Category: Uncategorized

Why do they keep the books wrapped in Mexican bookstores?

Yes, wrapped in clear shrink wrap.  So you can’t page through them and see what the book might be like.  I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. They don’t want you standing in the bookstore reading the thing, rather than buying it.  A bit like some U.S. comics news stands in days past.  Yet this doesn’t seem so plausible for longer books or most novels.

2. They want the books to look nicer and less grimy.

3. How about price discrimination?

Imagine there are two classes of readers.  The first is poorer, and only buys books when he or she knows the book is truly desired.  Harry Potter might be an example of such a book.   You want to read what everyone else is reading, to talk about it at school, and you don’t need to scrutinize p.78 so closely before deciding to purchase.

The second class of buyer is wealthier and usually will be buying (and reading) more books, indeed for those people book-buying is a significant habit.  That buyer wants to be on top of current trends, wants to have read whichever book is “best” that year amongst the trendy set, and so on.  If book quality is uncertain, such individuals will end up paying a de facto, quality-adjusted higher per unit price per book.  If you can’t sample the books in advance, you will end up buying some lemons, and you can’t just pick out the cherries.

Wrapped books thus extract more surplus from the second class of buyer and do not much discourage the first class.  The general point is related to the economic analysis of bundling and also block-booking — you have to buy a whole bunch of items to get the things you want.

I wonder if they would mind if I removed the wrapping to take a look before purchasing?  Maybe the store employees would be indifferent, but how about the retail outlet CEO?  The publisher?  The author?  Model this!

Or maybe that is just the way they do things.

Saturday assorted links

1. New Kalshi prediction markets in beta form.

2. The Austin Vernon blog.  Or better link here.

3. The game theory of the infrastructure bill.

4. Should doctors be on first name terms?  And U.S. rules that Bezos and Branson are not “astronauts.”

5. Using lottery winner results to predict that effects of UBI.

6. Interview in Spanish about Covid issues.  And this far into the pandemic and the CDC still is systematically failing us.

7. Leopold on Germany’s and Europe’s political stupor.

Why current American politics is less screwed up than you think

There is no better way to show this point than to look at Germany, which has highly reasonable political dialogue and at least in the center German politics is not so ideological.  And there is indeed a center!  Furthermore, politicians address their voters like adults and offer reasonable reasons for the policies they are proposing.

But in terms of discovery and resolution there is a significant downside:

What’s more, coalitions that used to be unthinkable, such as between the Christian Democrats and the Greens, are now the norm in many states — and may well be the only option after September’s elections. Parties, understandably, are reluctant to forcefully campaign against one another. Why make an enemy of a future friend?

Here is the full piece by Anna Sauerbrey.  For all its reasonableness, German politics has been a major failure point over the last twenty (?) years.  The country has a mediocre infrastructure, mediocre primary education system, it is far behind the curve on tech, it is unwilling to pay to defend itself and meet NATO standards, its foreign policy is partly captured by Russia, it is moving away from nuclear power, it responded poorly to the recent floods, it was slow to line up vaccines and relied on awful EU procurement policies, among numerous other failings.  It has enough wealth and accumulated cultural and social capital to withstand these failings, but it has consistently underperformed for some while now.  Matters rarely get settled in an innovative direction and they are masters of complacency and can-kicking.  But at least the major parties do not criticize each other too much.

I would in fact much prefer the policy landscape of the United States, where the two parties are hardly afraid to attack each other, often in the most ridiculous of terms.  Just keep this comparison in mind the next time you despair over the course — and aesthetics — of U.S. politics.

Why has the Indian diaspora been so successful?

Dwarkesh writes to me:

Why do you think the Indian diaspora has been so successful? Just selection of the best immigrants from a large pool of candidates or something else too?

Yes, there are plenty of Indians, and surely that matters, but I see several others factors at work:

1. The Indian diaspora itself is large, estimated at 18 million and the single largest diaspora in the world.

2. A significant portion of the better-educated Indians are hooked into English-language networks early on, including through the internet.  The value of this connection has been rising due to the rising value of the internet itself.  That is a big reason to be bullish on the Indian diaspora.

