Category: Political Science

Conor Friedersdorf interviews me on the regulatory state and the pandemic

For Atlantic, here is one excerpt:

“Our regulatory state is failing us.”

And to troll some of you, here is another bit:

Friedersdorf: Libertarians and small-government conservatives are highly skeptical of the regulatory state. What do they get wrong?

Cowen: Very often, the alternative to regulation is ex post facto reliance on the courts and juries to redress wrongs. Of course, the judiciary and its components are further instruments of governments, and they have their own flaws. There is no particular reason, from, say, a libertarian point of view, to expect such miracles from the courts. Very often, I would rather take my chances with the regulators.

Also, let’s not forget the cases where the regulators are flat-out right. Take herbal medicines, penis enlargers, or vaccines. In those cases, the regulators are essentially correct, and there is a substantial segment of the population that is flat-out wrong on those issues, and sometimes they are wrong in dangerous ways.

Recommended, there is much more at the link.

*The Puzzle of Prison Order*

That is the title of the new and excellent book by David Skarbek, and the subtitle is Why Life Behind Bars Varies Around the World.  Here is part of the Amazon summary of its contents:

Many people think prisons are all the same-rows of cells filled with violent men who officials rule with an iron fist. Yet, life behind bars varies in incredible ways. In some facilities, prison officials govern with care and attention to prisoners’ needs. In others, officials have remarkably little influence on the everyday life of prisoners, sometimes not even providing necessities like food and clean water. Why does prison social order around the world look so remarkably different?

Here is one excerpt:

…Nordic prisons have a much smaller proportion of prisoners to members of staff, about one prisoner for every staff member.  These jobs attract high-quality employees, and in Finland and Norway, it is common for there to be an excess supply of applicants.  Working in corrections is a more attractive career than it is in many other countries.  The fact that students sometimes work as prison officers suggests that the environment in Nordic prisons is more relaxed than that in many other prisons and the work is socially acceptable.  Many Nordic prison officers have university and vocational education.  For example, about 20 percent of staff in Swedish men’s prisons have university degrees and staff members participate in a 20-week in-service training program and take 10-week university courses on sociology and social psychology.  In Norway, prison officers receive two years of training at full salary and nearly all have tertiary educational qualifications.  By comparison, California correctional officer training lasts 12 weeks and requires only a high-school diploma.

The book is due out from Oxford University Press on August 3rd.

Three myths about federal regulation

By Patrick A. McLaughlin and Casey Mulligan, Patrick of course being from GMU/Mercatus:

Despite evidence to the contrary, three common myths persist about federal regulations. The first myth is that many regulations concern the environment, but in fact only a small minority of regulations are environmental. The second myth is that most regulations contain quantitative estimates of costs or benefits. However, these quantitative estimates appear rarely in published rules, contradicting the impression given by executive orders and Office of Management and Budget guidance, which require cost-benefit analysis (CBA) and clearly articulate sound economic principles for conducting CBA. Environmental rules have relatively higher-quality CBAs, at least by the low standards of other federal rules. The third myth, which is particularly relevant to the historic regulations promulgated during the COVID-19 pandemic, is the misperception that regulatory costs are primarily clerical, rather than opportunity or resource costs. If technocrats have triumphed in the regulatory arena, their victory has not been earned by the merits of their analysis.

Here is the link to the NBER working paper.

My (second) Conversation with Paul Romer

Interesting throughout, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Paul Romer makes his second appearance to discuss the failings of economics, how his mass testing plan for COVID-19 would work, what aspect of epidemiology concern him, how the FDA is slowing a better response, his ideas for reopening schools and Major League Baseball, where he agrees with Weyl’s test plan, why charter cities need a new name, what went wrong with Honduras, the development trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa, how he’d reform the World Bank, the underrated benefits of a culture of science, his heartening takeaway about human nature from his experience at Burning Man, and more.

I liked the parts about charter cities and the World Bank the best, here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How optimistic are you more generally about the developmental trajectory for sub-Saharan Africa?

