Month: April 2019
3. Peter Beinart on how bad exactly are China’s trade practices (not exactly my view, but fyi…).
6. “Our econometric results show that [African] political leaders’ birth regions receive substantially larger financial flows from China in the years when they hold power compared to what the same region receives at other times.“
She requires no introduction, this conversation involved a bit of slapstick, so unlike many of the others it is better heard than read. Here is the audio and transcript. Here is the opening:
COWEN: Just to start with some basic questions about Canada, which you’ve written on for decades — what defines the Canadian sense of humor?
MARGARET ATWOOD: Wow. [laughs] What defines the Canadian sense of humor? I think it’s a bit Scottish.
COWEN: How so?
ATWOOD: Well, it’s kind of ironic. It depends on what part of Canada you’re in. I think the further west you go, the less of a sense of humor they have.
ATWOOD: But that’s just my own personal opinion. My family’s from Nova Scotia, so that’s as far east as you can get. And they go in for deadpan lying.
COWEN: In 1974, you wrote, “The Canadian sense of humor was often obsessed with the issue of being provincial versus being cosmopolitan.”
COWEN: You think that’s still true?
ATWOOD: Depends again. You know, Canada’s really big. In fact, there’s a song called “Canada’s Really Big.” You can find it on the internet. It’s by a group called the Arrogant Worms. That kind of sums up Canada right there for you.
The burden of the song is that all of these other countries have got all of these other things, but what Canada has is, it’s really big. It is, in fact, very big. Therefore, it’s very hard to say what is particularly Canadian. It’s a bit like the US. Which part of the US is the US? What is the most US thing —
COWEN: Maybe it’s Knoxville, Tennessee, right now. Right? The Southeast.
ATWOOD: You think?
COWEN: But it used to be Cleveland, Ohio.
ATWOOD: Did it?
COWEN: Center of manufacturing.
ATWOOD: When was that? [laughs] When was that?
COWEN: If you look at where the baseball teams are, you see what the US —
And from her:
ATWOOD: Yeah, so what is the most Canadian thing about Canada? The most Canadian thing about Canada is that when they ran a contest that went “Finish this sentence. As American as apple pie. As Canadian as blank,” the winning answer was “As Canadian as plausible under the circumstances.”
And a question from me:
COWEN: But you’ve spoken out in favor of the cultural exception being part of the NAFTA treaty that protects Canadian cultural industries. Is it strange to think that having more than half the [Toronto] population being foreign born is not a threat to Canadian culture, but that being able to buy a copy of the New York Times in Canada is a threat?
In addition to Canada, we talk about the Bible, Shakespeare, ghosts, her work habits, Afghanistan, academia, Peter the Great, writing for the future, H.G. Wells, her heretical feminism, and much much more.
Firefighting, the new primer on the financial crisis by the all-star team of Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner and Henry Paulson (BGP), is a well written, short overview of the consensus position on the U.S. financial crisis. The book has a number of good lines:
…financial institutions, unlike other businesses whose success depends primarily on the cost and quality of their goods and services, are dependent on confidence. That’s why the word “credit” comes from the Latin for “belief,” why we say we can “bank” on things we know to be true, why some financial institutions are called “trusts.”
…the most damaging problem with America’s capital rules was not that they were too weak, but that they were applied too narrowly.
Risk, like love, will find a way.
Firefighting offers a summary, consensus view of the causes of the crisis:
…the basic problems were too much risky leverage, too much runnable short-term financing, and the migration of too much risk to shadow banks where regulation was negligible and the Fed’s emergency safety net was too inaccessible. There were also too many major firms that were too big and interconnected to fail without threatening the stability of the system, and the explosion of opaque mortgage-backed derivatives had turned the health of the housing market into a potential vector for panic. Meanwhile, America’s regulatory bureaucracy was fragmented and outdated, with no one responsible for monitoring and addressing systemic risks.
Consult Adam Tooze’s magisterial Crashed for a more European and global view of the crisis, Hetzel’s The Great Recession for an explanation of the crisis based on monetary rather than financial disorder and Larry Ball’s The Fed and Lehman Brothers: Setting the Record Straight on a Financial Disaster for an exhaustive and different accounting of the politics especially around the decision not to bail out Lehman.
