Category: Law

Every era’s monetary and financial institutions are unimaginable until they’re real

That is the column subtitle, the actual title is “The Lesson of Bretton Woods.”  Note that yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the signing of the final agreement.  Here is one excerpt:

The Bretton Woods arrangements also seemed highly unlikely until they were in place. They involved a complicated system of exchange rate pegs, capital controls and a “gold pool” (and other methods) to control gold prices and redemption ratios. What’s more, the whole thing was dependent on America’s role as global hegemon, both politically and economically. The dollar still was tied to gold, and the other major currencies tied to the dollar, but as the system evolved it required that no one was too keen to redeem dollars for gold (the French unwillingness to abide by this stricture was one proximate cause of the collapse of Bretton Woods).

I don’t think a monetary economist from, say, 1890 could have imagined that such an arrangement would prove possible, much less successful. Yet the Bretton Woods arrangements had a wonderful track record, as the 1950s and 1960s generated strong economic growth for both the U.S. and Western Europe.

At the same time, once Bretton Woods ended in the early 1970s, few people thought it was possible to turn back the clock. The system required the U.S. to be a creditor nation, to hold much of the world’s gold stock, and for countries such as France to defer to American wishes on gold convertibility. Once again, the line between an “imaginable” and “unimaginable” monetary arrangement proved to be a thin one.

As I point out in the piece, today’s arrangements of fiat currencies and (mostly) floating rates were unimaginable to most previous thinkers, including Keynes.  Here is the column’s closing bit:

So as you consider the legacy of Bretton Woods this week, remember that core lesson: There will be major changes in monetary and institutional arrangements that no one can even imagine right now. Assume the permanency of the status quo at your peril.

Air Pollution Kills

In recent years I have substantially increased my estimate of the deadly nature of air pollution. It’s not that I had a contrary opinion earlier but the number and range of studies showing surprisingly large effects has raised this issue in relative importance in my mind. I would not have guessed, for example, that the introduction of EZ Pass could reduce pollution near toll booths enough to reduce the number of premature and low birth weight babies. I also find the following result hard to believe yet also hard to dismiss given the the accumulating body of evidence. Diane Alexander and Hannes Schwandt find that Volkswagen’s cheating diesel cars increased the number of low birth weight babies and asthma rates. Here are some details:

In 2008, a new generation of supposedly clean diesel passenger cars was introduced to the U.S. market.These new diesel cars were marketed to environmentally conscious consumers, with advertising emphasizing the power and mileage typical for diesel engines in combination with unprecedented low emissions levels. Clean diesel cars won the Green Car of the Year Award in 2009 and 2010 and quickly gained market share. By 2015, over 600,000 cars with clean diesel technology were sold in the United States. In the fall of 2015, however, it was discovered that these cars covertly activated equipment during emissions tests that reduced emissions below official thresholds, and then reversed course after testing. In street use, a single “clean diesel” car could pollute as much nitrogen oxide as 150 equivalent gasoline cars.Hereafter, we refer to cars with “clean diesel” technology as cheating diesel cars.

We exploit the dispersion of these cheating diesel cars across the United States as a natural experiment to measure the effect of car pollution on infant and child health. This natural experiment provides several unique features. First, it is typically difficult to infer causal effects from observed correlations of health and car pollution, as wealthier individuals tend to sort into less-polluted areas and drive newer, less-polluting cars. The fast roll-out of cheating diesel cars provides us with plausibly exogenous variation in car pollution exposure across the entire socio-economic spectrum of the United States. Second, it is well established that people avoid known pollution, which can mute estimated impacts of air pollution on health (Neidell, 2009). Moderate pollution increases stemming from cheating diesel cars, a source unknown to the population, are less likely to induce avoidance behaviors, allowing us to cleanly estimate the full impact of pollution. Third, air pollution comes from a multitude of sources, making it difficult to identify contributions from cars, and it is measured coarsely with pollution monitors stationed only in a minority of U.S. counties. This implies low statistical power and potential attenuation bias for correlational studies of pollution (Lleras-Muney, 2010). We use the universe of car registrations to track how cheating diesel cars spread across the country and link these data to detailed information on each birth conceived between 2007 and 2015. This setting provides rich and spatially detailed variation in car pollution.

