Category: Political Science

My Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interesting throughout, so interesting I don’t feel the need to give you an excerpt, here is the audio and transcript.  There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware.  At the end of the conversation, just keep on scrolling, Taleb starts up with Bryan Caplan for an hour, mostly on education.  Here is the link for the Caplan segment only.

Does housing wealth make people more complacent?

It seems so:

I propose the status quo bias hypothesis, which predicts that housing wealth increases preference for status quo arrangements with respect to Social Security. I contrast the status quo bias hypothesis with the claim that housing wealth reduces support for social insurance, and test the hypothesis in two empirical studies. A survey experiment finds that homeowners informed about high historical home price appreciation (HPA) are about 8 percentage points more likely to prefer existing Social Security arrangements to privatized retirement accounts, compared to those informed about low historical HPA. Observational data from the 2000-2004 ANES panel show that homeowners who experience higher HPA are about 11 percentage points more likely to prefer status quo levels of spending on Social Security than those in the bottom HPA quartile. No significant HPA effects are observed among renters, and for other domains of social insurance among homeowners. The evidence suggests that housing wealth’s conservatizing effect should be interpreted as a status quo preference, rather than opposition to redistributive social policies.

That is from Weihuang Wong, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Cultural Divide

That is the title of a new and very important paper by Klaus Desmet and Romain Wacziarg, here is the abstract:

This paper conducts a systematic quantitative study of cultural convergence and divergence in the United States over time. Using the General Social Survey (1972-2016), we assess whether cultural values have grown more or less heterogeneous, both overall and between groups. Groups are defined according to 11 identity cleavages such as gender, religion, ethnic origin, family income quintiles, geographic region, education levels, etc. We find some evidence of greater overall heterogeneity after 1993 when averaging over all available values, yet on many issues heterogeneity changes little. The level of between-group heterogeneity is extremely small: the United States is very pluralistic in terms of cultural attitudes and values, but this diversity is not primarily the result of cultural divides between groups. On average across cleavages and values, we find evidence of falling between-group heterogeneity from 1972 to the late 1990s, and growing divides thereafter…

This, from the paper, is also illuminating:

For some questions, such as several questions on sexual behavior and public policies, there is growing social consensus. For others, such as questions on gun laws and confidence in some civic institutions, we find growing disagreements. Some of these dynamics can be understood as transitions from one end of the belief spectrum to the other. For instance, on the issue of marijuana legalization, attitudes have moved from generalized disagreement to majority agreement, so heterogeneity rose and is now falling. Overall, we find some evidence of a systematic tendency toward greater heterogeneity after 1993 when averaging over all available memes, yet on many issues heterogeneity changes little.

By the way, “urbanicity” shows “declining levels of cultural fixation,” contrary to what you often read.

Overall I take this to be an optimistic set of results.

Legalize pot, but don’t normalize it

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

You might wonder why we should be so worried about public marijuana use. To put it bluntly, I see intelligence as one of the ultimate scarcities when it comes to making the world a better place, and smoking marijuana does not make people smarter. Even if you think there is no long-term damage, right after smoking a person is less able to perform most IQ-intensive tasks (with improvisational jazz as a possible exception). By having city streets filled with pot, pot stores and the odor of pot, we are sending a signal that our society isn’t so oriented toward the intellect or bourgeois values. Even if that signal is reflecting a good bit of truth, it would be better not to acknowledge it too openly, just as most advocates of legalized prostitution don’t want to allow brothels on Main Street.

Basically I want full legality, but in some locales (California, Colorado) stronger restrictions on its place in the public sphere.  Do read the whole thing.

Is North Korea withdrawing from the nuclear talks?

No, they are negotiating, read their latest statement, it is full of “ifs.”  If you are negotiating, especially in a fraught situation, often you will feel the need to walk away from the talks, or at least threaten to do so.  (Of course, many people suggest Obama should have done more of this leading up to the Iran deal.)  And Kim doesn’t want to enter the talks with Trump having had an unbroken string of PR successes.

Now, there is a perfectly reasonable argument for being pessimistic about the North Korean nuclear talks, namely that some of the demands of the two sides may prove incompatible.  The good news, if you would call it that, is that we are not actually calling for complete denuclearization of North Korea, though nonetheless we may require more than they are willing to cede.  Most of all, we want them to start acting like a normal evil government, rather than like a crazy evil government.  Maybe that is too hard for Kim to pull off and still feel stable.

Still, the new news isn’t really bad news at all.  It is how an evil tyrannical government negotiates.  It is also how some non-evil tyrannical governments negotiate as well, not to mention non-evil, non-tyrannical governments too.