3. India has been growing rapidly enough so that people understand the nature and value of progress, yet the country remains poor enough that further progress seems urgent.

4. Many Indian parents seem intent on expecting a great deal from their children.  The value of this cannot be overemphasized.  This effect seems to be stronger in India than in say Indonesia.

5. There is especially positive selection for Indians coming to America.  You can’t just run across a border, instead many of the ways of getting here involve some specialization in education and also technical abilities.  Virtually all migrated in legal manners, and here is some interesting data on how the various cohorts of Indians arriving in America differed by wave.

6. More speculatively, I see a kind of conceptual emphasis and also a mental flexibility resulting from India’s past as a mixing ground for many cultures.  Perhaps some of this comes from the nature of Hinduism as well, even for non-Hindu Indians (just as American Jews are somewhat “Protestant”).  Indians who move into leadership roles in U.S. companies seem to do quite well making a very significant cultural leap.  I cannot think of any other emerging economy where the same is true to a comparable extent.  In any case, the intellectual capital embedded in Indian culture is immense.

7. Those Indians who leave seem to retain strong ties to the home country, which in turn helps others with their subsequent upward mobility, whether in India or abroad.  In contrast, Russians who leave Russia seem to cut their ties to a higher degree.

8. I feel one of the hypotheses should involve caste, but I don’t have a ready claim at hand.

Here is the take of Stephen Manallack.  Here is Times of India.  (And by the way, here is Shruti’s piece on India’s 1991 reforms, not irrelevant to the diaspora.)

What else?

Friday assorted links

1. “He has struggled to access inheritance payments that have been withheld for more than 15 years, as trustees claim he’s mentally incompetent to receive the money.

2. Daniel Drezner on how to address your professor.  And related ideas from Michael Strain.  And here you can find a list of British titles, hilarious.

3. Fire law incentives.

4. “In the encounters, which lasted 52 and 79 minutes, the chimpanzees formed coalitions and attacked the gorillas.”  The gorillas did not win.

5. Some Indian street food vendors are richer than you might think.

6. The new DeepMind proteins advance (NYT).  And Technology Review coverage.

7. The Icelandic literary world.

*The Morning Star*, by Karl Knausgaard

Yes, it is the real Knausgaard again, writing under lockdown and delivering a nearly 700-pp. novel that does indeed sound like Knausgaard but is not (strictly) autobiographical.

Here is a Swedish review, excerpt:

I read mostly the novel as an entertaining study of non-reflective life, an exploration of how a secularized society chooses to refrain from considering what does not fit the common explanatory models provided by our various sciences….

Here is a Kirkus review:

A sui generis metaphysical yarn, engrossing in its particulars if broadly rambling.

I would say it is not as viscerally satisfying as the best parts of My Struggle, but about half of it is quite good, the pace is fairly quick, and I had no trouble wanting to finish the book.  Some surprises come at the end, and KK is increasingly a “religious thinker” in my sense of that term.

Two more parts will be written, and those will clear up all of the remaining mysteries.

Claims about the art world (and other things)

Unsurprisingly, [Marc] Spiegler rejects the notion that an increased digital presence could undermine the necessity for the art world to fly to [Basel] Switzerland. “Having content available ahead of time builds momentum and increases, rather than diminishes, people’s desire to come.”

Comparing the fair to a music concert, Spiegler says: “The more live sets a DJ has online, the better attended their shows are. It hypes people up. The fairs are fun, people like seeing each other, they’re not going to stop wanting that.” Indeed for many, Art Basel 2021 will mark the welcome return to a once packed social calendar on the art world circuit, filled with invaluable in-person exchanges. Here’s hoping for a rager.

That is from Kabir Jhala at The Art Newspaper.  It does seem the Basel Art Fair will be held in person this September.

Do honorifics pass a market test?

Following on my discussion from the other day, it is worth thinking about whether new institutions or sectors work very hard to set up a lot of honorific titles.  So many of our standard honorifics come from quite old sectors, such as the military or religion or the nobility.  Are the new sectors seeking to copy those practices?

