Category: Current Affairs

Work on these things

Here are some projects I’d like to see funded, some through my own ventures, or others through alternative mechanisms. On these issues, the right person could have an enormous impact, whether through the research side or directly coming up with actionable ideas, including of course creating and building companies.

More studies of super-effective people. Either individually or collectively. If you take the outliers in any domain, what should our intuitions be for understanding the underlying processes determining how many people could have ended up in those positions? How many people had the right genes but had the wrong upbringing? How many people had the right genes and the right upbringing but the wrong luck, or perhaps society failed them in some other manner? The answers to these questions have significant policy implications.

A comprehensive analysis and critique of the NIH and NSF. The US funds more science research than any other country — about $35 billion per year on the NIH and $8 billion per year on the NSF. How exactly do these institutions work? How have they changed over time and have these changes been for good or bad? Based on what we now know, how might we better structure the NIH and NSF? What experiments should we run or what kind of studies should we perform?

Why is life expectancy so long in Hong Kong? Life expectancy in Hong Kong is 84.23 years, more than five years longer than the US and the highest in the world. Hong Kong is not that wealthy (median household income is $38,000 USD); it’s somewhat polluted; people don’t obviously eat what seems like a healthy diet; and they don’t seem to exercise a great deal. What should we learn from this?

Bloomberg Terminal for everything. This might be a nonprofit, a company, or a government project. To state the obvious, many analyses hinge on having the right data. If you’re in finance, getting the right data is often easy: just pull it up on your Bloomberg terminal. But there is no practical way to ask “what most correlates with life expectancy in Hong Kong?” (See above on that topic.) Figure out a way to build a growing corpus of structured data across the broadest variety of domains.

A comprehensive guide to the American healthcare system. The American healthcare system is by far the world’s biggest and also by a considerable margin the world’s most influential. Yet there is no comprehensive, dispassionate, and analytical disaggregation of how it all works. Who are the actors and what are their incentives? To the degree that the relationships between different entities are in equilibrium, what are the forces ensuring they stay there? What is the Sankey diagram of fund flows within the U.S. healthcare system?

Better answers for how to quantify worker productivity. In most knowledge industries, companies have nothing better than highly subjective measures (i.e., supervisors’ assessments) of worker productivity. In theory, it seems significant improvements should be possible. In the short term, is it possible to measure the productivity or efficacy of individual managers, software engineers, educators, scientists? How about teams, and what size of team? And can we do so without creating Goodhart’s Law problems?

What should Widodo do? Indonesia is a large, populous middle-income country. It faces no major near-term security threats. It has a small manufacturing base and no major non-commodity export sectors. What is the best non-bureaucratic 10 page economic development briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for Indonesia’s president? For Indonesia, substitute Philippines, Chile, or Morocco. 

A comparative study of foundations and their efficacy. Philanthropic foundations are behind a lot of important work. But how does a foundation decide what it wants and how the resulting grants should be structured? How effective are the programs of that foundation? In practice, how have its institutional mechanisms evolved? Imagine some kind of resource that answered these questions for the major American foundations.

Institutional critiques. More broadly, there is no discipline of institutional criticism. There is a very rich literature of policy criticism in economics, journalism, and non-fiction books. There is also a rich literature of “corporate criticism”: there are thousands of articles about how Facebook (budget: $20 billion) works and how it might be good or bad. But there is relatively little analysis of the most important institutions in our society: government departments. How is the Department of Agriculture (budget: $150 billion) organized and how effective or not is it? How about the Department of Energy (budget: $32 billion)? And why are not those questions paramount in the minds of policymakers?

Cultures of excellence. If you ask informed Filipinos why the street food is mediocre, they will tell you that Philippines lacks a “culture of excellence”. It seems that some kind of “culture of doing things really well” has very persistent and generalizable effects. South Korea and Japan have developed much more rapidly than many Asian countries, despite many others adopting relatively free “Washington Consensus”-style trade policies. Russia still has higher GDP per capita than Mexico despite Mexico’s economic policies having been much better than Russia’s for many, many decades at this point. How should we think about cultures of excellence?

Regeneration at the government layer. Herbert Kaufman (unsurprisingly) concludes in an empirical study that government organizations don’t die. While we might all agree that this is a problem, actionable solutions are in short supply. What can or should we do about this?

