Category: Political Science

How to retaliate against foreign adversaries

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

Maybe Trump’s threat to attack cultural sites was not meant literally, but rather as a brash reminder that his retaliatory actions will not be constrained by world opinion, international law or the views of American elites. If so, such a signal, to be effective, has to harm the Iranian regime. Trump’s message shows that he doesn’t understand the calculus of retaliation very well.

Assassinating a military leader by drone, by contrast, is something the U.S. can do but the Iranian government cannot, at least not easily or without provoking even greater retaliation. That makes such a policy an effective deterrent in the short run, as it hurts the actual decision maker, and indeed that is what Trump chose to do.

By mentioning cultural sites, he in essence has decided to follow a very strong signal of action with a much weaker signal of words. If you are a hawk, you should understand that Trump’s talk of cultural sites is weakening his core message that retaliation will be effective. It is usually better game theory to follow up a highly impactful action with relative silence, but silence never has been Trump’s strong suit.

There is much more to the argument at the link.

The politics of zero-sum thinking

The tendency to see life as zero-sum exacerbates political conflicts. Six studies (N = 3223) examine the relationship between political ideology and zero-sum thinking: the belief that one party’s gains can only be obtained at the expense of another party’s losses. We find that both liberals and conservatives view life as zero-sum when it benefits them to do so. Whereas conservatives exhibit zero-sum thinking when the status quo is challenged, liberals do so when the status quo is being upheld. Consequently, conservatives view social inequalities—where the status quo is frequently challenged—as zero-sum, but liberals view economic inequalities—where the status quo has remained relatively unchallenged in past decades—as such. Overall, these findings suggest potentially important ideological differences in perceptions of conflict—differences that are likely to have implications for understanding political divides in the United States and the difficulty of reaching bipartisan legislation.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Shai Davidai and Martino Ongis.  Via Matt Grossmann.

What are the most important lessons for Dominic Cummings and British civil service reformers?

Please leave your suggestions in the comments, only on-topic comments are welcome.  If you are not quite up to speed, again here is a link to the relevant Dominic Cummings blog post.  Or here is a good summary from The Economist.

After digesting all of your marvelous inputs, I will write a synthetic post of my own, with the best of your ideas and some of mine as well.

Emergent Ventures, sixth cohort

Sonja Trauss of YIMBY, assistance to publish Nicholas Barbon, A Defence of the Builder.

Parnian Barekatain.

Anna Gát, for development as a public intellectual and also toward the idea and practice of spotting and mobilizing talent in others.

M.B. Malabu, travel grant to come to the D.C. area for helping in setting up a market-oriented think tank in Nigeria.

Eric James Wang and Jordan Fernando Alexandera joint award for their work on the project Academia Mirmidón, to help find, mobilize, and market programming and tech talent in Mexico.

Gonzalo Schwarz, Archbridge Institute, for research and outreach work to improve policy through reforms in Uruguay and Brazil. 

Nolan Gray, urban planner from NYC, to be in residence at Mercatus and write a book on YIMBY, Against Zoning.

Samarth Jajoo, an Indian boy in high school, to assist his purchase of study materials for math, computer science, and tutoring.  Here is his new book gifting project.

One other, not yet ready to be announced.  But a good one.

And EV winner Harshita Arora co-founded AtoB, a startup building a sustainable transportation network for intercity commuters using buses.

Here are previous MR posts on Emergent Ventures.

What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism

Having tracked the libertarian “movement” for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow.  One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.  For one thing, it doesn’t seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems, most significantly climate change.  For another, smart people are on the internet, and the internet seems to encourage synthetic and eclectic views, at least among the smart and curious.  Unlike the mass culture of the 1970s, it does not tend to breed “capital L Libertarianism.”  On top of all that, the out-migration from narrowly libertarian views has been severe, most of all from educated women.

There is also the word “classical liberal,” but what is “classical” supposed to mean that is not question-begging?  The classical liberalism of its time focused on 19th century problems — appropriate for the 19th century of course — but from WWII onwards it has been a very different ballgame.

