Category: Current Affairs

My take on the Jeffrey Epstein case

I asked myself the question of how those events have induced me to revise my priors.  Here is one bit of many:

I am now, at the margin, more inclined to the view that what keeps many people on good behavior is simply inertia. They are oddly passive in their core inclinations, but will behave badly if given an easy opportunity. And since many of these people probably are not active independent malefactors on a regular basis, their sense of risk may not be entirely well developed. Thus they themselves may have been fairly naïve in their dealings with Epstein, not quite understanding that their invulnerability in everyday life might not carry over to all situations.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column, many distinct points contained therein.

Lebanese/Gaza marriage markets in everything

Political parties sponsor weddings for young members to reinforce their loyalty, and gratitude. Religious and ethnic minorities — which means everyone in splintered Lebanon — consider marriage and procreation essential to their long-term survival. And armed groups encourage their fighters to marry so that their children can become the fighters of the future.

A few weeks before the Maronite nuptials, Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party, oversaw a similar enormous wedding for 31 couples. That was tiny compared with a mass wedding in Lebanon earlier this year that brought together 196 couples and was sponsored by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But the nearby Gaza Strip — where an Egyptian-Israeli blockade keeps people poor and locked in — beats them all, often because of competition between foreign sponsors eager to win friends by expediting marriages.

In 2015, the United Arab Emirates sponsored a mass wedding there for 200 couples. Two months later, Turkey seriously upped the ante, bankrolling a ceremony for 2,000 couples that was attended by officials from Hamas, the militant group that rules the territory…

Fadi Gerges, an official with the league, said it was natural for minorities to encourage their youths to procreate in a country where demographics affect power.

Here is the rest of the Ben Hubbard NYT story, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

They solved for the equilibrium

Yet GWU is taking a surprising and radical step that has prompted deep faculty anxiety: It is choosing to shrink — a lot.

Over the next five years, the private university just west of the White House aims to slash the undergraduate population of its D.C. campuses 20 percent. That would mean 2,100 fewer students, less tuition revenue and tough choices on whether to reduce faculty and financial aid or find other ways to balance the budget.

Many colleges have scrambled in recent times to cope with falling enrollment amid demographic upheaval. GWU provides the rare case of a school announcing in advance, as a public strategy, that it wants to get smaller…

LeBlanc declined to rule out faculty layoffs or other significant steps to reduce expenditures. He said those issues will be hashed out in consultation with faculty, trustees and others in the development of a strategic plan.

Here is more from Nick Anderson at The Washington Post.  Keep in mind that universities cannot do much to control their labor costs in the short or even medium-run, and thus shifts in demand can have a spectacularly large impact on finances.

Brexit update (POTMR)

Boris Johnson is planning to force a new Brexit deal through parliament in just 10 days — including holding late-night and weekend sittings — in a further sign of Downing Street’s determination to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU. According to Number 10 officials, Mr Johnson’s team has drawn up detailed plans under which the prime minister would secure a deal with the EU at a Brussels summit on October 17-18, before pushing the new withdrawal deal through parliament at breakneck speed.

The pound rose 1.1 per cent against the US dollar to $1.247 on Friday amid growing optimism that Mr Johnson has now decisively shifted away from the prospect of a no-deal exit and is focused on a compromise largely based on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.

That is new from the FT, here is part of my Brexit post from August 29:

I would sooner think that Boris Johnson wishes to see through a relabeled version of the Teresa May deal, perhaps with an extra concession from the EU tacked on.  His dramatic precommitment raises the costs to the Tories of not supporting such a deal, and it also may induce slight additional EU concessions.  The narrower time window forces the recalcitrants who would not sign the May deal to get their act together and fall into line, more or less now.

Uncertainty is high, but the smart money says the Parliamentary suspension is more of a stage play, and a move toward an actual deal, than a leap to authoritarian government.

This remains very much an open question, but if you “solve for the equilibrium,” that is indeed what you get.

Brazil is not entirely an environmental villain

It is unfair to single out Brazil for criticism. It is one of the world’s greenest countries: over 60 per cent of its territory is covered with natural vegetation, its agriculture grew based on productivity gains and technology rather than land expansion, and about 45 per cent of its energy comes from renewables, compared with a global average of 14 per cent. It also has one of the world’s most stringent land usage regulations, known as the forest code. How many farmers around the world are required to leave aside 20-80 per cent (depending on the biome) of their native forest land?

That is from Sylvia Coutinho from the Financial Times.

What kind of industrial policy does America need?

That idea is making a big comeback, but let’s make sure we understand the status quo first.  So runs my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Perhaps most important, it should be recognized that the U.S. already has an industrial policy — and has for some time. It is a collection of programs and policies at the federal and state level, many of which are highly imperfect, and so the focus should be on fixing what is already in place.

