Category: Current Affairs

Bangladesh fact of the day

This month, Bangladesh’s Cabinet Secretary told reporters that GDP per capita had grown by 9% over the past year, rising to $2,227. Pakistan’s per capita income, meanwhile, is $1,543. In 1971, Pakistan was 70% richer than Bangladesh; today, Bangladesh is 45% richer than Pakistan. One Pakistani economist glumly pointed out that “it is in the realm of possibility that we could be seeking aid from Bangladesh in 2030.”

India — eternally confident about being the only South Asian economy that matters — now must grapple with the fact that it, too, is poorer than Bangladesh in per capita terms. India’s per capita income in 2020-21 was a mere $1,947.

Here is more from Mihir Sharma at Bloomberg.

My Conversation with the very very smart David Deutsch

I think this episode came off as “weird and testy,” as I described it to one friend, but I like weird and testy!  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How do you think the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics relates to the view that, just in terms of space, the size of our current universe is infinite, and therefore everything possible is happening in it?

DEUTSCH: It complicates the discussion of probability, but there’s no overlap between that notion of infinity and the Everettian notion of infinity, if we are infinite there, because the differentiation (as I prefer to call what used to be called splitting) — when I perform an experiment which can go one of two ways, the influence of that spreads out. First, I see it. I may write it down; I may write a scientific paper. When I write a paper about it and report the results, that will cause the journal to split or to differentiate into two journals, and so on. This influence cannot spread out faster than the speed of light.

So an Everett universe is really a misnomer because what we see in real life is an Everett bubble within the universe. Everything outside the bubble is as it was; it’s undifferentiated, or, to be exact, it’s exactly as differentiated as it was before. Then, as the bubble spreads out, the universe becomes or the multiverse becomes more differentiated, but the bubble is always finite.

COWEN: How do your views relate to the philosophical modal realism of David Lewis?

DEUTSCH: There are interesting parallels. As a physicist, I’m interested in what the laws of physics tell us is so, rather than in philosophical reasoning about things, unless they impinge on a problem that I have. So yes, I’m interested in, for example, the continuity of the self — whether, if there’s another version of me a very large number of light-years away in an infinite universe, and it’s identical, is that really me? Are there two of me, one of me? I don’t entirely know the answer to that. It’s why I don’t entirely know the answer to whether I would go in a Star Trek transporter.

The modal realism certainly involves a lot of things that I don’t think exist — at least, not physically. I’m open to the idea that nonphysical things do exist: like the natural numbers, I think, exist. There’s a difference between the second even prime, which doesn’t exist, and the infinite number of prime numbers, which I think do exist. I think that there is more than one mode of existence, but the theory that all modes of existence are equally real — I see no point in that. The overlap between Everett and David Lewis is, I think, more coincidental than illuminating.

COWEN: If the universe is infinite and if David Lewis is correct, should I feel closer to the David Lewis copies of me? The copies or near copies of me in this universe? Or the near copies of me in the multiverse? It seems very crowded all of a sudden. Something whose purpose was to be economical doesn’t feel that way to me by the end of the metaphysics.

DEUTSCH: It doesn’t feel like that to you. . . . Well, as Wittgenstein is supposed to have said (I don’t know whether he really did), if it were true, what would it feel like? It would feel just like this.

Much more at the link.  And:

COWEN: Are we living in a simulation?

DEUTSCH: No, because living in a simulation is precisely a case of there being a barrier beyond which we cannot understand. If we’re living in a simulation that’s running on some computer, we can’t tell whether that computer is made of silicon or iron, or whether it obeys the same laws of computation, like Turing computability and quantum computability and so on, as ours. We can’t know anything about the physics there.

Well, we can know that it is at least a superset of our physics, but that’s not saying very much; it’s not telling us very much. It’s a typical example of a theory that can be rejected out of hand for the same reason that the supernatural ones — if somebody says, “Zeus did it,” then I’m going to say, “How should I respond? If I take that on board, how should I respond to the next person that comes along and tells me that Odin did it?”

COWEN: But it seems you’re rejecting an empirical claim on methodological grounds, and I get very suspicious. Philosophers typically reject transcendental arguments like, “Oh, we must be able to perceive reality, because if we couldn’t, how could we know that we couldn’t perceive reality?” It doesn’t prove you can perceive reality, right?

