Category: Current Affairs

The Cultural Divide

That is the title of a new and very important paper by Klaus Desmet and Romain Wacziarg, here is the abstract:

This paper conducts a systematic quantitative study of cultural convergence and divergence in the United States over time. Using the General Social Survey (1972-2016), we assess whether cultural values have grown more or less heterogeneous, both overall and between groups. Groups are defined according to 11 identity cleavages such as gender, religion, ethnic origin, family income quintiles, geographic region, education levels, etc. We find some evidence of greater overall heterogeneity after 1993 when averaging over all available values, yet on many issues heterogeneity changes little. The level of between-group heterogeneity is extremely small: the United States is very pluralistic in terms of cultural attitudes and values, but this diversity is not primarily the result of cultural divides between groups. On average across cleavages and values, we find evidence of falling between-group heterogeneity from 1972 to the late 1990s, and growing divides thereafter…

This, from the paper, is also illuminating:

For some questions, such as several questions on sexual behavior and public policies, there is growing social consensus. For others, such as questions on gun laws and confidence in some civic institutions, we find growing disagreements. Some of these dynamics can be understood as transitions from one end of the belief spectrum to the other. For instance, on the issue of marijuana legalization, attitudes have moved from generalized disagreement to majority agreement, so heterogeneity rose and is now falling. Overall, we find some evidence of a systematic tendency toward greater heterogeneity after 1993 when averaging over all available memes, yet on many issues heterogeneity changes little.

By the way, “urbanicity” shows “declining levels of cultural fixation,” contrary to what you often read.

Overall I take this to be an optimistic set of results.

Legalize pot, but don’t normalize it

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

You might wonder why we should be so worried about public marijuana use. To put it bluntly, I see intelligence as one of the ultimate scarcities when it comes to making the world a better place, and smoking marijuana does not make people smarter. Even if you think there is no long-term damage, right after smoking a person is less able to perform most IQ-intensive tasks (with improvisational jazz as a possible exception). By having city streets filled with pot, pot stores and the odor of pot, we are sending a signal that our society isn’t so oriented toward the intellect or bourgeois values. Even if that signal is reflecting a good bit of truth, it would be better not to acknowledge it too openly, just as most advocates of legalized prostitution don’t want to allow brothels on Main Street.

Basically I want full legality, but in some locales (California, Colorado) stronger restrictions on its place in the public sphere.  Do read the whole thing.

Is North Korea withdrawing from the nuclear talks?

No, they are negotiating, read their latest statement, it is full of “ifs.”  If you are negotiating, especially in a fraught situation, often you will feel the need to walk away from the talks, or at least threaten to do so.  (Of course, many people suggest Obama should have done more of this leading up to the Iran deal.)  And Kim doesn’t want to enter the talks with Trump having had an unbroken string of PR successes.

Now, there is a perfectly reasonable argument for being pessimistic about the North Korean nuclear talks, namely that some of the demands of the two sides may prove incompatible.  The good news, if you would call it that, is that we are not actually calling for complete denuclearization of North Korea, though nonetheless we may require more than they are willing to cede.  Most of all, we want them to start acting like a normal evil government, rather than like a crazy evil government.  Maybe that is too hard for Kim to pull off and still feel stable.

Still, the new news isn’t really bad news at all.  It is how an evil tyrannical government negotiates.  It is also how some non-evil tyrannical governments negotiate as well, not to mention non-evil, non-tyrannical governments too.

Counterterrorism Spending

The Stimson group has a new report on counterterrorism spending:

In the summer of 2017, the Stimson Center convened a nonpartisan study group to provide an initial tally of total CT spending since 9/11, to examine gaps in the understanding of CT spending, and to offer recommendations for improving U.S. government efforts to account for these expenditures. Stimson’s research suggests that total spending that has been characterized as CT-related – including expenditures for government wide homeland security efforts, international programs, and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – totaled $2.8 trillion during fiscal years 2002 through 2017. According to the group’s research, annual CT spending peaked at $260 billion in 2008 at the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This represents a 16-fold increase over the 2001 total. In 2017, as war funding declined, total CT spending amounted to $175 billion, nearly an 11-fold increase from the 2001 level.

