Category: History

What should I ask Patricia Fara?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at the University of Cambridge. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and did her PhD at the University of London

Her areas of particular academic interest include the role of portraiture and art in the history of science, science in the 18th century England during the Enlightenment and the role of women in science. She has written about numerous women in science, mathematics, engineering, and medicine including: Hertha AyrtonLady Helen GleichenMona Chalmers WatsonHelen Gwynne-VaughanIsabel Emslie HuttonFlora MurrayIda MacleanMarie Stopes, and Martha Annie Whiteley. She has argued for expanded access to childcare as a means of increasing the retention of women in science. She has written and co-authored a number of books for children on science. Fara is also a reviewer of books on history of science. She has written the award-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) [and Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity (2012). Her most recent book is A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War” (2017). In 2013, Fara published an article in Nature (journal), stressing the fact that biographies of female scientists perpetuate stereotypes.

And she has a new book coming out on Isaac Newton.  So what should I ask her?

That was then, this is now

Many professors at universities routinely quizzed their students too, although not as commonly as faculty at smaller colleges did.  [In 1910]…a questionnaire of University of Chicago faculty revealed that 25 of 122 replying professors gave some kind of quiz each day; 31 gave them each week, and 10 others did so every other week.  The following year, in 1911, a survey of 188 economics professors around the country showed that 171 of them employed “oral quizzes” in class; only 60 of them used written tests.  Surveying undergraduates alongside faculty, the 1910 University of Chicago survey found that four of five students favored written tests over oral ones.

That is from Jonathan Zimmerman’s quite interesting The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.

That was then, this is now, Malthus and Ireland edition

In the present wreck of empires, and under the extinction of all international law, no small state can hope to maintain its independence.  Great Britain and Ireland, from their situation, their language, and their mutual necessities, seem naturally destined to support each other’s strength, and supply each other’s wants; and we are quite convinced, that nothing but extreme misgovernment can separate them.  Heavy indeed, then, will be the responsibility of those men, under who administration, or by whose previous unconciliatory measures such a separation is effected — whether the immediate cause of it be foreign conquest, or internal commotion.

That is Thomas Robert Malthus, “On the State of Ireland (II), published in the Edinburgh Review in 1809.  It made perfect sense back then — and today — and yet for entirely different and indeed almost opposite reasons.

My Conversation with John O. Brennan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — we are both Irish-Americans who were born in Hudson County, New Jersey, and who spent most of our lives working in northern Virginia, the CIA in his case.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

John joined Tyler to discuss what working in intelligence taught him about people’s motivations, how his Catholic upbringing prepared him for working in intelligence, the similarities between working at the CIA and entering the priesthood, his ability to synthetize information from disparate sources, his assessment on the possibility of alien life, the efficacy of personality tests and polygraphs, why CIA agents are so punctual, how the CIA plans to remain a competitive recruiter for top talent, the challenges that spouses and family members of intelligence workers face, the impact of modern technology on spycraft, why he doesn’t support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, his favorite parts of Cairo, the pros and cons of the recent Middle Eastern peace deal brokered by Jared Kushner, the reasons he thinks we should leverage American culture more abroad, JFK conspiracy theories, why there seemed to be much less foreign interference in the 2020 election than experts predicted, what John le Carré got right about being a spy, why most spies aren’t like James Bond, what he would change about FISA courts, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Are CIA agents more punctual than average?

BRENNAN: Some certainly are. Many of them need to be if you’re going to have a rendezvous, a clandestine rendezvous with a spy from overseas, one of your assets or agents. You have worked for hours to get clean so that you make sure that the local security services are not onto you and surveilling you, and your agent has done the same thing so that when you meet at the designated place at a designated hour, you can quickly then have either a brush pass or a quick meeting or whatever.

If you’re not punctual, you can put that agent’s life in danger. I think it’s instilled in CIA, certainly case officers, that time is of the essence, and you need to be able to follow the clock.

Also, I remember when I was CIA director and I would go down to the White House for an executive council meeting or a principals committee meeting. Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and myself would always be the first ones there because we were always very punctual. I think sometimes the policymakers would look at the clock not as carefully as we would.