Along the way, I believe the smart classical liberals and libertarians have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.  I define State Capacity Libertarianism in terms of a number of propositions:

1. Markets and capitalism are very powerful, give them their due.

2. Earlier in history, a strong state was necessary to back the formation of capitalism and also to protect individual rights (do read Koyama and Johnson on state capacity).  Strong states remain necessary to maintain and extend capitalism and markets.  This includes keeping China at bay abroad and keeping elections free from foreign interference, as well as developing effective laws and regulations for intangible capital, intellectual property, and the new world of the internet.  (If you’ve read my other works, you will know this is not a call for massive regulation of Big Tech.)

3. A strong state is distinct from a very large or tyrannical state.  A good strong state should see the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties, in many cases its #1 duty.

4. Rapid increases in state capacity can be very dangerous (earlier Japan, Germany), but high levels of state capacity are not inherently tyrannical.  Denmark should in fact have a smaller government, but it is still one of the freer and more secure places in the world, at least for Danish citizens albeit not for everybody.

5. Many of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity.  Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending.  Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality.  I favor much more immigration, nonetheless I think our government needs clear standards for who cannot get in, who will be forced to leave, and a workable court system to back all that up and today we do not have that either.

Those problems require state capacity — albeit to boost markets — in a way that classical libertarianism is poorly suited to deal with.  Furthermore, libertarianism is parasitic upon State Capacity Libertarianism to some degree.  For instance, even if you favor education privatization, in the shorter run we still need to make the current system much better.  That would even make privatization easier, if that is your goal.

6. I will cite again the philosophical framework of my book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

7. The fundamental growth experience of recent decades has been the rise of capitalism, markets, and high living standards in East Asia, and State Capacity Libertarianism has no problem or embarrassment in endorsing those developments.  It remains the case that such progress (or better) could have been made with more markets and less government.  Still, state capacity had to grow in those countries and indeed it did.  Public health improvements are another major success story of our time, and those have relied heavily on state capacity — let’s just admit it.

8. The major problem areas of our time have been Africa and South Asia.  They are both lacking in markets and also in state capacity.

9. State Capacity Libertarians are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.  Modern Democrats often claim to favor those items, and sincerely in my view, but de facto they are very willing to sacrifice them for redistribution, egalitarian and fairness concerns, mood affiliation, and serving traditional Democratic interest groups.  For instance, modern Democrats have run New York for some time now, and they’ve done a terrible job building and fixing things.  Nor are Democrats doing much to boost nuclear power as a partial solution to climate change, if anything the contrary.

10. State Capacity Libertarianism has no problem endorsing higher quality government and governance, whereas traditional libertarianism is more likely to embrace or at least be wishy-washy toward small, corrupt regimes, due to some of the residual liberties they leave behind.

11. State Capacity Libertarianism is not non-interventionist in foreign policy, as it believes in strong alliances with other relatively free nations, when feasible.  That said, the usual libertarian “problems of intervention because government makes a lot of mistakes” bar still should be applied to specific military actions.  But the alliances can be hugely beneficial, as illustrated by much of 20th century foreign policy and today much of Asia — which still relies on Pax Americana.

It is interesting to contrast State Capacity Libertarianism to liberaltarianism, another offshoot of libertarianism.  On most substantive issues, the liberaltarians might be very close to State Capacity Libertarians.  But emphasis and focus really matter, and I would offer this (partial) list of differences:

a. The liberaltarian starts by assuring “the left” that they favor lots of government transfer programs.  The State Capacity Libertarian recognizes that demands of mercy are never ending, that economic growth can benefit people more than transfers, and, within the governmental sphere, it is willing to emphasize an analytical, “cold-hearted” comparison between government discretionary spending and transfer spending.  Discretionary spending might well win out at many margins.