IQ paradox. Ron Unz points out that intergenerational variation of IQ may be much higher than is often assumed, citing Ireland and Croatia as examples. For instance, not long ago Ireland had sub-par measured IQ and now that figure is much higher, following growth and prosperity. The policy implications of IQ disparities across nations may therefore be different to what might otherwise obviously follow: perhaps environment matters much more than is assumed. If so, what should we be doing more or less of?

Credible plans for new top-tier universities. 7 of the best 25 universities in the world (Times ranking) were started in the US between 1861 and 1891 by ambitious reformers. It’s probably harder in many ways to start an impactful new university today… but it’s likely not impossible and the returns to doing so successfully might be very high. What might be a good plan? Why have so few of these plans come to fruition? 

Summaries of the state of knowledge in different fields. As a general matter, a lot of oral knowledge in the world is still not readily available, and reflection on this fact might lead one in many interesting directions. One obvious application is helping people more readily understand the present state of affairs in different domains. If I want to know “how we’re doing” in, say, antiviral drug development, I could spend a few hours hunting for top researchers, email a few, and perhaps get on calls to obtain their candid assessments. Are we making good progress? What are the most important open problems? What’s holding things back? And so on. How can we make all of this knowledge publicly available across all fields?

Mechanisms for better matching. One of the single interventions that could do the most to improve global welfare would be to improve the efficiency of the partner/marriage matching ecosystem. Online dating demonstrates that significant change (and maybe even improvement?) is possible, with some figures suggesting that up to two thirds of relationships in the US may now be initiated through online dating services. Accomplished people often seem to struggle with this challenge. Good solutions would be important.

What should Durkan do? Jenny Durkan is the current mayor of Seattle. As cities become more important loci of economic activity in the world, the importance of effective city governance will increase. As with the Widodo challenge, what is the best 10 page briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for her? What about Baltimore and St. Louis?

A new charter city effort, Pronomos Capital, with venture capital

Pronomos Capital, which [Patri] Friedman incorporated in August, is supposed to bankroll the construction of experimental cities on vacant tracts of land in developing countries. Pronomos is set up like a venture fund, making investments in local organizations that do the work of securing government approvals, finding tenants, and hiring retired U.K. judges to enforce the new legal framework, to be based on British common law. The firm says it’s discussing semi-autonomous cities of varying sizes with foreign and local businesspeople in countries where officials have seemed receptive to exempting them from area laws, including Ghana, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Nigeria, and Panama. A given community could start as small as an industrial park, Friedman says. Most will be aimed at foreign businesses seeking friendlier tax treatment…

The venture firm has raised about $9 million so far (more than half from Thiel), well short of Friedman’s initial goal. He says that’s only enough to cover basic fact-finding expenses for his local partners, and he’ll raise more to buy and develop land once governments approve the plans.

Here is more from Lizette Chapman at Bloomberg, interesting throughout.

The new “third world debt crisis”?

Developing countries racked up a “towering” $55tn of debt by the end of last year, in a borrowing surge since the financial crisis that has been the fastest and widest in modern history, according to World Bank research.

China itself, whose debt-to-GDP ratio has risen 72 points to 255 per cent since 2010, accounts for the bulk of the boom, but nominal debt levels have doubled in the rest of the developing world, the bank found.

For now, historically low interest rates make a crisis less likely, according to the report, but the authors said that roughly half of the 521 national episodes of rapid debt growth since 1970 have resulted in crises which significantly hurt incomes.

Here is more from Tommy Stubbington at the FT.

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.

I recall it being about 2.5 hours long, and covering a lot of fresh material, Eric of course is superb.  Here is the link.  Here is the broader set of Portal podcasts, hosted by Eric.

My Conversation with Esther Duflo

Self-recommending if there ever was such a thing, here is the audio and transcript.  In addition to all of the expected topics, including gender in the economics profession, we even got around to Indian classical music and Bach cantatas (she prefers the latter).  Excerpt:

COWEN: Do you worry much that the RCT method — it centralizes authority in too few institutions? You need a certain amount of money. You need some managerial ability. You need connections abroad. It’s not like running regressions — everyone can do it on their PC. Is that, in some way, going to slow down science? You get more reliable results, but there’s much less competition of ideas, it seems.