And this:

COWEN: A few very practical questions to close. Given the way British elections seem to have been running, that the Tories win every time, does that mean the error-correction mechanism of the British system of government now is weaker?

DEUTSCH: No. Unfortunately, the — so, as you probably know, I favor the first-past-the-post system in the purest possible form, as it is implemented in Britain. I think that is the most error-correcting possible electoral system, although I must add that the electoral system is only a tiny facet of the institutions of criticism and consent. In general, it’s just a tiny thing, but it is the best one.

It’s not perfect. It has some of the defects of, for example, proportional representation. Proportional representation has the defect that it causes coalitions all the time. Coalitions are bad.

COWEN: You have a delegated monitor with the coalition, right? With a coalition, say in the Netherlands (which is richer than the United Kingdom), you typically have coalition governments. Some parties in the coalition are delegated monitors of the other parties. Parties are better informed than voters. Isn’t that a better Popperian mechanism for error correction?

I also tried to sum up what I think he is all about, and he reacted with scorn.  That was an excellent part of the conversation.  And here is a good Twitter thread from Michael Nielsen about the Conversation.

@pmarca lets loose

Don’t underestimate yourself! The great writers of the past tended to be disassociative cranks. Diogenes Laertius says Heraclitus lived “by himself in the mountains, feeding on grasses and herbs” and died by burying himself in literal dung. Rousseau condemned his own children to the hell of an 18th century orphanage while sanctimoniously passing judgment on the rest of society. Nietzsche went insane protecting a horse from a whipping, and in his last messages to the world demanded the pope be jailed and all anti-Semites shot. You see, you fit right in.

And that is one of the more anodyne parts of the interview.  And yes it has been confirmed to be real.  Here is another one of the boring parts:

I predict that we — the West — are going to WEIRDify the entire world, within the next 50 years, the next two generations. We will do this not by converting non-WEIRD people to WEIRD, but by getting their kids. Their kids, and their kids’ kids, are going to grow up on the Internet at least as much as they grow up in the real world, and the pull of WEIRD culture will overwhelm all existing non-WEIRD cultures. I realize this is a very strong claim, but this process is already underway; at this point I think it’s inevitable. The cost of this will be a collapse of global cultural diversity exactly as you and Rozin predict.

Niccolo Soldo is the interviewer.

Icelandic fact of the day

This passage concerns the U.S. occupation during World War II:

At its peak, the occupation of Iceland would include the equivalent, statistically speaking, of 55 million foreign troops occupying the United States based on 1940 populations.  There were nearly fifty thousand men and dozens of female nurses, equaling about 40 percent of Icelanders.

By the way, from 1940 to 1946, “the purchasing power of unskilled workers (meaning just about everyone) grew by a whopping 86 percent…”  About two percent of Icelandic women left as brides to American soldiers.  And while Iceland lost about 300 lives during the war (mostly sailors), American servicemen helped to add another 400-500 to the native population.

One of the major political issues in the 1970s was whether the letter “Z” should be included in the Icelandic alphabet, and indeed it was abolished by law in 1973, with an exception being made for the word “pizza.”

That is all from Egill Bjarnason, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island.  I’ll say it again: single country books are underrated.  Maybe there are no great revelations in this one, but if you have been to Iceland, or are planning a trip, it is probably the first book you would want to pick up to cover the country.

Why the lab leak theory matters

Here is Ross Douthat at the NYT:

…there’s a pretty big difference between a world where the Chinese regime can say, We weren’t responsible for Covid but we crushed the virus and the West did not, because we’re strong and they’re decadent, and a world where this was basically their Chernobyl except their incompetence and cover-up sickened not just one of their own cities but also the entire globe.

The latter scenario would also open a debate about how the United States should try to enforce international scientific research safeguards, or how we should operate in a world where they can’t be reasonably enforced.

