Science as a source of social alpha

How to improve society is one of the most commonly discussed questions, but it is not always approached with sufficient seriousness. We don’t think analytically enough about which variables can have maximum impact and also which are most feasible to steer.

For instance, the management of science is a radically underappreciated issue. How many managers of scientific labs receive any management training at all, even in the basics? On a scale of 1 to 10, how well are most labs or non-profit scientific ventures run? I’ve asked a number of people in the hard and biological sciences this question, and more often a laugh is the response, rather than a citation of a very specific number. I’ve never heard anyone say they are run just great.

On the other side of the market, the rest of us are failing too. In our social discourse, we have not elevated better scientific management as a social priority. This could be done in our universities, non-profits, research labs, government agencies, and of course in the private sector too. It’s not a sexy policy issue, but science is one of the most significant means for improving society. In the language of finance, you could say that science is a major source of social alpha.

Science offers the added benefit of being relatively easy to influence or control. Trying to improve the management and policy of U.S. science isn’t an easy task, but it is a relatively small part of our economy and the notion of science is relatively well-defined. Furthermore, our government has many direct policy levers such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense, not to mention numerous state universities. If we can’t improve the performance of our science, you have to wonder what can we do.

In contrast, some other sources of society-wide superior performance are broad and far-ranging in nature, but often too difficult to steer. I have in mind such variables as “trust,” or “having a cooperative culture.” Those are strong positives for societies, but also a little intimidating for a policy program and they can be very difficult to pin down.

Is science really a source of social alpha? Well, science gave the world mRNA vaccines, though not to all societies at the same time. The U.S. and UK cashed in early there, in large part due to their domestic scientific achievements. Science helps keep the U.S. defense establishment strong. Superior science also was essential to the building of the United States as a wealthy, developed nation. If you are hoping that we cure cancer, or limit the problems of climate change, those issues too rely on science. Most generally, science feeds into productivity growth which in turns boosts real wages and the general opportunities available in society.

Science policy could take up a much larger “mind space” in current policy debates. American science was mobilized in part due to the panic over the 1957 Sputnik scare, when the Soviet Union seemed to be ahead of the United States in a number of scientific dimensions. We don’t have a comparably focused scare today, but today’s problems are in fact no less urgent.

The institutions of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and more all have very specific policies toward science. I do not have all or even most of the answers, but what are the chances that those institutions have the very best policies toward science? Pretty close to zero. And as time passes, those institutions seem to become more bureaucratic, more concerned with process, and less innovative, hardly a surprising evolution to anyone familiar with Washington, D.C.

I think we should experiment more with DARPA-like models, where rotating program managers, operating in relatively flat bureaucratic structures, have the autonomy to commit significant sums of money. I also think in pandemics our science institutions should have wartime-like powers to act more quickly and decisively. Whether or not those particular views are correct, a sustained national dialogue about science could yield substantial dividends.

On the research side, science policy and the study of science, should be far more prominent. In my own field, economics, economics of science is barely a subfield and it probably accounts for less than one percent of all research. In my ideal world, it would account for at least five percent of all of economic research.

Similarly, the history of science has produced thousands of wonderful books and articles, but it is hardly the highest-status or most popular subfield in history. We can appreciate what is there while wishing for much, much more, not just in terms of numerical outputs but also in terms of social status and reach to a broader set of readers.

Better science is one of the biggest “free lunches” standing before us.

From my email, on the market for programmers

Programmers in the US are well-paid and companies report difficulty hiring programmers. At the same time, while it’s less reported, there are a lot of people who are good at programming but can’t get programming jobs.There’s a simple explanation, and it’s one that I’ve validated in several ways since realizing it: companies only want to hire already-employed programmers. There’s little incentive to hire someone not already working as a programmer, because if you pay them less than the market rate, they’ll leave after a year, and it takes months to get net productivity from them. (This is great for that person, but the company doesn’t care.) There’s also a big difference between good and bad programmers that can be hard for non-technical managers to determine.There are some developer jobs specifically for new graduates, but fewer than there are computer science graduates alone, and only at certain companies. There’s also a limited window to get one after graduating. Some people can get jobs after a coding bootcamp, yes – but in general, only people in demand for DEI reasons can actually do that, and any technical college degree works about equally well.The higher developer salaries get, the more unqualified people apply, the higher search costs get, and the more companies are disinclined to hire people who aren’t already working as developers.

