Month: March 2022

Has the New Jersey libertarian moment arrived?

For 73 years, drivers in New Jersey have been barred from pumping their own gas. It’s the only state in the nation that doesn’t allow it at all. Now, after an aborted attempt in 2015, the state’s gas station industry is again pushing to repeal that law, endangering the state’s unofficial motto: “Jersey girls don’t pump their own gas.”

…Under the new bill, New Jerseyans would be allowed to pump their own gas, but stations with more than four pumps would be required to have a full-service option, presumably at a higher price. Those pushing the change say a national workforce shortage has made it more difficult to hire station attendants, a reality that can lead to long lines at the pumps or even force some stores to limit their hours…

New Jersey’s ban on self-serve gas dates back to the 1949 Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act, which cited, among other things, fire hazards and exposure to toxic fumes, “particularly in the case of pregnant women.”

Full-service gas stations were the norm then. But as gas pumps became more modern, and cars got safer, most Americans got accustomed to serving up their own fuel.

But not in New Jersey.

Yet there is no guarantee the new initiative will pass.  Here is the full Politico article, with the link and concept from Jacob Grier.

Monday assorted links

1. The great Leonard Kessler has passed away (he wrote my very first “favorite book“).  Plus he was “woke” in the good sense of that term.

2. And “economist” Gary North has passed away as well (NYT).  Hadn’t known he married Rushdoony’s daughter.

3. Excellent Matt Yglesias Bloomberg column on why Russian yacht seizure is ill-advised.

4. Devon Zuegel Buenos Aires guide.

5. The new Texas abortion law didn’t matter that much (NYT).

6. Is Moldova next?  With a disquisition on Transnistria.

The U.S. is really good at destroying things

If a country is really good at X, and along comes social change Y, you ought to figure there is a pretty good chance Y will feed into X.

So for instance the United States is really good at retail.  So along comes Wokeism, and, lo and behold, Wokeism slots wonderfully into retail, whether you like that fact or not.  The Woke is marketed all the time, and so you can find “green” versions of so many products, even if organic food costs more energy, etc.  Or if you invent a new app, with anti-corporate purposes in mind, don’t be surprised if you wake up one day and the app has been co-opted by retail corporations.  And so on.

What we are now observing is that the recent innovation of “The Woke’ has been co-opted for the purposes of destroying things, in this case the economy and possibly the society and polity of Russia.  The lining up of European allies, the mobilization of sentiment on Twitter, the inducement of Visa and Mastercard to pull out, and you could go on and on and on.  The Woke campaign against Russia has turned out to be extremely powerful, well beyond what I had been expecting to happen.  Energy purchases might be next to go.

To be clear, sometimes we are good at producing or threatening destruction in very beneficial ways (WWII, 1973 airlift to Israel, ending the post-Yugoslavia wars, stopping Saddam from taking Saudi oil, etc.), and sometimes we are good at destruction in very harmful ways (you can supply your own list, but it is extensive).  In this post I am not going to try to assess the net expected value from the ongoing destruction of Russia, only to say that the final outcome is uncertain.

Nuclear power, airplanes, computers, GPS and much more all have been co-opted into destroying things, again noting these effects may be net positives on the whole.  They have been co-opted into retail purposes as well, nuclear power excepted.

Make no mistake about it, many of the most important “contributions” of Wokeism are to feed into, and enhance, those capabilities that America already is good at.

Which include retail and yes, destruction as well.

The Coase theorem, combined with the force of increasing returns to what a country is really good at, will see to this.

The same feeder tendencies may well be true for other innovations you might have in mind, be they practical or intellectual in nature.  Whether you like it or not, they will contribute to both American retail and to the American capacity to destroy.

Some people observe these trends and think the Woke is transcendent and all-powerful.  But under another reading, it is actually the Woke that is somewhat being pwned.

Who is working on creative solutions to limit nuclear war risk?

I don’t mean on the macro foreign policy side, but more the micro elements.  For instance, how do we make sure all countries with nuclear weapons have accurate early warning systems, so they do not confuse flocks of birds with incoming missiles?

Your suggestions do not have to be credentialed in the traditional sense, but they should be smart, curious, and hard-working, at the very least.

I thank you in advance for the nominations.

Addendum: I am looking for actual suggestions and will delete all “soapbox” comments.

Sunday assorted links

1. “Using a difference-in-differences framework, I find that [WWII Japanese-American] internment had long-run positive effects on earnings.

2. “Few know that a co-production between Ukraine and Nigeria even exists.

3. Good Ross Douthat column on how to limit nuclear war, close to my own views (NYT).

4. Good thread on Russian nuclear launch procedures.

5. Why is Russian air support so bad?

6. The Buzzer.

7. Why Russia is banning Facebook.

The US Government is Digging in the Couch to Find Change to Buy Drugs

The richest government the world has ever known is having trouble finding the money to buy Paxlovid, a critical medical treatment for COVID.