ROMER: There’s a saying I picked up from Gordon Brown, that in establishing the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the hardest. I think some parts of this development process are just very slow. If you look around the world, all the efforts since World War II that’s gone into trying to build strong, effective states, to establish the rule of law in a functioning state, I think the external investments in building states have yielded very little.

So we need to think about ways to transfer the functioning of existing states rather than just build them from scratch in existing places. That’s a lot of the impetus behind this charter cities idea. It’s both — you select people coming in who have a particular set of norms that then become the dominant norms in this new place, but you also protect those norms by certain kinds of administrative structures, state functions that reinforce them.

And this:

COWEN: If you could reform the World Bank, what would you do?

ROMER: Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think the Bank is trying to serve two missions, and it can’t do both. One is a diplomatic function, which I think is very important. The World Bank is a place where somebody who represents the government of China and somebody who represents the government of the United States sit in a conference room and argue, “Should we do A or B?” Not just argue, but discuss, negotiate. On a regular basis, they make decisions.

And it isn’t just China and the US. It’s a bunch of countries. I think it’s very good for personal relationships, for the careers of people who will go on to have other positions in these governments, to have that kind of experience of, basically, diplomatic negotiation over a bunch of relatively small items because it’s a confidence-building measure that makes it possible for countries to make bigger diplomatic decisions when they have to.

That, I think, is the value of the World Bank right now. The problem is that that diplomatic function is inconsistent with the function of being a provider of scientific insight. The scientific endeavor has to be committed to truth, no matter whose feathers get ruffled. There’s certain convenient fictions that are required for diplomacy to work. You start accepting convenient fictions in science, and science is just dead.

So the Bank’s got to decide: is it engaged in diplomacy or science? I think the diplomacy is its unique comparative advantage. Therefore, I think it’s got to get out of the scientific business. It should just outsource its research. It shouldn’t try and be a research organization, and it should just be transparent about what it can be good at and is good at.

And toward the end:

COWEN: Last question thread, what did you learn at Burning Man?

ROMER: Sometimes physical presence is necessary to appreciate something like scale. The scale of everything at Burning Man was just totally unexpected, a total surprise for me, even having looked at all of these pictures and so forth. That was one.

Another thing that really stood out, which is not exactly a surprise, but maybe it was the surprise in that group — if you ask, what do people do if you put them in a setting where there’s supposed to be no compensation, no quid pro quo, and you just give them a chance to be there for a week. What do they do?

They work.

For purposes of contrast, here is my first Conversation with Paul Romer.

A charter city finally in Honduras? (from Mark Lutter)

Prospera, Honduras just launched on the island of Roatan. It is a ZEDE (Zona de Empleo y Desarollo Economico), the legacy of Paul Romer’s time in Honduras promoting charter cities. It has substantial autonomy, different taxes, different courts, different labor law, and more. It is one of the most innovative jurisdictions in the world.

First, a bit of history. The ZEDE legislation was passed in 2013. It allows for the creation of a special jurisdiction with an almost unprecedented amount of autonomy. The only recent comparison is the Dubai International Financial Center, which, as the name suggests, focuses exclusively on finance. The ZEDE legislation allows for different labor law, environmental law, business registration, dispute resolution, and more. It is more analogous to Hong Kong, or at least the Hong Kong ideal, of one country, two systems.

In 2013 and 2014 rumors swirled about ZEDE projects, including a port in the Gulf of Fonseca, but nothing materialized. I even moved to Honduras in 2014, at the time the murder capital of the world, to be closer to the action. As late as 2017, the Honduran government was saying projects were about to begin.

