Month: March 2021

The nature of fame

In the early 1930s, so the story goes, Albert Einstein was in Hollywood, entertaining a visit by a friend, the comedian Charlie Chaplin.  They were enjoying some tarts baked by Elsa Einstein and idly chatting when Einstein’s son turned to Chaplin.  “You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses.  On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”

That is from Charles Seife’s new book Hawking Hawking: The Selling of a Scientific Celebrity.

Socioeconomic roots of academic faculty

Using a survey of 7218 professors in PhD-granting departments in the United States across eight disciplines in STEM, social sciences, and the humanities, we find that the estimated median childhood household income among faculty is 23.7% higher than the general public, and faculty are 25 times more likely to have a parent with a PhD. Moreover, the proportion of faculty with PhD parents nearly doubles at more prestigious universities and is stable across the past 50 years.

Here is the full paper, via all over Twitter.

Thursday assorted links

1. If he had titled thisWe have come to bury Ayn Rand,” he might have had a point.

2. Poor Chinese marketing.

3. “Alabama school district, once home to infamous Tuskegee study, nears full COVID vaccination level.

4. UK competition authority concerned about “supply of GIFs.”  (You can’t make this stuff up, and yes Ayn Rand remains relevant.)

5. New Zealand nonetheless is facing a hospital crisis (see parenthetical remark on #4).

6. Response to Newell, Prest, and Sexton on the temperature-gdp paper.  I think the critique scores some good points against the authors, but it does not dissuade me from their fundamental conclusion that the current literature does not have a coherent answer to the key question about costs.

7. Forthcoming Congressional approaches to the next pandemic.

Cereal brand to reimburse consumers who paid inflated prices during COVID shortage

For those with pandemic pangs for the sweet crunch of Grape Nuts, take heart. The Great Grape-Nuts Shortage of 2021 is officially over.

After months of being out of stock, the cereal is shipping at full capacity to stores nationwide, parent company Post Consumer Brands told USA TODAY exclusively.

And if you paid wildly inflated prices on the black market to get your hands on a box, you may be eligible for reimbursement.

“It became abundantly clear during the shortage that Grape-Nuts fans are ‘Nuts for Grape-Nuts,’” Kristin DeRock, Grape-Nuts brand manager at Post Consumer Brands, said in a statement. “So much so that some of our loyal super fans were willing to pay extreme prices just to ensure they wouldn’t be without their favorite crunchy cereal.”

Here is the full story, via John B. Chilton.  One way to read this is Grape Nuts subsidizing habit formation.  Alternatively, you might read it as Grape Nuts subsidizing very loyal customers, and hoping to get publicity in the process.  Or is Grape Nuts subsidizing future middlemen in any future black market transactions by assuring them of ongoing demand?  How are you supposed to prove you bought a black market box?  And was it illegal to resell and buy Grape Nuts in the first place?  I don’t entirely understand all of the microeconomic mechanisms at work here.

Trypanophobia or How to Alleviate Vaccine Hesitancy

A significant share of vaccine hesitancy is driven by fear of needles, trypanophobia. Adults don’t like to admit a fear of needles and less so that they would avoid a vaccine for fear of a needle. But trypanophobia is common and does reduce flu immunizations:

Avoidance of influenza vaccination because of needle fear occurred in 16% of adult patients, 27% of hospital employees, 18% of workers at long‐term care facilities, and 8% of healthcare workers at hospitals. Needle fear was common when undergoing venipuncture, blood donation, and in those with chronic conditions requiring injection.

Aside from fear of the needle, I think there is also a perception that needles are “serious medicine” and thus anything that comes in needle form must be serious or dangerous. In fact, vaccines are safer than many commonly used drugs that are taken orally.

Needle hesitancy is bad for the hesitant who don’t get protection from COVID and bad for everyone else who are further subject to transmission from unvaccinated carriers.

The best way to alleviate needle hesitancy is to get rid of the needle. Operation Warp Speed made smart investments in a fairly widely range of vaccines (we advised going wider) including a pill vaccine from VaxArt. The VaxArt vaccine has completed a Phase I trial with modest results and is moving into Phase II. Nasal vaccines are in development. The RadVac open science vaccine, for example, is a nasal vaccine available to anyone with a scientific bent willing to give an unapproved vaccine a try. CodaGenix has a nasal vaccine in Phase I trials as does Altimmune.

Aside from ease of delivery, a COVID nasal or oral vaccine may also be better than intramuscular injection because it stimulates the immune system at the first point of viral attack, the mucosal tissues in the nose, mouth, lungs and digestive tract. In addition, the mucosal immune system has some unique elements so you get a potentially stronger immune response more capable of neutralizing the virus quickly.

