Month: May 2022

New leadership for the Niskanen Center

This morning, the Niskanen Center formally announced that our Board of Directors named Ted Gayer as the Center’s new President (effective August 2022). My Niskanen colleagues and I are incredibly excited about this development.

Ted comes to us from the Brookings Institution, where he serves as Executive Vice President (after five years of running its Economic Studies program). As Niskanen Board Chair Bob Littermann noted, Ted is “a widely respected economist with a clear vision and extensive experience working in this space.”

Most importantly, as Board Member and search committee chair Daniel Drezner pointed out, with his “deep policy knowledge aligned closely with [our] work and mission,” Ted is an ideal fit to helm the Niskanen Center.

That is from an email I received today from Joe Coon, the interim president.  Congratulations to all involved!

Why is eurozone inflation so high?

Eurozone inflation soared to a new record high of 8.1 per cent in the year to May, piling pressure on the European Central Bank to speed up the pace of its exit from ultra-loose monetary policy.

The jump in eurozone price growth, from 7.4 per cent the previous month, was much higher than forecast by economists, who had expected 7.7 per cent, according to a Reuters poll. The core number, which excludes more volatile energy and food prices and is closely watched by ECB policymakers, also rose above expectations to 3.8 per cent, up from 3.5 per cent in April.

Here is more from the FT.  A few questions:

1. Why is eurozone services inflation so high, given that the eurozone didn’t do a massive Biden-style stimulus?

2. Were the global monetarists right all along about the key role of the U.S. dollar?

3. Is this all just second-order effects from energy price spikes?  But then how do services fit into the picture?

4. Why exactly is inflation 20.1 percent in Estonia?

So exactly which views do we at least to think about revising?  Here are some remarks by Jason Furman.

How did the IR community get Russia/Ukraine so wrong?

In proper Tetlockian fashion, I thought I would look back and consider how well IR experts did in the time leading up to the current war in Ukraine.  In particular, how many of them saw in advance that a war was coming?  And I don’t mean a day or two before the war started, though there were still many commentators in denial at such a late point.

Where to start?  One might look at the mid-2021 words of the very smart Daniel Drezner:

Wertheim thinks that Ukraine could trigger a great-power war. Meh. In 2021 we have already had one round of Putin brandishing the sword on Ukraine, Biden standing firm, and the situation de-escalating. NATO’s deterrent power seems important to the region. To be honest I would be more worried about flash points in the Pacific Rim.

Drezner lived in the Donbas region for some while in the 1990s, so he is hardly a stranger to the relevant issues.

More recently Chris Blattman, who is also very able and very smart, wrote in February that Putin probably was not going to attack.  Chris has just published a very well-received major book titled Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace.  Chris does not pretend he is a Ukraine/Russia expert (“I know very little about Ukraine or Russia”), but he does command the literature on war and violent conflict with very real authority.

John Mearsheimer is one who foresaw the very real possibility of a war against Ukraine.  I think he is quite wrong about NATO as the provocation, but if you are grading him on predictions alone obviously he wins some serious kudos.

See also this Scott Alexander post, though mainly I am looking for somewhat earlier predictions.  By December 2021 a lot of us knew because it was pretty obvious (as for Scott’s puzzlement over me, due to the information flows I am sometimes in, I am not always in a position to make all my predictions fully public).

Garry Kasparov is another one who was right about the motives and the willingness of Putin to engage in further violent conquest, and I will return to him later.  Garry knows a lot of IR, but of course he is not an IR scholar in the academic sense of that term.

Who were the other voices speaking up with urgency?  IR voices?  Comments are open and I hope you can guide me to the very best commentators who got this one right.

When I google “who predicted Russia war against Ukraine” I get Mearsheimer, a retired Russian general, and a blind psychic, but no bevy of IR scholars.

