Category: History

Is biology now in charge?

From the great Laura Deming:

One of my biggest personal fears is working in the wrong field to achieve the goal I care about. If you were around pre-1900s, and wanted to contribute to biology, you should have been a physicist (Robert Hooke, a physicist discovers the first cell, making a better microscope is a major driver of progress). In which field should you work to maximize progress in biology today?

…But something interesting happened around the 1950s. If you look at the most important techniques in biology, in the second half of the 1900s, they’re all driven by tools discovered in biology itself. Biologists aren’t just finding new things – they’re making their new tools from biological reagents. PCR (everything that drives PCR, apart from the heater/cooler which is 1600s thermodynamics, is either itself DNA or something made by DNA), DNA sequencing (sequencing by synthesis – we use cameras/electrical detection/CMOS chips as the output, but the hijacking the way the cell makes DNA proteins remains at the heart of the technique), cloning (we cut up DNA with proteins made from DNA, stick the DNA into bacteria so living organisms can make more copies of it for us), gene editing (CRISPR is obviously made from DNA and with RNA attached), ELISA (need the ability to detect fluorescence – optics – and process the signal, but antibodies lie at the heart of this principle), affinity chromatography (liquid chromatography arguably uses physical principles like steric hindrance, or charge, but those can be traced back to the 1800s – antibodies and cloning have revolutionized this technique), FACS uses the same charge principles that western blots do, but with the addition of antibodies…

Something special happens when a field becomes self-reinforcing. Previously, biology looked to physics and other disciplines for tools to break open new frontiers. But, empirically, since the 1950s, that has all changed.We don’t make mutant mice with x-rays and microscopes – we figure out the gene we want to go after, and we use high-precision biological tools to change it. Computer science has certainly played an important role in processing all of the information now streaming out of biological systems, but the major advances – the core things driving progress in biology forward – have come from biology itself. Biology is eating physics (and, some would jokingly suggest, based on the outperforming endurance of DNA compared to any modern hardware and plausibility of biological computation, possibly computation itself).

Naively, if we can expect n new discoveries / t tools we have, if the tools are static, maybe that’s a fixed number of discoveries per year. But if t tools increases, then we get more discoveries. What if it increases as a function of n?

This is important because it’s a self-reinforcing loop. The more things in biology we discover today, the faster we can discover things tomorrow. Biologists are the new engineers. But their tools look a lot different than any we’ve seen before. Sequencing is the microscope of tomorrow. And sequencing was built by biological tools.

The entire (short) essay is of interest.  Here is more on Laura Deming.

What should I ask Rebecca Kukla?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is her home page:

Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University

Also: amateur powerlifter and boxer and certified sommelier

I live in the middle of Washington, DC, with my 13-year-old son Eli and my two Portal-themed cats, Chell and Cube. My research focuses on social epistemology, philosophy of medicine, and philosophy of language. 

This interview is an excellent entry point into her thought and life, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

[Rebecca] talks about traveling the world with her nomadic parents, her father who was a holocaust survivor and philosopher, hearing the Dream argument in lieu of bedtime stories, chaotic exposure to religion, getting a job at and apartment at the age of 14, the queerness of Toronto, meeting John Waters and Cronenberg, her brother who is the world’s first openly transgender ordained rabbi, getting into ballet, combating an eating disorder, the importance of chosen family, co-authoring an article with her dad, developing an interest in philosophy of mathematics, the affordability of college in Canada, taking care of a disabled, dramatically uninsured loved one, going to University of Pitt for grad school, dealing with aggravated depression, working with Brandom, McDowell, the continental/analytic distinction, history of philosophy, how feminism and women—such as Tamara Horowitz, Annette Baier, and Jennifer Whiting–were treated at Pitt, coping with harassment from a member of the department, impostor syndrome, Dan Dennett and ‘freeedom’, her sweet first gig (in Vermont), dining with Bernie Sanders, spending a bad couple of years in Oregon, having a child, September 11th, securing tenure and becoming discontent at Carleton University, toying with the idea of becoming a wine importer, taking a sabbatical at Georgetown University which rekindled her love of philosophy, working on the pragmatics of language with Mark Lance, Mass Hysteria and the culture of pregnancy, how parenting informs her philosophy, moving to South Florida and the quirkiness of Tampa, getting an MA in Geography, science, philosophy and urban spaces, boxing, starting a group for people pursuing non-monogamous relationships, developing a course on Bojack Horseman, her current beau, Die Antwoord, Kendrick, Trump, and what she would do if she were queen of the world…

And from the interview itself:

I suspect that I’m basically unmentorable. I am self-destructively independent and stubborn, and deeply resentful of any attempt to control or patronize me, even when that’s not really a fair assessment of what is going on.

