Category: History

Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?

That is the title of my new paper with Ben Southwood, here is one segment from the introduction:

Our task is simple: we will consider whether the rate of scientific progress has slowed down, and more generally what we know about the rate of scientific progress, based on these literatures and other metrics we have been investigating. This investigation will take the form of a conceptual survey of the available data. We will consider which measures are out there, what they show, and how we should best interpret them, to attempt to create the most comprehensive and wide-ranging survey of metrics for the progress of science.  In particular, we integrate a number of strands in the productivity growth literature, the “science of science” literature, and various historical literatures on the nature of human progress. In our view, however, a mere reporting of different metrics does not suffice to answer the cluster of questions surrounding scientific progress. It is also necessary to ask some difficult questions about what science means, what progress means, and how the literatures on economic productivity and “science on its own terms” might connect with each other.

Mostly we think scientific progress is indeed slowing down, and this is supported by a wide variety of metrics, surveyed in the paper.  The gleam of optimism comes from this:

And to the extent that progress in science has not been slowing down, which is indeed the case under some of our metrics, that may give us new insight into where the strengths of modern and contemporary science truly lie. For instance, our analysis stresses the distinction between per capita progress and progress in the aggregate. As we will see later, a wide variety of “per capita” measures do indeed suggest that various metrics for growth, progress and productivity are slowing down. On the other side of that coin, a no less strong variety of metrics show that measures of total, aggregate progress are usually doing quite well. So the final answer to the progress question likely depends on how we weight per capita rates of progress vs. measures of total progress in the aggregate.

What do the data on productivity not tell us about scientific progress?  By how much is the contribution of the internet undervalued?  What can we learn from data on crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law?  Might the social sciences count as an example of progress in the sciences not slowing down?  Is the Solow model distinction between “once and for all changes” and “ongoing increases in the rate of innovation” sound?  And much more.

Your comments on this paper would be very much welcome, either on MR or through email.  I will be blogging some particular ideas from the paper over the next week or two.

And here is Ben on Twitter.

Politically Incorrect Paper of the Day: The United Fruit Company was Good!

The United Fruit Company is the bogeyman of Latin America, the very apotheosis of neo-colonialism. And to be sure in the UFC history there is wrongdoing and plenty of fodder for conspiracy theories but the UFC also brought bananas (as export crop), tourism, and in many cases good governance to parts of Latin America. Much, however, depends on the institutional constraints within which the company operated. Esteban Mendez-Chacon and Diana Van Patten (on the job market) look at the UFC in Costa Rica.

The UFC needed to bring workers to remote locations and thus it invested heavily in worker welfare:

the UFC invested in sanitation infrastructure, launched health programs, and provided medical attention to its employees. Infrastructure investments included pipes, drinking water systems, sewage system, street lighting, macadamized roads, a dike (Sanou and Quesada, 1998), and by 1942 the company operated three hospitals in the country.

Given the remoteness the plantations and to reduce transportation costs, the UFC provided the majority of its workers with free housing within the company’s land. This was partially motivated by concerns with diseases like malaria and yellow fever, which spread easily if the population is constantly commuting from outside the plantation. By 1958 the majority of laborers lived in barracks-type structures… [which] exceeded the standards of many surrounding communities (Wiley, 2008).

Image result for united fruit companyThe UFC wasn’t just interested in healthy workers, they also needed to attract workers with stable families:

One of the services that the company provided within its camps was primary education to the children of its employees. The curriculum in the schools included vocational training and before the 1940s, was taught mostly in English. The emphasis on primary education was significant, and child labor became uncommon in the banana regions (Viales, 1998). By 1955, the company had constructed 62 primary schools within its landholdings in Costa Rica (May and Lasso, 1958). As shown in Figure 6a,spending per student in schools operated by the UFC was consistently higher than public spending in primary education between 1947 and 1963.21 On average, the company’s yearly spending was 23% higher than the government’s spending during this period.

…The UFC did not provide directly secondary education although offered some incentives. If the parents could afford the first two years of secondary education of their children in the United States, the UFC paid for the last two years and provided free transportation to and from the United States.

A key driver of UFC investment was that although the UFC was the sole employer within the regions in which it operated, it had to compete to obtain labor from other regions. Thus a 1925 UFC report writes:

We recommend a greater investment in corporate welfare beyond medical measures. An endeavor should be made to stabilize the population…we must not only build and maintain attractive and comfortable camps, but we must also provide measures for taking care of families of married men, by furnishing them with garden facilities, schools, and some forms of entertainment. In other words, we must take an interest in our people if we might hope to retain their services indefinitely.

This is exactly the dynamic which drove the provision of services and infrastructure in unjustly maligned US company towns. It’s also exactly what Rajagopalan and I found in the Indian company town of Jamshedpur, built by Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata.

The UFC ended in Costa Rica in 1984 but the authors find that it had a long-term positive impact. Using historical records, the authors discover a plausibly randomly-determined boundary line between UFC and non-UFC areas and comparing living standards just inside and just outside the boundary they find that households within the boundary today have better housing, sanitary conditions, education and consumption than households just outside the boundary. Overall:

We find that the firm had a positive and persistent effect on living standards. Regions within the UFC were 26% less likely to be poor in 1973 than nearby counterfactual locations, with only 63% of the gap closing over the following 3 decades.

