Month: May 2020

Why does Minneapolis have such extreme educational disparities?

A correspondent writes me:

I live in Minneapolis and have worked in education policy here for a few years. With all of the unrest going on here, I feel increasing urgency to learn more about a question that’s been puzzling me for many years, and which I can’t seem to find a satisfactory answer to: why is Minnesota one of the worst states in the nation for disparities between black and white students, both in education and other outcomes such as employment and income?

Of course, most of my liberal colleagues and friends will say something like, “structural racism”, which isn’t really an explanation. That doesn’t explain why we to do so poorly in disparities, when other somewhat similar states such as Michigan and Illinois do better than us in their educational disparities.

All of this makes me think – there must be a study of disparities among minority or historically marginalized groups that looks across countries and cultural contexts, to try and understand what specifically causes students from those communities to perform poorly in school. And surely there must be cases where poor minority groups perform better in school than would be expected.

Do you have any suggestions for reading that could start me on the path to figuring this out?

The comments section is open, please leave your thoughtful suggestions there.  And read this for general background on the economic side, and this.

The plans for Greece’s reopening to tourists

In the European Union Greece is moving the quickest, but still this does not sound so appealing:

Phase 1 – Until 15 June
International flights are allowed only into Athens airport.
All visitors are tested upon arrival and are required to stay overnight at a designated hotel. If the test is negative, then the passenger self-quarantines for 7 days. If the test is positive, the passenger is quarantined under supervision for 14 days.

Phase 2 – Bridge phase- 15 June to 30 June
International flights are allowed into Athens and Thessaloniki airports.
If your travel originated from an airport not in the EASA affected area list (, then you are only subject to random tests upon arrival.
If you originate from an airport on the EASA affected area list, then you will be tested upon arrival. An overnight stay at a designated hotel is required. If the test is negative then the passenger self-quarantines for 7 days. If the test is positive, the passenger is quarantined under supervision for 14 days.

Here is much more detail.  Via Yannikouts.

Social Planners Do Not Exist

Enrico Spolaore on his friend, co-author, and mentor Alberto Alesina:

I first met Alberto thirty years ago at Harvard, where he had received his Ph.D. in Economics in 1986, and had returned as faculty, after a couple of years at Carnegie-Mellon. He was already deservedly famous. In 1988, The Economist had presciently picked him as one of the decade’s eight best young economists, as he was transforming the way we approach macroeconomics and economic policy by explicitly bringing politics into the analysis. In his influential contribution to the NBER Macroeconomics Annual 1988, he had forcefully stated that “social planners do not exist.” Economists should not just assume that governments would implement optimal policies (presumably following the economists’ own  recommendations). Instead, we should strive to understand actual policies as resulting from the strategic interactions of partisan politicians with each other and with the public, and often leading to socially inefficient outcomes.

Exactly right. Alesina was one of the most important scholars extending and integrating public choice, especially to macroeconomic questions.

That was then, this is now, Minneapolis racial animus edition

Are you familiar with the earlier history of Minneapolis, say from the 1960s and 1970s?  From an article by Jeffrey T. Manuel and Andrew Urban, here is one passage about two mayors:

In 1969, four-term Democratic-Farmer Labor (DFL) mayor and former University of Minnesota political science professor Arthur Naftalin declined to run for a fifth two-year term as the mayor of Minneapolis, leaving the contest open amid the social turbulence of the late 1960s. Naftalin was a close associate of former Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey and a practitioner of Humphrey’s brand of liberalism. They believed that government’s role was to manage and coordinate different interest groups within society, such as business leaders, members of organized labor, and racial minorities, so that the city would function efficiently and social conflict could be avoided. By allocating money to various social programs, they believed urban problems such as crime and poverty could be solved. In an unexpected move, Charles Stenvig, a 41-year-old detective in the Minneapolis police department and president of the police federation, threw his hat into the ring as an independent candidate for mayor. Running an unconventional campaign that spent little money and relied on volunteer labor, Stenvig won the 1 969 election by pledging to “take the handcuffs off the police” and to crack down on “racial militants,” criminals, and student protesters. Capturing 62 percent of the vote against a moderate Republican opponent, Stenvig shocked the city’s political establishment with his convincing victory. Running again as an independent in 1971, Stenvig defeated Harry Davis, Minneapolis ‘s first black mayoral candidate, receiving a remarkable 71 percent of the vote.


Naftalin’s connection with academia was a sharp contrast to Stenvig’s open animosity toward higher education.


Naftalin argued that with “proper computers,” a single executive authority could easily – and rationally – control a widely- scattered metropolitan area. For Naftalin, a rational executive would have to make unpopular decisions based on his or her expert knowledge of what was best…


Thus, at several points during his career Stenvig tried to censor what he believed were immoral publications…

And this:

At the national level, many observers were surprised that race could even be a political issue in Minneapolis given the city’s numerically small minority population… Although the city’s African American population was relatively small it was concentrated in several neighborhoods, which led to frequent incidents of alleged police harassment and the belief that residents of black neighborhoods were treated unfairly by the overwhelmingly white police force.