COWEN: If you’re hiring for punctuality, and obviously, you would expect employees to show an extreme degree of loyalty, do you worry that you’re not hiring for enough of what’s called disagreeability in the personality literature: people who will contradict their superiors, people who will pick fights? They’re a pain to work with, but at the end of the day, they bring up points that other people are afraid to say or won’t even see.

BRENNAN: We’re not looking to hire just a bunch of yes people. To me, I don’t think punctuality means that you’re looking to instill discipline in an organization. You’re trying to ensure that you’re taking advantage of —

COWEN: But that and loyalty — it would seem to select against disagreeability.

BRENNAN: There’s loyalty to the Constitution. There’s loyalty to the oath of office. To me, there shouldn’t be loyalty to any individuals, including inside the CIA. I would like to think that CIA recruiters would be looking for individuals who are intellectually curious, have critical thinking skills, and mainly have also, I think, some degree of contrariness because you don’t want people just to accept as gospel what it is that they are being told, especially if they’re going to be interacting with spies overseas.

Definitely recommended, fascinating throughout.  And here is John’s new book Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad.

What might an end to the Great Stagnation consist of?

If indeed it did, they are asking a similar question at The Economist. In recent times you might cite the onset of Apple’s M1, GPT-3, DeepMind’s application of AI to protein folding, phase III for a credible malaria vaccine, a CRISPR/sickle cell cure, the possibility of a universal flu vaccine, mRNA vaccines, ongoing solar power progress, wonderful new batteries for electric vehicles, a possibly new method for Chinese fusion (?), Chinese photon quantum computing, and ongoing advances in space exploration, most of all from SpaceX. Tesla has a very high market valuation, and Elon is the world’s second richest man.

Distanced work is very important, and here is a separate post on that.

I would say that almost certainly the great stagnation is over in the biomedical sciences.  It is less obvious that the great stagnation is over more generally, as we might simply retreat into our former sloth and complacency once we are mostly vaccinated.  Applied Divinity Studies has posed some pointed questions about why we might think that stagnation is over.

If you are looking for a quick metric to indicate the great stagnation might be over, consider total factor productivity.  It is entirely possible that tfp in 2021 will be 5 or more, its highest level ever.  (To be sure, this will show up as a measured increase in inputs more than as tfp, but we all know why those inputs will be increasing and that is because of science…yes this is a problem with tfp measures!)  Over the two years to follow after that, we should be seeing very high tfps around the world.  So that will be very high tfp for a few years.

Again, that is not proof of a permanent or even an ongoing end to the great stagnation.  But it is something.

Two more general points seem relevant.  First, many of the biomedical advances seem connected to new platforms, new modes of computation, new uses of AI, and so on, and they should be leading to yet further advances.  Second, there are (finally!) some very real advances in energy use, and those tend to bring yet other advances in their wake, and not just advances in bit space.

But not all is rosy.  If you recall my paper with Ben Southwood, the obstacles standing in the way of faster scientific progress, such as specialization and bureaucratization, mostly remain and some of them will be getting worse.

My The Great Stagnation, published in 2011, offered some pointed predictions.  It argued that the “next big thing” was already with us, namely the internet, but we simply hadn’t learned to use it effectively yet.  Once we put the internet at the center of many more of our institutions, rather than treating it as an add-on, the great stagnation would end.  Numerous times (using roughly a 2011 start date) I predicted that the great stagnation would be over within twenty years time, though not in the next few years.  The Great Stagnation in fact was an optimistic book, at least if you read it to the end and do not just mood affiliate over the title.

By no means would I say that specific scenario has been validated, but as a prediction it is looking not so crazy.

The gains from truly mobilizing the internet may in fact right now be swamping all of the accumulated obstacles we have put in the way of progress.

I also wrote, in 2011, that as the great stagnation approaches its end, we will all be deeply upset, and long for the earlier times.  That too is by no means obviously wrong.

