Category: Current Affairs

How scary are Christians?

Only 3 percent of white Christians are first-generation immigrants. That compares with 10 percent of black Christians, 58 percent of Latino Christians, and 66 percent of Asian Christians. In other words, American Christianity is growing heavily through immigrants who are people of color. If Christians are really so scary, maybe it’s time to build that wall.

By the way:

And around the globe, the people most likely to be Christians are women of color.

So to put all the pieces together:

if you’re mocking Christians, you’re mostly mocking women, because women are more likely than men to be Christians. The greatest disproportion is found among black Christians, of whom only 41 percent are male. So you’re mocking black women in particular.

That is from the excellent Stephen Carter at Bloomberg.

Spain Italy fact of the day

Spaniards have became richer than Italians — a heartening indication of Spain’s economic revival but a worrying sign for Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, which is stuck in political gridlock. Spain’s per capita gross domestic product exceeded that of Italy in 2017, according to IMF data published this week that compare countries on a so-called “purchasing power parity” basis. The IMF also forecast that Spain would become 7 per cent richer than Italy over the next five years. A decade ago Italy was 10 per cent richer on the same basis.

That is from Valentina Romei from the FT.

Africa fact of the day

Sub-Saharan Africa is slipping into a new debt crisis, with 40 per cent of the region’s countries now at high risk of debt distress — double the proportion of five years ago.

Chad, South Sudan, the Republic of Congo and Mozambique moved into “debt distress” in 2017, the IMF said, which means they have defaulted or cannot service their debts. A much higher number have breached one of the fund’s thresholds for debt or servicing burdens, putting them into the IMF category of highly vulnerable to default.

That is from Chris Giles and David Pilling at the FT.

Meet me in Mongolia? (North Korea fact of the day)

As officials scramble to convene the hastily announced and once-unthinkable meeting in the coming weeks, the site itself remains an open question. It is unclear whether Mr. Kim’s fleet of Soviet-era planes can fly him more than a few thousand miles from North Korea.

“We know he has a plane, but it’s an old plane,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council aide who worked on Korea issues. “No one really knows if it works.”

Since taking power in 2011, Mr. Kim is not known to have flown outside his country, and the question of his transportation adds a layer of political complications to a fraught and uncertain summit meeting…

With the expected range of Mr. Kim’s planes, a trip to Hawaii or Guam, the closest United States territory to North Korea, would almost certainly require a refueling stop or a borrowed plane. Korea experts call that an indignity that Mr. Kim would not accept.

That is from Ali Watkins of the NYT.

What can we plausibly hope for with North Korea?

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

First: The North Korean regime has never been bureaucratized in the modern sense of that term. While we don’t have comprehensive information, it seems that until recently Kim as leader had not been going abroad, nor had he been receiving many visits from other heads of state. His position and perhaps his mood has been one of extreme isolation, and he is not surrounded by anything resembling the U.S. State Department or even the old-style Soviet bureaucracies that managed foreign policy for the USSR. The rest of his regime is probably poorly informed about the extent of American military superiority, should a conflict come to pass.

By meeting with other foreign leaders, the North Korean regime would be forced to build up its basic processes for dealing with the rest of the world. That in turn creates interest groups and flows of information (some of which invariably leak out). The North Korean populace responds by thinking more about the outside world, making it harder to control by propaganda. In turn the North Korean leadership may decide to continue economic liberalization.

One need not count on an “End of History” story culminating in liberalism and democratization. The more modest hope would be for the North Korean leadership to become more decentralized, more bureaucratic, better informed and harder to marshal behind crazy military measures.

The unspoken goal of engagement would be to encourage North Korea to evolve into a more banal and more predictable form. That is the natural flow of most bureaucratic organizations, so in this regard American negotiators actually have time on their side. The North Koreans are going to change a lot more than the U.S. is likely to.

And the concluding sentence:

Think of any diplomatic talks with North Korea as a big act of theater — designed not to fool him, but to teach him that theater itself can be fun.

Do read the whole thing.

Which is the most ideologically diverse American city?

When I requested requests, Jimmy wrote back:

(1) Conversations with Tyler featuring an actual Straussian.