The world of gaming is quite new, and I do not think it does much to award generalized honorific titles per se, noting that naming competition winners as victors is a fundamentally different practice.

The world of tech is (mostly) pretty new, and it too does not rely much on titles.  Stock options are more important!  Of course you might call someone “employee #37,” but do they go around referring to “Programmer Smith”?  Yes Smith deserves “respect,” but somehow they don’t take it in that direction.

If honorific titles are so wonderful, why do most new institutions seem to be honorific-shy?  Surely a lot of the benefit from such honorific titles ought to be internal to the organization.

(As an aside, I think of women as being treated much better in think tanks and research centers than in academia, and in relative terms having superior opportunities.  And yet there are no formal honorific titles such as “Professor” in the former institutions.  I am not suggesting causality here, but still it seems that the more informal systems are hardly a train wreck for women as a whole.)

Clearly, titles do benefit particular individuals, such as those who are currently not receiving enough respect in their jobs.  But for larger groups as a whole, does it make sense to double down on the honorifics strategy?  In a world where say YouTube stars have more and more influence each year?  Where actual performance in most sectors is easy to measure than ever before?  Is it really so great to so validate the notion of “having done all your homework”?  Honorifics impose lots of costs on the broader group by formalizing hierarchies and making them based on the achievement of arbitrary credentialized plateaus, such as receiving a Ph.D.  Would you really want to invest in the group that wanted to move in the honorifics direction?  Or would you instead think of them as fighting yesterday’s war of ideas?

Can you think of significant new sectors that are investing in honorific titles?  If not, what should you infer from that?  You might claim that titles in the military are tried, true, and tested, and you would be right.  But at the margin should we have greater or less emphasis on titled honorifics as the world changes moving forward?  What are the market data telling us right now?

You already know what I think.

Thursday assorted links

1. The Great Apes also have time inconsistent preferences.  And NBC Sports to cover world chess championship.

2. The Norwegian century we were never woke.

3. A case for gdp-linked bonds.

4. Taco-eating job pays surprisingly well.

5. Retroactive public goods funding, partly by Sage Vitalik.

6. Izabella Kaminska on the paradox of DeFi, original paper here.

7. Minerva, higher ed innovator, is now fully accredited.

Malaysia is phasing out Sinovac

Malaysia’s Ministry of Health said yesterday that the country will stop administering the COVID-19 vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech once its current supplies run out, amid mounting evidence that the vaccines have limited efficacy against the Delta variant that is currently ravaging Southeast Asia.

They will switch mainly to Pfizer.  Thailand also will not be relying on Sinovac, and Turkey and UAE are moving in similar directions.  Here is the article, via Rich D.

I have a simple question, namely how to solve for the Chinese equilibrium.  Are they too supposed to switch away from Chinese vaccines to the Western vaccines?  Could the government stand that loss of face?

Seriously people, how is this one supposed to develop?  Inquiring minds wish to know.

Wednesday assorted links

1. “…the evolution of peer review is best understood as the product of continuous efforts to steward editors’ scarce attention while preserving an open submission policy that favors authors’ interests.

2. “An estimated 1.2 million people died from snakebites in India between 2000 and 2019, the equivalent of more than 58,000 a year, according to a recent paper.”  Link here.

3. The next wave of Facebook Bulletin writers.

4. Myhrvold says Portland is the best pizza city in the U.S.; I say eastern Connecticut.

5. Mastercard partners with Circle to settle stablecoin payments.  Are we seeing “the rails built before our eyes”?

6. UAPx: new non-profit to monitor UFOs.

7. Ten questions you should not ask in Iceland.

Why should they call us “professors”?

I’ve long wondered about this, and explore that question in my latest Bloomberg column.  I’ve discouraged this for a long time:

…I have insisted that my graduate students call me “Tyler.” My goal has been to encourage them to think of themselves as peer researchers who might someday prove me wrong, rather than viewing me as an authority figure who is handing down truth.

