Month: February 2018

*Can it Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America*

It will be out soon, you should buy it.  I’ve only read my own essay in the book, but that one is very good and also original, I haven’t made the argument elsewhere.  Presumably the other essays are better yet, as they feature Jon Elster, Timur Kuran, Samantha Power, Duncan Watts, Noah Feldman, and other luminaries.

Wednesday assorted links

1. “A transcriber on the Isle of Man can decipher almost anything.

2. Why don’t skateboards get any cheaper?

3. Is the Cold War game of provocative street-naming coming back?

4. Can Washington be automated?

5. The Obama portraits are in fact excellent.  Here is praise from the NYT.  Quite good is Vinson Cunningham at The New Yorker.  Mood affiliation here prevents the correct outcome, which is that Obama skeptics should be more sympathetically inclined to the portraits, which (correctly or not) raise the possibility that his was in large part a presidency of hagiography.

6. The superb Scott Sumner on cinema in 2017.

My Conversation with Matt Levine

Here is the transcript and audio, Matt was in great form.  We covered Uber, derivatives, crypto, Horace, Latin and the ancient world, neighborhoods of New York City, whether markets are volatile enough, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whether IPOs are mispriced, Nabokov and modernist literature, Achilles and Homer, and of course the Matt Levine production function (“panic”).

Here is one excerpt:

LEVINE:

…What I’d like the story to be is that financial markets have gotten smarter and they reacted less to news. So even though the news is noisier, they react less to that noisy news because it turns out not to affect asset prices in as noisy a way as you’d think by watching TV.

I think that there is something compelling to that because we actually have seen smart people build smart things that do a good job of making investing decisions. So you’d expect over time, as people build more rational investing tools, investing would become more rational.

The good counterargument to that is that investing is not a technological problem in the world that can be solved. It’s an interpersonal fight. Trading, in particular, is an attempt to be better than someone else. You can never make trading more rational because as you get better, someone else gets better. The residue will ultimately still be your human biases.

I’m biased towards the view that we have gotten smarter at decoupling our emotional reactions to the news from financial asset prices. Part of that is — whether or not that’s true globally — there’s a local sense in which the first day of Trump’s election everyone panicked. Then he said another crazy thing, and then he said another. Eventually you tune it out. That’s a form of this thing of financial assets reacting less to human reactions to the news.

Here is another:

COWEN: Do you have a single biggest worry [about asset markets], however tiny, tiny, tiny it may be?

LEVINE: I don’t think I do. I don’t think I do. The thing that I find weirdest is the lack of volatility in the face of a very strange and volatile world, but I’ve reconciled myself to that. This is my efficient markets optimism, where I assume that if something bad is happening, it would happen.

COWEN: But efficient markets is also a pessimism, right? It’s harder to make the world better than it already is because you can’t see past what others are seeing very easily.

LEVINE: Sure, it’s an efficient markets conservatism or something.

And finally:

LEVINE: I have an idiosyncratic take on Book 9 of the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles is the great warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War. He gets mad at some slight, and he goes back to his tent to sulk, and the Greeks start losing.

So then they send emissaries to his tent to say, “Please come back.” And he says, “No.” Then, the Greeks start losing some more.

Eventually, he comes back, and he gets killed. That’s basically the story of the Iliad. Book 9 is where they send the emissaries to say, “Please come back,” and he says, “No.”

He gives this speech, this response that is weird, where he says, effectively, “The prophecy is that if I go back to fight here, I will die here. My name will be immortal. If I don’t go back to fight, I’ll go home and live a long life and will be forgotten.” He chooses to go back and be forgotten. Then, later, he changes his mind because his friend gets killed.

I think the existential examination of this Greek warrior and this heroic culture that clearly valorizes heroism and deathless fame and everything, and who is, canonically, the most famous heroic warrior and the one with the most deathless fame, he’s the one who says, “Nah, I’d rather go back and live a long life on my farm.”

The forcing of that choice is the central point of the highest work of Greek art, sort of prefigures a lot of existentialist thought in the future, I think.

Do read and listen to the whole thing

Why the center-left became immoderate

Lack of ideology and belief in nothing in particular (except perhaps more redistribution):

In polarized times, political competition comes to resemble tribal warfare. Everyone is under pressure to close ranks and boost morale. Lacking an animating vision beyond expert-led incrementalism, center-left politicians and pundits have few options to rally the Democratic base other than by attacking adversaries and heightening partisan divides. The other option—laying out an alternative that differs from what Hillary Clinton or even President Obama offered—requires ideological conviction.

That would explain why Rep. Adam Schiff —previously “known as a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New Yorker—has emerged as one of the most outspoken figures in the Russian collusion investigation. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition. Her 2013 New Yorker profile was titled “Strong Vanilla”—and she now boasts the upper chamber’s most anti- Trump voting record.

When people don’t believe in so much with conviction, the logic of the crowd will sometimes dominate, because actual belief is no longer such a constraining force.  This is one reason why a totally secular “Enlightenment” society is not in every way to be welcomed — we humans are not worthy of it in every regard.

