Month: November 2021

Tuesday assorted links

1. “Republican or not” (short video, actually funny, and with a very real lesson about polarization).

2. Did our social distancing strategies pack too many people into the wrong places?

3. ConstitutionDAO, the bitter aftertaste?

4. “My Scottish maid could do better!”

5. “Our results show that the introduction and marketing of OxyContin explain a substantial share of overdose deaths over the last two decades.

6. The economics of Magnus Carlsen (NYT).

Best non-fiction books of 2021

What an incredible year for non-fiction books!  But let me first start with two picks from 2020, buried under the avalanche of Covid news then, and missed because I was less mobile than usual.  These books are not only good enough to make this list, but in just about any year they are good enough to be the very best book of that year:

Edward Nelson, Milton Friedman and Economic Debate in the United States, 1932–1972, volumes one and two.

Alexander Mikaberidze, The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History.

Also noteworthy is Reviel Netz, Scale, Space and Canon in Ancient Literary Culture, which I hope to write more about.

Per usual, there is typically a short review behind each, though not quite always.  As for 2021 proper, here were my favorites, noting that I do not impose any quota system whatsoever.  (And yet this list is somehow more cosmopolitan than most such tallies…hmm…)  I don’t quite know how to put this, but this list is much better than the other “best books of the year” lists.  These are truly my picks, ranked roughly in the order I read them:

Jin Xu, Empire of Silver: A New Monetary History of China.

Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads.

Michela Wrong, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad.

Ryan Bourne, Economics in One Virus: An Introduction to Economic Reasoning Through Covid-19.

Colin Bryar and Bill Carr, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Amazon.

Ivan Gibbons, Partition: How and Why Ireland Was Divided.

Serhii Plokhy, Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Alan Taylor, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850.

William Deresiewicz, The Death of the Artist: How Creators are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech, brief discussion of it here.

Roderick Matthews, Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India.

Alejandro Ruiz, Carla Altesor,, The Food of Oaxaca: Recipes and Stories from Mexico’s Culinary Capital.

Tomas Mandl, Modern Paraguay: South America’s Best Kept Secret.

Kara Walker, A Black Hole is Everything a Star Longs To Be.

Tony Saich, From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party.

Adeeb Khalid, Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present.

Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography.

John B. Thompson, Book Wars: The Digital Revolution.

Scott Sumner, The Money Illusion: Market Monetarism, the Great Recession, and the Future of Monetary Policy.

Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Joanne Limburg, Letters to My Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism.

McCartney, Paul. The Lyrics.  A remarkably high quality production, again showing McCartney’s skill as manager and entrepreneur.  Perhaps the biggest revelation is when Paul insists that if not for the Beatles he would have been an English teacher.  He also claims that he and not John was the big reader in The Beatles.  It is also striking, but not surprising, when explaining his lyrics how many times he mentions his mother, who passed away when Paul was fourteen.  There is a good David Hajdu NYT review here.

Bob Spitz, Led Zeppelin: The Biography.  They always end up being better than you think they possibly could be, and this is the best and most serious book about them.

gestalten, Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture.  Self-recommending…

Is there a “best book” of 2021?  The categories are hard to compare.  Maybe the seven volumes of Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa?  But is it fair they get seven volumes in this competition?  The McCartney?  (He took two volumes.)  The Pessoa biography?  Roderick Matthews on India?  So much to choose from!  And apologies to all those I have forgotten or neglected…

Read more!  And here is my favorite fiction of 2021 list.  And I will write an addendum to this list as we approach the very end of 2021.

By any other name

The Northern Territory’s Covid-19 outbreak is expected to grow beyond locked-down areas after nine new cases were detected in the remote community of Binjari, about 320km south of Darwin.

Binjari and nearby Rockhole have been placed into strict lockdown in response to the outbreak, and the Australian defence force has been called in to help with transferring positive cases and close contacts [sic].

The NT’s chief minister, Michael Gunner, on Sunday said a 78-year-old woman was being treated in Royal Darwin hospital, while the other eight cases had been taken to the Howard Springs quarantine centre.

Here is the full story.  And from another story:

“We’ve shared our supply of vaccine with Aboriginal health organisations so they had enough consistent supply for everyone in their care to have a chance to be vaccinated over the past seven months,” Gunner said in a statement.

I wonder what they think Gibraltar should do.  Didn’t all the Australians tell me on Twitter that things would be back to normal soon, once enough vaccines were distributed?

From John Harland on Quora

Identity confusion is a potential hazard for autistic people. Neurotypical people characteristically develop a “personality” that they use to define and to ground themselves. That is the mask through which they interact with society. Autistic people do that to a much lesser extent and that can be a major strength, as well as a risk.

