Category: Uncategorized

My Conversation with Ezra Klein

Here is the audio and transcript.  Yes we talked a great deal about Ezra’s new book on polarization, but much more too:

Tyler posed these questions to Ezra and more, including thoughts on Silicon Valley’s intellectual culture, his disagreement with Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, the limits of telecommuting, how becoming a father made him less conservative, his post-kid production function, why Manhattan is overrated, the “cosmic embarrassment” of California’s governance, why he loved Marriage Story, the future of the BBC and PBS, what he learned in Pakistan, and more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: We would agree that what is called affective negative polarization is way up — professing a dislike of the other side, not wanting your Republican kid to marry a Democratic wife, and so on. But in terms of actual policy polarization, what if someone says, “Well, that’s down,” and they say this: “Well, the main issue in foreign policy today is China.” That’s actually fairly bipartisan. Or if people don’t agree, they don’t disagree by party.

Domestic spending, Social Security, Medicare — no one wants to cut those. That’s actually consensus. The other main issue is how we deal with or regulate tech. America has its own system. It’s happened through the regulators. It’s not really that partisan. One may or may not like it, but again, disagreement about it doesn’t fall along normal party lines.

So the main foreign policy issue, the main substantive social issue — we’re less polarized. And then, domestic spending, it seems, we all mostly agree. Why is that wrong?

KLEIN: I’m not sure it is wrong. Two things I would say about it. One, the word main is doing a lot of work in that argument. The question is, how do you decide what are the main issues? I wouldn’t say domestic regulation of tech is a main issue, for instance. I think it’s important, but compared to things like immigration and healthcare, at least in the way people experience that and think about that — or if you ask them what are their main issues, domestic regulation of tech doesn’t crack the top 10.

And:

COWEN: But again, at any point in time, if positions are shifting rapidly — as they are, say, on trade — if you took all of GDP, even healthcare — that’s what, maybe 18 percent of GDP? But a lot of the system, a lot of people in both parties agree on, even if they disagree on Obamacare. Obamacare is part of that 18 percent. Over what percent of GDP are we more polarized than we used to be, as compared to less polarized? What’s your estimate?

KLEIN: I like that question. Let me try to think about this. I don’t think I have a GDP answer for you, but let me try to give you more of what I think of as a mechanism.

I think a useful heuristic here — people don’t have nearly as strong views on policy qua policy as certainly people like you and I tend to assume they do. The way that Washington, DC, talks about politics is incredibly projection oriented. We talk about politics as if everybody is a political junkie with highly distinct ideologies.

Political scientists have done a lot of polling on this, going all the way back to the 1960s, and it seems something like 20 to 30 percent of the population has what we would think of as a coherent policy-oriented ideology, where things fit together, and they have everything lined up. Most people don’t hold policy positions all that strongly.

What happens is that they do hold — to the extent they’re involved in politics — identity strongly, political affiliations quite strongly. They know who is on their side and who isn’t.

The pattern that I see here, again and again, is that when things are out of the spotlight, when they are not being argued about, when they are not the thing that the parties are disagreeing about, they’re actually quite nonpolarized. You’ll sit there in rooms of experts. There’ll be a panel here, George Mason, whatever it might be, and everybody will have some good ideas about how you can make the system better for everyone.

Then what will happen is, the Eye of Sauron of the American political system will turn towards whatever the policy issue is. Maybe it’s Obamacare, maybe it’s climate change. Remember, climate change was not that polarized 15–20 years ago. John McCain had a big cap-and-trade plan in his 2008 platform —

And:

COWEN: If you could engineer your own political temperament, would you change it from how it is? Mostly, we’re stuck with what we’ve got, I would say, but if you could press the button — more passionate, less passionate, something else? Goldilocks?

KLEIN: I think I like my political temperament. Probably for the era of politics we’re moving into, and for my job, it would almost be better to be of a more conflict-oriented temperament than I am. I think that we are moving into something that, at least in the short term, is rewarding or is going to reward those who really like getting in fights all the time, and I don’t like that.

I’m more consensus oriented. I like hearing people out. I probably have a little bit more of a moderate temperament in that way. But I wouldn’t really change that about myself. I think it’s a shame that so much of politics happens on Twitter now, but that’s the way it is. I wouldn’t change me to operate to that.

Recommended, and again here is Ezra’s new book on polarization.

Draining the swamp

From Jason Crawford, Emergent Ventures winner in Progress Studies:

…the surprising thing I found is that infectious disease mortality rates have been declining steadily since long before vaccines or antibiotics…

In 1900, the most deaths came from tuberculosis, influenza/pneumonia, and gastroenteric diseases such as dysentery. All of these were effectively conquered by antibiotics in the 1930s and ’40s, but were on the decline since at least the beginning of the century…

Indeed, digging further into the UK data from the late 1800s, we can see that TB was declining since at least 1850 and gastroenteric disease since the 1870s. And similar patterns hold for lesser killers such as measles, which didn’t have a vaccine until the 1960s, but which by then had already declined in mortality by more than 90% from its 1900 levels.