You might argue that IR scholarship is not about prediction, just as some macroeconomic theories themselves imply  that recessions cannot be generally predicted.  Still, if IR scholars understand this region reasonably well, many more of them should have been raising red flags, no pun intended.  There is no analog of the efficient markets hypothesis here, so IR work should not be so far from some degree of predictive accuracy.  Not so many scholars (of various kinds) predicted the collapse of the USSR, and I think it is absolutely correct to conclude they did not understand the late 1980s USSR very well.  The same can be said of the earlier Iranian revolution, which also was not widely predicted.

As for further instances of getting it wrong, how about Obama’s famous gaffe in the 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, mocking Romney for his fear of Russia and cold war mentality? While Obama was a President and not an IR scholar, this was toward the end of his first-term and his was a “presidency of expertise” like few others have been.  Obama was not irresponsibly “winging it” with his sarcastic take on Russian danger, rather it was a common point of view, especially among Democrats and Democratic political science experts at that time.

Or consider this more recently:

During Burns’ Senate confirmation hearing in February, he said that, as CIA director, he would have “four crucial and inter-related priorities.” They were: “China, technology, people and partnerships.” Russia was not on that priorities list.

Again, he is not an IR scholar but still:

To be fair, few people in Washington were bothered by that at the time. The city was far more obsessed, on a bipartisan basis, with China and its ambitions.

Overall, on a scale of one to ten, how would we grade the performance of IR scholars on the Russia-Ukraine war?  2?  2.5?

What are some possible reasons for those individuals so consistently missing the boat on this issue?  I see a few options:

1. The IR community is mostly Democrats, and they were unprepared for the narrative that Putin might invade under Biden but not Trump.  They too much had mental models where the evil of Putin works through Trump.

2. Perhaps the IR community doesn’t put enough emphasis on historical continuity and persistence.  Russia has been messing around in Ukraine since at least Catherine the Great during the 18th century.  Since that time, how many of those years has Ukraine been a semi-free, autonomous nation?  Hardly any.

3. The IR community is risk-averse, and preserving of its academic reputations, and thus its members are less willing to make bold predictions than say pundits are.  You might even think that is good, all things considered, but it will help explain the missed predictions here.

4. Perhaps partly for ideological reasons, it is hard for much of the IR community to internalize how much Putin (correctly?) thinks of the Western Europeans as cowards who will not defend themselves.  The Western European nations are supposed to represent reasonable ways of running a polity, committed to social democracy above all else, and that is what so many academics believe as well.  It might be hard for them to see that Western Europe has been full of folly, including with respect to nuclear energy and also collective defense.

5. Amongst academic and many of the scholars outside of academia but on the fringes, thoughts about evil are channeled into domestic directions, such as Trump, guns, “the right wing,” and so on.  Maybe there isn’t enough mental energy to stay sufficiently alert about possible evils elsewhere.  Along related lines, we don’t always have the background in the humanities, and history, to recognize that a certain kind of destructive evil still is possible in today’s world.

What else?

Listing those five points returns my attention to Kasparov, who has been banging the drum about Putin for quite a few years now and telling us Putin is going to do something like this.  Garry is often considered an “extremist” by academics, or “not one of the club,” but it seems to me he has been entirely right and most of them entirely wrong.  I know Garry, and can report that he really is able to pierce the veil on 1-5 very clearly.  Perhaps that helped him see what was coming.  For instance, Garry is strongly anti-Trump, but he doesn’t let that distract him from other issues of relevance.  He also knows Russian history and the humanities very well, and his understanding of evil is well-calibrated to yield good predictions in situations like this.

I’ve also found that many individuals from the Baltic states, with real skin in the game, have had an appropriate level of suspicion about Russia for a long time.  Anecdotally might this broadly Baltic view be more correct than the weaker suspicions held by the IR scholars?

Addendum: I’ve heard a few people claim that Putin is just an irrational madman and that he lies outside the sphere of prediction altogether.  Well, the action in Ukraine had very definite and very direct precursors, including other invasions of Ukraine!  It hardly seems like a pure black swan.  Furthermore, a lot of the Russian public supports or at least tolerates the invasion.  “Putin’s propaganda,” some cry, but all that same machinery of censorship and propaganda was not enough to get the Russian public to trust the Sputnik vaccine, which very likely would have saved many of their lives.  So these events are not just about Putin by any means.

