Month: July 2021

Wednesday assorted links

1. Renderings of large, extinct animals.

2. Rank size of a minority group matters for hate crime.

3. Is adolescent loneliness rising?

4. Good Klein-Douthat dialogue.  By the way, here is Ross’s forthcoming book The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.

5. NFTs update (NYT).  To make your head spin: “One issue that has not caught up with the technology is how NFTs will be taxed. Cryptocurrency is taxed at the capital gains rate, and many experts say they believe that NFTs will be considered collectibles, which are taxed at a 28 percent rate. But the tax issue gets more complicated because many NFTs are bought using cryptocurrency. So any transaction would be considered a realization of the gains in that cryptocurrency.”

6. Number of unused AstraZeneca vaccines in Australia tops 3 million.  And yet they are in effect incarcerating significant portions of their citizenry.

My excellent Conversation with Niall Ferguson

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

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And again, here is Niall’s new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

Donald Trump and partisan fertility

You people are weird:

Changes in political leadership drive large changes in economic optimism. We exploit the surprise 2016 election of Trump to identify the effects of a shift in political power on one of the most consequential household decisions: whether to have a child. Republican-leaning counties experience a sharp and persistent increase in fertility relative to Democratic counties: a 1.1 to 2.6 percentage point difference in annual births, depending on the intensity of partisanship. Hispanics, a group targeted by Trump, see fertility fall relative to non-Hispanics, especially compared to rural or evangelical whites. Further, following Trump pre-election campaign visits, relative Hispanic fertility declines.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Gordon Dahl, Runjing Lu, and William Mullins.  An optimism effect perhaps?  Or is it just about the sex?

Sports are good for student athletes

The recent Supreme Court decision NCAA vs Alston (June 2021) has heightened interest in the benefits and costs of participation in sports for student athletes. Anecdotes about the exploitation of student athletes were cited in the opinion. This paper uses panel data for two different cohorts that follow students from high school through college and into their post-school pursuits to examine the generality of these anecdotes. On average, student athletes’ benefit—often substantially so—in terms of graduation, post-collegiate employment, and earnings. Benefits in terms of social mobility for disadvantaged and minority students are substantial, contrary to the anecdotes in play in the media and in the courts.

Here is more from James J. Heckman and Colleen P. Loughlin.  Maybe ten year olds are wasting too much time trying to be the next Lebron James rather than doing their homework, but at higher levels this does not seem to be the case.

What should I ask Amia Srinivasan?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, her forthcoming book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century is already making a big splash.  Here is an excerpt from her Wikipedia page:

Amia Srinivasan (born 1984) is an American philosopher, specialising in political philosophy, epistemology and metaphilosophy. Since January 2020, she has been Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford.

Srinivasan was born…in Bahrain to Indian parents and later lived in New York. She studied for an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Yale University. This was followed by postgraduate Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) and Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. She completed her DPhil in 2014 with a thesis titled The Fragile Estate: Essays on Luminosity, Normativity and Metaphilosophy.

…She is an associate editor of the philosophy journal Mind and a contributing editor of the London Review of Books.

You can access some of her works here.  So what should I ask?

Tuesday assorted links

1. Where Elon Musk lives/lived.

2. Are Treasuries undervalued (in absolute terms)?

3. On Medici and Thiel.  On the need to radically scale genius grants.  And Hou Yifan update.

4. Applied Divinity Studies wishes to reform the Olympics.

5. Podcast with Alex T.

6. The vaccine incentive culture that is San Francisco (cannabis).

7. Hermitage will mint an NFT on a Leonardo, other works.

8. Many Americans SUVs are now larger than the tanks that fought WWII.

The Farrago of International Travel Restrictions

International travel restrictions are a farrago built on fear, statistical confusion, and out-dated information. The US, for example, is still requiring a virus test to enter the US but not proof of vaccination. In other words, a fully vaccinated citizen can now fly to Canada (with Canadian requirements) but if they want back in they need to have had a virus test. Ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous, Chinese, European and British citizens are still not allowed into the United States. Why? China, for example, has almost no COVID cases–thus there is no reason to restrict Chinese citizens from traveling to the United States. Indeed, President Trump rescinded these restrictions at the end of his term but Biden reinstated them immediately. Why?  Travel is now banned from many countries with low COVID and high vaccination rates while allowed from many countries with high COVID rates and low vaccination rates.  There is no rhyme or reason to the travel bans and restrictions.

I propose we eliminate the farrago with a simple rule. Anyone vaccinated with a full dose of any WHO approved vaccine should be allowed to visit the United States without restriction. People on twitter responded “but even a vaccinated person could still be a carrier!” No kidding. So what? We cannot eliminate all risk. The logic of allowing vaccinated travelers into the United States is simple–a fully vaccinated visitor is safer than the average US citizen. Thus, allowing more vaccinated people into the United States is not especially risky and is having beneficial effects on the economy.

