Month: December 2018

The Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C.

“I love bringing my kids here,” I heard from my Eritrean Uber driver, the first person I’ve met who admits to going.  The lavishly funded museum is indeed a world unto itself.  Here is what struck me on a recent visit:

1. The interior and the staff feel like nowhere else in D.C., like a cross between the Midwest and a Mormon temple perhaps.  There is much more wood paneling than one sees around town.

2. It is unabashedly the most universalistic and cosmopolitan interior in the area.  There is a large room with circular shelves, containing all the Bibles in different languages they could find.  Long columns list the languages of those Bibles, and a flashing sign indicates that 977,977 different Bible chapters would need to be translated before every chapter of the Bible is available in all of the world’s languages.

3. You can see plenty of old Bibles from the centuries, and while they are attractive, none are quite good enough for an art museum like say The Walters in Baltimore.

4. There is a station playing references to the Bible from popular music.  As I stopped by it was serving up “Four Horsemen” by The Clash, and then it segued into “Hard Headed Woman” by Elvis Presley.

5. Entrance costs $25.99, plus premia for special exhibits.

 

6. The museum bends over backwards to be non-denominational, that said the intended neutrality imposes biases of its own.  The big losers are the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, because this is indeed a museum about a book, not about a church community.  The connection between this book, and the communities it has spawned, is precisely the murky angle here and it seems almost deliberately obscured.  The Amish also are not prominent in the displays.  Imagine if people really just read and worshiped the book.  This truly is a museum about a book.

7. The museum tries not to refer to “the Christian Bible” or “the Hebrew Bible,” but that intended neutrality breaks down when you encounter the two sections for “the Old Testament” and “the New Testament.”  The Jews lose.

8. There is a section — entirely respectful — where a Jewish scribe writes out biblical text for viewers.  There is another exhibit of ancient Biblical life where you can walk among stone houses, read panels about biblical references to water, read about the Second Temple, and employees are paid to dress in (supposed) clothing from that period and say “Shalom” to you.

9. The museum is extraordinarily literal, and if you wanted to explain to space aliens what the Bible was, you could take them here.  That said, they would end up understanding the Bible far better than Christianity.

10. There is a very interesting section on bibles for slaves, and which sections of the original Bible they omitted.  On a wall display, visitors are asked to write out whether they consider these “slave bibles” to be proper Bibles or not.  Most say no.

11. There is a questionnaire, a bit like a Twitter quiz.  It first notes that Elizabeth Cady Stanton reinterpreted the Bible in the late 19th century, so as to make it more sympathetic to the rights of women.  It then asks the visitors whether reinterpretations of the Bible should be allowed today.  So far 61 percent have answered “no.”

12. The gift shop is lavish.  The museum restaurant Manna serves kosher food.  Here is the Wikipedia page for the museum.

13. The google headline for the museum has the subtitle “One of the Ten Best Museums in DC.”  It is odd they do not think it is the best.

In defense of McKinsey

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

The latest institution to take a big whack from the media, with its well-known negative bias, is McKinsey & Co. A recent article in The New York Times shows how much the consulting company has worked for authoritarian and autocratic countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

I would instead frame this story in a broader and far more positive reality: One of the biggest, most positive (and most neglected) global trends over the last 30 years has been the spread of managerial and technocratic expertise to what used to be called “third world governments.” In most countries, the central banks, the public health authorities, the treasuries and many other public-sector institutions now collect good data, hire Western-educated advisers, and try to implement good solutions.

And:

…when I meet entrepreneurs in poorer parts of the world, I am often struck by the fact that they are highly intelligent and conscientious, but they don’t always understand all of the cultural codes of good management. Advice that might appear stupid or trivial to more experienced observers may actually help to build new cultures of business excellence and economic growth.

There is much more at the link.  Here is a good tweet stream on the company.  Here is the McKinsey response to the NYT article.

The Top Ten Marginal Revolution Posts of 2018

As measured by page views the most popular MR post this year was my post on how there is one law for the police and another for the rest of us, Get Out of Jail Free Cards.

Second was Tyler Cowen’s 12 Rules for Life. Number seven on Tyler’s list, “Learn how to learn from those who offend you,” caught my eye today but there’s much wisdom throughout.

The third most popular post was by neither Tyler, myself, nor a guest blogger but rather by a MR commentator, One smart guy’s frank take on working in some of the major tech companies.

