Canada (oil sands) fact of the day

Between Mr. Trudeau’s election in 2015 and 2019, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1 percent, despite decreases in other rich nations during the same period, according to government data released last week. In fact, Canada is the only Group of 7 country whose emissions have risen since the Paris climate agreement was signed six years ago.

Here is more from the NYT.

What are the limits of economies of scope?

Amazon is launching its first high-tech hair salon, as the online retailer makes a surprise move into the beauty sector.

The salon, in Spitalfields, east London, will have an augmented-reality mirror showing clients different colours and styles before treatments.

The venue will also have magazines loaded on to tablets, for browsing.

Traditional services including cuts, blow-dries and colour treatments will also be available.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

Is this really better than borrowing?

Or how about a VAT?

President Joe Biden will propose almost doubling the capital gains tax rate for wealthy individuals to 39.6%, which, coupled with an existing surtax on investment income, means that federal tax rates for investors could be as high as 43.4%, according to people familiar with the proposal.

The plan would boost the capital gains rate to 39.6% for those earning $1 million or more, an increase from the current base rate of 20%, the people said on the condition of anonymity because the plan is not yet public. A 3.8% tax on investment income that funds Obamacare would be kept in place, pushing the tax rate on returns on financial assets higher than the top rate on wage and salary income, they said.

Here is the full story from Bloomberg.  Given state rates, that means over 50% in New York and California — is that what the science recommends?

Lucan’s *Civil War* is grossly underrated, and I found reading it to be a revelation

COWEN: Why does reading Lucan’s The Civil War make more sense in 2021 than it might have 30 years ago? To me, it seems remarkably contemporary — more than Virgil. People are crazy. They’re at each other’s throats, but not really for any good reason.

BARTSCH: Lucan seems contemporary. Lucan is very much after and in response to Virgil. He reads Virgil as saying the possibility of the good state, the good empire is a real thing. What Lucan says is, “No, that is never possible. There will always be men grubbing for power and killing each other, and civil war is, frankly, a condition of life, a condition of history. Right now, I’m writing under Nero, who is not a good emperor. I’m writing about the events that led to Nero coming to power, and I hate them. They’re terrible. People lie to each other. Brothers killed brothers. Friends slashed each other in the face, all for political reasons. People use language, again, incorrectly to distort what they meant, and then — here’s the rub — because I’m writing under Nero and because Nero is one of the bad emperors, I can’t complain about writing under Nero. I have to praise him. Otherwise, I’ll get in trouble.”

So you get this beautiful juxtaposition of a poet starting out his poem with almost over-the-top praise. “Oh, Nero, you’re going to heaven, and you’re going to be a star in the constellations. There’s never been anybody so wise as you. Civil war was worth it if you were the outcome.”

Then the rest of the poem is this blistering indictment of the present, which is the present under Nero. By indicting the present but praising Nero, he effectively shows us that his praise is false, but that false praise is what everybody has to engage in in a world where there’s no freedom. Maybe that is what seems topical to you. Or maybe it’s just about fake news, and you see Lucan is writing fake news in the beginning of his epic.

COWEN: I think the lack of obvious self-interested motivation for the polarization is what strikes me as so contemporary about Lucan. It’s not primarily about rent-seeking. There’s simply some logic of escalation that never stops. Now, maybe at the end of the poem, there’s a return to sanity in some ways, but there’s still this total immersion in violence, and the dynamics of that, the nonrationality or arationality — it struck me if I had read Lucan in 1991, I would have been quite puzzled, like this is something of antique interest. But I read it today — I’m not so pessimistic about the Western world, but it seems to hit much closer to home.

BARTSCH: Why is that? Sorry, you’re supposed to be asking me questions, but why does it seem to strike closer to home to you now?

COWEN: There seems to be a logic in contemporary politics where people take opposite sides of an issue because other people have taken a side. They don’t necessarily care anymore what it’s about. This may have moderated in the last few months, but there was a sense, if Trump tweeted some view about Turkey, some people would agree, and other people would take the other side, whether or not they had agreement about Turkey.

BARTSCH: Absolutely. The polarization of political views — that is completely in Lucan. Everything is binary. Both sides are at each other’s throats. The problem is, neither side is good. They’re just both opinionated. Yes, he constantly shows us horrible, meaningless scenes of butchery, which will never lead to anything meaningful. I think in that sense, yes, it’s an interesting comparison to what happens today.

Another interesting thing that he does is that, even though everything has been boiled down into them versus us — or actually them versus them because there’s nobody good in the epic except for Cato, who ends up dying — even as he takes on so serious a subject, he refuses to partake of its seriousness in a way. What I mean by that is that his battle scenes are ridiculous. They’re not realistic.