I agree, and would add one point about why this matters so much.  “Our wet market was low quality and poorly governed” is a story consistent with the Chinese elites not being entirely at fault.  Wet markets, after all, are a kind of atavism, and China knows the country is going to evolve away from them over time.  They represent the old order.  You can think of the CCP as both building infrastructure and moving the country’s food markets into modernity (that’s infrastructure too, isn’t it?), albeit with lags.  “We waited too long to get rid of the wet markets” is bad, but if anything suggests the CCP should have done all the more to revolutionize and modernize China.  In contrast, the story of “our government-run research labs are low quality and poorly governed”…that seems to place the blame entirely on the shoulders of the CCP and also on its technocratic, modernizing tendencies.  Under that account, the CCP spread something that “the earlier China” did not, and that strikes strongly at the heart of CCP legitimacy.  Keep in mind how much the Chinese apply a historical perspective to everything.

A number of you have asked me what I think of the lab leak hypothesis.  A few months ago I placed the chance of it at 20-30%, as a number of private correspondents can attest.  Currently I am up to 50-60%.

My Conversation with Mark Carney

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, definitely recommended.  Here is part of his closing statement:

COWEN: Last question. You wake up each morning. Surely you still think about central banking. What for you is the open question about central banking, where you don’t know the answer, that you think about the most?

CARNEY: I gave a speech at Jackson Hole on this issue, and I started — which is the future of the international monetary system and how we adjust the international monetary system.

I’ll say parenthetically that we’re potentially headed to another example of where the structure of the system is going to cause big problems for the global economy. Because it’s quite realistic, sadly, that we’re going to have a fairly divergent recovery with a number of emerging, developing economies really lagging because of COVID — not vaccinated, limited policy space, and the knock-on effects, while major advanced economies move forward. That’s a world where rates rise and the US dollar strengthens and you get this asymmetry, and the challenge of the way our system works bears down on these economies. I think about that a lot.

And this:

COWEN: If you’re speaking in a meeting as the central bank president, do you prefer to speak first or speak last?

CARNEY: I prefer — I tend to speak early. Yes, I tend to speak early. I’m not sure that’s always the best strategy, but I tend to speak early. I will say, one thing that’s happened over the years at places like the G20, I noticed, is the prevalence of social media and devices. The audience drifts away over time, even at the G20, even on a discussion of the global economy.

And from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, do note this:

CARNEY: …I think you’re absolutely right on that, there wasn’t. It is revealed that there wasn’t a liquidity trap.

Rooftops!  Finally, on more important matters:

COWEN: Are the Toronto Raptors doomed to be, on average, a subpar NBA team due to higher taxes?


COWEN: What’s the best Clash album?

CARNEY: Fantastic question. London Calling, and one of my best memories — I was very fortunate; they came to Edmonton when I was in 12th grade in high school. I went to the concert and that was fantastic, yes.

COWEN: I also saw them, I think in what would have been 12th grade had I been in school that year. But London Calling is too commercial for me. I much prefer the Green album, like “Career Opportunities,” “Janie Jones.”

CARNEY: Well, “I Fought the Law” was the best song at the concert. I have to say, they had got to Combat Rock by this time, which was relative — [laughs] Combat Rock was more commercial, I thought, than London Calling, although they threw it all out the door with Sandinista!

Again, here is Mark’s new book Value(s): Building a Better World For All.

Vaccine wastage, toward a general theory of multilateral institutions

South Sudan, for instance, recently destroyed nearly 60,000 doses it received from Covax; Malawi destroyed 20,000. Neither were able to distribute their entire allotments before the vaccines expired. Kenya, with more than 50 million people, received over a million doses from Covax in early March, but had used less than one-fifth by late April. The Ivory Coast similarly distributed less than a quarter of the over 500,000 doses it received in late February, raising fears that doses will expire before they are used. The problem goes beyond lower-income countries. More than 600,000 Covax-provided AstraZeneca vaccines sit in Canada at risk of spoilage, while Canadians debate whether it is safe to use them. Vaccinations can begin to confer meaningful protection in under 14 days. Freed from freezers, these vaccines could have saved many lives in Peru, India or Brazil, where the pandemic is raging.

Here is more from Zeke Emanuel and Govind Persad (NYT).

