Category: Current Affairs

Coronavirus would be worse without the web

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

Scientific information about the coronavirus has spread around the world remarkably quickly, mostly because of the internet. The virus has been identified, sequenced, and tracked online, and researchers around the world are working on possible fixes. The possibility that the failed ebola drug remdesivir may help protect against the virus is now well known and the drug is being deployed. The notion of using an HIV cocktail plus some anti-flu drugs against the coronavirus also has been publicized online. The final word on those potential fixes is not yet in, but the internet accelerates the spread of knowledge, along with its application.

Researchers from India prematurely published a claim that the coronavirus resembles in some critical ways the HIV virus, and their presentation hinted at the possibility something sinister was going on. The online scientific community leapt into action, however, and very quickly the theory was struck down and a retraction came almost immediately. I saw this whole process unfold on my Twitter feed in less than a day.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of two possible downsides, first panic buying and second too much state-led “digital quarantine” of individuals.  In addition, I wish to thank @pmarca and also Balaji Srinivasan for some ideas relevant to this column.

Martin Gurri, philosopher and social scientist

I am pleased to announce that Martin Gurri is joining Mercatus as an affiliated scholar.  As you probably may know, Martin is the author of The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, one of the more important and more prophetic social science books of our time.

Here is Martin’s recent short piece for Mercatus on revolt, populism, and reaction.  Here is a 21-minute podcast with Martin.

Why the coronavirus might boost Trump’s reelection prospects

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

The first and perhaps most important effect will be to make Trump’s nationalism seem ordinary, even understated. Hundreds of flights to China have already been canceled, countries are refusing to receive (or deciding to quarantine) Chinese nationals or visitors from China, and China itself is severely limiting travel within the country. Whether or not these prove effective measures, the idea of travel bans and restrictions no longer seems extreme or unconstitutional. Even if voters are confusing normal times with times of pandemic, on this issue Trump’s instincts now seem almost prescient.

When the flight of Americans returning from Wuhan was sent to Alaska last week instead of San Francisco, and subject to quarantine, very few political complaints were heard, including from leading Democrats. There might still be arguments about whether that was a justified violation of civil liberties, but the notion that a pandemic requires the federal government to take such measures, without a congressional vote, is not seriously contested.

That is going to help any incumbent president who believes in the strong exercise of executive power, as does Trump.

There is much more at the link.

Toward a more general theory of task complexity

That is a theme running throughout my latest Bloomberg column, here are some excerpts:

Why so many of America’s best and brightest college graduates go into management consulting, finance or law school is a perennial question. There are some compelling theories, which I will get to, but first I would like to turn the question around: Why are so many people in top positions, whether in the public or private sector, so old?

I submit that these two trends — and a third, declining productivity growth — are related: Many tasks have become increasingly complex in America, often more complex than people can learn in just a few years. By the time you have experience enough to perform them, you are less interested in taking risks. In your young adventurous years, by contrast, the only jobs you can get are those that don’t reward (or allow) adventure. The result of all this is a less audacious America.

And:

…the smart graduates of America’s top universities will seek relatively thick, liquid job markets, with high upside but also protection on the downside. Management consulting is perfect. If you are intelligent and hard-working, you can signal that quickly, and the entry-level tasks are sufficiently anodyne that few very specific skills are required. These jobs are designed to attract talent, so the consulting companies have an eventual option on promoting the best candidates. The same is true of law and the less quantitative parts of finance.

In the short term, this system seems to work for everyone. If you don’t like those vocations after a few years of trying, you still have elite connections and credentials that you can take somewhere else.

On net, America is selling its talented young people insurance value — but at the expense of long-term innovation. It might be better for the country if more of these individuals started businesses, tried their hand at chemistry or materials science, or worked in obscure corners of manufacturing in the Midwest. Of course, rates of failure or stagnation are higher in those areas, while glamour is often lower. Who wants to work on mastering a complex task for 10 or 15 years, with no real guarantee of commercial success?