One of my favorite posts was fourth, Lessons from “The Profit”. The new season of The Profit has started and continues to be of interest. All IO economists should watch.

Number five was another one of my favorites Why Sexism and Racism Never Diminish–Even When Everyone Becomes Less Sexist and Racist.

Tyler’s excellent analysis of the North Korean deal shows why he is an important thinker in foreign policy, able to see beyond the headlines, The North Korean summit and deal.

A second MR commentator had another top post, Will truckers be automated? (from the comments).

Tyler doesn’t like to write the kind of post that came in at number 8 but these posts are always popular which is one reason Tyler doesn’t like to write them. The five most influential public intellectuals?

Number 9 was a useful post, Why are antiques now so cheap?

Coming in at number 10 was my video and Tyler’s post on Paul Romer’s Nobel Prize, Why Paul Romer Won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Other notable posts from Tyler included:

Other notable posts from me included:

Overall, I’d say it was a notable year for MR commentators! Congratulations! What were your favorite, or least favorite, MR posts of 2018?

The value of Facebook?

Facebook, the online social network, has more than 2 billion global users. Because those users do not pay for the service, its benefits are hard to measure. We report the results of a series of three non-hypothetical auction experiments where winners are paid to deactivate their Facebook accounts for up to one year. Though the populations sampled and the auction design differ across the experiments, we consistently find the average Facebook user would require more than $1000 to deactivate their account for one year. While the measurable impact Facebook and other free online services have on the economy may be small, our results show that the benefits these services provide for their users are large.

Here is the paper, by Jay R. Corrigan et.al., via Jake Seliger, and here is Jake’s take on the recent Facebook disputes.

What I’ve been reading

Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends who Shaped an Age.  The same 18th century British club had as members Samuel Johnson, Boswell, Burke, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, Sheridan, Goldsmith, and David Garrick (often considered the greatest actor of the time).  I never tire of reading about them.

Andrew Arsan, Lebanon: A Country in Fragments.  At first this book feels like a kind of running splat, but with a bit of patience it becomes a remarkably compelling portrait of a society on the brink, most of all a desperate love letter to Beirut.  If you can get through the squirrelly early political material, this is one of the best “country books” and also “city books” of the last few years.

James Simpson, Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism, feels throughout as if it is an important book.  And anyone interested in religion and development should read this one.  Yet I had trouble following the actual arguments.  It is probably good.

Marixa Lasso, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal, stresses just how interesting a place was pre-canal Panama, contrary to what I had thought.

Vernon Smith, The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Reflections on Faith, Science, and Economics.  Published by the Acton Institute, this is Vernon on his conversion to Christianity, Kahlil Gibran, and why science and religion are compatible.  Short, of interest to those looking to understand the man.

Joel Waldfogel, Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture.  My blurb is: “Digital Renaissance makes a real contribution to the economics of the Internet and the economics of art and culture.”

My Conversation with Daniel Kahneman

Here is the transcript and audio, a rollicking time was had by all.  We covered what you would expect us to have covered.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: And that people want to maximize their overall sense of how their life has gone — do you think that is ultimately Darwinian roots? Why is that the equilibrium? Happiness feels good, right?

KAHNEMAN: Yeah, happiness feels good in the moment. But it’s in the moment. What you’re left with are your memories. And that’s a very striking thing — that memories stay with you, and the reality of life is gone in an instant. So memory has a disproportionate weight because it’s with us. It stays with us. It’s the only thing we get to keep.

COWEN: If you think of your own life, have you maximized happiness or the overall sense of how your life has gone?

KAHNEMAN: Neither.

[laughter]

COWEN: Neither. Citations?

KAHNEMAN: No.

And on his new project:

KAHNEMAN: I’ll tell you where the experiment from which my current fascination with noise arose. I was working with an insurance company, and we did a very standard experiment. They constructed cases, very routine, standard cases. Expensive cases — we’re not talking of insuring cars. We’re talking of insuring financial firms for risk of fraud.

So you have people who are specialists in this. This is what they do. Cases were constructed completely realistically, the kind of thing that people encounter every day. You have 50 people reading a case and putting a dollar value on it.

I could ask you, and I asked the executives in the firm, and it’s a number that just about everybody agrees. Suppose you take two people at random, two underwriters at random. You average the premium they set, you take the difference between them, and you divide the difference by the average.

By what percentage do people differ? Well, would you expect people to differ? And there is a common answer that you find, when I just talk to people and ask them, or the executives had the same answer. It’s somewhere around 10 percent. That’s what people expect to see in a well-run firm.

