Month: August 2019
1. MIE: Atomik Vodka from Chernobyl.
2. Review of Honeyland, recommended.
3. Claims about Singapore (The Economist).
I’d like to see the cost-benefit analysis on this one before signing up, but an intriguing idea:
Vertical Forest is a model for a sustainable residential building, a project for metropolitan reforestation contributing to the regeneration of the environment and urban biodiversity without the implication of expanding the city upon the territory. It is a model of vertical densification of nature within the city that operates in relation to policies for reforestation and naturalization of large urban and metropolitan borders. The first example of the Vertical Forest consisting of two residential towers of 110 and 76 m height, was realized in the centre of Milan, on the edge of the Isola neighborhood, hosting 800 trees (each measuring 3, 6 or 9 meters), 4,500 shrubs and 15,000 plants from a wide range of shrubs and floral plants distributed according to the sun exposure of the facade. On flat land, each Vertical Forest equals, in amount of trees, an area of 20,000 square meters of forest. In terms of urban densification it is the equivalent of an area of a single family dwelling of nearly 75,000 sq.m. The vegetal system of the Vertical Forest contributes to the construction of a microclimate, produces humidity, absorbs CO2 and dust particles and produces oxygen.
1. Favorite playwright: Carlo Goldoni, eighteenth century, best if you can see one rather than try to read it.
2. Play, set in: William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice. Read it carefully and repeatedly, it is far subtler on issues of racism and prejudice than you might have been expecting.
3. Opera, set in: Verdi’s Otello (James Levine recording). Even as a dramatic work I (perhaps oddly) prefer this to Shakespeare’s play.
4. Memoir, set in: Casanova, though I suggest you read an abridged edition. I strongly recommend reading Marco Polo as well, though I am not sure that counts as a “memoir.”
5. Short story, set in: Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice.” But a close runner-up is Henry James, “The Aspern Papers.”
Are you getting the picture? Venice has inspired numerous major writers and artists. However I don’t love John Ruskin on Venice.
6. Painting: Ah! Where to start? I’ll opt for Giorgione’s The Tempest, or any number of late Titian works. And there are so many runners-up, starting with Veronese, Tintoretto, the Bellinis, and later Tiepolo. Even a painter as good as Sebastiano del Piombo is pretty far down the list here. Canaletto bores me, though the technique is impressive.
8. Composer: I can’t quite bring myself to count Monteverdi as Venetian, so that leaves me with Luigi Nono and also Gabrieli and Albioni and Vivaldi, none of whom I enjoy listening to.
10. Photographer of: Derek Parfit, here are some images.
11. Movie, set in: I can recall the fun Casino Royale James Bond scene, but surely there is a better selection attached to a better movie. What might that be?
11. Maxim about: Pope Gregory XIII: “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.”
All in all, not bad for a city that nowadays has no more than 60,000 residents and was never especially large.
I’ll be there in a few days time.
A Taco Bell hotel with Taco Bell themed items and equipment:
Just as guests began arriving at The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort on Thursday, a viral tweet made the rounds connecting the fast food chain to conservative-leaning political contributions made by its corporate parent, YUM! Brands. Would that cast a cloud over the pop-up activation, which had been in the works for over a year? Would the flood of Instagram influencers, YouTube vloggers, and Taco Bell enthusiasts be less likely to gleefully share their Fire Sauce-smothered content? The answer, of course, was no.
People really, really love Taco Bell. Every reservation for The Bell’s four-night run ($169 per night) booked up in under two minutes.
Here is the full story, via Shaffin.
4. “It was found that both attorneys and physicians are disciplined at a rate at least seven times that of CPAs. While the majority of disciplinary actions are for misconduct directly related to the professional practice, nearly 14% of sanctions were the result of “social crimes” such as failure to pay child support or student loans, driving under the influence, and general unprofessional conduct.” Link here.
5. “Mud is a family business; it has been for more than half a century. For decades, baseball’s official rule book has required that every ball be rubbed before being used in a game. Bintliff’s mud is the only substance allowed.”
The author is Andrew McAfee and the subtitle is The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources — And What Happens Next.
I am a fan of Andrew’s work more generally, and most of all I am pleased to announce this is a book full of good economic reasoning. From the publisher’s attachment:
How did we start getting more from less? Largely because of two unlikely heroes: capitalism and technological progress. As the book explains, capitalism’s relentless quest for profits is also an endless search for lower costs — after all, a penny saved is a penny earned — and natural resources cost money. Tech progress gives companies countless opportunities to dematerialize: to use bits instead of atoms, and so consume fewer resources even as they grow.
I have yet to read my way through all of the book, and I will be reporting more on this. I can assure you, however, that Andrew is not a denialist on the issues where worry really is called for. Here is the Marc Andreessen blurb:
“In More from Less Andrew McAfee conclusively demonstrates how environmentalism requires more technology and capitalism, not less. Our modern technologies actually dematerialize our consumption, giving us higher human welfare with lower material inputs. This is an urgently needed and clear-eyed view of how to have our technological cake and eat it too.”
