Month: January 2018

Is effective solar power further away than we had thought?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The first disquieting sign is that solar companies are spending only about 1 percent of their revenue on research and development, well below average for a potentially major industry. You might think that’s because things are going so great, but some major solar users may have already maxed out their technology. According to Sivaram’s estimates, four of the five most significant country users — Italy, Greece, Germany and Spain — have already seen solar energy flatten out in the range of 5 percent to 10 percent of total energy use. The fifth country, Japan, is only at 5 percent.

And:

A common view is that solar power will come into its own once batteries and other storage technologies make steady improvements. Yet Sivaram notes that lithium-ion batteries in particular are not well-designed for storage across days, weeks and months. Also note that about 95 percent of global energy storage capacity is from hydroelectric power, a discouraging sign for the notion that solar energy storage is on a satisfactory track.

And:

Solar energy has great potential for emerging economies, but some very basic preconditions are not in place. India, for instance, would need to end its kerosene and electricity subsidies. Freer trade in solar technologies is found in Tanzania and Rwanda but not always in West Africa.

My column draws heavily on Varun Sivaram’s forthcoming Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet, Amazon link here.  This book is full of useful information, a pleasure to read, and more generally a model for how to write about science, technology, and policy.  It will definitely make my 2018 “best books of the year” list.

*The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life*

The authors are Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, and now it is out!

Robin reports:

On press coverage, back in July Publishers Weekly had a paragraph on it, the Boston Globe did an interview of me back then that they just released, Vice interviewed me recently so I expect that out soon, and I’m told that a Wall Street Journal review is forthcoming. Amazon now has 5 reviews, Goodreads has 7, and 2 reviews have appeared on blogs.

I am pleased to be doing a Conversation with Robin about the book, and other matters too.  But don’t forget — conversations aren’t about talking!

Tuesday assorted links

What explains the formation and decay of clusters of creativity?

Michel Serafinelli and Guido Tabellini have a new paper on that question, here is the abstract:

Creativity is often highly concentrated in time and space, and across different domains. What explains the formation and decay of clusters of creativity? In this paper we match data on thousands of notable individuals born in Europe between the XIth and the XIXth century with historical data on city institutions and population. After documenting several stylized facts, we show that the formation of creative clusters is not preceded by increases in city size. Instead, the emergence of city institutions protecting economic and political freedoms facilitates the attraction and production of creative talent.

Recommended.

Click even more sentences to ponder

Facebook announced that it will no longer use “Disputed Flags” — red flags next to fake news articles — to identify fake news for users. Instead it will use related articles to give people more context about a story.

Why it’s happening: The tech giant is doing this in response to academic research it conducted that shows the flags don’t work, and they often have the reverse effect of making people want to click even more.

That is from Noah Berger at Axios.

Should You Accept a Coffee at a Meeting or Interview?

A person on Quora asks Should you accept an offer of either tea or coffee in a serious meeting or a job interview?. Most say yes. I say no. Here’s my answer:

As an encyclopedia salesperson, (yes—a long time ago), I was taught that you should decline an offer of coffee. Here’s why. Suppose you spend 20 minutes talking with someone about encyclopedias. At the end of your pitch, you have given them your time and wisdom and people feel a need to reciprocate—they feel a little bit guilty that if they don’t buy, your time was wasted—so the need to reciprocate inclines them towards buying. But, if they have given you coffee, then there was an exchange, a quid pro quo, your time for their coffee, and since an exchange was made and your time wasn’t wasted they feel less need to buy.

Why I write for Bloomberg View

A while ago I promised you my take on Bloomberg View [BV], and why I decided to work for them.  They don’t know I am doing this post, I don’t in any official or even unofficial way speak for Bloomberg View or for the broader company, and I hope they don’t get mad at me for attempting this brief capsule treatment.  And it is fine if you wish to dismiss this as biased pleading, because it is.