We find that counties with increasing shares of cheating diesel cars experienced large increases both in air pollution and in the share of infants born with poor birth outcomes. We show that for each additional cheating diesel car per 1,000 cars—approximately equivalent to a 10 percent cheating-induced increase in car exhaust—there is a 2.0 percent increase in air quality indices for fine particulate matter (PM2:5) and a 1.9 percent increase in the rate of low birth weight. We find similar effects on larger particulates (PM10; 2.2 percent) and ozone (1.3 percent), as well as reductions in average birth weight (-6.2 grams) and gestation length (-0.016 weeks). Effects are observed across the entire socio-economic spectrum, and are particularly pronounced among advantaged groups, such as non-Hispanic white mothers with a college degree. Effects on pollution and health outcomes are approximately linear and not affected by baseline pollution levels. Overall, we estimate that the 607,781 cheating diesel cars sold from 2008 to 2015 led to an additional 38,611 infants born with low birth weight. Finally, we also find an 8.0 percent increase in asthma emergency department (ED) visits among young children for each additional cheating diesel car per 1,000 cars in a subsample of five states.

Another surprising result is that on a global scale air pollution reduces life expectancy more than smoking. In part, because a single individual can’t quit air pollution.

Globally, the AQLI reveals that particulate pollution reduces average life expectancy by 1.8 years, making it the greatest global threat to human health. By comparison, first-hand cigarette smoke leads to a reduction in global average life expectancy of about 1.6 years. Other risks to human health have even smaller effects: alcohol and drugs reduce life expectancy by 11 months; unsafe water and sanitation take off 7 months; and HIV/AIDS, 4 months. Conflict and terrorism take off 22 days. So, the impact of particulate pollution on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, twice that of alcohol and drug use, three times that of unsafe water, five times that of HIV/AIDS, and more than 25 times that of conflict and terrorism.

The threat is stronger than the execution, installment #437

A Pennsylvania school district is warning that children could end up in foster care if their parents do not pay overdue school lunch bills. The letters sent recently to about 1,000 parents in Wyoming Valley West School District have led to complaints from parents and a stern rebuke from Luzerne County child welfare authorities.

The district says that it is trying to collect more than $20,000, and that other methods to get parents to pay have not been successful. Four parents owe at least $450 apiece.

And worse yet:

The district’s federal programs director, Joseph Muth, told WNEP-TV the district had considered serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students with delinquent accounts but received legal advice warning against it.

When I was a kid, we considered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a privilege.

Here is the full story, via Garance Franke-Ruta.

Are the Contents of International Treaties Copied and Pasted?

Most accounts of international negotiations suggest that global agreements are individually crafted and distinct, while some emerging scholarship suggests a heavy reliance on models and templates. In this research, we present a comprehensive test of whether new international treaties are heavily copied and pasted from past ones. We specify several reasons to expect widespread copying and pasting, and argue that both the most and least powerful countries should be most likely to do so. Using text analysis to examine several hundred preferential trade agreements (PTAs), we reveal that most PTAs copy a sizable majority of their content word for word from an earlier agreement. At least one hundred PTAs take 80 percent or more of their contents directly from a single, existing treaty—with many copying and pasting 95 percent or more. These numbers climb even higher when we compare important substantive chapters of trade agreements, many of which are copied and pasted verbatim. Such copying and pasting is most prevalent among low-capacity governments that lean heavily on existing templates, and powerful states that desire to spread their preferred rules globally. This widespread replication of existing treaty language reshapes how we think about international cooperation, and it has important implications for literatures on institutional design, policy diffusion, state power, and legal fragmentation.

That is from a new paper by Todd Allee and Manfred Elsig, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Zoning Out Shade

Is it too hot to walk around the block? Sure, blame global warming, but in many parts of the country there is also a noticeable absence of shade. Why? As Nolan Gray, a city planner in New York, argues one reason is that shade has been zoned out.

…vernacular architecture in the U.S. was often designed around natural climate control. In the humid Southeast, large windows and central corridors encouraged airflow. In the arid Southwest, thick facades and small windows kept cool air inside. In both cases, most houses were packed tightly together to cast shadows over streets, with awnings, balconies, and roof overhangs used to protect indoor spaces from direct sunlight.

These design elements survive and thrive in cities built before air conditioning, like New Orleans, but are conspicuously absent from most modern Sun Belt metros. With houses sitting squat and far back from the street, and most commercial spaces sitting behind a veritable desert of parking, shade in cities like Phoenix and Atlanta is few and far between. 

The irony here is that the cities that most need shade are the least likely to have it…Older, urban cities with mild summers—think Boston—have shade in spades, while our newer Sun Belt cities —think Las Vegas—have virtually no shade at all, resulting in an unhealthy dependence on air conditioning. 

Why did this happen? A big reason is the way we started planning cities in the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1910s, planners declared a war on shade as a means of responding to slum conditions and high-rises. As described by researcher Sonia Hirt, early land-use planners were inspired by the vision of the detached single-family house on a large lot—a development pattern that’s fine for cloudy Massachusetts, but spells trouble for sunny Florida. Assuming no shade as the ideal, the framers of modern zoning set out to design a system of regulations that make many naturally cooling design elements practically illegal.