The ZEDE legislation is the successor to the RED (Regiones Especiales de Desarrollo) legislation, which Romer helped introduce to build charter cities. Romer had a falling out with the Honduran government in 2012. Shortly after his departure, the RED legislation was declared unconstitutional. The ZEDE legislation was passed to address the constitutional shortcomings of the RED legislation, though it also benefitted from seeing the Supreme Court judges who ruled against the RED legislation fired. To be fair, the government claims they were fired for a ruling on a police brutality case, which I am wont to believe. If there was sufficient government support behind ZEDEs to fire Supreme Court justices, it would not have taken seven years for the first ZEDE to be launched.

I worked with much of the Prospera team under the previous incarnation, NeWAY Capital (I’m not sure of the formal relationship between the two). I left around the time they pivoted to Honduras, 2.5 years ago. I was skeptical, as Honduras was the place projects went to die. Years had gone by without projects gaining meaningful traction and I expected them to run out of funding before launching. I’m happy to have been proven wrong.

Congratulations to Erick Brimen and the team. It is a lot of work to create a new jurisdiction, especially one as innovative as Prospera. The Charter Cities Institute has two team members spending approximately two thirds of their time on developing a “Governance Handbook,” a guide to the governance of a new jurisdiction. It will likely take about 9 months to complete, and that is just for the handbook, not implementation…

Residency costs $1300 annually, unless you’re Honduran, in which case it costs $260. Becoming a resident also requires signing an “Agreement of Coexistence,” a legally binding contract between Prospera and the resident. Prospera, therefore, cannot change the terms without exposing itself to legal liability. Most governments have sovereign immunity, this goes a step beyond removing that, with a contract that clearly defines the rights and obligations on both sides.

After signing the Agreement of Coexistence, all residents are required to buy general liability insurance which will ensure themselves against both civil and criminal liability. General liability insurance, as well as criminal liability insurance, has been proposed by economist Robin Hanson, among others.

That is from an email by Mark Lutter, Founder and Executive Director of the Charter Cities Institute. I thank Massimo for drawing my attention to this.

Did crazy Republican tax-cutters defund the regulatory state for decades?

Minton is the author of a newly released study showing just how far the CDC has strayed from its core mission. In addition to combating dangerous infectious diseases like HIV and malaria, the CDC now also studies alcohol and tobacco use, athletic injuries, traffic accidents, and gun violence. While those things can indeed be important factors to public health, Minton notes, they don’t seem to fall within the agency’s original mission.

They do, however, explain why the CDC’s budget has ballooned from $590 million in 1987 to more than $8 billion last year. If the agency had grown with inflation since 1987, it would have a budget of about $1.3 billion today. Total federal spending, meanwhile, has grown from a hair over $1 trillion in 1987 to $4.4 trillion last year—which means that the CDC’s budget has grown faster the government’s overall spending.

That is by Eric Boehm at Reason.  Via J.

How to think about uni-disciplinary advice

Let’s say its 1990, and you are proposing an ambitious privatization plan to an Eastern bloc county, and your plan assumes that the enacting government is able to stay on a non-corrupt path the entire time.

While your plan probably is better than communism, it probably is not a very good plan.  A better plan would take sustainability and political realities into account, and indeed many societies did come up with better plans, for instance the Poland plan was better than the Russia plan.

It would not do to announce “I am just an economist, I do not do politics.”  In fact that attitude is fine, but if you hold it you should not be presenting plans to the central government or discussing your plan on TV.  There are plenty of other useful things for you to do.  Or the uni-disciplinary approach still might be a useful academic contribution, but still displaced and to be kept away from the hands of decision-makers.

Nor would it do to claim “I am just an economist.  The politicians have to figure the rest out.”  They cannot figure the rest out in most cases.  Either stand by your proposed plan or don’t do it.  It is indeed a proposal of some sort, even if you package it with some phony distancing language.

Instead, you should try to blend together the needed disciplines as best you can, consulting others when necessary, an offer the best plan you can, namely the best plan all things considered.

That might fill you with horror, but please recall from Tetlock that usually the generalists are the best predictors.

Ignoring other disciplines may be fine when there is no interaction. When estimating the effects of monetary policy, you probably can do that without calculating how many people that year will die of air pollution.  But you probably should not ignore the effects of a major trade war, a budgetary crisis (“but I do monetary policy, not fiscal policy!”), or an asteroid hurtling toward the earth.

