Month: November 2019
1. Scott Sumner on progress, recommended.
2. “The Tribunal’s members are certain – unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt – that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims.” Link here.
I was pleased to have been invited to deliver the Kenneth Arrow Lecture for the year on Ethics and Leadership, here is the talk, which consists of steelmanning various critics and creating my own, it has quite a bit of new material, plus Q&A with Stanford attendees:
Every year I curse the optometry racket when I run out of contact lenses and have to return to the optometrist to get a “new” prescription. It’s a service that I don’t want and don’t need but am forced to buy by US law which require patients to have a recent doctor’s prescription to buy eyewear. I can stretch out the time by buying months in advance, sometimes I buy when abroad, for a few years I managed to evade the law by buying from Canadian internet sellers but that route has mostly been shut down. Writing in the Atlantic Yascha Mounk notes that around the world no prescription is needed:
In every other country in which I’ve lived—Germany and Britain, France and Italy—it is far easier to buy glasses or contact lenses than it is here. In those countries, as in Peru, you can simply walk into an optician’s store and ask an employee to give you an eye test, likely free of charge. If you already know your strength, you can just tell them what you want. You can also buy contact lenses from the closest drugstore without having to talk to a single soul—no doctor’s prescription necessary.
The excuse for the law is that eye exams can discover other problems. Sure, trade offs are everywhere. Let people make their own decisions. as Mounk concludes:
Like the citizens of virtually every other country around the world, Americans should be allowed to buy any pair of glasses or set of contact lenses at a moment’s notice. While the requirement to get a medical exam from an optometrist who has spent a minimum of seven years in higher education may have good effects in some cases, it also creates unreasonable costs—and unjustifiable suffering….Put Americans in charge of their own vision care, and abolish mandatory eye exams.
Sadly I had to read this book on Kindle, so my usual method of saving passages and ideas by the folded page is failing me. I can tell you this is one of the most interesting (but also flawed) books I read this year, with “family structure is sticky and it determines the fate of your nation” as the basic takeaway.
Todd suggests that the United States actually has a fairly “backward” and un-evolved family structure — exogamy and individualism — not too different from that of hunter-gatherer societies. That makes us very flexible and also well-suited to handle the changing conditions of modernity. Much of the Arab world, in contrast, has a highly complex and evolved and in some ways “more advanced” family structure, involving multiple alliances, overlapping networks, and often cousin marriages. The mistake is to think of those structures as under-evolved outcomes that simply can advance a bit, “loosen up with prosperity,” and allow their respective countries to enter modernity. Rather those structures are stuck in place, and they will interact with the more physical features of globalization and liberalization in interesting and not always pleasant ways. Many of those societies will end up in untenable corners with no full liberalization anywhere in sight. Much of Todd’s book works through what the various options are here, and how they might apply to different parts of the world.
To be clear, half of this book is unsupported, or sometimes just trivial. There were several times I was tempted to just stop reading, but then it became interesting again. Todd covers a great deal of ground (the subtitle is A History of Humanity from the Stone Age to Homo Americanus), not all of it convincingly. But when he makes you think, you really feel he might be on to something.
Todd describes Germany as having a complex, multi-tiered, somewhat authoritarian family structure, and one that does not mesh well with the norms of feminism and individualism that have been entering the country. That family structure is also part of why Germany was, relative to its size, militarily so strong in the earlier part of the twentieth century. He also argues that the countries that stayed communist longer have some common features to their family structure, Cuba being the Latin American outlier in this regard.
Todd makes the strongest bullish case for Russia I have seen. He reports that TFR is back up to 1.8 after an enormous post-communist plunge, migration into the country is strongly positive, and Russia is very good at producing strong, productive women (again due to family structure). If you think human capital matters, the positives here are significant indeed.
Here is some related work by my colleagues Jonathan Schulz and Jonathan Beauchamp on cousin marriage.
You can order Todd’s book here. Recommended, though with significant caveats, mainly for lack of evidence on some of the key propositions.
I was 11 years old when I asked my mum for piano lessons, in 2010. We were in the fallout of the recession and she’d recently been made redundant. She said a polite “no”.
