Month: July 2019

Thursday assorted links

Bryan Caplan on Spain

He spent a bunch of weeks there, there are many good observations, here is one of them:

17. Big question: Why is Spain so much richer now than almost any country in Spanish America?  Before you answer with great confidence, ponder this: According to Angus Maddison’s data on per-capita GDP in 1950, Spain was poorer than Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and roughly equal to Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama.  This is 11 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain of course stayed out of World War II.

And this:

The worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway.

Do read the whole thing.

*The Body: A Guide for Occupants*

That is the title of the new Bill Bryson book, and it delivers in all the ways you would expect a Bryson book to do.  Here is one sample paragraph:

Before penicillin, the closest thing to a wonder drug that existed was Salvarsan, developed by the German immunologist Paul Ehrlich in 1910, but Salvarsan was effective against only a few things, principally syphilis, and had a lot of drawbacks.  For a start, it was made from arsenic, so was toxic, and treatment consisted in injecting roughly a pint of solution into the patient’s arm once a week for fifty weeks or more.  If it wasn’t administered exactly right, fluid could seep into muscle, causing painful and sometimes serious side effects, including the need for amputation.  Doctors who could administer it safely became celebrated.  Ironically, one of the most highly regarded was Alexander Fleming.

By the way:

…the average grave is visited for only about fifteen years…

You can pre-order the book here, I would be interested to read more about Bryson’s work, writing, and research habits.

EU markets in everything?

I had never heard about this before:

The controversial practice of picking corporate sponsors for the European Union‘s rotating presidency is to continue, despite an outcry from MEPs.

EU countries have been raising eyebrows by doing deals with increasingly controversial multinational corporations during their stints overseeing debates at the EU council.

Romania’s presidency in the first half of 2019 was sponsored by Coca-Cola, with the US drinks giant’s logo plastered over banners and signs at meetings. One council summit in Bucharest featured Coca-Cola branded bean bag chairs, and a fridge of free drinks plastered with statistics about the company’s contribution to the economy.

Other sponsors of the council presidency have included car manufacturers, software companies, and other firms with vested interests in influencing EU policy.

But hopes that the incoming Finnish presidency, which took the helm this summer, might end the practice, were dashed after it picked German car manufacturer BMW as a sponsor – despite the firm being hit with a fine over its cars’ diesel emissions earlier this year.

Here is the full story, via Jon Stone.

Profile of Raj Chetty

By Gareth Cook, interesting and excellent throughout, here is one good bit of many:

For example, the strongest correlation is the number of intact families. The explanation seems obvious: A second parent usually means higher family income as well as more stability, a broader social network, additional emotional support, and many other intangibles. Yet children’s upward mobility was strongly correlated with two-parent families only in the neighborhood, not necessarily in their home. There are so many things the data might be trying to say. Maybe fathers in a neighborhood serve as mentors and role models? Or maybe there is no causal connection at all. Perhaps, for example, places with strong church communities help kids while also fostering strong marriages. The same kinds of questions flow from every correlation; each one may mean many things. What is cause, what is effect, and what are we missing? Chetty’s microscope has revealed a new world, but not what animates it—or how to change it.

Here is the full piece.

My Conversation with Neal Stephenson

Here is the transcript and audio, and here is the CWT summary:

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.

And:

COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but you take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.

New materials come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

There is much more at the link, including discussions of some of his best-known novels…

The AEA’s New Data Policy

The AEA has long had a data repository but no one was responsible for examining the data or replicating a paper’s results and confidential data was treated as an exception. All that is about to change. The AEA has hired a Data Editor, Lars Vilhuber. Vilhuber will be responsible for verifying that the author’s code produces the claimed results from the given data. In some cases Vilhuber will even verify results from raw data all the way to table output.

The new data policy is a significant increase in the requirements to publish in an AEA journal. It takes an immense amount of work to document in a replicable way every step of the empirical process. It’s all to the good, of course, but it is remarkable how little economists train our students in these techniques and make no mistake writing code to be replicable from day one is an art and a science and it needs to be part of the econometrics sequence. All hail Gentzkow and Shapiro!

Here’s more information:

On July 10, 2019, the Association adopted an updated Data and Code Availability Policy, which can be found at https://www.aeaweb.org/journals/policies/data-code. The goal of the new policy is to improve the reproducibility and transparency of materials supporting research published in the AEA journals by providing improved guidance on the types of materials required, increased quality control, and more review earlier in the publication process.

What’s new in the policy? Several items of note:

  • A central role for the AEA Data Editor. The inaugural Data Editor was appointed in January 2018 and will oversee the implementation of the new policy.

  • The policy now clearly applies to code as well as data and explains how to proceed when data cannot be shared by an author. The Data Editor will regularly ask for the raw data associated with a paper, not just the analysis files, and for all programs that transform raw data into those from which the paper’s results are computed. Replication archives will now be requested prior to acceptance, rather than during the publication process after acceptance, providing more time for the Data Editor to review materials.

  • Will the Data Editor’s team run authors’ code prior to acceptance? Yes, to the extent that it is feasible. The code will need to produce the reported results, given the data provided. Authors can consult a generic checklist, as well as the template used by the replicating teams.

