Category: Current Affairs

Ho hum, or hidden externalities?

The ratings agency Fitch shrugged on Tuesday at what it considered the “muted impact” on the economies and credit ratings of New York and Washington.

According to Fitch, 25,000 jobs are the equivalent of about a quarter of a percentage point of all the jobs in metro New York. In metro Washington, they’d represent about three-quarters of a percentage point of the labor force. The Washington region is already growing by about 50,000 jobs, or an Amazon HQ2, each year, according to the D.C. Policy Center. New York over the past year gained about 70,000 jobs.

Here is more from Emily Badger at the NYT.

The sex recession

From Kate Julian at The Atlantic:

Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.

Some social scientists take issue with aspects of Twenge’s analysis; others say that her data source, although highly regarded, is not ideally suited to sex research. And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.

I enjoyed this sentence:

In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high.

This is interesting too:

“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberg last year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” The article concluded that however “digitally nonchalant” Millennials might seem—an allusion, maybe, to sexting—“they’re prudish in person.”

The sex recession remains a puzzle.  Here is my much earlier blog post on why people don’t have more sex.

How is Obamacare doing?

Yes, it is more popular, but how is it doing?:

Obamacare has continued to devastate the individual health insurance market:

  • In March of 2016, there were 20.2 million people covered in the individual health insurance market according to a hard count of state insurance department filings done by Mark Farrah and Associates.
  • In March of 2017 that count was down to 17.7 million.
  • In March of 2018 the count was 15.7 million–a 22% drop in two years.

This means 4.5 million people lost their individual health insurance in just two years.

Hardest hit are the 40% of middle class individual market consumers who are not eligible for a subsidy.

  • In March of 2016 there were 7,520,939 people covered in the off-exchange individual health insurance market where subsidies are not available.

  • In March of 2017 5,361,451 were covered.

  • In March of 2018 4,004,522 were covered–a 47% drop in two years.

And, the Obamacare subsidies paid to consumers are hardly sustainable.

According to the CBO, the average Medicaid outlay for a non-disabled adult is $4,230–a program that virtually has no premiums and co-pays. But because the risk pool is so bad and therefore expensive in the Obamacare exchanges, the average subsidy cost for taxpayers is $6,300–and that doesn’t include what the consumer pays in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses for Obamacare coverage.

Why has the Obamacare individual market melted-down in these last two years? Because its premiums and deductibles are sky high–for all but the lowest income participants.

In Northern Virginia, for example, the cheapest 2019 Obamacare individual market Silver plan for a family of four (mom and dad age-40) making a subsidy eligible $65,000 a year costs $4,514. That plan has a $6,500 deductible meaning the family would have to spend $11,014 on eligible health care costs before collecting other than nominal first dollar benefits.

That same family, but making too much for a subsidy, as 40% of families do, and a typical family in the affluent Virginia 10th, would have to spend $19,484 in premiums plus a $6,500 deductible, for a total of $25,984 in eligible costs before they would collect any meaningful benefits.

That is from Robert Laszewski, with additional interesting points at the link.  Do see my earlier post on what does and does not make sense in Obamacare — the risk pool for the individual market simply isn’t big or robust enough.

Is the carbon tax idea dead?

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

And one striking result from Tuesday’s election is that voters in Washington state, a Democratic stronghold, soundly rejected a proposed carbon tax by a margin of 56 to 44 percent. This raises the prospect that the carbon tax may be dead as a policy for the time being, including at the state level. As my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Liam Denning writes: “We can debate the magnitude of the vaunted blue wave, but there was definitely no green wave.”

Like many economists, I have long supported the idea of a carbon tax, and still do. Government has to tax something. So why not tax those activities which generate social costs, in this case through disruptive climate change? It is a very intuitive argument that has persuaded many economists on both sides of the political spectrum.

But a carbon tax is just not a popular idea with American voters, of either party. It is hard to argue that the Republican Party or the conservative movement has a stranglehold over the politics of Washington state.

Furthermore, this defeat isn’t just a one-off. 2009’s American Clean Energy and Security Act — a cap-and-trade bill in Congress similar to a carbon tax in its essentials though not all of its exact mechanisms — failed even when Democrats controlled Congress and the presidency. The momentum in Canada, typically considered more left-wing than the U.S., also is running against carbon taxes. In 2014, Australia voted to repeal its carbon-pricing law. Washington state itself rejected an earlier carbon-tax proposal, coupled with a cut in the state sales tax, in 2016.