b. The “polarizing Left” is explicitly opposed to a lot of capitalism, and de facto standing in opposition to state capacity, due to the polarization, which tends to thwart problem-solving.  The polarizing Left is thus a bigger villain for State Capacity Libertarianism than it is for liberaltarianism.  For the liberaltarians, temporary alliances with the polarizing Left are possible because both oppose Trump and other bad elements of the right wing.  It is easy — maybe too easy — to market liberaltarianism to the Left as a critique and revision of libertarians and conservatives.

c. Liberaltarian Will Wilkinson made the mistake of expressing enthusiasm for Elizabeth Warren.  It is hard to imagine a State Capacity Libertarian making this same mistake, since so much of Warren’s energy is directed toward tearing down American business.  Ban fracking? Really?  Send money to Russia, Saudi Arabia, lose American jobs, and make climate change worse, all at the same time?  Nope.

d. State Capacity Libertarianism is more likely to make a mistake of say endorsing high-speed rail from LA to Sf (if indeed that is a mistake), and decrying the ability of U.S. governments to get such a thing done.  “Which mistakes they are most likely to commit” is an underrated way of assessing political philosophies.

You will note the influence of Peter Thiel on State Capacity Libertarianism, though I have never heard him frame the issues in this way.

Furthermore, “which ideas survive well in internet debate” has been an important filter on the evolution of the doctrine.  That point is under-discussed, for all sorts of issues, and it may get a blog post of its own.

Here is my earlier essay on the paradox of libertarianism, relevant for background.

Happy New Year everyone!

What to think about Modi these days

Ian Bremmer offers one account of all the wrongdoing, which I will not summarize here.  In any case, many of you have asked me what I think of these recent events.

I do not at all favor replacing India’s secular democracy with “Hindu nation” as a ruling principle.  For one thing, I believe in strong libertarian protections for minority rights against state power, including for Muslims.  I also believe these moves will be bad for India’s economy.  Nonetheless I find most of the extant commentary on Modi fairly misleading and/or naive.

As this outsider sees it, India’s secular democracy was never liberal.  It had certain de facto liberal elements, but largely out of low levels of state capacity, necessitating a kind of tolerance but of course also leading to a very sub-par infrastructure.  Furthermore, it has been commonly described by political scientists as a “democracy without accountability.”  National voting has so much to do with religion, caste, and other particularistic principles that Indian democracy never enforced superior practical performance as it should have.

Then enter several forces at more or less the same time, including Modi, ongoing Indian economic growth, higher expectations and thus greater demands for state capacity, a rise in what is called “populism,” and also an increase in the focality of Islam and also terrorism around the world.

In essence that state capacity starts to be built and part of it is turned to wrong ends, in an attempt to appeal to the roughly 80 percent Hindu majority.  Here is the NYT:

The Modi administration has also done a better job than previous governments in pushing big anti-poverty initiatives, such as building 100 million toilets to help stop open defecation and the spread of deadly disease.

In other words, the positive and negative sides of the story here may be more closely related than is comfortable to contemplate.  The picture reminds me a bit of how parts of Renaissance Europe were often more anti-Semitic or racist than medieval Europe, in part because persecuting states had more resources and it was easier to mobilize intolerant sentiment, partly due to the printing press.  I don’t however idolize medieval times as being so libertarian, rather the earlier ideology contained the seeds of the Renaissance oppressions, which in time turned into foreign imperialism as well.

Similarly, oppression and religious conflict is hardly news in India, for instance you may recall the Partition which in the 1940s killed at least one million people and displaced at least 10 million more.

None of this is to excuse any of these oppressions, whether in India or elsewhere.  The libertarian rights still ought to apply, and should be written into the Indian constitution and laws more firmly.

(It is an interesting and much under-discussed result that the greatest violations of libertarian rights tend to come in periods of high delta in state capacity, not high absolute levels of state capacity per se.  The Nazi government was not that large as a percentage of gdp, but it was growing rapidly in terms of its efficacy along certain dimensions.)

The moral and resonant message here is “libertarian rights for minorities truly are important and beware state power!”  And somehow we need to think strategically, at a deep level, how that message can be combined with the inevitable and indeed desirable growth in Indian state capacity.  The libertarians only make this their issue by eliding the need for growth in state capacity.  So they moralize correctly about the situation, but they don’t see the underlying dilemma so clearly either.