DUFLO: I think it would be the case if we had not been mindful of this problem from the beginning. And it might still be the case to some extent. But I actually think that we’ve put a lot of effort in avoiding it to be the case.

When you take an organization like J-PAL, just in India we have 200 staff members. And we have, at any given time, 1,000 people running surveys. I say we, but these people are not running my project. These people are running the projects of dozens and dozens of researchers. When I started, I couldn’t have started without having the backing of my team because it was such a risky proposition that you needed to be able to easy risk capital kind of things.

But at this point, because of the infrastructure, it’s much more normal sense. People can get in with no funding of their own, in part because one of the things we are doing as a network is raising a lot of money to redistribute to other people widely. J-PAL has 400 researchers that are affiliated to it, or invited researchers, many of them quite, quite junior.

So that sort of mixture — it was very important to us, and I think we’ve been quite successful at making the tool marginally available. It’s never going to be like running a regression from your computer. But my philosophy is that if you have the drive and you’re willing to put in your own sweat equity, you can do it. And our students and many other students who are not at top institutions are doing it.

And:

COWEN: On the internet, there’s a photo of a teenage Esther Duflo — at least it looks like you — protesting against fascism in Russia on top of a tank, is it?

DUFLO: That was a bus, and it was me. It was me. So that was in 1991. This was not when I lived for one year there. I lived one year in ’93–’94. But this was in ’91. I had gone to Russia about every year since I was a teen to learn Russian. I happened to be there the summer where there was this putsch against Gorbachev. That summer…

And someone gave me that fashizm ne poletit placard and asked me to hold it. And I’m like, “Sure, I’m going to hold it.” So I’m holding my placard. We stayed there for a long time when things were happening. Next time I saw in the evening, my parents called me, “What are you doing?” Because it turned out that that image was on all the TVs in the world. [laughs] And that’s how I very briefly became the face of this revolution.

And:

COWEN: Does child-rearing in France strike you as more sensible than child-rearing in the United States?

DUFLO: Oh very much so, very much so.

COWEN: And why?

DUFLO: You know that book, Bringing Up Bébé?

COWEN: Yes.

DUFLO: I think she picked up on something which rings so true to me, which maybe is a marginal point about the US versus France. In France people are reasonably content to just go with the flow and do what everybody does. Every kid eats the same thing at 4:30, has dinner at the same time, has gone through the same experiences, learned the same songs, and everybody thinks they are totally free. But in fact, they are all on this pretty sensible railroad. And also, they don’t agonize about it.

In the US, child-rearing is one more occasion to make a statement about your identity. You’re the kind of mother that carries the baby, or you’re the kind of mother that puts the baby in a stroller. And somehow it almost can predict what you’re going to think about Donald Trump. That’s crazy. Some people are so concerned about what they do. Not only they feel that they have to invest a ton in their children, and they feel inadequate if they are not able to, but also, exactly what they do creates them as people.

In France that’s not there, and I think that makes everybody so much more laid back, children and adults.

Recommended throughout.

China trade negotiation fact of the day

Brussels has been striving to secure the deal for six years, as it seeks to prove it has the negotiating muscle to broker meaningful agreements with Beijing that can defend European companies from unfair competition.

The European Commission and the bloc’s foreign policy chief signalled a tougher approach to China in March in a landmark document that branded it a “systemic rival” in some areas — an allegation Beijing denies. Ms Weyand, the chief official working for Phil Hogan, the EU’s trade commissioner, said that “we are moving at a snail’s pace on the investment agreement”.

That is from the FT., and of course that hardly counts as much progress.  Elsewhere you will see Paul Krugman suggesting Trump has lost the trade war, but I don’t think he comes close to even seeing what the trade war with China is about.  No matter what Trump says, the trade war is not about lowering the trade deficit.  It is about (for a start) two major considerations: a) ensuring that national security-motivated partial economic decoupling takes place on terms not so unfriendly to America, and b) giving America levers to make sure China does not make such significant inroads into the world’s tech infrastructure, most notably with 5G but not only.

The stipulation of Chinese purchases of American exports, which probably they will not and cannot meet, is in fact a lever to give the United States enforcement power over the less tangible parts of agreement, which is indeed most of the agreement.  We want China to be in default of the agreement terms, so we may threaten them with tariffs to enforce compliance elsewhere, and so that is a better rather than worse outcome for the United States.

