Month: June 2022

Data on IR scholars and their views on Russia/Ukraine

MR reader Edmund Levin sent me this very useful piece, based around a poll of IR scholars, with the poll opened on December 16 and if I understand correctly continuing through some point in January 2022.

Here is one question “In the next year, will Russia use military force against Ukrainian military forces or additional parts of the territory of Ukraine where it is not currently operating?”  The responses:

Yes 203 56.08%
No 73 20.17%
Do not know 86 23.76%

You will note that the question could simply be referring to some additional police action, which is in fact what many people were predicting at the time.  I find it striking that the researchers don’t ask about a full-scale invasion.  What percentage would have predicted a full-scale attack?

Here is the same question posed to the regional specialists, namely: “In the next year, will Russia use military force against Ukrainian military forces or additional parts of the territory of Ukraine where it is not currently operating?”  The responses are barely different, though slightly better:

Yes 36 (60.0%)

No 12 (20.0%)

Don’t know 12 (20.0%)

I take those results to be 60-40 that a modest majority of the specialists respondents expected further Russian military action in the next year, again noting that additional police action would suffice to generate a “yes” response.

Is that a good or bad performance relative to a full-scale invasion date of February 24, with the massing of Russian troops well underway?

If I turn to the December 3 Washington Post, I see a major article by journalists Shane Harris and Paul Sonne, titled “Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns.”  The piece offers plenty of detail, including photos, maps, and good sourcing.  Of course it turned out to be correct, and I am only one of many people who realized this at the time.  Furthermore, if you saw such a piece, you might have inquired with your network at the time (as I did), including sources in multiple relevant countries, and learned in response that the predictions of this article were no joke, no media excess, and in fact likely to happen.  Furthermore the rhetoric, demand, and logistics investments of Russia at the time strongly suggested “attack and blame Ukraine” as the equilibrium, rather than some kind of knife-edge bargaining strategy of “attack with p = 0.6” — that one can learn by reading Thomas Schelling.

So in my view the regional IR specialists were well behind the understanding of two Washington Post reporters, or for that matter well-connected newspaper readers. A lot of the experts don’t seem to have tracked the issue very closely.  Here is my previous (lengthy) post on the topic.

Addendum: Levin also points out to me that Sam Charap of Rand got it right as early as fall of 2021.

Those new service sector jobs

Free money for you, well…it’s not quite free:

I’m reaching out to see if you’d be willing to share an announcement about a contest for critically engaging with work in effective altruism. The total prize amount is $100,000, and the deadline for submissions is September 1. You can see the announcement of the contest here.

We (the contest organizers) would like to get submissions from people who aren’t very involved in effective altruism, and we can’t do that by posting on the Effective Altruism Forum. I would love to get submissions from your readers, and I’d be really grateful if you shared the announcement link with them.

Writing of course is the best way to figure out what you really think.

Rubin and Koyama on the Industrial Revolution

From Dylan Matthews:

The big question is what drove this transformation. Historians, economists, and anthropologists have proposed a long list of explanations for why human life suddenly changed starting in 18th-century England, from geographic effects to forms of government to intellectual property rules to fluctuations in average wages.

For a long time, there was no one book that could explain, compare, and evaluate these theories for non-experts. That’s changed: How the World Became Rich, by Chapman University’s Jared Rubin and George Mason University’s Mark Koyama, provides a comprehensive look at what, exactly, changed when sustained economic growth began, what factors help explain its beginning, and which theories do the best job of making sense of the new stage of life that humans have been experiencing for a couple brief centuries.

Here is the full coverage with interview.  And you can order the book here from Amazon.  I haven’t read it yet, but this is surely self-recommending…

Thursday assorted links

1. Noah Smith on ESG.

2. Is Queen Elizabeth II one of the great performance artists?

3. New results on whether science is getting harder.

4. Very good A.O. Scott review of Maverick Top Gun (NYT).

5. “The more a society is dedicated to the value of equality and the more choices it offers for individual self-determination, the higher its rates of functional mental illness.” (WSJ)

6. The progression of polygenic testing (Bloomberg).

Moving From Opportunity: The High Cost of Restrictions on Land Use

ImagePeople are more productive in cities. As a result, people move to cities to earn higher wages but some of their productivity and wages is eaten up by land prices. How much? In a new paper Philip G. Hoxie, Daniel Shoag, and Stan Veuger show that net wages (that is wages after housing costs) used to increase in cities for all workers but since around 2000 net wages actually fall when low-wage workers move to cities. The key figure is at right.

