Month: May 2021

@pmarca lets loose

Don’t underestimate yourself! The great writers of the past tended to be disassociative cranks. Diogenes Laertius says Heraclitus lived “by himself in the mountains, feeding on grasses and herbs” and died by burying himself in literal dung. Rousseau condemned his own children to the hell of an 18th century orphanage while sanctimoniously passing judgment on the rest of society. Nietzsche went insane protecting a horse from a whipping, and in his last messages to the world demanded the pope be jailed and all anti-Semites shot. You see, you fit right in.

And that is one of the more anodyne parts of the interview.  And yes it has been confirmed to be real.  Here is another one of the boring parts:

I predict that we — the West — are going to WEIRDify the entire world, within the next 50 years, the next two generations. We will do this not by converting non-WEIRD people to WEIRD, but by getting their kids. Their kids, and their kids’ kids, are going to grow up on the Internet at least as much as they grow up in the real world, and the pull of WEIRD culture will overwhelm all existing non-WEIRD cultures. I realize this is a very strong claim, but this process is already underway; at this point I think it’s inevitable. The cost of this will be a collapse of global cultural diversity exactly as you and Rozin predict.

Niccolo Soldo is the interviewer.

Monday assorted links

1. What do Finns think of Covid restrictions?

2. New York City’s bird paramedics (New York magazine).  And how the health care DARPA is coming along.

3. “American said that alcohol would continue to be served in first class and business class…” (NYT)

4. Solve for the equilibrium: “Any doofus can be a cybercriminal now,” said Sergei A. Pavlovich, a former hacker who served 10 years in prison in his native Belarus for cybercrimes. “The intellectual barrier to entry has gotten extremely low.” (NYT)

5. Danish spying markets in everything?

6. Observations on gerrymandering.

7. No wonder we are doing so well: “The number of Master’s and Doctoral degree holders more than doubled (in the US) from 2000 to 2018.”

8. Chad Underwood speaks.

The Ford F-150: An Electric Vehicle for Red America

The Ford F-150 truck has been America’s best selling vehicle for forty years! (Bubble test: Do you own one or know someone who does?) The new version, the F-150 Lightning, goes into production in 2022 and it’s electric. Even today there is still the whiff of “liberal America” around electric vehicles but what’s impressive about the Lightning isn’t that it’s electric, it’s that it’s a better truck. The Lightning, for example, can power a home and work appliances from its 11 outlets including a 240 volt outlet! Look at this brilliant ad campaign:

Security and peace of mind are invaluable during severe weather and unpredictable events. That’s why Ford helps ensure you never have to worry about being left in the dark…

Security, peace of mind, don’t be left alone in the dark…all great conservative selling points. Note the truck in the picture is powering the house and the chain saw. The husband and wife, their home and their truck, project independence, success and confidence–a power couple–even with a nod to diversity.

The Lightning is also fast with 0-60mph times in line with those of a Porsche 911 circa 2005, it has more carrying capacity (thanks to the smaller electric motors) than a similar gas vehicle, and it can tow a respectable maximum of 10,000 pounds with all the options.

The Lightning might succeed or it might fail but it won’t fail on politics, this is a vehicle a red-blooded, meat-eating skeptic of global warming could love.

What I’ve been reading

1. Marc Morris, The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England 400-1066.  A pretty good book.  It has been criticized for focusing on “dead white males,” but isn’t this a history of dead white males in large part?  The photos are quite good.  My main problem is simply that I find the whole era inscrutable.  Still, if you wish to learn whether Aethelred the Unready was in fact…unready…this is one good place to go.

2. Andrew Steele, Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old.  I haven’t read all of the popular “anti-aging” books, but perhaps this is the best one?  It presents the diversity of problems involved, and the difficulty of solving them, while remaining ultimately hopeful about the possibility of progress.  Most of the meat of the book is in the middle chapters, which are also good for explaining how aging research relates to broader biological and disease-linked issues.

3. Kara Walker, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs To Be.  Mostly images of her drawings, no text to speak of (though many of the drawings themselves have text).  These 600 or so drawings will be on exhibit in a show in Basel that I hope to visit this summer, Covid conditions permitting.  I find her work a better introduction to “current race issues” than most of the recent well-known books on race issues.  Smarter and more powerful.

Steven Johnson, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, is a very good history of exactly what its title promises.

Matt Grossman’s How Social Science Got Better: Overcoming Bias with More Evidence, Diversity, and Self Reflection is both substantive and honest.

Vaccinations at Indian hotels?

