Month: March 2017

Wednesday assorted links

1. James Tooley’s stay in Indian prison, described.

2. Facebook Live session with me, all sorts of questions.

3. Guy Who Got a C on Constitutional-Amendment Paper GETS CONSTITUTION AMENDED.

4. Ross Douthat on Jane Austen (NYT).

5. “Now, Paddy Power is hiring a “head of Trump betting” to oversee bets related to the American president and his administration.” (NYT)

6. Pseudoerasmus lists wonderful papers related to economic history.

My exchange with Noah Smith about American complacency

Here is one of Noah’s bits:

Smith: OK. I wanted to press you on a couple more things. First, you discuss how productivity growth has slowed down, but you also mention that people might be slacking off a lot more at work. Don’t those two contradict each other? If people are producing the same amount as before in half the time and spending the other half of their day surfing the net, doesn’t that mean true productivity has risen rapidly?

Second, you discuss how matching leads to complacency — how the Internet allows us to find jobs, mates, and consumption goods that are perfectly suited to us, and how this can make us lazy and over-satisfied. But you also talk about how people, especially working-class people, are getting stuck in high-unemployment places. Isn’t better matching part of the solution to the mobility problem?

Here is the whole exchange.

My very short take on where the world is today

Written for the 40th (!) anniversary of the Cato Institute, here is the clinching summary paragraph:

So we’re going to see a kind of intellectual war, and possibly war in other, more violent forms too. That war, using that word in the broadest sense possible, will be between today’s amazing accumulated stock of human capital — and the emotional momentum behind authoritarianism, which is encouraged by the political fraying that stems from underlying fears of disruption.

The piece has other points of interest.

Planet earth spider fact of the day

Their conclusion was that there are 25m tonnes of spiders around the world and that, collectively, these arachnids consume between 400m and 800m tonnes of animal prey every year. This puts spiders in the same predatory league as humans as a species, and whales as a group. Each of these consumes, on an annual basis, in the region of 400m tonnes of other animals.

Somewhere between 400m and 500m tonnes is also the total mass of human beings now alive on Earth.

Here is the Economist article.

Has American federalism moved from underrated to overrated?

Probably so, so says my latest Bloomberg column.  One problem is that interstate mobility as a competitive check has declined, but there are other problems too.  Here is one excerpt:

One unfortunate side effect of today’s political polarization is that voters are more likely select state and local candidates on the basis of whether those individuals profess the same ideology — as defined at the national level — as the voter. In other words, if you think the federal government spends too much on transfer programs, you are more likely to vote for the Republican in your state, whether or not your state spends too much on transfer programs. The incentive for candidates is then to stake out relatively extreme and easily observed positions, to attract the most commonly held ideology in each state. The news media, by devoting most of its coverage to the most highly visible national candidates and issues, makes this problem worse.

One study found that when it comes to votes for the state legislature, the most important factor was the popularity of the sitting president and the president’s party. How well the state’s economy was doing was relatively unimportant. Again, that hardly creates strong incentives for good practical performance. Many state and local issues are more about competence than ideology, including road maintenance, running the prison system and helping to fund K-12 education.

Do read the whole thing.

LBRY Saves 20,000 Courses from the ADA

Walter Olson at Overlawyered reports:

Those free online course materials may be gone from the University of California, Berkeley, courtesy of a U.S. Deparment of Justice interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related statutes, but they’re not gone from the Internet: “20,000 Worldclass University Lectures Made Illegal, So We Irrevocably Mirrored Them” [LBRY] Won’t that infringe on a lot of copyrights? The site claims not: “The vast majority of the lectures are licensed under a Creative Commons license that allows attributed, non-commercial redistribution.” Earlier coverage here, here, here, and here.

As someone put it, it looks as if the internet recognizes ADA litigation as damage and routes around it.

Jeremy Kauffman at LBRY gives some more detail:

The LBRY protocol provides a completely decentralized network for discovering, distributing, and publishing all types of content and information, from books to movies.

When publishing the lectures to LBRY, the content metadata is written to a public blockchain, making it permanently public and robust to interference. Then, the content data itself is hosted via a peer-to-peer data network that offers economic incentives to ensure the data remains viable. This is superior to centralized or manual hosting, which is vulnerable to technical failure or other forms of attrition.

I wrote about online education and the ADA in Egalitarianism versus Online Education and I’m an adviser to LBRY so I’d like to say that this was my idea but I was not involved!

Did Chinese import competition lower American innovativeness?

The central finding of our regression analysis is that firms whose industries were exposed to a greater surge of Chinese import competition from 1991 to 2007 experienced a significant decline in their patent output. A one standard deviation larger increase in import penetration decreased a firm’s patent output by 15 percentage points. Using data from the 1975 to 1991 period and a regression setup that accounts for the diverging secular innovation trends in computers and chemical, we confirm that firms in China-exposed industries did not already have a weaker patent growth prior to the arrival of the competing imports.

