Month: December 2019
A Roman Catholic church in rural Louisiana hoping to maximize its blessings has come up with a way to do it: filling up a crop-duster plane with holy water and letting the sanctified liquid mist an entire community.
“We can bless more area in a shorter amount of time,” Rev. Matthew Barzare of St. Anne Church in Cow Island, La., told NPR.
Following this past Saturday’s mass, parishioners from the church in southwestern Louisiana headed to an airstrip about five minutes away from the church.
Churchgoers brought with them 100 gallons of water, which was loaded into the crop duster.
“I blessed it there, and we waited for the pilot to take off,” Barzare said, noting that it was the largest amount of water he had ever turned holy.
“I’ve blessed some buckets for people and such, but never that much water,” he said.
The pilot had instructions to drizzle certain parts of the community, including churches, schools, grocery stores and other community gathering places.
Word of it raining blessings spread fast in Cow Island, which Barzare points out is not really an island. But when hurricanes strike, he said, the community is typically surrounded by water, hence the name.
The market value of outstanding federal government debt in the U.S. exceeds the expected present discounted value of current and future primary surpluses by a multiple of U.S. GDP. When the pricing kernel fits U.S. equity and Treasury prices and the government surpluses are consistent with U.S. post-war data, a government debt valuation puzzle emerges. Since tax revenues are pro-cyclical while government spending is counter-cyclical, the tax revenue claim has a higher short-run discount rate and a lower value than the spending claim. Since revenue and spending are co-integrated with GDP, the long-run risk discount rates of both claims are much higher than the long Treasury yield. These forces imply a negative present value of U.S. government surpluses. Convenience yields for Treasurys are much larger than previously thought and/or U.S. Treasury markets have failed to enforce the no-bubble condition.
That is from a new NBER working paper by Zhengyang Jiang, Hanno Lustig, Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, and Mindy Z. Siaolan.
2. The Economist on Peter Chang and the revolution in Chinese cuisine. Price variability is rising in the Chinese cuisine market.
6. “Relative to low-income households, high-income households enjoy 40 percent higher utility per dollar expenditure in wealthy cities, relative to poor cities. Similar patterns are observed across stores in different neighborhoods. Most of this variation is explained by differences in the product assortment offered, rather than the relative prices charged, by chains that operate in different markets.” Link here.
Libya, Yemen, Equatorial Guinea, Greece, the Central African Republic, Sudan, East Timor, Lebanon, Greece, and Trinidad & Tobago. In Syria and Venezuela data collection has stopped altogether, but they would make the list too.
Ethiopia had the highest growth rate of the decade, with Nauru, Rwanda, Ghana, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Laos, China, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Myanmar as other winners too. Note that the numbers for Turkmenistan are disputed, especially for the last few years of the decade, but still the country had a strong performance early on.
Here is the full FT piece by Steve Johnson.
That was a question I asked someone while discussing the topic of careers, in this case academic careers but it applies more broadly. Virtually by definition, the major pressures are toward conformity, yet a budding innovator may wish to stay weird for purposes of superior creativity and perhaps enjoyment as well. What strategies can be used, or passively allowed to operate (in case one is weird already) to stay weird?
I thought of a few options:
1. Adhere to a weird ideology.
Libertarianism used to serve this function fairly well. If you were a libertarian, the mainstream forces might decide you are hopeless and stop pressuring you to conform. Furthermore, your libertarian peer group would encourage you to stay weird, so that you would stick with them and also weirdness was all they knew.
But these days libertarianism isn’t so weird anymore, even if most people strongly disagree with it. (“You want to legalize all drugs? Ho hum. Just yesterday I read a guy on the internet who wants…”) And there is a libertarian establishment that will encourage you to conform more than it encourages you to stay weird.
You might thus opt for a weirder view yet, perhaps to be found in the Bay Area. In any case, this strategy deserves to make the list, even if it does not always work or is less effective than it used to be. This gets at one of the problems with the internet, namely that by normalizing or at least regularizing the weird, it can be harder to actually stay weird.
Nonetheless support for Trump may offer some new hope here, even though he won 48 percent of the vote.
2. Be gay or lesbian or bisexual.
No longer so effective in keeping you out of the mainstream, mostly for good reasons, but there is a cultural loss attached to this progress.
3. Be a jerk.
People might then just ignore you altogether, or conspire against you. Either way, the pressures toward conformity will weaken. Still, you have to be a jerk and that is a high cost for you and for others. I don’t recommend this method, but it does seem to have worked for a number of leading scientists, just ask Eric Weinstein for his list.
4. Move to the middle of nowhere. Or move to another country.
The internet might be limiting the effectiveness of this strategy too, although it lowers its costs for the same reasons.
5. Cultivate a highly unusual physical appearance.
6. Marry someone from another country.
A weird country, preferably.