The broader data are striking. According to a World Bank estimate, 23 countries have carbon taxes of some kind, while 176 have targets or support for renewable energy alternatives. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the carbon tax just isn’t a big political winner.

There is much more at the link.

My Conversation with Eric Schmidt

Self-recommending, here is the audio and video.  Here is the video, here is one excerpt from the dialogue:

COWEN: So you receive an offer to run Google. Why were you so skeptical about Google at first?

SCHMIDT: Well, I assumed that search wasn’t very important, and I assumed the ads didn’t work. I was so concerned about the ads that, after I accepted the offer — because it just seemed like it was interesting, and a lot of luck comes from doing things that are interesting, and sort of creating your own luck — I hauled the then–sales executive, whose name was Tim Armstrong, who you all know well, and I said, “Tim, prove to me that these ads work.”

So they showed me a set of ads, and they looked pretty foolish to me. So I said, “Well, let’s go find the finance person,” of which there was one, and the accounting system was done on QuickBooks. I said, “Prove to me that people are paying for these ads,” and they did.

We then did an ads conversion in the first year, which was called Project Drano, where we basically took three different ads databases, which were simple compared to today’s databases, and merged them into one. And I was terrified, absolutely terrified that the ruse that we had — because we had fixed pricing on our ads — that people would discover that our ads were not worth anything.

So I organized what I called the cash restriction period, where the only thing you could do if you wanted to spend money, is you could only spend money on Friday at 10 AM, and you had to come to me to justify it, which very much shuts down spending.

So we get to this conversion, we turn the thing over, and of course, we didn’t bother to build into the tools. We had no metrics. We didn’t know what was going on. I’m going, “Oh my God, the company is bankrupt. My first year, I’ve done a terrible job. What will the board think?” I did my best to notify everybody we were going to go kaput.

The auction produced a price that was three times higher than the previous prices. Very interesting. So much for the cash restriction period, and the rest is history.

And from Eric:

We did all sorts of things. My favorite example is that we would interview people to death. We interviewed this one gentleman sixteen times, and we couldn’t decide. So I picked a random number, which was half, and I said, “We should have a max of eight, and if we can’t decide after eight . . .” We’ve since done a statistical analysis, and the answer today is four to five interviews.

And here is my bit on Eric:

COWEN: Now early on, you were an intern at Bell Labs, and also PARC, which belonged to Xerox, and I think of those two institutions as stemming from earlier glory years of American science.

Is it fair to think of your career as in some sense, you’re the person who spans those two eras, the Bell Labs-PARC era of doing things, and then the tech era of manipulating information, and that your ability to bring expertise from those two areas together is what has made you a unique figure? Is that a fair assessment of how you fit into the picture?

And there is this bit:

COWEN: How did it influence you having a father who was a famous economist? He wrote on balance of payments crises. What did you draw from him? Did that have a role in using so much economics in Google?

SCHMIDT: Well, what’s interesting is, I asked my father, “If you’re such a good economist, why are we not rich?”

I very much enjoyed doing this event, which was for Village Global, a new venture capital firm.  Here is a Village Global post on lessons from the event.

The elections

From Matt Yglesias on Twitter:

Very normal Democrats won all kinds of House races without reviving “blue dog” antics but also a bunch of reality checks for the capital-l Left in these results.

Not just a couple of House races where insurgent candidates fizzled, but the California rent control initiative the Washington “green new deal” initiative and the MD-Gov race all show limited appetite for ambitious left policy in even blue states.

Conversely, the more modest economic progressive agenda of Medicaid expansion and minimum wage increases continues to triumph even in very conservative states.

From Angus:

“over the past 21 midterm elections, the President’s party has lost an average 30 seats in the House, and an average 4 seats in the Senate” NY Times sez it’s R – 26 in House and + 2-5 in Senate. Yet they call it “A rebuke to Trump”. That’s kind of just wishful thinking.

Somehow — miraculously — democracy did not die, I am still writing blog posts for tomorrow morning, fascism has yet to arrive, and life goes on!

p.s. the youth vote was not up much.  And at least one Kremlin mole has been ousted.

Emergent Ventures grant recipients, the first cohort

Here is the first round of winners of the new Emergent Ventures initiative at Mercatus, led by me.  The list is ordered roughly in the order grants were made, and reflects no other prioritization.  All project descriptions are mine alone and should not be considered literal attributions of intent to the project applicants.  Here goes:

Anonymous grant for writing in Eastern Europe.