And:

The slower rates of growth in scientific progress are part of this picture. Older scientists are more likely to be in charge, but they also make fewer conceptual breakthroughs. Younger scientists are more temperamentally inclined to be revolutionaries, but that is hard when it may take you until your late 20s just to learn the basics of your field. Most areas are too complex for a 23-year-old to make new scientific advances, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Tech of course is an exception.  And please do note that de-bureaucratization could do a great deal to lower this task complexity, while other parts of it are inescapable — I didn’t have the space for that point in the column but will return to it and what might be done.  Finally, I thank a number of people who contributed ideas and examples to my argument.

My chat with Brendan Fitzgerald Wallace

He interviewed me, here is his description: “My conversation with economist, author & podcaster Tyler Cowen covering everything from: 1) Buying Land on Mars (for real) 2) Privatizing National Parks 3) Setting up aerial highways in the sky for drone delivery 4) Buying Greenland 5) London post Brexit 6) Universal Basic Income 7) Why Los Angeles is “probably the best city in North America” 8) How real estate can combat social isolation & loneliness 9) Cyber attacks on real estate assets and national security implications. 10) The impacts, positive and negative of Climate Change, on real estate in different geographies. 11) Other esoteric stuff…..”.

Here is the conversation, held in Marina del Rey at a Fifth Wall event.

From Bret Stephens

In October, Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute tallied the costs of Mr. Sanders’s policy goals. By his calculations, the federal government would double in size. Half the American work force would be employed by the government, Mr. Riedl writes. Government spending as a percent of G.D.P. would rise to 70 percent (in Sweden, it’s less than 50 percent). The 15.3 percent payroll tax would hit 27.2 percent to help pay for Medicare for All. Total additional outlays would reach $97.5 trillion on top of the nearly $90 trillion the federal, state and local governments are projected to spend over the next decade.

Here is the full NYT column.  #TheGreatForgetting, #moodaffiliation.

Coronavirus information and analysis bleg

What are the best things to read to estimate what’s going to happen from here?

In particular, what is the best way to think about how to make inferences, or not, from extrapolating current trends about case and death numbers?

What is “what happens from here” going to be most sensitive to in terms of potential best remedies? Regulatory decisions of some kind? Which features of local public health infrastructure will matter the most? Will any of it matter at all?

Which variables should we focus on to best predict expected severity?

Woke terrorists what about plastic straws?

Terrorist group al Shabaab has banned single-use plastic bags.

The Somali militant Islamist group, which has links to al Qaeda, has long had an interest in environmental issues.

It made the official announcement on Radio Andalus, which is operated by al Shabaab.

Jubaland regional leader Mohammad Abu Abdullah said the group had come to the decision due to the “serious” threat posed by plastic bags to both humans and livestock.

He added that pollution caused by plastic was damaging to the environment.

In the same announcement, the group said it has banned the logging of rare trees.

Details of how the eco-friendly bans would be enforced were not shared with listeners.

Here is the link.

Commercial silence about China, what is the equilibrium?

OK, the NBA and its players won’t much exercise their free speech rights, nor will university presidents, so how will this all look in the longer term?  Surely India and other nations are learning from the Chinese experience, and so here is one excerpt from my Bloomberg column:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is an avowed student of the Chinese experiment. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that he would help to create comparable pressures on speech for institutions doing business with India? The more China’s strategy succeeds, the more likely it is to spread. Modi has not shied away from controversy in making Indian policy, so the domestic pressure to follow the Chinese model could be quite strong.

Imagine a world, not so far off, where Indonesia is a business’s fifth-largest customer or a university’s seventh-largest supplier of students. Will it really be so safe to criticize the government of Indonesia, even for employees of those institutions on their social media accounts? U.S. businesses today are quite reluctant to criticize their customers at all, regardless of how much they collectively or individually account for revenue.