Now, what we found was 50 percent, 5–0, which, by the way, means that those underwriters were absolutely wasting their time, in the sense of assessing risk. So that’s noise, and you find variability across individuals, which is not supposed to exist.

I enjoyed this particular exchange:

COWEN: Do you think of low intelligence as yet a third independent source of error? Or is that somehow subsumed in bias and noise?

KAHNEMAN: You mean plain stupidity?

[laughter]

COWEN: In some cases.

And this:

COWEN: A society such as Argentina that relies so heavily on psychoanalysis — as a psychologist, do you see that as bias? Is it a placebo? Is there a placebo effect in psychoanalysis?

KAHNEMAN: You seem to attribute . . . You seem to think that I think of bias all the time.

[laughter]

COWEN: I can’t imagine why. That’s my bias.

KAHNEMAN: It’s like thinking of sex all the time. I really don’t think of bias that much.

Finally:

COWEN: Some questions about psychologists outside of what you’ve worked on, but maybe related — Freud. What do you think of Freud’s body of work? And has it influenced you at all?

Definitely recommended, and you will find cameo appearances by Michael Nielsen and Daniel Gross.

*Scouting and Scoring: How We Know What We Know About Baseball* (scouting bleg)

The role of reports and bureaucracy in the quantification of baseball prospects is a story that has long been obscured by a romantic notion of what scouts do and who they are.  Outside of scouting memoirs, only a handful of book-length studies of scouts exist, none of which take scouting tools and training as the central topic.  Scouts actively participate in their own mischaracterization.  Its possible to read entire memoirs of scouts without ever learning about the need to fill in a report, let alone how it is done.

That is from the forthcoming book — quite interesting — by Christopher J. Phillips. Not surprisingly, this book also discusses “scouting the scout.”

And so I ask you readers, what are the best things to read about scouts, scouting, and the scouting process?

*The Economist* picks eight young top economists

They are:

Ms Dell and her Harvard colleagues Isaiah Andrews, Nathaniel Hendren and Stefanie Stantcheva; Parag Pathak and Heidi Williams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…Emi Nakamura of the University of California, Berkeley and Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business…

Mr Pathak and his co-authors have compared pupils who only just made it into elite public schools with others who only just missed out, rather as Ms Dell compared villages on either side of the Pentagon’s bombing thresholds. The study showed that the top schools achieve top-tier results by the simple contrivance of admitting the best students, not necessarily by providing the best education. Ms Dell and her co-author showed that bombing stiffened villages’ resistance rather than breaking their resolve.

Ms Williams has exploited a number of institutional kinks in the American patent system to study medical innovation. Some patent examiners, for example, are known to be harder to impress than others. That allowed her to compare genes that were patented by lenient examiners with largely similar genes denied patents by their stricter colleagues. She and her co-author found that patents did not, as some claimed, inhibit follow-on research by other firms. This suggested that patent-holders were happy to let others use their intellectual property (for a fee).

Here is the article, it is an interesting piece.

Trends and major issues to watch for in 2019

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the fourth of the four major issues I list:

How will India’s intellectual space evolve?

Many Western outsiders used to root for a particular Indian brand of Anglo liberalism to assume increasing importance in the political and intellectual life of India. While this has always been a minority viewpoint, it has had prominent representatives, including Ramachandra Guha, who just published a major biography of Gandhi. But these days, this perspective is dwindling in influence, as is old-style Bengali Marxism and other ideas from the left. It’s not just Hindu nationalism on the rise, rather India seems to be evolving intellectually in a multiplicityof directions, few of them familiar to most Americans. In India, history ain’t over, and further ideological fragmentation seems to be the safest prediction. Note that ideas are very often a leading indicator for where a nation ends up.

Since India may become the world’s most populous country and biggest economy by mid-century, this one is a dark horse candidate for the most important issue of the year.

I also consider China, Ethiopia, Trump, Brexit, and the NBA title.

Police in Philadelphia Stealing Houses

The Supreme Court is considering whether the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states as well as to the federal government. If the SC needs more motivation to curb the abusive process of civil asset forfeiture they need look no further than Philadelphia. In a field filled with outrageous stories of injustice, the situation in Philadelphia where houses have been forfeit stands out.