Low-skilled immigration seems to boost support for Republicans

In this paper we study the impact of immigration to the United States on the vote for the Republican Party by analyzing county-level data on election outcomes between 1990 and 2010. Our main contribution is to separate the effect of high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants, by exploiting the different geography and timing of the inflows of these two groups of immigrants. We find that an increase in the first type of immigrants decreases the share of the Republican vote, while an inflow of the second type increases it. These effects are mainly due to the local impact of immigrants on votes of U.S. citizens and they seem independent of the country of origin of immigrants. We also find that the pro-Republican impact of low-skilled immigrants is stronger in low-skilled and non-urban counties. This is consistent with citizens’ political preferences shifting towards the Republican Party in places where low-skilled immigrants are more likely to be perceived as competition in the labor market and for public resources.

Here is the NBER paper by Anna Maria Mayda, Giovanni Peri, and Walter Steingress.

Eric R. Weinstein, as he exists in the observerse

There’s been so much back and forth about Eric Weinstein (Wikipedia here) on Twitter lately, mostly because he was identified by Bari Weiss in the NYT as belonging to an “intellectual dark web.”

I first met Eric at a Victor Niederhoffer Junto event in New York City, and I have kept in touch with him over the years.  I’ve never thought of Eric as “intellectual dark web,” whatever that might mean, and I don’t even much associate him with the web, much less darkness (intellectual, yes).  I would also note that, although I’ve spent a fair number of hours chatting with him, and was interviewed by him once, I could not characterize his political views in any simple way.  And I was surprised to learn that the article described him as having supported Bernie Sanders.

I would say this: if you wish to sit down and chat with someone, and receive new and interesting and original ideas, Eric is one of the most “generative” people I know, easily in the top five or higher yet.  And I know a number of very smart others who would concur in this claim.  Quite simply, that is the source of Eric’s influence and semi-fame.

I don’t pretend any comprehensive knowledge of Eric’s views, and I don’t doubt he might believe many things I would diagree with, starting with claims about Bernie Sanders.  But the third paragraph of this post is the most fundamental intellectual fact about Eric, and if one does not know that, one does not know Eric.

Addendum: Eric also has research in mathematics and physics which I am not close to being able to assess: “Weinstein claimed in his dissertation research that the self-dual Yang–Mills equations on which Donaldson theory was built were not unique as was believed at the time, putting forward two sets of alternate equations based on spinorial constructions.”

Is China moving back toward Marx?

And should we celebrate along with Xi Jinping?  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, with plenty on the debates within socialist thought, here is the close:

Do I expect those future political reforms to take a Marxian path of the dictatorship of the proletariat? Probably not. But when it comes to China, Marx is the one theorist who has not yet been refuted. It’s the Western liberals and the Maoists who both have egg on their faces.

If you think of Western liberalism as the relevant alternative, you might feel discomfort at the Chinese revival of Marx. But if you think a bit longer on Maoism, its role in Chinese history and its strong nativist roots, you too might join in the Marx celebrations.

Do read the whole thing.

My Conversation with Bryan Caplan

Bryan was in top form, I can’t recall hearing him being more interesting or persuasive.  Here is the audio and text.  We talked about whether any single paper is good enough, the autodidact’s curse, the philosopher who most influenced Bryan, the case against education, the Straussian reading of Bryan, effective altruism, Socrates, Larry David, where to live in 527 A.D., the charm of Richard Wagner, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You love Tolstoy, right?

CAPLAN: Yeah. You love Tolstoy because here’s a guy who not only has this encyclopedic knowledge of human beings — you say he knows human nature. Tolstoy knows human natures. He realizes that there are hundreds of kinds of people, and like an entomologist, he has the patience to study each kind on its own terms.

Tolstoy, you read it: “There are 17 kinds of little old ladies. This was the 13th kind. This was the kind that’s very interested in what you’re eating but doesn’t wish to hear about your romance, which will be contrasted with the seventh kind which has exactly the opposite preferences.” That’s what’s to me so great about Tolstoy.

Here is one of my questions:

What’s the fundamental feature in Bryan Caplan–think that has made you, unlike most other nerds, so much more interested in Stalin than science fiction?

Here is another exchange:

COWEN: You think, in our society in general, this action bias infests everything? Or is there some reason why it’s drawn like a magnet to education?

CAPLAN: Action bias primarily drives government. For individuals, I think even there there’s some action bias. But nevertheless, for the individual, there is the cost of just going and trying something that’s not very likely to succeed, and the connection with the failure and disappointment, and a lot of things don’t work out.