That is from bhauth.

Friday assorted links

1. Frank Gehry at age 93.

2. “Cognitive ability predicted economic knowledge (r = 0.37 to 0.52) independent of and with much larger effects than either educational attainment or economics courses.

3. Do the most effective stories develop slowly at the beginning and rapidly at the end?

4. Why so few excess deaths from the heat waves in India and Pakistan? (NYT)

5. How is Neom progressing? (Bloomberg)

6. Dracula, timekeeping, and Progress Studies.  Dublin Mean Time!  Recommended.

Food in Bogota

The best approach is to hunt down particular foodstuffs and consume them, rather than thinking in terms of restaurants.  That includes fruits (start with blueberries and blackberries and then move on to the stuff you have never heard of), cheeses, arepas, empanadas, other baked goods, all forms of corn (“choclo”), and whatever they happen to throw your way.

“Have I had this yet?” should be your starting question, and try to get to a full slate of yes’s!

Don’t obsess over finding the best restaurants.  You will end up with some excellent meals, but it is not the same as learning the local cuisine.  That said, the dining scene is much improved since my last visit eight years ago.  I didn’t have complete control over my time and meals, but can recommend Casa del Rey and Sauvage as both very good, without being convinced that they were the very best.

Adam Smith and Colombia

I gave a keynote address in Bogotá to the International Adam Smith Society, here is my talk.  Why is Adam Smith still relevant to Colombia of all places?  It’s not just the market economics, rather my remarks focused on Book V (the best and most interesting part of WoN!) and Smith’s take on standing armies and why they are conducive to liberty.

Contemporary music continues to lose relative popularity

The latest report shows that the consumption of old music grew another 14% during the first half of 2022, while demand for new music declined an additional 1.4%. These old tunes now represent a staggering 72% of the market.

And it’s likely to get worse when the full year numbers are released—because we are still in the midst of the Kate Bush/Metallica phenomenon spurred by the showcasing of their old songs on Stranger Things.

If this were just a short term blip of nostalgia caused by a popular TV show, I might ignore these numbers. But every other bit of market research tells the same story.

A number of recent articles on Hollywood have announced that we are living in the Golden Age of the Aging Actor. Harrison Ford, who turns 80 this week, may be the most prominent example. As the public face of several major brand franchises, he is still in demand, and will soon show up in another Indiana Jones movie, a kind of Raiders of the Lost AARP Card affair. But this aging Ford assembly line is hardly an isolated example—the graying actor is everywhere. Top Gun is the biggest box office success of the year, and it features Tom Cruise reprising a role he last played in 1986. I fully expect to see a septuagenarian Superman or Batman in the future.

Here is more from Ted Gioia’s Substack, which I recommend more generally.

Quantitative Political Science Research is Greatly Underpowered

We analyze the statistical power of political science research by collating over 16,000 hypothesis tests from about 2,000 articles. Even with generous assumptions, the median analysis has about 10% power, and only about 1 in 10 tests have at least 80% power to detect the consensus effects reported in the literature. There is also substantial heterogeneity in tests across research areas, with some being characterized by high-power but most having very low power. To contextualize our findings, we survey political methodologists to assess their expectations about power levels. Most methodologists greatly overestimate the statistical power of political science research.

By Vincent Arel-Bundock,

My excellent Conversation with Matthew Ball

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Ball joined Tyler to discuss the eventual widespan transition of the population to the metaverse, the exciting implications of this interconnected network of 3D worlds for education, how the metaverse will improve dating and its impacts on sex, the happiness and career satisfaction of professional gamers, his predictions for Tyler’s most frequent uses of the metaverse, his favorite type of entrepreneur, why he has thousands of tabs open on his computer at any given moment, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: As I read your book, The Metaverse, which again, I’ll recommend highly, I have the impression you’re pretty optimistic about interoperability within the metaverse and an ultimate lack of market power. Now, if I look around the internet — I mean, most obviously, the Apple Store but also a lot of gaming platforms — you see 30 percent fees, or something in that neighborhood, all over the place. Will the metaverse have the equivalent of a 30 percent fee? Or is it a truly competitive market where everything gets competed down to marginal cost?

BALL: I think neither/nor. I wouldn’t say that market power diffuses. There’s currently this ethos, especially in the Web3 community, that decentralization needs to win and that decentralization can win.