And:

Some of the strongest norms are around the title “Doctor.” Just about everyone calls their physician “Doctor,” though the esteemed profession of lawyer does not receive similar treatment. As a Ph.D.-toting academic, I’ve even had people say to me — correctly — “You’re not a real doctor.”

I fear that by ceding this unique authority status to doctors we are making it easier for them to oversell us medical care, a major problem in the U.S. If your doctor suggests that you need a procedure done, it can be hard to say no, especially if you have been deferring to that person for years through the use of an honorific title. On the upside, perhaps all that deference has encouraged many people to get their vaccinations.

There are some arguments for titles:

Sometimes a title can be used to suggest a subordinate position, such as the use of Nurse. It can be an honorific, but it also places the person below the Doctor. The advantage, however, is one of greater anonymity and remove. A woman in particular might prefer “Nurse Washington” over the use of her real full name, given the potential risk of harassment.

Title issues and gender issues intersect in tricky ways. A title such as doctor or professor can give a woman newfound respect, but perhaps the practice hurts respect for women as a whole, since they are titled at lower rates than men.

What I expect we will see is that “established” women and minorities will insist on title usage all the more, to command respect, and under the guise of societal feminization we will evolve a new set of non-egalitarian hierarchies, presented and marketed to us under egalitarian pretenses.  On related ideas, see my earlier post on the first date book walk out meme.

Why the post-1960 divergence for Haiti and the Dominican Republic?

Here is a very good post from Noah Smith on that topic, opening excerpt:

As recently as 1960, the two countries had similar standards of living. Today, the D.R., by some measures, is eight times as rich as Haiti, while Haiti’s standard of living hasn’t advanced at all since 1950.

The D.R. has already surpassed Brazil and Colombia; if Covid doesn’t knock it off its growth trend, it’ll soon pass Mexico and Argentina.

A forensic exercise then follows, for instance:

When Haiti won its independence from France, France sent warships to demand reparations for Haitian expropriation of French property (i.e. slaves and land). Haiti agreed to pay a considerable sum, and to give France cheap exports as well. Some people blame this monumental act of extortion for Haiti’s poverty. It makes a simple, intuitive sort of sense — if someone takes your money, it’s hard to get rich right?

But there are some big problems with this thesis. First of all, Haiti finished paying back this debt (which France reduced) in 1947. That’s at least a decade before Haiti and the D.R. started to diverge economically, and four decades before the divergence became pronounced. Furthermore, Haiti’s total external debt in 2019 was only about 15% of GDP, while the D.R.’s was about 40%! The D.R. is far more indebted to foreign countries now than Haiti is.

I agree with the points made by Noah in the longer post, and would add a few factors.  First, Haiti’s moments of extreme political weakness happened to coincide with a major increase in drug trafficking in the region.  Second, the DR has done an especially good job of mobilizing Special Economic Zones to support its economic growth, at least relative to Haiti.  That in turn had broader feedback effects on subsequent political economy and thus economic growth.  Haiti, in contrast, ended driving out its MNEs — Disney manufacturing was once in the country, baseball production was once significant, and so on, but none of those gains have compounded and mostly they went away, due to bad governance and infrastructure.  (And the massive corruption at Haiti’s main port is a striking contrast with DR export procedures through the SEZs.)  Third, and this one may be as much symptom as cause, but the DR managed to decentralize its power structures somewhat through economic growth on its peripheries, through both tourism and SEZs.  In Haiti, the second- and third-tier cities have not developed, and have turned into backwaters, while centralization in Port-au-Prince has continued unabated, thereby intensifying the logic of Haitian rent-seeking.

Tuesday assorted links

1. What FARC ate for fifty years.

2. Post 9-11, subsidizing higher education didn’t do much for veterans.

3. Nuclear gender gap uh-oh?  And the French are wavering on nuclear (FT).

4. Notes on persistence and economic development.

5. Dating without looksism? (NYT)

6. Very good Interfluidity post on how crypto might work (but not dominate).

7. Excellent Matt Wakeman post on his Peru trip.