So what should I ask her?

“Displacement in the Criminal Labor Market: Evidence from Drug Legalizations”

Legalizing drugs harms some black markets but spurs activities in others:

It is widely hypothesized that legalization disrupts illicit markets and displaces illegal suppliers,  but the consequences for those who are displaced remain poorly understood. In this paper, I use comprehensive administrative data from three states that legalized marijuana covering all individuals released from prison in the years immediately before and after the policy change to estimate the effect of legalization on the subsequent criminality of convicted dealers. I find that marijuana legalization increased the 9-month recidivism rate of marijuana offenders by 6 percentage points relative to a baseline rate of 10 percent. The increased recidivism is largely driven by a substitution to the trafficking of other drugs, which is consistent with a Becker-style model where individuals develop human capital specific to the drug industry. To learn about potential mechanism behind these results, I use detailed drug transaction price data to estimate the effect of legalization on average prices and price dispersion, and I find suggestive evidence that both the average level and residual variance decline following legalization, which is consistent with legalization eroding rents earned in the illicit marijuana market. Lastly, I explore the generalizability of my findings in a distinct legalization experiment from history: the end of National Prohibition. I replicate the main insights at an organizational level and show that, in response to the repeal of Prohibition, the Italian-American Mafia shifted personnel from bootlegging to narcotics. Overall, the results in this paper suggest that an unintended consequence of drug legalization is a re-allocation of drug criminals to other illicit activity.

That is from Heyu Xiong, who is currently on the job market from Northwestern.

Are peaceful or violent protests more effective?

Are peaceful or violent protests more effective at achieving policy change? I study the effect of protests during the Civil Rights Era on legislator votes in the US House. Using a fixed-effects specification, my identifying variation is changes within the congressional district over time. I find that peaceful protests made legislators vote more liberally, consistent with the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. By contrast, violent protests backfired and made legislators vote more conservatively. The effect of peaceful protests was limited to civil rights-related votes. The effect of violent protests extended to welfare-related votes. I explore alternative explanations for these results and show that the results are robust to them. Congressional districts where incumbents were replaced responded more strongly. Furthermore, congressional districts with a larger population share of whites responded more strongly. This is consistent with a signaling model of protests where protests transmitted new information to white voters but not to black voters.

That is the abstract of the job market paper of Gábor Nyéki from Duke.

*Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom*

That is the forthcoming book by my excellent colleagues Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama, due out next January, you can now pre-order here.

Here is the Amazon summary:

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood. Tracing the history of religious persecution from the Fall of Rome to the present-day, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama provide a novel explanation of the birth of religious liberty. This book treats the subject in an integrative way by combining economic reasoning with historical evidence from medieval and early modern Europe. The authors elucidate the economic and political incentives that shaped the actions of political leaders during periods of state building and economic growth.

I have read the entire thing (a slightly earlier draft), very definitely recommended.

Shopping While Black: Past, Present and Future?

The original Sears mail-order catalogue changed how African Americans in the South shopped:

…the catalogue format allowed for anonymity, ensuring that black and white customers would be treated the same way.

“This gives African Americans in the Southeast some degree of autonomy, some degree of secrecy,” unofficial Sears historian Jerry Hancock told the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast in December 2016. “Now they can buy the same thing that anybody else can buy. And all they have to do is order it from this catalogue. They don’t have to deal with racist merchants in town and those types of things.”

More recently, Uber has alleviated many of the traditional difficulties that blacks have had hailing taxis.

In a heartfelt essay Ashlee Clark Thompson explains how the “grab and go” technologies now being tested at Amazon Go made her confront lessons learned from decades of shopping while black:

The idea of walking into a store, taking an item or several off the shelves and strolling right back out again boggled my mind. It ran counter to everything I had learned about being black and shopping.

