Month: June 2017

Which books have shaped the thinking of Marc F. Bellemare?

Here is his long post, here is the opening entry:


Pranab Bardhan, The Economic Theory of Agrarian Institutions. There was a time when development took theory seriously, and this book came out of that time. This book is a bit uneven (it’s an edited volume), but the introductory chapter by Joseph Stiglitz is probably the single, most important statement peasants in developing countries as rational human beings. In short: Whenever you find yourself thinking that some behavior you observe in a developing country is stupid, think again. People behave the way they do because they are rational. and If you think they are stupid, it’s because you have failed to recognize a fundamental feature of their economic environment.

In addition to its intrinsic interest, this post is a good meta-reflection of what actually influences the thinking of economists, or not.

The superb Michael Hofmann

…the outstanding recent life of Brecht was by Stephen Parker; while in 1991 and 2000 the Cambridge scholar Nicholas Boyle brought out the first two volumes of what will surely be the definitive life of Goethe (1749-1832), at 800 and 950 pages; with luck, Boyle will live to Goethe’s age (82) or beyond, and complete the third and concluding volume. When Boyle tells you in his first paragraph that “the mail from London to Edinburgh took over a week, Moët and Chandon had begun to export the recently invented champagne, and a pineapple cost as much as a horse,” I for one signed up for all two or three thousand pages.

That is from his NYT review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as a Work of Art.  It is so far my favorite review of the year.  Here is another good part:

When the young duke reeled him in, the barely older Goethe performed the duties of a cabinet minister. He built roads. He oversaw mines. He was put in charge of a theater. He shrank the deficit. He was someone at court. He put Weimar on the map. He met Napoleon, he met Beethoven. He corresponded with Wilhelm von Humboldt. He helped Schiller run a literary magazine. He was, Safranski writes, “a remarkable event in German intellectual history” — but “an event without consequences,” as Nietzsche said, sounding more than usual like Oscar Wilde.

There is something almost clownishly omni-competent about Goethe. He was a great beginner who ultimately finished most of the things he began. (“Faust,” which he had on the go for about 60 years, was completed in the last year of his life; Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” look by comparison like something finished the following morning.) He was interested in geology and anatomy, he developed a theory of color, he made watercolors and sketches himself, 3,000 of them. He went looking for something called the Urpflanze — the basic, or original, or prototypical, plant. He acted in his own plays. He wrote poems in many modes effortlessly. They entered the language (German, that is). When he finally grew frustrated with his married friend Charlotte von Stein, he eloped with Italy for a couple of years. He buried his wife; he buried his one surviving son. He buried his best friend, who died at 45. Near the end of his life, he gave perhaps the best description of himself, as “a collective singular consisting of several persons with the same name.” We rarely see or feel the hand in the many glove-puppets.

Here are earlier MR posts on Hofmann, one of the most underrated writers and thinkers today.

Sunday assorted links

1. “It’s almost impossible to gauge recent typewriter sales. Almost all of the original manufacturers are out of business or have been bought out and become different companies. The Moonachie, New Jersey-based Swintec appears to be one of the world’s last typewriter makers, selling translucent electronic machines largely to jails and prisons.” Link here.

2. Alt coins as a way of getting your wealth out of Bitcoins.

3. If you had ten years in your twenties, and a modest guaranteed income for that time, how would you best educate yourself?  I would put more stress on role models and who you get to meet, not to mention romantic partners.

4. Interview with Diane Coyle.

5. Personalized ads in the brick and mortar world (I am surprised it is the Germans behind this story).

India, Modernity, and the Great Divergence

India, Modernity, and the Great Divergence: Mysore and Gujarat (17th to 19th C.) is exactly what the title promises.  This 700 pp. or so book by Kaveh Yazdani, teaching in South Africa, is not published within the traditional network of outlets.  Yet from my perusal of the first 100 pp. or so it seemed quite promising, plus it has excellent endorsements, for instance:

“Yazdani has made a great addition to scholarship on the Great Divergence. His analysis of military, economic, technical, and political advances in Mysore and Gujarat – two of the most commercially advanced areas of 17th and 18th century India – sheds new light on the nature and complexity of the differences between contemporary Indian and European states. No analysis of the Great Divergence will be credible without taking Yazdani’s research, and Indian developments, into account.”
– Jack A. Goldstone, Hazel Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University, Fairfax

Recommended, to some of you, let’s hope it gets a broader circulation.  We do indeed live in a golden age for economic history.

LeBron James as local stimulus

Via Marc Canal Noguer:

Taking My Talents to South Beach (and Back)

Shoag, Daniel, and Stan Veuger. “Taking My Talents to South Beach (and Back).” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP17-019, May 2017.


