Category: History

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!

The Effect of Communism on People’s Attitudes Toward Immigration

Does living in a communist regime make a person more concerned about immigration? This paper argues conceptually and demonstrates empirically that people’s attitudes toward immigration are affected by their country’s politico-economic legacy. Exploiting a quasi-natural experiment arising from the historic division of Germany into East and West, I show that former East Germans, because of their exposure to communism, are notably more likely to be very concerned about immigration than former West Germans. Opposite of what existing literature finds, higher educational attainment in East Germany actually increases concerns. Further, I find that the effect of living in East Germany is driven by former East Germans who were born during, and not before, the communist rule and that differences in attitudes persist even after Germany’s reunification. People’s trust in strangers and contact with foreigners represent two salient channels through which communism affects people’s preferences toward immigration.

That is from Matthew Karl at the Board of Governors, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Civil War boosted Northern support for immigration

Here we arrive at one of the least appreciated factors in the equation that led to the Union victory: the military service of immigrants.  Foreign-born recruits provided the Union army with the advantage it needed over its Confederate rival.  An estimated 25 percent of the soldiers in the Union army (some 543,000) and more than 40 percent of the seamen in the navy (84,000) were foreign-born.  If one includes soldiers with at least one immigrant parent, the overall figure climbs to 43 percent of the Union army…

The demands of war meant that Union officials needed to appeal to immigrants.  Military recruitment placards were printed in foreign languages; Union officials presented the war as part of a transnational struggle for republican government, thereby decoupling the idea of the nation from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism…

The military service of the foreign-born did more than enhance the Union’s advantage in the field.  It also transformed the politics of nativism in the United States.  From the nativism of the 1850s, exemplified by Know-Nothingism and bigoted anti-Catholicism, the Union now moved in the direction of welcoming — indeed, encouraging — foreign arrivals.

That is all from the new book by Jay Sexton, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History.

The funnel of human experience

So humanity in aggregate has spent about ten times as long worshiping the Greek gods as we’ve spent watching Netflix.

We’ve spent another ten times as long having sex as we’ve spent worshiping the Greek gods.

And we’ve spent ten times as long drinking coffee as we’ve spent having sex.

Furthermore:

It turns out that if you add up all these years, 50% of human experience has happened after 1309 AD. 15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now.

This should cheer you all up, yes indeed there is no great stagnation no wonder the rate of productivity growth has been so high:

FHI reports that 90% of PhDs that have ever lived are alive right now.

That is from eukaryote at LessWrong.  Hat tip goes to the always-excellent The Browser.

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…

Is the speed of skyscraper construction declining?

Artir writes:

…taking not averages but just the fastest building built every year (again taking out Pyongyang and Broad Group), regardless of country. This seems to indicate that with the exception of The Belcher’s tower(s) in HK and 60 Wall St, in general construction speed has remained stagnant for almost a century, and has actually declined since its peak in the Great Depression.

The early 1930s look pretty amazing.  The data on meters built per year, and the fastest built buildings by that standard are interesting too:

There is much, much more in this post, which I consider to be one of the best things written this year.  Here is Artir’s conclusion:

…the Empire State Building was an impressive achievement compared to the present, but it’s not true that the past has been better than the present; rather, the skyscrapers built during the Great Depression were.

Highly recommended, via Patrick Collison.  And here is Artir on Twitter.

What is a good name for a trade deal?

When I see USMCA, I also think of “United States Marine Corps,” a connection Donald Trump himself has noted. Of course the Marines have nothing to do with international trade policy, but given the public’s longstanding confidence in the military, the association is unlikely to hurt politically. Other people may confuse USMCA with USCMA, or the United States Catholic Mission Association, another positive connotation.

This next point may sound slightly cynical, but here goes: Perhaps being so easy to say and remember has been part of Nafta’s problem. The sad reality is that voters do not love the idea of free trade once it is made concrete to them, and both Barack Obama and Trump campaigned against Nafta in its current form. So maybe every time people heard the name Nafta, they were reminded of how much they disliked it.

I recall, more than a decade ago, hearing talk of a supposed “Nafta superhighway,” a series of roads that would supposedly bring the three Nafta countries under some kind of joint, conspiratorial rule, enforced by the movement of vehicles on these connector roads and sometimes in league with Satan himself. The alternative phrase — “USMCA Superhighway” — doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, so maybe it will be harder to drum up fake news about the new deal.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column on the topic.  And this:

Looking back, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) had a pretty good name for its time. It conveyed that there was in fact a general agreement, and that branding sold well enough in an earlier, more multilateral era. It might have sounded dull and technocratic, but that was OK for policies which were … dull and technocratic. Much worse, however, was the 1995 relabeling into the World Trade Organization, a name which to many people sounds globalist, faceless and sinister. They might as well have called it SPECTRE, the name of the criminal group in many James Bond novels and films.

I even quote a Canadian quoting Shakespeare…

That was then, this is now

Negotiations for the preliminary agreement would be conducted under a new process, which the State Department, employing classic bureaucratic jargon, called “the selective nuclear-multilateral approach.”  In preliminary discussions held in July 1945, the Canadians had proposed this method of negotiations led by a small group of influential nations — which effectively became the model for multilateral trade negotiations for the remainder of the twentieth century — as a compromise between the strictly bilateral approach, which had been favored politically by FDR and Cordell Hull, and the broader multilateral approach the British insisted upon.  The Americans believed they were constricted by the requirements of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act specifically, and by political realities in Congress more generally, to negotiating bilaterally on select tariffs on an item-by-item basis.

