Category: History

My Conversation with Philip Tetlock

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether the world as a whole is becoming harder to predict, whether Goldman Sachs traders can beat forecasters, what inferences we can draw from analyzing the speech of politicians, the importance of interdisciplinary teams, the qualities he looks for in leaders, the reasons he’s skeptical machine learning will outcompete his research team, the year he thinks the ascent of the West became inevitable, how research on counterfactuals can be applied to modern debates, why people with second cultures tend to make better forecasters, how to become more fox-like, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you could take just a bit of time away from your research and play in your own tournaments, are you as good as your own best superforecasters?

TETLOCK: I don’t think so. I don’t think I have the patience or the temperament for doing it. I did give it a try in the second year of the first set of forecasting tournaments back in 2012, and I monitored the aggregates. We had an aggregation algorithm that was performing very well at the time, and it was outperforming 99.8 percent of the forecasters from whom the composite was derived.

If I simply had predicted what the composite said at each point in time in that tournament, I would have been a super superforecaster. I would have been better than 99.8 percent of the superforecasters. So, even though I knew that it was unlikely that I could outperform the composite, I did research some questions where I thought the composite was excessively aggressive, and I tried to second guess it.

The net result of my efforts — instead of finishing in the top 0.02 percent or whatever, I think I finished in the middle of the superforecaster pack. That doesn’t mean I’m a superforecaster. It just means that when I tried to make a forecast better than the composite, I degraded the accuracy significantly.

COWEN: But what do you think is the kind of patience you’re lacking? Because if I look at your career, you’ve been working on these databases on this topic for what? Over 30 years. That’s incredible patience, right? More patience than most of your superforecasters have shown. Is there some dis-aggregated notion of patience where they have it and you don’t?

TETLOCK: [laughs] Yeah, they have a skill set. In the most recent tournaments, we’ve been working on with them, this becomes even more evident — their willingness to delve into the details of really pretty obscure problems for very minimal compensation is quite extraordinary. They are intrinsically cognitively motivated in a way that is quite remarkable. How am I different from that?

I guess I have a little bit of attention deficit disorder, and my attention tends to roam. I’ve not just worked on forecasting tournaments. I’ve been fairly persistent in pursuing this topic since the mid 1980s. Even before Gorbachev became general party secretary, I was doing a little bit of this. But I’ve been doing a lot of other things as well on the side. My attention tends to roam. I’m interested in taboo tradeoffs. I’m interested in accountability. There’re various things I’ve studied that don’t quite fall in this rubric.

COWEN: Doesn’t that make you more of a though? You know something about many different areas. I could ask you about antebellum American discourse before the Civil War, and you would know who had the smart arguments and who didn’t. Right?

And another:


…I had a very interesting correspondence with in the 1980s about forecasting tournaments. We could talk a little about it later. The upshot of this is that young people who are upwardly mobile see forecasting tournaments as an opportunity to rise. Old people like me and aging baby-boomer types who occupy relatively high status inside organizations see forecasting tournaments as a way to lose.

If I’m a senior analyst inside an intelligence agency, and say I’m on the National Intelligence Council, and I’m an expert on China and the go-to guy for the president on China, and some upstart R&D operation called IARPA says, “Hey, we’re going to run these forecasting tournaments in which we assess how well the analytic community can put probabilities on what Xi Jinping is going to do next.”

And I’ll be on a level playing field, competing against 25-year-olds, and I’m a 65-year-old, how am I likely to react to this proposal, to this new method of doing business? It doesn’t take a lot of empathy or bureaucratic imagination to suppose I’m going to try to nix this thing.

COWEN: Which nation’s government in the world do you think listens to you the most? You may not know, right?

Definitely recommended.

What should I ask Adam Tooze?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  He has been tweeting about the risks of a financial crisis during Covid-19, but more generally he is one of the most influential historians, currently being a Professor at Columbia University.  His previous books cover German economic history, German statistical history, the financial crisis of 2008, and most generally early to mid-20th century European history.  Here is his home page, here is his bio, here is his Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask him?

Why has the Census become less productive over time?

For the 1970 and subsequent censuses, the Postal Service took on an even greater role. Most households received a machine-readable survey by mail and returned it the same way. This cut out two labor- intensive processes: canvassing most households and transcribing data by hand. Censuses since 1970 have generally followed the same process. The biggest change was that the 2010 survey dropped the “long-form” census – a major labor-saving change that nevertheless did not have an obvious impact on the amount of labor expended.

Despite the introduction of labor-saving technologies, the Census hires more people relative to the population than it did in earlier periods. In 1950, 46 million households – the entire country – were canvassed by 170,000 field staff. In 2000, 45 million addressees failed to mail back the survey, and the Census Bureau hired 539,000 field staff to take on the task of nonresponse follow-up. What seems like basically the same task took three times as many employees.

