Month: July 2022

What should I ask Jeremy Grantham?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  If you do not know here is Wikipedia:

Robert Jeremy Goltho Grantham CBE (born 6 October 1938) is a British investor and co-founder and chief investment strategist of Grantham, Mayo, & van Otterloo (GMO), a Boston-based asset management firm. GMO had more than US$118 billion in assets under management as of March 2015.[GMO has seen this number half to US$65 billion in assets under management as of Dec 2020. He has been a vocal critic of various governmental responses to the Global Financial Crisis from 2007 to 2010. Grantham started one of the world’s first index funds in the early 1970s.

And there is more.  So what should I ask him?

Sunday assorted links

1. Job ad: Marginal Revolution University seeks marketing director (from distance is fine).

2. The New Yorker reviews The Rehearsal.

3. Scott Sumner on the new bill, and whether we should raise taxes on investment.  A good post.

4. “Finland tracks what percentage of murders were committed by men who were drunk. It has been above 50% for almost the entire time the statistics were recorded.

5. Defining use for the metaverse?

6. Esquire lists eighty books it thinks every man should read.

7. New Helen DeWitt novel coming.

Geoff Brennan, we hardly knew ye, RIP

Geoff has long been one of my favorite economists, and he was perhaps the single most underrated economist around.  For all of Geoff’s brilliance, wisdom, and contributions, he never quite made it into mainstream renown (maybe living and teaching in Australia hurt him?).

The three Brennan contributions that have influenced me most are:

1. His account of expressive voting with Loren Lomasky, showing how politics can generate a measured concern that people may not care about all that much.  That was also a big influence on Bryan Caplan’s book on voting.

2. His arguments with Jim Buchanan about the limitations of optimal tax theory (Amazon, when I search for this book, why do you summon up as the first pick “Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Bum Bum Body Cream“?).  If government policy is misaligned with social welfare, “more efficient” forms of taxation, such as the Ramsey rules, will not in general be more efficient.  In particular they can make it too easy for the government to maximize revenue and transfer resources to the public sector.  The profession as a whole still refuses to recognize this point, but it should be front and center of most analyses.  One side of the coin is that the French government is too large a share of gdp, but it would be interesting to flip the argument and try to apply it to Mexico…

3. Geoff’s book The Economy of Esteem (with Philip Pettit), which analyzed approbational incentives, building upon Adam Smith’s TMS.

Geoff was one of the few scholars comfortable in economics, philosophy, and also political science.  Two of his main books, listed above, are co-authored with philosophers.  Here is Geoff on

Personally, Geoff was popular with just about everybody.  He is also one of the few people to have worked with Buchanan and come out of the experience intact.  If he was at a conference dinner, he would be sure to find the occasion to sing a song for everybody, and he had a wonderful voice.

Geoff Brennan, we shall miss ye.

Scott Gottlieb on Monkeypox response failure

Our country’s response to monkeypox ‌‌has been plagued by the same shortcomings we had with Covid-19. Now if monkeypox ‌gains a permanent foothold in the U‌nited States and becomes an endemic virus that joins our circulating repertoire of pathogens, it will be one of the worst public health failures in modern times not only because of the pain and peril of the disease but also because it was so avoidable. Our lapses extend beyond political decision making to the agencies tasked with protecting us from these threats. We don’t have a federal infrastructure capable of dealing with these emergencies.

The failures that got us here fit a now familiar pattern.

Early on, similar to the early days of Covid, testing access for monkeypox was limited, despite ample evidence that monkeypox was spreading in the United States. The Strategic National Stockpile was meant as a hedge against viral contingencies, but when the coronavirus struck, it lacked adequate supplies of testing equipment, ventilators and masks. With monkeypox, the government hadn’t stockpiled enough of the only vaccine, Jynneos, that was indicated for prevention of the disease and considered safe for use. The United States had on hand fewer than 2,400 doses in mid-May, mostly as a hedge against the risk of smallpox, which was the vaccine’s other indication.

How can this be?  Here is more from the NYT, including concrete suggestions for reform, such as taking various extraneous activities out of the CFDC.

Nashville: Snitch City

In Nashville, complaints about vague code violations can be made anonymously. The city gets fine revenue. There are a mix of black and white, poor and rich residents, and newly gentrifying neighborhoods. The result: a perfect brew for evil busybodies, meddlers, and assholes trying to leverage the power of the state to make a buck. A story to make you mad as hell from the great Radley Balko.

…to get to the main problem, I have to take the couple’s long driveway up to the house and enter the backyard to find the carport that extends out from the home. Benford spends a lot of time under the carport. He works on the Coronet here. He tinkers at his workbench and listens to the radio. On the blistering June day I visit, it isn’t hard to see why he likes it. The trees provide shade, rustle up a nice breeze, and bathe the area in dappled light. As we talk, the couple’s lab mix Bella patrols a T-shaped patch of grass.

“See that mini fridge over there? He wrote me up for that,” Benford says, referring to the Codes inspector. “I never heard of something so dumb. A man can’t have a mini fridge in his own garage?”