  • Will code be run even when the data cannot be posted? This was once an exemption, but the Data Editor will now attempt to conduct a reproducibility check of these materials through a third party who has access to the (confidential or restricted) data.  Such checks have already been successfully conducted using the protocol outlined here.

Pessoa, *Philosophical Essays*

The half-sceptic speaks like Socrates, I know only that I know nothing.  The whole sceptic speaks like Francisco Sanches: Haud scio me nihil scire, I do not even know if I know nothing.

And:

The end of reason is a weariness of thinking.  Yet reason is so strong that even its weariness is a part of its strength and we dream rationally if we have learnt reason.

Those bits are from this (uneven) volume.

That was then, this is now

The data came from Facebook:

During Obama’s initial 2008 bid for office, his team had already embraced technology in a greater capacity than any before it, assembling massive email lists and other targeted initiatives that earned Obama historic fundraising tallies. But for 2012, campaign manager Jim Messina wanted to take things even further.

To get there, his staff needed to link what had previously been disjointed databases of voter information (collected by volunteers, pollsters, and other campaign workers) into a single, comprehensive pool unrivaled in detail and scope. Whereas most voter logs used by campaigns often list only names and telephone numbers, Obama’s advanced tool dove into specifics like age, race, district, and voting history: it allowed field workers to rank voters intelligently and not waste time chasing unlikely votes.

Here is the article from The Verge, via the excellent Ben Thompson.  I recall similarly glowing coverage from The New York Times.

What is the America-China trade war all about?

That is the subject of my latest Bloomberg column, and here are the closing bits:

So that means the trade war is really all about Huawei and Taiwan. If the U.S. persists in trying to eliminate Huawei as a major company, by cutting off its American-supplied inputs and intimidating foreign customers and suppliers for Huawei equipment, it will be difficult for the Chinese to accept. In this case, the reluctance to make a deal will be on the Chinese side, and the structure and relative power of the various American interest groups are not essential to understanding the outcome.

The question, then, is whether the U.S. national security establishment, and in turn Congress (which has been heavily influenced on this question), will accept a compromise on Huawei. Maybe that means no Huawei communications technologies for the U.S. and its closest intelligence-sharing allies, but otherwise no war against the company. That is the first critical question to watch in the unfolding of this trade war. The answer is not yet known, though it seems Trump is willing to deal.

The second major question, equally important but less commented upon, is Taiwan. China has long professed a desire to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, using force if necessary. If you belong to the U.S. national security establishment, and you think a confrontation with China is necessary sooner or later, if only because of Taiwan, you would prefer sooner, before China gains in relative strength. And that militates in favor of the trade war continuing and possibly even escalating, as the U.S. continues to push against China and there is simply no bargain to be had.

It is far from clear what a U.S.-China deal over the status of Taiwan could look like. How much Americans actually care about Taiwan is debatable, but the U.S. is unlikely to abandon a commitment that would weaken its value as an ally around the world. And unlike with Huawei, it is difficult to see what a de-escalation of this issue might look like.

So: If the Huawei and Taiwan questions can be resolved, then the trade war should be eminently manageable. Now, does that make you optimistic or pessimistic?

There is much more at the link.

Tuesday assorted links

India’s Tallest Building Cut Down To Size

The FT writes about the bust in India’s construction sector:

It was meant to be the tallest building in India, with luxury flats, a swimming pool and cinema where billionaires and Bollywood stars could enjoy a life of perfect splendour looking down over the Mumbai skyline.

But the Palais Royale complex now sits unfinished alongside other partially built structures tangled in the megacity’s traffic-choked downtown streets, an apt symbol of a crisis that threatens a key part of India’s financial system.

Part of the problem is cyclic, a shadow banking system that overextended credit and is now having to deleverage. India’s construction sector, however, is also plagued by systematic issues including the fact that major construction projects are invariably sued and thus become entangled with India’s notoriously slow legal system. Drawing on a Brookings India working paper by Gandhi, Tandel, Tabarrok and Ravi the FT notes:

But progress was soon slowed by legal challenges over allegedly unauthorised features, sparking a series of delays….However grand the planned building, Palais Royale’s woes fit a familiar pattern: 30 per cent of real estate projects and half of all built-up space in Mumbai is under litigation, according to a 2019 Brookings India report, with projects taking an average of eight and a half years to complete.

The health care public option in Washington state

This excellent Sarah Kliff NYT article is from a few weeks ago, but I missed it the first time around.  Here is the clincher:

“The whole debate was about the rate mechanism,” said Mr. Frockt, the state senator. “With the original bill, with Medicare rates [for the state’s public option], there was strong opposition from all quarters. The insurers, the hospitals, the doctors, everybody.”

Mr. Frockt and his colleagues ultimately raised the fees for the public option up to 160 percent of Medicare rates.

“I don’t think the bill would have passed at Medicare rates,” Mr. Frockt said. “I think having the Medicare-plus rates was crucial to getting the final few votes.”

Nonetheless the piece is interesting throughout, and illustrates some basic dilemmas with health care reform and public options in particular, especially when a sector is controlled by powerful lobbies.