Month: January 2022

Crow markets in everything the labor supply-boosting culture that is Sweden

The crows turn in their collected cigarette butts for food:

Over in the Swedish city of Södertälje, about 30 km southwest of Stockholm, a pilot program is being explored which will enlist crows to clean up discarded cigarette butts. Butts account for over 60% of litter in Sweden, and the per-butt cleanup cost falls between 0.8 and 2 Swedish kronor each. The company behind the project, Corvid Cleaning, estimates the cost will be around 0.2 kronor. If the birds picked up all the butts, that would be a substantial savings, but in reality, the current manual cleaning will still be needed. Total savings to the city will depend on the ratio of bird-collected vs. people-collected butts.

Here is the link, via Chris Harges.

Does the Mafia hire good accountants?

Yes, or so it seems:

We investigate if organized crime groups (OCG) are able to hire good accountants. We use data about criminal records to identify Italian accountants with connections to OCG. While the work accountants do for the OCG ecosystem is not observable, we can determine if OCG hire “good” accountants by assessing the overall quality of their work as external monitors of legal businesses. We find that firms serviced by accountants with OCG connections have higher quality audited financial statements compared to a control group of firms serviced by accountants with no OCG connections. The findings provide evidence OCG are able to hire good accountants, despite the downside risk of OCG associations. Results are robust to controls for self-selection, for other determinants of auditor expertise, direct connections of directors and shareholders to OCG, and corporate governance mechanisms that might influence auditor choice and audit quality.

That is from a new paper by Pietro A. Bianchi, jere R. Francis, Antonio Marra, and Nicola Pecchiari, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

A simple theory of culture

The transistor radio/car radio was the internet of its time.  Content was free, and there were multiple radio stations, though not nearly as many as we have internet sites.

People tuned into the radio, in part, for ideas, not just tunes.  But the ideas that spread best were attached to songs.  Drug use spread, in part, because famous musicians sang about using drugs.  Anti-Vietnam War themes spread through songs, as did many other social movements.  Overall, ideas that could be bundled with songs had a big advantage.  And since new songs were largely the province of young people, this in turn favored ideas for young people.

Popular music was highly emotionally charged because so much of it was connected to ideas you really cared about.

Of course, by attaching an idea to a song you often ensured the idea wasn’t going to be really subtle, at least not along the standard intellectual dimensions.  But it might be correct nonetheless.

Today you can debate ideas directly on social media, without the intermediation of music.  Ideas become less simple and more baroque, while music loses its cultural centrality and becomes more boring.

We also don’t need to tie novels so much to ideas, although in countries such as Spain idea-carrying novels remain a pretty common practice (NYT).  A lot of painting and sculpture also seem increasingly disconnected from significant social ideas.

In this new world, celebrities decline in relative influence, because they too are no longer carriers of ideas in the way they used to be.  Think “John Wayne!”  Arguably “celebrity culture” peaked in the 1980s with Madonna and the like.

When I hear various complaints about the contemporary scene, sometimes I ask myself: “Is this really a complaint about the disintermediation of ideas”?

In this view, the overall modern “portfolio” may be better, but the best individual art works, and in turn the greatest artists, will come from the earlier era.

The fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday is today

I am reminded of John Stuart Mill’s remark:

I know tolerably well what Ireland was, but have a very imperfect idea of what Ireland is.

Still true!  That is from one of Mill’s letters.

Here is my earlier post on my summer visit to Derry.  Remember the 1970s, when people thought there was a reasonable chance of peace in the Middle East, but that the Ireland problem could never be solved?

Sunday assorted links

1. New Yorker on DAOs.

2. Are deontological ethics incompatible with Progress?

3. Good NYT story on Pegasus.

4. “My favorite is Ragnheidur Eiríksdóttir, who “has been a nurse, journalist, sexual health and self-confidence instructor, and, of all things, knitting tour operator.””  Link here.  The feminized culture that is Iceland!

5. “Bored in the pandemic, she made art by bruising bananas. Now she has an international following.

6. Straussian Magnus Carlsen — can you figure it out?

How the job market works at top schools

At least pre-Covid, most of the faculty would get together and rate the graduate students (I am not sure how it has operated for the last two years, though I suspect the same, only over Zoom).  Some but not all of the students would be designated as “should work at a top school.”  If you were not so rated, your chance of being hired at a top school was slim.  Other schools, of course, would know not to pursue the top candidates, and would shoot lower, though some foolhardy places might try to lure them anyway.  But basically if you were hiring at a high level, you would call the placement officer at a top school, and they would tier the candidates, based on where you were calling from, and recommend accordingly.

