Category: Political Science

My Conversation with Paul Krugman

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Tyler sat down with Krugman at his office in New York to discuss what’s grabbing him at the moment, including antitrust, Supreme Court term limits, the best ways to fight inequality, why he’s a YIMBY, inflation targets, congestion taxes, trade (both global and interstellar), his favorite living science fiction writer, immigration policy, how to write well for a smart audience, new directions for economic research, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: In your view, how well run is New York City as an entity?

KRUGMAN: Not very. Compared to what? Actually, I like de Blasio. I actually think he’s done some really good things. What he’s done on education, and even on affordable housing, is actually quite substantial. But the city is so big and the problems are so large that people may not get it.

I will say, it is crazy that you have a city that is so dependent on public transportation, and yet the public transportation is not actually under the city’s control and has clearly been massively neglected. I don’t suffer the full woes of the subway, but I suffer some of them, even myself.

The city could be run better than it is, but it’s certainly not among the worst-managed political entities in the United States, let alone in the world.


COWEN: Will there ever be interstellar trade in intellectual property? You send your technology to a planet far away. It arrives much later, of course. Or you trade Beethoven to the aliens in return for a transporter beam? Can this work? You’ve written a paper that seems to indicate it can work.

KRUGMAN: I wrote a paper on the theory of interstellar trade when I was an unhappy assistant professor. Are there any happy assistant professors? [laughs] I was just blowing off steam. But it’s an interesting question.

COWEN: It could become your most important paper, right? [laughs]

KRUGMAN: We could imagine that there would be some way. We’d have to find somebody to trade with, although it’s the kind of thing — if you try to imagine interstellar trade for real in intellectual property — it’s probably the kind of thing that would be more like government-to-government exchanges.

It sounds like it would be really, really hard, although some science fiction writers are imagining that something like Bitcoin would make it possible to do these long-range . . . I don’t think something like Bitcoin is even going to work here.

Krugman also gives his opinions on Star Wars and Star Trek and Big Tech and many other matters.  Interesting throughout…

Preference for realistic art predicts support for Brexit

Here is part of the abstract from Noah Carl, Lindsay Richards, and Anthony Heath:

Controlling for a range of personal characteristics, we found that respondents who preferred all four realistic paintings were 15–20 percentage points more likely to support Leave than those who preferred zero or one realistic paintings. This effect was comparable to the difference in support between those with a degree and those with no education, and was robust to controlling for the respondent’s party identity.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Who is most likely to attribute an outcome to genetic factors?


Many scholars argue that people who attribute human characteristics to genetic causes also tend to hold politically and socially problematic attitudes. More specifically, public acceptance of genetic influences is believed to be associated with intolerance, prejudice, and the legitimation of social inequities and laissez-faire policies. We test these expectations with original data from two nationally representative samples that allow us to identify the American public’s attributional patterns across 18 diverse traits. Key findings are (1) genetic attributions are actually more likely to be made by liberals, not conservatives; (2) genetic attributions are associated with higher, not lower, levels of tolerance of vulnerable individuals; and (3) genetic attributions do not correlate with unseemly racial attitudes.

That is from , , and in the Journal of Politics.  For the pointer I thank K.

That was then, this is now

Negotiations for the preliminary agreement would be conducted under a new process, which the State Department, employing classic bureaucratic jargon, called “the selective nuclear-multilateral approach.”  In preliminary discussions held in July 1945, the Canadians had proposed this method of negotiations led by a small group of influential nations — which effectively became the model for multilateral trade negotiations for the remainder of the twentieth century — as a compromise between the strictly bilateral approach, which had been favored politically by FDR and Cordell Hull, and the broader multilateral approach the British insisted upon.  The Americans believed they were constricted by the requirements of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act specifically, and by political realities in Congress more generally, to negotiating bilaterally on select tariffs on an item-by-item basis.

That is from the new and highly useful and still under-discussed book The Wealth of a Nation: A History of Trade Politics in America, by C. Donald Johnson, Oxford University Press.  I am happy to second Doug Irwin’s blurb: “This splendid book covers the politics of American trade policy from the country’s beginnings through Trump.  Johnson provides a great overview of a fascinating subject.”