“Vaccine passports” became politically charged but what we have now is a bizarre combination of “testing passports” and “no passports.” In contrast, a vaccination requirement for travel is simpler, cheaper, more convenient and more effective than a test and it creates greater freedom than no passport at all. A vaccine requirement is no more difficult to enforce than a testing requirement. Indeed, the United States has in the past required vaccination prior to arrival so this would hardly be unprecedented. For special cases, a test could be allowed in lieu of a vaccine, especially if it was followed up with an airport vaccination but vaccination should be the primary requirement.

To recap: Anyone vaccinated with a full dose of any WHO approved vaccine should be allowed to visit the United States without restriction.

Addendum: A mix and match from any two WHO approved vaccines counts as a full dose!

Why vaccine passports are a welfare-dominated approach

Use monetary rewards (or penalties) if need be.  Here is Joshua Gans applying some game theory to the vaccine passport idea:

Vaccine hesitancy is modelled as an endogenous decision within a behavioural SIR model with endogenous agent activity. It is shown that policy interventions that directly target costs associated with vaccine adoption may counter vaccine hesitancy while those that manipulate the utility of unvaccinated agents will either lead to the same or lower rates of vaccine adoption. This latter effect arises with vaccine passports whose effects are mitigated in equilibrium by reductions in viral/disease prevalence that themselves reduce the demand for vaccination.

A “utility tax” is rarely a good idea.  Besides what happens if you lose your smart phone?  Don’t have one to begin with?  Arrive from another country with an incompatible information/verification system?

With cases falling in both the UK and Netherlands, the vaccine passport idea, at the governmental level, is looking worse and worse.  That said, I am all for private entities making their own decisions on these issues, and generally I am happy when I see employers require vaccination.

Addendum: Here is a Gans tweet storm on the paper.

Growing Oligopolies, Prices, Output, and Productivity

The real monopoly problems in our economy are not the firms that push up some very particular concentration indices, rather they are the small, local monopolies, hospitals, and the public education system.  Here is a new investigation (AEA gate) from Sharat Ganapati, you will note that the bold emphasis has been added by yours truly:

American industries have grown more concentrated over the last 40 years. In the absence of productivity innovation, this should lead to price hikes and output reductions, decreasing consumer welfare. With US census data from 1972 to 2012, I use price data to disentangle revenue from output. Industry-level estimates show that concentration increases are positively correlated to productivity and real output growth, uncorrelated with price changes and overall payroll, and negatively correlated with labor’s revenue share. I rationalize these results in a simple model of competition. Productive industries (with growing oligopolists) expand real output and hold down prices, raising consumer welfare, while maintaining or reducing their workforces, lowering labor’s share of output.

That is from the new issue of American Economic Journal: Microeconomics.  Rooftops!  Other research has pointed in the same direction.  Pennsylvania, Ave.: please do not split up America’s best and most productive firms.

Do looks matter for an academic career in economics?

It seems they do:

We document appearance effects in the economics profession. Using unique data on PhD graduates from ten of the top economics departments in the United States we test whether more attractive individuals are more likely to succeed. We find robust evidence that appearance has predictive power for job outcomes and research productivity. Attractive individuals are more likely to study at higher ranked PhD institutions and are more likely to be placed at higher-ranking academic institutions not only for their first job, but also for jobs as many as 15 years after their graduation, even when we control for the ranking of PhD institution and first job. Appearance also predicts the success of research output: while it does not predict the number of papers an individual writes, it predicts the number of citations for a given number of papers, again even when we control for the ranking of the PhD institution and first job. All these effects are robust, statistically significant, and substantial in magnitude.

That is from a recent paper by Galina Hale, Tali Regev, and Yona Rubinstein.  Via John Chilton.

The 1991 Project

In 1991 on the verge of bankruptcy, India abandoned the License-Raj and freed its economy from many socialist shackles. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced to the nation:

We believe that a bulk of government regulations and controls on economic activity have outlived their utility. They are stifling the creativity and innovativeness of our people. Excessive controls have also bred corruption. Indeed, they have come in the way of achieving our objectives of expanding employment opportunities, reducing rural-urban disparities and ensuring greater social justice.

And he was serious–in the plan, tariffs and controls were lifted, thousands of licenses eliminated, entire departments undone. A No Confidence motion was mounted in parliament but the opponents made a tactical error and walked out, leaving just enough votes for Rao’s government to survive and the plan to pass. The result was an economic revolution. Economic growth increased and millions were lifted out of poverty. Yet, the 1991 Project was incomplete and many young Indian’s today have little appreciation of the gains that have been made or why they happened.

The 1991 Project is about understanding the history of economic liberalization in order to better chart the future. It begins with a superb essay by Shruti Rajagopalan on living under India’s socialist system. Did you know that under the License-Raj you needed a government permit to own a bicycle in some parts of the country?

Bicycles saw increasing demand as urban populations increased. Steel was government controlled and, given the heavy demand from the construction industry, only limited allotments were made to bicycle manufacturers. To increase their allotment of steel and meet the increasing demand for bicycles, they needed an expansion permit, which was rarely approved by the government given the shortage of steel.

The license and permit system for steel also created a shortage in bicycles, which was followed by the inevitable price controls. To ensure that demand was legitimate and all available bicycles were used, owning and riding a bicycle required a government-issued token in some parts of the country. Inspectors thrived on the bribes paid when they caught anyone riding without the requisite permit.