(2) What is the most ideologically / politically diverse city? Which most moderate in that regard? Where in America am I least likely to be in a bubble and why?

I have several nominations for #2:

1. Houston. It still has plenty of Texas conservatives, but enough non-conservatives to elect a lesbian mayor.  Mexicans fit along a political spectrum of their own.

2. Washington, D.C. and environs. The intellectual class in this city is about half conservative/Republican/libertarian and always will be — just don’t think too hard about who actually lives here!  Most of all, everyone is used to the fact that there are oodles and oodles of forces on the other side of the debate.  No one flips out over this.  Even the media types have a reasonable amount of non-left representation.

3. Chicago. Its presence in the Midwest moderates its left flank, there is a diverse mix of ethnic groups, and the city has lots of Midwestern civic virtue.  Real estate prices have stayed relatively low, so not all blue collar and working class types have been driven out.  “Old Chicago” is still up and running to some extent.

That’s the national capital, plus two of the five largest cities.  And I’ve already argued that, in a Straussian sense, Los Angeles is the most right wing city in the United States.  Orange County is ideologically diverse as well.  In other words, urban American is doing pretty well on intellectual diversity once you get out of (parts of) Manhattan and San Francisco and Seattle.

San Antonio measures as quite moderate, but is neither typical nor extremely diverse.  Here are some basic data, Nashville, Wichita, and Las Vegas also measure in the middle, and of those Las Vegas seems most diverse to me rather than simply dull.

Which place in the country is the least likely to leave you trapped in an intellectual bubble?  Somewhere in Ohio?  Columbus or Cincinnati?  Knoxville, Tennessee?  Louisville?  Kansas City, MO?  In those locales you truly are confronted with the everyday problems of regular American life and you are not obsessing over either crypto or what just passed through the subcommittee.

The proper conclusion may be that intellectual bubbles are a useful means of moving forward.

The Facebook Trials: It’s Not “Our” Data

Facebook, Google and other tech companies are accused of stealing our data or at least of using it without our permission to become extraordinarily rich. Now is the time, say the critics, to stand up and take back our data. Ours, ours, ours.

In this way of thinking, our data is like our lawnmower and Facebook is a pushy neighbor who saw that our garage door was open, took our lawnmower, made a quick buck mowing people’s lawns, and now refuses to give our lawnmower back. Take back our lawnmower!

The reality is far different.

What could be more ours than our friends? Yet I have hundreds of friends on Facebook, most of whom I don’t know well and have never met. But my Facebook friends are friends. We share common interests and, most of the time, I’m happy to see what they are thinking and doing and I’m pleased when they show interest in what I’m up to. If, before Facebook existed, I had been asked to list “my friends,” I would have had a hard time naming ten friends, let alone hundreds. My Facebook friends didn’t exist before Facebook. My Facebook friendships are not simply my data—they are a unique co-creation of myself, my friends, and, yes, Facebook.

Some of my Facebook friends are family, but even here the relationships are not simply mine but a product of myself and Facebook. My cousin who lives in Dubai, for example, is my cousin whether Facebook exists or not, but I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, have never written him a letter, have never in that time shared a phone call. Nevertheless, I can tell you about the bike accident, the broken arm, the X-ray with more than a dozen screws—I know about all of this only because of Facebook. The relationship with my cousin, therefore, isn’t simply mine, it’s a joint creation of myself, my cousin and Facebook.

Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it.

Facebook and Google have made billions in profits, but it’s utterly false to think that we, the users, have not been compensated. Have you checked the price of a Facebook post or a Google search recently? More than 2 billion people use Facebook every month, none are charged. Google performs more than 3.5 billion searches every day, all for free. The total surplus created by Facebook and Google far exceeds their profits.

Moreover, it’s the prospect of profits that has led Facebook and Google to invest in the technology and tools that have created “our data.” The more difficult it is to profit from data, the less data there will be. Proposals to require data to be “portable” miss this important point. Try making your Facebook graph portable before joining Facebook.