Vitalik Buterin and Glen Weyl dialog

The following is a series emails Vitalik Buterin and I [Glen] exchanged over the last day about RadicalxChange ideas. We thought the discussion might be useful to some as a) it covers a number of issues not discussed elsewhere that we consider important, b) it represents some of our latest thinking about these issues and c) it shows a bit of “the sausage being made” that some may find interesting. However, be aware that this is an internal communication and thus is at a pretty high level of specialization; there will be many parts that those not already well steeped in some combination of RadicalxChange ideas, economics, sociology, intellectual history, philosophy and cryptography may find hard to follow.

Here is the link.  There are many excellent bits, here is one from Buterin:

Effect on centralization of physical power — one thing that scares me about more complex systems of property rights is that they would require more complex centralized infrastructure, including surveillance into people’s private activities, to be able to correctly enforce. Taxes already have this problem (you may recall Adam Smith believing that income taxes would be impossible because they would require an unacceptable level of intrusion into people’s private lives to enforce), and I wonder if the various proposals that we have for changing them would make things better or worse in this regard. I like Harberger taxes because they don’t require infrastructure to police whether or not undeclared transactions took place, though I worry in other cases, eg. your comment that your immigration proposal would require stronger enforcement of immigration rules, which realistically means stronger efforts to find and kick out people who overstay, which requires more surveillance of various kinds. All in all, I don’t think the radical markets ideas altogether fare that bad, but I guess my comment would be that non-panopticon-dependence should be an explicit desideratum to a greater degree than it is now.

Self-recommending…and which one of them do you think wrote this?:

The last couple of weeks talking to economists, sociologists and philosophers I have felt like they are hacking through a forest with pen knife and this perspective enables me to look from above (things still fuzzy) and have a crew of chainsaws at my command.

An email from Glen Weyl

I won’t do an extra indent, but this is all Glen, noting I added a link to the post of mine he referred to:

“Tyler, I hope all is well for you.  I am writing to try to somewhat more coherently respond to our various exchanges, partly at the encouragement of Mark Lutter, whom I copy.  As I understand it (but please correct me if I am wrong), you have two specific objections to the COST and QV and one general objection to the project of the book.  If I have missed other things, please point me to them.  Let me very briefly respond to these points:

  • On the COST: you wrote (I cannot actually find the post at this point…not sure where it went) that human capital investments that are complementary with assets may be discouraged or otherwise prejudices by the COST.  However, as we explain in the paper with Anthony (, it has been known since at least Rogerson’s paper ( that VCG leads to first-best investment, including in human capital, as long as those investments are privately valued; we show that this property extends to the COST.  You seem to focus on examples in your post where those human capital investments are privately valued.  I thus do not see an economic efficiency objection to the COST on these grounds.
  • On QV: you write ( that democracy is about far more than decision-making; it is about what people learn and are induced to learn through the democratic process.  This is a deep and critical point and central to what Sen has called the “constitutive” role of democracy.  And this objection has been lodged not just by you but, for example, by Danielle Allen.  It is one I greatly respect and have struggled with.  A fundamental problem here is that no one to my knowledge has managed to model this information acquisition process in a formal model in a way that allows comparison across systems; I have tried, but things get very messy very quickly.  Nonetheless, I have not been able to understand the informal arguments that suggest this would be systematically worse under QV and there are several suggestive arguments that it would be better.  For example, under QV people have the ability to specialize in certain areas of issue or candidate expertise, which in turn should allow for deeper education and for advertising campaigns targeted at those who actually know and care about an issue, rather than those who are hardly paying attention.  Perhaps some would argue that this is a bug, not a feature, because we want every citizen to be informed about every issue; but this seems to be as implausible as suggesting that the division of labor degrades our ability to perform a variety of household tasks.  For more on these, Eric and I have written several articles that discuss: [and]
  • There is a broader Burkean argument that you seem to be making, namely that these institutions are extremely different than those we have historically used and may well have very bad, unintended consequences.  Here, I don’t think we disagree, but I think nonetheless there are at least two reasons I don’t see this as greatly diminishing the value of the ideas.  First, all novel improvements, whether to technology or social institutions, must confront this objection.  And they should confront it, I think, by experimenting at small scales and gradually scaling up and/or course-correcting as we learn about them.  The questions are then a) does the innovation have enough promise to be worth experimenting with, b) is it so risky to experiment with at small scales even that this vitiates a) and c) does it seem like these experiments will teach us something about broader scale applicability.  It seems to me that designs that so clearly address failures that economic theory we both accept says are very large, that are not just worked out in a narrow model but that we have studied from a range of not just economic but sociological and philosophical perspectives and which have caught the imagination of a broad set of entrepreneurs, activists and artists who are really interested in such experiments satisfies a).  I don’t see any objections you or others have raised as raising significant concerns on b).  And on c), it seems to me we will learn quite a lot from even relatively modest experiments (and already have) about the objections I hear most frequently (such as those related to collusion for QV or instability for the COST) that at very least will allow us to incrementally improve and scale a bit larger. So, it seems to me, the strong interest in experimenting with these ideas should be encouraged.