That is from Salim Furth, there is much more at the link, including footnotes for the above excerpt.  Of course this year the labor investment is likely to be much, much lower.

*Markets, Minds, and Money: Why America Leads the World in University Research*

One of the best books on the history of American higher education, author Miguel Urquiola of Columbia argues for the importance of market competition in the rise and dominance of the American system.  Strongly argued and full of good evidence and stories, here is one excerpt I found of interest:

That Columbia would be among the first successful American research universities would have surprised many observers around 1850, as the school had seen real oscillations in its fortunes.  For the first decades after its creation in 1754, Columbia was a wealthy but small school.  In 1774 it had the highest collegiate endowment, but only 36 students, while Harvard and Yale had four or five times as many…in 1797 the college had eight faculty members, during most of the 1800s it had four.  In 1809, an inquiry warned that Columbia College “was fast becoming, if it has not become already, a mere Grammar School”; between 1800 and 1850, even as New York City grew, the school’s enrollment stagnated, and even in 1850 the average entering age was 15.

And this:

Among wealthy countries, the United States is unusual in letting its university sector operate as a free market.  Self-rule, free entry, and free scope are much less prevalent in Europe.

Recommended, you can pre-order here.

*Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment*

That is a recent book by Ahmet T. Kuru, published in August.  All books should have a (non-Amazon) abstract, and here it is for this book:

Why do Muslim-majority countries exhibit high levels of authoritarianism and low levels of socioeconomic development in comparison to world averages? Ahmet T. Kuru criticizes explanations which point to Islam as the cause of this disparity, because Muslims were philosophically and socioeconomically more developed than Western Europeans between the ninth and twelfth centuries. Nor was Western colonialism the cause: Muslims had already suffered political and socioeconomic problems when colonization began. Kuru argues that Muslims had influential thinkers and merchants in their early history, when religious orthodoxy and military rule were prevalent in Europe. However, in the eleventh century, an alliance between orthodox Islamic scholars (the ulema) and military states began to emerge. This alliance gradually hindered intellectual and economic creativity by marginalizing intellectual and bourgeois classes in the Muslim world. This important study links its historical explanation to contemporary politics by showing that, to this day, the ulema–state alliance still prevents creativity and competition in Muslim countries.

I don’t really have my own view on these issues, and due to various duties and also the slowness of my on-line reading, I have read only a segment of this book.  I can report it is clearly written, to the point, and well argued, and I am happy to recommend it to anyone interested in these issues.

I think I will use MR today to catch up on some “book news,” after that back again to coronavirus for a while.

The Economic Consequences of the Virus?

The inhabitant of New York could order by computer, sipping his morning coffee in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate with passport or other formality and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing just a credit card upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved by the TSA but otherwise much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, exclusion and of pandemics which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily twitter feed, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.

Only slightly modified.

That was then, this is now — Pushkin under lockdown

In autumn 1830, Pushkin was confined by a cholera outbreak to the village of Boldino, his father’s remote country estate in southeastern Russia. Desperate to return to Moscow to marry, he wrote to his fiancée: “There are five quarantine zones between here and Moscow, and I would have to spend fourteen days in each. Do the maths and imagine what a foul mood I am in.”

Pushkin went on complaining bitterly but, with nothing else to do, he produced an astonishing number of masterpieces — short stories, short plays, lyric and narrative poems, and the last two chapters of his verse novel Eugene Onegin — in a mere three months.

Here is the full FT piece by Robert Chandler.

World 2.0 — “There are decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen”

This is from a very able and perceptive correspondent:

World 1.0 World 2.0
110 successive months of job growth 10 million jobless claims in 2 weeks
10 year bull market across sectors Winners and losers with extreme outcome inequality
Full employment 30% unemployment
Base rate thinking First principles thinking
Physical Digital
Office by default Remote by default
Office for work Office for connection, community, ecosystem, makerspaces
Suit, tie, wristwatch, business card Good lighting, microphone, webcam, home office background
Commute + traffic jams Home + family
Last mile Only mile
Restaurants Groceries + delivery
$4 toast Sourdough starter
Walkscore Speedtest
Cities Internet
$100k for college Not paying $100k for a webinar
City Countryside
Internal issues Exogenous shock
Lots of little problems One big problem
Stupid bullshit Actual issues
Too much technology Too little technology
Complacency Action
Years Days
Policy Capacity
Ideology Competence
Assume some government competence Assume zero government competence
Institutions Ghost ships
WHO Who?
Trusted institutions Trusted people
Globalization Decoupling
Just-in-time Stockpile
Tail risk is kooky Tail risk is mainstream
Boomers most powerful Boomers most vulnerable
Productivity growth collapse Economic collapse
Social services Democrat UBI Communist
Propaganda Propaganda
Deficit hawks MMT
Corporate debt Government debt
Techlash Tech a pillar of civilization and lifeline to billions
Break up Amazon Don’t break up Amazon!!!
Avoiding social issues Avoiding layoffs
Sports Esports
Phone is a cigarette Phone is oxygen
Resource depletion $20 oil, $0.75 watt solar, <$100/kwh batteries
Stasis Change
Low volatility High volatility
Design Logistics
Extrovert Introvert
Open Closed
20th century 21st century

