Month: July 2022

Patrick Collison on vaccines

Pan-variant vaccines are a $1 trillion dollar bill on the sidewalk. Some combination of a lack of basic institutional seriousness and self-imposed straightjackets mean that we will probably get these vaccines much later (perhaps years later) than we otherwise could. It is intellectually internally consistent to believe that COVID doesn’t matter and that we consequently shouldn’t care about any of this. But it is not consistent to think that COVID matters and that this situation is anything other than crazy.

Here is the full piece, written for Slow Boring (which you should subscribe to and pay for, as I do), excellent throughout.  One lesson is that management really matters, public sector management most of all for a case like this.

How bad is the new German trade deficit?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  The country suddenly faces many problems at once:

…extremely high energy prices, the need to bail out some of its energy firms, the conflict in Ukraine and the resulting promise to boost defense spending, and possible troubles with Italy in the Eurozone over rising borrowing costs. Germany is either going to do very, very poorly, or will muddle through and manage a major turnaround. I would bet on the latter.

And here is another part of the argument:

And then there is what may be Germany’s biggest problem: complacency. In the last 20 years Germany’s primary education system has had a mixed performance, albeit with some improvements, and its infrastructure is no longer perceived as so efficient or high quality. Yet reform was not imperative, partly because things were going OK enough in Germany.

There is a chance that the current crisis will jolt Germany out of its passivity. Throughout history Germany has managed to reverse some very bad situations, as it did after the devastations of the Napoleonic wars and World War II.

Keep in mind that human capital is the most important determinant of national wealth, much more important than the flows reflected in the trade account in any given month or year. If German reforms boost the ability of the country to train students and to put its people to work, the long-run payoffs could be very high.

In general I have found that wealthy societies deal with “one-off” problems somewhat better than most observers expect in advance.  I will be watching closely.

The Destruction of the Georgia Guidestones and the Bamiyan Buddhas

I am saddened and disturbed by the destruction of the Georgia Guidestones. The Guidestones, “America’s stonehenge,” were a set of six large, granite slabs, erected in 1980 and paid for by a mysterious group of unknown benefactors. The slabs were arranged precisely for astronomical reasons and contain inscriptions in multiple languages. On July 6, 2022 the Guidestones were blown up and then, what remained, was completely destroyed for apparent safety reasons.

The Guidestones were not a significant marker of cultural heritage, unlike the 1400 year old massive Buddhas of Bamiyan which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Nevertheless, it is hard not to see the parallels between the destruction of the Guidestones and the Bamiyan Buddhas. Earlier this year Kandiss Taylor, a minor candidate for the 2022 Republican nomination for Governor of Georgia, made the destruction of the Guidestones one of her campaign pledges, claiming they were a Satanic evil. Thus, the destruction of the Guidestones was likely motivated by fears and hatred similar to those that motivated the destruction of the Buddhas. At the very least, an interesting art work, created at considerably expense by a group of public benefactors, was maliciously destroyed.

The Guidestones were meant to last for a thousand years and to offer guidance to humanity after a castrophe such as a nuclear war. The Guidestones lasted 42 years. It doesn’t bode well.

Georgia Guidestones in Elbert County, GA.jpg
The Georgia Guidestones, Quentin Melson, Wikipedia.

Illegal markets in everything

The operator of a Colorado funeral home who was accused of stealing body parts and selling them to medical and scientific buyers, making hundreds of thousands of dollars in what the authorities called an “illegal body part scheme,” pleaded guilty to mail fraud on Tuesday, the Justice Department said.

The woman, Megan Hess, 45, the principal figure in the scheme, was assisted by her mother, Shirley Koch, who is in her late 60s, prosecutors said. As part of a plea agreement, eight other criminal charges against Ms. Hess were dropped. She could face up to 20 years in prison.

“I exceeded the scope of the consent and I’m trying to make an effort to make it right,” Ms. Hess said in United States District Court in Grand Junction, Colo., on Tuesday, according to The Daily Sentinel. “I’m taking responsibility.”

Here is more from the NYT.  And this service “retrieves your dead loved ones’ tattoos and preserves them as framed mementos.”  Not illegal.

Is remote work lowering pecuniary wages?

Maybe so, according to the latest results from Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom, Steven J. Davis, Brent H. Meyer and Emil Mihaylov:

The recent shift to remote work raised the amenity value of employment. As compensation adjusts to share the amenity-value gains with employers, wage-growth pressures moderate. We find empirical support for this mechanism in the wage-setting behavior of U.S. employers, and we develop novel survey data to quantify its force. Our data imply a cumulative wage-growth moderation of 2.0 percentage points over two years. This moderation offsets more than half the real-wage catchup effect that Blanchard (2022) highlights in his analysis of near-term inflation pressures. The amenity-values gains associated with the recent rise of remote work also lower labor’s share of national income by 1.1 percentage points. In addition, the “unexpected compression” of wages since early 2020 (Autor and Dube, 2022) is partly explained by the same amenity-value effect, which operates differentially across the earnings distribution.