So what was going on? If you read my survey of technologies against infectious disease, you know that other than drugs and immunization, there is one other way to fight germs: cleaning up the environment.

I was surprised to learn that sanitation efforts began as early as the 1700s—and that these efforts were based on data collection and analysis, long before a full scientific theory of infection had been worked out.

There is much more at the link, including the footnotes for citations to the claims made here.

Daniel Gross on productivity

The longer you think about a task without doing it, the less novel it becomes to do. Writing things in your to-do list and coming back to them later helps you focus, but it comes at the cost: you’ve now converted an interesting idea into work. Since you’ve thought about it a little bit, it’s less interesting to work on.

It’s like chewing on a fresh piece of gum, immediately sticking it somewhere, then trying to convince yourself to rehydrate the dry, bland, task of chewed-up gum. Oh. That thing. Do you really want to go back to that? “We’ve already gone through all the interesting aspects of that problem, and established that there’s only work left”, the mind says.

Stateless Browser

One day someone will make a to-do product that lets you serialize and deserialize flow, like protobuf. Until then, my solution is to (somewhat counter-intuitively) not think about the task until I am ready to fully execute it. I do not unwrap the piece of gum until I’m ready to enjoy it in its entirety. I need to save the fun of thinking to pull myself into flow.

  • I try and respond to emails the moment I open them. If it’s something that requires desktop work, I quickly close the email.
  • I don’t write down ideas for posts until I’m ready to write the entire post.
  • I write down a few bullets of what I need out of a meeting, and then refuse to think about it until the actual event.

There are many more points at the link.  My classic line is simply “I’m not going to focus on that right now.”

Gabriel Tarde’s *On Communication and Social Influence*

This 19th century French sociologist is worth reading, as he is somehow the way station between Pascal and Rene Girard, with an influence on Bruno Latour as well.  Tarde focuses on how copying helps to explain social order and also how it drives innovation.  For Tarde, copying, innovation, and ethos are all part of an integrated vision.  He covers polarization and globalization as well and at times it feels like he has spent time on Twitter.

It is hard to pull his sentences out of their broader context but here is one:

We have seen that the true, basic sources of power are propagated discoveries or inventions.

And:

The role of impulse and chance in the direction of inventive activity will cease to amaze us if we recall that such genius almost always begins in the service of a game or is dependent on a religious idea or superstition.

Or:

…contrary to the normal state of affairs, images in the inventor’s hallucinatory reverie tend to become strong states while sensations become weak states.

…When the self is absorbed in a goal for a long time, it is rare that the sub-self, incorrectly called the unconscious, does not participate in this obsession, conspiring with our consciousness and collaborating in our mental effort.  This conspiracy, this collaboration whose service is faithful yet hidden, is inspiration

He argues that societies in their uninventive phase are also largely uncritical, and for that reason.  (Doesn’t that sound like a point from a Peter Thiel talk?)

He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.

And:

Attentive crowds are those who crowd around the pulpit of a preacher or lecturer, a lectern, a platform, or in front of the stage where a moving drama is being performed.  Their attention — and inattention — is always stronger and more constant than would be that of the individual in the group if he were alone.

Tarde argues that desires are intrinsically heterogeneous, and economics makes the mistake of reducing them to a near-tautologous “desire for wealth.”

Not all of it hangs together, but I would rather read Tarde than Durkheim or Comte, the other two renowned French sociologists of the 19th century.

You can buy the book here, here is Wikipedia on Tarde.

Monday assorted links

My chat with Brendan Fitzgerald Wallace

He interviewed me, here is his description: “My conversation with economist, author & podcaster Tyler Cowen covering everything from: 1) Buying Land on Mars (for real) 2) Privatizing National Parks 3) Setting up aerial highways in the sky for drone delivery 4) Buying Greenland 5) London post Brexit 6) Universal Basic Income 7) Why Los Angeles is “probably the best city in North America” 8) How real estate can combat social isolation & loneliness 9) Cyber attacks on real estate assets and national security implications. 10) The impacts, positive and negative of Climate Change, on real estate in different geographies. 11) Other esoteric stuff…..”.

Here is the conversation, held in Marina del Rey at a Fifth Wall event.

Evidence for State Capacity Libertarianism

The plots do not support the hypothesis that small government produces either greater prosperity or greater freedom. (In reading the charts, remember that the SGOV index is constructed so that 0 indicates the largest government and 10 the smallest government.) Instead, smaller government tends to be associated with less prosperity and less freedom. Both relationships are statistically significant, with correlations of 0.43 for prosperity and 0.35 for freedom.