7. Develop a small group of intensely weird but smart friends, and treat them as your relevant audience.
A very good path, though due to the problems with the other options, your weird friends might themselves turn too normal. This may require a kind of collective bootstrapping method.
8. Read extensively in weird areas, outside the present and outside of your home nation, and refuse to read much news.
9. Adopt impenetrable terminology.
Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoord-enenthurnuk to that one!
10. Blog rather than tweet. Stay off Twitter altogether.
11. Avoid conference attendance. Especially for conferences that are more than five years old.
12. Avoid becoming famous for reasons other than your weirdness.
13. Develop and maintain a highly unusual family structure.
What else might you try?
Here is a fantastic Politico essay by Marc J. Dunkelman, telling the whole story of Penn Station, new and old, and how it came to pass that New York finds it so difficult to construct new infrastructure. Here is one short excerpt from a much longer story:
Since the mid-1960s—really since the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island—no major new piece of public infrastructure has been built within the five boroughs of New York City.
And toward the end:
For anyone convinced that government is an indispensable tool in the progressive mission to improve peoples’ lives, Penn Station is a monument to conservatism. If public officials can’t even clear the way for a serviceable facility at the nation’s busiest transit hub, why give them any more authority?
Recommended. By the way, Madison Square Garden is now a dump and should be rebuilt from scratch, somewhere else of course.
3. Politically correct takes on The Rise of Skywalker (full of spoilers).
5. Grand Rapids, Rochester, Buffalo, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City are the American cities with the shortest average commutes. On the other side of the distribution: “In the New York metropolitan area, 3.8 percent of traveling commuters reach their jobs by transit in less than 30 minutes. The San Francisco is second, at 2.7 percent, more than one quarter lower than New York.”
6. “Rio averages 24 shootouts per day. Large hours-long gun battles often don’t even make the headlines.” The link focuses on data on the bullets.
The show’s producer, the excellent Jeff Holmes, interviews me about what I thought of the year’s episodes (including most underrated), here is the audio and transcript, a very fun episode for me to do. We cover:
…who was most challenging guest to prep for, the most popular — and the most underrated — conversation, a test of Tyler’s knowledge called “Name That Production Function,” listener questions from Twitter, how Tyler has boosted his productivity in the past year, and whether his book and movie picks from 2009 still hold up.
And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.
Here are some projects I’d like to see funded, some through my own ventures, or others through alternative mechanisms. On these issues, the right person could have an enormous impact, whether through the research side or directly coming up with actionable ideas, including of course creating and building companies.
More studies of super-effective people. Either individually or collectively. If you take the outliers in any domain, what should our intuitions be for understanding the underlying processes determining how many people could have ended up in those positions? How many people had the right genes but had the wrong upbringing? How many people had the right genes and the right upbringing but the wrong luck, or perhaps society failed them in some other manner? The answers to these questions have significant policy implications.
A comprehensive analysis and critique of the NIH and NSF. The US funds more science research than any other country — about $35 billion per year on the NIH and $8 billion per year on the NSF. How exactly do these institutions work? How have they changed over time and have these changes been for good or bad? Based on what we now know, how might we better structure the NIH and NSF? What experiments should we run or what kind of studies should we perform?
Why is life expectancy so long in Hong Kong? Life expectancy in Hong Kong is 84.23 years, more than five years longer than the US and the highest in the world. Hong Kong is not that wealthy (median household income is $38,000 USD); it’s somewhat polluted; people don’t obviously eat what seems like a healthy diet; and they don’t seem to exercise a great deal. What should we learn from this?
Bloomberg Terminal for everything. This might be a nonprofit, a company, or a government project. To state the obvious, many analyses hinge on having the right data. If you’re in finance, getting the right data is often easy: just pull it up on your Bloomberg terminal. But there is no practical way to ask “what most correlates with life expectancy in Hong Kong?” (See above on that topic.) Figure out a way to build a growing corpus of structured data across the broadest variety of domains.
A comprehensive guide to the American healthcare system. The American healthcare system is by far the world’s biggest and also by a considerable margin the world’s most influential. Yet there is no comprehensive, dispassionate, and analytical disaggregation of how it all works. Who are the actors and what are their incentives? To the degree that the relationships between different entities are in equilibrium, what are the forces ensuring they stay there? What is the Sankey diagram of fund flows within the U.S. healthcare system?
Better answers for how to quantify worker productivity. In most knowledge industries, companies have nothing better than highly subjective measures (i.e., supervisors’ assessments) of worker productivity. In theory, it seems significant improvements should be possible. In the short term, is it possible to measure the productivity or efficacy of individual managers, software engineers, educators, scientists? How about teams, and what size of team? And can we do so without creating Goodhart’s Law problems?