Also, if you are curious as to where I think things stand now, here is a good and interesting thread on the current state of the war and where it might be headed.

What should I ask Will MacAskill?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  From Wikipedia:

William MacAskill is a Scottish philosopher, ethicist, and one of the originators of the effective altruism movement. He is Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, a researcher at the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford,[ and Director of the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research.

MacAskill is also the co-founder and president of 80,000 Hours, the co-founder and vice-president of Giving What We Can, and the co-founder and president of the Centre for Effective Altruism.

Here is Will’s home page.  Will also has an exciting new book coming out, namely What We Owe the Future.  So what should I ask him?

Making shootings more salient makes gun laws weaker

There have been dozens of high-profile mass shootings in recent decades. This paper presents three main findings about the impact of mass shootings on gun policy. First, mass shootings evoke large policy responses. A single mass shooting leads to a 15% increase in the number of firearm bills introduced within a state in the year after a mass shooting. This effect increases with the extent of media coverage. Second, mass shootings account for a small portion of all gun deaths but have an outsized influence relative to other homicides. Third, when looking at bills that were actually enacted into law, the impact of mass shootings depends on the party in power. The annual number of laws that loosen gun restrictions doubles in the year following a mass shooting in states with Republican-controlled legislatures. We find no significant effect of mass shootings on laws enacted when there is a Democrat-controlled legislature, nor do we find a significant effect of mass shootings on the enactment of laws that tighten gun restrictions.

That is from Michael Luca, Deepak Malhotra, and Christopher Poliquin, via Matt Yglesias.  Many on Twitter and social media would do well to heed this point.  On a related point, I agree with Chris Hayes’s point that the shooter drills and the like probably should be stopped, as they too make school shootings more salient for the potential shooters.  My contribution to the salience is not going to go much beyond this blog post.  I also find this topic makes many people stupid.

A new take on “defund the police”

There is less to the idea than meets the eye, do not forget the counties:

This paper finds that disbanding police departments leads to fewer police-related deaths, fewer reported crimes, and lower law enforcement expenditures. However, the number of crimes reported by the sheriff for the entire county increases by an amount commensurate to the decrease in the number of crimes reported by cities that disbanded their police department. Furthermore, disbanding police departments is associated with an increase in county sheriffs spending which offsets the city savings. Thus, disbanding police departments does not appear to impact overall crime, shifts responsibility for law enforcement onto other governments, and reduces the available information about cities’ crimes.

That is from a new paper by Richard T. Boylan, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Sunday assorted links

1. My conversation with High Alpha about Talent, and other matters.

2. David Perell and Johnathan Bi present Rene Girard, transcript here.

3. How cockroach sex is evolving (NYT).

4. Contra an earlier report, there are still payphones in NYC (New Yorker).

5. “The analysis shows that gold rush counties indeed have higher entrepreneurship rates from 1910, when records began, until the present as well as a higher prevalence of entrepreneurial traits in the populace.

6. Your periodic reminder that Germany has betrayed the Western alliance and is doing almost nothing for Ukraine.

7. Ezra on state capacity and the left (NYT).

The FDA should make Paxlovid easier to get

Pharmacists still cannot prescribe the medication themselves, a step that would cut the time it takes patients to secure the drug.

The Food and Drug Administration “is looking at this and thinking about it,” Dr. Jha said. “Whether they’re going to make a change, when and how, etc., is totally in their wheelhouse.”

Many patients are still handling the sometimes-cumbersome steps on their own: locating a virus test, then securing a Paxlovid prescription from a health provider, then finding a pharmacy that carries the pill, all within days of first showing symptoms.

Dr. Jha described being frustrated by physician colleagues who have told him they still limit Paxlovid to patients 65 years and older.

But no they still will not do this.  I repeat myself, but you need to keep in mind the only time panel members have resigned from the FDA is when the Biden administration pushed through the booster shots.

Here is the full NYT article, via Rich Berger.