STAT: The White House has held off on buying millions of courses of Pfizer’s highly effective antiviral drug that the White House already committed to buy due to budget constraints, according to public contract disclosures and the Department of Defense, which issues the contracts.

In January, the White House announced that it was doubling its order of Pfizer’s antiviral, named Paxlovid, committing to buy an extra 10 million courses. But according to public contracts, the White House has only actually contracted for 835,000 of those courses to date.

“Contract options will be exercised when funding becomes available,” Department of Defense spokesperson Jessica Maxwell said in a statement to STAT.

The problem isn’t lack of money per se but rules and regulations designed to create “transparency” and avoid “corruption” and the resulting bureaucracy and vote players. Another example of the Mancur Olson problems Ezra Klein and I discussed and an example of how declining trust leads to rule complexity.

Here’s another telling example. Operation Warp Speed was perhaps the most successful government program in more than a half century but it was funded only because the Trump administration and then the Biden administration finagled the rules, almost certainly breaking some laws in the process. But that is sometimes the only way to get things done today, especially at speed.

Both administrations funneled far more money than Congress allocated to Operation Warp Speed, in particular, and to its successor efforts to buy vaccines and therapeutics.

Nearly 10% of the funding Congress set aside to support hospitals and health care providers, or $17 billion, was funneled to buy vaccines and therapeutics, as STAT first reported. Other funding for Operation Warp Speed was taken from money designated for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Strategic National Stockpile, as Bloomberg reported. An additional $5 billion came from a fund for Covid-19 testing efforts, according to a document obtained by STAT.

The difficulty of finding funds in an emergency is one reason I have suggested a pandemic or emergency trust fund. Even though it would only represent nominal savings it would nevertheless matter because it could be accessed quickly.

Brazil fact of the day

In the 1980s manufacturing peaked at 34% of Brazil’s gdp. In 2020 it was just 11%…

Between 1980 and 2017, manufacturing value added in Brazil in real terms grew by only 24%, compared with 69% in neighbouring Argentina and 204% worldwide.

Brazil’s science-based industries have also lost their share of gdpfaster than expected. In the 1980s Brazil produced 55% of the pharmaceutical ingredients it used. By 2020 this had dropped to 5%.

Here is the full article from The Economist.  The problem of course is that Brazil is deindustrializing before its industrialization had the chance to build a stable middle class.

Which Russians are getting cancelled?

The Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov has spent the past week distraught at the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Half his family is Ukrainian, he said in a telephone interview, and as a child he spent summers there, staying with his grandparents.

His maternal grandmother was still living in Kyiv, he said, “hiding from bombs in a bunker.”

Since Russia’s invasion began, Mr. Sokolov said he had signed two online petitions calling for an end to the war, an act that carries a risk in Russia, where thousands have been arrested for protesting the conflict, and some have reportedly lost their jobs.

Yet despite his antiwar stance, Mr. Sokolov on Monday learned that the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland had dropped his latest movie, “No Looking Back.”

Here is more from Alex Marshall at the NYT.  Remind me again — why is this better than “simple racism”?  The Festival noted that the Russian government earlier had funded his film work.  Surely that could be grounds for cancelling anyone who went to public school in Russia?

Saturday assorted links

1. New essays on the rise and fall of Swedish education, open access.

2. Summer courses at University of Austin.  Instructors include Niall Ferguson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Rob Henderson, Kathleen Stock, Dorian Abbot, Deirdre McCloskey, David Mamet, Bari Weiss, Peter Boghossian, Joe Lonsdale, Arthur Brooks, Nadine Strossen, and Carlos Carvalho.

3. Lessons from shipbuilding productivity.

4. New academic prediction market, also covering matters Ukraine.

5. Scott Sumner on Lab Leak.

6. U.S. cutting back on purchases of Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill — crazy!

7. Robert Service has a good understanding of what is going on, and of Putin (WSJ).

8. China now getting antsy too, on Taiwan.

9. Good thread on Russia-China sanctions: “While China is Russia’s largest trading partner, but Russia is not even in China’s top ten.”


Last night I watched this Ukrainian movie on AppleTV.  It was released in 2019 and is set in 2025, in the aftermath of a major war with Russia, which ended the year before.  Due to radiation and other post-conflict problems, the eastern half of Ukraine is essentially uninhabitable.  Ukraine, however, won the war because Russia underestimated Ukrainian guerrilla warfare, instead preparing for a war that the Ukrainians would fight with tanks (they didn’t).  The fundamental Ukrainian activity in this dystopian, apocalyptic postwar order is that of archaeology, uncovering wartime ruins and also corpses of Russian soldiers; I took that to be a stand-in for a broader understanding of Ukrainian history.