One of the most striking features of BV, from my personal point of view, is how many of the writers I was actively reading and following before they started with BV.  For instance:

1. A few years ago I tracked down Adam Minter for a Sichuan lunch in Shanghai, to talk with him about recycling, China, the metals trade and used goods, and his general take on things.  Adam is one of the very best writers for mastering small, apparently obscure details, based on years of personal travel and research, and then showing how they reflect broader and more important truths.  Adam later started writing for Bloomberg.

2. Megan McArdle and I have had periodic lunches and chats since I first met her in 2004 (?), when I was presenting an early version of Stubborn Attachments to Victor Niederhoffer’s Junto seminar in New York City.  She was one of the very first economics bloggers, along with John Irons and Brad DeLong.  The next time I see her we will again debate when and whether the world is going to end, and whether Panda Gourmet really does have the best cold noodles in Washington, D.C. (yes).

3. I met up with Christopher Balding for a lunch in Hong Kong, as he came over from Shenzhen.  I was a fan of his China blog and research, and lo and behold Christopher ended up writing for Bloomberg.  Here are his New Year’s resolutions.

4. Cass Sunstein is one of the polymaths of our time, and the #1 cited legal scholar, not to mention a Star Wars fan, and I interviewed him for Conversations with Tyler.  I don’t have to tell you where he writes now, or that his favorite musician is Bob Dylan.

5. I’ve had periodic email contact with Stephen R. Carter, of Yale Law School, as the two of us share many common interests and reading habits.  He’s now with Bloomberg View.

6. Virginia Postrel is a “dynamist” thinker of major significance, and I’ve been following her work for more than twenty years.  I hope she does more with the topic of textiles.  Here is a 2014 video she and I did together (mostly her) on the topic of glamour.

7. A few years ago, Noah Smith and I decided to get together at the AEA meetings, most of all to talk about Japan (Noah is fluent in Japanese and lived there for a good while).  He was then still a professor before he made the decision to work for Bloomberg full-time.  Last year, I took a long Uber ride to meet Noah for Thai food in Berkeley.

8. Conor Sen started blogging, and I thought: “This guy is awesome and has unique perspectives rooted in finance and housing and demographics and Atlanta.”  Soon enough, Bloomberg hired him.  Conor deservedly made this list of the year’s most interesting people.

8. I was a fan of Stephen Mihm’s work on history and economic history, before he started with BV.

9. And now we have Ramesh Ponnuru and Michael Strain, two of the very best market-oriented, right of center yet also eclectic columnists.

I don’t mean to neglect all the other people who write for Bloomberg View, as this list is determined by whom I knew before there was any Bloomberg connection.  As for some of the others, Leonid Bershidsky is an amazing polymath, the “every column is full of information” Noah Feldman has a new and wonderful book on James Madison, there is Joe Nocera and Justin Fox and Barry Ritholz, and I am trying to schedule a Conversation with the great Matt Levine, who always knows more than you think he does, even after taking this clause into account.  When I met Matt I simply uttered: “Matt Levine, only you can do what you do!”  Is any other greeting required?

One day I woke up and realized these people write for Bloomberg View, or that people like them were going to, and then it occurred to me that maybe I should too.  And there are still Bloomberg View writers I haven’t really discovered yet.  (By the way, one reason all these people are so good is because of the consistently excellent editors.)

What is the common element behind all of these writers?  I would say that Bloomberg View tends to hire reading-loving, eclectic polymaths, with both academic knowledge and real world experience, and whose views cannot always be predicted from their other, previous writings.

Over the last year, I think I would nominate Ross Douthat as The Best Columnist.  But overall I think Bloomberg View has assembled the most talented and diverse group of opinion contributors out there, bar none.

On top of all that, BV is perhaps the least gated major opinion website.

In addition to the writing, I also very much enjoy working for a great company.  Not all media outlets can offer that.

Anyway, forgive the biased rant, that is my take for today!  They also serve nice snacks and have an amazing art collection in the NYC building.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

New Year’s first Monday assorted links

1. Is education more important for economic growth than we had thought?  Without an educated population, intangible capital could not have anything like its current role.

2. How well did China do this last year?

3. Update to the Splinter and Auten paper on income inequality.  There are other tax papers at that link too.

4. An expanded take on why everything took so long.

5. It’s now five pounds a month to subscribe to the on-line (London) Times.  I believe that price is for outside the UK only.