A muted sense of identity can make it much easier for an autistic person to become and effective contributor to a group because it makes them more adaptable. They carry less personal baggage about what ideas define them.

It can also make them very good at acting and at creating humour. However we might think of several famous actors and comedians who have killed themselves, seemingly because they were haunted by questions about who they “really” were behind all those adopted personas.

Learning to be ready for those questions, and learning why that trait can be a strength, are important lessons to impart to autistic children and adults.

Here is the link, with other interesting bits.

Monday assorted links

1. DAOs, a canon.  And the future of NFT art?  With an NFT by David Salle.

2. Wolves are very, very good for motorists.

3. On Praan and Emergent Ventures India.

4. Are the zebra stripes the whites or the blacks?

5. Reddit thread on which is the world’s most evil company.

6. New biography of Stanislaw Lem now translated into Spanish.

7. Who is followed most on various social media platforms?

The Scientific Cost of Immigrant Quotas

In the 1920s immigration to the United States was restricted with quotas which were designed to reduce the number of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, then considered to be low-quality immigrants. One unintended consequence was that the number of immigrant scientists from these areas also declined. The awesome Petra Moser and Schmuel San have an excellent new paper documenting the cost on US innovation and patenting.

Naturalization data indicate a dramatic decline in the arrival of new ESE-born scientists after the quotas. Until 1924, arrivals of new ESE-born immigrant scientists were comparable to arrivals from Northern and Western Europe (WNE), who were subject to comparable pull and push factors of migration.1 After the quotas, arrivals of ESE-born scientists decline significantly while arrivals from Northern and Western Europe continue to increase. Combining data on naturalizations with information on scientists’ university education and career histories, we estimate that 1,165 ESE-born scientists were lost to US science under the quota system. At an annual level, this implies a loss of 38 scientists per year, equivalent to eliminating the entire physics department of a major university each year between 1925 and 1955. For the physical sciences alone, an estimated 553 ESE-born scientists were lost to US science.

To estimate the effects of changes in immigration on US inventions, we compare changes in patenting per year after 1924 in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born US scientists with changes in patenting in other research fields in which US scientists were active inventors before the quotas. This identification strategy allows us to control for changes in invention by US scientists across fields, for example, as a result of changes in research funding. Year fixed effects further control for changes in patenting over time that are shared across fields. Field fixed effects control for variation in the intensity of patenting across fields, e.g., between basic and applied research.

Baseline estimates reveal a large and persistent decline in invention by US scientists in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born scientists. After the quotas, US scientists produced 68 percent fewer additional patents in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born scientists compared with the prequota fields of other US scientists. Time-varying effects show a large decline in invention by US scientists in the 1930s, which persisted into the 1960s. Importantly, these estimates show no preexisting differences in patenting for ESE and other fields before the quotas.

Canada which did not implement quotas did not see a similar decline. One interesting case study which is quite astounding in its way:

A case study of co-authorships for the prolific Hungarian-born mathematician Paul Erdős illustrates how restrictions on immigration reduced collaborations between ESE-born scientists and US scientists. Erdős moved to the United States as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton, and became a professor at Notre Dame, travelling and collaborating with many US scientists. As a Hungarian citizen, however, Erdős was denied a re-entry visa by the US immigration services in1954, and not granted re-entry until 1963. To examine how these denials affected Erdős’ collaborations with US scientists, we collect the location of Erdős top 100 coauthors at the time  of their first collaboration. These data show that Erdős’ collaborations shifted away from the United States when he was denied re-entry. Between 1954 and 1963, 24 percent of Erdős’ new co-authors were US scientists, compared with 60 percent until 1954. These patterns are confirmed in a broader analysis of patents by co-authors and co-authors of co-authors of ESEborn scientists, which indicates a 26 percent decline in invention by scientists who were directly or indirectly influenced by ESE-born scholars. 

As you might suspect from the Erdos example, scientists in the US became less not more productive without the benefits of cooperation with Eastern European scientists.

Some of the scientists denied entry to the US in the 1920s went to Israel instead and innovated there so their genius was not entirely lost to the world.

Photo: Paul Erdos with Terrence Tao. Attribution, either Billy or Grace Tao, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The next Fed chair

Although the betting markets favor Powell, I’m at the point where I think the Biden people are more likely to throw him overboard for Brainard and blame him for the inflation; if they opt for reappointment, it feels like they have to “own” the inflation  I favor Powell because I think he is less likely to institute a disastrous version of the “central bank digital currency” idea, and because he is better at dealing with Congress and generating support for Fed policies.  He might also be better at allowing crypto innovation to proceed, although that is just a guess, not based on solid information.

p.s. The word is that it will be Powell!

