Category: Current Affairs

Injectable NanoParticles Let Mice See Near InfraRed!

Wow! This paper, Mammalian Near-Infrared Image Vision through Injectable and Self-Powered Retinal Nanoantenna, newly published in Cell seems like something from the future. Basically they injected nano-particles that convert near infra-red to visible light into the retinal layer of the eye in mice enabling the mice to see in the near infra-red.

…we developed ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding upconversion nanoparticles (pbUCNPs). These nanoparticles anchored on retinal photoreceptors as miniature NIR light transducers to create NIR light image vision with negligible side effects. Based on single-photoreceptor recordings, electroretinograms, cortical recordings, and visual behavioral tests, we demonstrated that mice with these nanoantennae could not only perceive NIR light, but also see NIR light patterns. Excitingly, the injected mice were also able to differentiate sophisticated NIR shape patterns. Moreover, the NIR light pattern vision was ambient-daylight compatible and existed in parallel with native daylight vision. This new method will provide unmatched opportunities for a wide variety of emerging bio-integrated nanodevice designs and applications.

…In summary, these nanoparticles not only provide the potential for close integration within the human body to extend the visual spectrum, but also open new opportunities to explore a wide variety of animal vision-related behaviors. Furthermore, they exhibit considerable potential with respect to the development of bio-integrated nanodevices in civilian encryption, security, military operations, and human-machine interfaces, which require NIR light image detection that goes beyond the normal functions of mammals, including human beings. Moreover, in addition to visual ability enhancement, this nanodevice can serve as an integrated and light-controlled system in medicine, which could be useful in the repair of visual function as well as in drug delivery for ocular diseases.

The researchers are mostly from China. It sometimes seems that Chinese researchers are naturally extropian, bolder and more optimistic about technology, human extension and the future than anyone else in the world.

Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky.

Which changes in economic policy are actually going to happen?

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

A second pattern from U.S. history is that the federal government generally likes to hand out benefits perceived as “free.” This dates at least as far back as the establishment of Social Security in the Great Depression, when the initial benefit recipients weren’t paying taxes into the system.

I therefore expect federal government action on subsidized child care, preschool programs and paid family leave, all financed by increases in budget deficits rather than higher taxes. Such policies would hand out goodies to millions of families, and appeal to women in particular.

Again, ask the basic questions. Is there “pro-family” rhetoric emanating from both left and right? Yes, whether it is the socialist proposals from Matt Bruenig or paid family leave bills introduced by congressional Republicans. Can you imagine members from both parties claiming these issues as their own? Yes. Is there the possibility of free goodies being handed out? Again, yes, as the national debt held by the public is now over $16 trillion.

I consider also tech regulation, trade issues, immigration, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal, with only the first of those likely to see big changes.

Indian and Pakistani stock markets

Right now the Indian market is up a small amount for the week, of course that may change.

I know you all love to yelp that markets don’t predict well (not what markets do!…that word “predict” is loaded) and that stock markets did not predict WWII, etc.  The lack of an Indian market reaction here is fully consistent with the fact that prediction is very hard.  Investors might simply be unsure which priors to update, and thus prices haven’t changed much.  That is consistent with the work of Philip Tetlock, also indicating that prediction is very hard.  So this kind of market result does not have to conflict with the best knowledge we have from political science and the other social sciences.

The Pakistan stock exchange, by the way, is down a few percentage points but not seeing massive carnage.

Not from The Onion

The UK government is due to hold emergency talks with industry leaders on Tuesday after discovering that the country doesn’t have the right pallets to continue exporting goods to the European Union if it leaves without a deal next month.

Under strict EU rules, pallets — wooden structures that companies use to transport large volumes of goods — arriving from non-member states are required to meet a series of checks and standards.

Wood pallets must be heat-treated or cleaned to prevent contamination and the spread of pests, and have specific markings to confirm that they legal in EU markets.

Most pallets that British exporters are using do not conform to these rules for non-EU countries, or “third countries,” as EU member states follow a much more relaxed set of regulations.

Here is the full story, via Catherine Rampell.

*Not Working: Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?*

That is the new and forthcoming book by David G. Blanchflower, here is one excerpt:

The high-paying union private-sector jobs for the less educated are long gone.  Real weekly wages in April 2018 in the United States were around 10 percent below their 1973 peak for private-sector production and non-supervisory workers in constant 1982-84 dollars.  In the UK real wages in 2018 are 6 percent below their 2008 level.

And:

In the post-recession period underemployment has replaced unemployment as the main indicator of labor market slack.

This is a very good book for anyone wishing to rethink what is going on in labor markets today.  In his view there is plenty more slack, as evidence by sluggish wage behavior.  You can pre-order here, due out in June.