Consider this NYT passage:

“Modi is not a normal politician who measures his success only by votes,” said Kanchan Chandra, a political scientist at New York University. “He sees himself as the architect of a new India, built on a foundation of technological, cultural, economic and military prowess, and backed by an ideology of Hindu nationalism.”

The real question here is — still mostly unanswered — “what else is the new ideology of state capacity supposed to be?”  I am happy to put in my vote for Anglo-American liberalism, but still I recognize that probably will not command either a majority or even a plurality.

Here is one proffered alternative to Modi:

“Rahul Gandhi felt people would support the Congress on issues of farmers, youth, employment, inflation. But, the core issues were left behind and surgical strikes and nationalism were highlighted. The Congress was dubbed a Muslim party. Aren’t we nationalists?” Gehlot asked.

I am not so impressed.  Or try this discussion “What is alternative to ‘Modi cult'”.  Again, on the ideas front underwhelming, at least for this classical liberal.  Maybe something good can come out of the current protest movement (NYT).

All the more, the “establishment media” just isn’t interested in framing the story in terms of individual rights and constraints on democracy.  That narrative is too…well…libertarian and also anti-statist.

For one example, blame either Nilinjana Roy or the person who titled her FT column “Democracy in India is on the brink.”  Last I checked, Modi was elected, then re-elected, and his party and its allies control almost 2/3 of the lower house.  That is truly an Orwellian column title.  It should not be so hard to write “The problem with Modi is the statism, and lack of respect for minority rights, sadly this is democratically certified and thus democracy requires real constitutional constraint of the powers of the government.”  But so many people today are mentally and emotionally incapable of thinking and writing such thoughts, having spent so much time in their mood affiliation glorifying “democracy” (or what they take to be democracy) above all other values.

So we should be spending our time developing and publicizing a new (non-Modi) ideology for greater state capacity in India, combined of course with greater liberty.

And yes, please do restore, redefine, re-enforce or in some cases discover all of the required minority libertarian rights.  Hundreds of millions of Indians and others are counting on it.

My Conversation with Abhijit Banerjee

I had an excellent time in this one, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening summary:

Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more.

Yes there was plenty of economics, but I feel like excerpting this bit:

COWEN: Why does Kolkata have the best sweet shops in India?

BANERJEE: It’s a bit circular because, of course, I tend to believe Kolkata has —

COWEN: So do I, however, and I have no loyalty per se.

BANERJEE: I think largely because Kolkata actually also — which is less known — has absolutely amazing food. In general, the food is amazing. Relative to the rest of India, Kolkata had a very large middle class with a fair amount of surplus and who were willing to spend money on. I think there were caste and other reasons why restaurants didn’t flourish. It’s not an accident that a lot of Indian restaurants were born out of truck stops. These are called dhabas.

COWEN: Sure.

BANERJEE: Caste has a lot to do with it. But sweets are just too difficult to make at home, even though lots of people used to make some of them. And I think there was some line that was just permitted that you can have sweets made out of — in these specific places, made by these castes.

There’s all kinds of conversations about this in the early-to-mid 19th century on what you can eat out, what is eating out, what can you buy in a shop, et cetera. I think in the late 19th century you see that, basically, sweet shops actually provide not just sweets, but for travelers, you can actually eat a lunch there for 50 cents, even now, an excellent lunch. They’re some savories and a sweet — maybe for 40 rupees, you get all of that.

And it was actually the core mechanism for reconciling Brahminical cultures of different kinds with a certain amount of social mobility. People came from outside. They were working in Kolkata. Kolkata was a big city in India. All the immigrants came. What would they eat? I think a lot of these sweet shops were a place where you actually don’t just get sweets — you get savories as well. And savories are excellent.

In Kolkata, if you go out for the day, the safest place to eat is in a sweet shop. It’s always freshly made savories available. You eat the freshly made savories, and you get some sweets at the end.