The world is evolving into a place where countries and regimes are exempt from all significant public criticism from any entity (or its employees) with substantial interests overseas — whether commercial or academic. That scenario may sound dystopian, but in fact it would not be a major shift from the status quo.

It is also easy to imagine a norm evolving where major customers, say China and India, become offended if a business or its employees criticize a much smaller nation. The theory might be that if any criticism is allowed at all, eventually it will reach the larger (and more controversial) nations. Or perhaps the smaller nation is an ally or friend of the larger, more powerful one. So you had better not criticize Kiribati, either.

And my parenthetical:

(Paradoxically, China’s concern for speech over actions shows a respect for the power of discourse — and free speech — that contemporary America could learn from.)

Recommended, and here is India already flexing its muscle over Bezos and WaPo (NYT).

Countering The Narrative

A surprising fact about the 2016 election is that Trump received fewer votes from whites with the highest levels of racial resentment than Romney did in 2012…Trump’s vote totals improved the most among swing voters: low-socioeconomic status whites who are political moderates.

That is from recent research by Justin Grimmer and William Marble, hat tip anonymous.

*Smith: It’s a Capitalist World*

That is a new magazine, on UK-style paper, nice-looking, and presented by Jamie Whyte.  The first issue was published this December, and contributors include Dominic Hilton, Vernon Bogdanor, Helen Dale, David Friedman, Steven Landsburg (who seems to have a column on economic puzzles), Matt Ridley, Martha Bayles, and others.

So far my impressions are positive, though I despair at the economics of magazines more generally.

Googling the title of the magazine seems to yield nothing, and the issue I was sent does not obviously explain how to subscribe.  So I am not sure where to send those of you looking for more, but if anyone from the magazine is reading, would you please include that information in the comments section of this post?

Addendum: “Anybody who would like to see the PDF of Smith, please email me and I will send it to you. jamie.whyte@smithmagazine.com”

The economic policy of Elizabeth Warren

Jerry Taylor has made some positive noises about her on Twitter lately, as had Will Wilkinson in earlier times.  I genuinely do not see the appeal here, not even for Democrats.  Let’s do a quick survey of some of her core views:

1. She wants to ban fracking through executive order.  This would enrich Russia and Saudi Arabia, harm the American economy ($3.5 trillion stock market gains from fracking), make our energy supply less green, and make our foreign policy more dependent on bad regimes and the Middle East.  It is perhaps the single worst policy idea I have heard this last year, and some of the worst possible politics for beating Trump in states such as Pennsylvania.

2. Her private equity plan.  Making private equity managers personally responsible for the debts of the companies they acquire probably would crush the sector.  The economic evidence on private equity is mostly quite positive.  Maybe she would eliminate the worst features of her plan, but can you imagine her saying on open camera that private equity is mostly good for the American economy?  I can’t.

3. Her farm plan.  It seems to be more nationalistic and protectionist and also more permanent than Trump’s, read here.

4. Her tax plan I: Some of the wealthy would see marginal rates above 100 percent.

5. Her tax plan II: Her proposed wealth tax would over time lead to rates of taxation on capital gains of at least 60 to 70 percent, much higher than any wealthy country ever has succeeded with.  And frankly no one has come close to rebutting the devastating critique from Larry Summers.

6. Student debt forgiveness:  The data-driven people I know on the left all admit this is welfare for the relatively well-off, rather than a truly egalitarian approach to poverty and opportunity.  Cost is estimated at $1.6 trillion, by the way (is trillion the new billion?).  Furthermore, what are the long-run effects on the higher education sector?  Do banks lend like crazy next time around, expecting to be bailed out by the government?  Or do banks cut back their lending, fearing a haircut on bailout number two?  I am genuinely not sure, but thinking the question through does not reassure me.