A forfeiture petition for one property lists one gram of marijuana, a half gram of cocaine and some over-the-counter pills as justification for taking. In one case recently settled in a $3 million class-action lawsuit, Norys Hernandez nearly lost the rowhouse she and her sister owned after police arrested her nephew on drug dealing charges and seized the house. Another family named in the suit fought to save their house from the grip of law enforcement after their son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside of it. Of the lawsuit’s four named plaintiffs, three had their houses targeted for seizure after police accused relatives dealing drugs on the property. None of the homeowners were themselves accused of committing a crime.

As families fought to keep homes targeted by the DA, the revenues from the forfeiture sales became a big moneymaker for local law enforcement – netting some $6 million annually in the best years. The proceeds turned into an unregulated budget split between the police and DA. The money made off of the seized homes went to buy wish list items ranging from new submachine guns to custom uniform embroidery.

As if that weren’t enough, sometimes police officers were the buyers of the foreclosed properties! How’s that for demand creates its own supply?

“I am genuinely distressed to learn that the DA’s office permitted police officers to acquire forfeited homes of Philadelphians at public auction,” said University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Lou Rulli. “This disturbing revelation underscores one of many serious flaws in civil forfeiture — law enforcement is able to directly benefit from the actions they take to seize private property, often from lawful homeowners who have done no wrong.”

This story takes the cake:

Biddle recalled an instance, in 2007, when he purchased a property on the 5700 block of Chester Avenue for $21,000. To his surprise, he found a buyer just a few days later who was willing to pay nearly double that amount. He inked the sale.

At the next forfeiture open house, an incensed DA staffer, who by now knew Biddle on sight from his repeat visits to forfeiture auctions, approached him.

“They said, ‘That guy we took the house from? You just sold that to the guy’s mom,’” Biddle recalled. “They were pissed, but they knew I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Records show that it took the District Attorney’s Office three years to seize the property back, through a second forfeiture action filed against the pair.

This is from an excellent investigative report by Ryan Briggs.

Addendum: See also my piece with Makowsky and Stratmann forthcoming in the JLS, To Serve and Collect: The Fiscal and Racial Determinants of Law Enforcement.

Rational self-medication

We develop a theory of rational self-medication. The idea is that forward-looking individuals, lacking access to better treatment options, attempt to manage the symptoms of mental and physical pain outside of formal medical care. They use substances that relieve symptoms in the short run but that may be harmful in the long run. For example, heavy drinking could alleviate current symptoms of depression but could also exacerbate future depression or lead to alcoholism. Rational self-medication suggests that, when presented with a safer, more effective treatment, individuals will substitute towards it. To investigate, we use forty years of longitudinal data from the Framingham Heart Study and leverage the exogenous introduction of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). We demonstrate an economically meaningful reduction in heavy alcohol consumption for men when SSRIs became available. Additionally, we show that addiction to alcohol inhibits substitution. Our results suggest a role for rational self-medication in understanding the origin of substance abuse. Furthermore, our work suggests that punitive policies targeting substance abuse may backfire, leading to substitution towards even more harmful substances to self-medicate. In contrast, policies promoting medical innovation that provide safer treatment options could obviate the need to self-medicate with dangerous or addictive substances.

That is a new NBER working paper by Michael E. Darden and Nicholas W. Papageorgge.

Does school spending matter for child outcomes?

It seems it does, here is an excerpt from the conclusion of a new C. Kirabo Jackson paper on this question:

The recent quasi-experimental literature that relates school spending to student outcomes overwhelmingly support a causal relationship between increased school spending and student outcomes. All but one of the several multi-state studies find a strong link between spending and outcomes – indicating that money matters on average. Importantly, this is true across studies that use different data-sets, examine different time periods, rely on different sources of variation, and employ different statistical techniques. While one can poke holes in each individual study, the robustness of the patterns across a variety of settings is compelling evidence of a real positive causal relationship between increased school spending and student outcomes on average. However, an examination of single-state studies suggests that, on average, money matters, but that this is not always so in all settings or in all contexts.

And this:

To better understand why some studies find positive impacts while others do not, an examination of the few studies that are not positive is instructive. Three out of the seven papers that are not significant involve Title I spending, and three out of the seven involve capital spending. Given that 6 out of 7 of the studies that find no significant impact (86%) involve particular spending types may suggest that while overall budget increases may improve outcomes, increased funding tied to particular uses may not. In particular, the evidence is consistent with capital spending and Title I spending being less predictably effective than spending in general.

Here is an earlier and related paper on whether school spending cuts matter.