…In most suburbs, for example, houses are legally prevented from sitting close to the lot line by setbacks, which prevent any shade from being cast on sidewalks or neighboring homes. 

Strict rules surrounding building heights and density cap most suburban buildings at a standard height of 35 feet, well below what could potentially cast a cooling shadow. And shadows from high-rises are treated as an unambiguous evil in planning hearings, even in otherwise dense urban environments like San Francisco.

The criminalization of shade goes beyond land-use regulations; it extends to the way we design public spaces. Despite more and more cities encouraging street trees as a valuable source of shade, many state transportation offices continue to ban them, privileging ease of maintenance over outdoor comfort.

Trees in particular would not only create more shade but also reduce air pollution.

Which of these claims is false?

The Democratic-controlled House just voted to abolish the “Cadillac tax” on employer-supplied health plans.

The Independent Payments Advisory Board no longer exists, having been abolished with support from both parties.

In the public option for Democratic-controlled Washington State, reimbursement rates were set at up to 160 percent of Medicare levels.

Single-payer health care will save America a great amount of money.

What is the America-China trade war all about?

That is the subject of my latest Bloomberg column, and here are the closing bits:

So that means the trade war is really all about Huawei and Taiwan. If the U.S. persists in trying to eliminate Huawei as a major company, by cutting off its American-supplied inputs and intimidating foreign customers and suppliers for Huawei equipment, it will be difficult for the Chinese to accept. In this case, the reluctance to make a deal will be on the Chinese side, and the structure and relative power of the various American interest groups are not essential to understanding the outcome.

The question, then, is whether the U.S. national security establishment, and in turn Congress (which has been heavily influenced on this question), will accept a compromise on Huawei. Maybe that means no Huawei communications technologies for the U.S. and its closest intelligence-sharing allies, but otherwise no war against the company. That is the first critical question to watch in the unfolding of this trade war. The answer is not yet known, though it seems Trump is willing to deal.

The second major question, equally important but less commented upon, is Taiwan. China has long professed a desire to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, using force if necessary. If you belong to the U.S. national security establishment, and you think a confrontation with China is necessary sooner or later, if only because of Taiwan, you would prefer sooner, before China gains in relative strength. And that militates in favor of the trade war continuing and possibly even escalating, as the U.S. continues to push against China and there is simply no bargain to be had.

It is far from clear what a U.S.-China deal over the status of Taiwan could look like. How much Americans actually care about Taiwan is debatable, but the U.S. is unlikely to abandon a commitment that would weaken its value as an ally around the world. And unlike with Huawei, it is difficult to see what a de-escalation of this issue might look like.

So: If the Huawei and Taiwan questions can be resolved, then the trade war should be eminently manageable. Now, does that make you optimistic or pessimistic?

There is much more at the link.

India’s Tallest Building Cut Down To Size

The FT writes about the bust in India’s construction sector:

It was meant to be the tallest building in India, with luxury flats, a swimming pool and cinema where billionaires and Bollywood stars could enjoy a life of perfect splendour looking down over the Mumbai skyline.

But the Palais Royale complex now sits unfinished alongside other partially built structures tangled in the megacity’s traffic-choked downtown streets, an apt symbol of a crisis that threatens a key part of India’s financial system.

Part of the problem is cyclic, a shadow banking system that overextended credit and is now having to deleverage. India’s construction sector, however, is also plagued by systematic issues including the fact that major construction projects are invariably sued and thus become entangled with India’s notoriously slow legal system. Drawing on a Brookings India working paper by Gandhi, Tandel, Tabarrok and Ravi the FT notes:

But progress was soon slowed by legal challenges over allegedly unauthorised features, sparking a series of delays….However grand the planned building, Palais Royale’s woes fit a familiar pattern: 30 per cent of real estate projects and half of all built-up space in Mumbai is under litigation, according to a 2019 Brookings India report, with projects taking an average of eight and a half years to complete.

The health care public option in Washington state

This excellent Sarah Kliff NYT article is from a few weeks ago, but I missed it the first time around.  Here is the clincher:

“The whole debate was about the rate mechanism,” said Mr. Frockt, the state senator. “With the original bill, with Medicare rates [for the state’s public option], there was strong opposition from all quarters. The insurers, the hospitals, the doctors, everybody.”

Mr. Frockt and his colleagues ultimately raised the fees for the public option up to 160 percent of Medicare rates.

“I don’t think the bill would have passed at Medicare rates,” Mr. Frockt said. “I think having the Medicare-plus rates was crucial to getting the final few votes.”