We study the local economic spillovers generated by LeBron James’ presence on a team in the National Basketball Association. Mr. James, the first overall pick of the 2003 NBA draft, spent the first seven seasons of his career at the Cleveland Cavaliers, and then moved to the Miami Heat in 2010, only to return to Cleveland in 2014. Long considered one of the NBA’s superstars, he has received the league’s MVP award four times, won three NBA championships, and been a part of two victorious US teams at the Olympics. We trace the impact a star of Mr. James’ caliber can have on economic activity by analyzing the impact his departures and arrivals had on business activity close to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat stadiums. We find that Mr. James has a statistically and economically significant positive effect on both the number of restaurants and other eating and drinking establishments near the stadium where he is based, and on aggregate employment at those establishments. Specifically, his presence increases the number of such establishments within one mile of the stadium by about 13%, and employment by about 23.5%. These effects are very local, in that they decay rapidly as one moves farther from the stadium.



Link to the page

The innovative culture that is China

CHJ Automotive have not released official images yet of the car, but showed CNBC some of the initial designs of the ultra-compact vehicle. The car is 2.5 meters long and 1 meter wide. It runs on two batteries which are swappable, meaning that the car won’t need to stop for too long at a charging station to re-juice. Google’s in-car operating system called Android Auto is equipped in the vehicle

It will be priced at between 7,000 euros ($7,824) and 8,000 euros.

While it may seem like a small vehicle, Shen explained the target market the company is after in China.

“In China, there are 340 million people (who) daily commute with e-scooters, but there is a strong demand for them to upgrade to something,” Shen told CNBC in a TV interview on Friday.

“But we cannot imagine all of them driving cars, so we want to give them something else, which is an ultra-compact car.”

The product might be used for ride-sharing in Europe as well.  Here is the article, forgive the noisy music at the link, via Ray Kwong.

Andrea Matranga on seasonality and the origins of agriculture

He has a new paper on that topic, here is the abstract:

During the Neolithic Revolution, seven populations independently invented agriculture. In this paper, I argue that this innovation was a response to a large increase in climatic seasonality. Hunter-gatherers in the most affected regions became sedentary in order to store food and smooth their consumption. I present a model capturing the key incentives for adopting agriculture, and I test the resulting predictions against a global panel dataset of climate conditions and Neolithic adoption dates. I find that invention and adoption were both systematically more likely in places with higher seasonality. The findings of this paper imply that seasonality patterns 10,000 years ago were amongst the major determinants of the present day global distribution of crop productivities, ethnic groups, cultural traditions, and political institutions.

The pointer is from Jesus Alfaro.  And via Kevin Lewis, here is an interesting paper “Geography, Transparency, and Institutions,” by Mayshar, Moav, and Neeman:

We propose a theory in which geographic attributes explain cross-regional institutional differences in (1) the scale of the state, (2) the distribution of power within state hierarchy, and (3) property rights to land. In this theory, geography and technology affect the transparency of farming, and transparency, in turn, affects the elite’s ability to appropriate revenue from the farming sector, thus affecting institutions. We apply the theory to explain differences between the institutions of ancient Egypt, southern Mesopotamia, and northern Mesopotamia, and also discuss its relevance to modern phenomena.

All of a sudden we are seeing ongoing advances, admittedly connected to speculative hypotheses, in our understanding of this era.

Digital to Biological Printer

In Nature Biotechnology Gibson, Venter et al. describe a biologic printer that can take instructions from the web and without human intervention “print” a variety of biologics:

…DNA templates, RNA molecules, proteins and viral particles were produced in an automated fashion from digitally transmitted DNA sequences without human intervention.

Motherboard has a good writeup:

“If you had [a DBC] hooked up to your desktop computer, we could email you insulin or a vaccine, and the device would produce it for you ready-to-go,” Venter said. “If you think about all the protein-based drugs that are out there… If you can get those by email instead of getting them from the pharmacy, is conceptually going to be a very different world.”

And what is the ultimate goal?

Right now, it prints proteins. In the far future, it could print human babies on Mars.

Hat tip: Martin Laurence.

Amazon is buying Whole Foods

Matt Yglesias: “A big city daily newspaper, physical bookstores, a supermarket chain. Bezos’ futuristic vision is all coming together.”

Alex T. tweeted: “I already do 80% of my shopping at Amazon and Whole Foods. I am beginning to get worried.”

Ross Douthat: “What if Bezos intends to turn Whole Foods into a Mormon-style charitable storehouse …”

Me: “Perhaps preserving my favorite brands of Whole Foods dark chocolate is Jeff Bezos’s plan for short-run public charity.”