Staple a Lottery Ticket to Every Vaccination Card

I’ve been promoting stapling a lottery ticket to every vaccination card for some time, so it was good to see Ohio followed by New York, Maryland and Oregon introduce vaccine lotteries. Moreover, the program appears to be working as noted by Philip Bump in the Washington Post:

The seven-day average number of Ohioans getting their first shots increased the day after DeWine’s announcement and continued heading up through Sunday. It’s worth noting that this happened while the number of vaccinations nationally remained flat, suggesting that the trend in Ohio was driven by something different. It’s also worth pointing out that the number of Ohioans completing their vaccinations continued to slip lower, again reinforcing that these were people newly seeking out the vaccine. (In two or three weeks it will be interesting to see if more people are completing their vaccinations.)

Sadly, some politicians are now introducing legislation in Ohio to stop the program. Thus, it’s worthwhile recapping why we expect a lottery program to work. Most people think first about behavioral or psychological explanations. A vaccination is all about immediate costs and future benefits and it’s more difficult to act on future benefits than immediate costs, ala hyperbolic discounting. A free beer, donut, or lottery ticket provides an immediate benefit to offset the immediate cost and so may encourage vaccination, especially for those who are very present oriented. Note, however, that a lottery ticket might be expected to be less beneficial than an equivalent-cost donut because the donut is truly immediate while the lottery ticket is not. On the other hand, if vaccine hesitancy is driven by over-estimated fear of rare side-effects then perhaps a lottery ticket balances with an over-estimated hope of rare-benefits.

Even within a risk-neutral, rational model, however, there are good reasons to tie public goods to lotteries (ungated). Charities, for example, often use lotteries or raffles to fund public goods. Why? The reason is that a lottery is a natural counter to free-riding. Imagine that there is a public good but no one contributes because they each hope to free ride off other people’s contributions. As a result, the public good is not provided. Now introduce a fixed prize lottery. If no one else contributes then a contributor wins the lottery for certain so it can’t be an equilibrium for everyone to free ride (reminiscent of my dominant assurance contract mechanism for producing public goods). Note that the lottery in this model can’t just be a regular lottery ticket where you have to match X numbers to win. It has to be a raffle where the probability of winning is 1/N where N is the number of contributors. Thus, the Maryland and Ohio vaccine lotteries, which draw winners from the vaccinated, are much better than New York version which just hands out free lottery tickets. Thus, I expect the Ohio and Maryland versions to be more successful than the New York version.

Hat tip: Casey Mulligan for reference to the Morgan paper.

San Francisco fact of the day

At a board of supervisors hearing last week, representatives from Walgreens said that thefts at its stores in San Francisco were four times the chain’s national average, and that it had closed 17 stores, largely because the scale of thefts had made business untenable.

Brendan Dugan, the director of the retail crime division at CVS Health, called San Francisco “one of the epicenters of organized retail crime” and said employees were instructed not to pursue suspected thieves because encounters had become too dangerous.

“We’ve had incidents where our security officers are assaulted on a pretty regular basis in San Francisco,” Dugan said.

And yes incentives matter:

The retail executives and police officers emphasized the role of organized crime in the thefts. And they told the supervisors that Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified nonviolent thefts as misdemeanors if the stolen goods are worth less than $950, had emboldened thieves.

Here is more from the NYT, via Ilya Novak.

What is holding back employment?

The White House and congressional Democrats have argued for weeks that the lack of child care services poses a major obstacle to the economic recovery, pressing for a massive and immediate investment to get parents back to work.

But a new economic analysis led by a prominent White House ally concludes that school and daycare closures are not driving low employment levels — blunting a key Biden administration argument in favor of its American Families Plan and undercutting the view of some Democrats that investing in child care is crucial for the country to climb out of the coronavirus recession.

“School closures and lack of child care are not holding back the recovery,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard professor who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration and co-authored the analysis. “And conversely, we shouldn’t expect a short-term economic bump from reopening schools and making child care more available.”

The study — which found that the employment rate for parents of young children actually declined at a lower rate than for those without kids — adds fuel to an intense national debate about what is behind a suspected worker shortage and what policy changes are needed to accelerate Americans’ return to work as the pandemic subsides.

Here is the full Politico article by Megan Cassella and Eleanor Mueller.

Emergent Ventures winners, 14th cohort

Center for Indonesian Policy Studies, Jakarta, to hire a new director.

Zach Mazlish, recent Brown graduate in philosophy, for travel and career development., headed by Rohan Pavuluri, to support their work on legal reform and deregulation of legal services for the poor.

