Month: March 2019

What I’ve been reading

1. Sarah A. Seo, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom.  “The revolution in automotive freedom coincided with an equally unprecedented expansion in the police’s discretionary power.”

2. Allison Schrager, An Economist Walks into a Brothel, and Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.  My blurb: “Allison Schrager’s An Economist Walks Into a Brothel is the best, most readable, most informative, most adventurous, and most entertaining take on risk you will find.”

3. Marlon James, Black Leopard Red Wolf.  While the author of this new budding fictional series seems quite talented, this is more a book to admire than to enjoy.  I can’t imagine that people will read it fifteen years from now.  I’ve also read a bunch of reviews which try to praise it, without every telling the reader it will hold their interest.

4. Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro, The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging.  A good overview of their work together on economics and religion, and also more generally a take on what the social sciences know empirically about the causes and effects of religion (not always so much, I should add).

5. The Bitter Script Reader, Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films.  There aren’t enough enthusiastic, intelligent fanboy books, but this is one of them.

For prep for my Conversation with Knausgaard, I read a good deal of Ivo de Figueiredo, Henrik Ibsen: The Man & the Mask, and was impressed by how much new material he had uncovered.

Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy F. Geithner, and Henry M. Paulson, Firefighting: The Financial crisis and its Lessons: your model of this book is what this book is.

Arrived in my pile are:

Thomas Milan Konda, Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America.

Uwe E. Reinhardt, Priced Out: The Economic and Ethical Costs of American Health Care.  Uwe is gone but not forgotten.

Marion Turner, Chaucer: A European Life.  This one may not please the Brexiteers.

Marie-Janine Galic, The Great Cauldron: A History of Southeastern Europe seems impressive, though I have not had time to read much of it.

My Conversation with Emily Wilson

She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?

WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?

WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.

And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.


COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?

WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.

COWEN: Great idea?

WILSON: Yes, yeah.


COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?

WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.

COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?

WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.

Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.

COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?

You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.

Temperature and judicial decisions

The title is “Temperature and Decisions: Evidence from 207,000 Court Cases,” the authors are Anthony Heyes and Soodeh Saberian, and here is the abstract:

We analyze the impact of outdoor temperature on high-stakes decisions (immigration adjudications) made by professional decision-makers (US immigration judges). In our preferred specification, which includes spatial, temporal, and judge fixed effects, and controls for various potential confounders, a 10°F degree increase in case-day temperature reduces decisions favorable to the applicant by 6.55 percent. This is despite judgements being made indoors, “protected” by climate control. Results are consistent with established links from temperature to mood and risk appetite and have important implications for evaluating the influence of climate on “cognitive output.”

Here is the (gated) link to American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.  Here are ungated versions.

How NIMBY leads to urination in the streets

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

…step back and consider two 19th-century “classical economists” who focused on high rents: David Ricardo and Henry George. Both built models where land is so scarce that the cost of renting land absorbs most of the social surplus. We are not (yet?) at that point, but these models give insight into where today’s most expensive cities are headed.

Consider an increase in the quality of public services — say, garbage collection, or perhaps in San Francisco the elimination of public urination. You might think that would make life much better for everyone. But in a Ricardo-George model, that is not the case. Mainly what happens is that rents go up and landowners capture most of the newly created surplus.

How would this work? Take the example of San Francisco; with nicer streets, even more people might want to move there. That would push up rents by an amount roughly equal to the value created — putting the gains from the higher quality of life into the pockets of landowners. In a normal market economy, those higher rents would then induce more construction and, eventually, a corresponding decline in rents. But San Francisco is a “not in my backyard” locale where the amount of new construction just isn’t that high, for legal and regulatory reasons. Again, as both Ricardo and George realized, the incidence of the benefit falls upon the very scarce factor, namely land.

The political economy problem now should be obvious: Why exactly would non-landowners press for improvements in their cities? The value of those improvements will be captured mainly by other parties.

