Sunday assorted links

The best book of 2018

Soon I’ll offer up my longer lists for fiction and non-fiction, but let’s start at the top.  My nomination for best book of the year is Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.  It is a joy to read, the best of the five translations I know, and it has received strong reviews from scholars for its accuracy and fidelity.  I also would give a top rating to the book’s introductory essay, a mini-book in itself.

Normally I would say more about a book of the year, but a) many of you already know the Odyssey in some form or another, and b) this spring I’ll be doing a Conversations with Tyler with Emily Wilson, and I’ll save up my broader thoughts for then.  I’ll just say for now it is one of the greatest works of political thought, as well as a wonderful story.  In any case, a reread of this one is imperative, and you will learn new and fresh things.

There you go!

Facts about lotteries

The $29.8 billion Americans spent on the lottery in 1995 worked out to about $112 per capita. Today, per capita spending is up to $225 dollars a year. Again, part of that is the result of more states jumping on the lotto bandwagon.

These are per capita figures, accounting for every man, woman and child in the country. The average lottery player spends quite a bit more than that: If we subtract the 73 million people under age 18, and divide the remaining 250 million in half (since only 49 percent buy a lotto ticket in a given year), it works out to $600 a year in expenses for the average lotto player. Some survey data show that a disproportionate share of regular lottery players fall into low-income brackets.

…Massachusetts leads the nation with an astonishing $767 in annual per capita lotto spending. It’s followed by West Virginia ($594), Rhode Island ($513), Delaware ($421) and New York ($421).

Here is the story by Christopher Ingraham.

*A Fistful of Shells*

The author is Toby Green, and the subtitle is West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution.  Here is one excerpt:

The past twenty years have seen a huge boom in studies that show the many different ways in which — even in the shadow of slavery — Africans were decisive actors in building modernity in the Americas.  Rice-growing technologies in West Africa contributed to the emergence of rice plantations in South Carolina and northern Brazil; livestock and herding skills from West Africa were used by Africa herders in many parts of the New World, from Louisiana to Argentina; and fencing techniques  were imported from West Africa and used in agriculture and in defending communities of runaway slaves (known as maroons).  Healing practices from Dahomey and Angola were brought to Brazil and the Spanish Caribbean, and helped to develop new treatments in the colonies; healing practices and medicines were also borrowed by the Portuguese in Angola in an early form of ‘bio-prospecting’.  Warfare techniques learn in the Kingdom of Kongo and in the Oyo-Yoruba Kingdom of what is now southern Nigeria were vital to the success of the Haitian revolution in 1804, as well as the rebellions against slavery in Brazil and Cuba in the early nineteenth century.  In short, just as there were shared frameworks of diplomacy through which Atlantic African kingdoms sought political influence, so the modern world emerged from a mixed cultural framework in which many different peoples from West and West-Central Africa played a significant part.

This book is full of economics, currency movements (both gold and cowrie shells), battles between empires (Portuguese vs. Dutch, above all), and the longue durée.  It is the “Braudel of West Africa,” and the best book on West Africa I have ever read.  It is especially strong on Lusaphone Africa, and one underlying theme is that West Africa was globalizing even before colonialism came along.  Toby Green, by the way, has an impressive background in philosophy and music as well as in history more narrowly conceived.

Very strongly recommended.  It is not out until March of 2019 but you can pre-order now.

Nairobi information markets in everything

I recently spent several weeks in the slum districts of Nairobi, researching al-Shabaab’s criminal activities in the Horn of Africa. I expected to learn about the traditional criminal practices of terrorist groups: drugs, arms, money laundering, and perhaps even a regional particularity like sugar smuggling. What I wasn’t expecting to discover was a highly structured, hierarchical network in which sex workers sell information gleaned from their customers — specifically, corrupt police officers — to al-Shabaab. As one interviewee noted, “If you want information here, you use the prostitutes and street kids — they see everything, go everywhere, and nobody notices them.”

The strength and depth of this sex worker-militant network surprised me and many terrorism experts in the West I spoke with, but it’s an open secret among Nairobi residents. My first interview subject didn’t understand why I wanted more details — surely everyone knew about it? Many of my interviewees were neighbors of, or otherwise friendly with, the sex workers involved. They described an arrangement in which al-Shabaab offered money to women who picked up interesting information in the course of their regular sex work — pillow talk from politicians, police officers, and businessmen. One local memorably opined: “Of course! Half the reason these men go to [sex workers] is to complain about their lives. Why not get paid for listening?”

Here is more from Katherine Petrich.

Microsoft is now the world’s most valuable company

Microsoft’s current market cap has overtaken Apple’s, after living for nearly a decade in the shadow of the Cupertino company.

At the time of writing Microsoft’s intra-day Market Cap is now 751.88B, higher than competing company Apple Inc. which is now 749.75B, by more than 2 billion dollars.