If that is too hard, it is fine to announce your final opinion as agnostic (and explain how you got there).  You will note that when it comes to blending economics and epidemiology, my most fundamental opinion is an agnostic one.

This is all well-known, and it has been largely accepted for some time now.

If a public health person presents what is “only an estimate of public health and public health alone” to policymakers, I view it as like the economist in 1990 who won’t consider politics.  Someone else should have the job.  Right now public health, politics, and economics all interact to a significant extent.

And if you present only one of those disciplines to a policymaker, you will likely confuse and mislead that policymaker, because he/she cannot do the required backward unthreading of the advice into its uni-dimensional component.  You have simply served up a biased model, and rather than trying to identify and explain the bias you are simply saying “ask someone else about the bias.”

If an economist claims he is only doing macroeconomics, and not epidemiology (as Paul Krugman has said a few times on Twitter), that is flat out wrong.  All current macro models have epidemiology embedded in them, if only because the size of the negative productivity and negative demand shock depends all too critically on the course of the disease.

It is fine to be agnostic, preferably with structure to the opinion.  It is wrong to hide behind the arbitrary division of a discipline or a field.

We need the best estimates possible, and presented to policymakers as such, and embodying the best of synthetic human knowledge.  Of course that is hard.  That is why we need the very best people to do it.

Addendum: You might try to defend a uni-disciplinary approach by arguing a decision-maker will mainly be fed other, biased uni-disciplinary approaches, and you have to get your discipline into the mix to avoid obliteration of its viewpoint.  But let’s be clear what is going on here: you are deliberately manipulating with a deliberately non-truthy approach (I intend those words as a description, not a condemnation).  If that’s what it is, I wish to describe it that way!  I’ll also note I’ve never done that deliberately myself, and that is along many years of advising at a variety of levels.  I’d rather give the best truthful account as I see it.

*The WEIRDest People in the World*

That is the new 655 pp. book by Joseph Henrich, due out September 8, and yes it is “an event.”  The subtitle is “How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” and that is indeed one of the very most important questions in all of social science.

“WEIRD” of course refers to “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.”  And is it not weird that we (some of us, at least) are WEIRD?

Here is an excerpt from the opening segment:

Let’s close by returning to the core questions of this book:

1. How can we explain the global psychological variation highlighted above?

2. Why are WEIRD societies particularly unusual, so often occupying the extreme ends of global distributions of psychology and behavior?

3. What role did these psychological differences play in the Industrial Revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries?

If you are wondering how this material might differ from Henrich’s previous output, there is above all much more on marriage customs and monogamy, for instance:

…I’ll make the case that monogamous marriage norms — which push upstream against our polygynous biases and the strong preferences of elite men — create a range of social and psychological effects that give the societies that possess them a big edge in competition against other groups.

Obviously recommended, and you will be hearing more about this both from me and from others.  You can pre-order here.

HHS turned down a big opportunity to make a lot of masks early

Another HHS official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “There is a process for putting out contracts. It wasn’t as fast as anyone wanted it to be.”

The masks still are not being made, and this would be in Texas.  I’ll say it yet again: our regulatory state is failing us in this matter.  Here is a bit more:

From his end, Bowen [the mask maker] said his proposal seemed to be going nowhere. “No one at HHS ever did get back to me in a substantive way,” Bowen said.

The senior U.S. official said Bowen’s idea was considered, but funding could not easily be obtained without diverting it from other projects.

While we are on the topic of diverting funding, surely we would all agree that the NSF funding for the social sciences all should — for at least two years — be diverted to biomedical research?  I wonder how many economists are willing to tweet that policy recommendation.