The first and perhaps most significant component of U.S. industrial policy is a high level of defense spending, much higher than that of any other country. The spinoffs of this spending famously include the internet of course, but also early advances in computers and some later advances in aviation. Today’s orbiting network of satellites is in part a spinoff from the space program, which was partially motivated by military concerns.

It’s not yet clear whether current defense spinoffs will prove as innovative and as potent as those  of the past, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Procurement cycles for weapons can stretch to a dozen years or more, yet technologies are changing far more quickly.

So if I were designing an “industrial policy” for America, my first priority would be to improve and “unstick” its procurement cycles. There may well be bureaucratic reasons that this is difficult to do. But if it can’t be done, then perhaps the U.S. shouldn’t be setting its sights on a more ambitious industrial policy.

I also consider the NIH and the biomedical establishment, and America’s extensive system of state colleges and universities, as part of what is already a quite ambitious “industrial policy,” even if we don’t always call it that.

My Conversation with Samantha Power

Samantha Power has a new and excellent book out, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, which I very much enjoyed.  And so a Conversation with Tyler was in order, here is the audio and transcript, here is one bit:

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

And finally:

COWEN: Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

We also cover her first impressions of America, being a wartime correspondent, China and Iraq, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, van Morrison vs. Bob Dylan, robot empires vs. robot umpires, her favorite novel, how personal one should get in a memoir and why, and German defense spending, among other topics.

Definitely recommended.

Rebuilding the British right?

For most of the postwar era, the Conservative Party prided itself on its ability to tell an economic story. Tories traditionally explained their right to govern in terms of an overarching economic vision for the country, a vision which was instantiated in policy and which often set the political agenda.

From Macmillan to Thatcher to Cameron, they presented themselves as the party of national prosperity, and of hard-nosed economic realities, and many people voted for them on this basis. But this no longer seems to be the case.

The last few years have witnessed what elsewhere we called the Strange Death of Tory Economic Thinking. In the years following the EU Referendum, Conservatives in Britain largely dropped the economy from the heart of their political story. This is not just a criticism of Mayism, with its Home Office view of the world; many who professed to be market liberals seemed to do so performatively, without serious consideration of what they wanted to deregulate or how.

The recent change of Prime Minister provides an opportunity to put this right. We hope that the new government will turn away from the trajectory of the last three years, and start taking economics seriously again. If it chooses not to, we would urge others on the centre-right to take up the challenge.

This paper is an attempt to sketch out some principles for a centre-right economic outlook, and some specific policies to focus on.

We begin by presenting a few important stylised facts about the contemporary British economy that should frame an economic narrative; we then set out some political principles for how to turn these into economic policy.

Based on these, we set out a set of policies in four areas where we think progress can be made: tax, housing, infrastructure and devolution, and innovation and technology.

Finally, we conclude with some long-term actions that need to be taken to begin rebuilding an economic narrative for the Right.

This website was written by Sam Bowman and Stian Westlake. If you would like to discuss it, they can be contacted via Twitter (@s8mb and @stianwestlake respectively). If you would like a PDF of the whole website, you can find one here.

Here is the link.

Emergent Ventures winners, fifth cohort

James Gallagher

16-year-old programmer from Northern England, grant for career development and his interest in income-sharing agreements.  Here is James on Twitter.

Namrata Narain

Incoming Harvard Ph.D student in economics, for work on “What happens to the ability of firms to write contracts when courts are dysfunctional? [in India]” and related ideas.  Twitter here.

Tejas Subramaniam

17-year-old from Chennai, Twitter here.  

Andy Matuschak

San Francisco, to support his project to reexamine and fundamentally improve the book as a method for learning and absorbing ideas, Twitter here.  Here is his essay on why books do not work.

Nicholas Donahue and Austin Kahn

Has a start-up, open source VR headset focused towards makers and web developers, based on the notion that the web is the proper platform for VR.

Clementine Jacoby and Recidiviz

To start a non-profit to collect and spread data on recidivism and penal reform for state-level policy, Fast Company article on Recidiviz here.

Mehdi Nayebpour

GMU, Schar School, “How can we explain a specific AI outcome? What if the law mandates it?”, with an eye toward an eventual start-up.

Colin Mortimer

Washington, D.C., for career development and to explore the marketing of neoliberal ideas through social media.

Shruti Rajagopalan, for Indian political economy and improving Indian economic policy, in residence at Mercatus.  Twitter here.

Jasmine Wang

20-year-old infovore, career development grant, Twitter here.

SpiritFire

A non-profit working with survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, article here about their work.

