Category: Current Affairs

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.

A new “ideal” proposal for immigration reform

The IDEAL policy creates a long-term visa program in which 3mm immigrants are selected to live in the U.S. per year.

The IDEAL policy is simple and includes the following details:

  • Immigrants pay $30,000 for a five-year live/work visa renewable for an additional five years at no additional cost contingent upon each IDEAL immigrant proving to be a net asset to the U.S. economy.
  • At the end of ten years, immigrants whose impact to the U.S. is net positive are eligible for citizenship. Immigrants with a net negative impact will be asked to leave the U.S. Acceptance and impact will be determined by a pre-determined scoring system.
  • IDEAL visa-holders are ineligible for any government benefits until attaining full citizenship and IDEAL visa-holders will be required to secure health insurance through an employer or through other means during those ten years.

Each applicant is given an acceptance score and ranking based on the following criteria:

  • Age;
  • Education level;
  • English language proficiency;
  • Existing job offers from one or more U.S. companies;
  • Previous successful U.S. work history; and
  • Willingness to live in a IWC (Immigrant Welcoming Community).

An Immigrant Welcoming Community meets all of the following criteria:

  • An urban or rural community in the bottom 25% of U.S. income;
  • A community that has suffered population losses over the preceding decade; and
  • A community that opts-in to the IDEAL program via local government consent.

Here is the full website.

Is “political correctness” the ultimate hack of the Left?

Yes says I, in my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

To put it simply, the American left has been hacked, and it is now running in a circle of its own choosing, rather than focusing on electoral victories or policy effectiveness. Too many segments of the Democratic Party are self-righteously talking about identity politics, and they are letting other priorities slip.

Of course there is a lot of racism out there, which makes political correctness all the more tempting. Yet polling data suggests that up to 80 percent of Americans are opposed to politically correct thinking in its current manifestations. Latinos and Asian-Americans are among the groups most opposed, and even 61 percent of self-professed liberals do not like political correctness.

I give some examples (Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard lawsuit) of how these issues can harm the fortunes of the Left.  Here is the basic model:

I now wonder if, in the internet era, every political movement is hackable. Political involvement requires a certain kind of ideological motivation, and ideologies are imperfectly rational. So a smart hacker can redirect the attention of groups in other, less productive directions. Just put some inflammatory words or video on the internet and you can induce the left to talk more about identity politics.

Consider that political action is a public good (bad) of sorts, motivated in part by private expressive concerns.  Pursuing expressive action can lead to results-oriented value (disvalue).  So find the people who are acting that way, and put a “expressive value only” version of the dog bone before them, to compete with what they have been chasing.

The correct “hacking” words, memes, and images are found by trial and error, but once the fervently expressive left-wing responses are observed, the techniques are honed and refined pretty quickly.

And what about the hacking of the Right?

Has the right-wing been hacked? I suspect so. The president himself is part of the hack, and the core motivation is the desire to “own the libs,” a phrase I didn’t hear much five years ago. We’ve now entered an era in which too many are self-obsessed and too few are effective.

Of course a few questions come to mind:

1. Are all views hackable in this manner?

No, but views which appeal to moral superiority are usually hackable, because displays of the resulting preening are often counterproductive.

2. Once a hack occurs, can you reverse it or defend against it?

Knowledge is not always as useful as you might think.

3. Has libertarianism been hacked?

Yes, it was hacked into an ill-conceived alliance with Republicans on too many issues, under the promise of some policy victories.

4. Do the hacks on each side interact?

Well, if conservatives feel they “own the libs” by irritating their sense of political correctness, the polarization can explode pretty quickly.

Addendum: There is also this paragraph in the piece:

The biggest day-to-day losers from the political correctness movement are other left-of-center people, most of all white moderate Democrats, especially those in universities. If you really believe that “the PC stuff” is irrational and out of control and making institutions dysfunctional, and that universities are full of left-of-center people, well who is going to suffer most of the costs? It will be people in the universities, and in unjust and indiscriminate fashion. That means more liberals than conservatives, if only because the latter are relatively scarce on the ground.

Recommended.

Robert Wiblin’s Conversation with Tyler Cowen

This was two and a half hours (!), and it is a special bonus episode in Conversations in Tyler, here is the text and audio.  The starting base of the discussion was my new, just today published book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, but of course we ranged far and wide.  Here are a few excerpts:

WIBLIN: Speaking of Tetlock, are there any really important questions in economics or social science that . . . What would be your top three questions that you’d love to see get more attention?