My favorite fiction of 2021

Marcel Proust, The Mysterious Correspondent: New Stories.  Not the very best Proust, but even so-so Proust is pretty superb.  These are fragments to be welcomed.

Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary.  At least as good as The Martian, and arguably more conceptual.

Judith Schlansky, Verzeichnis einiger Verluste [Inventory of Losses].  Conceptual German novel with roots in Borges, not as good in English.

Patrick McGrath, Last Days in Cleaver Square.  Unreliable narrator!

Karl Knausgaard, The Morning Star.  The master returns with a full-scale novel, with theology galore.

Anne Serre, The Beginners.  Short, French, about relationships, fun.

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You? She is quite the conservative, don’t be put off by the left-wing rhetoric.

Mario Levrero, The Luminous Novel.  The best Uruguayan novel of all time?

Domenico Starnone, Trust.  The better of the two “Elena Ferrante” novels released in English this year?

As for retranslations of classics, I very much like the new Oedipus Rex trilogy and the new translation of the Kalevala.  I hope they are fiction!  And kudos to Sarah Ruden’s work on the Gospels, I am not sure where to put them…

Overall I thought this was an excellent year for reading fiction, much better than the few years preceding.  My number one pick here would be the Andy Weir, noting that, for purposes of your norming, I do not usually select science fiction for this designation.  (Here is my earlier CWT with Andy Weir.)

Note that I just ordered a whole new batch of appealing-sounding novels (FT link), and I will read some before year’s end, so I will give you an update when appropriate, most likely toward the very end of the calendar year.  And my non-fiction list will be coming soon.  And also note: “missing” titles from this list are very often missing on purpose!

Read more!

Where to dine in Austin

The city is right now one of America’s better food scenes, and perhaps America’s most dynamic city overall?  It is radically different from even my recent visit a few short years ago.  Here are a few recommendations:

Loro: Asian fusion and smoked meats, don’t forget to get the sweet corn and also the cabbage.

LeRoy and Lewis: Outside dining from a food truck, first-rate beef cheeks.  Get there early.

Sammie’s: Doesn’t seem like it should be good, but excellent Italian with a Texas emphasis.

Comedor: Nouvelle Mexican, the quesadillas were the surprise with the biggest upside.

Sunday assorted links

1. Listen to the science! (of hugging…”You’re probably going to want to use your arms.”)  Do we actually all want longer hugs?

2. New data and results on wealth inequality over time.

3. Richard Hanania on the weakness of conservative anti-Wokeness.

4. The constitution of the DAO of the Constitution.

5. Michael Mina is leaving Harvard for the private sector.

6. Library Athena — a better way to read free classic texts on-line.

Monetary theory and crypto

No, I don’t mean money/macro, such as debates over ngdp targeting or transitory inflation.  I mean old-fashioned monetary theory.  Try all these pieces.  Obviously, many of those particular authors are now deceased or retired.  But take the field in general — has it had anything interesting to say about crypto developments?  I don’t expect it to have predicted crypto, or its price, any more than I expect macroeconomists to have predicted recessions (see Scott Sumner on that one).  But surely monetary theory should be able to help us better understand crypto?  And its price.

How much has it succeeded in that endeavor?  (I have read and on MR cited a number of NBER and other academic working papers on crypto, over the years.)  Or are you better off reading “amateur” pieces on Medium and other sources cited on Twitter?

What should we infer from your answer to these questions?

Surely any failings here are restricted to monetary theory alone.

The weirdness of government variation in Covid-19 responses

That is the new Substack post from Richard Hanania, here is one excerpt:

But imagine at the start of the pandemic, someone had said to you “Everyone will face the existence of the same disease, and have access to the exact same tools to fight it. But in some EU countries or US states, people won’t be allowed to leave their house and have to cover their faces in public. In other places, government will just leave people alone. Vast differences of this sort will exist across jurisdictions that are similar on objective metrics of how bad the pandemic is at any particular moment.”

I would’ve found this to be a very unlikely outcome! You could’ve convinced me EU states would do very little on COVID-19, or that they would do lockdowns everywhere. I would not have believed that you could have two neighboring countries that have similar numbers, but one of them forces everyone to stay home, while the other doesn’t. This is the kind of extreme variation in policy we don’t see in other areas.

It’s similar when you look at American jurisdictions.


As the political reaction to COVID-19 has surprised me, I’m still trying to figure it out. But for now I can say it’s shifted my priors in a few ways.