In any case, I wanted to bring this book to your attention as soon as possible.
Let’s say you want to read some books on Venice, maybe because you are traveling there, or you are just curious about the Renaissance, or about the history of the visual arts.
Maybe you will write me and ask: “Tyler, which books should I read on Venice?” Now, there are many fine books on Venice, but I actually would not approach the problem in that manner. In fact, I don’t know a single particular “must read” book on Venice that stands out above all others, nor do I know a book that necessarily will draw you in to the study of Venice if you are not already interested.
I instead suggest a “rabbit holes” strategy, a term coined in this context by Devon Zuegel. Come up with a bunch of questions about Venice you want answered, and then simply do whatever you must to pursue them. Here are a few such possible questions, drawn up by me:
How did Venetian architecture draw upon Byzantine styles?
How did the Venetian salt trade evolve? Glasswork? Publishing?
What were the origins of accounting in Venice?
Why did Gordon Tullock think the Venetians had the finest and wisest constitution of history? How much power did the Doge really have?
How did the different Bellinis reflect different eras of Venetian history, both artistic and otherwise?
How did oil painting come to Venice and why did it become so prominent there?
Why are late Titian paintings better than almost everything else in the visual arts?
What factors led to the decline of Venice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? How did Napoleon treat Venice?
Now, those are just sample questions, obviously you could come up with your own and add to or alter that list. But here is the thing: simply pursue the list of questions. It may well induce you to buy books, such as this work on Venetian architecture and the East. Or it may lead you down Googled rabbit holes. Or it may lead you to…
Follow the questions, not the books per se. Don’t focus on which books to read, focus on which questions to ask. Then the books, and other sources, will follow almost automatically.
Read in clusters! Don’t obsess over titles. Obsess over questions. That is how to learn best about many historical areas, especially when there is not a dominant book or two which beat out all the others.
My question: Is it ever possible for an individual book to present and realize this very process for you? If not, why not?
I don’t believe this result, from David S. Yeager, et.al., but I put it out for your consideration, just published in Nature and receiving much attention:
A global priority for the behavioural sciences is to develop cost-effective, scalable interventions that could improve the academic outcomes of adolescents at a population level, but no such interventions have so far been evaluated in a population-generalizable sample. Here we show that a short (less than one hour), online growth mindset intervention—which teaches that intellectual abilities can be developed—improved grades among lower-achieving students and increased overall enrollment to advanced mathematics courses in a nationally representative sample of students in secondary education in the United States. Notably, the study identified school contexts that sustained the effects of the growth mindset intervention: the intervention changed grades when peer norms aligned with the messages of the intervention. Confidence in the conclusions of this study comes from independent data collection and processing, pre-registration of analyses, and corroboration of results by a blinded Bayesian analysis.
Big if true, as they say. Via many of you, thanks.
Addendum: Alex covered this as a working paper last year with more details.
1. “A Finnish company is saying that they have managed to create “food out thin air”—and it could be hitting out grocery store shelves within the next two years.
The engineers at Solar Foods have succeeded in making a protein powder using only CO2, water, vitamins, and renewable electricity.
The powder, which they have called Solein, was created using technology that was developed by NASA. It reportedly looks and tastes just like wheat flour, except it is made up of 50% protein.” Link here.
5. “A same-sex couple in Beijing have become the first in the city to complete the process of being named as each other’s legal guardian in what is being seen as a major step forward in the protection of LGBT rights.“
“A 2015 study of self-checkouts with handheld scanners, conducted by criminologists at the University of Leicester, also found evidence of widespread theft. After auditing 1 million self-checkout transactions over the course of a year, totaling $21 million in sales, they found that nearly $850,000 worth of goods left the store without being scanned and paid for. The Leicester researchers concluded that the ease of theft is likely inspiring people who might not otherwise steal to do so…. As one retail employee told the researchers, ‘People who traditionally don’t intend to steal [might realize that] … when I buy 20, I can get five for free.’
I have been following a bunch of Twitter discussions around this topic, but I would like a firm estimate — if only your guesstimate — how much more German spending on infrastructure would boost general rates of return. One side question is whether such a policy might drag Germany out of its current negative yield equilibrium.
There is (I think) general agreement on a few magnitudes, noting that the moving averages may be more relevant than last year’s numbers:
Government consumption in Germany is modestly below 20% of gdp.
Total government spending in Germany is modestly below 50% of gdp.
Germany could and should spend another 1% or 2% more of gdp boosting its infrastructure.
The current German unemployment rate is about 3%.
Germany runs large trade surpluses, relative to gdp, so the aggregate demand shortfall there cannot be biting too hard.
It would be good for the Eurozone as a whole if the ECB were to adopt a more expansionary monetary policy, at least under some conditions (so no need to reiterate that in the comments).
OK, so here is the thought experiment. Let’s say Germany spends 2% of gdp more a year on roads, better internet speed, upgrading airports — whatever is best. And they do this each year for “as long as it takes.”