As I wrote earlier, it used to be that poor people moved to rich places. A janitor in New York, for example, used to earn more than a janitor in Alabama even after adjusting for housing costs. As a result, janitors moved from Alabama to New York, in the process raising their standard of living and reducing income inequality. Today, however, after taking into account housing costs, janitors in New York earn less than janitors in Alabama. As a result, poor people no longer move to rich places. Indeed, there is now a slight trend for poor people to move to poor places because even though wages are lower in poor places, housing prices are lower yet.

Ideally, we want labor and other resources to move from low productivity places to high productivity places–this dynamic reallocation of resources is one of the causes of rising productivity. But for low-skill workers the opposite is happening – housing prices are driving them from high productivity places to low productivity places. Furthermore, when low-skill workers end up in low-productivity places, wages are lower so there are fewer reasons to be employed and there aren’t high-wage jobs in the area so the incentives to increase human capital are dulled. The process of poverty becomes self-reinforcing.

Why has housing become so expensive in high-productivity places? It is true that there are geographic constraints (Manhattan isn’t getting any bigger) but zoning and other land use restrictions including historical and environmental “protection” are reducing the amount of land available for housing and how much building can be done on a given piece of land. As a result, in places with lots of restrictions on land use, increased demand for housing shows up mostly in house prices rather than in house quantities.

Moreover, as I also argued earlier, even though the net wage is still positive for college-educated workers a signficant share of the returns to education are actually going to land owners!  Enrico Moretti (2013) estimates that 25% of the increase in the college wage premium between 1980 and 2000 was absorbed by higher housing costs. Moreover, since the big increases in housing costs have come after 2000, it’s very likely that an even larger share of the college wage premium today is being eaten by housing. High housing costs don’t simply redistribute wealth from workers to landowners. High housing costs reduce the return to education, reducing the incentive to invest in education. Thus higher housing costs have reduced human capital and the number of skilled workers with potentially significant effects on growth.

Italy is Open

Italy has dropped all of its COVID entry requirements joining Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Croatia, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland,  Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom among many others. The US in contrast still has a vaccination requirement for non-citizens and a costly, annoying and near useless test requirement for everyone.

Planes are not especially dangerous for COVID transmission–people are in close quarters but the filtration systems are excellent. That does not mean the risks are zero but rather that there are no strong reasons to treat planes differently than buses, subways, taxis, bars, churches, mosques and concert halls and there is certainly no strong reason to treat foreign flights differently than domestic flights. By all means, wear a mask if you wish to reduce your risk.  But let’s not pretend that testing international travelers is protecting America’s borders.

The test requirement should be dropped forthwith.

My Conversation with Jamal Greene

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

Jamal and Tyler discuss what he’d change about America’s legal education system, the utility of having non-judges or even non-lawyers on the Supreme Court, how America’s racial history influences our conception of rights, the potential unintended consequences of implementing his vision of rights for America, how the law should view economic liberty, the ideal moral framework for adjudicating conflicts, whether social media companies should consider interdependencies when moderating content on their platforms, how growing up in different parts of New York City shaped his views on pluralism, the qualities that make some law students stand out, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: There is a crude view in popular American society — even possibly correct — that, simply, American society is too legalistic. There’s that book, Three Felonies a Day. If you have expired prescription medicine in your cabinet, you’re committing a felony. People who are very smart will just tell me, “Never talk to a cop. Never talk to an FBI agent.” I’m an upper-class White guy who’s literally never smoked marijuana once, and they’re telling me, “Don’t ever speak with the law.”

Isn’t something wrong there? Is the common intuition that we’re too legalistic correct?

GREENE: I think that we are too apt to submit political disputes to legal resolution. I think that for sure. What your friends are telling you about police officers is slightly different, insofar as one can have a deeply non-legalistic culture in which the correct advice is to not talk to police officers if those people are corrupt, if those people are abusive.

When I hear that advice — and I might be differently situated than you — that’s what people are saying is, someone might be out to trick you. And that might be a mistrust of state power, as you mentioned before. Maybe it’s a rational mistrust of state power, but I don’t know that that’s about legalism, which again, is a separate potential problem.

We tend to formulate our problems in legal terms, as if the right way to solve them is to decide how they are to be resolved by a court, or how they are to be resolved by some adjudicative official, as opposed to thinking about our problems in terms of just inherent in, again, pluralism, which has to be solved through politics, has to be solved through conversation.

COWEN: But we still have whatever is upstream of the American law, the steep historical and cultural background, so anything we do is going to be flavored by that. We’re not ever going to get to a system where the policemen are like the policemen in Germany, for instance, or that the courts are like the courts in Germany.

Given that cultural upstream, again, isn’t the intuition basically correct? Just be suspicious of the law. We should have fewer laws, rely less on the legal process, in essence, deregulate as many different things as we can. Why isn’t that the correct conclusion, rather than building in more rights?

Interesting throughout.