NY State Budget Director on Amazon

The open letter on Amazon from Robert Mujica, New York State’s Budget Director, is on fire. It shines an unflattering light on many people involved in the Amazon decision but its analysis of twitter mobs goes well beyond Amazon.

In my 23 years in the State Capitol, three as Budget Director, Amazon was the single greatest economic development opportunity we have had. Amazon chose New York and Virginia after a year-long national competition with 234 cities and states vying for the 25,000-40,000 jobs. For a sense of scale, the next largest economic development project the state has completed was for approximately 1,000 jobs. People have been asking me for the past week what killed the Amazon deal. There were several factors.

First, some labor unions attempted to exploit Amazon’s New York entry. The RWDSU Union was interested in organizing the Whole Foods grocery store workers, a subsidiary owned by Amazon, and they deployed several ‘community based organizations’ (which RWDSU funds) to oppose the Amazon transaction as negotiation leverage. It backfired.

…Organizing Amazon, or Whole Foods workers, or any company for that matter, is better pursued by allowing them to locate here and then making an effort to unionize the workers, rather than making unionization a bar to entrance. If New York only allows unionized companies to enter, our economy is unsustainable, and if one union becomes the enemy of other unions, the entire union movement – already in decline – is undermined and damaged.

Second, some Queens politicians catered to minor, but vocal local political forces in opposition to the Amazon government incentives as ‘corporate welfare.’ Ironically, much of the visible ‘local’ opposition, which was happy to appear at press conferences and protest at City Council hearings during work hours, were actual organizers paid by one union: RWDSU. (If you are wondering if that is even legal, probably not). Even more ironic is these same elected officials all signed a letter of support for Amazon at the Long Island City location and in support of the application. They were all for it before Twitter convinced them to be against it.

…Furthermore, opposing Amazon was not even good politics, as the politicians have learned since Amazon pulled out. They are like the dog that caught the car. They are now desperately and incredibly trying to explain their actions. They cannot.

…Third, in retrospect, the State and the City could have done more to communicate the facts of the project and more aggressively correct the distortions. We assumed the benefits to be evident: 25,000-40,000 jobs located in a part of Queens that has not seen any significant commercial development in decades and a giant step forward in the tech sector, further diversifying our economy away from Wall Street and Real Estate. The polls showing seventy percent of New Yorkers supported Amazon provided false comfort that the political process would act responsibly and on behalf of all of their constituents, not just the vocal minority. We underestimated the effect of the opposition’s distortions and overestimated the intelligence and integrity of local elected officials.

Incredibly, I have heard city and state elected officials who were opponents of the project claim that Amazon was getting $3 billion in government subsidies that could have been better spent on housing or transportation. This is either a blatant untruth or fundamental ignorance of basic math by a group of elected officials. The city and state ‘gave’ Amazon nothing. Amazon was to build their headquarters with union jobs and pay the city and state $27 billion in revenues. The city, through existing as-of-right tax credits, and the state through Excelsior Tax credits – a program approved by the same legislators railing against it – would provide up to $3 billion in tax relief, IF Amazon created the 25,000-40,000 jobs and thus generated $27 billion in revenue. You don’t need to be the State’s Budget Director to know that a nine to one return on your investment is a winner.

The seventy percent of New Yorkers who supported Amazon and now vent their anger also bear responsibility and must learn that the silent majority should not be silent because they can lose to the vocal minority and self-interested politicians.

…Make no mistake, at the end of the day we lost $27 billion, 25,000-40,000 jobs and a blow to our reputation of being ‘open for business.’ The union that opposed the project gained nothing and cost other union members 11,000 good, high-paying jobs. The local politicians that catered to the hyper-political opposition hurt their own government colleagues and the economic interest of every constituent in their district. The true local residents who actually supported the project and its benefits for their community are badly hurt. Nothing was gained and much was lost. This should never happen again.

Even if you think the end result was fine, as I do, this was a political fiasco for New York. Amazon was wise to exit when they did because the pecking of the chickens would only have intensified as they sunk investments.

Abiy Ahmed in a nutshell

He is the Prime Minister of Ethiopia:

In that time, he has overseen the swiftest political liberalisation in Ethiopia’s more than 2,000-year history. He has made peace with Eritrea; freed 60,000 political prisoners, including every journalist previously detained; unbanned opposition groups once deemed terrorist organisations; and appointed women to half his cabinet. He has pledged free elections in 2020 and made a prominent opposition activist head of the electoral commission. In a country where government spies were ubiquitous, people feel free to express opinions that a year ago would have had them clapped in jail.

Here is more from David Pilling and Lionel Barber at the FT.  Don’t forget that until the ascent of Abiy Ahmed, the internet was basically shut down for most of the country.

The Georgist equilibrium comes to Greece?