Operation Warp Speed investments generated trillions in value for billions in cost, a few additional smart investments in accelerating nasal and oral vaccines could pay off highly in mopping up vaccine hesitancy and moving us more quickly to herd immunity. We could even do a human challenge trial with nasal vaccine v. intramusucalar injection. Oral and nasal vaccines will also be great for kids and for booster shots.

Even at this late stage we are spending trillions on stimulus/relief and not enough on investment, especially on highly successful investment in vaccines.

Addendum: I know it probably won’t help but fyi, it’s a painless shot. Nothing to fear! Get a superpower and a donut afterwards. It will be memorable.

Decades of evidence on the cyclicality of real wages

I keep on hearing that “running the economy hot” is going to be very good for workers.  So shall we look at the decades of evidence?

On average, the prevailing view has been that real wages are roughly acyclical across the business cycle, though with variation across and across researchers.

Here is one take from the AER:

The cyclical behavior of real wages has evolved from mildly countercyclical during the interwar period to modestly procyclical in the postwar era.

In recent times a mild acyclicality for real wages has become a more popular view, but in the 1980s it was more likely that the RBC theorists would try to show cyclicality and the aggregate demand theorists would pooh-pooh such demonstrations and insist on much weaker and theoretically ambiguous correlations.  Here is an older view, incomplete in my opinion but far from absurd:

It is shown that real wages are procyclical in response to technology and oil price shocks but are countercyclical in response to aggregate demand shocks.The evidence is consistent with models where nominal wages are stickier than nominal prices

Here is a biased but interesting post Keynesian survey of the questions, with the author more or less implying we don’t know what we are talking about.  Here is one of the stronger results on pro-cyclical real wages, for the EU, but it requires you to believe there is no nominal downward wage stickiness during the Great Recession (ready to bite that bullet?).

Here is a 1995 JEL survey by very good economists (Katherine Abraham and John Haltiwanger).  Part of the very first sentence is:

…the debate over the cyclicality of real wages has a very long history and is filled with conflicting hypotheses and inconclusive evidence.

Here is another 1995 survey.  Notice that what is probably the best and best-known attempt to explain why the cyclicality of real wages might be changing over time is built on a general equilibrium business cycle model, which has become a horror of horrors on Twitter and also in blog space.

Overall, if you study the evidence on the cyclicality of real wages you will find it is a confusing and difficult problem, and furthermore that past results may not hold in the future or for that matter in the present.  Yet one rarely sees this literature, or its implications, discussed on Twitter, or for that matter on econ blogs.  Here is a simple rule: if you see a discussion of current labor markets and wages, ask if the author is coming to terms with these results or not.

And I don’t know of a single research result considering macro real wages, or other labor market factors, coming out of a pandemic with suddenly available highly effective vaccines.


It is once again time to take scientific agnosticism seriously.  Most of what you all are saying I just don’t think is founded upon very much, maybe in some cases there is n = 1 support but typically not more.

And dare I suggest that if we do not very well understand the course of wage/price over the business cycle, there is a lot more about cyclical labor markets we also don’t understand?

Wednesday assorted links

1. Thomas Meaney on Singapore.  Good, interesting long read from LRB.

2. What is the ideological news slant of your Twitter account? (mine was 57% left-wing, 34% right-wing, not too many centrists, at least by their measures, maybe I prefer “the kooks”).  I don’t wish to embarrass anyone in particular, but some of the ideological bubbles you can find with this are…just remarkable.

3. Why it is important to translocate rhinos upside down.

4. Ten economists address overheating, my view is closest to that of Jason Furman (NYT).

5. Are the economics of tennis broken? (Bloomberg)

6. Update on the Swedish pandemic experience.

7. Ross Douthat on decadence and the intellectuals.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

Noah Smith on the new macro wars

The most interesting thing about the new Macro Wars is that academic research is almost a total non-factor. In 2011 we were arguing about the Zero Lower Bound, DSGE models versus reduced-form models, etc. Now, though academics are involved in the debates, you rarely see an actual paper invoked. And when it is, it’s nearly always an empirical paper rather than a theory paper.

Why? If academics themselves weren’t involved in the debates, you could say that OK, maybe these people are just ignorant of the literature. But academics are involved, and they do know the literature; they’re just not invoking it much. Also, it’s not that Twitter econ debates are lightweight or short on references — the minimum wage debate, for example, cites papers constantly.

You can come up with various hypotheses for this, but it seems fairly clear to me that the reason is that everyone quietly stopped believing in the usefulness of academic macro theory. Macro profs are still out there doing their jobs, writing theory papers, and getting paid handsomely for it — in fact, I’d argue that with folks like Emi Nakamura, Jon Steinsson, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Ivan Werning on the job, the field of macro theory is chock full of top talent. And those are good people who take their jobs seriously and aren’t out to push political narratives.