Madison Breshears, GMU law student, to study the proper regulation of cryptocurrencies.

Quest for Justice, to help Californians better navigate small claims court without a lawyer.

Cameron Wiese, Progress Studies fellow, to create a new World’s Fair.

Jimmy Alfonso Licon, philosopher, visiting position at George Mason University, general career development.

Tony Morley, Progress Studies fellow, from Ngunnawal, Australia, to write the first optimistic children’s book on progress.

Michelle Wang, Sophomore at the University of Toronto, Canada, to study the causes and cures of depression, and general career development, and to help her intern at MIT.

Here are previous cohorts of winners.

Inflation and the Fed

Federal Reserve officials were optimistic about the economy at their April policy meeting as government aid and business reopenings paved the way for a rebound — so much so that and “a number” of them began to tiptoe toward a conversation about dialing back some support for the economy.

Here is more (NYT).  That is yet another sign that our government (treating fiscal and monetary as a consolidated entity) made a mistake in applying too much demand stimulus.  Hardly anyone said this at the time except Summers and Blanchard, and since then few have been willing to come out and admit error.  There is an ex post attempt to redefine the debate by insisting inflation will not spiral out of control.  Quite possibly not, but whatever your view on that question, don’t let it distract you from the actual mistake.  Virtually all macroeconomic commentators in the public sphere were wrong for not realizing and stressing that too much demand stimulus was being applied.  Furthermore, we ended up spending $1 trillion (!) in ways that were pretty far from optimal.

Got that?  People, the rooftops are waiting.

My Conversation with Pierpaolo Barbieri

Here is the audio, visual, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Pierpaolo joined Tyler to discuss why the Mexican banking system only serves 30 percent of Mexicans, which country will be the first to go cashless, the implications of a digital yuan, whether Miami will overtake São Paolo as the tech center of Latin America, how he hopes to make Ualá the Facebook of FinTech, Argentina’s bipolar fiscal policy, his transition from historian to startup founder, the novels of Michel Houellebecq, Nazi economic policy, why you can find amazing and cheap pasta in Argentina, why Jorge Luis Borges might be his favorite philosopher, the advice he’d give to his 18-year-old self, his friendship with Niall Ferguson, the political legacy of the Spanish Civil War, why he stopped sending emails from bed, and more.

Here is just one bit:

COWEN: Why did Argentina’s liberalization attempt under Macri fail?

BARBIERI: That’s a great question. There’s a very big ongoing debate about that. I think that there was a huge divergence between fiscal policy and monetary policy in the first two years of the Macri administration.

The fiscal consolidation was not done fast enough in 2016 and 2017 and then needed to accelerate dramatically after the taper tantrum, if you want to call it, or perceived higher global rates of 2018. So Macri had to run to the IMF and then do a lot of fiscal consolidation — that hadn’t been done in ’16 and ’17 — in’18 and ’19. Ultimately, that’s why he lost the election.

Generally speaking, that’s the short-term electoral answer. There’s a wider answer, which is that I think that many of the deep reforms that Argentina needed lack wide consensus. So I think there’s no question that Argentina needs to modify how the state spends money and its propensity to have larger fiscal deficits that eventually need to be monetized. Then we restart the process.

There’s a great scholar locally, Pablo Gerchunoff, who’s written a very good paper that analyzes Argentine economic history since the 1950s and shows how we move very schizophrenically between two models, one with a high exchange rate, where we all want to export a lot, and then when elections approach, people want a stronger local currency so that we can import a lot and feel richer.

The two models don’t have a wide acceptance on what are the reforms that are needed. I think that, in retrospect, Macri would say that he didn’t seek enough of a wider backing for the kind of reforms that he needed to enact — like Spain did in 1975, if you will, or Chile did after Pinochet — having some basic agreements with the opposition that would outlive a defeat in the elections.


COWEN: The best movie from Argentina — is it Nine QueensNueve reinas?

BARBIERI: It is a strong contender, but I would think El secreto de sus ojos, The Secret in Their Eyes, is my favorite film about Argentina because of what it says about the very difficult period of modernization, and in particular, the horrors of the last military regime that marked us so much that it still defines our politics 50 years since.