…I grabbed one of the orange Amazon Go bags and began to make my way around the perimeter of the store. I was studying the various bottled waters and debating whether to get fizzy or still, or a bottle of kombucha, when I realized what I was really doing: I was stalling. The fear I had carried with me for decades reared its head as I stood in front of the refrigerated display. I was afraid to make a choice, remove it from a shelf and put it in my bag. I was afraid someone would pop out from behind a display of Amazon-branded merch and scream, “Get your hands off that!” And I was mad that this fear couldn’t even let me fully enjoy an experience that’s designed for everyone to grab and go, no questions asked.

Eff this, I thought. I’m getting some Vitamin Water.

Once the plastic bottle hit the bottom of my reusable bag, I glanced around to see if anyone noticed. The Amazon employees shuffled around the small store and restocked shelves. Tourists chatted in small groups as they pointed and looked for the sensors that were keeping track of our every move. One guy with his phone on a selfie stick recorded himself as he selected snacks. And then there were the folks for whom the novelty had worn off and just wanted a vegetarian banh mi sandwich.

No one cared what I was doing. Is this what it feels like to shop when you’re not black?

…Amazon Go isn’t going to fix implicit bias or remove the years of conditioning under which I’ve operated. But in the Amazon Go store, everyone is just a shopper, an opportunity for the retail giant to test technology, learn about our habits and make some money. Amazon sees green, and in its own capitalist way, this cashierless concept eased my burden a little bit.

The similarities in these cases are interesting but so are the differences. In the Sears case most of the effect of diminished discrimination was driven by greater competition in one-shop towns. In the one-shop town the owners sometimes took a share of their monopoly profits in invidious racism–this appears to explain why shop owners would prevent blacks from buying more expensive products (or perhaps the one-stop shop had to cater to racist customers who demanded invidious discrimination.)

In the Uber case my bet is that a large share of the reduction in discrimination was due to the fact that Uber drivers don’t carry cash and so are less worried about robbery and the app increases safety because it records in detail rider, driver and trip data. In other words, the Uber system reduced the value of statistical discrimination. It’s difficult to know for sure, however, because there was probably also some decline in invidious discrimination brought about by Uber hiding some rider information from drivers until trips are accepted.

The last case, the Amazon Go case, is in part a decline in the value of statistical discrimination since shoplifting is no longer a problem (in theory, assuming the technology works) but in this case the decline in statistical discrimination is driven by much finer discrimination. The moment a shopper enters the Amazon Go store, Amazon knows their name, address, entire shopping history, credit history and potentially much more. Moreover, a shopper’s every movement within the store is tracked to a level of detail that no store detective could ever hope to match. To the customer, especially the black customer, it may feel like they are no longer being watched but in fact they are watched more than ever before–the costs of technological monitoring, however, are mostly fixed which means that everyone is monitored equally. No need for statistical discrimination in the panopticon.

Addendum: A good dissertation might be to incorporates the cost of information, the value of statistical discrimination and the demand for invidious discrimination in a general theory that explains the various cases mentioned here and the effects of information bans such as ban the box.

The new CEA report on socialism is better than critics are claiming

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

More to the point, by far the longest section in the report covers a specific health-care bill, introduced in both the Senate and House and supported by 141 members of Congress, that has become a centerpiece of debate in the Democratic Party. It is hardly irrelevant.

The legislation would eliminate cost sharing, prevent private insurance plans from competing, and prevent private markets from supplementing government coverage (outside of, say, cosmetic surgery). The House version would even prohibit health-care providers from earning profits. These provisions are far more extreme than what is found in most Western European health-care systems. The analogies with traditional socialism are indeed apt — the bill is much worse than anything the Trump administration has proposed to date.

Many of the criticisms of the report have been directed at the section on health-care economics. The critics tend to proclaim their own moderate views and favorably compare some of the Western European health-care systems to that of the U.S. The goal is apparently to smash the report for associating those well-functioning health-care systems with Lenin and Mao. Yet I haven’t seen any of the report’s critics acknowledge the extreme nature of the current Democratic proposal, or that it might need rebuttal, and that such a rebuttal is inevitably going to sound somewhat over the top.


The report also commits the now-unpardonable and immediately punished sin of supporting a doctrine of “false equivalence” — namely, that these days many Democratic ideas are as unacceptable as those associated with Trump.

There are further points at the link, controversial throughout.  Here is the report itself.