The new *Top Gun* movie (no real spoilers)

I can’t say I loved it, though I found it sociologically interesting.  They are still drawing on George Lucas for influence and inspiration?  The movie is not so much anti-Woke as pre-Woke, with cliched ethnic characters and adoring women waiting for the heroic men to come back from mission.  Little offends me, but what was interesting here was how uninteresting and un-self-aware the treatment was.  There are bar scenes and mentor scenes where the same comment would apply.  The visuals and aero scenes were very good, but I thought not spectacular.  The ending should have been the opposite of what it was.  Perhaps most notably, Tom Cruise wears a Taiwanese flag on his jacket.  But it seems only for the Taiwanese release.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Algorithms to find killer asteroids (NYT).

2. “A Dene filmmaker says he was turned away from the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival because he was wearing moccasins.

3. Poor prospects — not inequality — motivate political violence.

4. Eye contact and classical musicians.

5. Does the aggregate of Twitter opinion predict bond returns?

6. On malicious alien civilizations.

Fact Checking Increases Fake News

Florian Ederer and Weicheng Min have an interesting new paper called Bayesian Persuasion with Lie Detection which shows that under some conditions fact checking can increase fake news.

How does lie detection constrain the potential for one person to persuade another to change her action? We consider a model of Bayesian persuasion in which the Receiver can detect lies with positive probability. We show that the Sender lies more when the lie detection probability increases. As long as this probability is sufficiently small, the Sender’s and the Receiver’s equilibrium payoffs are unaffected by the presence of lie detection because the Sender simply compensates by lying more. However, when the lie detection probability is sufficiently high, the Sender’s equilibrium payoff decreases and the Receiver’s equilibrium payoff increases with the lie detection probability.

The paper is difficult so here’s my stab at the intuition.

Suppose that politicians always want war but war is not always good. If voters can always detect a lie, politicians would always report war-is-good only when war was good and not-war when war was bad. Now suppose that voters can never detect a lie and also that the true probability of war being good is low. In this case, if politicians always report war-is-good then the voters would always ignore the politicians and choose no-war. But suppose that politicians always report war-is-good when war is good but sometimes report war-is-bad when war is bad (and, of course, sometimes report war-is-good when war is bad). In this situation, voters could be better off listening to politicians than ignoring them completely and the politicians will also be better off because they will get war more often—always when it is good and sometimes when it is bad. So, even though they always want war, how often should politicians report war-is-bad when war is bad? Just enough so that the voters are indifferent between following the politician’s advice and ignoring it altogether. In other words, voters have a threat point—ignore the politician completely. Knowing this threat point, politicians should tell the truth just enough so that voters prefer following the politician’s advice to ignoring them completely. Thus, even though voters can never detect a lie, politicians should sometimes tell the truth.

Now assume that there is (imperfect) lie detection. It’s immediately obvious that holding all else equal voters will be better off because now they will detect some of the times politicians say war-is-good when in fact war-is-bad. But precisely for this reason, all else will not be held equal, politicians will now report war-is-good when it is bad more often, i.e. they will lie more often. Working “backwards”, the voters threat point—ignore the politicians altogether—hasn’t changed and so their expected utility won’t change but that means that lie detection can’t make them better off and the reason is that politicians will lie more often.

In fact, lie detection doesn’t help the voters unless it is very accurate–perhaps more accurate than in our world.

Note that in this model voters cannot punish politicians for lying nor is there any opportunity for politicians to signal, to take costly actions that could separate truth tellers from liars. The model is all about “senders” and “receivers” of information–it’s a model of Bayesian persuasion not Bayesian punishment. In a model with punishment the ability to detect lies–even the ability to detect lies ex post–could result in more optimistic scenarios. Similarly, signaling might help, at the expense of some cost.

Nevertheless, the lesson I take is that information revelation is rarely pure. Information revelation is strategic–what is revealed and when it is revealed are choices in a game that may have complex and counter-intuitive equilibria.

For more, see Peter Coy’s interesting article on Bayesian persuasion in the New York Times.

Has the world passed “peak agricultural land”?

Expanding agriculture has been the biggest driver of the destruction of the world’s wilderness.

This expansion of agricultural land has now come to an end. After millennia, we have passed the peak, and in recent years global agricultural land use has declined…

Here I have brought together the three leading analyses on the change in global land use – these are shown in the visualization. Each uses a different methodology, as explained in the chart. The UN FAO produces the bedrock data for each of these analyses from 1961 onwards; however, the researchers apply their own methodologies on top, and extend this series further back in time.

As you can see, they disagree on how much land is used for agriculture, and the time at which land use peaked. But they do all agree that we have passed the peak.

Here is more from Hannah Ritchie at Our World in Data.  Of course food production continues to rise.