The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) prohibits US firms from paying bribes to foreign public officials. We show that FCPA enforcement has no positive effect on the GDP per capita of the countries of these officials but, rather, increases their countries shadow economy. When public officials take bribes both from legal and illegal markets, corruption enforcement in legal markets induces them to make up for lost rents by taking more bribes from illegal markets. In equilibrium, they enforce less against illegal producers, thereby increasing the size of illegal markets.  We find that one case of FCPA enforcement alone increases the shadow economy by as much as 0.25 percentage points (pp), homicide rates by 0.02 pp, and trade misinvoicing by 0.5 pp.

That is a new paper by Jamie Bologna Pavlik and Desiree Desierto.  I am very pleased to now have Desiree as my colleague at George Mason University.

What I’ve been reading

1. Dervla Murphy, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle.  She covered 3000 miles in the 1960s, and as she notes in the introduction: “Epictetus put it in a nutshell when he said, “For it is not death or hardship that is a fearful thing, but the fear of death and hardship.”  Self-recommending.  But don’t be fooled by the title — hardly any of the narrative takes place in India.

2. David E. Bernstein, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classification in America .  A scathing and unfortunately spot-on indictment of America’s schemes of racial classification.  So often those schemes turn out to be racist themselves.  The Hmong cannot count as an “underrepresented group” because they are Asian!?  Come on, people.  There is no good way to do this work, and I am pleased to see David pointing this out so effectively.

3. Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis, Poems.  A lovely bilingual edition, covering her less-known post-Holocaust poetry.  The quality is still very high and the page display is excellent.

Serhi Plokhy, Atoms and Ashes: A Global History of Nuclear Disasters is exactly what the subtitle promises.

Fernanda Melchor, Paradais is a new Mexican novel that has received a lot of attention.  I thought English was “not good enough for it,” though the slang and format would challenge my Spanish.  If you can read this properly in Spanish, I suspect it is excellent.

Daisy Hay, Dinner with Joseph Johnson is a good book about the Enlightenment publisher who interacted with Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Benjamin Franklin, Priestly, Fuseli, and Mary Wollstonecraft, among others.

Halik Kochanski, Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945.  So far I have had time only to browse it, but it appears to be both excellent and definitive.

Saturday assorted links

1. Predictions for Britain in 2050.

2. A skeptical case on fusion.

3. Swiss woman fined for feeding her neighbor’s cat.

4. “Although most individuals with IQs ≤ 90 did not have a college degree, the rate at which they completed college had increased approximately 6-fold in men and 10-fold in women relative to rates in the previous generation.” And it seems to be good for them.

5. Mutant hamsters?

6. Paul McCartney’s beard.

7. Morning Brew interviews Daniel Gross and me on Talent.

The magnitude of depolicing

Using a time regression discontinuity design, we estimate a 72.7 percent decrease in lower-level “quality of life” arrests, and a 69 percent decrease in non-index crime arrests in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death. Our results also show that the decrease in arrests is driven by a 69 percent decrease in police-initiated calls for service. Using the same approach, we find a much smaller decrease of 2.7 percent in arrests and a 1.5 percent decrease in police calls following police-involved shootings. Our results, thus, suggest that the Ferguson Effect exists, and it is much larger following highly publicized events of police violence such as George Floyd’s death.

That is from the new AER, by Maya Mikdash and Reem Zaiour, “Does (All) Police Violence Cause De-policing? Evidence from George Floyd and Police Shootings in Minneapolis.”  The title I find slightly Straussian, I hope not outright naive.

The paradox of auction happiness

If you win something at auction, even if you end up paying your full bid, you are typically quite happy, rather than just a smidgen happy.

Then why didn’t you bid more in the first place?

Is your mistake being too happy, or is your mistake having bid too low?

Do you become happy only by winning discrete, decent-sized lumps of happiness, rather than smidgens of happiness?  Does that even make sense?

Or is it just the value of winning per se, in which case there might be some other artificial way of manufacturing the same feeling?

Note this all runs a bit counter to winner’s curse arguments, which suggest you should be a smidgen unhappy when you win, not when you lose.

How should we best model this?