The 63-year-old has been been trying to buy an apartment ever since she was evicted from the home she rented for 32 years – when it was bought by Chinese investors two years ago.

“I want some security in case the same thing happens again,” says Ms Hynes, originally from Ireland. She earns a modest salary as an English teacher, while her Greek husband’s monthly pension was cut from €1,500 (£1,315; $1,690) to €500 during the country’s economic crisis, which began in 2010.

“When we were evicted there were still apartments selling nearby for €100,000. Now I can’t find anything under €250,000. These are Chinese and Russian prices. Not Greek.”

Greece’s financial crisis a decade ago shrank the country’s economy by more than 25% in the following years, but there are finally signs of improvement.

The property market, once completely dead, is on the rise – house prices in Athens rose 3.7% last year…

The boom appears to be driven by a controversial “golden visa” scheme, in which non-EU citizens receive residency and free movement in the EU’s Schengen zone, in exchange for investing in property.

The worry is that foreign investors are benefiting while ordinary Greeks miss out.

Many EU countries including the UK, Portugal and Spain, have golden visa schemes, but Greece has the lowest threshold. Investors receive five-year residency after purchasing €250,000 of property, making the country a new hotspot for foreign buyers.

Here is the full Jessica Bateman BBC story, via Ray Lopez.  Does a culture of renters bring a bohemian, non-complacent dynamic urban core?  Or a bunch of whiners who oppose economic progress?  Or both?

Are the New York subsidies to Amazon really so outrageous?

No, as I explain in my latest Bloomberg column, I do not think New York should have offered Amazon the tax break.  Still, the polemical outrage over this proposed policy seems to me out of hand.  It simply wasn’t that costly, unusual, or unfair.  Here is one bit:

Consider, by way of illustration, entitlement and discretionary spending on the federal level. A program such as Social Security or Medicare is done entirely by formula, as it should be; large companies cannot lobby for higher payments or lower taxes for their workers. Much of discretionary spending, by contrast, is research grants and procurement contracts. One company or researcher wins, and the others do not. Furthermore, the government will usually offer different prices and terms, based on how much value it thinks the winning bidder can bring to the project. All of which is to say: Discretionary spending requires … government discretion.

Viewed in the context, critics of local development subsidies are also critics of government discretion. Or, to frame the issue in a duller way: They do not believe local governments should treat economic development as a procurement problem. That’s a defensible position, but it is not obviously correct.

Another analogy is with private shopping malls, which commonly charge much lower per-unit rents to anchor tenants, maybe even subsidizing them. That is based on the view that a famous retail chain or movie theater can help other businesses in the mall by attracting customers and burnishing the overall image of the place. When a local government offers tax incentives to relocating businesses, it is in a sense acting like a shopping mall, which treats tenant recruitment as a kind of procurement problem. Offering differential rewards to prospective tenants is standard practice.

And note this point about fixed assets:

When a large company is going to make a significant investment in an urban area, it is hoping for support in terms of infrastructure maintenance or improvement, and indeed it invests on that basis. The reality is that municipalities often have difficulty fulfilling their obligations anyway. (This also holds true, unfortunately, for even basic promises to ordinary citizens. Ridden the New York City subway lately?)

In other words, Amazon cannot walk away from NYC the way a street vendor can move to South Carolina and set up a barbecue shop.  So they will be taxed harder ex post, if only in “in kind” terms, namely inferior services for the company and its employees.  The lower tax rate upfront is in large part an offset to this expected time consistency problem.

By the way, Singapore, Singapore, Singapore.  And I thank Garett Jones for the shopping malls point.

Venezuela is in large part the fault of socialism

Here is my Bloomberg column on that topic, excerpt:

…rates of change are important. The Venezuelan figure of about 40 percent [govt. spending/gdp] is up from about 28 percent in 2000, a very rapid increase. By boosting government spending so quickly, the Venezuelan government was sending a message that the key to future riches is courting government favor, not starting new businesses.

Or consider exports, which for most developing economies play an especially critical role. They bring in foreign exchange, provide contacts to foreign markets, and force parts of the economy to learn how to compete with the very best foreign companies. Yet over 90 percent of Venezuela’s exports are oil, and those resources are owned and  controlled by the government. For this all-important growth driver, Venezuela comes pretty close to full socialism — to its detriment.

…nationalizations under Chavez were numerous — encompassing much of the oil sector plus parts of the agriculture, transport, power, steel, telecommunications and finance industries. Even though many of those nationalizations were small in scale, the threat of further encroachments on private property rights discouraged investment and sent the wrong signal about where the nation was headed.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of the all-important dimension of ideas.  And here is the essential Kevin Grier on Venezuela.