Originally this film had been marketed as “science fiction.”

Addendum: I thought the movie was excellent, though not for all tastes.  There are of course periodic visual references to Tarkovsky.  All the roles in the movie are played by military veterans and volunteers and paramedics, not professional actors.  Here is its Wikipedia page.  Here is the Variety review.

The game theory of attacking nuclear power plants

From my latest Bloomberg column (do I really need to indent my own text?):

“Putin would like to find a way of making nuclear threats without quite incurring the liability from … making nuclear threats.

Enter nuclear power plants. When Russian forces attack the plant, there is some chance that something goes wrong, such as a radiation spill. But more likely than not, the plant will hold up, and most dangerous processes can be shut down and the very worst outcomes avoided. You can think of Putin as choosing a “nuclear radiation deployment” with only some small probability.

Why might he do this? Well, he is showing that the use of broader nuclear deployments is not out of the question. He is also showing that he is willing to take a huge risk.

Most of all, he doesn’t much have to fear retaliation. The Western powers cannot know if these nuclear attacks are deliberate strategy or simply an accident of tactics in the field, and so — if only for that reason — they will not respond with a major escalation. If Russian forces moved on Estonia, they might be courting a very serious NATO response. But not in this situation.

You don’t have to believe that Putin sat in his lair rubbing his hands as he dreamed up this diabolical strategy. It’s also possible that the attack on the nuclear power plant started by mistake, or was ordered by lower-level commanders. Putin then simply allowed it to continue, perhaps out of a general love of chaos. At the very least, he did not consider it a priority to stop the attack.

Game theory doesn’t always have to be about explicit plans and intentions. It also can help explain why “invisible hand” mechanisms lead people to a particular point in the strategy tree, as if they had those strategies as conscious intentions.

Attacking the nuclear power plant also illuminates some other parts of game theory. Ukraine and its people are taking very heavy losses and are hoping for NATO to intervene on their behalf. If the conflict seems riskier to all of Europe, and not just Ukraine, the odds of such intervention improve.

In this sense, the attack on the nuclear power plant does not have to be entirely bad for Ukrainian prospects in the war. The Ukrainian leadership is rightly horrified by this attack, due to the risks for Ukrainian citizens. But the attack could also mobilize European public opinion on behalf of military intervention for Ukraine. If the war greatly increases chances for the spread of dangerous nuclear radiation, then the likelihood that Germany, France, Turkey and other nations will intervene also greatly increases.

Notice, however, that the Russian position here may be sounder than it at first appears. European citizens care more about radiation in Ukraine than do American citizens, for reasons of simple proximity. Putin may realize he can put Europeans at greater risk so long as he doesn’t provoke an intervention from the U.S. military, which would probably be decisive. It is a risky strategy that he might just get away with.

If you are the Ukrainian government, your incentive is to make the nuclear power plant attack sound as risky and precarious as possible. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has done exactly that.”

I am sorry to say that the column does not have an especially optimistic ending.

From Ryan Petersen at Flexport

“I just couldn’t sit around watching this humanitarian crisis in Ukraine without doing anything about it. So Flexport is organizing a massive airlift of relief goods to refugee camps in Eastern Europe starting next week.

You can read more about the full operation below. It’s inspiring stuff.

We’re looking to raise money to pay for more flights—Flexport is covering the first full cargo plane full of relief goods, but we’re asking others to donate including potential corporate sponsors to help us pay for more flights.

Donations are open at and fully tax-deductible through our 501c3 partners.”

Friday assorted links

1. Graeme Wood Atlantic interview with MBS.

2. “Russian businesses in U.S. face threats, vandalism over invasion.

3. Avi Schiffman’s “ is an independent platform connecting Ukrainian refugees with potential hosts and housing.”

4. Geoffrey Hosking has written (by far) the best book on Russia I know.

5. Fantasy Author Raises $15.4 Million in 24 Hours to Self-Publish (NYT).  And Kadryov markets in everything.

6. Fikret Amirov.  Very good, moving.

7. “Focused Protection” was a dubious idea from the beginning.  Best form of it was to be on the vaccines and antivirals bandwagon!  With enthusiasm, not “enthusiasm about natural immunity” >> “enthusiasm about vaccines,” as I have seen from so many.  It is vaccines that are focused protection.

8. Data on Russian crypto ownership, and government plans to regulate the sector.  And “Train tickets for the short trip from St. Petersburg to Helsinki cost over 9000 euros yesterday.”

9. Should it matter which nationalities and ethnicities are seeking to cross your borders?  Relevant to the Nigerians stuck in Ukraine who are not so welcome elsewhere.