My Conversation with Ben Thompson

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary opener:

Not only is Ben Thompson’s Stratechery frequently mentioned on MR, but such is Tyler’s fandom that the newsletter even made its way onto the reading list for one of his PhD courses. Ben’s based in Taiwan, so when he recently visited DC, Tyler quickly took advantage of the chance for an in-person dialogue.

In this conversation they talk about the business side of tech and more, including whether tech titans are good at PR, whether conglomerate synergies exist, Amazon’s foray into health care, why anyone needs an Apple Watch or an Alexa, growing up in small-town Wisconsin, his pragmatic book-reading style, whether MBAs are overrated, the prospects for the Milwaukee Bucks, NBA rule changes, the future of the tech industries in China and India, and why Taiwanese breakfast is the best breakfast.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why should I want a tech device in my home at all? Take Alexa — I don’t have one, I’m pretty happy, my life is simple. I don’t want anyone or anything listening to me. What does it do for me? I know I can tell it to play me a song or buy something on Amazon, but that’s one-click shopping anyway, could hardly be simpler. Why do devices in the home have any future at all?

THOMPSON: The reality is — particularly when it comes to consumer products — is that in the long run, convenience always wins. I think people will have them in their homes, and they’ll become more popular because it’s convenient.

You can be doing whatever you want; you can say something like, “Set a timer five minutes,” or “What temperature should I grill my steak to?” And you’ll get an answer with your hands busy, and altogether it’s going to be a more convenient answer than it would’ve been otherwise.


COWEN: How bullish are you on India’s tech sector and software development?

THOMPSON: I’m bullish. You know, India — people want to put it in the same bucket as, “Oh, it’s the next China.” The countries are similar in that they’re both very large, but they’re so different.

Probably the most underrated event — I don’t want to say in human history, but in the last hundred years — is the Cultural Revolution in China. And not just that 60, 70 million people were killed, or starved to death, or what it might be, but it really was like a scorched earth for China as a whole. Everything started from scratch. And from an economic perspective, that’s why you can grow for so long — because you’re starting from nothing basically. But the way it impacts culture, generally, and the way business is done.

Taiwan, I think, struggles from having thousands of years of Chinese bureaucracy behind it. Plus they were occupied by Japan for 50 years, so you’ve got that culture on top. Then you have this sclerotic corporate culture that the boss is always right, stay in the office until he goes home, and that sort of thing. It’s unhealthy.

Whereas China — it’s much more bare-knuckled competition and “Figure out the right answer, figure it out quickly.” The competition there is absolutely brutal. It’s brutal in a way I think is hard for people to really comprehend, from the West. And that makes China, makes these companies really something to deal with.

Whereas India did not have something like that. Yes, it had colonialism, but all that is still there, and the effects of that, and the long-term effects of India’s thousands of years of culture. So it makes it much more difficult to wrap things up, to get things done. And that’s always, I think, going to be the case. The way India develops, generally, because they didn’t have a clear-the-decks event like the Cultural Revolution, is always going to be fundamentally different.

And that is by no means a bad thing. I’m not wishing the Cultural Revolution on anyone. I’m just saying it makes the countries really fundamentally different.

Definitely recommended.

My Conversation with John Nye, what should I ask him?

Soon I will be having a Conversation with my esteemed colleague John V. Nye, one of the smartest people I know.  John is an economic historian but also a polymath with broad-ranging interests, including travel, classical music, chess, education, “institutions,” Asian food, the Philippines (his home country), and much more.

So what should I ask him?

Why the U.S.-Saudi relationship has proven so enduring

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, note I am continuing to see a larger backlash on the Saudi issue than one might have expected. The bigger underlying question is this: given all that has happened, so why is the United States still such an ally of the Saudis?  It’s longstanding and thus not just about Trump’s possible business dealings.  It’s also not just about the oil, here is one excerpt:

One feature of the geography of Saudi Arabia is that its major oil fields stand apart and can be taken over without controlling the major Saudi cities. That is one reason why the Saudis were so wary of Saddam Hussein.

That risk means the Saudis are especially dependent on American military protection. In turn, the U.S. knows it has a lot of leverage over the Saudis, and therefore making deals with the Saudis involves easier enforcement and lower transaction costs. The same cannot be said of deals with Iran. So in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the U.S. ends up siding with the Saudis.