7. College free for all: Would wreck the relatively high quality of America’s state-run colleges and universities, which cover about 78 percent of all U.S. students and are the envy of other countries worldwide and furthermore a major source of American soft power.  Makes sense only if you are a Caplanian on higher ed., and furthermore like student debt forgiveness this plan isn’t that egalitarian, as many of the neediest don’t finish high school, do not wish to start college, cannot finish college, or already reject near-free local options for higher education, typically involving community colleges.

8. Health care policy: Her various takes on this, including the $52 trillion plan, are better thought of as (vacillating) political strategy than policy per se.  In any case, no matter what your view on health care policy she has botched it, and several other Dem candidates have a better track record in this area.  Even Paul Krugman insists that the Democrats should move away from single-payer purity.  It is hard to give her net positive points on this one, again no matter what your policy views on health care, or even no matter what her views may happen to be on a particular day.

All of my analysis, I should note, can be derived internal to Democratic Party economics, and it does not require any dose of libertarianism.

9. Breaking up the Big Tech companies: I am strongly opposed to this, and I view it as yet another attack/destruction on a leading and innovative American sector.  I will say this, though: unlike the rest of the list above, I know smart economists (and tech experts) who favor some version of the policy.  Still, I don’t see why Jerry and Will should like this promise so much.

Those are some pretty major sectors of the U.S. economy, it is not like making a few random mistakes with the regulation of toothpicks.  In fact they are the major sectors of the U.S. economy, and each and every one of them would take a big hit.

More generally, she seems to be a fan of instituting policies through executive order, a big minus in my view and probably for Jerry and Will as well?  Villainization and polarization are consistent themes in her rhetoric, and at this point it doesn’t seem her chances for either the nomination, or beating Trump, are strong in fact her conditional chance of victory is well below that of the other major Dem candidates.  So what really are you getting for all of these outbursts?

When I add all that up, she seems to have the worst economic and political policies of any candidate in my adult lifetime, with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders (whose views are often less detailed).

I do readily admit this: Warren is a genius at exciting the egalitarian and anti-business mood affiliation of our coastal media and academic elites.

If you would like to read defenses of Warren, here is Ezra Klein and here is Henry Farrell.  I think they both plausibly point to parts of the Warren program that might be good (more good for them than for me I should add, but still I can grasp the other arguments on her behalf).  They don’t much respond to the point that on #1-8, and possibly #1-9, she has the worst economic and political policies of any candidate in my adult lifetime.

For Jerry and Will, I just don’t see the attraction at all.

That said, on her foreign policy, which I have not spent much time with, she might be better, so of course you should consider the whole picture.  And quite possibly there are other candidates who, for other reasons, are worse yet, not hard to think of some.  Or you might wish to see a woman president.  Or you might think she would stir up “good discourse” on the issues you care about.  And I fully understand that most of the Warren agenda would not pass.

So I’m not trying to talk you out of supporting her!  Still, I would like to design and put into the public domain a small emoji, one that you could add to the bottom of your columns and tweets.  It would stand in for: “Yes I support her, but she has the worst proposed economic policies of any candidate in the adult lifetime of Tyler Cowen.”

The culture that is Brazil? (and Nazi Germany)

A video in which Brazil’s culture minister uses parts of a speech by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda boss, has sparked outrage.

In the clip posted on the ministry’s Twitter page, Roberto Alvim details an award for “heroic” and “national” art.

Lohengrin by Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer, plays in the background.

Reacting to the controversy, Mr Alvim said the speech was a “rhetorical coincidence”. Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been urged to fire him.

Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain with a conservative social agenda, has frequently accused Brazil’s artists and cultural productions including schoolbooks and movies of “left-wing bias”. He has not commented.

In the six-minute video detailing the National Arts Awards, Mr Alvim says: “The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and will be national, will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement… deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people, or else it will be nothing.”

Parts of it are identical to a speech quoted in the book Joseph Goebbels: A Biography, by German historian Peter Longerich, who has written several works on the Holocaust.

Here is the full story.

What should I ask John McWhorter?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event.  Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:

John Hamilton McWhorter V…is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

So what should I ask him?

And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.