…The innovation activity of US firms did not merely shift from the US to other countries. We estimate similar negative effects of import competition on patents by US firms’ domestic employees and by their foreign employees. Instead, our results are most consistent with the notion that the rapid and large increase in competition squeezed firms’ profitability and forced them to downsize along many margins, including innovation. Consistent with that interpretation, we find that the adverse impact of import competition on patent output was concentrated in firms that were already initially more indebted and less profitable.

That is from David Autor, David Dorn, Gordon Hanson, Gary P. Pisano, Pian Shu, with much more at the link.

Making public goods excludable again

One of Beijing’s busiest public toilets is fighting the scourge of toilet paper theft through the use technology – giving out loo roll only to patrons who use a face scanner.

The automated facial recognition dispenser comes as a response to elderly residents removing large amounts of toilet paper for use at home.

Now, those in need of paper must stand in front of a high-definition camera for three seconds, after removing hats and glasses, before a 60cm ration is released.

Those who come too often will be denied, and everyone must wait nine minutes before they can use the machine again.

But there have already been reports of software malfunctions, forcing users to wait over a minute in some cases, a difficult situation for those in desperate need of a toilet.

The camera and its software have also raised privacy concerns, with some users on social media uneasy about a record of their bathroom use.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

Monday assorted links

1. American football average is over.

2. This Sunday Times profile of me has a nice Straussian opener, the significance of which becomes clear only with the end close.  Possibly gated for some of you.

3. Ross Douthat praises Singapore (NYT).  I would add that hospitals in Singapore actually compete against each other, even though many of them are state-owned.

4. Science fiction recommendations from Henry.

5. Mega-meta classical music recordings list.

6. “We find that the growth in polarization in recent years is largest for the demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media.

7. Again, I do Facebook Live tonight at 7 p.m.

The US Civil War, Globalization and the City of Bombay

The structure of Bombay is intimately tied to the history of the United States in ways that illustrate the long arc of globalization. At the heart of Bombay, around the Oval Maidan, on which cricket games are often played, one can see many of Bombay’s iconic Victorian buildings including the University of mumbai-high-court-and-rajabai-clock-tower-mumbai-indiaBombay, the Bombay High Court and the Rajabai clock tower. These buildings and many others were begun in the late 1850s and 1860s during the Bombay boom; a boom brought about by America’s Civil War.

The U.S. South began the civil war by embargoing cotton exports and burning 2.5 million bales of cotton in order to create a shortage and bend the world to its will. The embargo didn’t lead to Britain’s support, however, and by the time the South realized it had shot itself in the foot the North imposed its own blockade. Cotton prices skyrocketed–between 1860 and 1863-1864 prices rose by a factor of four on average and at times by a factor of 10. As cotton exports from the United States fell, exports from Persia, Egypt and especially India boomed. As Sven Beckert put it:

The bombardment of Fort Sumter…announced that India’s hour had come.

In India farm land was switched over to cotton, railroads and telegraphs were built uniting cotton producing areas in Bihar with cotton’s chief trading center and port, Bombay. Production and exports boomed. Vast fortunes were made from the cotton trade and the speculation it engendered; fortunes that were plowed into universities, libraries and many of the great buildings that mark Mumbai today. In fact, the Back Bay Reclamation project began at this time so some of the very ground that Mumbai sits upon has its roots in the American Civil War.

Influences flowing in the reverse direction were at least as strong. The decline in cotton exports from the South created mass unemployment in Great Britain and it was not out of the question that Britain would side with the South. Beckert quotes the investment bank Baring Brothers:

In the spring of 1862, Baring Brothers Liverpool expressed their view that war between the United States and Great Britain was less likely “provided we get a large import from India.”

Fortunately, increased Indian cotton production alleviated the “Cotton famine” and reduced the South’s bargaining power. Thus, “Indian cultivators and merchants played a small role in contributing to Northern victory in the Civil War.”

General Robert Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the Bombay boom. As news of Lee’s surrender spread, market prices crashed and speculative fortunes were lost. The railways and the telegraphs, however, now linked India to the world. And at the heart of Bombay, the universities, the libraries and the civic institutions endured making Bombay, Urbs Prima in Indis.

What should I ask Jill Lepore?

I will be doing a Conversation with Tyler with her, podcast only no public event.  She is one of the best known historians, teaching at Harvard, the author of numerous books, and also writing a column for The New Yorker.  Much of her work is on 18th century America, though since then she has become an Americanist more broadly.  Perhaps her most popular book is on the history and origins of the Wonder Woman character.  Here is Wikipedia on Jill Lepore.

So what should I ask her?

Great Britain fact of the day

…the [English] census of 1851 for the first time registered a majority as living in urban areas…the rest of the world remained overwhelmingly rural, perhaps one-tenth of humanity living in towns.  The exceptionalism persisted throughout the century.  In 1890, 61.9 percent of the population of England and Wales dwelled in towns with at least 10,000 inhabitants, while the figure for the country second on the list, Belgium, was 34.5 percent, France staying at 25 percent, China at 4.4 percent.; by 1900, the metropolitan region of Manchester — including satellites such as Bolton, Oldham and Stockport — contained the largest concentration of human population on the planet.

That is from the at times quite interesting Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, by Andreas Malm.  It is most interesting on steam power and the history of energy, not the treatment of current environmental debates.