As we approach the new steady-state, how much higher is the private return on capital? (And what is then the implied rate of return on fiscal policy?)
Note that the higher taxes, even if you postpone them through debt, will involve some deadweight loss and output restrictions sooner or later.
And what is the chance that brings Germany out of negative yield territory on its government securities?
Inquiring minds wish to know.
Addendum: Keep in mind that most government projects these days are not direct output, rather they are inputs toward selling or producing further private sector outputs. So you build a better road so more people can get to the store, and the journey of the supply trucks is easier too. That means when the private sector activity shows constant returns to scale, while the greater output will be desirable, the private rate of return on those activities won’t be going up at all, not in the steady state. So a big chunk of the government spending, while it may boost consumer surplus, won’t increase rates of return period.
According to this study (its p.8 source is official but I cannot verify “according to the author’s calculations”) the rate of return on private capital in Germany in 2013 was slightly below four percent. But say you have a capital share of output at about fifty percent and a four percent yield on that. Capital then is giving you an extra 2% a year of gdp, it would seem. Say that by spending 2% of gdp on infrastructure you could double the rate of return on all that capital (which seems implausible to me I might add). You are then spending about 2% of gdp a year to get…about 2% of gdp a year. I am sure those are not the correct, exact numbers but…what is the better non-question-begging way to think about the problem?
Your best bet of course is to invoke project durability. Say you spend 2% of gdp for seven years (Germany isn’t so quick at building things), and you get infrastructure that lasts say twenty years before needing another upgrade. Years 8-20 it is pure bonanza (except the higher taxes may be kicking in then). That is indeed why I think the spending is a good idea. But that is hardly “stimulus.” It is much closer to “we forgo valuable output for a bunch of years and much later people are better off with better roads and yes long-run growth is important.”
Of course that explains why the current government is less than enthusiastic to do this “stimulus.” The Merkel government isn’t stupid, it simply has a limited time horizon, and it doesn’t assume that demand-side economics is a free lunch at three percent unemployment.
And by the way, that spending is not, over any time horizon, likely to actually double the private rate of return on capital.
Along the way, how are the negative yields supposed to disappear? In year eight, when the net benefits finally kick in? Reflected in the term structure now, for the arrival of year eight? (Really?) In the meantime, the German economy is modestly poorer.
If you disagree, please show your work. No moralizing about austerity or surplus countries, please. Show your work.
It turns out I will be there for a few days, unexpectedly. I haven’t been in about fifteen years — what do you recommend?
I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and counsel.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and they chose an excellent photo to go with it. Excerpt:
A lot of current clothing innovations focus on gimmicks. There is a “Social Escape Dress,” which can “emit a cloud of fog when the wearer is feeling stressed.” Maybe that is fun, but what economic problem does it solve? And won’t it stress the wearer more? I suspect that the more durable clothing innovations will be more practical.
The first major practical problem is that clothes have to be cleaned, a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. To remedy this problem, imagine a futuristic closet with cleaning and dry-cleaning functions (the materials of the clothes themselves could evolve to make this easier and less dangerous). A wardrobe system that cleans itself would be a big plus for many people. While I don’t see this technological advance as imminent, neither do I see it as unreachable.
A second major problem with clothes is that they have to be stored. Urban space is currently quite scarce and expensive, a reality unlikely to change anytime soon. Easily foldable and contractible clothes and shoes will therefore be at a premium, but of course the question is how to get them back into proper shape with a minimum amount of effort. That again suggests a home device — far more efficient than the iron — to get clothes into proper shape, which in turn will allow for more clothes to be rolled up and put away. Cleaning your clothes and storing your clothes are closely related problems, and in my optimistic vision they will be solved together.
Another source of big welfare gains could be quite prosaic:
At the upper end of the market, it is possible to make exclusive fashion more affordable, while still looking great. In a given fashion season the number of “in” styles could continue to expand, through the use of social media such as Instagram. That makes the market more competitive. Indeed it is already a trend that you can look “cool” and sophisticated without having to buy the most expensive dress from Milan or Paris. More market niches allow for the production of more reputation and glamour.
There is much more at the link.
Finally, a good news story about credit card debt.
U.S.-based Chase Bank is forgiving all outstanding debt owed by users of its two Canadian credit cards: the Amazon.ca Rewards Visa and the Marriott Rewards Premier Visa. The bank retired both cards last year and said it’s wiping out cardholders’ debt to complete its exit from the Canadian credit card market.
Affected customers can’t believe their luck.
“I was sort of over the moon all last night, with a smile on my face,” said Douglas Turner, of Coe Hill, Ont., after learning he’s off the hook for the $6,157 still owing on his now-defunct Amazon Visa. “I couldn’t believe it.”
After 13 years in the Canadian market, Chase decided to fold its two Visa cards in March 2018.
The bank — which is part of global financial services firm JPMorgan Chase & Co. — wouldn’t say how many Canadians had signed up for the cards or how much debt was outstanding.
Here is more, via Shaffin.