Historically, Iran has been a very difficult country to capture or control, and the population has fought fiercely to defend Iranian territorial integrity. Iran doesn’t need American protection to the same degree as do the Saudis, and so Iran is more willing to be prickly or openly hostile to the U.S.

Iran shared a border with the former Soviet Union (though not Russia) and shares Caspian Sea rights with Russia, and the two countries often have had close and cordial relations. Iran also is easier than Saudi Arabia for China to reach with its One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to build close ties with the countries to its west. In sum, Iran is going to diversify its geopolitical bets, which pulls it away from the U.S., even if the issues surrounding nuclear weapons and support for terrorism somehow were resolved.

And this:

Of course, the Saudis have abused their position. They are dependent on the U.S., but they also know America has few other potential regional partners for cooperation on such a large scale. And so the Saudis have engaged in human-rights abuses over the decades, figuring it may harm but will not irrevocably damage relations with America.

There is more at the link, analytical throughout.

*First Man* and the great stagnation

I enjoyed this movie, although I would not describe it as a must-see.  It is best for showing the rickety and claustrophobic nature of the moon landing program.

Three points struck me in particular, both concerning progress.  First, the space shots in this movie are not better than those of Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There are even several Kubrick homage shots, and they don’t look any better than the originals, and arguably somewhat worse.  Perhaps most cinematic progress has come in shooting or better yet constructing dense scenes, but that does not apply to space.

Second, I walked to my (non-fancy) car and turned on the ignition right after watching the movie.  It was immediately striking how much better and more reliable was the software in my car than in the whole well-funded moon program.  In this sense technological progress has been immense.  That said, most cars in operation today are not that much better than cars from 1969, and they perform more or less the same functions, albeit more safely.  Improving car manufacture is not that hard, but improving the usefulness of cars in our daily lives is where the problem lies.  So this supports the “the consumer space is already filled out” interpretation of the great stagnation.

Third, perhaps it is the very absence of the internet and advanced information technology that made the moon program possible.  When Armstrong arrives at the moon, you realize it is pretty boring and it has not so much to offer, either in 1969 or today.  Would they have gone to such trouble if there had been better problems to work on?  Well before the end of the movie, I found myself wanting to check my email and refresh my Twitter feed.

By the way, this movie has bombed at the box office, perhaps not a good sign for the revival of adventure in contemporary culture.

That was then, this is now

A Cincinnati newspaper printed a malevolent editorial proclaiming that [Andrew] Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers.  thereupon she married a mulatto man with whom she had several children, among them Andrew Jackson.  Apprised of this far-fetched, scandalous tale, [John Quincy] Adams thought it absurd, but cynically went on to comment that even if proved true it would probably not hurt Jackson.  The course of the campaign seemed to substantiate all Adams’s apprehensions that fervent partisanship was demolishing reasonableness, a slugfest of calumny and lies replacing political civility.  Vice was triumphing over virtue.  And the cynicism expressed in his reaction to the malignant piece regarding Jackson’s mother and his birth signaled that he had begun to doubt the probity of the republic and its citizens.

That is from the very good book by William J. Cooper, The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics.

On hitchhiking, circa 1969, from the comments

I hitchhiked across the U.S. twice in 1969. Here’s what my 18-year-old white, male, hippie self learned:
1. Expect to get picked up and propositioned by homosexuals.
2. Everybody is really interested in drugs and wants to get their hands on some.
3. Drugs quickly went from being the pastime of a small, hip elite, to becoming the obsession of trashy, low-class types.
4. Cowboys or anyone who identified with them wants to kill hippies.
5. Mexicans want to kill hippies.
6. It’s possible to sleep in an empty lot in Seattle or Portland, but in L.A., you will be harassed.
6. Panhandling is the world’s most humiliating activity.
7. Day labor is shockingly arduous.
8. America’s roadsides are a continuous scroll of accidental beauty, dramatic vignettes, and surreal occurrences.
9. Even a single night in a small town jail is awful enough to dissuade any sane person from ever committing or coming close to committing an imprisonable offense.
10. Jesus communes and Hare Krishna people will take you in and feed you when no one else will. But they have their own problems.
11. Iowa is surprisingly beautiful.
12. We thought because we all had long hair, we were all on the same wavelength – we weren’t.
12. There are lots of smart, interesting normal people out there, and from them you learn that the best thing in life is to follow the straight and narrow, observe social conventions, work a steady job, and avoid extremes.

That is from Faze.