None of this means that we should not be concerned with how data, ours, theirs, or otherwise, is used. I don’t worry too much about what Facebook and Google know about me. Mostly the tech companies want to figure out what I want to buy. Not such a bad deal even if the way that ads follow me around the world is at times a bit disconcerting. I do worry that they have not adequately enforced contractual restrictions on third-party users of our data. Ironically, it was letting non-profits use Facebook’s data that caused problems.

I also worry about big brother’s use of big data. Sooner or later, what Facebook and Google know, the government will know. That alone is good reason to think carefully about how much information we allow the tech companies to know and to store. But let’s get over the idea that it’s “our data.” Not only isn’t it our data, it never was.

Why is eurozone growth slowing down?

According to the Fulcrum activity nowcasts, which identified the surge in growth very early last year, the eurozone was still growing at a rate of 3.5 per cent late in 2017. Each of the largest economies in the bloc was doing well: Germany 4 per cent, France 3 per cent, Italy 2 per cent and Spain 3.5 per cent. Economic forecasters and the central bank had become confident that this strong recovery phase would persist throughout 2018. But that has not happened so far.

The latest nowcast results for the eurozone suggest that activity growth has dropped to only 1.2 per cent in early April, with each of the major economies experiencing a sharp decline in growth. Even Germany, which was relatively immune from previous European downturns has recorded a very sharp dip, with growth now down to only around 1 per cent.

That is from Gavyn Davies at the FT.

The Middle East and Syria right now

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

Some historical events are relatively easy to model with game theory: the Cuban Missile crisis, many of the Cold War proxy wars, the crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons. In those conflicts, the number of relevant parties is small and each typically has some degree of internal cohesion.

To find a situation comparable to the Middle East today, with so many involved countries, and so many interrelationships between internal and external political issues, one has to go back to the First World War, not an entirely comforting thought.

The situation right before that war had many distinct yet related moving parts, including the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialist scramble for colonies, the prior Balkan Wars, a rising Germany seeking parity or superiority with Great Britain, an unstable alliance system, an unworkable Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the complex internal politics of Russia, which eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution.

What do we learn from the history of that time? Well, even if the chance of war was high by early 1914, it was far from obvious that the Central Powers attack on France, Belgium and Russia would be set off by a political assassination in the Balkans.

Nonetheless, in sufficiently complex situations, chain reactions can cause small events to cascade into big changes. In World War I, one goal behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to break off parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a new Yugoslavia. The empire responded by making some demands on Serbia, which were not heeded, a declaration of war followed, and the alliance system activated broader conflicts across Europe.

If you don’t quite follow how a single assassination, which was not even seen as so important the day it occurred, triggered the death of so many millions, and the destruction of so much of Europe, that is exactly the point. When there is no clear way for observers to model the situation, a single bad event can take on a very large significance and for reasons that are not entirely explicable.

Do read the whole thing.

America First to increase its World Bank contribution?

The Trump administration is poised to back a $13bn capital increase for the World Bank in a package that would see significant lending reforms and an increase in China’s shareholding.

Barring last-minute hiccups, US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin is set to tell fellow World Bank shareholders at next week’s spring meetings in Washington that he will support an increase in the bank’s capital, a senior Treasury official confirmed to the Financial Times on Friday. The move would be a significant shift in the US administration’s attitudes towards multilateral institutions.

That is from Shawn Donnan and Sam Fleming at the FT.

Privacy sentences to ponder

The increasing difficulty in managing one’s online personal data leads to individuals feeling a loss of control. Additionally, repeated consumer data breaches have given people a sense of futility, ultimately making them weary of having to think about online privacy. This phenomenon is called “privacy fatigue.” Although privacy fatigue is prevalent and has been discussed by scholars, there is little empirical research on the phenomenon. A new study published in the journal Computers and Human Behavior aimed not only to conceptualize privacy fatigue but also to examine its role in online privacy behavior. Based on literature on burnout, we developed measurement items for privacy fatigue, which has two key dimensions —emotional exhaustion and cynicism. Data analyzed from a survey of 324 Internet users showed that privacy fatigue has a stronger impact on privacy behavior than privacy concerns do, although the latter is widely regarded as the dominant factor in explaining online privacy behavior.