@JesalTV: Jeff Bezos: “Alexa, buy me something from Whole Foods.” Alexa: “Sure, Jeff. Buying Whole Foods now.” Jeff Bezos: “WHA- ahh go ahead.”

Here is an earlier Conor Sen piece on Amazon acquisition strategy.

And Stratechery on Amazon.

And above all else: “Dow opens down 10 points. Amazon jumps 3% after deal to buy Whole Foods. Walmart slumps 7%, Kroger plunges 16%”

Here are more retail share price declines.

How to think about charity: my response for Jeff Bezos

I was sent an email asking what I myself thought of the recent Jeff Bezos charity query, and that email contained a number of questions.  I’m not at liberty to reproduce it, but with some minor edits I think you will be able to make sense of my responses, as given here:

  1. Since the marginal value of extra consumption by him (or even far less wealthy people) is essentially zero, there are many “good enough” charitable ventures.
  2. The rate of abandonment is high for charitable support.
  3. Often the key is for a super-productive person, with lots of stimulating opportunities at his or her disposal (if only running the status quo businesses, or say meeting other famous people), is to find something charitable that will hold his or her interest.  But how can it possibly be as fun as the earlier successes and extending them?
  4. I disagree with your descriptions of the philanthropic strategies offered in your email.  I suspect that most or all are attempted examples of my #3, namely what is actually short-run thinking.
  5. They are all super short-term strategies, once the attention constraint is measured.
  6. In this regard, there is nothing strange about Bezos’s plea and expressed desire to do some good in the short term, except its transparency.
  7. Perhaps earlier philanthropists, such as Carnegie, had many fewer opportunities for fun, if only because their times were so primitive and backward. That made it easier for them to keep up enthusiasm for truly long-term projects.
  8. I still think the real opportunities are for *true* long-run thinking, admittedly subject to the constraint that it keeps one’s short-term interest up.
  9. Cultivating one’s own weirdness, or having a lot of it in the first place, is one way to ease the congruence I mention in #8.
  10. Even truly smart and wise people often “give to people” rather than to projects.  This is for one thing a strategy for keeping one’s own interest up.

So to tie this all back in to Jeff Bezos, I don’t know what he should do.  I don’t know him personally, nor do I even have an especially strong knowledge of the second-hand sources about him.

But I think he is exactly on the right track to be thinking about what motivates him personally, and what is likely to hold his attention.  And I don’t think his approach is any more “short term” than most of the other philanthropy of the super-rich.

The culture that is Boston or the culture that is China/ Or both?

Boston-based DNA sequencing company is offering to decode the complete genomes of newborns in China, leading some to ask how much parents should know about their children’s genes at birth.

Veritas Genetics says the test, ordered by a doctor, will report back on 950 serious early- and later-life disease risks, 200 genes connected to drug reactions, and more than 100 physical traits a child is likely to have.

Called myBabyGenome, the service costs $1,500 and could help identify serious hidden problems in newborns, the company says.

But some doctors say the plan is a huge overstep. “I think it’s vastly premature to peddle a completely unproven set of data, especially to a vulnerable population like neonates,” says Jim Evans, a professor of genetics at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

The problem is that the risk posed by many disease genes remains uncertain. Even if a child has a mutation in a gene, he or she may never be affected, prompting debate among doctors about whether it’s useful to inform parents.

The Veritas test also steps into uncharted territory by making predictions about how children will look and act: how wide their nose will be, whether they will overeat or have a “novelty seeking” personality, and even whether they are likely to go bald decades in the future.

Evans is sharply critical of any effort to predict traits. Especially with psychology, he says, genetic factors aren’t well understood. “You run the risk of predestination based on bad science,” he says. “Frankly, I think it’s a little bit crazy to do genetic tests on your newborn to find out if 40 years from now they are going to be bald.”

Here is the full story, it has further interesting points.

Jeff Bezos tweets a request for charitable ideas

Here is the tweet link, here is the text:

This tweet is a request for ideas.  I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working for the long term.  For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now.  As one example, I’m very inspired and moved by the work done at Mary’s Place here in Seattle.  I like long-term — it’s a huge lever: Blue Origin, Amazon, Washington Post — all of these are contributing to society and civilization in their own ways.  But I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now — short-term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.  If you have ideas, just reply to this tweet with the idea (and if you think this approach is wrong, would love to hear that too).



After I see what you all come up with, and after I edit out the most brilliant ideas, I’ll tweet back your responses to him.  I’ll come up with something of my own as well.