Using SoG, the Cato measure of size of government, instead of SGOV, the IMF measure, does not help. The correlations turn out still to be negative and statistically significant, although slightly weaker.

Let’s turn now to the alternative hypothesis that quality of government, rather than size, is what counts for prosperity and freedom. Here are those scatterplots:

This time, both relationships are positive. High quality of government is strongly associated both with greater human prosperity and greater human freedom. Furthermore, the correlations are much stronger than those for the size of government.

That is all by Ed Dolan, recommended, and by the way smaller governments are not correlated with higher quality governments.

Sunday assorted links

Coronavirus information and analysis bleg

What are the best things to read to estimate what’s going to happen from here?

In particular, what is the best way to think about how to make inferences, or not, from extrapolating current trends about case and death numbers?

What is “what happens from here” going to be most sensitive to in terms of potential best remedies? Regulatory decisions of some kind? Which features of local public health infrastructure will matter the most? Will any of it matter at all?

Which variables should we focus on to best predict expected severity?

When the market drives you crazy

That is the title of the paper, by Corrado Giuletti, Mirco Tonin, and Michael Vlassopoulos, the subtitle is “Stock market returns and fatal car accidents,” here is the abstract:

This paper provides evidence that daily fluctuations in the stock market have important–and hitherto neglected–spillover effects on fatal car accidents. Using the universe of fatal car accidents in the United States from 1990 to 2015, we find that a one standard deviation reduction in daily stock market returns is associated with a 0.6% increase in fatal car accidents that happen after the stock market opening. A battery of falsification tests support a causal interpretation of this finding. Our results are consistent with immediate emotions stirred by a negative stock market performance influencing the number of fatal accidents, in particular among inexperienced investors.

Forthcoming in Journal of Health Economics, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The feminization of society, installment #1637, suffragist peace edition

Preferences for conflict and cooperation are systematically different for men and women. At each stage of the escalatory ladder, women prefer more peaceful options. They are less apt to approve of the use of force and the striking of hard bargains internationally, and more apt to approve of substantial concessions to preserve peace. They impose higher audience costs because they are more approving of leaders who simply remain out of conflicts, but they are also more willing to see their leaders back down than engage in wars. Unlike men, most women impose audience costs primarily because a leader behaved aggressively in making a threat, not because the leader endangered the states bargaining reputation through behaving inconsistently. Many of these differences, and possibly all, span time periods and national boundaries. Women have been increasingly incorporated into political decision-making over the last century through suffragist movements, raising the question of whether these changes have had effects on the conflict behavior of nations consistent with their large effects in other areas, such as the size and competencies of governments. We find that the evidence is consistent with the view that the increasing enfranchisement of women, not merely the rise of democracy itself, is the cause of the democratic peace.

Emphasis added, that is the abstract of a 2018 paper by Barnhart, Dafoe, Saunders, and Trager, and this tweet offers a useful image from the paper.  Via Ilya Novak.

Saturday assorted links

Vancouver vending machine markets in everything

Health advocates say a safe supply of opioids is critical to help prevent people from overdosing on tainted street drugs.

Now, a pilot project in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside provides some high-risk users with access to an automated machine that dispenses opioids prescribed by a doctor…

The machine, called MySafe, is stocked with hydromorphone tablets that are released on a pre-determined schedule to high-risk opioid users. A user must scan their palm on the machine to identify themselves. The machine recognizes each individual by verifying the vein pattern in their hand and then dispenses their prescription.

Made of steel and bolted to the floor, MySafe resembles an ATM or vending machine. It logs every package that is released and sends that information to a web feed that only program administrators can access.

Here is the full article, please solve for the equilibrium.  Via Michelle Dawson.

*Escaping Paternalism*

The authors are Mario Rizzo and Glen Whitman, and the subtitle is Rationality, Behavioral Economics, and Public Policy.  This is the most comprehensive, definitive attempt to respond to paternalism and nudge that I have seen, written from a (mostly) libertarian and partially Austrian perspective.  Excerpt:

In our discussion of preferences, the overriding theme was that preferences need not conform to rigid models.  We should countenance a much wider range of preferences, in both form and content, than economists have been inclined to accept.  But does the same permissive attitude apply to beliefs?…we will argue for a more permissive attitude towards beliefs.  Much like our position on preferences, our position on beliefs is that economists, and to a lesser extent other social scientists, have become slaves to an exceedingly narrow conception of both the function and operation of beliefs.

They argue for nudge as personal advice rather than as policy, and overall defend the John Stuart Mill tradition of limited paternalism at most.