Nonetheless the piece is interesting throughout, and illustrates some basic dilemmas with health care reform and public options in particular, especially when a sector is controlled by powerful lobbies.

Does Taiwan have the weirdest politics in the world?

That is the topic of my Bloomberg column earlier in the week, here is one excerpt:

Chiang Kai-shek, the first leader of the island, was part of a generation of Asian visionary leaders which is perhaps without parallel. It includes Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Park Chung-Hee in South Korea, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in China, and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Whether you admire these figures or not, theirs  was an unparalleled time for nation building and at a much swifter pace than in European history.

And there is no successful polity that has so many apparently insoluble problems:

Taiwan is also inextricably linked to the economy of the mainland. By one estimate, over 10% of the Taiwanese population lives or works in mainland China, including many of the most ambitious Taiwanese, and China is by far the number one counterparty for trade and investment. Taiwanese real wages stagnated from 2000-2016, in large part because it was more profitable for Taiwanese investors to send their capital to the mainland. The Taiwanese birth rate has plummeted to 1.2 per woman, possibly the lowest in the world.

The Chinese also wish to take them over, by the way.  Finally, I close with some remarks on the forthcoming election.

There is no great stagnation in policing nature through the use of AI-regulated cat flaps

A cat flap that automatically bars entry to a pet if it tries to enter with prey in its jaws has been built as a DIY project by an Amazon employee.

Ben Hamm used machine-learning software to train a system to recognise when his cat Metric was approaching with a rodent or bird in its mouth.

When it detected such an attack, he said, a computer attached to the flap’s lock triggered a 15-minute shut-out.

Mr Hamm unveiled his invention at an event in Seattle last month.

Here is the full story, via Michelle Dawson.

The collected schizophrenias

There’s a line that reads, ‘Rarely did I experience such a radical and visceral imbalance of power as I did as a psychiatric inpatient amid clinicians who knew me only as an illness in human form.’ What was that like? 

When you’re in an inpatient situation in a psychiatric hospital, you lack autonomy in a way that I have experienced in few other situations. You’re not allowed to have a lot of things, especially things that are of comfort. You’re not allowed to have them because they’re dangerous, sure — like shoelaces — but you’re also not allowed to have them because they don’t want you to be distracted by them, such as phones or laptops or iPads. So you’re made to follow their schedule.

You’re also not allowed to know how long this deprivation is going to last.

That’s part of the reason the patients are so eager to talk to the doctor every day, because the doctor is the only person who can who can sign off on you getting out. But sometimes the whole day passes and you have not gotten to talk to the doctor. In the meantime, you’re expected to behave in certain ways that are seen as appropriate — like a group activity like colouring, or like making paper snowmen. You can’t be pouty about it. Otherwise that’s a check against you, and will get you further away from being checked out. So you have to be smiley about it, even though you’re a 36-year-old adult and you’re expected to make glitter snowmen.

That is from Esmé Weijun Wang, with more points of interest at the link, via Lama and also Michelle Dawson.

Economists study busing

This paper dates from 2012, but it is one of the best looks at what we know about busing, based on rigorous analysis of data, combined with natural experiments:

We study the impact of the end of race-based busing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools (“CMS”) on academic achievement, educational attainment, and young adult crime. In 2001, CMS was prohibited from using race in assigning students to schools. School boundaries were redrawn dramatically to reflect the surrounding neighborhoods, and half of its students received a new assignment. Using addresses measured prior to the policy change, we compare students in the same neighborhood that lived on opposite sides of a newly drawn boundary. We find that both white and minority students score lower on high school exams when they are assigned to schools with more minority students. We also find decreases in high school graduation and four-year college attendance for whites, and large increases in crime for minority males. The impacts on achievement and attainment are smaller in younger cohorts, while the impact on crime remains large and persistent for at least nine years after the re-zoning. We show that compensatory resource allocation policies in CMS likely played an important role in mitigating the impact of segregation on achievement and attainment, but had no impact on crime. We conclude that the end of busing widened racial inequality, despite efforts by CMS to mitigate the impact of increases in segregation.

That is from Stephen B. Billings, David J. Deming, and Jonah E. Rockoff.

The real privacy violators

Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have turned state driver’s license databases into a facial-recognition gold mine, scanning through millions of Americans’ photos without their knowledge or consent, newly released documents show.

Thousands of facial-recognition requests, internal documents and emails over the past five years, obtained through public-records requests by Georgetown Law researchers and provided to The Washington Post, reveal that federal investigators have turned state departments of motor vehicles databases into the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure.

Police have long had access to fingerprints, DNA and other “biometric data” taken from criminal suspects. But the DMV records contain the photos of a vast majority of a state’s residents, most of whom have never been charged with a crime.

Here is the full story by Drew Harwell.