Here’s an example. You’re fighting for Julius Caesar, and you’re on a boat, and you’re trying to get onto a boat that belongs to Pompey, so you grab it with one arm as it comes by, but the people in Pompey’s boat chop off your arm. Then you grab it with your other arm, and then they chop that arm off. Then you’ve got no arms. So, what do you do? Well, Lucan says, you just lob yourself onto the boat armlessly and hope that you can make a difference that way. There’s arms and legs flying everywhere.

In Virgil or Homer, somebody stabs you, you groan, blood comes out, you die. In Lucan, you just bop around like a puppet losing limbs and legs. That’s very strange.

That is from my Conversation with Shadi Bartsch.

My excellent Conversation with Shadi Bartsch

She is a Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, and recently published a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Here is the audio, visual, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Shadi joined Tyler to discuss reading the classics as someone who is half-Persian, the difference between Homer and Virgil’s underworlds, the reasons so many women are redefining Virgil’s Aeneid, the best way to learn Latin, why you must be in a room with a native speaker to learn Mandarin, the question of Seneca’s hypocrisy, what it means to “wave the wand of Hermes”, why Lucan begins his epic The Civil War with “fake news”, the line from Henry Purcell’s aria that moves her to tears, her biggest takeaway from being the daughter of an accomplished UN economist, the ancient text she’s most hopeful that new technology will help us discover, the appeal of Strauss to some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, the reasons some consider the history of Athens a better allegory for America than that of Rome, the Thucydides Trap, the magical “presentness” of ancient history she’s found in Italy and Jerusalem, her forthcoming book Plato Goes to China, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You may not agree with this, but many readers I speak with tend to think that Homer is somehow deeper, more mystical, or just more fun to read than Virgil. What accounts for that perception and how might you challenge it?

BARTSCH: I think they think that because both of Homer’s epics are not, per se, about politics or governments. They don’t offer etiologies of a state. They don’t talk about history. They are stories in the true sense. They are about heroes in the true sense, not about some guy who’s pushed around the world by the gods, constantly getting into trouble, crying, wishing he didn’t have to go found Rome, etcetera.

Achilles — figure larger than life. His pride is everything to him. He stops fighting in the Trojan War because he’s been insulted. The drama is, what compels him to go back into battle after that insult?

Odysseus — a fairy tale of a man wandering from island to island, meeting ever stranger creatures, but eventually making it back home. It’s a great yarn. You don’t have to learn history to read these. You get involved in the psychology of the characters, their tragedies and their triumphs.

Nobody is really interested in getting involved in the psychology of the state and its triumphs. On the one hand, you’ve got a poem that’s an etiology for a particular government. On the other hand, you have two amazing stories. I can see how reading The Aeneid would be considered duller for some.

Excellent throughout, and again here is Shadi’s excellent translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Wednesday assorted links

The petition that is French

A survey of more than 2,600 industry professionals by the Union of Oenologists showed that among those who had caught COVID-19, more than a third said the disease had affected their ability to do their work. Some student wine tasters had dropped out of courses after falling ill with the virus, the union said.

Union boss Didier Fages said the body had written to President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Jean Castex to ask that wine tasters be moved to the front of the queue for anti-COVID shots to safeguard livelihoods.

Here is the full story.

Are young or old lives worth more?

Jeremy Horpedahl and Bryan Caplan debate this topic, with Jeremy pointing out that older, wealthier people can have just as high a willingness to pay to reduce risk, if not higher.

In all things Covid I usually agree with Jeremy, though in this case I side with Bryan’s conclusion (though he doesn’t explain well why he is correct).

For purposes of simplicity, let us consider purely selfish individuals and move to the case where the “p” of death will be equal to one if the “risk” is not avoided.  And make capital markets perfect.  Then both young and old will then pony up the full value of their prospective human capital to avoid death.  The lives with more human capital will be worth more, at least according to economic standards.  Young lives usually will be worth more than old lives, though of course highly productive older people might count for more if the higher productivity outweighs the smaller number of years left.  You might prefer to save fifty-year-old Thomas Schelling over the life of a forty-year-old who is doing less.

This is so far quite intuitive, again noting these are economic judgments not final moral judgments (which will be more contentious and bring in many additional considerations).  Furthermore, you can scale down these numbers, and adjust for risk-aversion, to cover mortality risks much lower than p = 1.

Now consider some older people who have a lot of wealth but very little human capital.  These (selfish) individuals still will pay a lot to avoid death or risk of death, but in essence there is an externality.  They treat their wealth as “disappearing with their death” when in reality that wealth simply is transferred to others.  Therefore they overspend to keep themselves around on planet earth, and they will overpay for risk reduction.