Finally, it seems to me that even if you remain convinced that there are unsurmountable practical difficulties with these mechanisms, that they play an important role in illustrating some pretty sharp divergences between what basic allocative efficiency calls for (and what the marginal revolutionaries like Jevons and Walras were quite explicit about their theories implying) and the outcomes we would expect to arise in the classic libertarian world.  I think the liberal radicalism mechanism makes this sharpest.  This seems instructive even if there is no way to remedy the limitations in these mechanisms because it suggests that the ideal toward which we should be steering societies using mechanisms that are not so dangerous are quite different than the ideal envisioned in standard libertarian theory.  For example, the ideal would seem to involve a much greater role for a range of collective organizations at different community scales with some ability to receive tax-based support than standard libertarian theory would allow.

I am interested in your thoughts on these matters and continuing the exchange.  Sorry for the length of this email, but I felt that I owed you a single, coherent and fairly detailed response.”

TC again: For further detail, I refer you to Glen’s book with Eric Posner.  For background, here are my earlier posts on their work.

Let’s just simulate economic mobility on TV

…contemporary Americans are watching a record number of entertainment TV programs emphasizing “rags to riches” narratives.  Using detailed Nielsen ratings data and original content analyses, I demonstrate that such shows have become a ubiquitous part of the American media landscape over the last two decades.  In three national surveys…I find that exposure to these programs increases viewers’ beliefs in the American Dream; for heavy viewers this effect is as powerful as that of having immigrant parents.  In experiments conducted both online and in a lab-in-the-field setting establish that these media effects are causal, and stronger among Republicans.

That is from a new paper by Eunice Kim, via Matt Grossman.

My Conversation with Bruno Maçães

Here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.

So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”

Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.

Here is one bit:

MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.

It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.

COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.

MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.


COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?

MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.

But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.

The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.

Original and highly recommended.  Again, here is Bruno’s book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.

Climate change may be more expensive than we think

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the closing bit:

I am struck by the costs of climate change suggested in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, hardly a source of denialism. Its cost estimate — “1 to 5% of GDP for 4°C of warming” — is relatively reassuring. After all, global GDP is right now growing at more than 4 percent a year. If climate change cost “only” 4 percent of GDP on a one-time basis, then the world economy could make up those costs with less than a year’s worth of economic growth. In essence, the world economy would arrive at a given level of wealth about a year later than otherwise would have been the case. That sounds expensive but not tragic.

Unfortunately, that is not the right way to conceptualize the problem. Think of the 4 percent hit to GDP, if indeed that is the right number, as a highly unevenly distributed opening shot. That’s round one, and from that point on we are going to react with our human foibles and emotions, and with our

highly imperfect and sometimes corrupt political institutions. (Libertarians, who are typically most skeptical of political solutions, should be the most worried.)

Considering how the Syrian crisis has fragmented the EU as well as internal German politics, is it so crazy to think that climate change might erode international cooperation all the more? The true potential costs of climate change are just beginning to come into view.

Reihan Salam on the immigration crisis

Here is Reihan in the WSJ (good photos!):

…we need to recognize that the immigration debate isn’t really about immigrants. In truth, it’s about the children of immigrants.

…Like it or not, we are a country with an implicit social contract. If we welcome you in as part of the flock, we also welcome your offspring. In past eras, high immigration levels were matched by high native birthrates. The end result was that, even if immigrants had large families, these second-generation youth were greatly outnumbered by the descendants of the native-born. Investing in the next generation meant investing in the children of immigrants, yes, but also in the children of natives, who, by virtue of their numbers, would set the cultural tone.