On the trade war, agnosticism is still the correct opinion, at least so far, as we are not even sure we know of the full agreement, or if America and China are visualizing signing literally different versions of the “same” agreement.  And even once (or if) the full text(s) is revealed, we still won’t for some while know how either a) or b) are going, much less relative to the relevant counterfactuals.

In general, I am finding that commentary on the trade war is of relatively dubious value, in part for partisan reasons.  The key here is to set aside your political views, and spend a lot of time talking with national security people.

Not quite the end of the global economic order

Rather it is kludgy free trade we are getting these days, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column.  Here are a few scattered excerpts:

When it comes to China, the WTO structures were already being jerry-rigged. If anything, you could say that the point of the new trade regime is to make the jerry-rigging more transparent.

In fact, it is hard to see how trade relations with China could be anything but jerry-rigged. The Chinese economy is simply too different, and far more statist, than those of the economically developed Western nations or Japan. And yet China is now the world’s No. 2 economy and largest exporter.

And:

The more important technology becomes to the U.S. and global economies, the more issues such as data storage and access will move to the forefront. Can the Chinese government demand that a technology company hand over user data? On whose servers do the data need to be stored? Can national storage be treated as a prerequisite for market entry? Again, the right answers cannot help but be complicated.

Most generally:

It is well-known in economics that exporting services is much more difficult than exporting resources or manufactured goods. It then follows that trade law for services will be messier and kludgier as well. Trade arrangements for services may feel ugly and excessively bureaucratic, but the underlying reality is that the principles of free trade are being extended, not repudiated.

And:

At a larger scale, what to think of the first phase of the U.S.-China trade agreement? It is still difficult to divine the entire agreement, or how much of it will be announced publicly. The real core of the deal may be an impossible demand on the Chinese to buy many additional billions of dollars of goods from the U.S., with the very impossibility of that demand serving as a cudgel for enforcing Chinese compliance with the less tangible, harder-to-measure aspects of trade relations.

To close:

In short, this new era of international trade certainly looks messier. But maybe that’s because the resources of simplicity have been all but exhausted. Free trade isn’t yet dead. It’s just not quite as free as it used to be.

Recommended.

Christopher Balding on the new China trade deal

Here is the final paragraph, there is much more detail throughout, recommended:

If we take what is known about the deal, its role as a Phase I deal leading to later deals, and assume it gets executed as described, with each side living up to their commitments, I think it is fair to describe this deal as a solid step forward.  Realistically however, each side seems to be positioning themselves for the expected failure of the agreement and little reason to believe the deal will be executed as described. The Trump administration has maintained significant leverage if China does not follow through on its commitments and I have little realistic reason to believe China will meet its commitments. At the end of the day in any contentious negotiation, it comes down to placing risk adjust trust in your counterpart to execute their side of the agreement. Each side is signaling they have little faith in their counterpart.  If we start from that premise, the Trump administration seems to have positioned themselves well expecting this deal to eventually collapse but also lower tariffs if by chance China does abide by it commitments.

And:

…I would have to put the risk that this deal doesn’t see 2021 as close to 50%.

Here is the full post.

Boris Johnson sentences to ponder

He has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.

Here is more by Andrew Sullivan, interesting throughout.

A simple word in defense of David Cameron

I remain a supporter of Remain, for reasons I will not recap here, but I am also a realist and I recognize that a commitment to the European Union requires a substantial commitment from the population, more than a mere fifty percent and in the United Kingdom we do not see that close to that.  You probably know that the Tories seem to have won a smashing victory in today’s election, and by campaigning on Brexit as their main issue.  And you can’t just blame Corbyn — his ascendancy and leadership were endogenous to the broader process, and getting rid of him to reverse Brexit it turned out was not the priority.

So do you know who looks much better in retrospect?  Yes, David Cameron.  After the initial referendum I heard from the usual elites the notion that Cameron committed some kind of inexplicable, aberrant error by allowing the referendum in the first place.  That notion is much harder to entertain after today.  Even if you are pro-Remain, we should now see that either the referendum, or something like it, was indeed a necessary step in British politics.  Cameron himself saw this, and thought that a later referendum, run by an EU-hostile Tory government, could in fact go much worse than what he chanced.  So it seems with hindsight that Cameron was pretty prescient, even if he did not get what he wanted.

