Month: May 2018

Can you give away money without helping anyone?

Here is my email from Jeremy Davis:

There was an idiotic movie in the 80’s (“Brewster’s Millions”) where Richard Pryor had to burn through $30 million in 30 days in order to inherit $300 million.  There were some conditions:  “. . . after 30 days, he may not own any assets that are not already his, and he must get value for the services of anyone he hires. He may donate only 5% to charity and lose 5% by gambling, and he may not waste the money by purchasing and destroying valuable items. Finally, he is not allowed to tell anyone. . . .” [Wikipedia].

Anyhow, I was thinking of a similar movie one could make.  Awful, but perhaps instructive to students of economics.

Similar premise, similar challenge.  But my twist is that the stipulation now is that he can do whatever he wants with the $30 million, on the condition that he NOT HELP ANYBODY with the money.

I don’t believe this is possible.  Consider:

If he were to simply keep in in the bank and not touch it, the supply of loanable funds would shift to the right, lowering the cost of borrowing money, thereby helping others to improve their lives in various ways.

If he were to spend the money, he would create gains from trade, a positive-sum game.  People would consider themselves better off for having sold him a good or service . . . or they wouldn’t have.  Plus multipliers.

If he gave the money away, the recipient would doubtless consider himself better off, at least initially.

If he burned the money, he would be, albeit in a small way, helping the nation’s economy as a whole, since that $30 million represents a claim on the nation’s goods and services that now will never be called in.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that I don’t believe there’s any way a rich person can avoid helping others with his money.

Thoughts?

The Chinese tourist hot water revolution

Bearing backpacks loaded with thermoses, sipping their steaming-hot refreshments with satisfaction, Chinese tourists’ unquenchable thirst for hot water, though odd for many Westerners, is having a huge impact on destinations worldwide, causing a “hot water revolution” in the global tourism industry.

In snow-crested Scandinavia, where chugging ice water is a long-standing habit, several hot water dispensers are being installed in Helsinki Airport to cater to Chinese travelers’ thirst for the throat-scalding beverage.

“We have long traditions in providing services for Chinese, but we want to develop them even further in order to welcome new passengers and make the current ones even happier,” Katja Siberg, SVP Marketing and Communications at Finavia, told People’s Daily Online, who added that the idea of serving hot water was proposed by her Finnish colleagues after they visited airports in China.

Helsinki Airport is not the only transportation hub that attempts to capture the hearts of Chinese tourists by providing them with hot water, and some of its counterparts have pushed the “hot water revolution” even further. In March, an intelligent hot water installation was set up in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where USB heating vacuum cups designed by KLM were distributed to Chinese tourists as Spring Festival gifts.

Here is the full story.

Friday assorted links

Especially prominent figures and concepts in Ethiopian Christianity

Yes there is Mary, Jesus. and the (Monophysite) Trinity, but beyond that literally every day I hear about the following from a very religious populace:

King Solomon

Queen of Sheba

The Ark of the Covenant: “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant, or Tabot, in Axum. The object is currently kept under guard in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Replicas of the Axum tabot are kept in every Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church, each with its own dedication to a particular saint; the most popular of these include Mary, George and Michael.”

St. George, slaying the dragon, he is prominent in church paintings.

Days of fasting, 55 a year, and thus Ethiopian restaurants are very good for vegetarians and vegans.

Addendum: from the comments, by Yves-Marie Slaughter:

55 is only the number of days of fasting during Lent, prior to Easter.

Total number of fasting days for a ‘normal’ Christian per year, would be closer to 155…

A monk may fast more than 200 days a year.

By the way, pork is prohibited altogether.

Has there been progress in philosophy?

You know this old debate: why are we still reading Plato?  Haven’t they figured out free will yet?  Will they ever?  Don’t the philosophers obsess too much over very old texts?

My opinion is that there is significant and ongoing progress in philosophy, we just don’t always name it as such.  Here is a list of just a few breakthroughs in our philosophic understanding of the world, noting that part of our philosophic maturation is not to care so much anymore as to whether it is called philosophy:

1. Behavioral economics and much of cognitive psychology.

2. A much improved understanding of entropy, information, and information theory.

3. A much better understanding of human neurodiversity and its import..

4. The accumulated wisdom concerning cultural differences and similarities, as taken from anthropological investigations.  You will note that like many recent advances in philosophy, this cannot be found in any one single place.

5. Progress on cosmology and “the theory of everything” and even if you are cynical about the current state of affairs it is far better than say 1850.

6. A deeper understanding of the power and also limits of mathematics.

7. Having digested and then also spit out much of Freudian analysis, but we did learn something along the way.

8. The more philosophical sides of neuroscience, some of which of course are discussed by professional philosophers too.

9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals.