There’s a lot of people who would like to start their own business, but they don’t try because they have some sense that it’s really hard.

What I see in government is, there isn’t the same kind of filter, which is a big part of my work in general in politics. You don’t have the same kind of personal disincentives against doing things that sound good but actually don’t work out very well in practice.

Probably even bigger than action bias is actually what psychologists call social desirability bias: just doing things that sound good whether or not they actually work very well and not really asking hard questions about whether things that sound good will work out very well in practice.

I also present what I think are the three strongest arguments against Bryan’s “education is mostly signaling” argument — decide for yourself how good his answers are.

And:

COWEN: …Parenting and schooling in your take don’t matter so much. Something is changing these [norms] that is mostly not parenting and not schooling. And they are changing quite a bit, right?

CAPLAN: Yes.

COWEN: Is it like all technology? Is the secret reading of Bryan Caplan that you’re a technological determinist?

CAPLAN: I don’t think so. In general, not a determinist of any kind.

COWEN: I was teasing about that.

And last but not least:

CAPLAN: …When someone gets angry at Robin, this is what actually outrages me. I just want to say, “Look, to get angry at Robin is like getting angry at baby Jesus.” He’s just a symbol and embodiment of innocence and decency. For someone to get angry at someone who just wants to learn . . .

COWEN: And when they get mad at me?

CAPLAN: Eh, I understand that.

Hail Bryan Caplan!  Again here is the link, and of course you should buy his book The Case Against Education.

Does aversion to change predict support for Donald Trump?

Donald Trump won the American presidency in 2016 by overperforming expectations in upper Midwest states, surprising even Republican political elites. We argue that attitudes toward social change were an underappreciated dividing line between supporters of Trump and Hillary Clinton as well as between Republicans at the mass and elite levels. We introduce a concept and measure of aversion to (or acceptance of) social diversification and value change, assess the prevalence of these attitudes in the mass public and among political elites, and demonstrate its effects on support for Trump. Our research uses paired surveys of Michigan’s adult population and community of political elites in the Fall of 2016. Aversion to social change is strongly predictive of support for Trump at the mass level, even among racial minorities. But attitudes are far more accepting of social change among elites than the public and aversion to social change is not a factor explaining elite Trump support. If elites were as averse to social change as the electorate—and if that attitude mattered to their vote choice—they might have been as supportive of Trump. Views of social change were not as strongly related to congressional voting choices.

That is from Matt Grossman and Daniel Thaler.

When was it possible to institute social democracy?

Notably, almost all the foreign programs that American social democrats envy were enacted during Europe’s long post-war economic and demographic boom. That meant that the initial cost of these systems was fairly low — young people don’t need much in the way of health care or pensions, and economies at full employment don’t spend a lot on unemployment insurance or job retraining. As incomes soared, it was comparatively easy for government to skim some of the surplus for their new social insurance schemes, because even as their taxes went up, workers still got to take more money home every week. Governments ran into problems when the boom stopped, of course, but by then, political sentiment had cemented those programs in place.

What was easy in 1960 looks herculean as 2020 approaches. Economic growth has slowed, and populations are aging, which raises the cost of any proposed program and requires you to fund heavy losses on someone to fund it, either workers in those industries, or taxpayers. As psychologists tell us, people are “loss averse” — they care much more about losing something they have than about equivalent potential gains. Given the mammoth cost of socializing the U.S. economy now, and the huge number of people who face substantial losses, I’d argue that we should probably change “herculean” to “impossible.”

That is from Megan McArdle at The Washington Post.

Polarization isn’t mainly about ideology

If out-group hostility is more important to party identification than support for particular policies or ideologies, we may not actually place very many ideological demands on our parties. Defeating our enemies may be more important than advancing specific liberal or conservative agendas. According to Groenendyk: “If partisans’ identities are increasingly anchored to hatred of the outparty than affection for their inparty, electoral dynamics are likely much more fluid than many accounts suggest. Thus, insurgent candidates with questionable ideological credentials (e.g., Donald Trump) may be more appealing than one might expect in the age of ideologically sorted parties.”

Here is more from George Hawley, via Philip Wallach.  Of course Amihai Glazer understood this decades ago…nor should you forget Bryan Caplan’s “simplistic theory of left and right.

