Seven lessons about blackmail

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opening bit:

Every now and then, a few apparently random news events come together and influence how you see the world. My most recent lesson is that blackmail and blackmail risk are a lot more common than I had thought.

And:

…the main villains in these privacy losses are not the big internet companies. While it is murky exactly how the Bezos photos leaked, it seems to have involved old-fashioned spying and the interception of text messages (and possibly a renegade brother). Silicon Valley didn’t sell his data. As for Northam, the yearbook is from the pre-digital era, dug up in a school library. This information was not on the internet, though of course it did play a role in spreading it.

Third, billionaires can be pretty useful. As Bezos asked in his open letter on Medium: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” In this case, both the billionaire and the medium of communication are the good guys.

Fourth, fears of a new era of blackmail based on Photoshopped images and so-called deep fakes (phony but convincing video) may be overblown, or at least premature. In the cases of both Bezos and Northam, the authenticity of the source material (text messages and photos) is not really being questioned, and both stories are receiving intense scrutiny. Rather, the debate is over the provenance and significance of the information.

There is much more at the link.

Wednesday assorted links

My Conversation with Jordan Peterson

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?

PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.

I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.

It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.

COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —

PETERSON: Yeah.

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.

Life without the Export-Import Bank

In terms of total revenue, Boeing, the aerospace giant, had its best year ever in 2018, with worldwide sales of $101.1 billion.

Exports were particularly robust. Commercial jet deliveries to foreign airlines rose from 763 in 2017 to 806 last year. Overall, the company has a 5,900-order backlog for airplanes worth a staggering $412 billion, according to The Post last week…

For the past 3½ years, Ex-Im, as the trade-finance agency is known, has been essentially paralyzed, yet Boeing has gone from strength to strength…

In the end, Ex-Im survived, as a legal entity. Crucially, though, Senate Republican foes of the bank refused to confirm a quorum for the bank’s board; without a quorum, Ex-Im cannot approve loan transactions larger than $10 million.

As a result of this ploy, the bank has been unable to aid foreign sales of Boeing or other makers of big-ticket goods since June 2015.

And yet, in that time, Boeing has done awesomely well.

It’s not just Boeing that has survived or thrived during Ex-Im’s paralysis. Another company that received heavy Ex-Im support, construction-equipment-maker Caterpillar, achieved a record profit per share in 2018. Caterpillar’s outlook for 2019 is somewhat less rosy, due to broad economic factors such as the slowdown in China, but Ex-Im, or the lack thereof, hardly registers in analyst forecasts.

Here is more from Charles Lane.

What does a Twitter-driven politics look like?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the final bit:

But what does this new, more intense celebrity culture mean for actual outcomes? The more power and influence that individual communicators wield over public opinion, the harder it will be for a sitting president to get things done. (The best option, see above, will be to make your case and engage your adversaries on social media.) The harder it will be for an aspirant party to put forward a coherent, predictable and actionable political program.

Finally, the issues that are easier to express on social media will become the more important ones. Technocratic dreams will fade, and fiery rhetoric and identity politics will rule the day. And if you think this is the political world we’re already living in, rest assured: It’s just barely gotten started.

Will insects go extinct?

No, probably not, no matter what you might have read or seen on Twitter.  The underlying paper is “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers.”  Here is a tweet thread by Alex Wild on the paper, here is one bit:

They make a great deal of local extinctions as a sort of proxy for global extinctions. That’s pretty dicey. I mean, bison are locally extinct here in my Austin neighborhood. But their numbers are recovering elsewhere.

They used 73 studies done on different taxa in different places. Those studies must represent tens of thousands of person-hours. Gargantuan. But the input studies weren’t designed for global assessment.

The paper itself has strong evidence on the severe pressure on butterflies and bees, and furthermore the general encroachment of humans on the natural environment probably is going to diminish species numbers and biodiversity, for insects too.  At the same time, the remaining species will adapt and evolve to meet the new potential habitats, with many kinds of insects having an easier time adapting than say gorillas.

The paper has some quite non-dramatic sentences such as: “Studies on ant populations and trends are lacking except for a few invasive species.”  And: “A single long-term study on grasshoppers and crickets is available…”

So I don’t quite see how the authors arrive at: “The conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades.”  Bryan Caplan, bet away!

The policing culture that is China

Short-video app TikTok has a reputation for being beloved by young people the world over, but it’s also surprisingly popular with Chinese police officers.

In early January, China Police Network, a news portal run by the Ministry of Public Security, announced that 175 new TikTok channels had been created by police stations, SWAT teams, traffic police, and prisons in the month of December, bringing the country’s grand total to nearly 1,200 such accounts. That month, they churned out over 13,000 videos attracting a combined 4.8 billion views.

Since June of last year, China Police Network has kept a monthly tally of the most popular law enforcement accounts and videos on TikTok — or Douyin, as it’s known in China. While police in other countries have plugged into social media and cultivated fan followings on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, their Douyin-loving counterparts in China stand out in terms of scale and the wide range in both quality and content of their videos.