There is much more at the link.

Population Growth and Technological Change: One Million B.C. to 1990

That is an older paper by the excellent Michael Kremer, worth keeping in mind, here is the abstract:

The nonrivalry of technology, as modeled in the endogenous growth literature, implies that high population spurs technological change. This paper constructs and empirically tests a model of long-run world population growth combining this implication with the Malthusian assumption that technology limits population. The model predicts that over most of history, the growth rate of population will be proportional to its level. Empirical tests support this prediction and show that historically, among societies with no possibility for technological contact, those with larger initial populations have had faster technological change and population growth.

This bears on my earlier Bloomberg column, today cited by Mike Lee, suggesting that having more children is likely to help out on the climate change issue.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Score more points for Martin Gurri.

2. Weather shocks and early state development, with respect to ancient Egypt.

3. Why is the production of machine tools so concentrated?

4. A new paper on automation that actually has some new and interesting results.

5. Buterin on political theory.

6. Glenn Loury 2006 reading list on inequality.

7. “Aside from Norwegian, he speaks French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic and Dari, says his campaign adviser Lis Smith.

Tabarrok on Bail

I spoke recently at Brookings on the movement to eliminate cash bail. I think we hold too many people pre-trial and the use of judicial aids such as algorithms could safely increase the number of people released prior to trial as well as reduce the variance and disparity of treatment. Nevertheless, I think eliminating cash bail is a poorly thought out idea that may very well backfire. The proponents of eliminating cash bail also present a misleading picture of who is held on bail, the focus of my remarks at Brookings.

I was the only one at the event to oppose eliminating cash bail and I think the audience was a bit shell-shocked. Certainly, not everyone on the panel agreed with my comments. The American Bail Coalition posted the clip from CSPAN but otherwise had nothing to do with my remarks which begin around 35 seconds in.

Why do states privatize their prisons?

Why Do States Privatize their Prisons? The Unintended Consequences of Inmate Litigation.” (Job market paper).
The United States has witnessed privatization of a variety of government functions over the last three decades. Media and politicians often attribute the decision to privatize to ideological commitments to small government and fiscal pressure. These claims are particularly notable in the context of prison privatization, where states and the federal government have employed private companies to operate and manage private correctional facilities. I argue state prison privatization is not a function of simple ideological or economic considerations. Rather, prison privatization has been a (potentially unintended) consequence of the administrative and legal costs associated with litigation brought by prisoners. I assemble an original database of prison privatization in the US and demonstrate that the privatization of prisons is best predicted by the legal pressure on state corrections systems, rather than the ideological orientation of a state government. PDF of most recent version here, comments welcome.​ Appendix here.

Do Private Prison Companies Suffer When Inmates Win Lawsuits? The central claim of my dissertation argues it is the advent of inmates’ rights and rising prisoner litigation that contributed to the rise of prison privatization in the state. A separate dissertation chapter considers this relationship from the viewpoint of the business: is it the case that the economic future of the company is vulnerable to the announcement of successful court orders? I use event study methodology and find I find that on aggregate, investors are not particularly concerned with these judicial decrees. Rather, investors respond to the lawsuits in those states that are the most consequential for private prison firms’ business. This chapter fleshes out the behavior of private prison companies and provides further empirical evidence for the central claim of the dissertation, that private prison firms are indeed vulnerable to the announcement of court orders.

Those are new papers by Anna Gunderson, Ph.D candidate in political science from Emory, starting at Louisiana State, and I note she just won the Elinor and Vincent Ostrom award from the Public Choice Society.  Here is her home page.

The best sentence I read today

Mark [Lutter] has a PhD in Economics from George Mason, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s conventional.

Here is the full bit:

Mark Lutter (29) and Tamara Winter (23), United States
Mark and Tamara are building charter cities — a concept where cities are governed by their own charter rather than general law. Imagine a world with dozens of new cities, each with their own distinct style, governance and populace. Mark and Tamara are working to make that vibrant future a reality.