The fiscal multiplier during World War II

WWII is viewed as the quintessential example of fiscal stimulus and exerts an outsized influence on fiscal multiplier estimates, but the wartime economy was highly unusual. I use newly-digitized contract data to construct a state-level panel on U.S. spending in WWII. I estimate a relative fiscal multiplier of 0.25, implying an aggregate multiplier of roughly 0.3. Conversion from civilian manufacturing to war production reduced the initial shock to economic activity because war production directly displaced civilian manufacturing. Saving and taxes account for 75% of the income generated by war spending, implying that the add-on effects from increased consumption were minimal.

That is from a 2018 paper by Gillian Brunet, and you will note that it reflects the consensus of the literature as a whole.  I do favor the federal government borrowing and spending a great deal of money right now on things that we need.  If you think we are in a traditional Keynesian scenario, or are pulling out a traditional AS-AD model, you are going to be very badly disappointed.  Most of all, we need to be spending more on public health and remedies for Covid-19.  Here is my earlier Bloomberg column on analogies and disanalogies between Covid-19 and World War II.  And again, see Garett Jones and Dan Rothschild on the 2009 stimulus.

Did unconventional interventions unfreeze the credit market?

By Hui Tong and Shang-Jin Wei, newly relevant!

This paper investigates whether and how unconventional interventions in 2008–2010 unfroze the credit market. We construct a dataset of 198 interventions for 16 countries during 2008–2010 and examine heterogeneous responses in stock prices to the interventions across 7,873 nonfinancial firms in those countries. Stock prices increase when the interventions are announced, particularly for firms with greater intrinsic need for external capital. This pattern is corroborated by subsequent expansions in firm investment, R&D expenditure, and employment. Among various forms of interventions, recapitalization of banks appears particularly effective in channeling the intervention effects from financial to nonfinancial sectors.

That is from the new issue of AEJ: Macroeconomics.

Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu

That is a new paper by Sergio Correia, Stephan Luck, and Emil Verner, I have not read it, here is the abstract:

What are the economic consequences of an influenza pandemic? And given the pandemic, what are the economic costs and benefits of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI)? Using geographic variation in mortality during the 1918 Flu Pandemic in the U.S., we find that more exposed areas experience a sharp and persistent decline in economic activity. The estimates imply that the pandemic reduced manufacturing output by 18%. The downturn is driven by both supply and demand-side channels. Further, building on findings from the epidemiology literature establishing that NPIs decrease influenza mortality, we use variation in the timing and intensity of NPIs across U.S. cities to study their economic effects. We find that cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively do not perform worse and, if anything, grow faster after the pandemic is over. Our findings thus indicate that NPIs not only lower mortality; they also mitigate the adverse economic consequences of a pandemic.

Via Jason Furman.

Longer-run economic consequences of pandemics

How do major pandemics affect economic activity in the medium to longer term? Is it consistent with what economic theory prescribes? Since these are rare events, historical evidence over many centuries is required. We study rates of return on assets using a dataset stretching back to the 14th century, focusing on 12 major pandemics where more than 100,000 people died. In addition, we include major armed conflicts resulting in a similarly large death toll. Significant macroeconomic after-effects of the pandemics persist for about 40 years, with real rates of return substantially depressed. In contrast, we find that wars have no such effect, indeed the opposite. This is consistent with the destruction of capital that happens in wars, but not in pandemics. Using more sparse data, we find real wages somewhat elevated following pandemics. The findings are consistent with pandemics inducing labor scarcity and/or a shift to greater
precautionary savings.

That is a new paper by Òscar Jordà, Sanjay R. Singh, and Alan M. Taylor.  And here is the tweet storm.  It should be noted, of course, that the Spanish flu did not give rise to a comparable economic stagnation.

Via Evan Soltas.