The Centre [national government] has asked states and Union Territories to initiate legal or administrative action against private institutions which are offering packages for COVID-19 vaccination in collaboration with hotels, noting that this is in violation of prescribed guidelines.

In a letter to all states and UTs, Additional Secretary to the health ministry, Manohar Agnani, said it has come to the notice of the ministry that some private hospitals have been offering vaccination packages with hotels, against the guidelines issued for the National COVID-19 Vaccination Programme.

Here is more from The Wire, via Rama.  Obviously running vaccines through hotels adds explicit pricing and tends to allocate more vaccines to the wealthy (on average the relatively productive), and to boost total vaccine supply.  So economists will see more merit in this idea than the Indian government does.

Icelandic fact of the day

This passage concerns the U.S. occupation during World War II:

At its peak, the occupation of Iceland would include the equivalent, statistically speaking, of 55 million foreign troops occupying the United States based on 1940 populations.  There were nearly fifty thousand men and dozens of female nurses, equaling about 40 percent of Icelanders.

By the way, from 1940 to 1946, “the purchasing power of unskilled workers (meaning just about everyone) grew by a whopping 86 percent…”  About two percent of Icelandic women left as brides to American soldiers.  And while Iceland lost about 300 lives during the war (mostly sailors), American servicemen helped to add another 400-500 to the native population.

One of the major political issues in the 1970s was whether the letter “Z” should be included in the Icelandic alphabet, and indeed it was abolished by law in 1973, with an exception being made for the word “pizza.”

That is all from Egill Bjarnason, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island.  I’ll say it again: single country books are underrated.  Maybe there are no great revelations in this one, but if you have been to Iceland, or are planning a trip, it is probably the first book you would want to pick up to cover the country.

Why the lab leak theory matters

Here is Ross Douthat at the NYT:

…there’s a pretty big difference between a world where the Chinese regime can say, We weren’t responsible for Covid but we crushed the virus and the West did not, because we’re strong and they’re decadent, and a world where this was basically their Chernobyl except their incompetence and cover-up sickened not just one of their own cities but also the entire globe.

The latter scenario would also open a debate about how the United States should try to enforce international scientific research safeguards, or how we should operate in a world where they can’t be reasonably enforced.

I agree, and would add one point about why this matters so much.  “Our wet market was low quality and poorly governed” is a story consistent with the Chinese elites not being entirely at fault.  Wet markets, after all, are a kind of atavism, and China knows the country is going to evolve away from them over time.  They represent the old order.  You can think of the CCP as both building infrastructure and moving the country’s food markets into modernity (that’s infrastructure too, isn’t it?), albeit with lags.  “We waited too long to get rid of the wet markets” is bad, but if anything suggests the CCP should have done all the more to revolutionize and modernize China.  In contrast, the story of “our government-run research labs are low quality and poorly governed”…that seems to place the blame entirely on the shoulders of the CCP and also on its technocratic, modernizing tendencies.  Under that account, the CCP spread something that “the earlier China” did not, and that strikes strongly at the heart of CCP legitimacy.  Keep in mind how much the Chinese apply a historical perspective to everything.

A number of you have asked me what I think of the lab leak hypothesis.  A few months ago I placed the chance of it at 20-30%, as a number of private correspondents can attest.  Currently I am up to 50-60%.

The polity that is Canada

Canada wants to force YouTube, TikTok and other video- and audio-sharing sites to prominently feature more of the country’s artists, a move that digital-law experts and former government officials call one of the most aggressive internet regulations yet from a Western country.

The aim to promote domestic content on the sites is a step in the Canadian government’s multipronged effort to get the world’s biggest digital companies to contribute more financially to the country’s economy. Canada has vowed to levy a digital-services tax starting in 2022, regardless of whether there is a global deal among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development members on such a tax this summer.

The Liberal government also intends to follow Australia in trying to get digital platforms to compensate media outlets for content, and to create a new regulator to police hate speech and other harmful online activity.

Here is more from the WSJ.  I recall being a participant in trade negotiation sessions, way back when, and saying to the Canadian rep.: “What are you going to do when everyone consumes culture through the internet?  Enforce quotas on that too?”

Even back then, of course, I understood that it was the pro-Canadian effort that was being valued in policies such as these, not the results per se.  Perhaps the equilibrium is that the regulators tell the tech companies they have to tweak the algorithm to favor more Canadian content, there isn’t really an enforceable standard, the tech companies do in fact tweak the algorithms somewhat, culture consumption changes only marginally, and everyone goes away “happy enough.”