  1. People are more conformist than I would have thought, being willing to put up with a lot more than I expected, at least in Europe and the blue parts of the US.
  2. Americans in Red States are more instinctively anti-elite than I would have thought and can be outliers on all kinds of policy issues relative to the rest of the developed world (I guess I knew that already).
  3. Partisanship is much stronger than I thought. When I saw polls on anti-vax sentiment early in the pandemic, I actually said it would disappear when people would have to make decisions about their own lives and everyone could see vaccines work. This largely didn’t happen. Liberals in Blue States masking their kids outdoors is the other side of this coin. Most “Red/Blue Team Go” behavior has little influence on people’s lives. For example, deciding to vote D or R, or watch MSNBC or Fox, really doesn’t matter for your personal well-being. Not getting vaccinated or never letting your children leave the house does, and I don’t recall many cases where partisanship has been such a strong predictor of behavior that has such radical effects on people’s lives.
  4. Government measures that once seemed extreme can become normalized very quickly.
  5. The kinds of issues that actually matter electorally are a lot more “sticky” than I would have expected. Issues like masks and lockdowns, though objectively much more important than the things people vote on, are not as politically salient as I would have thought. A mask mandate for children eight hours a day strikes me as a lot more important than inflation, but it seems not to be for electoral purposes. If an asteroid was about to destroy earth and Democrats and Republicans had different views on how to stop it, people would just unthinkingly believe whatever their own side told them and it would not change our politics at all.
  6. Democratically elected governments have a lot more freedom than I thought before, especially if elites claim that they are outsourcing decisions to “the science.” Moreover, “the science” doesn’t even have to be that convincing, and nobody will ask obvious questions like how “the science” can allow for radically different policy responses in neighboring jurisdictions without much of a difference in results. This appears true everywhere in the developed world but in Red State America, where people really hate experts, regardless of whether they’re right or wrong.

You should all be getting Richard’s Substack.  Of all the “new thinkers” on the Right, he is the one who most combines extreme smarts and first-rate work ethic, with non-conformism thrown in to boot.  Read him!

The Great Resignation: Health Care Workers

We are short a million health care workers. Today with extreme stress on the system there are 16 million health care workers, about five hundred thousand fewer than when the pandemic began in January of 2020 and about one million fewer than would be expected based on decades of growth. A loss of this many workers is unprecedented.

Ed Yong in the Atlantic discusses Why Health-Care Workers are Quitting in Droves:

Health-care workers, under any circumstances, live in the thick of death, stress, and trauma. “You go in knowing those are the things you’ll see,” Cassandra Werry, an ICU nurse currently working in Idaho, told me. “Not everyone pulls through, but at the end of the day, the point is to get people better. You strive for those wins.” COVID-19 has upset that balance, confronting even experienced people with the worst conditions they have ever faced and turning difficult jobs into unbearable ones.

In the spring of 2020, “I’d walk past an ice truck of dead bodies, and pictures on the wall of cleaning staff and nurses who’d died, into a room with more dead bodies,” Lindsay Fox, a former emergency-medicine doctor from Newark, New Jersey, told me. At the same time, Artec Durham, an ICU nurse from Flagstaff, Arizona, was watching his hospital fill with patients from the Navajo Nation. “Nearly every one of them died, and there was nothing we could do,” he said. “We ran out of body bags.”

…Many health-care workers imagined that such traumas were behind them once the vaccines arrived. But plateauing vaccination rates, premature lifts on masking, and the ascendant Delta variant undid those hopes. This summer, many hospitals clogged up again. As patients waited to be admitted into ICUs, they filled emergency rooms, and then waiting rooms and hallways. That unrealized promise of “some sort of normalcy has made the feelings of exhaustion and frustration worse,” Bettencourt told me.

Health-care workers want to help their patients, and their inability to do so properly is hollowing them out. “Especially now, with Delta, not many people get better and go home,” Werry told me. People have asked her if she would have gone to nursing school had she known the circumstances she would encounter, and for her, “it’s a resounding no,” she said. (Werry quit her job in an Arizona hospital last December and plans on leaving medicine once she pays off her student debts.)

…Many have told me that they’re bone-weary, depressed, irritable, and (unusually for them) unable to hide any of that. Nurses excel at “feeling their feelings in a supply closet or bathroom, and then putting their game face back on and jumping into the ring,” Werry said. But she and others are now constantly on the verge of tears, or prone to snapping at colleagues and patients. Some call this burnout, but Gerard Brogan, the director of nursing practice at National Nurses United, dislikes the term because “it implies a lack of character,” he told me. He prefers moral distress—the anguish of being unable to take the course of action that you know is right.

Health-care workers aren’t quitting because they can’t handle their jobs. They’re quitting because they can’t handle being unable to do their jobs.

Hat tip: Matt Yglesias.