COWEN: Are higher wage rates bad for the highest-quality sweets? Because rich countries don’t seem to have them.

BANERJEE: Oh no, rich countries have fabulous sweets. I mean, at France —

COWEN: Not like in Kolkata.

BANERJEE: France has fabulous sweets. I think the US is exceptional in the quality of the . . . let me say, the fact that you don’t get actually excellent sweets in most places —

And this on music:

BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.

In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.

It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.

And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.

COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?

Definitely recommended, Abhijit was scintillating throughout.

The Innovation Prisoner’s Dilemma

I find windmills beautiful but many people disagree, even in environmentally conscious Germany.

Bloomberg:…it’s getting harder to get permission to erect the turbine towers. Local regulations are getting stricter. Bavaria decided back in 2014 that the distance between a wind turbine and the nearest housing must be 10 times the height of the mast, which, given the density of dwellings, makes it hard to find a spot anywhere. Wind energy development is practically stalled in the state now. Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, passed a law this year demanding that wind-farm operators pay 10,000 euros ($11,100) per turbine each year to communities within 3 kilometers of the windmills.

…local opponents of the wind farms often go to court to stall new developments or even have existing towers dismantled. According to the wind-industry lobby BWE, 325 turbine installations with a total capacity of more than 1 gigawatt (some 2% of the country’s total installed capacity) are tied up in litigation. The irony is that the litigants are often just as “green” as the wind-energy proponents — one is the large conservation organization NABU, which says it’s not against wind energy as such but merely demands that installations are planned with preserving nature in mind. Almost half of the complaints are meant to protect various bird and bat species; others claim the turbines make too much noise or emit too much low-frequency infrasound. Regardless of the validity of such claims, projects get tied up in the courts even after jumping through the many hoops necessary to get a permit.

Another reason for local resistance to the wind farms is a form of Nimbyism: People hate the way the wind towers change landscapes. There’s even a German word for it, Verspargelung, roughly translated aspollution with giant asparagus sticks.

As I wrote earlier, more and more the sphere of individual action shrinks and that of collective action grows and, as a result, nothing can get done because there are so many veto players in the system. We have locked ourselves into an innovation prisoner’s dilemma where each player can say no and as a result we are all worse off.

Windmill, Energy, The Windmills, Wind, The Power Of

New evidence that YouTube doesn’t radicalize

The role that YouTube and its behind-the-scenes recommendation algorithm plays in encouraging online radicalization has been suggested by both journalists and academics alike. This study directly quantifies these claims by examining the role that YouTube’s algorithm plays in suggesting radicalized content. After categorizing nearly 800 political channels, we were able to differentiate between political schemas in order to analyze the algorithm traffic flows out and between each group. After conducting a detailed analysis of recommendations received by each channel type, we refute the popular radicalization claims. To the contrary, these data suggest that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm actively discourages viewers from visiting radicalizing or extremist content. Instead, the algorithm is shown to favor mainstream media and cable news content over independent YouTube channels with slant towards left-leaning or politically neutral channels. Our study thus suggests that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm fails to promote inflammatory or radicalized content, as previously claimed by several outlets.

That is from a new paper by Mark Ledwich and Anna Zaitsev.  That hardly settles the matter, but you may recall the last serious papers on this topic also indicated that YouTube does not radicalize.  So if you are still believing that YouTube radicalizes, you will need to come up with additional facts for your point of view.

Here is a Mark Ledwich tweet storm on the paper.

Taliban markets in everything

Nearly 400 people who were either wounded while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan or are family members of service members who died in the conflict sued a group of companies on Friday they say helped fund attacks against Americans by making protection payments to the Taliban.

“Defendants supported the Taliban for a simple reason: Defendants were all large Western companies with lucrative businesses in post-9/11 Afghanistan, and they all paid the Taliban to refrain from attacking their business interests,” the 288-page complaint filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. on Friday states. “Those protection payments aided and abetted terrorism by directly funding an al-Qaeda-backed Taliban insurgency that killed and injured thousands of Americans.”