COWEN: Well, what’s the single question is hard to say. But in general, the role of what is sometimes called culture. What is culture? How does environment matter? I’m sure you know the twin studies where you have identical twins separated at birth, and they grow up in two separate environments and they seem to turn out more or less the same. That’s suggesting some kinds of environmental differences don’t matter.

But then if you simply look at different countries, people who grow up, say, in Croatia compared to people who grow up in Sweden — they have quite different norms, attitudes, practices. So when you’re controlling the environment that much, surrounding culture matters a great deal. So what are the margins where it matters and doesn’t? What are the mechanisms? That, to me, is one important question.

A question that will become increasingly important is why do face-to-face interactions matter? Why don’t we only interact with people online? Teach them online, have them work for us online. Seems that doesn’t work. You need to meet people.

But what is it? Is it the ability to kind of look them square in the eye in meet space? Is it that you have your peripheral vision picking up other things they do? Is it that subconsciously somehow you’re smelling them or taking in some other kind of input?

What’s really special about face-to-face? How can we measure it? How can we try to recreate that through AR or VR? I think that’s a big frontier question right now. It’d help us boost productivity a lot.

Those would be two examples of issues I think about.

And this:

COWEN: I think most people are actually pretty good at knowing their weaknesses. They’re often not very good at knowing their talents and strengths. And I include highly successful people. You ask them to account for their success, and they’ll resort to a bunch of cliches, which are probably true, but not really getting at exactly what they are good at.

If I ask you, “Robert Wiblin, what exactly are you good at?” I suspect your answer isn’t good enough. So just figuring that out and investing more in friends, support network, peers who can help you realize that vision, people still don’t do enough of that.

And:

COWEN: But you might be more robust. So the old story is two polarities of power versus many, and then the two looks pretty stable, right? Deterrents. USA, USSR.

But if it’s three compared to a world with many centers of power, I don’t know that three is very stable. Didn’t Sartre say, “Three people is hell”? Or seven — is seven a stable number? We don’t know very much. So it could just be once you get out of two-party stability, you want a certain flattening.

And maybe some parts of the world will have conflicts that are undesirable. But nonetheless, by having the major powers keep their distance, that’s better, maybe.

Recommended!

Why is the news cycle getting shorter and shorter?

Remember the anonymous Op-Ed from within the Trump administration?  We’re hardly talking about it any more, and indeed so many “major” stories from just a few weeks ago seem to be slipping from our grasp.  Why?

The naïve hypothesis is that we keep turning our attention to the very latest events because so much is happening so quickly. But there have been periods in the past when a lot was happening, such as the financial crisis of a decade ago, and the news cycle seemed “stickier” then. So this can’t be the entire story.

An alternate theory is that there are actually very few “true events” happening, but there is lots of froth on the surface. Maybe there is only one “big event” happening, one major transformation underway: a change in the willingness of American political leaders to break with previous norms. If the change is mostly in one direction, then maybe it’s enough to debate only the most recent news.

That may sound abstract, so here is a concrete analogy. Let’s say you are on a sinking ship. You might focus more on the current water level than on where it was in the recent past, except maybe to help you estimate the rate of flooding. In more technical terms, talking about the event of the day is a “sufficient statistic” for talking about the last two years.

The shorter news cycle also may result from greater political polarization. If people don’t frame events in a common way, then a discussion of those events might not last very long. Conversation will return very quickly to the underlying differences in worldviews, and discussion of any particular event will get trampled by a much larger philosophical debate. It does seem like we have been repeating the same general arguments about Trump, populism, gender and governing philosophy for some time now, and we are not about to stop.

Possibly the shorter news cycles are also a result of greater general disillusionment with politics and especially with elites, a theme outlined in Martin Gurri’s forthcoming book “The Revolt of the Public.” The really fun stuff might instead be watching mixed martial arts, debating social norms about gender and browsing the Instagram feeds of your friends.

Finally, maybe we’re all just better at digesting news events more quickly. Perhaps every possible observation, insight and argument gets put on Facebook and Twitter within a day or two, and much of this material is archived. What’s the point of repeating these debates every few months?

That is from my latest Bloomberg piece.  I am thankful to Anecdotal for a related point and insight.

Brazil fact of the day

Just 8 percent of Brazilians told the Pew Research Center in 2017 that representative democracy is a “very good” form of government – the lowest of all 38 countries surveyed.

