Four “dark horse” stories for 2021

From my Bloomberg column, here is one of them:

possible Chinese move against Taiwan has received a lot of attention, but a Russian union with Belarus could be a greater danger. Belarus might even agree to such a proposition, so it would be hard for NATO or the U.S. to decry it as a coercive invasion. Yet such a Russian expansion could upend political stability in Europe.

If Russia and Belarus became a single political unit, there would be only a thin band of land, called the Suwalki Gap, connecting the Baltics to the rest of the European Union. Unfortunately, that same piece of territory would stand in the way of the new, larger Russia connecting with the now-cut off Russian region of Kaliningrad. Over the long term, could the Baltics maintain their independence? If not, the European Union would show it is entirely a toothless entity, unable to guarantee the sovereignty of its members.

Even if there were no formal political union between Russia and Belarus, the territorial continuity and integrity of the EU could soon be up for grabs. The EU has more at stake in an independent Belarus than it likes to admit.

You will find three more undervalued possible news stories at the link.

Does performance pay increase alcohol and drug use?

I would like to see this replicated, but the result is interesting nonetheless:

Using US panel data on young workers, we demonstrate that those who receive performance pay are more likely to consume alcohol and illicit drugs. Recognizing that this likely reflects worker sorting, we first control for risk, ability, and personality proxies. We further mitigate sorting concerns by introducing worker fixed effects, worker-employer match fixed effects, and worker-employer-occupation match fixed effects. Finally, we present fixed effect IV estimates. All of these estimates continue to indicate a greater likelihood of substance use when a worker receives performance pay. The results support conjectures that stress and effort increase with performance pay and that alcohol and drug use is a coping mechanism for workers.

By Benjamin Arta, Colin P. Green, and John S. Heywood, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Should the CIA be putting out “Woke” ads?

I am fine with the idea, for reasons I outlined in my latest Bloomberg column:

If you wanted to dilute wokeness, and limit its appeal to young radicals, what could be better than a CIA endorsement? I, for one, would like to make wokeness decidedly uncool — and if this video can recruit some new talent to the CIA at the same time, what’s not to like?

If you are a passionate young person, deeply concerned with social justice, you will be looking for causes rejected by the Establishment and embraced by a cool, in-the-know vanguard. Think of Marlon Brando’s line in “The Wild One,” when he is asked what he is rebelling against: “Whadda you got?”

The CIA, which just recently rebranded itself, just went a long way toward making wokeness feel ordinary and anodyne. Wokeness isn’t going to disappear, so the sooner wokeness becomes like the Unitarian Church — broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment — the better.

For similar reasons, those skeptical of wokeness should not be overly worried about so many American businesses embracing the concept, at least rhetorically. Some left-wing radicals might even consider the notion of woke and  inclusive CIA assassins to be sinister, just as they fear that international conglomerates will neuter wokeness by embracing it.

Have you ever been walking through a department store and heard the Muzak version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”? Do you know the line: “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can”? Maybe hearing the accompanying melody, perhaps while browsing the men’s wear section, made you think that Karl Marx had taken over the world. Or maybe — if you’re like me — your reaction was that John Lennon had found his place in history, and that both capitalism and conservatism were more robust than he had imagined.

Recommended, there are some subtle points in the longer exposition.

The New Era of Unconditional Convergence

Here is a new paper by Dev Patel Justin Sandefur, and Arvind Subramanian:

The central fact that has motivated the empirics of economic growthnamely unconditional divergenceis no longer true and has not been so for decades. Across a range of data sources, poorer countries have in fact been catching up with richer ones, albeit slowly, since the mid-1990s. This new era of convergence does not stem primarily from growth moderation in the rich world but rather from accelerating growth in the developing world, which has simultaneously become remarkably less volatile and more persistent. Debates about a middle-income trap also appear anachronistic: middleincome countries have exhibited higher growth rates than all others since the mid-1980s.

Here is the entire paper.  My general conclusion is that no particular model of convergence, or lack thereof, is correct, and it simply all depends on the historical period.