That was then, this is now; science and chaos edition

A blast from the past, circa 1688 and thereabouts:

Even as the House of Lords was starting to consider what to do after the departure of James, many sprang to settle old scores and reopen old issues.  Legal toleration made the Church of England more defensive and less tolerant of sceptical or heterodox opinions.  The Nine Years War from 1688, in which England at first suffered severe reverses at sea, strained the economy and finances of the country almost to breaking.  The great silver recoinage of the late 1690s aggravated the problems; Halley was then deputy controller of the country Mint in Chester.  He may have suffered from the great disaster of 1693, the loss of many ships of a Levant Company fleet off Lagos.  The war lasted for much of the time that Halley was Clerk, and it undoubtedly delayed his project to observe the magnetic variation in the Atlantic.  It was an anxious decade, a dangerous decade for anyone holding responsible office; in it [Edmond] Halley had some of his most original and influential ideas.

That is from Alan Cook’s Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas.  Halley was a contemporary of Newton, Wren, Pepys, Hooke, Purcell, Locke, and Dryden, among others.

Could North America have been settled more peacefully, with fewer property rights violations against Native Americans?

Here is the abstract:

Could North America have been settled more peacefully, with fewer property rights violations against Native Americans? To answer this question, we utilize the case of French colonists of Atlantic Canada (the Acadians) and a Native American tribe (the Mi’kmaq) between the 17th and 18th centuries in the areas around the Bay of Fundy in the modern provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Under a relative state of anarchy, both the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq were able to minimize the relative returns to using violence by adopting rules of collective decision-making that favored consensus-building. By prioritizing consensus, distributional coalitions were faced with higher decision-making costs, making it difficult for concentrated interest groups within each society to capture the gains from fighting and spilling them over as external costs over the rest of the population. As a result, both the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq were able to reap the benefits of productive specialization and social cooperation under the division of labor.

That is from a recent paper by Rosolino Candela and Vincent Geloso, forthcoming in Public Choice.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Why are women so prominent in vaccine development?

Here is my Bloomberg column arguing that they are prominent in vaccine development, excerpt:

Then there is the vaccine from Novovax, which is based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The Novovax results are not yet published, but early word is that they are very promising. This vaccine also is based on new ideas, using an unusual moth cell system to crank out proteins in a highly innovative manner.

Novovax’s team is led by Nita Patel, an immigrant from Gujarat, India. Her vaccine team is identified as “all-female.” Patel is from a very poor family; her father almost died of tuberculosis when she was 4 years old, and she often had to beg for bus fare.

Immigrants too, and there is much more evidence at the link.  In fact women have been prominent in vaccine research for a long time.  But why vaccines?  What is the best hypothesis here?

My excellent Conversation with Zach Carter

Zach is author of the recent book The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, which has been on many year-end “best of” lists.  Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Zach joined Tyler to discuss what Keynes got right — and wrong — about the Treaty of Versailles, how working in the India Office influenced his economic thinking, the seemingly strange paradox of his “liberal imperialism,” the elusive central message of The General Theory, the true extent of Keynes’ interest in eugenics, why he had a conservative streak, why Zach loves Samuel Delaney’s novel Nova, whether Bretton Woods was doomed to fail, the Enlightenment intuitions behind early defenses of the gold standard, what’s changed since Zach became a father, his next project, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: [Keynes is] sympathetic to his own ideas and wants to promote them. But to me, there’s a discord. Milton Friedman spends, what, 45 minutes talking to Pinochet, has a very long record of insisting economic and political freedom come together — maybe even too simplistically — writes against the system of apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia, calls for free markets there. And people give Friedman hell over that.

Keynes writes the preface for the Nazis and favors eugenics his whole life, and that’s hardly ever mentioned.

CARTER: I don’t know that the way that Keynes talks about eugenics is as salient as you suggest. The best article that I came across on Keynes and eugenics is by this guy — I think David Singerman. It’s in the Journal of British Studies. It’s a pretty in-depth look at the way Keynes came to eugenics and what he did and did not support. It’s very clear that Keynes didn’t support eugenics in the way that Americans sterilizing poor Black workers in the South were interested in eugenics.

Keynes was broadly interested in it from the perspective of birth control. This is a time when eugenics and genetics are not as clearly defined as they are today, so he’s thinking about heritability of eye colors — how he gets involved in this stuff. He never really supports anything other than birth control.