Of course this process has very little transparency and not much in the way of appeal, or even competition, or for that matter accountability to outside parties.  Might it also be a factor behind a lot of the academic conformism we witness?  You go through the early part of your career knowing that you are auditioning for a committee.  Can any voice wreck you?  Or is it majority rule?  You will never know!

Unlike a lot of the whiners, I am not saying this system is necessarily bad — I am genuinely unsure, in part because of the lack of transparency, not to mention that the relevant alternative is possibly something worse yet.  In any case, I find it striking how little discussion this method has received.  It allocates most of the best jobs in the economics profession, and it does not obviously satisfy many of the ideals that at least some of us pay lip service to.  John List, now tenured at the University of Chicago, received his initial Ph.D from University of Wyoming, not a top school, but that kind of climb up the academic ladder is extremely rare in economics.

Most lesser ranked schools, including GMU, do not rank their candidates collectively in the same manner.  There is no collective ranking, rather individual faculty, or perhaps small working groups, recommend their favored candidates.  In part they are competing against the other recommending faculty in their own department.  There is no “secret, collusive meeting,” and so you might think there is an incentive to over-recommend and to deplete the collective credibility of the department.  The market, however, understands that and takes it into account, and in that sense the credibility of the department “starts off depleted” to begin with.  The recommendations then have to be somewhat exaggerated simply to “break even” in the resulting signal-jamming equilibrium.

Lower-ranked schools don’t have the option of sending most of their Ph.D. students to Tier 1 research universities, so the notion of a uniform ranking probably doesn’t make sense there.  And if you have only three graduating Ph.D. students in a year, and two of them are returning home to Asia, as is the case in many of the lower-ranked programs, does it really make sense to rank them?  Furthermore, the lower-ranked schools may have a higher variance of faculty quality, which would render a consensus ranking of the graduates more difficult to achieve.  In contrast, almost all of the faculty at Harvard have a pretty good sense of “what it takes” to succeed at MIT or Princeton as a junior faculty member.

Which method is better?  Is the current state of affairs, with a split system, optimal?  Is the current system due to break down in some way?  Why don’t the economists at top schools talk about this much?  Is the whole thing just a plain, flat outrage?  Here is one of the few discussions I can find, and yes it does affirm that the practice occurs, though it overstates its universality.

What do you all think?

Saturday assorted links

1. Something about Youngkin, charters, and education reform.  I don’t understand it all, but it seems something is going on here and it does not seem the Democrats are resisting.

2. Is our current writing culture defined by deletion?

3. Good NYT article on the whole Gamestop phenomenon.

4. WSJ profile of Pano Kanelos of University of Austin.

5. Tom Tugendhat.

6. Children who are precocious at math do quite well later in life.

Update on the Sri Lanka Organic Farming Disaster

In Organic Disaster I wrote:

Sri Lanka’s President abruptly banned chemical fertilizers earlier this year in a bid to become 100% organic. The ban has resulted in reduced production and soaring prices that, together with declining tourism and the pandemic, have created an economic crisis.

Here is the latest update:

Sri Lanka has announced compensation for more than a million rice farmers whose crops failed under a botched scheme to establish the world’s first 100-percent organic farming nation.

…The government will pay 40,000 million rupees ($200m) to farmers whose harvests were affected by the chemical fertiliser ban, agriculture minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage said on Tuesday.

“We are providing compensation to rice farmers whose crops were destroyed,” he told reporters. “We will also compensate those whose yields suffered without proper fertiliser.”

The government will spend another $149m on a price subsidy for rice farmers, he added.

About a third of Sri Lanka’s agricultural land was left dormant last year because of the import ban.

A good example of central planning in action.

Can You Move to Opportunity?

It is not always that easy:

This paper shows that racial composition shocks during the Great Migration (1940–1970) reduced the gains from growing up in the northern United States for Black families and can explain 27 percent of the region’s racial upward mobility gap today. I identify northern Black share increases by interacting pre-1940 Black migrants’ location choices with predicted southern county out-migration. Locational changes, not negative selection of families, explain lower upward mobility, with persistent segregation and increased crime and policing as plausible mechanisms. The case of the Great Migration provides a more nuanced view of moving to opportunity when destination reactions are taken into account.

That is by Ellora Derenoncourt, in the latest American Economic Review.  Of course this also has implications for immigration policy, and it helps to show why even a very strong pro-immigration view ought to recognize some limits on the process.

Religion in the south Pacific (from my email)

I spent years living on a small, remote Pacific island. I am not religious, I was there on a government contract. Practically the only other Westerners were missionaries.