That is from Shadi Hamid at the WSJ; given this perspective, it is perhaps no accident that he is a scholar of Islam.  “Lack of real belief,” and lack of genuine religious communities, is often more of a problem behind terrorism than is “excessively fanatical belief.”

Hat tip goes to the excellent Samir Varma.

The evolution of Eurish

Over years of attending conferences, chairing panels and running training programmes in more than a dozen European cities, I have begun to note the contours of this changing language that I call Eurish. It is still English, but it has its own features that are often common to both romance and Germanic languages.

One feature is the European uncountable noun — singular in native-speaker English but plural in Eurish: “he received feedbacks”, “we have a lot of informations” and “we are producing online contents”.

There are other Eurish differences. I have heard both Germans and Italians say “we discussed about” rather than “we discussed”. “I will answer to your question” is common in many European discussions. Writing in the World Englishes journal, Mr Modiano adds others: “I am coming from Spain” rather than “I come from Spain” and “We were five people at the party” rather than “There were five people at the party”.

Continental Europeans are increasingly unworried about what Brits think of their developing English.

That is from Michael Skapinker at the FT, via Lennert.

Tuesday assorted links

Two men and a bulldog showed up unannounced at Caitlin Strickland’s after-school job on a Friday afternoon.

Admissions officers are traveling hundreds of miles with a live animal to inform high-school seniors they have been accepted to a college—and to urge them to enroll. It’s not just the star athletes or scholarship winners who get the treatment. It is pretty much anyone, a tactic driven by competition to snag the declining number of college-bound high-school students.

I would have brought a schnauzer:

Trip [the bulldog] is “not generally a heavy drooler unless there is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearby and then he drools like crazy,” said Michael Kaltenmark, his handler and the school’s director of external relations. “Unless someone is actively making dinner in front of him he’s going to be fine.”

Trip’ silver collar is valued at $10,000, bring on the direct instruction.

That is from Douglas Belkin at the WSJ, courtesy of the excellent Samir Varma.

What I’ve been reading

1. Kathryn Lomas, The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars.  A very thorough, reasonable, and well-researched account and synthesis of what we know about the origins of the Roman empire.  By my standards it is insufficiently concerned with generalizations, but I do understand how many might consider that an advantage.

2. Michael E. Hobart, The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide.  I wanted to love this book, and I still think it is quite important and worthy, but I don’t love reading this book.  Yet here is the first and marvelous sentence of the preface: “This book uses the history of information technology — in particular, the shift from alphabetic literacy to modern numeracy — to narrate and explain the origins of the contemporary rift between science and religion.”  After that it is dense.

3. Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography.  The most interesting material concerns Khaldun’s history as a Sufi.  Which brings me to Alexander Knysh’s Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism, which I enjoyed.  Overall I find this a fruitful area to study, and I benefited from some parts of Alexander Bevilacqua’s The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment.

4. David Hockney and Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures.  How artists have thought about space and light over the centuries, consistently interesting and insightful, wonderful color plates too.  I am not persuaded by all of Hockney’s claims about art history, but overall he is much underrated as a writer and thinker, including on the nature and import of photography.

5. Ran Abramitzky, The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World, covers the economics of the Kibbutz.

6. Jeffrey C. Stewart, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.  I don’t have the time to make my way through the details of this 900+pp. book, but upon browsing it appears to be a work of incredible quality, scope, and original research.

7. Matthew Restall, When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History.  A radical revision of the usual story, based on a careful reexamination of Spanish and Nahuatl stories.  Restall seems to be mostly correct, but I will add two points: a) I never took the older account very seriously anyway, and b) I am more interested in the new macro-story than the micro-revisions of the march and the encounter and surrender and so on.  One big difference seems to be there was more early resistance to Cortés than the common accounts would have you believe.  And outright slaughter and starvation were more important for the war in the short run than we used to think, relative to smallpox and other maladies.  In any case, this is an important book for anyone who follows this area.

The distribution of cities, then and now

In today’s developed countries, cities are thus scattered across historically important agricultural areas; as a result, there is a relatively higher degree of spatial equality in the distribution of resources within these countries.  By contrast, in today’s developing countries, cities are concentrated more on the coast where transport conditions, compared to agricultural suitability, are more favorable.

That is from Henderson, Squires, Storeygard, and Weil in the January 2018 QJE, based on light data measured by satellites.  Overall, I view this regularity as a negative for the prospects for liberalism and democracy in emerging economies, as urban concentration can encourage too much rent-seeking and kleptocracy.  It also reflects the truly amazing wisdom of (some of) our Founding Fathers, who saw a connection between liberty and decentralized agrarianism.  It suggests a certain degree of pessimism about China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.  The development of the hinterland in the United States may not be a pattern that today’s emerging economies necessarily should or could be seeking to replicate.  Which makes urban economics and Henry George all the more important.