Benford sighs, rolls his eyes, and continues. “He wrote me up for having tools out here. Said you can’t have tools that aren’t put away. He said I can’t have the work bench. Once I was drinking a can of soda when he came over. He told me to put it away. You believe that? I’m a grown man, and you’re telling me to put away my soda. Everything you see out here, they told me I can’t have.”

Benford’s hardly a hoarder. At worst, you could say the carport has some clutter. There are a few chairs, some tools, a grill and a couple empty kerosene tanks. In 2018, his wife suffered a fall in the shower, hit her head, and sustained injuries that required brain surgery and a long convalescence. Benford himself recently had knee surgery. So there’s also a walker, a cane and assorted medical devices.

The structure is enclosed by the house on one side. The other three sides are open. And that, apparently, is the problem. “If that was an enclosed garage, it wouldn’t be an issue,” says Jamie Hollin, the couple’s attorney. “But they can’t afford to build a garage. So the city won’t leave them alone.” The carport isn’t visible from any public space, and as far as I could tell, the surrounding neighbors would have to strain to see it.

…Those reports attracted the attention of a particular Codes inspector, who then became a thorn in the couple’s side for nearly two decades. “At first he’d only come around when she called in a complaint,” Benford says. “But then he just started showing up on his own. He’d just come into the backyard and start telling me to put things away. Neighbors told me he’d sometimes park in their driveway and watch us with binoculars.”

The Coronet also became an issue. Nashville prohibits residents from keeping inoperable or unregistered vehicles on residential properties unless they’re stored in an enclosed garage. Paradoxically, the city also forbids residents from making major repairs on their own vehicles — again, unless it’s done in an enclosed garage. For Benford, that means when the Coronet has broken down over the years, his only legal option is to have it towed to a garage and pay someone else to fix it, even though he has the skills to fix it himself. According to Benford, the same Codes inspector has repeatedly shown up at his home over the years solely to demand that Benford prove that the car is operable. “I lost count of how many times he made me do that,” Benford says. “More than 20.”

“It’s just outrageous and demeaning,” says Hollin. “You’re going to come out and make this man start his car for you on command? You’re going to put a lien on this couple’s home over an old car? Some chairs in a carport? A goddamn refrigerator?”

That is just one example:

…Because complaints are anonymous, it’s almost impossible to prove who filed them. But in 2019, Nashville’s Fox affiliate WZTV ran a series of reports alleging that developers have been weaponizing codes to target properties they want to acquire. Two reports focused on Evelyn Suggs, a beloved, then-94-year-old Black landlord in North Nashville. Suggs told the station several of her properties had recently been hit with a rash of Codes complaints. Shortly after, developers began contacting her with offers to buy those properties. Some made reference to her battles with Codes. Other local residents, including Freddie Benford, have similar stories.

It’s possible that these developers simply scoured the complaints and court records available online to find property owners with fines, then made offers to those owners. But Burt, the local builder, says he’s witnessed it firsthand. “It absolutely happens,” he says. “I’d go so far as to say it’s common. I’ve personally heard developers boast about ‘lighting up Codes’ on a property they want to buy.”

Advocates like Weiss and Maurer say this is common in other places. “It’s just eminent domain by another name,” Maurer says. “Instead of officially declaring a property blighted and handing it over to a developer, you just hit it with codes complaints until the owner is overwhelmed.”

Now on top of this nonsense add vaguely written regulations and an administrative system that thinks it’s a court but isn’t subject to any due process or oversight.

Property rights aren’t simply about buying and selling for profit they are about privacy, individuality and freedom from busybodies. The urge to collectivize all decisions is a curse. Property rights, they make good neighbors.

Addendum: Yes I am in a bad mood today. I am, however, pleased to have played a very small role in the story. Read the whole thing for more.

They modeled this

…we demonstrate that individuals who hold very strict norms of honesty are more likely to lie to the maximal extent. Further, countries with a larger fraction of people with very strict civic norms have proportionally more societal-level rule violations. We show that our findings are consistent with a simple behavioral rationale. If perceived norms are so strict that they do not differentiate between small and large violations, then, conditional on a violation occurring, a large violation is individually optimal.

Life at the margin!  That is from a new paper by Diego Aycinena, Lucas Rentschler, Benjamin Beranek, and Jonathan F. Schulz.

*The Case Against the Sexual Revolution*

The author is Louise Perry and the subtitle is A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.  Definitely recommended, here is Louise’s brief summary of part of the book’s arguments:

In this book I’m going to ask — and seek to answer — some questions about freedom that liberal feminism can’t or won’t answer: Why do so many women desire a kind of sexual freedom that so obviously serves male interests?  What if our bodies and minds aren’t as malleable as we might like to think?  What do we lose when we prioritise freedom above all else?  And, above all, how should we act, given all this?