Pledged grant to San Francisco’s Topos House, conditional on finding a “social science prodigy” to live in the house for a while and interact with the other Topos fellows.  Topos is a San Francisco house where several tech prodigies live and periodically seminars and larger group interactions are held there or connected to the house.

Travel grant made to 18-year-old economics prodigy, to travel to San Francisco to meet with members of the “rationality community.”  The hope is to boost her career trajectory.

Grant to support the work of Mark Lutter and his Center for Innovative Governance Research, on charter cities and also an attempt to create a new charter city.

Grant to Harshita Aurora to help her pursue work in brain science, including brain-computer interfaces to help disabled people manipulate and move objects.  Harshita is a 17-year-old Indian prodigy, who first received attention for her programming work in the app space.  Harshita made her bio and proposal public: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1j5Zf2RIiKVUUZzJb6qGQdx2WmG7q4NS9/view

Leonard Bogdonoff has a project to scrape Instagram and create a searchable concordance of street art around the world.  His website is here and his blog is medium.com/@rememberlenny.  One use of this project is to amplify the voice of “protest art” against the constraints of censorship from autocratic governments, but it is also a new way to glean usable information from Instagram.

Travel and conference grant to Juan Pablo Villarino, from Argentina, sometimes called “the world’s greatest hitchhiker.”

Ben Southwood, public intellectual from England, support for his writing and research on why progress in science has slowed down.

Eric Lofgren has worked at the Pentagon for seven years and now will spend a year at Mercatus/George Mason to develop the skills, including blogging and podcasting, to become the nation’s leading public intellectual on defense procurement.

A two-year pledge to Gaurav Venkataraman, at University College of London, to support his doctoral work on the idea of RNA-based memory.  This research also has exciting implications for the design of artificial intelligence.

Joy Buchanan, economist, a grant to conduct research on why people become entrepreneurs and initiate start-ups, using the methods of experimental economics.

Michael Sonnenschein, Masters student at MIT in development economics (and a television screenwriter) a grant for research to reform and improve the Haitian lottery system, and turn it into a means to combat poverty.

Stefan Roots is writing and editing an on-line and also paper newspaper to cover local news in Chester, Pennsylvania, aimed at the African-American community.

Jeffrey Clemens, professor at UC San Diego, a grant to help him develop his on-line writing in economics.

Kelly Smith has a project to further extend and organize a parent-run charter school system in Arizona, Prenda, using Uber-like coordinating apps and “minimalist” educational methods.

David Perell, to encourage and support his work in podcasting and social media.

We are in the midst of processing several other awards as well, so do not worry if you are not yet mentioned.

I am delighted to welcome this very prestigious and accomplished “entering class” of Emergent Ventures fellows.  If you are considering applying, please note that we are interested in other topics and methods as well.

Gang update

From El Salvador (WSJ):

Politicians must ask permission of gangs to hold rallies or canvass in many neighborhoods, law-enforcement officials and prosecutors said. In San Salvador, the nation’s capital, gangs control the local distribution of consumer products, experts said, including diapers and Coca-Cola . They extort commuters, call-center employees, and restaurant and store owners. In the rural east, gangs threaten to burn sugar plantations unless farmers pay up.

At what point do we say the government has been replaced?  On the analytics:

“We’ve left behind the era of the cartel and the kingpin,” said Alejandro Hope, a security consultant in Mexico City. “Today, most violence in Latin America is the result of a new system that’s more diverse, harder to control, and much more local.”

In Brazil to the south (NYT):

In Rio de Janeiro state alone, more than 5,197 people have been killed this year — far more than the 3,438 civilians killed in conflict last year in Afghanistan, according to United Nations figures.

One-quarter of those may have been killed by the state, a sign of state weakness not strength.

One approach is to view all this as a problem to be solved, and surely there is something to that attitude.  Another approach, not mutually exclusive, is to view it as a problem that is getting harder to solve.

My Bloomberg column on Harvard and Asian-American admissions

Here is the column, here is one bit:

I attended Harvard (for my doctorate in economics), and most of the people there are as well-meaning as any you might find in Idaho or West Virginia.

And:

Step back from the emotions of the current debate and start with the general point that social elites need to replicate themselves, one way or another.

And:

The collateral damage on Asian-American applicants is psychologically minimized and explained away as a problem that can only be remedied over time.

And:

Few societies have methods of assuring cultural continuity that could be revealed transparently without causing at least some outrage or scandal… It is no accident that Harvard has strenuously resisted disclosing the methods of its admission processes.