Most of the article is about what we can expect from Jair Bolsonaro, sometimes called “the Brazilian Trump,” who is very likely to be Brazil’s next president, recommended and interesting throughout.

My Conversation with Paul Krugman

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Tyler sat down with Krugman at his office in New York to discuss what’s grabbing him at the moment, including antitrust, Supreme Court term limits, the best ways to fight inequality, why he’s a YIMBY, inflation targets, congestion taxes, trade (both global and interstellar), his favorite living science fiction writer, immigration policy, how to write well for a smart audience, new directions for economic research, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: In your view, how well run is New York City as an entity?

KRUGMAN: Not very. Compared to what? Actually, I like de Blasio. I actually think he’s done some really good things. What he’s done on education, and even on affordable housing, is actually quite substantial. But the city is so big and the problems are so large that people may not get it.

I will say, it is crazy that you have a city that is so dependent on public transportation, and yet the public transportation is not actually under the city’s control and has clearly been massively neglected. I don’t suffer the full woes of the subway, but I suffer some of them, even myself.

The city could be run better than it is, but it’s certainly not among the worst-managed political entities in the United States, let alone in the world.

And:

COWEN: Will there ever be interstellar trade in intellectual property? You send your technology to a planet far away. It arrives much later, of course. Or you trade Beethoven to the aliens in return for a transporter beam? Can this work? You’ve written a paper that seems to indicate it can work.

KRUGMAN: I wrote a paper on the theory of interstellar trade when I was an unhappy assistant professor. Are there any happy assistant professors? [laughs] I was just blowing off steam. But it’s an interesting question.

COWEN: It could become your most important paper, right? [laughs]

KRUGMAN: We could imagine that there would be some way. We’d have to find somebody to trade with, although it’s the kind of thing — if you try to imagine interstellar trade for real in intellectual property — it’s probably the kind of thing that would be more like government-to-government exchanges.

It sounds like it would be really, really hard, although some science fiction writers are imagining that something like Bitcoin would make it possible to do these long-range . . . I don’t think something like Bitcoin is even going to work here.

Krugman also gives his opinions on Star Wars and Star Trek and Big Tech and many other matters.  Interesting throughout…

Nigeria fact of the day

Rising crude oil prices are set to send Nigeria’s bill for fuel subsidies rocketing, threatening to exacerbate the already precarious economic situation of Africa’s largest oil producer as it heads into election season.

Although Nigeria produces 1.7m barrels of crude per day, it has very little refining capacity and imports roughly 90 per cent of its fuel, negating much of the benefits oil-producing nations accrue from high crude prices.

When crude prices plunged to about $30 a barrel in 2016, it sent Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy reeling into a recession from which it has barely recovered. While a rally has since pushed the oil price past $85, Africa’s most populous country is not set to reap the benefits. This is because its subsidy bill is likely to surge beyond the $3.85bn annual tally the oil minister estimated earlier this year when prices were 20 per cent lower, said Tunde Ajileye, a partner at SBM Intel, a political and economic risk consultancy.

That is from Neil Munshi at the FT.

The Nobel Prize in Economics Goes to William Nordhaus and Paul Romer!

Two excellent choices. Nordhaus for environmental economics and Paul Romer for economic growth. I did a video for MRUniversity that goes over Paul Romer’s contributions including not only economic growth and charter cities but also his entrepreneurship in developing tools to teach economics! The video was done when MRUniversity was in the early years so it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. On the other hand, Romer told me he really liked this video so this year I don’t think I need to write more!

See Tyler’s posts for more on Nordhaus and also on Romer.

Politics isn’t about policy don’t put Shetland in a box

New rules barring public bodies from putting Shetland in a box on official documents have come into force.

Islands MSP Tavish Scott had sought to change the law to ban the “geographical mistake” which “irks” locals, by amending the Islands (Scotland) Bill.

The bill’s “mapping requirement” has now come into force, although it does give bodies a get-out clause if they provide reasons why a box must be used.

Mapmakers argue that boxes help avoid “publishing maps which are mostly sea”.

The Islands Bill, which aims to offer greater protections and powers to Scotland’s island communities, was unanimously passed in May.

Here is the full story, via Glenn Mercer.  You can’t call it “racist,”or “sexist,” might someone coin a future term for the objectionable act of…”putting my islands into a box”?