Amazon and taxes: a simple primer

The main reason Amazon as a corporate entity does not pay much in taxes is because the company so vigorously reinvests its profit.  The resulting expensing provisions lower their tax liabilities, in some cases down to zero or near-zero.  That is in fact the kind of incentive our tax system is supposed to create, and does so only imperfectly, noting that many economists have suggested moving to full expensing.

(NB: You can’t hate both share buybacks and profit reinvestment!)

Amazon pays plenty in terms of payroll taxes and also state and local taxes.  Nor should you forget the taxes paid by Amazon’s employees on their wages.  Not only is that direct revenue to various levels of government, but the incidence of those taxes falls somewhat on Amazon, which now must pay higher wages to offset the tax burden faced by their employees.  Not everyone wants to live in NYC or Queens!  (Do you agree with Paul Krugman’s charge that the Trump tax cuts are mainly a giveaway to capital?  If so, you probably also should believe that the wage taxes paid by Amazon employees fall largely on capital.)

There is no $3 billion that NYC gets to keep if Amazon does not show up.  That “money” was a pledged reduction in Amazon’s future tax burden at the state and local level.

When it comes to the discussion surrounding Amazon and taxes, I can only sigh…

RadicalXChange, March 22-24

Robert Wiblin of 80,000 hours has an excellent podcast with Glen Weyl on Radical institutional reforms that make capitalism & democracy work better. Weyl’s diagnosis of the problems of capitalism and democracy strike me as wrongheaded but on the other hand his solutions are interesting.and original. Wiblin does a good job of gently but decisively pushing back in places, e.g. in the discussion of high modernism.

RadicalXChange is hosting a big conference March 22-24 in Detroit. In addition to Weyl, speakers include Vitalik Buterin, Margaret Levi and Zooko Wilcox among others. I will be talking about open borders and also about city development on a panel with Devon Zuegel, Mwiya Musokotwane and Mark Lutter.

What will Singapore do with its NIRC?

‘NIRC’ – it’s a uniquely Singaporean economic abbreviation that stands for net investment returns contribution…

The total size of Singapore’s total reserves is a state secret, but estimates by most analysts put it at well above S$500 billion (US$370 billion)…

The Temasek Holdings chief executive wrote about how returns from the firm she leads, as well as GIC Private Limited, and the foreign reserves held by the central bank were the “single largest contributor” to the Singapore budget.

“Without tapping on the dividends or returns from GIC, [the Monetary Authority of Singapore], and Temasek, the government would have had to raise taxes long ago for social spending,” Ho wrote.

Without the NIRC, the Pioneer Generation Package – a S$9 billion programme unveiled in 2014 to help cover the health care costs of citizens born before 1949 – would probably have been funded by “higher taxes or cuts to other essential programmes”, according to Ho.

Here is the full story, via a loyal MR reader.  If you wish to understand Singapore’s relatively low rates of taxation, you also need to understand NIRC.  Here is my earlier post Singapore as financial corporation.

Do most Americans not want to live near tall buildings?

Here is an email I received from James Liu:

I think metropolitan geography was underdiscussed in the Amazon-NYC breakup. If you look at the Seattle, DC, and NYC areas, the main-city–secondary-city dynamic explains quite a bit.

Apparently, Americans don’t like living near tall buildings. In DC, the tall buildings were banished to the suburbs, and so it seems not unsuitable for a 25,000 person office campus to be built in Crystal City. In NYC, the tall buildings have been banished to Manhattan. When I lived in Brooklyn, they were planning the complex where the Nets would wind up. I watched a great deal of rage about plans to have 30-story buildings put up in downtown Brooklyn. This even though Brooklyn was a city of a million people but had fewer towers than, say, Milwaukee, or Jersey City, or take your pick. The argument was that tall buildings were appropriate for Manhattan, but not Brooklyn.

And in the Seattle metro, there is a cluster of tall buildings in Bellevue, just across a lake from Seattle, which is home to some tech firms (Zillow, Expedia, companies you’ve heard of). I don’t know how the city government was prevailed upon to allow it, but anyway it is there. I don’t think Amazon has much presence there, but Microsoft does, I think to compete with Amazon for transit-preferring workers. In some ways, Bellevue is like a bridge-and-tunnel borough more than it is like a suburb (Jersey City is a borough too, in that sense). Those who prefer to see it that way call Seattle the West Side and Bellevue (maybe Bellevue/Kirkland/Redmond) the East Side.

So it was not beyond imagining by a Seattle company that it was possible to build a tech campus in an outer borough. I don’t know how in the world NY’s city government would have imagined that such a thing was possible. Perhaps because De Blasio drives to work. A subway mayor like Bloomberg or Koch would have insisted on Hudson Yard. And New York would still have an HQ2.5. But that is another story for another email.