Emphasis added by me.  That is by Hanbyl Choi, Jonghwa Park, and Yoonhyuk Jung, via Michelle Dawson.

The fox

Sen. Leahy has a Facebook pixel, invisible to users, that gathers user data of Facebook users who visit the site. (For a quick primer on what “pixels” do, visit Facebook’s resource guide on the data-gathering tool.)

That’s right, if you visit Senator Leahy’s campaign website, it’s likely your data, including your demographics and what pages you looked at on the site, have been placed into a custom data targeting audience by Leahy’s team.

Here is more, via @tedfrank.  You will note that Leahy was one of the interlocutors who confronted Zuckerberg over the privacy issue.

The Chinese corporate apology

When does a corporate apology become a political self-confession, or jiantao (检讨), an act of submission not to social mores and concerns, but to those in power? The line can certainly blur in China. But the public apology today from Zhang Yiming (张一鸣), the founder and CEO of one of China’s leading tech-based news and information platforms, crosses deep into the territory of political abjection.

Zhang’s apology, posted to WeChat at around 4 AM Beijing time, addressed recent criticism aired through the state-run China Central Television and other official media of Jinri Toutiao, or “Toutiao” — a platform for content creation and aggregation that makes use of algorithms to customize user experience. Critical official coverage of alleged content violations on the platform was followed by a notice on April 4 from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), in which the agency said Toutiao and another service providing live-streaming, Kuaishou, would be subject to “rectification measures.”

Read through Zhang’s apology and it is quickly apparent that this is a mea culpa made under extreme political pressure, in which Zhang, an engineer by background, ticks the necessary ideological boxes to signal his intention to fall into line.

At one point, Zhang confesses that the “deep-level causes” of the problems at Toutiao included “a weak [understanding and implementation of] the “four consciousnesses”. This is a unique Xi Jinping buzzword, introduced in January 2016, that refers to 1) “political consciousness” (政治意识), namely primary consideration of political priorities when addressing issues, 2) consciousness of the overall situation (大局意识), or of the overarching priorities of the Party and government, 3) “core consciousness” (核心意识), meaning to follow and protect Xi Jinping as the leadership “core,” and 4) “integrity consciousness” (看齐意识), referring to the need to fall in line with the Party. Next, Zhang mentions the service’s failure to respect “socialist core values,” and its “deviation from public opinion guidance” — this latter term being a Party buzzword (dating back to the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests) synonymous with information and press controls as a means of maintaining Party dominance.

Zhang also explicitly references Xi Jinping’s notion of the “New Era,” and writes: “All along, we have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology, and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system, broadcasting positive energy, suiting the demands of the era, and respecting common convention.”

In the list of the company’s remedies, there is even a mention of the need to promote more content from “authoritative media,” a codeword for Party-controlled media, which suggests once again that the leadership has been unhappy with the idea of algorithms that wall users off from official messaging if they show no interest in such content.

Here is the full story, via Anecdotal.

The Peltzman Model of Regulation and the Facebook Hearings

If you want understand the Facebook hearings it’s useful to think not about privacy or  technology but about what politicians want. In the Peltzman model of regulation, politicians use regulation to tradeoff profits (wanted by firms) and lower prices (wanted by constituents) to maximize what politicians want, reelection. The key is that there are diminishing returns to politicians in both profits and lower prices. Consider a competitive industry. A competitive industry doesn’t do much for politicians so they might want to regulate the industry to raise prices and increase firm profits. The now-profitable firms will reward the hand that feeds them with campaign funds and by diverting some of the industry’s profits to subsidize a politician’s most important constituents. Consumers will be upset by the higher price but if the price isn’t raised too much above competitive levels the net gain to the politician will be positive.

Now consider an unregulated monopoly. A profit-maximized monopolist doesn’t do much for politicians. Politicians will regulate the monopolist to lower prices and to encourage the monopolist to divert some of its profits to subsidize a politician’s most important constituents. Monopolists will be upset by the lower price but if the price isn’t lowered too much below monopoly levels the net gain to the politician will be positive. (Moreover, a monopolist won’t object too much to reducing prices a little since they can do that without a big loss–the top of the profit hill is flat).