10. Many ways of thinking about the environment — not all of them correct — have flowered only in relatively recent times.

11. Economics, and what we have learned from economic imperialism, including its failures.

12. Singapore, and in fact most other places/polities in the world.

13. Most literary works are understood much better today than they were in earlier eras.

14. Musical languages are far better developed and better understood.

15. Development of an “internet way of thinking.”

16. Much greater incorporation of the insights of women into philosophy, and many other formerly underrepresented groups too.

So our philosophic understanding of the world is far, far deeper than it was in the time of the so-called classic philosophers, whoever you might take those to be.  If “philosophy” has advanced by collaborating with other disciplines and the sciences, so much the better, and most of the “great philosophers” themselves would have approved of this.  And of course that list of sixteen items could be much, much longer.

Gonder notes

Gonder is I believe Ethiopia’s third largest city.  It has splendid castles and fortifications from the 18th century, with Moorish and Portuguese styles mixed in; at that time it was the capital.  There are numerous monasteries and churches scattered throughout the area, many with impressive frescoes.

There is no week in my life in which I have seen as many donkeys as I have seen one day in and around Gonder.

I was surprised how good the area is for birdwatching, you don’t even have to try.

There is an Ethiopian Jewish village nearby.  The Jews have left for Israel, but you can go see the synagogue behind a fence.

Two of my drivers have told me the exact same sentence: “They grow everything here: teff, barley, and wheat.”

If the people in the river village ask “do you wish to take out the small boat to go see the hippo?”, the correct answer is “No.

*The Trade*

This book is about what I call the Trade, the growing international business of political kidnappings, according to the US Treasury the most lucrative source of income, outside of state sponsorship, for illegal groups. But it’s more than about money. It is about my attempt, yes, to find the answer to two questions which have haunted me for nine years: Who kidnapped me, and why?

That is from Jere Van Dyk, The Trade: My Journey into the Labyrinth of Political Kidnapping.

Solve for the equilibrium, as they say.  The puzzle, of course, is why there are not more kidnappings for revenue.

Blockchains as Economies

An interesting piece by Praphul Chandra on CryptoEconomics:

Once you move past the speculative pricing of cryptocurrencies and ICOs, Blockchains are fundamentally a way to create economies. The ability to create new tokens or currencies (monetary policy) and to distribute and allocate these tokens according to economic incentives (mechanism design) will lead to the creation of new forms of commerce & economies.

…The ability to use algorithms for the creation, allocation & destruction of new tokens (e.g. ERC20) allows solution (mechanism) designers to offer incentives & reward desirable behavior. The fundamental idea is not new. Alternative currencies like airline miles & loyalty points are used by enterprises to influence consumer behavior even today. What is new is the scale with which it is possible to do this with the advent of Blockchains.

…CryptoEconomies will enable us to study economies at a scale like never before. In principle, we should be able to study the impact of micro on the macro (e.g. impact of change in economic incentives on token price) at the most granular scale. Similarly, we should be able to study the impact of macro on the micro (e.g. impact of new token creation on individual behavior).

The amount of data available in a cryptoeconomy is truly astonishing. Imagine an entire economy in which every transaction is recorded and so is, in principle, every single person’s entire transaction history. New economies like this will give rise to new economics.

Gonder, Ethiopia

Gonder was at the height of its prosperity at the turn of the eighteenth century, when it may have had a population of seventy thousand.  Emperor Fasilidades, who founded the new capital around 1635, obviously hoped to create a strong center around which the remnants of the Christian north could rally.  He picked a beautiful site, a flat volcanic ridge at seven thousand feet surrounded by mountains on three sides, but with easy access to Lake Tana in the south.  Gonder’s climate is warm during the day, cool at night, its two streams afforded plentiful water supplies and its hinterland abundant wood and produce.

Enough of an urban economy arose to sustain architecture, music, poetry, literature, painting, calligraphy, and educational, religious, and social institutions.  The emperors appeared in considerable state, surrounded by courtiers, clergy, and soldiers…

Image result for gondar ethiopia

The aristocracy and the monarchy supported the artists and artisans who put up buildings, illuminated manuscripts, decorates the interior of churches and palaces, and worked stone, wood, or pottery.  The town’s castles and other monuments were built of hewn brown basalt blocks and contained features that derived from Axumite and Zagwe times as well as Portuguese models.  They were concentrated in the center of the town, and provided a sharp contrast with the traditional round, thatched, mud wattled homes of the people.

Image result for gondar ethiopia church

That is all from the excellent Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian food in Ethiopia

I will compare to Ethiopian food in the United States, so I won’t be starting from scratch here.