What should Widodo do? Indonesia is a large, populous middle-income country. It faces no major near-term security threats. It has a small manufacturing base and no major non-commodity export sectors. What is the best non-bureaucratic 10 page economic development briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for Indonesia’s president? For Indonesia, substitute Philippines, Chile, or Morocco.
A comparative study of foundations and their efficacy. Philanthropic foundations are behind a lot of important work. But how does a foundation decide what it wants and how the resulting grants should be structured? How effective are the programs of that foundation? In practice, how have its institutional mechanisms evolved? Imagine some kind of resource that answered these questions for the major American foundations.
Institutional critiques. More broadly, there is no discipline of institutional criticism. There is a very rich literature of policy criticism in economics, journalism, and non-fiction books. There is also a rich literature of “corporate criticism”: there are thousands of articles about how Facebook (budget: $20 billion) works and how it might be good or bad. But there is relatively little analysis of the most important institutions in our society: government departments. How is the Department of Agriculture (budget: $150 billion) organized and how effective or not is it? How about the Department of Energy (budget: $32 billion)? And why are not those questions paramount in the minds of policymakers?
Cultures of excellence. If you ask informed Filipinos why the street food is mediocre, they will tell you that Philippines lacks a “culture of excellence”. It seems that some kind of “culture of doing things really well” has very persistent and generalizable effects. South Korea and Japan have developed much more rapidly than many Asian countries, despite many others adopting relatively free “Washington Consensus”-style trade policies. Russia still has higher GDP per capita than Mexico despite Mexico’s economic policies having been much better than Russia’s for many, many decades at this point. How should we think about cultures of excellence?
Regeneration at the government layer. Herbert Kaufman (unsurprisingly) concludes in an empirical study that government organizations don’t die. While we might all agree that this is a problem, actionable solutions are in short supply. What can or should we do about this?
IQ paradox. Ron Unz points out that intergenerational variation of IQ may be much higher than is often assumed, citing Ireland and Croatia as examples. For instance, not long ago Ireland had sub-par measured IQ and now that figure is much higher, following growth and prosperity. The policy implications of IQ disparities across nations may therefore be different to what might otherwise obviously follow: perhaps environment matters much more than is assumed. If so, what should we be doing more or less of?
Credible plans for new top-tier universities. 7 of the best 25 universities in the world (Times ranking) were started in the US between 1861 and 1891 by ambitious reformers. It’s probably harder in many ways to start an impactful new university today… but it’s likely not impossible and the returns to doing so successfully might be very high. What might be a good plan? Why have so few of these plans come to fruition?
Summaries of the state of knowledge in different fields. As a general matter, a lot of oral knowledge in the world is still not readily available, and reflection on this fact might lead one in many interesting directions. One obvious application is helping people more readily understand the present state of affairs in different domains. If I want to know “how we’re doing” in, say, antiviral drug development, I could spend a few hours hunting for top researchers, email a few, and perhaps get on calls to obtain their candid assessments. Are we making good progress? What are the most important open problems? What’s holding things back? And so on. How can we make all of this knowledge publicly available across all fields?
Mechanisms for better matching. One of the single interventions that could do the most to improve global welfare would be to improve the efficiency of the partner/marriage matching ecosystem. Online dating demonstrates that significant change (and maybe even improvement?) is possible, with some figures suggesting that up to two thirds of relationships in the US may now be initiated through online dating services. Accomplished people often seem to struggle with this challenge. Good solutions would be important.
What should Durkan do? Jenny Durkan is the current mayor of Seattle. As cities become more important loci of economic activity in the world, the importance of effective city governance will increase. As with the Widodo challenge, what is the best 10 page briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for her? What about Baltimore and St. Louis?
From my latest Bloomberg column:
The key point is the difference between income and wealth. GDP and related numbers measure income flows: namely, the quantity of goods and services produced in a given nation in a given year. Wealth is a measure of the total stock of resources in a nation and is much higher. Furthermore, the gap between wealth and income is usually higher for nations that have been wealthy and stable for a very long time, such as the U.S.
When it comes to national wealth, the U.S. has a big lead over China, possibly as much as three times greater. That is a very rough estimate by Michael Beckley of Tufts University, drawing on data from the World Bank and the United Nations.
For a relevant pointer to Beckley, I thank Evan Abramsky of AEI.
3. Does the United States or China have more bargaining power? “Beijing also failed in the demand it most wanted – for the US to relax the restrictions and bans imposed on Chinese technology, such as is blacklisting of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.” While I don’t agree with their economic analysis of the trade deficit, the above-linked piece is a very useful corrective to most of what you read from the Anglo press on the trade deal. I just don’t get Scott Sumner’s unwillingness — expressed here — to frame the trade deal in national security terms. That changes everything, and it is obviously true.