We need more indices

That is the upshot of my latest Bloomberg column, as the Doing Business index, PISA scores, and the Corruption Perceptions Index have been highly influential.  Here are a few of my further requests:

These successes raise a question: Which other indexes might be useful? Think of the suggestions that follow as a kind of Christmas wish list.

How about a loneliness index? David Brooks has argued that America faces a crisis of loneliness, making us unhappy and impoverishing us spiritually. I find these claims plausible, especially since the median U.S. household size has been shrinking. Still, just how bad is this problem? One recent study found that American loneliness has not been rising lately, and that loneliness increases only after people reach their early 70s…

A stress index for Americans another related idea: Just how much do our lives focus our attention on our worries rather than on our joys and hopeful expectations?

There are less emotional concerns as well. How about an infrastructure speed index? I worry about bureaucratization and the slow pace of building important public works. Construction on Manhattan’s Second Avenue subway line, for example, started in 1972, paused, resumed in 2004, and was finally completed (the first phase, anyway) in 2017. In contrast, construction of the core New York City subway system, with 28 stations, began in 1900 and finished in 1904. Similarly, construction of the Empire State Building took only 410 days.

Why do so many U.S. infrastructure projects today take so long? And if the process of improving and reshaping the environment to further human progress is now so much slower, doesn’t it make sense to try to measure this decline for the purpose of eventual improvement? Given the need for a greener energy infrastructure, this is a matter of the utmost urgency.

Speaking of energy infrastructure, how about a severity index for climate change and associated problems?

There are further noteworthy suggestions at the link.  Which indices do you wish for?

Martin Gurri on the current Age of Revolt

The question, for me, is whether these repeated crises of authority at the national level represent a systemic failure.  After all, the disorders of 2019 are the latest installment in a familiar tale.  Governments long ago yielded control of the information sphere to the public, and the political landscape, ever since, has been in a state of constant perturbation.  From the euphoria and subsequent horrors of the Arab Spring in 2011, through the improbable electoral victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, to last year’s violence by the Yellow Vests of France, we ought to have learned, by this late hour, to anticipate instability and uncertainty.  We should expect to be surprised…

This would be a good time to bring up the pessimistic hypothesis.  It holds that the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system:  the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration.  Failure cascades can be thought of as negative virality.  A local breakdown leads to the progressive loss of higher functions, until the system falls apart.  This, in brief, is why airplanes crash and bridges collapse.

For systems that are dynamic and complex, like human societies, outcomes are a lot more mysterious.  A failure cascade of revolts (the hypothesis) will knock the institutions of modern government ever further from equilibrium, until the entire structure topples into what Alicia Juarrero calls “phase change”:  a “qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints” that gave the failed system its peculiar character.  In plain language, the old regime is overthrown – but at this stage randomness takes charge, and what emerges on the far side is, in principle, impossible to predict.  I can imagine a twenty-first century Congress of Vienna of the elites, in which Chinese methods of information control are adopted globally, and harsh punishment is meted out, for the best of reasons, to those who speak out of turn.  But I can also envision a savage and chaotic Time of Troubles, caused by a public whose expectations have grown impossibly utopian.  The way Juarrero tells it, “[T]here is no guarantee that any complex system will reorganize.”

Do read the whole thing.

USMCA the new NAFTA

The new agreement requires at least 70 percent of an automaker’s steel and aluminum to be bought in North America, which could help boost United States metal production. And 40 to 45 percent of a car’s content must be made by workers earning an average wage of $16 an hour. That $16 floor is an effort to force auto companies to either raise low wages in Mexico or hire more workers in the United States and Canada, an outcome Democrats have long supported.

It also rolls back a special system of arbitration for corporations that the Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has criticized as allowing companies to bypass the American legal system and Trump administration officials describe as an incentive for companies to send their factories abroad.

The pact also includes, at least on paper, provisions that aim to do away with sham Mexican labor unions that have done little to help workers by requiring every company in Mexico to seek worker approval of collective bargaining agreements by secret ballot in the next four years.

That is from a week ago, supposedly the actual deal with be somewhat more interventionist and anti-trade than that.  Here is more from Ana Swanson and Emily Cochrane of the NYT.