How to beat Paul Graham and put him in his place

Paul writes me:

I remember you wrote an article about the intersection of cryptocurrency and philanthropy, so if you haven’t heard about it yet you’d probably be interested in the new “Save Thousands of Lives” NFT being sold by a nonprofit we funded.

They run programs in India to teach new moms to take care of their babies at home. They’re amazingly effective (not surprising since they’re using the most powerful force in the world as leverage) and have the lowest cost per life saved of any nonprofit I know: $1235. And that is conservatively estimated; in reality it’s even lower.

You can read about it here: http://paulgraham.com/nft.html

I’d really appreciate it if you could help publicize this project. I bid the reserve price, but I really want to get into a bidding war with a cryptobillionaire, because the higher the price goes, the more lives get saved.

OK people, now you know how to beat Paul Graham…

Wednesday assorted links

1. Additional problems with central bank digital currencies.

2. Nicholas Wade on where Covid-19 really came from.  And commentary from Elad.  Original link is updated here.

3. Police vaccination rates are low.

4. “Travel agencies in Thailand are selling coronavirus “vaccine tours” to the United States, as some wealthy Thais grow impatient awaiting mass inoculations that are still a month away amid the country’s biggest outbreak so far.”  Link here.

My Conversation with Daniel Carpenter, on regulation and also the FDA

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, I found it a very substantive and also illuminating episode.  Carpenter is very, very smart and also very well-informed historically.  Here is part of the summary:

Daniel Carpenter is one of the world’s leading experts on regulation and the foremost expert on the US Food and Drug Administration. A professor of Government at Harvard University, he’s conducted extensive research on regulation and government organizations, as well as on the development of political institutions in the United States. His latest book Democracy by Petition: Popular Politics in Transformation, details the crucial role petitions played in expanding the franchise and shaping modern America.

Here is an excerpt from the non-FDA section, much of which focuses on (non-FDA) regulation:

COWEN: What kinds of records should the Postal Service keep about itself?

CARPENTER: [laughs] Great question. There’s a whole set of things that they don’t since the Griswold decision and since the First Amendment decisions. They don’t keep as much records of what goes through the mail. They can’t prohibit things like pornography, contraception.

I guess it depends on what you mean by “itself.” I would start with the idea that basic privacy restrictions, which governed the postal system as much through norm as by law in the 19th century and early 20th century, should govern the system.

It’s a crime if I were to walk past your mailbox and open your letter. I’m committing a federal crime, but there were also norms that seals were not to be broken, things like that. I do think whichever way the Postal Service goes — and it’s quite possible that you could imagine an electronic platform for the US postal system — I think basic privacy restrictions have to be guaranteed.

Actually, in some respects, I think we need to know a fair amount about what postal workers do without, say, calling for Amazon tracking. But if we think that postal workers are misplacing ballots or not providing birth control pills or something like that, then we should probably have some way of picking up on that kind of nefarious behavior.

In the FDA section I got mad at him, the first (but not last?) time that has happened in a CWT, do read or listen to the whole section, the two of us really had at it!  Here is a tiny sliver from it:

COWEN: But shouldn’t there be a button within the FDA that can be pushed, where the FDA goes into a kind of wartime mode?

I don’t want to misrepresent Carpenter by an ill-chosen excerpt, so please do digest his full set of replies.  Recommended.

Are women making progress in academic economics?

Here is a new paper by Donna K. Ginther and Shulamit Kahn:

This study uses data from Academic Analytics to examine gender differences in promotion to associate professor in economics. We found that women in economics were 15% less likely to be promoted to associate professor after controlling for cumulative publications, citations, grants and grant dollars. In contrast, we found no significant gender differences in promotion in other fields including biomedical science, physical science, political science, mathematics and statistics, and engineering. We separated the sample by the research intensity of institutions and found suggestive evidence that these results were being driven by less research-intensive institutions.

What is the best model for understanding this result?  The “ol’ boys’ network” matters more at lower-tier institutions?  Something else?  There doesn’t seem to be a gender tenure penalty at higher-ranked research institutions.

How would actual alien spacecraft influence asset prices?

Primarily as an exercise, I thought about that question for a while, and here is part of my answer in a Bloomberg column:

If you know you are being watched, what exactly do you wish to buy more of? I would bet on defense stocks to rise, whether or not there is much we can do to defend ourselves against this alien presence.