But the problem is that macro theory is just really, really hard.

His whole Substack post is very good, though I give the entire matter a different interpretation.  I do not view contemporary macroeconomics as wonderfully predictive, but it does put constraints on what you can advocate or for that matter on what you can predict.  I saw the Republicans go down this path some time ago, and now the Democrats are following them — it ain’t pretty.  I think what we are seeing now is that (some, not all) Democratic economists want Democrats to be popular, and to win, and so they will rearrange macroeconomic thinking accordingly.  David Henderson, in a recent post, put the point well:

Notice what even Krugman admits. First, that the aid to state and local governments is too much, even by his standards. Second, the checks to people who hadn’t suffered much, which are a huge part of the package, are the “least-justifiable piece in terms of standard economics.” And what’s Krugman’s justification for those payments? That they are “by far the most popular” and, for that reason, we can’t “entirely disregard that.”

On the actual analytics of this debate, Summers has been a clear winner, and that simply hasn’t mattered much at all.  See also this excellent comment by Karl Smith:

Bidenism is hitting at exactly the right time politically. It’s not pushing the American people but meeting them where they are. It is quite frankly the coherent manifestation of MAGAism in the same way that Reaganism was a coherent manifestation of Carter-era deregulation


On the GDP-Temperature relationship and its relevance for climate damages

I have worried about related issues for some while, and now that someone has done the hard work I find the results disturbing and possibly significant:

Econometric models of temperature impacts on GDP are increasingly used to inform global warming damage assessments. But theory does not prescribe estimable forms of this relationship. By estimating 800 plausible specifications of the temperature-GDP relationship, we demonstrate that a wide variety of models are statistically indistinguishable in their out-of-sample performance, including models that exclude any temperature effect. This full set of models, however, implies a wide range of climate change impacts by 2100, yielding considerable model uncertainty. The uncertainty is greatest for models that specify effects of temperature on GDP growth that accumulate over time; the 95% confidence interval that accounts for both sampling and model uncertainty across the best-performing models ranges from 84% GDP losses to 359% gains. Models of GDP levels effects yield a much narrower distribution of GDP impacts centered around 1–3% losses, consistent with damage functions of major integrated assessment models. Further, models that incorporate lagged temperature effects are indicative of impacts on GDP levels rather than GDP growth. We identify statistically significant marginal effects of temperature on poor country GDP and agricultural production, but not rich country GDP, non-agricultural production, or GDP growth.

That is from Richard G Newell, Brian C. Prest, and Steven E. Sexton.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

When Did Growth Begin?

The subtitle of the paper is “New Estimates of Productivity Growth in England from 1250 to 1870” and it is by Paul Bouscasse, Emi Nakamura, and Jon Steinsson:

We provide new estimates of the evolution of productivity in England from 1250 to 1870. Real wages over this period were heavily influenced by plague-induced swings in the population. We develop and implement a new methodology for estimating productivity that accounts for these Malthusian dynamics. In the early part of our sample, we find that productivity growth was zero. Productivity growth began in 1600—almost a century before the Glorious Revolution. Post-1600 productivity growth had two phases: an initial phase of modest growth of 4% per decade between 1600 and 1810, followed by a rapid acceleration at the time of the Industrial Revolution to 18% per decade. Our evidence helps distinguish between theories of why growth began. In particular, our findings support the idea that broad-based economic change preceded the bourgeois institutional reforms of 17th century England and may have contributed to causing them. We also estimate the strength of Malthusian population forces on real wages. We find that these forces were sufficiently weak to be easily overwhelmed by post-1800 productivity growth.

Via Anton Howes.  Here is a related tweet storm from Steinsson.

Google Trends as a measure of economic influence

That is a new research paper by Tom Coupé, here is one excerpt:

I find that search intensity rankings based on Google Trends data are only modestly correlated with more traditional measures of scholarly impact…

The definition of who counts as an economist is somewhat loose, so:

Plato, Aristotle and Karl Marx constitute the top three. They are followed by B. R. Ambedkar, John Locke and Thomas Aquinas, with Adam Smith taking the seventh place. Smith is followed by Max Weber, John Maynard Keynes and the top-ranking Nobel Prize winner, John Forbes Nash Jr.

…John Forbes Nash Jr., Arthur Lewis, Milton Friedman, Paul Krugman and Friedrich Hayek are the most searched for Nobel Prize winners for economics, while Tjalling Koopmans, Reinhard Selten, Lawrence Klein, James Meade and Dale T. Mortensen have the lowest search intensity.

Here are the Nobelist rankings.  Here are the complete rankings, if you are wondering I come in at #104, just ahead of William Stanley Jevons, one of the other Marginal Revolution guys, and considerably ahead of Walras and Menger, early co-bloggers (now retired) on this site.  Gary Becker is what…#172?  Ken Arrow is #184.  The internet is a funny place.