So the lives of high wealth, low human capital individuals, including older individuals, are overweighted by traditional economic metrics, given that “naive” WTP measures do not adjust for the “wealth transfer upon death” externality.  That is some but by no means all of the elderly.  Their willingness to pay for risk reduction may be as high as the WTP of the young, but in social terms that does not mean their lives are equally valuable.

In sum, check your WTP calculations against human capital intuitions.

The first version of this argument appeared in my dissertation, though it has surfaced a few times since, including in some QJE pieces.

And if you would like some homework for your spare time, try solving for the conditions under which selfish individuals, but living in families, can make intra-family trades to internalize these wealth transfer externalities.

Tuesday assorted links

1. MIE: Used AmEx card of Michael Jordan sells for 3k.

2. Criticisms of Galef.

3. AEA best paper prizes.

4. MIE: putting product placement in old classic movies.

5. Promising Young Woman is indeed a very good movie, at times hard to watch, and most of the reviews are either inarticulate or uncomprehending because few are willing to grasp and explain (part of) what makes it so interesting.

How will crypto wealth transform philanthropy?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

If the price of Bitcoin were to reach $200,000, Coinbase Chief Executive Officer Brian Armstrong observed recently, half of the world’s billionaires would be crypto billionaires. Even at the lesser valuations that currently prevail, this crypto wealth has vast potential to reshape philanthropy. Expect a relative decline in the influence of longstanding nonprofit institutions — and more weird, stand-alone projects.

Bitcoin itself is a weird, stand-alone project. The true identity of its inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, is still unknown, and the broader Bitcoin ecosystem is not owned or controlled by any company or institution. It has been self-sustaining since the beginning, and so it should hardly come as a surprise that Bitcoin billionaires take Bitcoin itself as a model for future institutions, including in philanthropy.

As philanthropists, Bitcoin and other crypto billionaires will likely look to support ideas that can launch in a dramatic way and quickly acquire escape velocity. They are unlikely to fund the ongoing labor costs of established cultural institutions.

Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies seem designed to stand independent of any government or mainstream financial institution. That too suggests that the philanthropic emphasis of crypto wealth will be on non-establishment, non-governmental organizations.

And:

Venture capitalist Paul Graham has pointed out that wealth is earned much more quickly nowadays, and that is all the more true in crypto, which after all is only 12 years old. Unlike many of the wealthy people in law or investment banking, these are not people who had to spend their lives working their way up, finally achieving a top position in their 60s. They either are founders of rapidly growing and scaling companies, or they bought large sums of the right crypto assets early on, or both. Either way, their temperaments are geared to expect immediate action and rapid results.

Nonprofits will have to adjust accordingly, even though speed is not typically their comparative advantage. That in turn suggests that the organizational structures of many nonprofits will have to change fairly radically. Many of them were designed or have evolved to be good at continuity, like the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, which after all is still playing Beethoven with violins and cellos.

There is much more at the link.

What should I ask Richard Prum?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is part of his Wikipedia page:

Richard O. Prum (born 1961) is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.

Prum describes himself as “an evolutionary ornithologist with broad interests in diverse topics,” including phylogeneticsbehaviorfeathersstructural colorationevolution and developmentsexual selection, and historical biogeography.

Prum holds that birds are the living descendants of theropod dinosaurs, a once disputed finding that is now almost universally accepted in the ornithological and evolutionary biology scientific communities.

Prum grew up in rural Vermont and took his bachelor’s degree at Harvard in 1983, and received his Ph.D. in 1989 from the University of Michigan. After gradually losing his hearing throughout the early 1990s due to illness, Prum moved from primarily doing field work to conducting research on plumage pigmentation, feather evolution, and Darwin‘s sexual selection theory. He released a book in 2017 on the role of beauty in natural selection: The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us.

So what should I ask him?

The forthcoming Facebook audio product

Facebook is making a push into audio, launching a suite of new features that will allow users to host audio conferences and podcasts, in a dash to compete with up-and-coming apps such as Clubhouse. Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of the world’s largest social media company by users, said on Monday said that over the next three to six months it planned to roll out live audio rooms as well as new tools allowing users to search for, listen to and create podcasts.

In addition, its live audio rooms, which will be available on the main platform and its Messenger app, can be saved and turned into podcasts. Zuckerberg also announced the launch of a feature called “Soundbites”, where users can post or listen to short audio clips that will be showcased in a continuous feed, in a similar way to its Reels video feed in Instagram.

Facebook plans to allow users to earn money from the podcasts and audio rooms they create — for example, by allowing users to charge for access to a room by purchasing it individually or as part of a subscription.

Here is more from The Financial Times.