Of course investors could not be sure that these alien drone probes will merely observe us forever. They might be observing with the purpose of rendering judgment. If they are offended by our militaristic tendencies, the quality of our TV shows and our inability to adopt the cosmopolitan values of “Star Trek” over the next 30 years, maybe they will zap us into oblivion. But that kind of systematic risk is hard to insure against. After such an act of obliteration, neither gold nor Bitcoin will do you any good.

My main prediction is that alien UFOs will be bullish for the dollar. The U.S. government seems most closely connected to the UFO phenomenon, for whatever reason. (Maybe its pilots fly more sallies and record better data?) In any case, if alien UFOs become more likely, an informational advantage would accrue to the federal government. And the dollar already has a tradition as a safe haven currency…

Most of us would get used to the idea of alien presence without quite believing in it. As The New Yorker makes clear, many Americans believed in alien-origin UFOs after World War II, as did many American policymakers. It might have spurred greater interest in the space program and science fiction, but it didn’t affect most aspects of American life, nor did it seem to drive markets.

Never underestimate the capacity of markets, like humans, to adapt. Just as many of the strangest parts of our lives can come to seem normal, so Wall Street can find a way to do business with just about anybody — aliens included.

I do full, literally mean everything stated in the column.  But the piece also has (at least) two esoteric meanings — can you guess what they are?

Who is the best-known, non-political American married couple?

With Bill and Melinda Gates divorcing, and Kanye and Kim doing the same, America now has a paucity of very well-known married couples, at least outside of politics, where Barack and Michelle Obama reign supreme.

Who is the Lucy and Desi of our time?  The George Burns and Gracie Allen?  The Sonny and Cher?

George and Amal Clooney are in the running, but is she so well known to most Americans?  Could they tell you her name from scratch, or cite what she is known for?

Kurt Cobain has passed away, as has Kobe Bryant, Larry and Laurie David split some time ago, and John and Yoko and Paul and Linda (an honorary American couple, for media purposes) are distant memories.  Movie stars barely still exist these days.

Perhaps Elon Musk will marry Grimes, who is a musical star of some renown.

Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn have been married for 24 years, and they are pretty well known.

Harry and Meghan maybe are becoming an American couple, at least for media purposes?

Who else?

The rise of research teams in economics

Solo authorship represented 80 percent of economics papers in 1960 and 65 percent in 1990, but then solo-authorship fell out of the majority in 2005 and represents only 26 percent of economics papers today (as measured by the right-hand axis). To put it another way, in 1950, there were 1.2 authors per economics paper. Average team size reached 2.0 for the first time in 2010. By 2018, team size averaged 2.7 (as shown on the left-hand axis). The jump in average team size in economics papers over the last ten years is greater than the jump over the prior half-century.

Here is more from Benjamin F. Jones.  For higher impact papers, the trend is even more striking.

Concentration in product markets

Here are some new results:

This paper uses new data to reexamine trends in concentration in U.S. markets from 1994 to 2019. The paper’s main contribution is to construct concentration measures that reflect narrowly defined consumption-based product markets, as would be defined in an antitrust setting, while accounting for cross-brand ownership, and to do so over a broad range of consumer goods and services. Our findings differ substantially from well established results using production data. We find that 42.2% of the industries in our sample are “highly concentrated” as defined by the U.S. Horizontal Merger Guidelines, which is much higher than previous results. Also in contrast with the previous literature, we find that product market concentration has been decreasing since 1994. This finding holds at the national level and also when product markets are defined locally in 29 state groups. We find increasing concentration once markets are aggregated to a broader sector level. We argue that these two diverging trends are best explained by a simple theoretical model based on Melitz and Ottaviano (2008), in which the costs of a firm supplying adjacent geographic or product markets falls over time, and efficient firms enter each others’ home product markets.

That is a new NBER working paper by C. Lanier Benkard, Ali Kurukoglu, and Anthony Lee Zhang.  It is very supportive of recent research by Estaben Rossi-Hansberg (here and here, with co-authors) that market concentration simply has not been going up in recent times.