The paper has appendixes A-J. In one appendix (!), they show using satellite data that regions within the boundary are more luminous at night than those just outside the region. The collection of data is especially notable:

For a better understanding of living standards and investments during UFC’s tenure, we collected and digitized UFC reports with data on wages, number of employees, production, and investments in areas such as education, housing, and health from collections held by Cornell University, University of Kansas, and the Center for Central American Historical Studies. We also use annual reports from the Medical Department of the UFC describing the sanitation and health programs and spending per patient in company-run hospitals from 1912 to 1931. We also collected data from Costa Rican Statistic Yearbooks, which from 1907 to 1917 contain details on the number of patients and health expenses carried out by hospitals in Costa Rica, including the ones ran by the UFC. Export data was also collected from these yearbooks, and from Export Bulletins. 19 agricultural censuses taken between 1900 and 1984 provide information on land use, and we use data from Costa Rican censuses between 1864-1963 to analyze aggregated population patterns, such as migration before and during the UFC apogee, or the size and occupation of the country’s labor force.

Overall, a tremendous paper.

*Walter Raleigh: Architect of Empire*

An excellent book, by Alan Gallay, this one will make my year-end “best of” list.  It has merchant voyages, royal monopolies, hermeticism, captive Inuits brought to London to perish, conquests of Ireland, Edmund Spenser, virgin queens, charter cities, and the best overall understanding of early British colonialism/imperialism I have seen.  It is perhaps better read than excerpted, but here is one bit:

[John] Gilbert would not sail again for America until 1583. For three and a half years, English resources that might have gone to overseas expeditions to America had to be devoted to Ireland — the pope’s decision to become militarily involved in Irish affairs deterred the English America; in the coming decade American colonization would be frequently sidetracked by the same three things: events in Ireland, relations with Spain, and the English propensity to go plundering at sea.

And:

For colonization to succeed, the English required investors, sailors, and colonists.  All were difficult to come by.  The English intended to turn the New World into a haven for English Catholics as a way to solve multiple problems: rid England of religious dissidents, obtain investors, and alleviate overcrowding by moving surplus populations of the unemployed overseas to become useful.  English Catholic interest wavered, however…

I am sure to read the whole thing through, you can pre-order here.

The racial integration of the Korean War

The racial integration of the US Army during the Korean War (1950-1953) is one of the largest and swiftest desegregation episodes in American history. This paper argues that racial integration improved white survival rates at the expense of blacks, and resulted in less anti-black prejudice among white veterans decades after the war. Using a novel military casualty file, I construct a wartime similarity index to measure the extent of racial integration across military units and time. Using exogenous changes in racial integration, I show that integrated whites were 3% more likely to survive their injuries than segregated whites, whereas integrated blacks were 2% were less likely to survive their injuries than segregated blacks. Given that blacks were initially confined to noncombat support roles, the results reflect a convergence in hazardous combat assignments. To explore the long-term effects of racial integration, I link individual soldiers to post-war social security and cemetery data using an unsupervised learning algorithm. With these matched samples, I show that a standard deviation change in the wartime racial integration caused white veterans to live in more racially diverse neighborhoods and marry non-white spouses. In aggregate, these results are some of the first and only examples of large-scale interracial contact reducing prejudice on a long-term basis.

That is from the job market paper from Daniel Indacochea of the University of Toronto.

Did the medieval church make us WEIRD?

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions and that populations characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual. People from these societies tend to be more individualistic, independent, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty. Although these patterns are now well documented, few efforts have sought to explain them. Here, we propose that the Western Church (i.e., the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church) transformed European kinship structures during the Middle Ages and that this transformation was a key factor behind a shift towards a WEIRDer psychology.

That is a new piece in Science by Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrani-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joe Henrich, try this link tooThis one works for sure.  Here is Harvard magazine coverage of the piece.  Here is a relevant Twitter thread.

The two Jonathan co-authors are new colleagues of mine at GMU economics, so I am especially excited this work is seeing the light of day in such a good venue.

My Conversation with Ted Gioia

Here is the audio and transcript, the chat centered around music, including Ted’s new and fascinating book Music: A Subversive History.  We talk about music and tech, the Beatles, which songs and performers we are embarrassed to like, whether jazz still can be cool, Ted’s family background, why restaurants are noisier, why the blues are disappearing, Elton John, which countries are underrated for their musics, whether anyone loves the opera, whether musical innovation is still possible, and much much more.  Here are some excerpts:

GIOIA: …Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.

Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.

That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music subeconomy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.

The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.

And:

COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince…

GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?

Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential.

People will agonize for hours over which music to play. I think that we miss this. People view music as distance from people’s everyday life. But in fact, people put music to work every day, and one of the premier ways they do it is in romance.

COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?

GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.

COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?

GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.

I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout, and again here is Ted’s new book.