Relying on confidential witnesses, internal documents and publicly available information from journalists, government watchdogs and congressional hearings, the complaint alleges companies that worked in war-torn Afghanistan commonly acceded to the Taliban’s mob-style demands for payment in exchange for the guarantee that their businesses interests would not be attacked.

One unnamed American executive who worked in Afghanistan is quoted in the complaint as saying “We don’t need any security if the payments are made. Nobody f—s with us.”

The payments allegedly climbed as high as 40% of the value of the company’s project and were often facilitated through subcontractors. The subcontractors, such as private security firms that were known to pay off the Taliban, would sometimes send money through Afghanistan’s traditional money transfer network, which can be hard to trace. Other times, the companies would simply hire Taliban operatives to work as guards.

Here is the full story.

Inequality, Stereotypes and Black Public Opinion: The Role of Distancing

There is less support for redistribution and race-targeted aid among blacks in the U.S. today than in the 1970s, despite persistent and enduring racial and economic disparities. Why? I argue that anti-black stereotypes suggesting blacks are lazy and reliant on government assistance have not only had consequences for political attitudes of whites but blacks as well. I note that as stigmas persist,they can have durable effects on the groups they directly stigmatize. To combat being personally stereotyped, some members of stigmatized groups will practice “defensive othering,” where one accepts a negative stereotype of one’s own group and simultaneously distances oneself from that stereotype. I illustrate the ways in which defensive othering plays a role in black attitudes toward redistribution using individual and aggregate level survey data, as well as qualitative interviews.

That is from a new paper by Emily M. Wager, via Matt Grossman.  And here are some of Emily’s other papers, many of them focused on why Americans do not feel compelled to respond to higher income inequality with bigger government.  Although still a graduate student, she is a future and indeed current star.  (She is on the job market by the way and also would be a great hire for economics departments.)  Here is her master’s thesis on who has enough influence to correct false perceptions from fake news.

Work on these things

Here are some projects I’d like to see funded, some through my own ventures, or others through alternative mechanisms. On these issues, the right person could have an enormous impact, whether through the research side or directly coming up with actionable ideas, including of course creating and building companies.

More studies of super-effective people. Either individually or collectively. If you take the outliers in any domain, what should our intuitions be for understanding the underlying processes determining how many people could have ended up in those positions? How many people had the right genes but had the wrong upbringing? How many people had the right genes and the right upbringing but the wrong luck, or perhaps society failed them in some other manner? The answers to these questions have significant policy implications.

A comprehensive analysis and critique of the NIH and NSF. The US funds more science research than any other country — about $35 billion per year on the NIH and $8 billion per year on the NSF. How exactly do these institutions work? How have they changed over time and have these changes been for good or bad? Based on what we now know, how might we better structure the NIH and NSF? What experiments should we run or what kind of studies should we perform?

Why is life expectancy so long in Hong Kong? Life expectancy in Hong Kong is 84.23 years, more than five years longer than the US and the highest in the world. Hong Kong is not that wealthy (median household income is $38,000 USD); it’s somewhat polluted; people don’t obviously eat what seems like a healthy diet; and they don’t seem to exercise a great deal. What should we learn from this?

Bloomberg Terminal for everything. This might be a nonprofit, a company, or a government project. To state the obvious, many analyses hinge on having the right data. If you’re in finance, getting the right data is often easy: just pull it up on your Bloomberg terminal. But there is no practical way to ask “what most correlates with life expectancy in Hong Kong?” (See above on that topic.) Figure out a way to build a growing corpus of structured data across the broadest variety of domains.

A comprehensive guide to the American healthcare system. The American healthcare system is by far the world’s biggest and also by a considerable margin the world’s most influential. Yet there is no comprehensive, dispassionate, and analytical disaggregation of how it all works. Who are the actors and what are their incentives? To the degree that the relationships between different entities are in equilibrium, what are the forces ensuring they stay there? What is the Sankey diagram of fund flows within the U.S. healthcare system?