The middle class didn’t escape the problem, either. Through a collaboration with Vespa, Bajaj manufactured scooters in India, and they became popular with the middle-class. Denied permission to expand to meet the rising demand, the waitlist for a Bajaj scooter was ten years by the late 1970s.

Even though dowry is not just illegal but is a crime in India, the entrenched dowry culture in the arranged marriage system enables grooms to make outrageous demands of the bride’s family. A Bajaj scooter became a top dowry ask. Given the decade-long waiting period, parents took to purchasing them on the black market, and by the late 1970s the price of a secondhand/used Bajaj scooter available immediately was much higher than that of a brand-new vehicle with a 5- to 10-year waiting period.

It got so bad that when a girl child was born, well-wishers would – only half in jest – suggest to the parents that they should immediately book a scooter so it would arrive in time for the wedding. This was reminiscent of the old Soviet Union joke about a man paying for an automobile. The clerk tells him it will be delivered in ten years. The man asks, “Morning or afternoon?” “What difference does it make?” responds the clerk. “Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.”

Check out The 1991 Project and Rajagopalan’s essay.

Photo Credit: Manmohan Singh with PM Narasimha Rao in 1994. Photo: Sanjay Sharma/Hindustan Times

They modeled this — why women might see fewer STEM ads

Women see fewer advertisements about entering into science and technology professions than men do. But it’s not because companies are preferentially targeting men—rather it appears to result from the economics of ad sales.

Surprisingly, when an advertiser pays for digital ads, including postings for jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), it is more expensive to get female views than male ones. As a result, ad algorithms designed to get the most bang for one’s buck consequently go for the cheaper eyeballs—men’s. New work illustrating this gap is prompting questions about how that disparity may contribute to the gender gap in science jobs.

…As a result of that optimization, however, men saw the ad 20 percent more often than women did…

Tucker ran $181 worth of advertising via Google, for example, saying she was willing to pay as much as 50 cents per click. It ended up costing 19 cents to show the ad to a man versus 20 cents to show that same ad to a woman. These investments resulted in 38,000 “impressions”—industry-speak for ad views—among men, but only about 29,000 impressions among women.

Similarly, on Twitter it cost $31 to get about 52,000 impressions for men but roughly $46 to get 66,000 impressions for women. And on Instagram it cost $1.74 to get a woman’s eyeballs on the ad but only 95 cents to get a man’s.

Here is the full Scientific American article, via Luke Froeb, and do note those differentials may vary considerably over time.  Gender issues aside, I would say this reflects a broader problem with having a very high value of time — it becomes harder to maintain a relatively high proportion of people showing you valuable things you wish to see (as opposed to people bugging you, grifting you, etc.).

Swedish study will pay people to get vaccinated

Swedish volunteers will be paid £17 each to be immunised in Europe’s largest test of whether small cash incentives can improve vaccine uptake…

The Swedish study, led by Erik Wengstrom, an economics professor at Lund University, uses gentler methods.

Over the next few weeks 8,200 unvaccinated people under the age of 60 will be split into different groups. Some will be given a voucher worth 200 Swedish kronor (£17) that can be used in most shops if they are vaccinated.

The money is a fraction of the sums being discussed in other countries, but Wengstrom said there was evidence from the US that as little as $25 (£18) was enough to persuade people.

He said: “People might have the intention to get vaccinated, but maybe there’s a little bit of hassle involved and something always gets in the way, so a small incentive might help.”

Other participants will be subjected to “nudge” techniques — attempts to influence people’s behaviour by guiding them towards a particular choice.

Some will be given leaflets about the vaccines’ benefits and side effects; others will be asked to think of the best argument to persuade others to have the vaccine. A third group will be told to draw up a list of their loved ones. “That’s basically encouraging them to think about how the vaccination might protect others,” Wengstrom said.

Here is the full London Times story.  Here is further information from Sweden.

Sunday assorted links

1. Anecdotal: “But Herring’s refusal to give up his @Tennessee handle, federal prosecutors say, led to a night in which the shocking and confusing sight of police with their guns drawn outside his home caused the computer programmer to suffer a massive heart attack that killed him. His death in Bethpage, Tenn., was triggered by “swatting” — the illegal practice of calling in fake life-threatening emergencies to provoke a heavily-armed response from police.”  Bizarre throughout.

2. What would actually happen if a major asteroid were headed toward earth?

3. RNA breakthrough to boost agricultural productivity?

4. Machtverfall — on Merkel’s final term.  And here is Tony Barber in today’s FT: “Above all, the floods have exposed weaknesses in Germany’s disaster response systems and opened up a debate about the long years of under-investment in infrastructure under Merkel. They indicate that Germany’s much-admired federal model of government can fail the people if the politicians in charge are complacent or slow to act.”  Yes people, I do know that Germany has better bread, streetcars, vacations, whatever.  The point remains that German political norms are not working well any more.  It is time to wake up to this fact.

5. Why is Japan vaccinating so badly?

6. Do data from books indicate we are becoming more depressed over time?