Importantly, Pacific islands have always been relatively easy to convert. They converted quite quickly to Christianity. The off-the-cuff explanation for this is usually “because they are so friendly” or whatever. An underrated factor is the fact that on many islands they genuinely helped improve the situation. Prior to the missionary operations many of these islands were getting literally and figuratively raped by Whalers. Disease everywhere, alcohol completely ruining everything. Fathers selling children to Whalers for alcohol. The missionaries helped improve that situation (albeit incompletely and with their own set of issues they themselves caused!)

That said, these days Mormons have the best missionary operation by far:
-They learn the language.
-They translate the book of Mormon into the local language even when it is a language spoken only on that island by a small number of people.
-The missionary group, very consciously, is designed to usually contain Pacific islanders from OTHER islands but rarely one from THAT island. They generally avoid putting islander missionaries on their own island to avoid sex and alcohol issues.
-They are on their missionary grind all day, 6 days a week. One day a week (Monday or Tuesday I think) reserved for running errands and being able to relax.
-They are allowed to and encouraged to exercise but very little other recreation is allowed. They are not allowed to go swimming.
-They do a fantastic job of just talking to people and being friendly, hosting youth stuff etc. and having it be genuinely wholesome and valuable.
-The LDS churches on the islands (though not the missionaries themselves) provide food and other forms of aid (like helping with the electricity bill) to church members. This is VERY important. They are widely seen on remote islands as mostly attracting “poor families” at first, for this reason.

Distant 2nd and 3rd place is a toss up between Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seven Day Adventists. SDA builds schools. JW does a good job with the languages. SDA missionaries are often very low quality though without much in the way of a code of conduct. JW do not celebrate holidays on islands where social life is organized around all kinds of major and minor holidays.

Assembly of God, Calvary Baptist are just too small of operations, usually much older missionaries. A few other vaguely Pentecostal-seeming varieties are around too but again, they just don’t have the resources or operation size/scale to really compete.

If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate moving forward… Ahmadiyya Islam is making inroads into the Pacific! It is a tall order in very Christian Pacific cultures that know nothing about Islam, but they actually are making some progress. Big focus on providing services to the poor.

I thank A. for sending me this!

Friday assorted links

1. UT Austin workshop in March on Progress Studies.

2. The dating culture that is D.C., with a partial cameo by Jordan Peterson.

3. My Bloomberg column on whether we should be worried by falling crypto prices (no).  And will recent SEC proposals stifle crypto?

4. Self-heating plasma and nuclear fusion.

5. Seth Curry, late bloomers?

6. In my view, David Leonhardt understands trade-offs, intertemporal substitution, the importance of economic and social life and education, and other basic concepts of thought.  He is a voice of sanity.  Here are a number of public health experts embarrassing themselves.

The Great Wall

APNews: For the thousands of athletes, journalists and others descending on Beijing for the Winter Olympics, China’s strict pandemic measures are creating a surreal and at times anxious experience.

China is isolating everyone coming from abroad from any contact with the general public for the duration of the Games, which open next week. That means being taken from the Beijing airport in special vehicles to a hotel surrounded by temporary barricades that keep participants in and the public out.

“I know the only experience of Beijing I’m going to experience is the Beijing I will see out of my bus window and my hotel window,” said Associated Press photo editor Yirmiyan Arthur, who arrived this week. “I’m not really going to experience China, I’m just going to experience the Olympics within the bubble.”

At the same time China has yet to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine despite having a Chinese firm, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, distributing it in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Sad.

The Adverse Selection of Crypto Regulation

Matt Levine: Facebook Inc. (now Meta Platforms Inc.) announced in 2019 with enormous fanfare that it was going to launch a stablecoin and work closely with all of the relevant regulators blah blah blah, and it went to the Federal Reserve and said “what do we need to do to launch a stablecoin,” and the Fed said “you must bring me the egg of a dragon and the tears of a unicorn,” and now the Facebook stablecoin is shutting down. One of the largest companies in the world devoted millions of dollars to figuring out how to launch a stablecoin and concluded that it was impossible. It is demonstrably not impossible! Tether did it! Tether has a hugely successful stablecoin! Tether does not care at all about working closely with all of the relevant regulators! That’s why!

…“The revolution needs rules,” some crypto guys say, and they get so many rules. “We don’t need to follow any rules,” some other crypto guys say, and they’re also right.

Matt’s point is that the SEC regulates serious, long-term players like Coinbase and Facebook out of business while the shady, fly-by-night operators run around unscathed until they rug pull.