With this growth, CT spending has become a substantial component of total discretionary spending for programs across a wide range of areas, including defense, education, and medical research. Of $18 trillion in discretionary spending between fiscal years 2002-2017, CT spending made up nearly 15 percent of the whole. At its peak in 2008, CT spending amounted to 22 percent of total discretionary spending. By 2017, CT spending had fallen to 14 percent of the total. Despite this drop, the study group found no indication that CT spending is likely to continue to decline.

Counterterrorism spending is thus about $1280 per US household every year–that’s affordable but still a lot for what we get, which is very unclear.

Is China moving back toward Marx?

And should we celebrate along with Xi Jinping?  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, with plenty on the debates within socialist thought, here is the close:

Do I expect those future political reforms to take a Marxian path of the dictatorship of the proletariat? Probably not. But when it comes to China, Marx is the one theorist who has not yet been refuted. It’s the Western liberals and the Maoists who both have egg on their faces.

If you think of Western liberalism as the relevant alternative, you might feel discomfort at the Chinese revival of Marx. But if you think a bit longer on Maoism, its role in Chinese history and its strong nativist roots, you too might join in the Marx celebrations.

Do read the whole thing.

Rooftop Solar is Expensive and Inefficient

Noted UC Berkeley energy economist Severein Borenstein writes against the proposal to make solar required on all new residential construction:

Dear Commissioner Weisenmiller:

I just became aware in the last few days of the proposal in the new building energy efficiency standards rule making to mandate rooftop solar on all new residential buildings. I want to urge you not to adopt the standard. I, along with the vast majority of energy economist, believe that residential rooftop solar is a much more expensive way to move towards renewable energy than larger solar and wind installations. The savings calculated for the households are based on residential electricity rates that are far above the actual cost of providing incremental energy, so embody a large cross subsidy from other ratepayers. This would be a very expensive way to expand renewables and would not be a cost-effective practice that other states and countries could adopt to reduce their own greenhouse gas footprints.

Because I, and most other economists studying California’s energy policy, just became aware of this proposal, we have not had time to participate in the policy process or write public documents on the subject. At the least, I would urge you to delay adopting such a rule until independent analysis from energy experts can be made part of the record.

I will add that I have no financial interest in any energy company. I am expr essing my views purely in the interestof moving forward with California’s fight against climate change in a cost-effective way that can be exported to other states and countries.

Sincerely, Severin Borenstein

I agree and would add that allowing more building near transit and other hubs as with California’s rejected SB827 would not only lower housing prices, rather than raise them as with this proposal, it would also be a much better way of reducing carbon emissions and saving energy.

Does aversion to change predict support for Donald Trump?

Donald Trump won the American presidency in 2016 by overperforming expectations in upper Midwest states, surprising even Republican political elites. We argue that attitudes toward social change were an underappreciated dividing line between supporters of Trump and Hillary Clinton as well as between Republicans at the mass and elite levels. We introduce a concept and measure of aversion to (or acceptance of) social diversification and value change, assess the prevalence of these attitudes in the mass public and among political elites, and demonstrate its effects on support for Trump. Our research uses paired surveys of Michigan’s adult population and community of political elites in the Fall of 2016. Aversion to social change is strongly predictive of support for Trump at the mass level, even among racial minorities. But attitudes are far more accepting of social change among elites than the public and aversion to social change is not a factor explaining elite Trump support. If elites were as averse to social change as the electorate—and if that attitude mattered to their vote choice—they might have been as supportive of Trump. Views of social change were not as strongly related to congressional voting choices.

That is from Matt Grossman and Daniel Thaler.

Germany fact of the day

Germany recorded an almost 10 per cent drop in crime last year to its lowest level since the early 1990s despite perceptions that the arrival of more than a million asylum seekers would lead to a rise in offences.

…Overall, violent crime was down by 1.7 per cent last year, the Interior Ministry said, although refugees and asylum seekers were proportionately over-represented in sexual assault cases.

Here is the (gated) Times of London piece.  Ahem…

For the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.

From the comments, on reverence for asceticism

…[the] US for instance…worships sex, and…celibates are viewed as “losers”. A Hollywood film that describes this social mindset is “40 year old virgin” that came out a decade or so ago.

India makes an interesting contrast. Though the life of the “married householder” is an ideal in India, celibates are viewed with respect and admired for their self-restraint. This is actually one important contributor to the charm and charisma of Narendra Modi – a celibate man, a teetotaller among other things. He is viewed as someone who has “conquered his senses” and is incorruptible.