Given that the book takes a consensus view and given that all three authors have written previous books on the crisis, one might wonder why BGP wrote Firefighting. The answer is in two parts. Most importantly, Firefighting is a plea for discretion. At one point BGP write surprisingly directly if euphemistically:
The Fed also reinterpreted its emergency lending authority in creative ways to avert catastrophic collapses of Bear Stearns and AIG…
In other words, the Fed broke the law. That, at least, is how many in Congress saw it after the fact which is why Congress asserted its authority over banking by rewriting the rules but also removed a lot of discretionary authority from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.
Overall, while the United States has much stronger safeguards against the occurrence of panic than it had before the crisis, it has weaker emergency authorities for responding when a panic occurs. Its crisis managers lack the power to inject capital, guarantee liabilities, or purchase assets without going to Congress…the Fed has lost its power to rescue individual firms and faces new constraints on its lending powers, while the Treasury has lost its ability to use the Exchange Stabilization Fund for guarantees.
What Congress takes it can also give but BGP are not sanguine about the effectiveness of American democracy:
…when an epic crisis does arrive, Congress would have the power to undo the preemptive limitations it has placed on crisis managers. But that is easier said than done in a nonparliamentary democracy where legislative changes require support from the president, the House of Representatives, and a filibuster proof majority in the Senate…it’s hard to look at the bitterly polarized politics of modern America and feel confident that a bipartisan consensus for unpopular but necessary actions would emerge when it mattered most.
Thus, BGP come down solidly on the side of technocracy and discretion rather than democracy and rules.
I believe the second reason that Bernanke, Geithner and Paulson wrote Firefighting is that they want their account of the crisis to be the history taught to the next generation. To that end, Firefighting is indeed a useful guide for teaching the crisis and is particularly good on timelines, major events and policy actions. About a third of Firefighting is a series of standalone charts (which aren’t even referenced within the text). Oddly, however, the book never tells you that the charts are available online, neither does the book’s homepage, but a little Google sleuthing uncovers that the charts were produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution and can be found here. Anyone wanting to teach the crisis will find what they need in the charts supplemented of course with the discussion of financial intermediation in Modern Principles and the MRU videos on the Great Recession and the various Business Cycle Theories.
Humans are living longer, better lives thanks to innovations in prescription drugs over the past three decades, according to several new studies by Frank Lichtenberg, the Courtney C. Brown Professor of Business.
Every year, according to Lichtenberg’s research, drugs launched since 1982 are adding 150 million life-years to the lifespans of people in 22 countries that he analyzed. He calculated the average pharmaceutical expenditure per life-year saved at $2,837 — a bargain, he says.
“According to most health economists and policymakers, if you could extend someone’s life by a year for less than $3,000, that is highly cost effective,” says Lichtenberg, who gathered new data for these studies to cast a never-before seen view of the econometrics of prescription drugs. “People might be surprised by how cost-effective drugs appear to be in general.”
…To tease out the answer, the professor gathered data on drug launches and the age-standardized premature mortality rate by country, disease, and year. Drawing on data from the World Health Organization, the United Nations, consulting company IQVIA, and French database Theriaque, Lichtenberg was able to identify the role that pharmaceutical innovation played in reducing the number of years of life lost due to 66 diseases in 27 countries. (“Years of life lost” is an estimate of the average years a person would have lived if he or she had not died prematurely.)
Between 1982 and 2015, for example, the US saw the launch of 719 new drugs, the most of any country in the sample; Israel had about half as many launches. By looking at the resultant change in each country between mortality and disease, Lichtenberg calculated that the years of life lost before the age of 85 in 2013 would have been 2.16 times as high if no new drugs had been launched after 1981. For a subset of 22 countries with more full data, the number of life-years gained in 2013 from drugs launched after 1981 was 148.7 million.
China’s major commercial banks have a funding issue outside Beijing’s control: They’re running low on the U.S. dollars they need for activities both at home and abroad.
