation, in favor of making other, different points?  I certainly hope so, because often I try to be one of them (though unlike Peter I have not supported Trump).  Second, Peter is not an outsider in this process, rather he has taken on an important position on the Trump transition team.  Given that reality, you can’t expect him to produce a quotation here condemning Trump.  So he instead makes some other (valid) outsider-like point about corruption.  Now, you might object to Peter’s role on the transition team, but that is old news at this point.  You shouldn’t be holding any extra grudge against him for his corruption answer.  And above all, keep in mind these are reporter-chosen excerpts from a four-hour dinner/interview, and so we don’t know the surrounding context and qualifications and possibly accompanying off the record statements.

People, you need to pick your targets.  Get upset about the things worth getting upset about, such as the absence of a sustained foreign policy plan to head off imminent volatility in global relations.

The culture that is Swiss not Dutch

How many of you have been expecting that heading?  Of course it involves cows:

A Dutch woman has seen her request for Swiss citizenship refused for the second time by local residents who object to her media campaigning against cowbells and other Swiss traditions.

Nancy Holten, 42, was born in the Netherlands but grew up in Switzerland from the age of eight, speaks fluent Swiss German and has children with Swiss citizenship.

A vegan and supporter of animal rights, she gained a reputation in her community of Gipf-Oberfrick, in the canton of Aargau, after campaigning against cowbells, claiming they were damaging to cows’ health.

She has also objected to hunting and piglet racing, and complained about the noise of church bells in the village, campaigns that have seen her regularly interviewed in the Swiss press over the past few years.

Last November, Holten had her citizenship application turned down for the second time by the residents’ committee.  That’s despite her meeting all legal requirements and the municipal and cantonal authorities having no formal objection.

In Switzerland local residents often have a say in citizenship applications, which are decided primarily by the cantons and communes where the applicant lives, rather than federal authorities.

In Holten’s case it seems her campaigning has not won her many friends in the village, with the president of the local branch of the Swiss People’s Party, Tanja Suter, telling the media that Holten has a “big mouth”.

The commune did not want to give Holten the “present” of Swiss citizenship “if she annoys us and doesn’t respect our traditions”, said Suter.

Is this not what politics should be about, namely the relationship between man and nature?  Here is Gipf-Oberfrick, the community in question:

swiss

Here is the full story, with a variety of interesting points and examples at the link, via Ted Gioia and Dan Wang.