Here is the NBER working paper.

Economists grabbing coffee

From Panka Bencsik:

This is a continuously growing list of PhD holding (or soon to be) economists (and economics-adjacent folks) in academic (and academic-adjacent) positions who would be happy to grab coffee with colleagues visiting their city once it’s safe to do so again. Much in the spirit of #EconTwitter, the list is intended to open doors for informal, relaxed communication, and peer-to-peer research conversations.

Started in March 2020, EconBrew now has over 300(!) economists from 40+ US states and 35+ countries worldwide. The effort is particularly geared towards offsetting some of the loss stemming from the global pandemic halting ways to connect with colleagues. I hope this list can serve as one of the many steps we can take to start new research conversations post-pandemic. Beyond personal meet ups, some of those who signed up are open to chatting with colleagues over Zoom, regardless of location. Everyone who is open to virtual meets has a note with their entry to indicate this.

If you would like to be listed here as someone happy to grab coffee with a colleague, please sign up here:

Here is the link, via Patrick Gourley.

Is AI still going to be totalitarian?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the argument:

One of the fears with GPT-3 is that students will use it to generate realistic-sounding term papers. That may well be a problem (could the oral exam make a comeback?). But it also shows how the technology can encourage decentralized idea production and the subversion of authority. It is the opposite of centralized control of everything.

Perhaps the biggest political fear is that AI supports vast amounts of surveillance. Governments use facial and gait surveillance to trace people’s movements in public, for example. That is a valid concern, but it is not clear that AI has given today’s major autocratic governments such a big boost.

Russia, for one, was supposed to be such an impressive cyberpower, able to cripple entire societies with its cyberattacks. Maybe Russia has yet to show what it is capable of, but as the Ukraine war proceeds its cybercapabilities seem less scary. (Cyber is not synonymous with AI, but both are advanced and interrelated technologies that Russia seems to be failing at.)

Russia has proved it can use a lot of heavy artillery in a very destructive fashion. It has not shown it can mobilize AI technologies to deploy very effective forms of targeted warfare. It seems once again that brute force, not advanced technology, is the friend of autocracy.

The No. 1 autocratic AI power, of course, is China, but here too the course of events is uncertain. The Chinese government uses an impressive array of AI technologies to monitor its population, but to what end have the Chinese turned these technologies?

China has been doubling down on its Covid Zero policy, at great expense to the Chinese economy. These policies are possible only because the Chinese state had such advanced tracking and monitoring capabilities in the first place. At first those technologies were used to limit the spread of Covid, often quite effectively. But the current Covid strains are harder to control and it is difficult to see exactly what the Chinese endgame looks like. China has taken an AI asset and turned it into an AI liability.

That flip should not come as a surprise, considering the benefits and costs of autocracies. Autocracy typically is a “high variance” form of government: It can have major successes, such as the building of Chinese infrastructure, but the relative absence of checks and balances means that major failures are also likely, in this case the persistence of Covid Zero policy.

In essence, the advent of advanced AI raises the stakes. But if autocracy is a high-variance form of government, raising the stakes is risky.

Here is Henry Farrell on similar issues.

Some negative results on cash transfers

We randomized over 5,000 US individuals in poverty to one of three conditions during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: receiving a one-time $500 unconditional cash transfer (UCT; half a month’s worth of total household income for the median participant; N=1,374), a $2,000 UCT (two months’ income; N=699), or nothing (N=3,170). We measured the effects of the UCTs on participants’ financial well-being, psychological well-being, cognitive capacity, and physical health through surveys administered one week, six weeks, and 15 weeks after cash receipt. For 43% of our sample, we also observe bank account balances and financial transactions. While the cash transfers increased expenditures for a few weeks, we find no evidence that they had positive impacts on our pre-specified survey outcomes at any time point. We further find no significant differences between the $500 and $2,000 groups. These findings stand in stark contrast to the (incentivized) predictions of both experts and a nationally representative sample of laypeople, who—depending on the treatment group, outcome, and time period—estimated treatment effect sizes of +0.16 to +0.65 SDs. We test several explanations for these unexpected results, including via two survey experiments embedded in our trial. The data are most consistent with the notion that receiving some but not enough money made participants’ needs—and the gap between their resources and needs—more salient, which in turn generated feelings of distress.

That is from a new paper by Ania Jarosewicz, Jon Jachimowicz, Oliver Hauser, and Julian Jamison, via a bunch of disappointed people on Twitter.  And here is the summarizing tweetstorm.

The Capitalist Kibbutz

Kibutz: a implantação dos assentamentos rurais - Artigo - Gente de OpiniãoThe Israeli kibbutz have long been moving away from utopian socialism towards “renewing kibbutz”; a kind of cooperative in which member wages differ, consumption is unequal, many resources are privately owned but there is some mutual aid–a “safety net”–and some common ownership typically of land. Abramitzky et al. look at how kibbutz members vote and their expressed preferences after a kibbutz moves from a traditional model to a reformed or renewed model. The answer is that preferences for the market economy increased the more kibbutz members were exposed to the market economy but support for some redistribution to the poor (which was now less costly as the society was wealthier) did not decrease.