Get the picture?  By the way:

In the meantime, the elites will do everything possible to protect the system, co-opt the opposition, and make a mix of symbolic and real concessions…You will recognize these elites by their apologies, their attempts to shift the focus back to African-American issues, and their unwillingness to entertain fundamental change.

Blockchains in Space!

As far as I can tell, this is Not From the Onion.

Blockchain venture production studio ConsenSys, Inc. has acquired the pioneering space company Planetary Resources, Inc. through an asset-purchase transaction. Planetary Resources’ President & CEO Chris Lewicki and General Counsel Brian Israel have joined ConsenSys in connection with the acquisition.

…Ethereum Co-founder and ConsenSys Founder Joe Lubin said, “I admire Planetary Resources for its world class talent, its record of innovation, and for inspiring people across our planet in support of its bold vision for the future. Bringing deep space capabilities into the ConsenSys ecosystem reflects our belief in the potential for Ethereum to help humanity craft new societal rule systems through automated trust and guaranteed execution. And it reflects our belief in democratizing and decentralizing space endeavors to unite our species and unlock untapped human potential. We look forward to sharing our plans and how to join us on this journey in the months ahead.”

As Eli Dourado quipped, cryptocurrency mining, asteroid mining, pretty much the same thing, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Why people don’t vote

This New York magazine piece is one of the best articles I’ve read all year.  Here is the account of Laura, age 21 from Florida:

In high school, I didn’t even know our vice-president’s name was Joe Biden. All my high-school classmates were Republicans. They were very vocal about it, especially during the whole Romney-and-Obama election. I realized I didn’t believe everything they were saying. Then I Googled “Republican versus Democrat,” and I like kinda both, kinda not. That’s why I’m an Independent. It wasn’t till the Trump-versus-Hillary election that I realized how important it is to vote. Maybe it had to do with, like, society and all. Everyone I was following was like, “Go out to vote.” I was in college in Massachusetts. I decided that I wasn’t gonna go through that long process for an out-of-state student to register to vote. I had a hectic schedule. I just didn’t have the time and energy. Also I didn’t know how my parents would feel about that whole thing, ’cause my brother does not vote either. So it wasn’t asked if they could help us out with the registration and mailing all the forms to us. My mom is a Republican, my dad is a Democrat, and I did not learn that until the 2016 election, after begging them to tell me at least what their party was.

I realized that I should’ve voted afterward. Ever since that election, I started turning on not just CNN but also Fox News on the iPhone news app. I plan to vote in 2020. I have a goal set to know more about politics by that time.

Here is Anna, age 21 from New York City:

I’m trying to register in my hometown of Austin, Texas. It’s such a tedious process to even get registered in Texas, let alone vote as an absentee. There’s no notification service about the status of my voter registration. There’s a small, outdated website where you can enter your information and check. When I was at the post office to register, this poor girl, clearly also a college student like me, didn’t know what “postmarked” meant and had no idea how to send an important document by mail. Most people my age have zero need to go to the post office and may have never stepped into one before. Honestly, if someone had the forms printed for me and was willing to deal with the post office, I’d be much more inclined to vote.

Strongly recommended, there is much more at the link.  It’s Tim, age 27 from Texas, who has the best and smartest substantive answer.

My Conversation with Ben Thompson

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary opener:

Not only is Ben Thompson’s Stratechery frequently mentioned on MR, but such is Tyler’s fandom that the newsletter even made its way onto the reading list for one of his PhD courses. Ben’s based in Taiwan, so when he recently visited DC, Tyler quickly took advantage of the chance for an in-person dialogue.

In this conversation they talk about the business side of tech and more, including whether tech titans are good at PR, whether conglomerate synergies exist, Amazon’s foray into health care, why anyone needs an Apple Watch or an Alexa, growing up in small-town Wisconsin, his pragmatic book-reading style, whether MBAs are overrated, the prospects for the Milwaukee Bucks, NBA rule changes, the future of the tech industries in China and India, and why Taiwanese breakfast is the best breakfast.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why should I want a tech device in my home at all? Take Alexa — I don’t have one, I’m pretty happy, my life is simple. I don’t want anyone or anything listening to me. What does it do for me? I know I can tell it to play me a song or buy something on Amazon, but that’s one-click shopping anyway, could hardly be simpler. Why do devices in the home have any future at all?

THOMPSON: The reality is — particularly when it comes to consumer products — is that in the long run, convenience always wins. I think people will have them in their homes, and they’ll become more popular because it’s convenient.