Noteworthy: Mark has a PhD in Economics from George Mason, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s conventional. He’s a disagreeable, life-long adventurer. He decided to do his own thing after questioning the profit share in his previous company. He moved to Honduras while it was the murder capital of the world. Now he’s stumbling through Africa looking for city settlers.

They are part of the third cohort of Pioneer winners, congrats to Justin Zheng too and all the others, read through the list for some fascinating ideas and projects to come.  Tamara is a Mercatus alum, follow her here on Twitter, here is Mark.  Here is their institutional website.  Here is various information about Pioneer — apply!

Monday assorted links

1. Rabat will have Africa’s tallest building.

2. ““Frankly, the idea of separate honeymoons may signal the continued evolution of marriage,” said Jessica Carbino, an online dating expert based in Los Angeles who is also a sociologist for the dating app Bumble.”  (NYT)

3. 1970 Thomas Schelling syllabus and exam.

4. The return of Trieste to prominence?

5. Speculator-chosen immigrants.

6. Good review of Us, a movie masterpiece (the link is full of spoilers).

Are all humans South Africans?

Africa was the birth-place of Homo sapiens and has the earliest evidence for symbolic behaviour and complex technologies. The best-attested early flowering of these distinctive features was in a glacial refuge zone on the southern coast 100–70 ka, with fewer indications in eastern Africa until after 70 ka. Yet it was eastern Africa, not the south, that witnessed the first major demographic expansion, ~70–60 ka, which led to the peopling of the rest of the world. One possible explanation is that important cultural traits were transmitted from south to east at this time. Here we identify a mitochondrial signal of such a dispersal soon after ~70 ka – the only time in the last 200,000 years that humid climate conditions encompassed southern and tropical Africa. This dispersal immediately preceded the out-of-Africa expansions, potentially providing the trigger for these expansions by transmitting significant cultural elements from the southern African refuge.

That is from Teresa Rito,, in Nature, vis Charles Klingman.

Why is there so much suspicion of big business?

Perhaps in part because we cannot do without business, so many people hate or resent business, and they love to criticize it, mock it, and lower its status. Business just bugs them. After I explained the premise of this book to one of my colleagues, Bryan Caplan, he shrieked to me: “But, but . . . how can people be ungrateful toward corporations? Corporations give us everything! Corporations do everything for us!” Of course, he was joking, as he understood full well that people are often pretty critical of corporations. And they are critical precisely because corporations do so much for us. And do so much to us.

Does my colleague’s outburst remind you of anything? Well, immediately he followed up with this: “Hating corporations is like hating your parents.”


There is another reason it doesn’t quite work to think of businesses as our friends. Friendship is based in part on an intrinsic loyalty that transcends the benefit received in any particular time and place. Many friendships also rely on an ongoing exchange of reciprocal benefits, yet without direct consideration each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed. In addition to the self-interested joys of friendly togetherness, friendship is about commonality of vision, a wish to see your own values reflected in another, a sense of potential shared sacrifice, and a (partial) willingness to put the interest of the other person ahead of your own, without always doing a calculation about what you will get back.

A corporation just doesn’t fit this mold in the same way. A business may wish to appear to be an embodiment of friendly reciprocity, but it is more like an amoral embodiment of principles that usually but not always work out for the common good. The senior management of the corporation has a legally binding responsibility to maximize shareholder profits, at least subject to the constraints of the law and perhaps other constraints embodied in the company’s charter or by-laws. The exact nature of this fiduciary responsibility will vary, but it never says the company ought to be the consumer’s friend, at least not above and beyond when such friendship may prove instrumentally valuable to the ends of the company, including profit.

In this setting, companies will almost always disappoint us if we judge them by the standards of friendship, as the companies themselves are trying to trick us into doing. Companies can never quite meet the standards of friendship. They’re not even close acquaintances. At best they are a bit like wolves in sheep’s clothing, but these wolves bring your food rather than eat you.