Why is child abuse not opposed more passionately on the Right

From an email from Paul Foster:

From my perch, there are two primary reasons the right doesn’t more passionately oppose child abuse. The first has to do with parents’ rights. The general conservative view of the child welfare system is of a group of liberal ladies who think they know better than parents and who are especially skeptical of religious parenting, especially conservative Christian parenting. (The NYT op-ed opposing home schooling was an almost-too-perfect totem in that regard.) As a result, while many on the right will say “sure, flat-out abuse is bad,” they’ll assume that “abuse” will be defined eventually to include homeschooling, imparting religious views (especially on traditional gender roles), and the like. The early 20th-century attempt to eradicate the German language and culture through the public schools is often pointed to, as is (at least among the hipper conservatives (I swear we exist!)) that one Simpsons episode where a social worker gives demerits to Marge and Homer’s household for “toilet paper hung in improper overhand fashion.”

The second reason–and this is probably true for both the right and the left–is that you can’t even think of a solution by reasoning from your political views. “Adults shouldn’t beat kids” is universally accepted, but your views on taxes or your reading of Ayn Rand or that latest anti-Pelosi meme doesn’t give you anything helpful in actually stopping adults from beating kids. Without a political solution, it tends to fall by the political wayside.

Here are my previous recent posts on related questions concerning child abuse.

My Conversation with Adam Tooze

Tinges of Covid-19, doses on financial crises, but mostly about economic history.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Adam joined Tyler to discuss the historically unusual decision to have a high-cost lockdown during a pandemic, why he believes in a swoosh-shaped recovery, portents of financial crises in China and the West, which emerging economies are currently most at risk, what Keynes got wrong about the Treaty of Versailles, why the Weimar Republic failed, whether Hitler was a Keynesian, the political and economic prospects of various EU members, his trick to writing a lot, how Twitter encourages him to read more, what he taught executives at BP, his advice for visiting Germany, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

And:

Tooze’s discussion of his own career and interests, toward the end, is hard to excerpt but for me the highlight of the conversation.  He also provided the best defense of Twitter I have heard.

Definitely recommended.

On reopening, Robin Hanson suggests a political economy hypothesis

So while the public will uniformly push for more opening, elites and experts push in a dozen different directions. If elites would all back the same story and solution, as they did before, they would probably get it. If they would say “We agree that this is what we did wrong over the last few months, and this is the specific policy package that will produce much different outcomes over the next few months.” But they aren’t saying this.

So elites and experts don’t speak with a unified voice, while the public does. And that’s why the public will win.

While the public tends to defer to elites and experts, and even now still defers a lot, this deference is gradually weakening. We are starting to open, and will continue to open, as long as opening is the main well-supported alternative to the closed status quo, which we can all see isn’t working as fast as expected, and plausibly not fast enough to be a net gain. Hearing elites debate a dozen other alternatives, each supported by different theories and groups, will not be enough to resist that pressure to open.

Winning at politics requires more than just prestige, good ideas, and passion. It also requires compromise, to produce sufficient unity. At this game, elites are now failing, while the public is not.

Here is the full post.  To be clear, none of this implies that a speedy reopening is the correct plan.  More broadly, this is an example of why we need public choice/political economy in our models of this situation.  It is all about the plan you can pull off in the real world of politics, not the best plan you can design.  A lot of what I am seeing is a model of “all those bad Fox News viewers out there,” and I do agree those viewers tend to have incorrect views on the biomedical side.  Still, while that is a very real problem, if you see that as the fundamental problem I don’t think you will get very far understanding our current policy dilemma.

What happened to male youth movements?

I’ve been wondering, at what point did youth movements dissipate in America (and the West more generally?). It seems to be a perfect opportunity for organization and deployment of 18-25 year old men, who are nearly unphased by covid.

As workers in essential meat plants, factories, and other labor intensive supply chains grow sick and die, it seems that having an organized workforce of young men prepared to temporarily take over would be an ideal situation.  (Women of course have a role to play, but they are already playing an outsized role in medicine).