When a 12-year-old African-American boy was attacked by a police dog and dragged down the street by two policemen, many saw it as confirmation of Stenvig’s attitude toward blacks.


Far from a naïve reactionary, Stenvig presented a political ideology that was sharply critical of liberalism and rejected social scientific knowledge and abstractions as useful guides for governance.

The article is interesting throughout, and is likely to remain so.  And you can read here about the 1967 race riots in northern Minneapolis.

Coronavirus markets in everything, Swedish restaurant edition

At Rasmus Persson and Linda Karlsson’s restaurant, you don’t have to order takeout, or wear a mask, or try to stay two metres away from the other patrons — because there are no other patrons.

It’s just you, seated alone at a table in a picturesque meadow in the Swedish countryside as you’re served a homemade meal that arrives in a basket using a rope and pulley.

It’s called Bord För En, which translates to “table for one,” and it opened on May 10 in Ransäter, a rural town some 350 kilometres west of Stockholm.

“We wanted to create a space that’s 100 per cent corona-free, as much as we could at least,” Persson told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson, and no you don’t have to worry about them having too many beautiful women…

And here is their Facebook page with further details and images.  By the way, most of the customers are men.  Then there is this:

When you book your reservation at Bord För En, you include a list of names of your close friends, and the restaurateurs then solicit one of them to write you a personal message.

It operates on a “pay what you wish” basis, and so far they have been heavily booked.


I’ve been working with Michael Kremer, Susan Athey, Chris Snyder and others to design incentives to speed vaccines and other health technologies. AcceleratingHT is our website and now features a detailed set of slides which explain the calculations behind our global plan. The global plan is similar in style to the US plan although on a larger scale. The key idea is that the global economy is losing $350 billion a month so speed pays. One way to speed a vaccine is to invest in capacity for 15-20 vaccine candidates before any candidates are approved, so that the moment a candidate is approved we can begin production (one can store doses in advance of approval). Most of the capacity will be wasted but that is a price worth paying. As Larry Summer says if you will die of starvation if you don’t get a pizza in two hours, order 5 pizzas. Human challenge trials are another way to speed the process.

A global plan is ideal since there are significant benefits to coordination. If each country invests in vaccines independently they will each choose the vaccine candidates most likely to succeed but that means all our eggs are a few baskets. There are over 100 vaccine candidates and they have different scientific and production risks so you want to choose the 15-20 which maximize the probability of success for the portfolio as a whole. To do that efficiently you need countries to agree that ‘I will invest in lots of capacity (more than I need) in candidate X if you invest in lots of capacity (more than you need) for candidate Y’, even knowing that the probability that X succeeds may be less than that of Y.

Vaccine nationalism is making a global plan look unlikely but if each country invests in multiple candidates around the world, as Operation Warp Speed is doing, and if each country guarantees to uphold contracts, we can reach a similar solution.

At AcceleratingHT you can also find our Incentive Design App which computes the optimal vaccine program given user chosen parameters. A big shout out to Juan Camilo Castillo, a newly graduated PhD student from Stanford, who put in a lot of heavy lifting on the app. We have been working on these models under time pressure and I will never forget the late night/early morning zoom calls where Michael Kremer would call out, “I think we need to take into account factor X. What effect would that have?” and Camilo would respond “Give me 5 minutes!” and, as we debated other factors Y and Z, Camilo would hack-away changing parameters and rewriting code till he had an answer. Hire a rising star while you can!

Conor Friedersdorf interviews me on the regulatory state and the pandemic

For Atlantic, here is one excerpt:

“Our regulatory state is failing us.”

And to troll some of you, here is another bit:

Friedersdorf: Libertarians and small-government conservatives are highly skeptical of the regulatory state. What do they get wrong?

Cowen: Very often, the alternative to regulation is ex post facto reliance on the courts and juries to redress wrongs. Of course, the judiciary and its components are further instruments of governments, and they have their own flaws. There is no particular reason, from, say, a libertarian point of view, to expect such miracles from the courts. Very often, I would rather take my chances with the regulators.

Also, let’s not forget the cases where the regulators are flat-out right. Take herbal medicines, penis enlargers, or vaccines. In those cases, the regulators are essentially correct, and there is a substantial segment of the population that is flat-out wrong on those issues, and sometimes they are wrong in dangerous ways.

Recommended, there is much more at the link.

The shift of prevalance toward the young

Half of new coronavirus infections in Washington [state] are now occurring in people under the age of 40, a marked shift from earlier in the epidemic when more than two-thirds of those testing positive were in older age groups.

A new analysis finds that by early May, 39% of confirmed cases statewide were among people age 20 to 39, while those 19 and younger accounted for 11%.

Here is the full article, via Anecdotal.  A number of points:

1. As people adjust, and the higher-risk individuals take greater precautions, and the lower risk people relax their vigilance, this is likely to happen.

2. The case for age segregation, as a remedy and protection, becomes stronger.  If your policy prescriptions never change over the course of a pandemic, you are not paying sufficient attention, or you are a dogmatist, or both.

