Month: October 2020

Saturday assorted links

1. Can black holes shed information?

2. “Ancient dogs were much more diverse genetically than modern dogs.”  And Finnish Covid-sniffing dogs doing just fine.

3. Admissions pauses and reductions in Harvard graduate programs?

4. Kiwi plague of peacocks.

5. When Paul McCartney met Bertrand Russell.

6. Stanford/Hoover disputes over Covid freedom of speech.  How is this for Orwellian doublespeak: “There are limitations to academic freedom. What you express has to be honest, data-based and reflect what is known in the field. If you are going to claim academic freedom, you had better be academic, as well as free.”

Vitalik Buterin’s Conversation with me

He is interviewing me, and yes he does close with a bout of Overrated vs. Underrated.  Here is the YouTube link, it starts at about 7:00, give or take a few seconds.  I thought it was very interesting, on both of our sides, more of a dialogue than an interview, the points of focus being crypto and tech utopianism.

Perhaps the next time we will get to The New Monetary Economics…

What housing bubble was that again?

Value of housing market at all time high: Home equity has driven up value of US houses since 2012 to a current record value of $32.8 trillion ($11.3 trillion debt, $21.5 trillion equity) 28% higher than the pre-crisis peak in 2006

That is from David Wessel on Twitter, here is the cited research.  Of course there were local housing bubbles in Las Vegas, Orlando, and so on, but was there really a national housing bubble?  Was not the real problem an “anti-bubble” of panic in 2007-2008?  I believe Alex T. was the first to raise this point, and he remains underappreciated for this observation.

Wessel himself wrote in 2008: “We had a housing bubble; that’s now obvious.”  Scott Sumner, telephone!

New books needed on the NIH and NSF

A reader writes —

“Despite being the preeminent model for global science funding, and far more powerful than any single university, the workings of the NIH or NSF are surprisingly opaque to most people. These bodies shape who becomes a scientist, what science they pursue, and how they pursue it. I would therefore like to fund a book about how the institutions of US science actually operate, how they’ve changed, what the relevant surrounding incentives are, and how it is that they should likely evolve from here. It’s possible, perhaps even very likely, that a good version of this book would be picked up by a good publisher. Even if it isn’t, it should exist in the public domain. I will invest generously in anyone who seeks to write one.”

This reader is highly credible. If you’re interested and have relevant expertise, please email me. (Suggestions for good possible authors — people who genuinely understand the system but who could be sufficiently objective and where relevant critical — are welcome although not as useful.)

Christina Romer!

Christina Romer is excellent in this video on her work and influence. Obama had a great line. When Romer, clearly upset, told Obama that the economy was much worse than expected and heading downwards he replied, “Christy, it’s not your fault….yet.”

An interesting tension in Romer’s work. Her early work suggests that macroeconomic policy has not done much to stabilize the economy. Yet her later work has been in trying to stabilize the economy!

Rational Criminals, Irrational Lawmakers

Columnist Phil Matier writes in the SFChroncile about rampant, brazen shoplifting in San Francisco.

After months of seeing its shelves repeatedly cleaned out by brazen shoplifters, the Walgreens at Van Ness and Eddy in San Francisco is getting ready to close.

…“All of us knew it was coming. Whenever we go in there, they always have problems with shoplifters, ” said longtime customer Sebastian Luke, who lives a block away and is a frequent customer who has been posting photos of the thefts for months. The other day, Luke photographed a man casually clearing a couple of shelves and placing the goods into a backpack.

Most of the remaining products were locked behind plastic theft guards, which have become increasingly common at drugstores in recent years.

But at Van Ness Avenue and Eddy Street, even the jugs of clothing detergent on display were looped with locked anti-theft cables.

When a clerk was asked where all the goods had gone, he said, “Go ask the people in the alleys, they have it all.”

No sooner had the clerk spoken than a man wearing a virus mask walked in, emptied two shelves of snacks into a bag, then headed back for the door. As he walked past the checkout line, a customer called out, “Sure you don’t want a drink with that?”

…Under California law, theft of less than $950 in goods is treated as a nonviolent misdemeanor. The maximum sentence for petty theft is six months in county jail. But most of the time the suspect is released with conditions attached.

Some stores have hired private security firms or off-duty police officers to deter would-be thieves. But security is expensive and can cost upward of $1,000 a day. Add in the losses from theft, and the cost of doing business can become too high for a store to stay open.

Perhaps San Francisco helps us with Tyler’s “solve for the Seattle Equilibrium” challenge.

Novid — a pre-exposure notification system for Covid (and other things)

I find the (short) video easiest to follow:

Best of all, it is incentive-compatible. The founder Po-Shen Loh, a mathematician from Carnegie Mellon, wrote to me:

…for each positive case, don’t just ask the direct contacts to quarantine; instead, tell everyone how many relationships away COVID just struck (e.g., “3” is a contact of a contact of a contact). Then animate this over time like a weather radar…Keep everything anonymous.