You can be doing whatever you want; you can say something like, “Set a timer five minutes,” or “What temperature should I grill my steak to?” And you’ll get an answer with your hands busy, and altogether it’s going to be a more convenient answer than it would’ve been otherwise.

And:

COWEN: How bullish are you on India’s tech sector and software development?

THOMPSON: I’m bullish. You know, India — people want to put it in the same bucket as, “Oh, it’s the next China.” The countries are similar in that they’re both very large, but they’re so different.

Probably the most underrated event — I don’t want to say in human history, but in the last hundred years — is the Cultural Revolution in China. And not just that 60, 70 million people were killed, or starved to death, or what it might be, but it really was like a scorched earth for China as a whole. Everything started from scratch. And from an economic perspective, that’s why you can grow for so long — because you’re starting from nothing basically. But the way it impacts culture, generally, and the way business is done.

Taiwan, I think, struggles from having thousands of years of Chinese bureaucracy behind it. Plus they were occupied by Japan for 50 years, so you’ve got that culture on top. Then you have this sclerotic corporate culture that the boss is always right, stay in the office until he goes home, and that sort of thing. It’s unhealthy.

Whereas China — it’s much more bare-knuckled competition and “Figure out the right answer, figure it out quickly.” The competition there is absolutely brutal. It’s brutal in a way I think is hard for people to really comprehend, from the West. And that makes China, makes these companies really something to deal with.

Whereas India did not have something like that. Yes, it had colonialism, but all that is still there, and the effects of that, and the long-term effects of India’s thousands of years of culture. So it makes it much more difficult to wrap things up, to get things done. And that’s always, I think, going to be the case. The way India develops, generally, because they didn’t have a clear-the-decks event like the Cultural Revolution, is always going to be fundamentally different.

And that is by no means a bad thing. I’m not wishing the Cultural Revolution on anyone. I’m just saying it makes the countries really fundamentally different.

Definitely recommended.

In a short number of years this story will sound like madness

Canada installs Chinese underwater monitoring devices next to US nuclear submarine base

  • Ocean Network Canada confirms addition of hi-tech sensors built by Chinese scientists to its marine observatories in Pacific Ocean
  • US state department has ‘nothing to say’ on matter

Full story here, here is some further context from the piece:

Whatever the devices end up being used for, Chen Hongqiao, a researcher at the Centre for Canadian Studies at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou, said there was no doubting the sensitivity of the issue.

“Deep sea observation networks are highly sensitive, and closely related to national security,” he said. “Countries don’t open them up to third parties unless there is a high level of trust and confidence.”

The decision to give China such access could have only come from highest corridors of power on both sides, he said.

“Such collaboration is very unusual. The implications go far beyond science, [so] it could have only happened with a nod from the top on both sides.”

Why the U.S.-Saudi relationship has proven so enduring

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, note I am continuing to see a larger backlash on the Saudi issue than one might have expected. The bigger underlying question is this: given all that has happened, so why is the United States still such an ally of the Saudis?  It’s longstanding and thus not just about Trump’s possible business dealings.  It’s also not just about the oil, here is one excerpt:

One feature of the geography of Saudi Arabia is that its major oil fields stand apart and can be taken over without controlling the major Saudi cities. That is one reason why the Saudis were so wary of Saddam Hussein.

That risk means the Saudis are especially dependent on American military protection. In turn, the U.S. knows it has a lot of leverage over the Saudis, and therefore making deals with the Saudis involves easier enforcement and lower transaction costs. The same cannot be said of deals with Iran. So in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the U.S. ends up siding with the Saudis.

Historically, Iran has been a very difficult country to capture or control, and the population has fought fiercely to defend Iranian territorial integrity. Iran doesn’t need American protection to the same degree as do the Saudis, and so Iran is more willing to be prickly or openly hostile to the U.S.

Iran shared a border with the former Soviet Union (though not Russia) and shares Caspian Sea rights with Russia, and the two countries often have had close and cordial relations. Iran also is easier than Saudi Arabia for China to reach with its One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to build close ties with the countries to its west. In sum, Iran is going to diversify its geopolitical bets, which pulls it away from the U.S., even if the issues surrounding nuclear weapons and support for terrorism somehow were resolved.

And this:

Of course, the Saudis have abused their position. They are dependent on the U.S., but they also know America has few other potential regional partners for cooperation on such a large scale. And so the Saudis have engaged in human-rights abuses over the decades, figuring it may harm but will not irrevocably damage relations with America.

There is more at the link, analytical throughout.