3. Universities have to worry a bit less about their students and a bit more about their faculty, at the margin.

4. As more young people acquire immunity, the incentive for yet additional young people to invest in immunity, through stochastic deliberate exposure, rises.  That in turn strengthens #2 and #3.

5. Will markets play a further role in this trend?  The excellent Kevin Lewis sends me the following (WSJ):

…while surging demand has proven a boon for the traders known as blood brokers who source this commodity, diagnostic companies say high prices for the blood of recovered Covid-19 patients are posing a hurdle to developing tests. ‘We’ve had a terrible time trying to obtain positive specimens at a decent rate,’ said Stefanie Lenart-Dallezotte, manager of business operations for San Diego-based Epitope Diagnostics Inc., which sells an antibody test for Covid-19…She said one broker quoted $1,000 for a one-milliliter sample of convalescent plasma, a term for the antibody-containing part of the blood from recovered patients. Executives at other diagnostics companies say they have been quoted prices of several thousand dollars for one milliliter of plasma.

What is the market-clearing price here, and what is the elasticity of exposure with respect to that price?  Evolving…

Stansbury and Summers respond on worker bargaining power, and more on monopsony

Both to my earlier points and to some other discussions, here is the link.  Here is one excerpt related to a point I had not understood in the paper proper:

5. If corporate profits are so high, how is this consistent with the persistently low demand postulated by Summers’ “secular stagnation” hypothesis?

Secular stagnation as we think of it is the product of a rising gap between the desire to save and the desire to invest (which, in an IS-LM type framework, would push down the neutral real interest rate). Falling worker power redistributes income from lower and middle-income people to the rich. The rich have a higher propensity to save. Thus, falling worker power increases the desire to save relative to the desire to invest. Rising inequality has been posited by several authors as a contributor to the declining neutral real interest rate (see e.g. Smith and Rachel 2015). Under this view, secular stagnation is exemplified by low private return to capital investment – but, in a noncompetitive world, this may or may not be the same thing as an abnormally low profit rate or capital share.

There is much more at the link, and on other issues as well.  I would say I found the whole paper and discussion very clarifying.

While we are on the topic, here is a new paper by Stansbury (with Schubert and Taska) on monopsony.  I haven’t read through it, but just based on the description of what they did it seems to get closer to finding the truth than the other works I have seen in this area:

Abstract:  In imperfectly competitive labor markets, the value of workers’ outside option matters for their wage. But which jobs comprise workers’ outside option, and to what extent do they matter? We the effect of workers’ outside options on wages in the U.S, splitting outside options into two components: within-occupation options, proxied by employer concentration, and outside-occupation options, identified using new occupational mobility data. Using a new instrument for employer concentration, based on differential local exposure to national firm-level trends, we find that moving from the 75th to the 95th percentile of employer concentration (across workers) reduces wages by 5%. Differential employer concentration can explain 21% of the interquartile wage variation within a given occupation across cities. In addition, we use a shift-share instrument to identify the wage effect of local outside-occupation options: differential availability of outside-occupation options can explain a further 13% of within-occupation wage variation across cities. Moreover, the two interact:  the effect of concentration on wages is three times as high for occupations with the lowest outward mobility as for those with the highest. Our results imply that (1) employer concentration matters for wages for a large minority of workers, (2) wages are relatively sensitive to the outside option value of moving to other local jobs, and (3) failure to consider the role of outside-occupation options in the concentration-wage relationship leads to bias and obscures important heterogeneity. Interpreted through the lens of a Nash bargaining model, our results imply that a $1 increase in the value of outside options leads to $0.24-$0.37 higher wages.

It also would be interesting to see what these parameter values imply for the effects of minimum wage hikes.

Friday assorted links

1. Sam Altman on idea generation.

2. Nuclear markets in everything: bid on plant reactor control and monitoring system.

3. Often immigrant restaurants are better prepared for the pandemic.

4. Why do humans help others, and how do financial markets affect the sociality of behavior?  Quite interesting, not just the usual b.s.  VTEKL.

5. Why men are pointing loaded guns at their dicks.

6. Why our regulatory state is still failing us.

7. Language Models are Few-Shot Learners.

8. What does it mean to decertify Hong Kong autonomy?

What should I ask Annie Duke?

I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Anne LaBarr Duke (née Lederer; September 13, 1965) is an American professional poker player and author. She holds a World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet from 2004 and used to be the leading money winner among women in WSOP history (a title now held by Vanessa Selbst). Duke won the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2010. She has written a number of instructional books for poker players, including Decide to Play Great Poker and The Middle Zone, and she published her autobiography, How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, in 2005.

Duke co-founded the non-profit Ante Up for Africa with actor Don Cheadle in 2007 to benefit charities working in African nations, and has raised money for other charities and non-profits through playing in and hosting charitable poker tournaments. She has been involved in advocacy on a number of poker-related issues including advocating for the legality of online gambling and for players’ rights to control their own image.

She also has a new book coming out this fall, How to Decide: Simpler Tools for Making Better Choices.  So what should I ask her?