More generally, I’m reminded of your previous blog post ‘What the hell is going on?’. This type of event seems to be exactly what wayward young men live for — the ability to contribute to something greater than themselves. Combined with the fact that healthy young men are at remarkably low risk, isn’t the opportunity to support their country at little risk to themselves, and in return gain high status, the ideal situation?

What do you think the failure mode is here? Why does the idea of mobilizing a few thousand men or women in each locality to contribute to the greater good feel so weird? It’s so weird no one even suggests it. Could I suggest that this  even feels embarrassing? Why?

That is from an email from Simon Riddell.

Communism still matters liberty still matters

Those who grew up in East Germany seem to have a harder time cottoning to the realities of capitalism:

We analyze the long-term effects of living under communism and its anticapitalist doctrine on households’ financial investment decisions and attitudes towards financial markets. Utilizing comprehensive German brokerage data and bank data, we show that, decades after Reunification, East Germans still invest significantly less in the stock market than West Germans. Consistent with communist friends-and-foes propaganda, East Germans are more likely to hold stocks of companies from communist countries (China, Russia, Vietnam) and of state-owned companies, and are unlikely to invest in American companies and the financial industry. Effects are stronger for individuals exposed to positive “emotional tagging,” e.g., those living in celebrated showcase cities. Effects reverse for individuals with negative experiences, e.g., environmental pollution, religious oppression, or lack of (Western) TV entertainment. Election years trigger further divergence of East and West Germans. We provide evidence of negative welfare consequences due to less diversified portfolios, higher-fee products, and lower risk-adjusted returns.

That is from a new NBER paper by Christine Laudenbach, Ulrike Malmendier, and Alexandra Niessen-Ruenzi.

But if you are looking for a contrary point of view, consider this new paper by Sascha O. Becker, Lukas Mergele, and Ludger Woessmann:

German separation in 1949 into a communist East and a capitalist West and their reunification in 1990 are commonly described as a natural experiment to study the enduring effects of communism. We show in three steps that the populations in East and West Germany were far from being randomly selected treatment and control groups. First, the later border is already visible in many socio-economic characteristics in pre-World War II data. Second, World War II and the subsequent occupying forces affected East and West differently. Third, a selective fifth of the population fled from East to West Germany before the building of the Wall in 1961. In light of our findings, we propose a more cautious interpretation of the extensive literature on the enduring effects of communist systems on economic outcomes, political preferences, cultural traits, and gender roles

That said, I still believe that communism really matters, and durably so, even if the longer history matters all the more so.  And now there is yet another paper on East Germany and political path dependence, by Luis R. Martinez, Jonas Jessen, and Guo Xu:

This paper studies costly political resistance in a non-democracy. When Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945, 40% of the designated Soviet occupation zone was initially captured by the western Allied Expeditionary Force. This occupation was short-lived: Soviet forces took over after less than two months and installed an authoritarian regime in what became the German Democratic Republic (GDR). We exploit the idiosyncratic line of contact separating Allied and Soviet troops within the GDR to show that areas briefly under Allied occupation had higher incidence of protests during the only major episode of political unrest in the GDR before its demise in 1989 – the East German Uprising of 1953. These areas also exhibited lower regime support during the last free elections in 1946. We argue that even a “glimpse of freedom” can foster civilian opposition to dictatorship.

I take the core overall lesson to be that the eastern parts of Germany will experience significant problems for some time to come.

And speaking of communist persistence, why is it again that Eastern Europe is doing so well against Covid-19?  Belarus is an extreme case, with hardly any restrictions on activity, and about 14,000 cases and 89 deaths.  You might think that is a cover-up, but the region as a whole has been quite robust and thus it is unlikely to be a complete illusion.  And no, it doesn’t seem to be a BCG effect.

Does communism mean there is less of a culture of consumption and thus people find it easier to just stay at home voluntarily?  Or have all those weird, old paranoid communist pandemic ministries persisted and helped with the planning?  Or what?

Double credit on this one to both Kevin Lewis and Samir Varma, neither less excellent in his conjunction with the other.