That is from the new and highly useful and still under-discussed book The Wealth of a Nation: A History of Trade Politics in America, by C. Donald Johnson, Oxford University Press.  I am happy to second Doug Irwin’s blurb: “This splendid book covers the politics of American trade policy from the country’s beginnings through Trump.  Johnson provides a great overview of a fascinating subject.”

Mihail Sebastian, *Journal 1935-1944*

I am surprised this work is not better known.  A literary diary of a Romanian Jew, it captures the beauties of European high culture during the pre-war thirties, most of all classical music and early 20th century literature, but also the only slighter later descent into madness.  It’s his friends and fellow intellectuals who turn on him the most.  I don’t know a better source for capturing the sense of surprise and then foreboding that people must have felt as Hitler racked up one victory after another.

In late 1944, after the course of the war had reversed, Sebastian wrote:

I am not willing to be disappointed.  I don’t accept that I have any such right.  The Germans and Hitlerism have croaked.  That’s enough.

I always knew deep down that I’d happily have died to bring Germany’s collapse a fraction of an inch closer.  Germany has collapsed — and I am alive.  What more can I ask?  So many have died without seeing the beast perish with their own eyes!  We who remain alive have had that immense good fortune.

Miraculously, Sebastian survived the Holocaust and was never deported to the camps.  On 29 May 1945, however, he was hit and killed by a truck in downtown Bucharest, while walking on his way to teach class.

You can buy the work here, and I’ve since ordered one of Sebastian’s novels.  Here is a NYT review.

My Conversation with Bruno Maçães

Here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.

So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”

Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.

Here is one bit:

MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.

It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.

COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.

MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.

And:

COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?

MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.

But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.

The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.

Original and highly recommended.  Again, here is Bruno’s book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.

World War II and African American Socioeconomic Progress

Here is a job market paper from Andreas Ferrara, University of Warwick:

This paper argues that the unprecedented socioeconomic rise of African Americans at mid-century is causally related to the labor shortages induced by WWII. Results from combining novel military and Census data in a difference-in-differences setting show that counties with an average casualty rate among semi-skilled whites experienced a 13 to 16% increase in the share of blacks in semi-skilled jobs. The casualty rate also has a significant reduced form effect on cross-state migration, wages, home ownership, house value, and education for blacks. Using survey data from 1961, IV regression results indicate that the economic upgrade, which is instrumented with the semi-skilled white casualty rate, is also associated with an increase in social status. Both black and white individuals living in treated counties are more likely to have an interracial friendship, live in mixed-race neighborhoods, and to have reduced preferences for segregation.

Via John Holbein.

The three kinds of charter cities

First, there is the minimal charter city.  During a cruise ship vacation, everyone lives under cruise ship law.  This works fine, and is easy to start up, but it also has limited applicability.  No one has to make a big cultural shift, as long as they don’t get too drunk while playing shuffleboard out on the deck.

Second, there is hegemon-backed charter city.  The British empire ran Hong Kong, and the mainland United States (partially) has run Puerto Rico and earlier managed the Panama Canal Zone.  By definition, a hegemon is required to enforce the law in the external jurisdiction, and of course such hegemons may be scarce, unwilling, or their rule may be oppressive or counterproductive.  Portuguese rule over Goa was not a major success, nor was British rule over India more generally.  European extraterritoriality in China proper was an imperialist disaster.  One problem is that exporting legal systems without exporting their cultural preconditions can lead to failure.

Third, some charter cities are based on the idea of a complementary exported culture.  Singapore did in fact absorb many parts of British culture and law, and some parts of Western mores; it now feels like the most Western part of Asia.  The partial export of Western law and culture has been extremely successful, and the role of culture here means there is strong indigenous support, within Singapore, for Singapore being the Singapore we all know and love.  These are the charter cities that work best, but they are also the hardest to pull off.

You can think of the original charter city idea as postulating law as a non-rival public good.  Why not just spread the best laws to more jurisdictions?  But does spreading the law without the underlying culture suffice?  You can think of the three kinds of charter cities, as mentioned above, as varying responses to this problem.

And spreading culture does not seem to be a public good at all, rather it involves a lot of hard work and it often fails or backfires.

This blog post is drawn from a talk I gave in San Francisco at an inaugural conference for Mark Lutter’s new Center for Innovative Governance.

America does pretty well at public health

Michael S. Sparer and Anne-Laure Beaussier has a new and interesting piece on this topic, here is part of the abstract:

First, the United States outperforms its European peers on several public health metrics. Second, the United States spends a comparable proportion of its health dollar on prevention. Third, these results are due partly to a federalism twist (while all three nations delegate significant responsibility for public health to local governments, federal officials are more engaged in the United States) and partly to the American version of public health moralism. We also consider the renewed interest in population health, noting why, against expectations, this trend might grow more quickly in the United States than in its European counterparts.

I also learned (or relearned) from this paper the following:

1. For per capita prevention, the U.S. is a clear first in the world.  (I wonder, by the way, to what extent this contributes to higher health care costs in the United States, since preventive care also can drive doctor and hospital visits.)

2. The UK and France made a deliberate decision to switch away from public health to curative medicine, after the end of World War II, when they were building out their universal coverage systems.

3. The American history with public health programs is a pretty good one, with advances coming from the anti-smoking campaign, lower speed limits, anti-drunk driving initiatives, fluoridated water, and mandatory vaccination programs.

4. The British fare poorly on various public health metrics.

5. “The US system of public health fares rather well compared to other Western nations.”  On net, our population is not as anti-science as it may seem, at least not if we look at final policy results, as compared to some of our peer countries.

All in all, an interesting read.