My Conversation with Ross Douthat

We do another CWT, here is the audio and transcript (link corrected), a very good installment in the series.  Here is part of the summary:

Ross joined Tyler to discuss why he sees Kanye as a force for anti-decadence, the innovative antiquarianism of the late Sir Roger Scruton, the mediocrity of modern architecture, why it’s no coincidence that Michel Houellebecq comes from France, his predictions for the future trajectory of American decadence — and what could throw us off of it, the question of men’s role in modernity, why he feels Christianity must embrace a kind of futurist optimism, what he sees as the influence of the “Thielian ethos” on conservatism, the plausibility of ghosts and alien UFOs, and more.

A welcome relief from Covid-19 talk, though we did cover Lyme disease.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Does the Vatican have too few employees? There’s a Slate article — it claimed in 2012, the Roman Curia has fewer than 3,000 employees. Walmart headquarters at the time had 12,000. If the Church is a quite significant global operation, can it be argued, in fact, that it’s not bureaucratic enough? They don’t actually have state capacity in the sense that state capacity libertarianism might approve of.

DOUTHAT: Right. State capacity libertarianism would disapprove of the Vatican model. And it reflects the reality that media coverage of the Catholic Church doesn’t always reflect, which is that in Catholic ecclesiology and the theory of the institution, bishops are really supposed to be pretty autonomous in governance. And the purpose of Rome is the promotion of missionary work and the protection of doctrine, and it’s not supposed to be micromanaging the governance of the world Church.

Now, I think what we’ve seen over the last 30 years — and it’s been thrown into sharp relief by the sex abuse crisis — is that the modern world may not allow that model to exist; that if you have this global institution that has a celebrity figure at the center of it, who is the focus of endless media attention, you can’t, in effect, get away with saying, “Well, the pope is the pope, but sex abuse is an American problem.”

And to that extent, there is a case that the Church needs more employees and a more efficient and centralized bureaucracy. But then that also coexists with the problem that the model of Catholicism is still a model that was modern in the 16th century. It’s still much more of a court model than a bureaucratic model, and pope after pope has theoretically tried to change this and has not succeeded.

Part of the reality is, as you well know, as a world traveler, the Italians are very good at running courts that exclude outsiders and prevent them from changing the way things are done. Time and again, some Anglo-Saxon or German blunderer gets put in charge of some Vatican dicastery and discovers that, in fact, the reforms he intends are just not quite possible. And you know, in certain ways, that’s a side of decadence that you can bemoan, but in certain ways, you have to respect, too.

Definitely recommended, a very fun CWT with lots of content.  And again, here is Ross’s (recommended) book The Decadent Society: How We Became a Victim of Our Own Success.

Lessons from the “Spanish Flu” for the Coronavirus’s Potential Effects on Mortality and Economic Activity

That is the subtitle of a new paper by Robert J. Barro, José F. Ursúa,  and Joanna Weng, here is the abstract:

Mortality and economic contraction during the 1918-1920 Great Influenza Pandemic provide plausible upper bounds for outcomes under the coronavirus (COVID-19). Data for 43 countries imply flu-related deaths in 1918-1920 of 39 million, 2.0 percent of world population, implying 150 million deaths when applied to current population. Regressions with annual information on flu deaths 1918-1920 and war deaths during WWI imply flu-generated economic declines for GDP and consumption in the typical country of 6 and 8 percent, respectively. There is also some evidence that higher flu death rates decreased realized real returns on stocks and, especially, on short-term government bills.

I wonder if the economic cost isn’t higher today because we know more about how to limit pandemic spread and we also value human lives more, relative to economic output?

Kudos to the authors for such swift work.

Also from NBER here is Andrew Atkeson on the dynamics of disease progression, depending on the percentage of the population with the disease.  Here is an excerpt from the paper:

Even under severe social distancing scenarios, it is likely that the health system will be overwhelmed, which is indicated to happen when the portion of the U.S. population actively infected and suffering from the disease reaches 1% (about 3.3 million current cases).7 More severe mitigation efforts do push the date at which this happens back from 6 months from now to 12 months from now or more, perhaps allowing time to invest heavily in the resources needed to care for the sick. It is clear that to avoid a health care catastrophe as is currently being experienced in Italy, prolonged severe social distancing measures will need to be combined with a massive investment in health care capacity.

Under almost all of the scenarios considered, at the peak of the disease progression, between 10% and 20% of the population (33 – 66 million people) suffers from an active infection at the same time.

A not entirely cheery prognosis.

That was then, this is now

In 1957, when flu swept through Hong Kong, Mr [Maurice] Hilleman identified the virus as a new form to which people had no natural immunity and passed on his findings to vaccine-makers. When the virus reached the United States a few months later 40m doses of vaccine were ready to limit its damage.

Here is more from The Economist, circa 2005, via Brian LaRocca.  How many of you have heard of Maurice Hilleman? He has other accomplishments, and according to Wikipedia “He is credited with saving more lives than any other medical scientist of the 20th century.”  I say he is underrated!