The good news is that the product is tastier in Ethiopia.  But the other good news is that the U.S. version of the cuisine is fairly similar, and it really does give you a pretty good idea of at least mainstream restaurant cuisine in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopians really do eat a lot of injera, made out of teff.  Firfir dishes, which use injera soaked in spices, are far more common in Ethiopian cuisine in Ethiopia than in the U.S. equivalent.  Overall, the quality, subtlety, and diversity of injera is higher in Ethiopia, as you might expect.

Bozena Shiro is another staple, present in both countries but again far more common in Ethiopia.

Doro Wat — chicken in the red sauce — is the dish that improves the most in Ethiopia.  The sauce is richer and more subtle, more in the direction of a Mexican mole than just a mere curry.

I had two meals in private homes, one in a well-to-do apartment in Addis, the other in a rural village.  Neither overturned the basic impressions I have been receiving from the restaurant food.

I ate kitfo [raw beef] once and did not get sick or even feel queasy.

The fresh honey is much better in Ethiopia than what you might get in a restaurant in America.  And they pop fresh popcorn rather frequently.

Especially outside of Addis Ababa, prices are very cheap.  I stayed in the nicest hotel at the number one tourist site, namely Lalibela, with its underground, rock-hewn churches.  A single course at breakfast cost about a dollar and was enough for a meal.  Presumably some other prices are cheaper yet.

This is a wonderful country for vegetarians and vegans.  I am told that for the Christian religiously observant, about one-third of all days specify an abstention from meat.  So virtually all restaurants have a wide selection of vegetarian food and it is no worse than the meat dishes, perhaps better on average.

As for foreign cuisines, I had the best outcome with Indian food, perhaps because many of the spices and cooking techniques are similar.  There are Sudanese and Yemeni restaurants in Addis, Italian food is plentiful (it’s not always exactly Italian, but Castelli’s is amazing), and the Chinese meal I had was decent but not sufficiently Chinese.

Wednesday assorted links

My Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interesting throughout, so interesting I don’t feel the need to give you an excerpt, here is the audio and transcript.  There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware.  At the end of the conversation, just keep on scrolling, Taleb starts up with Bryan Caplan for an hour, mostly on education.  Here is the link for the Caplan segment only.

Against Foreign Language Education

Bryan Caplan is on fire in this excellent podcast with Robert Wiblin of 80,000 hours:

Bryan Caplan: In the U.S. I’ve heard so many times – I learned Latin and it really improved my score on the SAT because of all the Latin roots of the English vocabulary words. How about you learn some English vocabulary words, wouldn’t that be a little easier?

Robert Wiblin: I’m just… I’m pulling out my hair here.

Bryan Caplan: Well if you wanna pull out your hair a little bit more. Out of all my ultra moderate reforms that I suggested, the one that I stand behind more strongly than any other is abolishing foreign language requirements in the United States. Because there, we’ve got a bunch of facts, which are: hardly any jobs use foreign languages, it takes a lot of time to get any good. And furthermore, in this book I’m able to go and snap together a bunch of pieces of data to show that virtually zero Americans claim to… even claim to speak a foreign language very well in school.

So I say, look, even if it did have these big payoffs, the system is just a waste of time, and people spend years doing it for nothing. And even here, I just run against a brick wall and people say, well in that case we should just improve the teaching of the foreign language.

Well, how about you do that and then get back to me, but continuing to fund the thing that we have, this is garbage!

And again, Washington state from what I understand, now allows kids to use a computer language in place of foreign language. Like, why not do that? Then it’s like, “No, no we need to do both.” People don’t have an unlimited amount of time, and shouldn’t teenagers be able to have a frigging childhood! Like how much of their childhood do you want to destroy with jumping through these stupid hoops?

As someone who was educated in Canada I can attest to the waste of much foreign language instruction. I had at least 6 years of instruction in French but my French today is perhaps on par with two or three days worth of Berlitz and that mostly because I’ve been to France a few times. For reasons of national unity and ideology, almost all Canadians have years of French instruction but most of the little of what is learned is quickly forgotten. Looking at bilingual cereal boxes is not enough to maintain skill. If you are French in Quebec there are good reasons to learn English but outside of Quebec there are few reasons to learn French. As a result, the large majority of bilingual speakers are native French speakers (plus a few budding politicians). Indeed, among the Canadians who speak English there could well be more Hindi or Chinese bilinguists than French bilinguists.

Don’t make the mistake of arguing that knowing a second language has many benefits. The point is that foreign language instruction in schools doesn’t teach a second language.

Addendum: And don’t forget this.