5. The culture that is a German Santa shortage: “In the past, she says, the Santas under her watch didn’t ask for much. “But now, supply and demand regulate the market, and that’s a very dangerous development,” she says. “One agency has chosen to keep prices at 45 euros per Santa visit, but I’ve had to go up to 66. Others are asking for up to 120 euros.””
S&P Global: Four Republican lawmakers have authored new legislation to permit drugs for critically ill patients to enter the market before completing late-stage trials, saying the bill was necessary because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory process was too slow and burdensome.
The bill would create a time-limited conditional approval pathway in the U.S. similar to a system that has long been used by European regulators.
…The conditional approval would be valid for one year and could be renewed annually for up to five years….Companies would be required to meet certain obligations, like completing clinical investigations to provide full demonstration of safety and effectiveness and other studies.
…Companies could seek full U.S. approval at any time. The FDA would be required to let manufacturers include in their applications the real-world evidence they collected during the conditional approval period.
The lawmakers want the FDA to be able to grant the limited marketing authorization to new drugs that have successfully completed phase 1 and 2 trials, with the idea that companies could generate revenue to help fund their phase 3 studies.
They emphasized their legislation is targeted especially at small biopharmaceutical companies that may struggle to cover the costs of late-stage trials.
Under the dual-track approval system, companies would be able to sell pharmaceuticals earlier but would be required to track outcomes so greater real world information would be developed in the FDA process. The result is a more dynamic approval process better suited to modern medicine. The idea is due to the excellent Bartley J. Madden (note my bias).
Madden and Nobel-prize winner Vernon Smith explained the dual-track idea, noting:
Today’s world of accelerating medical advancements is ushering in an age of personalized medicine in which patients’ unique genetic makeup and biomarkers will increasingly lead to customized therapies in which samples are inherently small. This calls for a fast-learning, adaptable FTCM environment for generating new data. In sharp contrast, the status quo FDA environment provides a yes/no approval decision based on statistical tests for an average patient, i.e., a one-size-fits-all drug approval process.
A similar process has been adopted in Japan for regenerative medicine.
1. Ben Cohen, The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks. An intelligent popular social science book covering everything from Stephen Curry to Shakespeare to The Princess Bride, David Booth, Eugene Fama, and more. I am not sure the book is actually about “the hot hand” as a unified phenomenon, as opposed to mere talent persistence, but still I will take intelligence over the alternative.
2. Richard J. Lazarus, The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court. A genuinely interesting and well-presented history of how climate change became a partisan issue in the United States, somewhat broader than its title may indicate.
3. Ryan H. Murphy, Markets Against Modernity: Ecological Irrationality, Public and Private. The book has blurbs from Bryan Caplan and Scott Sumner, and I think of it as an ecological, historically reconstructed account of the demand for irrationality as it relates to the environment, interest in “do-it-yourself,” and the love for small scale enterprise. Interesting, but overpriced.
4. Juan Du, The Shenzhen Experiment: The Story of China’s Instant City. An actual history, as opposed to the usual blah-blah-blah you find in so many China books. The author has a background in architecture and urban planning, and stresses the import of the Pearl River Delta before Deng’s reforms (Shenzhen wasn’t just a run-down fishing village), decentralization in Chinese reforms, and fits and starts in the city’s post-reform history. Anyone who reads books on China should consider this one.
Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments, The Master is finally receiving his poetic due.
Toby Ord’s forthcoming The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity is a comprehensive look at existential risk, written by an Oxford philosopher and student of Derek Parfit.
What an excellent book. Imagine somebody — in this case Thane Gustafson — taking all those snippets of gas history you used to read about and turning them into a coherent, well-written narrative. The Dutch disease, Norwegian gas, the origins of Gazprom and Western Siberian reserves, the French decision to go nuclear, and much more. It’s all here. Every topic should have a book like this about it. Excerpt:
Kortunov’s importance as the founder of the Soviet gas industry and the originator of the gas bridge with Europe cannot be overstated. Without his vision and drive, organizational talent, and political skill, the development of West Siberian oil and gas might have been delayed by as much as a generation. Gas exports to Europe would have remained modest, for lack of sufficient ready reserves and a pipeline system through which to ship them. Above all, the rapid displacement of coal and oil by gas in the Soviet primary fuel balance — one of the last successes of the Soviet planned economy — would have taken much longer. By the beginning of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Soviet oil industry with it, it was the gas industry, by then Russia’s most important source of primary fuel, that kept the Soviet cities heated and lighted, while oil was exported for desperately needed dollars. That was Kortunov’s legacy to the country he so ardently believed in.
Due out in January, you can pre-order your copy here.
2. Do chimps create rock music by throwing stones? They prefer to throw rocks at trees with a lower, longer-lasting sound.
4. Fast. Who will build this index? And how long will it take them?
5. Fighting with China in the Faroes (NYT). By the way, total unemployment there is 183.