We find that labor market liberalization [i.e. new kibbutz model, AT] led to increased support of open labor market policies such as competitive labor market mechanisms, increased pay for overtime work, and differential wages. It decreased support for socialist policies, such as the joint ownership of the means of production. Still, it did not affect beliefs in the Marxist principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, a principle which stands at the core of socialist egalitarian perception. At the same time, the reform also led to increased support for the safety net.

…The effects we document appear to be driven by an increase in living standards and work ethics that resulted from the reform. Equal sharing in the traditional kibbutz encouraged shirking and free riding. While strong idealism among founders helped kibbutzim reduce these problems in the past, idealism declined over time, and the second and third generations became less idealistic than the founding generation (see Abramitzky 2018 for a discussion). By the 1990s, before reforms took place, members complained about shirkers. As reported by members in surveys, our findings provide quantitative evidence that the reform improved kibbutzim’s members’ economic conditions and work ethics. These improvements might have, in turn, contributed to the more favorable attitudes of kibbutz members towards open labor market policies. Such improved economic conditions and work ethics might explain why even groups that stood to lose in relative terms from the reform, such as older and less educated members, supported it. The improved economic conditions and work ethics meant that even if these groups experienced declines in their relative income (as they found themselves at the bottom of the kibbutz’s income distribution), they may not
have lost in terms of absolute income. Moreover, these groups may have concluded that a shift away from equal sharing was inevitable for the long-term survival of their kibbutz, and accordingly became more favorable to market mechanisms after the reform.

…We conclude that introducing market-based wages led to a shift in attitudes towards what we call a market economy with compassion, changing from their traditional democratic socialist model to a social democratic one. Although most kibbutz members support the differential pay reforms, they still want to maintain their core principle of mutual guarantee. When reflecting on how they want to live and build their society, most members want to live in neither a traditional socialist kibbutz nor a capitalist city. Most of them prefer something in the middle – a market economy within a compassionate society with a comprehensive safety net.

In short, the mixed economy is stable.

Nabeel’s productivity advice

1. Maximize your baseline energy levels. There is the obvious stuff: figure out a personal exercise practice and do it at least five days a week (I like running). If you don’t, you’re just leaving a bunch of power on the table.

But there are also less intuitive truths here.

Energy compounds on itself. If you start the morning by getting something done (a workout, an important task, writing) then you’re going to have a higher baseline energy day overall. It’s as though the initial thing gives you a persistent ‘boost’ throughout the day. Doing additional things becomes easier. Without this boost, there’s a good chance I get nothing important done that day.

Most people’s mental models of energy are flawed: they think there’s a ‘tank’ of energy that gets depleted as you spend it. This may be roughly true for physical energy, but mental energy is different: spending mental energy on things that you consider productive or important gives you more mental energy for other things: a positive feedback loop. On the other hand, procrastinating, spending all day scrolling Twitter, or staying in bed all day reduces the amount of energy you have to spend; this means you are less likely to get anything done.

It’s common to get trapped in this negative energy feedback loop: you don’t feel like doing something, so you check Twitter for awhile, which reduces your energy levels, which makes you feel worse, but you try and do something anyway, but you’re even less energized now, so you decide to go to bed for a bit to rest, but the rest isn’t restful… etc.

The way to get out of these energy ruts is to just do something really small (empty the dishwasher! Write one sentence!) and get that tiny reward of accomplishment. This generates a little bit more energy. Use that spark to get something slightly bigger done, and so on.

Here are nine other pieces of advice.  Here is Nabeel on Twitter.

Emergent Ventures winners, 21st cohort

Uzay Girit, 17, part Turkish part American, starting at MIT, general career support.

Hamidah Oderinwale, 17, Ontario with Nigerian origins, to sponsor an EA visit to Nigeria and also for general career support.

Yelim Kim, Champaigne-Urbana, Illinois, 15 years old, for an algae/bio project and general career development.

An anonymous grant to central/eastern Europe.

Rhett Ellis, autistic entrepreneur in Brisbane, a deeptech replacement for the CV/Resume that measures the presence or absence of knowledge.

Oliver Kim, UC Berkeley economics graduate student, to research Chinese economic growth using light/satellite data for the period of critical reforms.

Luca Gattoni-Celli, founder YIMBYs of Northern Virginia.  Here is his Twitter.

Jamie Brandon, Vancouver area independent researcher, working on making databases easier to use.

Kamil Galeev, for a new foreign policy consultancy, including with a study of Russia, the Russian region, and China.

Tom Bell, Chapman University, to produce a report In Search of the Best Policies for Translational Geroscience, with Kalon Boston.