Direct Instruction: A Half Century of Research Shows Superior Results

What if I told you that there is a method of education which significantly raises achievement, has been shown to work for students of a wide range of abilities, races, and socio-economic levels and has been shown to be superior to other methods of instruction in hundreds of tests? Well, the method is Direct Instruction and I first told you about it in Heroes are Not Replicable. I am reminded of this by the just-published, The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research which, based on an analysis of 328 studies using 413 study designs examining outcomes in reading, math, language, other academic subjects, and affective measures (such as self-esteem), concludes:

…Our results support earlier reviews of the DI effectiveness literature. The estimated effects were consistently positive. Most estimates would be considered medium to large using the criteria generally used in the psychological literature and substantially larger than the criterion of .25 typically used in education research (Tallmadge, 1977). Using the criteria recently suggested by Lipsey et al. (2012), 6 of the 10 baseline estimates and 8 of the 10 adjusted estimates in the reduced models would be considered huge. All but one of the remaining six estimates would be considered large. Only 1 of the 20 estimates, although positive, might be seen as educationally insignificant.

…The strong positive results were similar across the 50 years of data; in articles, dissertations, and gray literature; across different types of research designs, assessments, outcome measures, and methods of calculating effects; across different types of samples and locales, student poverty status, race-ethnicity, at-risk status, and grade; across subjects and programs; after the intervention ceased; with researchers or teachers delivering the intervention; with experimental or usual comparison programs; and when other analytic methods, a broader sample, or other control variables were used.

It is very unusual to see an educational method successfully replicate across such a long period of time and across so many different margins.

Direct Instruction was pioneered by Siegfried Engelmann in the 1960s and is a scientific approach to teaching. First, a skill such as reading or subtraction is broken down into simple components, then a method to teach that component is developed and tested in lab and field. The method must be explicitly codified and when used must be free of vagueness so students are reliably led to the correct interpretation. Materials, methods and scripts are then produced for teachers to follow very closely. Students are ability not age-grouped and no student advances before mastery. The lessons are fast-paced and feedback and assessment are quick. You can get an idea of how it works in the classroom in this Thales Academy promotional video. Here is a math lesson on counting. It looks odd but it works.

Even though Direct Instruction has been shown to work in hundreds of tests it is not widely used. It’s almost as if education is not about educating.

Some people object that DI is like mass-production. This is a feature not a bug. Mass-production is one of the few ways yet discovered to produce quality on a mass scale. Any method will probably work if a heroic teacher puts in enough blood, sweat and tears but those methods don’t scale. DI scales when used by mortals which is why it consistently beats other methods in large scale tests.

Many teachers don’t like DI when first exposed to it because it requires teacher training and discipline. Teachers are not free to make up their own lesson plans. But why should they be? Lesson plans should be developed by teams of cognitive psychologists, educational researchers and other experts who test them using randomized controlled trials; not made up by amateurs who are subject to small-sample and confirmation bias. Contrary to the critics, however, DI does leave room for teachers to be creative. Actors also follow a script but some are much better than others. Instructors who use DI enjoy being effective.

Quoting the authors of the meta-analysis:

Many current curriculum recommendations, such as those included within the Common Core, promote student-led and inquiry-based approaches with substantial ambiguity in instructional practices. The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations (see also Engelmann, 2014a; Morgan, Farkas, & Maczuga, 2015; Zhang, 2016). It is clear that students make sense of and interpret the information that they are given—but their learning is enhanced only when the information presented is explicit, logically organized, and clearly sequenced. To do anything less shirks the responsibility of effective instruction.
Hat tip: Robert Pondiscio at Education Next.

Should we censor porn?

In 1971 Irving Kristol said yes, today Ross Douthat says yes.  I am sympathetic with the notion that porn in the “I know it when I see it sense” is a net negative bad for society, even if it helps some people revitalize their sex lives (Alex differs).  That said, I cannot find an attractive way of censoring it.

Ross tweeted:

I think you start with the rules we have, and think about how they might be applied to ISPs.

Yet playing whack-a-mole with ISPs does not always go well, a truth to which a number of emotionally well-balanced MR commentators can attest.  And porn users and suppliers I think would be especially willing to find workarounds, including VPNs.  So I don’t think porn would end up all that ghettoized.  My fear is that the American internet would evolve rather rapidly toward Chinese-style institutions of control (though they would not used right now), without stopping porn very much, but leading to increasing calls to censor many other things too.

Keep in mind also that porn has been a major driver of innovation, not just for the VCR but for the internet too, including for means of payment, methods of streaming, and anti-piracy.  Might porn drive the demand to build networks of virtual reality?  So I’m not ready to ban it just yet.

The twenty-page essay exam

Imagine giving all professional economists (and other academics) an essay test.  Determine their area of expertise, and then ask them to write a twenty-page essay on one of the most basic questions in that field.  So it might be “Why did China do so well?”  Or “what are the determinants of economic growth?”  Or “What causes business cycles?”

Some would be more specific, such as “What makes nominal prices sticky?”, or “Why are the special features of platform competition important?”  How about “How can we encourage hospitals to compete more effectively?”

They can use some numbers, but mostly they should write out the best answers they can.

Then grade the exams.

At which universities would professors do the best?  In which fields would the researchers do the best, recognizing that some face more difficult problems than do others?  In which countries?

How much should our profession be focused on being able to write good answers to such questions?

I am indebted to Chris Blattman and Arnold Kling for useful exchanges related to this topic.