This streak of anti-sensuality, very much a part of Indian culture, is not to be found in US.

More westernized Indians on the cultural Left, back in India, mock at the public’s fascination with Modi’s celibacy and his puritanism. There are jokes in this group that Modi is probably gay or asexual. No wonder he can stay single.

Again this highlights the large chasm between the attitudes of the modern western mind which does not choose to view sensual restraint as a virtue, versus more traditional societies where self denial and austerity command a certain awe.

That is from Shrikanthk.

The Royal Economic Society Prize

The 2017 Royal Economic Society prize for best paper in the Economic Journal has been awarded to Robert Warren Anderson, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama for their paper Jewish Persecutions and Weather Shocks 1100-1800 (non-gated). Noel and Mark are colleagues at George Mason and Robert is a former GMU student. Here’s the abstract:

What factors caused the persecution of minorities in pre‐modern Europe? Using panel data consisting of 1,366 persecutions of Jews from 936 European cities between 1100 and 1800, we test whether persecutions were more likely following colder growing seasons. A one standard deviation decrease in growing season temperature in the previous five‐year period increased the probability of a persecution by between 1 and 1.5 percentage points (relative to a baseline of 2%). This effect was strongest in weak states and with poor quality soil. The long‐run decline in persecutions was partly attributable to greater market integration and state capacity.

The RES is correct, this is an excellent paper with a great combination of theory and original data.

The award is another indication of the stellar quality of GMU’s economics department.

Comprehensive occupational licensing reform in Nebraska

Also known as the Occupational Board Reform Act, LB299 requires legislative committees to review 20 percent of licenses under their purview a year, in a continuous five-year cycle.

This process creates a framework for identifying less restrictive regulations than licensing, including private certification, registration, insurance or bonding requirements, inspections, open market competition, or a combination of these approaches.

Workers with conviction histories could also receive an advisory opinion from state licensing boards about their eligibility to work in a licensed profession prior to beginning a training program.

While piecemeal occupational licensing changes have passed in the Nebraska Legislature before, reforms of more burdensome licenses have had trouble advancing from committee. That motivated the Platte Institute to educate lawmakers about the need for a more comprehensive approach.

Here is the full story, via Daniel Klein.

Polarization isn’t mainly about ideology

If out-group hostility is more important to party identification than support for particular policies or ideologies, we may not actually place very many ideological demands on our parties. Defeating our enemies may be more important than advancing specific liberal or conservative agendas. According to Groenendyk: “If partisans’ identities are increasingly anchored to hatred of the outparty than affection for their inparty, electoral dynamics are likely much more fluid than many accounts suggest. Thus, insurgent candidates with questionable ideological credentials (e.g., Donald Trump) may be more appealing than one might expect in the age of ideologically sorted parties.”

Here is more from George Hawley, via Philip Wallach.  Of course Amihai Glazer understood this decades ago…nor should you forget Bryan Caplan’s “simplistic theory of left and right.

Authoritarian gridlock

Legislative gridlock is often viewed as a uniquely democratic phenomenon. The institutional checks and balances that produce gridlock are absent from authoritarian systems, leading many observers to romanticize “authoritarian efficiency” and policy dynamism. A unique data set from the Chinese case demonstrates that authoritarian regimes can have trouble passing laws and changing policies—48% of laws are not passed within the period specified in legislative plans, and about 12% of laws take more than 10 years to pass. This article develops a theory that relates variation in legislative outcomes to the absence of division within the ruling coalition and citizen attention shocks. Qualitative analysis of China’s Food Safety Law, coupled with shadow case studies of two other laws, illustrates the plausibility of the theoretical mechanisms. Division and public opinion play decisive roles in authoritarian legislative processes.

That is from Rory Truex, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Public Choice Outreach Conference–Limited Time Offer!

Hurry while there is still time to apply to the 2018 Public Choice Outreach Conference, a crash course in public choice for students planning careers in academia, journalism, law, or public policy will held June 9-10 in Arlington VA. Graduate students and advanced undergraduates are eligible to apply. Students majoring in economics, history, international studies, law, philosophy political science, psychology, public administration, religious studies, and sociology have attended past conferences. Speakers include Tyler Cowen, Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan, Shruti Rajagopolan and many others.

You can find an application and more information here. If you are a professor please invite your students to apply.