Those are both excerpts from my final chapter “If business is so good, why is it so disliked?”, from my book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

The winners and losers of the Mueller revelations

As the information trickles out that the Mueller report probably will not end the Trump administration, it is worth thinking about how the broader landscape has changed, and who might be the winners and losers.

Politically, the biggest loser is probably Joe Biden.  The belief that he can run as the “safest,” most vetted Democrat against an ailing, politically destroyed Trump all of a sudden seems less relevant.  It now seems more important that Biden has run for president several times before, and never done extremely well, in part because he has not been an entirely convincing campaigner.  He’s never come close to winning the nomination.  He is a candidate of the past, for better or worse, but the dominant mood may not be one of restoration.  The Mueller report makes it clear that we really are in a post-Obama era, and that even Trump critics need to be thinking about what comes next rather than looking to the past.

Which candidates then are helped the most?  Most likely that would be the dynamic or potentially dynamic, relatively centrist Democrats, and that includes Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg (dynamic in a Mister Rogers sort of way), and Kamala Harris.  I don’t see the candidates further to the left getting a boost from this development.  Many Democrats might have been tempted to think: “Trump is so sure to lose, this is our chance to get a real radical in.”  That now seems like a less convincing chain of reasoning.

There is another reason why Beto and Buttigieg might benefit, and that has to do with the risks from not so securely vetted candidates.  It now seems they can survive in office, even if they partially screw up, as long as they don’t commit too many obviously treasonous crimes.

On the Congressional side, Nancy Pelosi looks wise for having talked down impeachment fervor in advance.  Her political capital ought to go up and it probably will.

Many Democratic Congresspeople are better off too.  Had the report levied stronger charges against Trump, they would have faced pressures from their base to impeach, even though impeachment might not have played well with independent and centrist voters.  It is now likely those charges have been defused.  Policy wonks may come back into fashion again, at least relative to where things stood a month or two ago.

Within the Republican Party, the Never Trumpers lost further ground, and in any case the momentum has been turning against them.  Mike Pence has kept whatever political future he had, and he will not seem unacceptable as a president, due to moral taint, if say Trump later has to step down because of illness.

The media comes up as one of the biggest losers.  While Matt Taibbi’s recent critical account is exaggerated, the mainstream media did talk up the Russia collusion story for two years plus, and now it seems overdone.  After the media botched the “Hillary’s emails” story, there was plenty of talk of “never again.”  It now seems that all along a new false set of stories was being created, albeit in a different direction.  That will be perceived as a significant loss of media credibility, even if you think there is a more finely grained exculpatory story involving accountability some highly suspicious circumstances.

The bigger negative effect may be on media profitability.  Trump- and Russia-related stories often have done very well for getting clicks, and indeed the dramatic stakes with those issues have been very, very high.  But now it is easy to see the American public losing a lot of its interest in this line of inquiry.  The line of “Trump is still corrupt and New York state now will get at him,” while quite possibly correct, isn’t nearly as big of a draw.

Among intellectuals, Glenn Greenwald has been insisting throughout that the Russia collusion story was phony.  Whether or not his extreme skepticism was entirely correct, he is due to rise in status.  Ross Douthat of The New York Times also had been suggesting that the Russia collusion angle may not pan out and some of his columns now seem pretty wise.  John Brennan loses big time.

Oh, and another beneficiary is Steve Moore, Trump’s most recent nominee to the Federal Reserve Board.  He has come in for a great deal of critical commentary, but at this point Republican Senators are less likely to cross a jubilant, resurgent Trump on the matter of a single nomination, and not one very much in the public eye.

The biggest winner of course is the United States of America.  It seems, after all, that we did not have a president, or even presidential staff, who colluded with the Russians.  Maybe you wanted Trump to go down on this one, but that is most of all big reason to celebrate.