The combined dollar liabilities at the big four commercial banks exceeded their dollar assets at the end of 2018, their annual results show—a sharp reversal from just a few years ago. Back in 2013, the four together had around $125 billion more dollar assets than liabilities, but now they owe more dollars to creditors and customers than are owed to them.
Bank of China BACHY -0.66% is by far the greatest contributor to the shift. Once the holder of more net assets in dollars than any other Chinese lender, it ended 2018 owing about $70 billion more in dollar liabilities than it booked in dollar assets. The other three lenders actually finished the year with more dollar assets than liabilities, though Industrial & Commercial Bank of China IDCBY -0.33% had a deficit at the end of 2017.
In its annual report, Bank of China says that its asset-liability imbalance is more than addressed by dollar funding that doesn’t sit on its balance sheet. Instruments like currency swaps and forwards are accounted for elsewhere.
But such off-balance-sheet lending can be flighty. As the Bank for International Settlements notes, the vast majority of currency derivatives mature in under one year, meaning they are up for constant renewal and could evaporate during times of pressure.
Or is it that there’s something wrong with culture, with the funding? Almost no grants go to younger scientists. When it’s scientists under age 40 that make […] of the most big discoveries, 2% of NIH grants go to scientists under age 40. That seems a little bit off. You have a peer-review process where anything heterodox can’t get funded. You have sort of a publish or perish dynamic where you have to do small, incremental things to publish lots of articles that don’t add up to anything ever…
And again, my sort of libertarian cut on what happened would be the history of was that we had a healthy, scientific world that was non-governmental. It was decentralized. It was idiosyncratic. Different people were doing different kinds of things. And in the 1930s, 1940s, it got centralized accelerated. The Manhattan Project…there was actually a way you could accelerate science temporarily by adding tons of money and centralizing…
So the centralization worked. But to use an ecological metaphor, it worked by creating a monoculture. And we’re now two generations in to where that monoculture has been just catastrophic.
That is from this taped dialogue between Peter and Bill Hurlbut, previously linked on MR.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opener:
First, we should not forget that the Federal Reserve system is actually a private corporation of sorts, albeit one with a unique government-backed charter. So if you are on the board of the Fed, you are not just a figurehead — you are responsible for parts of the company. You could be in charge of the Fed’s pension and benefit plans, for instance, or its payments system.
To be sure, running monetary policy for the entire nation, and to some extent the entire world, is more important than the smooth internal workings of the Fed. Still, those managerial responsibilities will impinge on a board member on a regular basis. If he or she screws them up, it will be harder to have high status within the Fed, and harder to keep one’s confidence and emotional equilibrium. Alternatively, a governor might become completely dependent on aides to perform those internal practical functions. That is not conducive toward broader autonomy on monetary policy front, either.
The bottom line is this: A good candidate for the Fed should have at least some practical managerial experience. You don’t have to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but you should be just competent enough to forestall internal crises of bad management and to avoid losing face. For a lot of potential candidates, that is actually a pretty tall order, especially if they come from academia or have unorthodox backgrounds unrelated to finance.
Of course the next board member will also be expected to have well-informed views, however you might define them, on monetary policy and regulation. But it would be a mistake to start with a set of agreeable or required views, and then use it to build a short list of advocates. It bears repeating: For a board member to be effective, political and bureaucratic skills are paramount. Without them, a board member may well end up as counterproductive, even when correct.
6. Interview with Claire Denis, and yes “High Life” is much smarter and better than the reviews indicate (NYT).
Southern Ontario — the most populous part of Canada lying north of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie — displays a similar bottom to top quintile mobility as adjacent regions in Michigan, Ohio, and New York State, most regions being categorized in the 0.05 to 0.10 range. This said, some areas of Quebec adjacent to New York State, Vermont, and New Hampshire display a lower probability than their counterparts in Ontario and New England. Regions with rather high chances of escaping low income and rising to the very top quintile cover the American midwest, where in most Commuting Zones the probability is more than 20 percent, similar probabilities being experienced in the adjacent regions of western Canada.