Authoritarian gridlock

Legislative gridlock is often viewed as a uniquely democratic phenomenon. The institutional checks and balances that produce gridlock are absent from authoritarian systems, leading many observers to romanticize “authoritarian efficiency” and policy dynamism. A unique data set from the Chinese case demonstrates that authoritarian regimes can have trouble passing laws and changing policies—48% of laws are not passed within the period specified in legislative plans, and about 12% of laws take more than 10 years to pass. This article develops a theory that relates variation in legislative outcomes to the absence of division within the ruling coalition and citizen attention shocks. Qualitative analysis of China’s Food Safety Law, coupled with shadow case studies of two other laws, illustrates the plausibility of the theoretical mechanisms. Division and public opinion play decisive roles in authoritarian legislative processes.

That is from Rory Truex, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The monitoring culture that is China

…the workers wear caps to monitor their brainwaves, data that management then uses to adjust the pace of production and redesign workflows, according to the company.

The company said it could increase the overall efficiency of the workers by manipulating the frequency and length of break times to reduce mental stress.

Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric is just one example of the large-scale application of brain surveillance devices to monitor people’s emotions and other mental activities in the workplace, according to scientists and companies involved in the government-backed projects.

Concealed in regular safety helmets or uniform hats, these lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.

The technology is in widespread use around the world but China has applied it on an unprecedented scale in factories, public transport, state-owned companies and the military to increase the competitiveness of its manufacturing industry and to maintain social stability.

That is from STephen Chen at SCMP, via someone forgotten over at Twitter.

My Conversation with Balaji Srinivasan

Here is the transcript and audio, and this is the intro:

Marc Andreessen has described Balaji as the man who has more good ideas per minute than anyone else in the Bay Area. He is the CEO of Earn.com, where we’re sitting right now, a board partner at Andreessen Horowitz, formerly a general partner. He has cofounded the company Counsyl in addition to many other achievements.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is the venture capital model so geographically clustered? So much of it is out here in the Bay Area. It’s spreading to other parts of the country. Around the world, you see Israel, in some ways, as being number two, per capita number one. But that’s a very small country. Why is it so hard to get venture capital off the ground in so many areas?

SRINIVASAN: That’s actually now changed with the advent of ICOs and Ethereum and crypto. Historically, the reason for it was companies would come to Sand Hill Road. One maybe slightly less appreciated aspect is, if you come to Sand Hill Road and you get VC financing, the VC who invests in your company typically takes a board seat. A VC does not want to fly 6,000 miles for every board seat if they’ve got 10 board seats and four board meetings a year per company.

What a VC would like in general, all else being equal, is for you to be within driving distance. Not only does that VC like it, so does the next VC in the B round and the next VC in the C round. That factor is actually one of the big things that constrains people to the Bay Area, is VC driving distance, [laughs] because VCs don’t want to do investments that are an entire world away.

With the advent of Ethereum and ICOs, we have finally begun to decentralize the last piece, which was funding. Now, that regulatory environment needs to be worked out. It’s going to be worked out in different ways in different countries.

But the old era where you had to come to Sand Hill to get your company funded and then go to Wall Street to exit is over. That’s something where it’s going to increasingly decentralize. It already has decentralized worldwide, and that’s going to continue.

COWEN: With or without a board seat, doesn’t funding require a face-to-face relationship? It’s common for VC companies to even want the people they’re funding to move their endeavor to the Bay Area in some way, not only for the board meeting. They want to spend time with those people.

We’re doing this podcast face to face. We could have done it over Skype. There’s something significant about actually having an emotionally vivid connection with someone right there in the room. How much can we get around that as a basic constraint?

And here is another:

COWEN: Right now, I pay financial fees to my mutual funds, to Merrill Lynch, all over. Anytime I save money, I’m paying a fee to someone. Which of those fees will go away?

SRINIVASAN: Good question. Maybe all of them.

And:

COWEN: Drones?

SRINIVASAN: Underrated.

COWEN: Why? What will they do that we haven’t thought of?

SRINIVASAN: Construction. There’s different kinds of drones. They’re not just flying drones. There’s swimming drones and there’s walking drones and so on.

Like the example I mentioned where you can teleport into a robot and then control that, Skype into a robot and control that on other side of the world. That’s going to be something where maybe you’re going to have it in drone mode so it walks to the destination. You’ll be asleep and then you wake up and it’s at the destination.

Drones are going to be a very big deal. There’s this interesting movie called Surrogates, which actually talks about what a really big drone/telepresence future would look like. People never leave their homes because, instead, they just Skype into a really good-looking drone/telepresent version of themselves, and they walk around in that.

If they’re hit by a car, it doesn’t matter because they can just rejuvenate and create a new one. I think drones are very, very underrated in terms of what they’re going to do. 

Do read or listen to the whole thing.