I guess I found this on Twitter, but I have forgotten whom to thank – sorry!

Twitter macro and Twitter economics

I’ll compare Twitter macro to blog macro throughout, and here is how I see the strengths and weaknesses of Twitter macro:

1. Super-fast speed of response, and less repetitive than the old blog world.  It is easy to comment right away on the most current happening.  Unlike with (some) blogs, no wind-ups are required.  On Twitter both good and bad ideas go viral far more rapidly.

2. It is more fun than blog macro, and attracts fewer hobby horse drones.

3. It is too easy to tell people that they “completely misunderstand” something, because links, while they exist on Twitter, are not the prime currency.  This leads to many bad tweets, typically tweets that…completely misunderstand something or someone, yet with less verification possible.

4. It attracts a younger set of writers than blog macro did.  That makes it both more left-wing and also less informed about economic history, recent decades in particular.  Very recent evidence and experience is considerably overstressed in its relevance, and this is reinforced by the fad-like nature of Twitter opinion.

5. Twitter macro is poor at spelling out the entirety of an empirical literature on an empirical question.  I am not sure whether this is intrinsic to the medium, but I observe this regularly.  Blogs in contrast are/were most likely to take a more exhaustive approach to literature survey, sometimes too exhaustive rather than focusing on the single best argument.

6. Twitter macro is poor for spelling out mechanisms.  Most coherent macro mechanisms do in fact take more than 280 characters to spell out.  Tweet storms are useful, but more for a series of sequential observations on some new data, rather than for mechanisms per se.  Overall Twitter is poor for “grasping the whole elephant” approaches to economics, and for that matter to other topics as well.

7. It is easier to learn from other people on econ Twitter, due to the “rapid scan” and retweet and “comment on tweet” properties of the system.  At the same time, econ Twitter is more prone to fads and bubbles of opinion, for broadly the same reasons.

8. Econ Twitter involves more “don’t really know anything at all” kinds of people, and sarcastic people, in the discussions.  Overall this has a negative external impact on the tone and thoughtfulness of those who do know something.  In the blog world, we all made each other a bit more “cross-checking, linking, and drone-like.”

9. I genuinely do not understand why more tweeters do not set up free blog or Substack accounts, and, if only five times or so a year, write a longer post or column explaining and defending their views and tying them into the broader literatures.  This seems to me to betray a certain kind of intellectual laziness, which the Twitter medium itself encourages and amplifies.

10. Entry barriers are lower with Twitter, so there is a much broader diversity of opinion.  This can be very good, but see #8.

11. It is easier to express meaningful agnosticism in a successful blog post than in a successful tweet.  This is one of the biggest problems with Twitter macro, and indeed with Twitter more broadly.  It is also hard to express trade-offs in a successful tweet, another major problem.  “We must do this” kinds of thinking are instead encouraged.

12. Both blog posts and tweets very often mix in normative judgments with the positive analysis.  But it is much harder to be sophisticated on the normative side on Twitter.  The morality is often third-rate or worse.

13. The one-sentence (supposed) refutation is very much overrated on Twitter, even serious Twitter.  Such dismissals are usually wrong, or at least seriously incomplete, and their possibility and popularity discourage people from developing deeper understandings.

14. Is Twitter so great for methodological self-awareness?  Yes, you could do a tweet storm but this kind of analysis, as embodied in this post itself, seems harder to do on Twitter, and harder to receive non-sarastic feedback on.

Profile of Beeple

Winkelmann grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and quickly gravitated to technology. His father, an electrical engineer, taught him how to program. The only art classes that he ever took were in his freshman year of high school. At around the same time, a friend introduced him to the electronic-music label Warp Records, and to bands like Aphex Twin, the stage name of Richard David James. “What can one person and a computer do?” Winkelmann said. “That has always been a really cool concept to me, because it’s the equalizer, in a way.”

Winkelmann went to Purdue University and entered its computer-science program, but he eventually found himself adrift. Programming, he said, was “boring as shit.” Instead, he shot narrative short films with his Webcam and learned digital design. Inspired by the video artist Chris Cunningham and the British studio the Designers Republic, he created loops of animated geometric shapes synched to his own electronic music. He posted the results online. In 2003, when he was twenty-two years old, he took the name Beeple, after an old Ewok-like stuffed animal. He now collects Beeples from eBay. While we were talking, he grabbed one from his desk and held it up to show me. When Winkelmann covered the furry toy’s eyes, it emitted a wild beeping sound in protest. The name seemed apt, he said, because a similar interplay of vision and sound animated his videos.

Here is more from Kyle Chayka at The New Yorker.