A young woman speaking about her date and dating philosophy

Her other nonnegotiable is quarantine behavior. She was happy when she found out [male name redacted] takes safety seriously, interacting with only a small pod of people and limiting travel. “That showed me we had similar values,” she said. “Being caring, empathetic — and also believing in science and CDC regulations and guidelines.”

No, I am not interested in giving you a link or in identifying anybody by name.  The point is this: this is one of the very best paragraphs ever written in helping you to understand the Blue State reaction to the pandemic.

Saturday assorted links

1. An escalator made of cardboard (short video).

2. Cats of brutalism.

3. Orson Welles, The Immortal Story, 58 minutes long, made for French TV 1968, one of his best.  Jeanne Moreau too, full of MIE themes, and as I view it a critique of the wealthy, more substantive than the usual.

4. Markets in everything: pay for the chance to heist mannequin parts from a mountain of mannequin parts.

5. Progress Studies 101, by Sagar Devkate.

6. A recruiter on why restaurants are having trouble hiring.  Of course this means that right now is a relatively bad time to be eating out a lot — higher variance of outcomes and even well-known restaurants have become harder to predict.

7. Lots of Democratic economists think Summers is right but they are afraid to say it.  Context from Jason Furman here.

Jonathan Hazell emails me about inflation indicators

You asked Mark Carney what the best indicators were for inflation. Let me take the liberty of giving you mine.

1) Median CPI inflation, i.e. the weighted median value of CPI inflation across products. This measure tracks the underlying signal in inflation because it filters out volatile shocks hitting certain industries (e.g. airlines or used cars now, healthcare during 2010-2015, food and energy perennially). Median CPI has a good time series correlation with unemployment, better than the other series (see Ball & Mazumder, JMCB 2019).

2) 5 year, 5 year forward expected inflation. This is what markets expect inflation will be, in 5 years’ time, for the next 5 years. This measure tracks long run inflation expectations and removes the effects of short run shocks. In US data, big changes in inflation have been caused by unanchored long run inflation expectations, not by short run shocks to demand (see e.g. Hazell, Herreno, Nakamura & Steinsson 2021). So, if inflation is going to rise by a lot, long run inflation expectations are a good leading indicator.

For now, neither measure is high by historical standards but of course that could change. I hope some of this is interesting, anyway.

Omid on central bank digital currencies (from my email)

Really enjoyed your conversation with Mark [Carney] (as usual). I give him a B+ on his views on CBDCs. He gets credit for understanding that if nothing is done, then digitization means a disappearance of public money in the economy except for the banks. This has a lot of consequences, most of which are bad. There is no access for the unbanked, higher fees, lower privacy and more credit risk throughout the system.

Where Mark goes astray is by mentioning this oft proposed two-tier model for CBDCs, which is just a fallacy. Fiat money is a liability, and each unit can either be a liability of a central bank or commercial bank, it can’t be both. So if the Fed issues a digital dollar to the banks, and the banks issue private claims to their customers, we haven’t achieved anything, other than maybe a marginally better RTGS system. A real CBDC means the public can hold direct claims against the central bank, as it does today with cash.

Now, this is the point at which the skeptics say “what about disintermediation of the banks?” To that I say: so what? If lending via depository institutions (as opposed to via the bond market, money markets, etc) is a good, then the market will adjust to provide it. One way to think about the existing two-tier model is that savers are forced to subsidize borrowers. E.g., I want to make payments, so I have to open a checking account, for which the bank pays me no interest. The same model will exist with CBDCs, it’s just that banks will have to pay higher interest to attract deposits, or offer other value-added services.

CBDCs also allow lending via DeFi, which is more price efficient for savers and borrowers, so that will offset any increase in borrowing costs.

Paul Krugman or…LaMelo Ball?

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball will become the first athlete to enter the world of dynamic nonfungible tokens (NFTs) when he releases a set of 500 prior to the announcement of the NBA Rookie of the Year in June, ESPN has learned.

NFTs are unique blockchain-based tokens that give owners specific rights to the asset — photograph, video clip, artwork — they represent. Dynamic NFTs are a recent technological advancement and, unlike conventional NFTs, have the ability to change over time. If Ball is named Rookie of the Year, the 500 NFTs will automatically update to include the award, which is expected to increase the value of the collectible.

“As I learn more about blockchain, I realize this is the most powerful and unique way to engage my fans in a way that’s special to them individually,” Ball tells ESPN. “I see this as the future for fans and athletes connecting together.”

Here is more from ESPN.  In the meantime, “UC Berkeley Will Auction NFTs for 2 Nobel Prize Patents.