With that as background, the Facebook hearings are easily understood. Facebook is a very profitable monopoly that doesn’t benefit politicians very much. Although consumers aren’t upset by high prices (since Facebook is free), they can be made to be upset about loss of privacy or other such scandal. That’s enough to threaten regulation. The regulatory outcome will be that Facebook diverts some of its profits to campaign funds and to subsidize important political constituents.

Who will be subsidized? Be sure to watch the key players as there is plenty to go around and the money has only begun to flow but aside from campaign funds look for rules, especially in the political sphere, that will raise the costs of advertising to challengers relative to incumbents. Incumbents love incumbency advantage. Also watch out for a deal where the government limits profit regulation in return for greater government access to Facebook data including by the NSA, ICE, local and even foreign police. Keep in mind that politicians don’t really want privacy–remember that in 2016 Congress also held hearings on privacy and technology. Only those hearings were about how technology companies kept their user data too private.

Is Economic Research Biased by Partisanship?

The Washington Monthly, a magazine of ideas from the liberal-left, has a profile of me and my paper with Nathan Goldschlag, Is regulation to blame for the decline in American entrepreneurship? The profile ups the “libertarian says regulation not responsible for bad thing!” angle. My earlier paper, finding that more guns leads to more suicides, was also given the “even a libertarian says” angle. In both cases, I was treated fairly and well and since I wrote the papers to be read, I am happy for the publicity. But I am uncomfortable with these takes.

After all, I am not surprised that my research is not biased by partisanship. Why should other people be? Should I not be insulted? Moreover, I don’t think that I am special in this regard. I think that most academic research in economics is not biased by partisanship. Thus, while it’s nice to receive plaudits on twitter for honesty and bravery, they are undeserved. This is normal. Normal for me and normal for other economists. The public perception to the contrary likely comes from two failures–a failure to distinguish partisan commentary from academic research and a failure to consider that ideology influences topic more than findings.

Economic commentary in the media often does come from political partisans but that is a completely different role than publishing peer-reviewed research. Papers published in mainstream economics journals have passed a high bar and are much less likely to be infused with partisan bias–this is true even when the research leads to a blog post or op-ed that may be of partisan interest.

An economist’s ideology probably does influence the topics they choose to research. I’ve written on bounty hunters, privateers, and the private provision of public goods, topics surely influenced by my interest in how markets solve problems usually thought solvable only by governments. Choice of topic, however, does not necessarily determine the outcome. In the aforementioned three cases, my research can be read as broadly supportive of private solutions. The topics of dynamism and regulation, firearms and suicides, and private cities in India were probably also influenced by ideology but in these cases the research can be read as somewhat less supportive of private solutions.1 Let the chips fall where they may. I’ve learnt something in both sets of cases. My academic ideology, “a demand to know the truth,” trumps any narrow political ideology.

There’s another problem with praising a “libertarian”, or any researcher with strong beliefs, for honesty when their research conclusions don’t fit narrow priors. It puts their research that does fit narrow priors under a cloud. But only people with strong beliefs are put to this test. No one gets suspicious when a moderate democrat produces lots of research that fits moderate democrat priors. Why not? Do you assume reality is moderate?

I also wonder whether the people lauding me for my honest research–for which I thank them–will draw the correct conclusion. Namely, they should now be more receptive to my work on bounty hunters, privateers, and the private provision of public goods. Fingers crossed.

Let me conclude on a lighter note. There are many reasons why regulation could be costly outside of its effects on dynamism. Thus, for my friends who think that I have gone all-squishy, n.b.:

Not that Tabarrok himself has become a booster for regulation. He doesn’t think much of government’s ability to spark innovation through setting standards; the first thing he did when he last bought a new shower head, he said, was remove its federally mandated flow restrictor.

Read the whole thing.

Addendum 1: I have also written many papers like Would the Borda Count have Avoided the Civil War? and Patent Theory versus Patent Law where the topic was driven out of some non-ideological interest or simply because I had an idea. Publish or perish!