Collapsing native birthrates have changed the picture, setting off a cultural panic among the likes of Rep. Steve King, the Iowa congressman who infamously tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

Here is Reihan’s new book Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.  Here is Katie’s sketch of my blurb:

Out today, and definitely recommended!

The forthcoming Chinese charter city?

From Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

The government intends to ring-fence Port City from Sri Lanka’s legal system to facilitate currency movement and create favorable tax and investment incentives. Harsha de Silva, a state minister who once campaigned against the project but is now one of its most vocal supporters, is involved in drafting the separate legal structure. “This must be a top-10 city for doing business in the world,” he says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” Sri Lanka is currently ranked 111 out of 190 nations on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index.

And here is the take on one of the nearby port projects:

Today, Hambantota handles about one ship a day, not enough to make it commercially viable, and wild elephants regularly breach the perimeter fencing. At a nearby airport, which CCCC also helped build during Rajapaksa’s administration, the only commercial flight was canceled in June because of frequent peacock strikes and low demand.

Is it fair to call all this a “hegemon charter city“?

The three kinds of charter cities

First, there is the minimal charter city.  During a cruise ship vacation, everyone lives under cruise ship law.  This works fine, and is easy to start up, but it also has limited applicability.  No one has to make a big cultural shift, as long as they don’t get too drunk while playing shuffleboard out on the deck.

Second, there is hegemon-backed charter city.  The British empire ran Hong Kong, and the mainland United States (partially) has run Puerto Rico and earlier managed the Panama Canal Zone.  By definition, a hegemon is required to enforce the law in the external jurisdiction, and of course such hegemons may be scarce, unwilling, or their rule may be oppressive or counterproductive.  Portuguese rule over Goa was not a major success, nor was British rule over India more generally.  European extraterritoriality in China proper was an imperialist disaster.  One problem is that exporting legal systems without exporting their cultural preconditions can lead to failure.

Third, some charter cities are based on the idea of a complementary exported culture.  Singapore did in fact absorb many parts of British culture and law, and some parts of Western mores; it now feels like the most Western part of Asia.  The partial export of Western law and culture has been extremely successful, and the role of culture here means there is strong indigenous support, within Singapore, for Singapore being the Singapore we all know and love.  These are the charter cities that work best, but they are also the hardest to pull off.

You can think of the original charter city idea as postulating law as a non-rival public good.  Why not just spread the best laws to more jurisdictions?  But does spreading the law without the underlying culture suffice?  You can think of the three kinds of charter cities, as mentioned above, as varying responses to this problem.

And spreading culture does not seem to be a public good at all, rather it involves a lot of hard work and it often fails or backfires.

This blog post is drawn from a talk I gave in San Francisco at an inaugural conference for Mark Lutter’s new Center for Innovative Governance.

Has private philanthropy become underrated?

My latest Bloomberg column focuses on Jeff Bezos in particular, and his recently announced $2 billion gift to preschool education and to help the homeless.  Here is one excerpt:

…the gift is unlikely to take the form of Jeff Bezos dictating terms, even if he is the world’s richest man. Bezos and his team will have to work through many institutions — not just preschools and homeless shelters but other organizations that help them do their work. Even brand new preschools and homeless shelters, funded entirely by Bezos, will have their own charters, missions, staffs and fiduciary responsibilities.

Any wealthy person who wants to give away money will find that incentives and the nature of decentralization and bureaucracy impose their own set of checks and balances. Real philanthropic influence goes to those who can persuade others to work with them and share their vision.

Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford, argues in his forthcoming book that the philanthropy of the wealthy is not very democratic. But philanthropy operates a lot more like democracy than it might — and in fact, it may be too democratic. Voters, like philanthropists, can wish for a particular set of outcomes, but what they get will be filtered through broadly similar constraints of bureaucracy and decentralized incentives.

And this:

How about replacing philanthropy with higher taxes and more spending from the government, which is at least democratically controlled? Well, obviously there is room for both democracy and philanthropy in American society. But the elderly vote the most, and democratic expenditures — Social Security, Medicare, pensions and the like — are skewed toward the elderly. Philanthropy, including the Bezos initiative with its stated focus on homeless families, is usually more oriented toward the young or future generations.

The points I make about taxation of capital income should already be familiar to attentive MR readers.