Some of my conclusions might not be welcome, since they draw attention to the hard limits on our freedom that can’t be surmounted, however much we try.  And I start from a position that historically has often been a source of discomfort for feminists of all ideological persuasions: I accept the fact that men and women are different, and that those differences aren’t going away.

This book is very well written and I believe it will make a big splash.  I am closer to a consent, libertarian viewpoint than is the author but still I read this eagerly.  Here is Louise Perry debating Aella about the sexual revolution on YouTube.  A smart set of exchanges.

Friday assorted links

1. An AI avatar makes a video pitch to me.  So far I have declined.

2. “In 1858 the Foreign Office had a staff of 43. By 1902, at the almost peak for the British Empire the headcount was down to 42. Today it’s somewhere over 10,000.”  Link here.

3. Progress Studies and MIT.

4. Does just thinking of uncertainty make uncertainty worse?

5. Alice Evans podcast with Daron Acemoglu.

6. The new temperance movement.

7. Howard Rosenthal has passed away.

8. A CWT parable.  Related to Honduras and charter cities.

Have we seen peak social media?

That is the question I raise in my latest Bloomberg column.  Please note it is one scenario, not a prediction.  Here is one bit:

If I consider my own social media use, it is WhatsApp (also owned by Meta) that is steadily on the rise, which is consistent with the trend toward private and small-group messaging.

So is writing for a private, selected audience poised to eclipse writing for a broader public on social media? What would more private messaging, more texting and more locked social media accounts mean for public discourse?

Public intellectuals might still write on open social media, but the sector as a whole would shift toward more personal and intimate forms of communication. Again, this is not a prediction. But is it such an implausible vision of the future?

One of the more robust forms of social media is online dating, though these companies do not have the largest valuations. The percentage of couples who have met online continues to rise, and that trend is unlikely to reverse anytime soon. But online dating may not be as “social” as other forms of social media: People view some profiles and then switch fairly rapidly to private communications.

Private communications would seem to solve many of the problems cited by critics of social media. Social media wouldn’t corrupt so much public discourse because there would less public discourse to corrupt. And criticizing the new manifestations of these (formerly?) social media platforms would be akin to criticizing communication itself.

I do consider video, YouTube, and TikTok, all likely to prove robust in my view, in the broader piece.

What is wrong in this picture?

Developers in west London face a potential ban on new housing projects until 2035 because the electricity grid has run out of capacity to support new homes, jeopardising housebuilding targets in the capital.

The Greater London Authority wrote to developers this week warning them that it might take more than a decade to bulk up grid capacity and get developments under way again in three west London boroughs — Hillingdon, Ealing and Hounslow.

Here is more from the FT.  Via Patrick Collison, #punycivilization.

The climate segment of the new bill

The bill aims to tackle global warming by using billions of dollars in tax incentives to ramp up wind, solar, geothermal, battery and other clean energy industries over the next decade. Companies would receive financial incentives to keep open nuclear plants that might have closed, or to capture emissions from industrial facilities and bury them underground before they can warm the planet. Car buyers with incomes below a certain level would receive a $7,500 tax credit to purchase a new electric vehicle and $4,000 for a used one. Americans would receive rebates to install heat pumps and make their homes more energy-efficient.

I would like to know more details, most of all about how things actually happen (for instance can they succeed in keeping the nuclear plants open?).  At the very least I will reiterate my oft-repeated claim that the age of policy gridlock has been dead for some while.  (And Congress just passed the Chips and Science Act.)  Here is the full NYT story.  I do hope to cover the new bill more as details come out, but in terms of broad sweep most of the basic ideas already have been analyzed on MR.

*The Messenger*

The author is Peter Loftus, and the subtitle is Moderna, the Vaccine, and the Business Gamble That Changed the World.  An excellent book, here is one very short excerpt:

The FDA usually follows a rigid process of interacting with the drug companies it regulates.  Normally, it can take months for a company to schedule an in-person meeting with the FDA.

Culture dies hard, here is Alex on the Invisible Graveyard.  And this:

…Moderna executives expressed confidence they could hit the enrollment targets without significantly slowing down overall enrollment.  But Fauci and Slaoui said they actually wanted Moderna to slow down overall enrollment in order to ensure they enrolled more minorities.

The book estimates the delay here at three weeks — how many lives was that in winter of 2020/2021?

Thursday assorted links

1. Ed Coulson, an urban/housing economist at UC Irvine, now has a Jeopardy winning streak.

2.”We’re currently running a prize at Open Philanthropy ( for people to suggest new cause areas for us to explore on the global health and wellbeing side. We’ve extended the deadline for submissions to August 11th, and we’d love to see as many people applying as possible!”

3. Who deserves a festschrift more than David Gordon?

4. How Wikipedia influences judicial decisions.

5. NYT covers Barbados at length.  Parts are very good, but it no longer seems allowed to criticize Caribbean nations for making their own policy mistakes.  A useful but in some ways deeply misleading article.  At what level does the “censorship” enter?  The incentives of the writer or the world view of the writer?  I suspect it is the latter.

6. Austin Vernon on paths for geothermal.