That didn’t deter me. I Googled the dimensions of a keyboard, drew the keys on to a piece of paper and stuck it on my desk. I would click notes on an online keyboard and “play” them back on my paper one – keeping the sound they made on the computer in my head. After a while I could hear the notes in my head while pressing the keys on the paper. I spent six months playing scales and chord sequences without touching a real piano. Once my mum saw it wasn’t a fad, she borrowed some money from family and friends, and bought me 10 lessons.
I still remember the first one. I was struck by how organic the sound of the piano was, as I had become familiar with the artificial electronic sound. The teacher tried to explain where middle C was but I could already play all the major and minor scales, as well as tonic and dominant functions, and the circle of fifths.
Here is the full story by Andrew Garrido. Via Ian Leslie.
The site may be down for a bit, or posts might not appear at the usual time, I am genuinely not sure. Or thing might just be totally normal. But apologies in advance for any service interruption.
Also on Monday, Nevada said it would withdraw from the lawsuit in exchange for early deployment of the next generation of wireless in the state, creation of 450 jobs for six years and a $30 million donation to be distributed by Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford and aimed at helping women and minorities, Ford’s office said.
Here is the story, via Bekir.
3. Swiss asylum-seeker results: “Our baseline result is that cohorts exposed to civil conflict/mass killing during childhood are 35 percent more prone to violent crime than the average cohort.”
Linn Ullmann, Unquiet: A Novel.
Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha.
Aladdin, a new translation by Yasmine Seale.
Broken Stars: Contemporary Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.
Sally Rooney, Normal People: A Novel.
I did try many of the more famous recommended novels of the year, and mostly didn’t like them. Still, I don’t feel this list is coming very close to capturing the year’s best fiction — I think I’ll have a better sense in two or three years and then I will report back. In the meantime, what do you recommend?
When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620 they were cold, hungry and frightened. Imagine their surprise when on March 16 as they unloaded cannon from the Mayflower in preparation for battle an Indian walked into their encampment and asked, “Anyone got a beer?” Seriously, that’s what happened. Samoset, the thirsty Indian, had learned English from occasional fishermen.
Even more fortunate for the Pilgrims was that Somoset was accompanied by Squanto. Squanto had been enslaved 7 years earlier and transported to Spain where he was sold. He then somehow made his way to England and then, amazingly, back to his village in New England around 1619. It’s a horrific story, however, because during his absence Squanto’s entire village and much of the region had been wiped out by disease, almost certainly brought by the Europeans. Nevertheless, in 1621 Squanto was there when the Pilgrims landed and he hammered out an early peace deal and most importantly instructed the settlers how to fertilize their land with fish in order to grow corn.
Squanto instructed them in survival skills and acquainted them with their environment: “He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.”
Anyone got a beer?
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
But as Thanksgiving 2019 approaches, I am struck by another lesson: America’s need to come to terms with a history that, as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans, has remarkably few heroes on the side of the white settlers.
Nor is there any major American political ideology that can sit comfortably with the historical treatment of Native Americans, which has been multipartisan in its awfulness. Many libertarians fail to decry the government coercion involved, since they also wish to invoke the growth of the American republic as a major event in the history of freedom. Even if most libertarians are embarrassed by how much of America’s glory is rooted in land theft and massacres, they do not emphasize land reparations as a solution.
This lack of heroes should also make Americans more reluctant to judge their political opponents so harshly. All of us are part of a system built on longstanding historical crimes, and thus we have more in common with those opponents than we might like to think.
We provide novel systematic evidence on the extent and terms of direct lending by nonbank financial institutions, and explore whether banks are still special in lending to informationally opaque firms. Analyzing hand-collected data for a random sample of publicly-traded middle-market firms during the 2010-2015 period, we show that nonbank lending is widespread, with 32% of all loans being extended by nonbanks. Nonbank borrowers are less profitable, more levered, and more volatile than bank borrowers. Firms with a small negative EBITDA are 34% more likely to borrow from a nonbank than firms with a small positive EBITDA. While nonbank lenders are less likely to monitor by including financial covenants, they are more likely to align incentives through the use of warrants. Controlling for firm and loan characteristics, nonbank loans carry 190 basis points higher interest rates. Overall, our results provide evidence of market segmentation in the commercial loan market, where bank and nonbank lenders utilize different lending techniques and cater to different types of borrowers.
That is from a new NBER working paper by Sergey Chernenko, Isil Erel, and Robert Prilmeier.
It is the same material as already released by Facebook, here is our audio and transcript, you will find our transcript easier to read. Self-recommending!