When he actually has power as a policymaker, he just doesn’t do any of this stuff. He is working on the Beveridge plan. He is working on financial stuff that is much more egalitarian than what we think of him when we think about eugenics.

COWEN: But he is chair of the British Eugenics Society for eight years late in his career.

CARTER: He doesn’t do much there. There are big debates that are happening within that society, and he’s mostly sitting them out. Singerman goes into this in much more detail. It’s been a while since I read the article, but Singerman seems to think that this is a useful way of understanding Keynes’s worldview, but not that Keynes is some guy who’s going around wanting to sterilize people and do the things that we think of with the eugenics movement in the United States.

COWEN: I don’t think he wants to sterilize people, but he has those essays on population, which are not put into the collected works. They’re not mentioned by Roy Harrod. He is greatly worried that the people from some countries — I think including India — will outbreed the people from Britain, and this will wreak havoc on prices and wages, and it’s a big crisis. He even says, “We need to worry not only about the quantity of people, but the quality of people in the world.”

A very good episode, definitely recommended.  And here is Zach on Twitter.

Voting Rights, Deindustrialization, and Republican Ascendancy in the South

Here is a new paper from Gavin Wright:

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 revolutionized politics in the American South. These changes also had economic consequences, generating gains for white as well as Black southerners. Contrary to the widespread belief that the region turned Republican in direct response to the Civil Rights Revolution, expanded voting rights led to twenty-five years of competitive two-party politics, featuring strong biracial coalitions in the Democratic Party. These coalitions remained competitive in most states until the Republican Revolution of the 1990s. This abrupt rightward shift had many causes, but critical for southern voters were the trade liberalization measures of 1994, specifically NAFTA and the phase-out of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement which had protected the textiles and apparel industries for decades. The consequences of Republican state regimes have been severe, including intensified racial polarization, loss of support for public schools and higher education, and harsh policies toward low-income populations.

The last sentence strikes me as misleading and inappropriate (in multiple ways), but still the research is of very real interest. Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

MIT graduate micro exam, 1961

From the archives of Irwin Collier (I won’t do any extra indentation):

Economics Candidates: Answer any FOUR questions (thirty minutes each).
S.I.M. Candidates: Answer any TWO questions (thirty minutes each).

  1. Within the framework of static, partial-equilibrium theory, indicate under what circumstances advertising will reduce product prices in the long run, (a) if the advertiser is a simple monopolist, (b) if the advertisers are members of a large, perfectly symmetrical, Chamberlinian group of suppliers of differentiated products (the number of firms being large enough to rule out oligopolistic relationships, and variable in accordance with a long-run-equilibrium condition of zero profit for all firms).
  2. How is a firm’s demand schedule for a particular factor of production derived (a) when that factor is the only variable one, and (b) when the quantities of all factors are variable? Show which of these demands is, if anything, the more elastic.
  3. The demands for two products are: q1 = q2 = 54 – p1 -p2. How would you characterize their relationship? If they are produced by separate sellers at constant average costs of c1 = 12 and c2 = 6, respectively, calculate each man’s equilibrium price, quantity, and profit under each of the following conditions:
    1. Each seller assumes that the other’s price is a constant;
    2. The second seller behaves that way and the first seller realizes that he does;
    3. Both sellers maximize their joint profit and share it equally.
  4. Two countries can produce food (F) and clothing (C) with labor (L) as the only factor of production. Country A has 20 billion units of L, each of which can produce either 5 units of F or 2 units of C. Country B has 10 billion units of L, each of which can produce either 8 units of F or 6 units of C. Everyone always spends half of his income on F and the other half on C. In a purely competitive equilibrium with balanced trade between the two countries (and no transportation costs), what is the effect on the quantities of F and C produced and consumed in each country? Could either country benefit by imposing a tariff on the imported good?
  5. What are the various reasons why a free-private-enterprise economy may fail to allocate its resources in an optimally efficient way? Explain.
  6. Discuss the roles of “real” and “monetary” elements in a satisfactory theory of interest. Is it logically possible to fashion an interest theory exclusively in terms of one or the other of those elements? Explain.