The January post mentions a comedic clip made by an account called Shishou Public Security that received over 800,000 likes. The video depicts a middle-aged woman tearfully describing her myriad contributions to the economic empowerment of women as mournful music plays in the background — before the camera flips to police officers unmasking her as the madame of a brothel.

The article also congratulates Siping Police Affairs for becoming the first police account in China to eclipse 10 million followers and praises the success of police hashtag campaigns such as #SayNoToDrunkDriving.

Since its launch in China in September 2016 and its expansion to international markets as TikTok a year later, Douyin boasts around 800 million downloads worldwide. The platform’s premise is simple: Users create and share 15-second videos, some of which wind up going viral. The police presence on Douyin has yielded a manic mix of content, from humdrum notices of arrests and other official business to reposts of pandas at play to original comic sketches with didactic denouements.

Here is more from Kenrick Davis at Sixth Tone.

Sovereign Bonds since Waterloo — better than you had thought

This paper studies external sovereign bonds as an asset class. We compile a new database of 220,000 monthly prices of foreign-currency government bonds traded in London and New York between 1815 (the Battle of Waterloo) and 2016, covering 91 countries. Our main insight is that, as in equity markets, the returns on external sovereign bonds have been sufficiently high to compensate for risk. Real ex-post returns averaged 7% annually across two centuries, including default episodes, major wars, and global crises. This represents an excess return of around 4% above US or UK government bonds, which is comparable to stocks and outperforms corporate bonds. The observed returns are hard to reconcile with canonical theoretical models and with the degree of credit risk in this market, as measured by historical default and recovery rates. Based on our archive of more than 300 sovereign debt restructurings since 1815, we show that full repudiation is rare; the median haircut is below 50%.

That is from Josefin Meyer, Carmen M. Reinhart, and Christoph Trebesch in a new NBER working paper.

Facts about UBI

A UBI would direct much larger shares of transfers to childless, non-elderly, non-disabled households than existing programs, and much more to middle-income rather than poor households. A UBI large enough to increase transfers to low-income families would be enormously expensive. We review the labor supply literature for evidence on the likely impacts of a UBI. We argue that the ongoing UBI pilot studies will do little to resolve the major outstanding questions.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Hilary W. Hoynes and Jesse Rothstein.

Monday assorted links

1. “…the relatively recent increasing gender parity in association presidents of ASA and PAA but not AEA.”  and “…socialization at home can explain a non-trivial part of the observed gender disparities in mathematics performance…

2. Scott Sumner thinks about economic growth.

3. Cities reading list.

4. “Mr. [Robert] Ryman was perhaps peculiarly American in being an autodidact who never took a single art course. His art education consisted of seven years as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.” (NYT, and RIP)

5. Alzheimer’s and portfolio decisions.

6. Intergenerational mobility in Africa.

Strict ID Laws Don’t Stop Voters: Evidence from a U.S. Nationwide Panel

U.S. states increasingly require identification to vote – an ostensive attempt to deter fraud that prompts complaints of selective disenfranchisement. Using a difference-in-differences design on a 1.3-billion-observations panel, we find the laws have no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation. These results hold through a large number of specifications and cannot be attributed to mobilization against the laws, measured by campaign contributions and self-reported political engagement. ID requirements have no effect on fraud either – actual or perceived. Overall, our results suggest that efforts to reform voter ID laws may not have much impact on elections.

By Enrico Cantoni and Vincent Pons.  Rooftops, shout, mood affiliation, etc.

Nigeria fact of the day

Last year more people were killed in clashes over land between farmers and cattle-herders than were slain by Boko Haram.

By the way:

On February 16th Nigerians will go to the polls in the largest democratic event in African history.

And:

In total Mr Buhari has delivered on just seven of the 222 pledges he made as a candidate, according to the Centre for Democracy and Development, a Nigerian think-tank.

Here is The Economist article.

The wisdom of Ramez Naam, on climate change

From his tweetstorm here are a few bits:

Our biggest climate problems – the sectors that are both large and that lack obvious solutions, are: a) Agriculture and land use changes (AFOLU in the graphic) and b) Manufacturing / Industry. Together, these are 45% of global emissions. And solutions are scarce. 11/

I’m not saying that clean electricity or transport are solved. They’re not. But in electricity, we have solar, wind, batteries growing & getting cheaper & on path for 70-80% decarbonization *at least*. Same with electric cars and trucks. We have momentum in those sectors. 12/

We do NOT have momentum in reducing carbon emissions of agriculture or manufacturing. In agriculture, livestock methane emissions + deforestation to graze livestock are biggest problems. And meat consumption is doubling in next 40 yrs. This should scare you more than coal. 13/

In industry, despite progress in recycling steel, *primary* steel production is still incredibly carbon intensive. As is cement. As is much of manufacturing. We haven’t reached the “solar cheaper than coal” or “EVs cheaper than gasoline” tipping points there. We need to. 14/

If the US is serious about climate policy, it ought to focus on these two sectors – agriculture and industry – that are soon to be the two largest emissions sources, and lack solutions. We should press to invent solutions, drive them down in price, and spread them globally. 16/

Do read the whole thing.