Better answers for how to quantify worker productivity. In most knowledge industries, companies have nothing better than highly subjective measures (i.e., supervisors’ assessments) of worker productivity. In theory, it seems significant improvements should be possible. In the short term, is it possible to measure the productivity or efficacy of individual managers, software engineers, educators, scientists? How about teams, and what size of team? And can we do so without creating Goodhart’s Law problems?

What should Widodo do? Indonesia is a large, populous middle-income country. It faces no major near-term security threats. It has a small manufacturing base and no major non-commodity export sectors. What is the best non-bureaucratic 10 page economic development briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for Indonesia’s president? For Indonesia, substitute Philippines, Chile, or Morocco. 

A comparative study of foundations and their efficacy. Philanthropic foundations are behind a lot of important work. But how does a foundation decide what it wants and how the resulting grants should be structured? How effective are the programs of that foundation? In practice, how have its institutional mechanisms evolved? Imagine some kind of resource that answered these questions for the major American foundations.

Institutional critiques. More broadly, there is no discipline of institutional criticism. There is a very rich literature of policy criticism in economics, journalism, and non-fiction books. There is also a rich literature of “corporate criticism”: there are thousands of articles about how Facebook (budget: $20 billion) works and how it might be good or bad. But there is relatively little analysis of the most important institutions in our society: government departments. How is the Department of Agriculture (budget: $150 billion) organized and how effective or not is it? How about the Department of Energy (budget: $32 billion)? And why are not those questions paramount in the minds of policymakers?

Cultures of excellence. If you ask informed Filipinos why the street food is mediocre, they will tell you that Philippines lacks a “culture of excellence”. It seems that some kind of “culture of doing things really well” has very persistent and generalizable effects. South Korea and Japan have developed much more rapidly than many Asian countries, despite many others adopting relatively free “Washington Consensus”-style trade policies. Russia still has higher GDP per capita than Mexico despite Mexico’s economic policies having been much better than Russia’s for many, many decades at this point. How should we think about cultures of excellence?

Regeneration at the government layer. Herbert Kaufman (unsurprisingly) concludes in an empirical study that government organizations don’t die. While we might all agree that this is a problem, actionable solutions are in short supply. What can or should we do about this?

IQ paradox. Ron Unz points out that intergenerational variation of IQ may be much higher than is often assumed, citing Ireland and Croatia as examples. For instance, not long ago Ireland had sub-par measured IQ and now that figure is much higher, following growth and prosperity. The policy implications of IQ disparities across nations may therefore be different to what might otherwise obviously follow: perhaps environment matters much more than is assumed. If so, what should we be doing more or less of?

Credible plans for new top-tier universities. 7 of the best 25 universities in the world (Times ranking) were started in the US between 1861 and 1891 by ambitious reformers. It’s probably harder in many ways to start an impactful new university today… but it’s likely not impossible and the returns to doing so successfully might be very high. What might be a good plan? Why have so few of these plans come to fruition? 

Summaries of the state of knowledge in different fields. As a general matter, a lot of oral knowledge in the world is still not readily available, and reflection on this fact might lead one in many interesting directions. One obvious application is helping people more readily understand the present state of affairs in different domains. If I want to know “how we’re doing” in, say, antiviral drug development, I could spend a few hours hunting for top researchers, email a few, and perhaps get on calls to obtain their candid assessments. Are we making good progress? What are the most important open problems? What’s holding things back? And so on. How can we make all of this knowledge publicly available across all fields?

Mechanisms for better matching. One of the single interventions that could do the most to improve global welfare would be to improve the efficiency of the partner/marriage matching ecosystem. Online dating demonstrates that significant change (and maybe even improvement?) is possible, with some figures suggesting that up to two thirds of relationships in the US may now be initiated through online dating services. Accomplished people often seem to struggle with this challenge. Good solutions would be important.