Amazon (currently 741.90B) and Apple were dubbed the world’s most valuable tech companies by Market Cap earlier this year as they crossed the $1 trillion mark. With Microsoft now overshadowing all three, including Alphabet Inc, the firm now looks to be the most valuable tech company…

Investors are concerned about slowing revenue growth at the so-called FANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google), a club of high flyers Microsoft has traditionally been excluded from.

Now they are betting company spending on cloud services and software will remain strong as companies strive to increase efficiency and productivity, while Facebook and Google are increasingly coming under scrutiny for their consumer data practices.

Microsoft’s cloud segment, in particular, is expected to do well, with Office 365 the lead programs in the market for cloud-based productivity tools, while Azure services for storing data and running apps in the cloud is in a solid second position to Amazon’s AWS. Microsoft is also increasingly relying on a steady subscription business which is less subject to volatility.

Here is the full story.

Friday assorted links

The Republican Club — why is this painting interesting?

It hangs in the White House, and Trump seems to like the picture.  What about the image is striking?  I can think of a few things:

1. There are no Founding Fathers in the painting, or other references to the more distant past, and so “Republicans” are presented as a distinct club of their own, above and beyond the broader American tradition.  (On the far right, is that Theodore Roosevelt, Vernon Smith, or somebody else?)

2. The first George Bush (upper left), and Gerald Ford, are both denied a “seat at the proverbial table.”  Bush seems to look on with admiration.  The second George Bush, on the left side of the table seated, appears run down and haggard, defeated by the job.  He looks a wee bit like a paler Obama.

3. Nixon, who had to resign, drinks alcohol while Trump seems to have Coca-Cola.

4. Reagan is shown as Trump’s only peer, while Eisenhower is the one “closest” to Trump, and the one most appreciative.  Of course many of Trump’s policy preferences seem aimed at returning us to the Eisenhower era in some way (higher tariffs, lower immigration, less regulation, etc.)

5. Trump is the only one with a tie, except for TR, and it is a striking red tie.

6. Hoover, Harding, and Coolidge are in the distant back right.

7. It reminds me of a variety of “Last Supper” paintings, though not Leonardo’s.  There are twelve of them.

8. The background, with its column and twinklings lights, is reminiscent of late 19th century French impressionism.

9. Who is the bearded figure in the foreground, with his back to us?  At first I thought it was Mephistopheles, but it turns out to be Lincoln.  He is a passive onlooker with weak shoulders, and with no commanding or influential presence of his own.

10. Andy Thomas, the artist, also painted the very different The Democratic Club.  You could write a short book on the contrasts between the two paintings, for instance notice the Democrats are drinking beer and have a much wider and open background, with fewer columns.

Here is a related interview about the painting.  Via Anecdotal.

The best results on assortative mating and inequality I have seen

This paper studies the evolution of assortative mating in the permanent wage (the individual-specific component of wage) in the U.S., its role in the increase in family wage inequality, and the factors behind this evolution. I first document a substantial trend in assortative mating, as measured by the permanent wage correlation of couples, from 0.3 for families formed in the late 1960s to 0.52 for families formed in the late 1980s. I show that this trend accounts for more than one-third of the increase in family wage inequality across these cohorts of families. I then argue that the increase in marriage age across these cohorts contributed to the assortative mating and thus to the rising inequality. Individuals face a large degree of uncertainty about their permanent wages early in their careers. If they marry early, as most individuals in the late 1960s did, this uncertainty leads to weak marital sorting along permanent wage. But when marriage is delayed, as in the late 1980s, the sorting becomes stronger due to the quick resolution of this uncertainty with work experience. After providing reduced-form evidence on the impact of marriage age, I build and estimate a marriage model with wage uncertainty and show that the increase in marriage age can explain almost 80% of the increase in assortative mating.

That is from the job market paper of Alparslan Tuncay, from the University of Chicago.

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.

And:

COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments*

Excellent review, in Quillette, here is part of the closing sequence:

Ultimately, absorbing the thesis of Stubborn Attachments would entail a radical loss of purpose for the politically-minded among us. The small, short-term policy fights that energize us most are precisely the ones from which, on Cowen’s account, we should abstain entirely. Even the smartest among us don’t know what net effect small policies will have; plus very little well-being turns on such policies to begin with. Growth maximization, on Cowen’s view, becomes a moral black hole from which no partisan skirmish, no matter how seemingly important, can escape.

In a cultural landscape where partisan skirmishes regularly induce something approaching bloodlust on both sides of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment. But perhaps that means the message of Stubborn Attachments is needed now more than ever.

Recommended, here is the link.

Those new service sector jobs

The DAWN Café is an upcoming trial project that will test an inclusive working environment. The café will seemingly be staffed with robots that will wait on you by bringing you your coffee and asking if you need anything. But if you think this is another example of robots coming for our jobs, you would be mistaken. Embedded within the robots are real intelligence: they’re operated remotely by people with severe disabilities who often can’t leave their bed.

Here is the story, via Dustin Palmer.