Learning is Caring: An Agrarian Origin of American Individualism

I am looking forward to reading this one, from Itzchak Tzachi Raz, who is on the job market from Harvard this year:

This study examines the historical origins of American individualism. I test the hypothesis that local heterogeneity of the physical environment limited the ability of farmers on the American frontier to learn from their successful neighbors, turning them into self-reliant and individualistic people. Consistent with this hypothesis, I find that current residents of counties with higher agrarian heterogeneity are more culturally individualistic, less religious, and have weaker family ties. They are also more likely to support economically progressive policies, to have positive attitudes toward immigrants, and to identify with the Democratic Party. Similarly, counties with higher environmental heterogeneity had higher taxes and a higher provision of public institutions during the 19th century. This pattern is consistent with the substitutability of formal and informal institutions as means to solve collective action problems, and with the association between “communal” values and conservative policies. These findings also suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of individualism.

Here is the home page, the paper is not yet available.  Here is his actual job market paper, on adverse possession.  I do hope the author lets me know once this paper is ready, I am very much looking forward to reading it.

How has Paris changed

Following my OECD visit, I have been thinking about how Paris has changed in the almost thirty years I have been going there.  I came up with the following mental list:

1. It is much less of a working class city in the center.

2. Many more immigrants, most of all outside the center.  The center and the periphery are now more different than in times past.

3. People smoke much, much less.

4. The residents are less Marxist, but now more “woke.”

5. English is far more widely spoken, and good French is not so much expected in casual interactions.

6. The average quality of bread is declining.

7. Michelin restaurants, in relative terms, have grown much more expensive.  I recall having a meal at the Hotel Bristol, maybe six years ago, for 150 euros.  A similar meal now goes for 380 euros, more than I am willing to pay.

8. The city has been remarkably economically resilient, in part because of the longstanding emphasis on services.

9. The city now has a burgeoning start-up scene.

10. I believe central Paris is now much more different from the rest of France than it used to be.

What else?

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.

And:

FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.

Finally:

FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.

Recommended!

China fact of the day

Any Chinese person who has gone to elementary school or watched television news can explain the tale of China’s 100 years of humiliation. Starting with the Opium Wars in the 19th century, foreign powers bullied a weak and backward China into turning Hong Kong and Macau into European colonies. Students must memorize the unequal treaties the Qing dynasty signed during that period.

There’s even a name for it: “national humiliation education.”

Here is more from Li Yuan at the NYT.

The ebb and flow of political correctness doctrine

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

What caused the P.C. movement to stall after the ‘90s? One theory is that it was due to two particular events. First, a Democratic president was impeached for his sexual conduct with an intern. That made the left (at least temporarily) less interested in rooting out and punishing all abuses of power. Second, the attacks of Sept. 11, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, created a new and different focal point for activist energy: first anti-terror, then anti-war.

The history of political correctness also shows that ideas can have a long genesis, as this essay by Musa al-Gharbi illustrates. The idea of sensitivity training, for instance, was created by Kurt Lewin in 1946-47, and later popularized by Carl Rogers in 1961. The notion of “safe spaces” started in gay and lesbian bars in the mid-1960s. The term “microaggressions” comes from Chester Pierce in 1974. It is possible that the phrase “identity politics” comes from the Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977.

The lesson here is clear: If you are dealing in the world of ideas, play the long game — don’t be too discouraged by momentary setbacks. For all the talk of America having a throwaway culture that moves rapidly from one idea to the next, the history of political correctness does not support that vision. It is possible for people to promote and sustain ideas to give them resonance and influence.

Please note I am trying to learn from the history of the movement, and it is not the point of this column to condemn it excesses (which are very real).

What should I ask Ted Gioia?

I will be doing a Conversation with Ted, no associated public event.  He is a musician and most of all a music historian, above all for jazz and blues, with numerous excellent books on those topics.

Here is his home page.  Here is Ted on Twitter, one of the very best follows.  Here is his latest book Music: A Subversive History, due out next week.  And there is more:

Gioia was raised in a Sicilian-Mexican household in Hawthorne, California, a working class neighborhood in the South-Central area of Los Angeles. Gioia was valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar at Hawthorne High School, and attended Stanford University. There he received a degree in English (graduating with honors and distinction), served as editor of Stanford’s literary magazine, Sequoia, and wrote regularly for the Stanford Daily.  He was a member of Stanford’s College Bowl team, which was featured on television, and defeated Yale in the national finals. Gioia also worked extensively as a jazz pianist during this period, and designed and taught a class on jazz at Stanford while still an undergraduate.

After graduation, Gioia received a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, where he graduated with first class honors. He then received an MBA from Stanford University.

Gioia has enjoyed successes in the worlds of music, writing and business. In the business world, Gioia has consulted to Fortune 500
companies while working for McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group.  He helped Sola International complete an LBO and IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in the 1990s.  He has undertaken business projects in 25 countries on five continents, and has managed large businesses (up to $200 million in revenues). While working amidst the venture capital community on Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, Gioia stood out from the crowd as the “guy with the piano in his office.”

His knowledge of varied musical genres is virtually without parallel.  So what should I ask Ted?