What should Durkan do? Jenny Durkan is the current mayor of Seattle. As cities become more important loci of economic activity in the world, the importance of effective city governance will increase. As with the Widodo challenge, what is the best 10 page briefing document and set of prescriptions that one could write for her? What about Baltimore and St. Louis?

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.

I recall it being about 2.5 hours long, and covering a lot of fresh material, Eric of course is superb.  Here is the link.  Here is the broader set of Portal podcasts, hosted by Eric.

My Conversation with Esther Duflo

Self-recommending if there ever was such a thing, here is the audio and transcript.  In addition to all of the expected topics, including gender in the economics profession, we even got around to Indian classical music and Bach cantatas (she prefers the latter).  Excerpt:

COWEN: Do you worry much that the RCT method — it centralizes authority in too few institutions? You need a certain amount of money. You need some managerial ability. You need connections abroad. It’s not like running regressions — everyone can do it on their PC. Is that, in some way, going to slow down science? You get more reliable results, but there’s much less competition of ideas, it seems.

DUFLO: I think it would be the case if we had not been mindful of this problem from the beginning. And it might still be the case to some extent. But I actually think that we’ve put a lot of effort in avoiding it to be the case.

When you take an organization like J-PAL, just in India we have 200 staff members. And we have, at any given time, 1,000 people running surveys. I say we, but these people are not running my project. These people are running the projects of dozens and dozens of researchers. When I started, I couldn’t have started without having the backing of my team because it was such a risky proposition that you needed to be able to easy risk capital kind of things.

But at this point, because of the infrastructure, it’s much more normal sense. People can get in with no funding of their own, in part because one of the things we are doing as a network is raising a lot of money to redistribute to other people widely. J-PAL has 400 researchers that are affiliated to it, or invited researchers, many of them quite, quite junior.

So that sort of mixture — it was very important to us, and I think we’ve been quite successful at making the tool marginally available. It’s never going to be like running a regression from your computer. But my philosophy is that if you have the drive and you’re willing to put in your own sweat equity, you can do it. And our students and many other students who are not at top institutions are doing it.

And:

COWEN: On the internet, there’s a photo of a teenage Esther Duflo — at least it looks like you — protesting against fascism in Russia on top of a tank, is it?

DUFLO: That was a bus, and it was me. It was me. So that was in 1991. This was not when I lived for one year there. I lived one year in ’93–’94. But this was in ’91. I had gone to Russia about every year since I was a teen to learn Russian. I happened to be there the summer where there was this putsch against Gorbachev. That summer…

And someone gave me that fashizm ne poletit placard and asked me to hold it. And I’m like, “Sure, I’m going to hold it.” So I’m holding my placard. We stayed there for a long time when things were happening. Next time I saw in the evening, my parents called me, “What are you doing?” Because it turned out that that image was on all the TVs in the world. [laughs] And that’s how I very briefly became the face of this revolution.

And:

COWEN: Does child-rearing in France strike you as more sensible than child-rearing in the United States?

DUFLO: Oh very much so, very much so.

COWEN: And why?

DUFLO: You know that book, Bringing Up Bébé?

COWEN: Yes.

DUFLO: I think she picked up on something which rings so true to me, which maybe is a marginal point about the US versus France. In France people are reasonably content to just go with the flow and do what everybody does. Every kid eats the same thing at 4:30, has dinner at the same time, has gone through the same experiences, learned the same songs, and everybody thinks they are totally free. But in fact, they are all on this pretty sensible railroad. And also, they don’t agonize about it.

In the US, child-rearing is one more occasion to make a statement about your identity. You’re the kind of mother that carries the baby, or you’re the kind of mother that puts the baby in a stroller. And somehow it almost can predict what you’re going to think about Donald Trump. That’s crazy. Some people are so concerned about what they do. Not only they feel that they have to invest a ton in their children, and they feel inadequate if they are not able to, but also, exactly what they do creates them as people.

In France that’s not there, and I think that makes everybody so much more laid back, children and adults.

Recommended throughout.

Boris Johnson sentences to ponder

He has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.

Here is more by Andrew Sullivan, interesting throughout.