That is from a new paper by Marie Connolly, Miles Corak, and Catherine Haeck. I take that to be fairly strong evidence for the “culture matters” view of mobility, rather than the “policy is everything” view.
To the extent the United States has lower mobility than Canada, it is largely because so many people here live in the low-mobility regions of the American South.
2. “The Jamaican Stock Exchange sits on the waterfront in Kingston and has surged more than 300% over the last five years. Last year, the main index tracking the country’s stock exchange rose 29%.” And the resurrection of Buju Banton.
3. Robin Hanson on *Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero*. For purposes of context, I see Robin as leading a sustained mood affiliation crusade against hypocrisy, rather than performing comparative analysis of hypocrisy vs. the relevant alternatives.
4. Claims about brain evolution, and Lamarck, speculative, arguably unfounded.
Dueling declined as state capacity, measured by post offices, expanded:
Abstract: Scholars have long tried to understand the conditions under which actors choose to use violent versus non-violent means to settle disputes, and many argue that violence is more likely in weakly-institutionalized settings. Yet, there is little evidence showing that increases in state capacity lowers the use of violent informal institutions to resolve disputes. Utilizing a novel dataset of violence — specifically, duels — across American states in the 19th Century, we use the spread of federal post offices as an identification strategy to investigate the importance of state capacity for the incidence of violent dispute resolution. We find that post office density is a strong, consistent, and negative predictor of dueling behavior. Our evidence contributes to a burgeoning literature on the importance of state capacity for development outcomes.
Hat tip: Kevin Lewis.
Let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that basically all of the complaints about social media are correct. Then let’s also imagine, as Matt Yglesias periodically suggests on Twitter, that Facebook is shut down altogether, toss in Twitter and the others as well.
What would happen?
One possibility is that America would move toward a Chinese-style solution, with heavy censorship of the internet. Still, I think both public opinion and the First Amendment make that outcome unlikely. Furthermore, while the Chinese solution has been relatively practicable (as opposed to desirable) to date, there is no guarantee that will continue to be the case.
Alternatively, without tight censorship substitutes for Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and Twitter will arise, possibly based in other countries if regulation so dictates. They might be less ad-funded, less profitable, and less easy to use, but the basic technologies for “putting every single idea out there” are already out of the box. Furthermore, it won’t be that hard to find and circulate those ideas, including the very bad ones, through a mix of aggregation and search and focused spread and redistribution.
The first question is whether anyone actually thinks that such a world of less heavily capitalized communications entities would lead to greater responsibility. The first cut answer, drawing on basic economics, would seem to be no.
The broader point is the relative popularities of various ideas and sources still will be upended, just as the printing press and radio also had some fairly radical (and not entirely positive) effects in their times. In essence, various intellectual and ideological debates will need to be re-litigated and re-fought over the internet, just as they were redone over television and radio, or earlier through papyrus and also clay tablets, of course with somewhat different results each time.
Many people hate that reality, but a reality it is. Let’s even say you are right to hate that reality (NB: not exactly my view).
a) Go after the companies that make the clay tablets?
b) Go after the clay tablets and try to smash them?
c) Equip yourself to try to win the new intellectual and ideological battles for hearts and minds?
And what should we infer about the spiritual vigor of a society that might so heavily promote options a) and b)?
In fact, recognising a face is only the first step of biometric surveillance, he suggests. “It’s really like an entry-level term to much broader, deeper analysis of people’s biometrics. There’s jaw recognition — the width of your jaw can be used to infer success as CEO, for example. Companies such as Boston-based Affectiva are doing research that analyses faces in real time, to determine from a webcam or in-store camera if someone is going to buy something in your store.”
Other analyses, he adds, can be used to determine people’s tiredness, skin quality and heart rate, or even to lip-read what they are saying. “Face recognition is a very deceiving term, technically, because there’s no limit,” he concludes. “It ends ultimately only with your DNA.”
That is from Madhumita Murgia at the FT.
2. Roger Lowenstein reviews *Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero*. He also offers some criticisms.
4. “Eskom is the greatest systemic risk to the South African economy.” (The Economist)
5. The economics of Renaissance Italian art (pdf).