6. Corporate Social Responsibility can induce the employees of the company to act less morally, as a kind of offset.

Google Street View is collecting data on your cars

And here is what it tells us:

In the most recent paper, and one published earlier in the year by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, these were among the predictive correlations:

■ The system was able to accurately predict income, race, education and voting patterns at the ZIP code and precinct level in cities across the country.

■ Car attributes (including miles-per-gallon ratings) found that the greenest city in America is Burlington, Vt., while Casper, Wyo., has the largest per-capita carbon footprint.

■ Chicago is the city with the highest level of income segregation, with large clusters of expensive and cheap cars in different neighborhoods; Jacksonville, Fla., is the least segregated by income.

■ New York is the city with the most expensive cars. El Paso has the highest percentage of Hummers. San Francisco has the highest percentage of foreign cars.

That is from Steve Lohr at the NYT, and here is a link to the earlier research as cited in the first sentence.

Why don’t cities grow without limit?

In other words, why don’t they put everything into Atlanta or Los Angeles?  Paul Krugman has a good blog post on that topic, here is one of his points:

…once upon a time dispersed agriculture ensured that small cities serving rural hinterlands would survive. But for generations we have lived in an economy in which smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out.

Krugman suggests that eventually many smaller cities will indeed fade away, although the process of equilibration may be a long and slow one.  All of his points are well-founded, nonetheless I can see a few factors favoring the continuing existence of small cities on a greater scale than many might be expecting:

1. As Alex points out on Twitter, rents are permanently lower, and many people don’t value big city amenities very much.

2. Congestion is likely to be lower.  Why should the larger city have worse traffic if it has proportionately more roads?  That may require a blog post of its own, but part of the problem is geographic specialization within the larger city, which is not simply some number of smaller cities placed side by side.  In other words, sometimes you have to drive all the way across town.  Many people don’t like geographic specialization, but wish to find most everything in a small downtown or Walmart (or on Amazon).   From this point you can see that Amazon may favor larger cities more than small towns.  If it bugs you that in a large city all the shopping of a particular kind is on the other side of town, just order those goods on-line and stay within your cozy neighborhood.

3. Governance may become worse in a very large city.  Furthermore, separate and specialized lobbies, as would correspond to geographically specialized parts of a large city, may be a bad influence.  Here is a paper on the public choice of mega-city governance.

4. Very large, rich, and famous cities tend to become financial centers, or perhaps movie-making centers, and that is not in the interest of all city residents.  Some of this is a matter of rents, in other regards a matter of culture and ethos.  Anonymity also increases with size, as does (I think) sexual promiscuity.  Smaller locales will have more faux conformism and more real conformism too, which some people prefer.  People not wanting to live amongst all the specialization of major cities really is a significant and enduring factor in these comparisons.

5. If you are building a firm for eventual export success, you will prefer to put that firm in a larger city to begin with (“built to scale”).  That in turn tends to price out companies and people with less interest in exporting.  The larger city will become all that much more globally oriented, which not everyone will wish to pay for or even wish to have at zero price.

6. If I were offered an extra 50% of total salary (nominal, to make this comparison in real terms across all goods and services eliminates the very difference in locales) to move from Fairfax to Washington, D.C. (15-20 miles away), I would decline the offer.

7. The very fact that smaller cities are used to consume non-pecuniary amenities suggests their inhabitants are more diversified than it may appear at first.  The shift of gdp into services further enhances this diversification, and the new crop of semi-small cities may be more resilient than the older lot dependent on manufacturing.

8. A significant and enduring trend is the move into warmer and sunnier climates.  So while Rochester and Flint decline, Chattanooga and Birmingham are on the rise.  I predict the more time you spend in the South, the more optimistic you will be about small and mid-size cities.

9. Here is a good Duranton and Puga piece on the costs and benefits of city size.  Here is a short McKinsey piece on complexity as a limit on size.  Here is a discussion of city size in Civilization VI.