Suddenly, the main purpose of the intervention is no longer to protect others from you (quarantining after being exposed). Instead, it is to directly protect you from others, because that early warning of approaching COVID lets you know it’s a good time to wear a better mask, or to be more vigilant about distancing, because the situation is getting hot. This appeals to self-protection instincts instead of altruistic instincts. Since this app is already in deployment, we know anecdotally, for example, of a person who installed the app because his kid was going to a university that was using the app. Why? So that he could be alerted in case COVID started spreading his way from the university via his kid.

Here is his associated preprint.  As economists, ought we not to feel that appealing to self-interest and love of family sometimes works?

Threadhelper, a new method for improving Twitter

Vasco Queirós, from the 7th cohort of Emergent Venture grant winners, has, with Francisco Carvalho, launched ThreadHelper – “A serendipity engine on the Twitter sidebar”. You can get it here.

ThreadHelper is a browser extension that finds you the tweets you need. It shows as a sidebar on the right hand side of your Twitter timeline and instantly and automatically searches bookmarks, retweets, and your past tweets for tweets that are semantically relevant to the tweet being composed. It can be used as a specific search that’s faster than Twitter’s or as a fuzzy search tool.

Thursday assorted links

Are Dead People Voting By Mail?

The subtitle of this new paper is “Evidence From Washington State Administrative Records,” and the authors are Jennifer Wu, Chenoa Yorgason, Hanna Folsz, Cassandra Handan-Nader, Andrew Myers, Tobias Nowacki, Daniel M. Thompson, Jesse Yoder, and Andrew B. Hall.  Here is the abstract:

A commonly expressed concern about vote-by-mail in the United States is that mail-in ballots are sent to dead people, stolen by bad actors, and counted as fraudulent votes. To evaluate how often this occurs in practice, we study the state of Washington, which sends every registered voter a mail-in ballot. We link counted ballots and administrative death records to estimate the rate at which dead people’s mail-in ballots are improperly counted as valid votes, using birth dates from online obituaries to address false positives. Among roughly 4.5 million distinct voters in Washington state between 2011 and 2018, we estimate that there are 14 deceased individuals whose ballots might have been cast suspiciously long after their death, representing 0.0003% of voters. Even these few cases may reflect two individuals with the same name and birth date, or clerical errors, rather than fraud. After exploring the robustness of our findings to weaker conditions for matching names, we conclude that it seems extraordinarily rare for dead people’s ballots to be counted as votes in Washington’s universal vote-by-mail system.

No, in other words. And here is a tweet storm on the paper by Andy Hall.

What I’ve been reading

1. Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climactic Regime.  Mostly not about climate per se, rather how we are failing at being true materialists: “In a sense, Trump’s election confirms, for the rest of the world, the end of a politics oriented toward an identifiable goal.  Trumpian politics is not “post-truth,” it is post-politics — that is, literally, a politics with no object, since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit.”  Mostly interesting, as one expects from Latour, but not exactly in the Anglo-American style either.  It also shows a kind of convergence with the ideas of Bruno Macaes, reviewed here by John Gray.

2. Robert Townsend, Distributed Ledgers: Design and Regulation of Financial Infrastructure and Payment Systems. Bitcoin and crypto yes, but the more fundamental concept in this book is…distributed ledgers, which include Thai rice allocation schemes and Mesopotamia circa 4000 B.C.  It is highly intelligent and well done, but somehow I think books like this work better when they are more speculative and future-oriented.

3. Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life.  So many pages, and perhaps this will not be surpassed soon.  Yet it never quite tells you how he got to be so smart, or how his intellectual development proceeded, or even what his smartness consists of.  So I can’t say I liked it.  By the way, for those of you who don’t know, it seems to me that Stoppard is one of the smartest people and also the most important living playwright, most of all for anyone interested in intellectual history.

4. Ronald Bailey and Marian L. Tupy, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know.  Lovely visuals, blurb from Pinker, the curves slope upward, get the picture?  Let’s hope they’re right!  Ultimately I find this kind of exercise less convincing than I used to, instead preferring a broader theory that also accounts for what I perceive to be a growing disorientation.  Which brings us to the next title…

5. Slavoj Žižek, Hegel in a Wired Brain.  How do transhumanism, Elon Musk/Neuralink, the Singularity, Book of Genesis, and Hegel all fit together?  There is only one person who could pull off such a book, noting this version is dense and not for the uninitiated.  Here is one squib: “Police is closer to civil society than state; it is a kind of representative of state in civil society, but for this very reason it has to be experienced as an external force, not an inner ethical power.”  If you take away all the people who quite overrate him, Žižek is in fact remarkably underrated.

Wednesday assorted links

1. GMU tenure-track assistant professor ad.

2. “We find that the fiscal, macroeconomic, and health benefits of rapid SARS-CoV-2 screening testing programs far exceed their costs, with the ratio of economic benefits to costs typically in the range of 4-15 (depending on program details), not counting the monetized value of lives saved.”  Link here.

3. Incentive-based approaches to addiction (NYT).

4. “Steiner says they tried negotiating to reopen with Actors’ Equity actors for outdoor shows, and they got nowhere.

5. Do swordfish stab and murder sharks? (NYT)

6. What do we know about business exit during Covid?