TC again: I don’t think current graduate students (outside of MIT and a few other places) would do very well on #1, nor do I think they would understand what is being asked on #6, much less have a good answer.  On #5, I wonder how many would give a sufficiently analytical answer rather than just repeating a bunch of cliches from media and social media?

Radio and riots

Although the 1960s race riots have gone down in history as America’s most violent and destructive ethnic civil disturbances, a single common factor able to explain their insurgence is yet to be found. Using a novel data set on the universe of radio stations airing black-appeal programming, the effect of media on riots is found to be sizable and statistically significant. A marginal increase in the signal reception from these stations is estimated to lead to a 7% and 15% rise in the mean levels of the likelihood and intensity of riots, respectively. Several mechanisms behind this result are considered, with the quantity, quality, and the length of exposure to radio programming all being decisive factors.

That is from a recent paper by Andrea Bernini, a job market candidate from Oxford University.  We forget sometimes that arguably the internet is a more peace-inducing institution than was radio.

Erasmus Darwin, apostle of progress

Erasmus Darwin plunged into popular scientific poetry.  Cantering along in the style — if not with the elegance — of Alexander Pope, he never aspired to greatness.  His verses, however, were remarkable for their vivid pictures of evolution interlaced with stirring accounts of the advancement of science, technology, and human culture during the late eighteenth century, the very epitome of optimistic entrepreneurial thought applied to the natural world in the bright glow of the prerevolutionary era.

It is hard to recapture the full extent of the fame these writings, virtually forgotten today, brought him.  Yet for many readers of the 1790s, Darwin was the poet for the age of liberty and social advance: an advocate of industrialisation and cultural improvement; an avid admirer of the power of steam; a discipline of the French philosophes, revealing his Jacobin-like fervour for change and transformation at every turn, and deliberately provocative in taking as his publisher the radical Joseph Johnson, the Londoner who printed William Godwin and friends; at all times a poet of progress, with such an obvious sense of humor that his zest for life could not fail to amuse.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was of course the grandfather of Charles Darwin and also of Francis Galton.  And that passage is from the truly excellent biography Charles Darwin Voyaging, by Janet Browne.

Post-Covid, is the U.S. falling behind China?

I don’t think so, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

If you are wondering whether China or the U.S. with its allies is more likely to make a big breakthrough, in, say, quantum computing, ask yourself a simple question: Which network will better attract talented immigrants? The more that talent and innovation are found around the world, the more that helps the U.S.

And:

Perhaps most important, the European Union has evolved from seeing China primarily as a customer to seeing China primarily as a rival. Even Germany, a longstanding advocate for closer ties with China, has become more skeptical. Furthermore, most European nations have ended up agreeing with the U.S. that Chinese telecom giant Huawei be kept out of the critical parts of their communications infrastructure.

It is also worth noting that GPT-3 came out of the Anglosphere, not China, even though we have been hearing for years that China may be ahead in AI.

Judge Richard Neely, RIP

Judge Richard Neely, former head of the WV Supreme Court, held a special place in my heart. I never met the man but early on in my career, Eric Helland and I wrote a paper on elected judges and tort awards (PDF):

We argue that partisan elected judges have an incentive to redistribute wealth from out‐of‐state defendants (nonvoters) to in‐state plaintiffs (voters). We first test the hypothesis by using cross‐state data. We find a significant partisan effect after controlling for differences in injuries, state incomes, poverty levels, selection effects, and other factors. One difference that appears difficult to control for is that each state has its own tort law. In cases involving citizens of different states, federal judges decide disputes by using state law. Using these diversity‐of‐citizenship cases, we conclude that differences in awards are caused by differences in electoral systems, not by differences in state law.

While researching the paper I found this quote from Neely and when I read it I knew we were going to be published in a good journal:

As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone’s else money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families, and their friends will reelect me. (Neely 1988, p. 4).

That is what you call anecdotal gold.

To be clear, when Neely was looking for a law clerk he advertised:

“America’s laziest and dumbest judge” seeks “a bright person to keep (the judge) from looking stupid,” and gave preference to University of Virginia law students “who studied interesting but useless subjects at snobby schools.”

Neely spoke brutally honestly to break conventions and reveal underlying truths. Thank you Judge Neely for your candor as it surely helped me in my career.