If you have received an award lately, but are not listed, don’t worry — you’ll be in the sixth cohort.  Here are the earlier cohorts of winners.

East Germany fact of the day

Evidence of a widening gulf has become too copious to ignore. Last month, for example, a poll by the Allensbach Institute asked eastern Germans whether they saw democracy as practised in Germany as the best form of government. Only 31 per cent agreed. Two years ago, the figure was 53 per cent.

In western Germany, meanwhile, 72 per cent described democracy as the best form of government, broadly unchanged from two decades ago.

The same divergence shows up when Germans in both parts of the country are asked about their identity: 47 per cent of eastern Germans say they identify above all as eastern Germans, compared with only 44 per cent who feel simply German. This, too, is a sharp reversal from only a few years ago.

Also striking is the sheer persistence of specifically eastern German views and stereotypes: even 30 years after the fall of the wall (and with an east German chancellor, Angela Merkel, holding office since 2005), more than a third of eastern Germans describe themselves as “second-class citizens”.

That is from Tobias Buck in the FT.

America’s depressing new culture war

What do we learn from reading through a list of top Patreon winners?  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Feel free to peruse the list yourself. My own browsing and clicking led me to a new conclusion: America’s culture war is not just left-wing vs. right-wing, or privileged vs. unfortunate, or even Trump vs. his critics. It is between those who believe in aspiring to something greater and those who do not.

You will note that your main criticisms already are covered in my text.

How deregulatory is the Trump administration?

Here is an email from a loyal, anonymous MR reader:

Critics of the administration’s much-ballyhooed deregulatory efforts argue that there’s not really that much there; they contend the White House and agencies have been tinkering around the margins (and helping out special interest groups), but not really addressing regulation’s economic cost. They argue there’s been virtually nothing done to address the bloated corpus of 100 years of accumulated federal regulation, and there’s been no legislative action to change regulatory processes.

The administration’s defenders and their fiercest critics alike argue that Trump has taken a machete to the regulatory state. But aside from naming a few rule changes here or there, they don’t offer much concrete support for their claim.

What’s the steel man case that Trump has broken the back of the administrative state? Some hypothes

1. They haven’t made things worse. After eight years of an administration that was seen (fairly or not) as hostile to business, just taking the boot off the throat of entrepreneurs is a major step forward. Small-business optimism is at pre-crisis levels. The last two years have seen the fewest economically significant final rules promulgated since 1990. Beyond formal rules, the administration has ended the abuse of “dear colleague” letters, guidance documents, and sue-and-settle.

2. Related to #1, there’s been no new legislation along the lines of Sarbanes-Oxley or Dodd-Frank that will take as long as a decade to get regulations worked out. That takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the system.

3. Enforcement has been curtailed. The administrative state is a threat because its enforcement is so capricious and subject to questionable extralegal adjudication. The Trump administration has responded by simply not enforcing many regulations. EPA inspections are down by half; CFPB is asleep at the switch. Enforcement heads are basically emulating Ron Swanson, for the better.

4. The 14 uses of the Congressional Review Act in early 2017 should in fact count as highly deregulatory; it was of course more than had ever been done with this tool in the past. Okay, so the regs in question weren’t yet final or hadn’t been in effect for very long. That’s just playing a baselines game; the bottom line is tens of billions of dollars of costs were cut over what would have been.

5. The record-breaking number of appellate judges appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate will shift the judiciary to be more skeptical of regulators’ self-aggrandized power. Justice Gorsuch is champing at the bit to eliminate Auer and Chevron deference; overruling these precedents would be game-changing.

6. There’s been more taking place than you think. No, there hasn’t been a huge shakeup of federal departments, but those kinds of things are mostly for show anyway; federal power remains more or less constant, responsibilities just get shifted around. Benefit-cost analyses and regulatory impact analyses done by most agencies are sloppy at best and mostly just a Soviet-style effort to justify what’s already been decided, so they don’t capture the magnitude of what’s happening.

What has happened? The president has appointed people who take regulatory analysis seriously and understand opportunity cost. Some of the deregulation has been in areas most sensitive to the costs of regulation, like labor and energy. ACA individual mandate? Gone. HUD is taking steps to push housing deregulation at the local level; this has gotten almost no attention.

7. There’s more that would have been done but for the “deep state.” It’s a matter of public choice economics, not AM radio conspiracies, that regulators may not be enthusiastic about deregulating. For instance, Trump’s much-trumpeted two-out-one-in executive order for federal regulations was largely kneecapped by OMB so that over 90% of new regulations are deemed exempt from the order. Given inherent resistance to change (again, for perfectly understandable reasons, this is not a conspiracy), it’s amazing that anything has been done at all!