It’s a question of where on the spectrum are we? The early internet was obviously held back by heavy decentralization. This is one of the reasons why AOL was, for so many people, the primary onboarding experience. It was easy, cohesive, visual, vertically integrated down to the software, the browser experience, and so forth. But we believe that the last 15 years has been too centralized.

At the end of the day, no matter how decentralized the underlying protocols of the metaverse are, no matter how popular blockchains are, there are multiple forms of centralization. Habit is powerful. Brand is powerful — the associated trust, intellectual property, the fundamental feedback loops of revenue and scale that drive better product investment for more engineers.

So I struggle to imagine the future isn’t some form of today, a handful of varyingly horizontal-vertical software and hardware-based platforms that have disproportionate share and even more influence. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be as powerful as today.

The 30 percent fee is definitely going to come by the wayside. We see this in the EU, whose legislation dropped yesterday. I have absolute certainty that that is going to go away. The question is the timeline. A lawyer joked yesterday, Apple is going to fight the EU until the heat death of the universe, and that’s probably likely. But Apple will find other ways to control and extract, as is their profit motive.

COWEN: Where is the most likely place for that partial market power or centralization to show up? Is it in the IP rights, in the payment system, the hardware provider, a cross-platform engine, somewhere else? What’s the most likely choke point?

BALL: There seem to be two different answers to that. Number one is software distribution. This is your classic discovery and distribution of virtual experiences. Steam does that. Roblox does that. Google does that, frankly, the search engine. That gateway to virtual experiences typically affords you the opportunity to be the dominant identity system, the dominant payment system, and so on and so forth.

The other option is hardware. We can think of the metaverse as a persistent network of experiences, but as with the internet, it may exist literally and in abstraction, but you can only access it through a device. Those device operators have an ever-growing network of APIs, experiences, technologies, technical requirements, and controls through which they can shape it.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Landlordism returns to Ireland but why?

No political party ever ran for election on the promise to bring back the landlords. None of our leaders ever said that the problem with late 20th century Ireland was that too few people were paying rent.

And yet, this shift back towards landlordism didn’t happen by accident. It has been engineered by the State and partly paid for by the taxpayer.

It is the State that created and shaped this change. It pays all or most of the rent to landlords for 113,000 households. Between 2001 and 2020 governments have spent €12.5 billion to support the private rental market.

The consequent shift is a remarkable exercise in social engineering. Renting has been made more and more “normal” for each succeeding generation.

A recent ESRI report tells us that fewer than 20 per cent of Irish people born in the 1950s or 1960s lived in rented accommodation in their mid-thirties. For those born in the 1970s this rises to just over 30 per cent. For those born in the 1980s it’s over 40 per cent.

These figures are, naturally, mirrored on the other side by a dramatic decline in home ownership among young people. In 2004, 60 per cent of those aged 25-44 owned their own homes. By 2015 that had halved to 30 per cent.

Here is more from the excellent Fintan O’Toole.

The fiscal angle to the Ukraine war is undercovered

Ukraine’s budget crisis has become acute because of a slump in tax revenues and customs duties since the invasion began almost five months ago together with higher war spending.

A halt to grain and steel exports has deprived Kyiv of foreign currency earnings. Ukraine is being forced to burn through its foreign exchange reserves at an accelerating pace, as the central bank purchases government bonds to plug its financing gap.

…The finance ministry said its assessment of the gap was still $5bn a month but even that was way more than western capitals had so far provided.

…The fiscal strains are showing more broadly. Naftogaz, the state-owned energy company, on Tuesday asked holders of $1.5bn of its bonds to accept a delay in payments as it seeks to preserve cash for purchasing gas. It would amount to the first default by a Ukrainian state entity since the war began.

Here is more from the FT.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Henry Oliver reviews Catherine Rendell on John Donne.

2. New Stanford conference on the economics of animal welfare, with new papers too.  Caroline Hoxby has a hand in this.

3. In praise of Tom Tugendhat (NYT).

4. The decline of history as a major.

5. Vitalik on Balaji’s Network States.  And Vitalik on the only correct date format.

6. Lant Pritchett on economic growth vs. charity.

Yimby and Liberty

Good answer from Matt Yglesias at Slow Boring:

Marcus Seldon: How should the YIMBY movement/urbanists deal with the fact that most Americans say they want to live in a detached single-family home that they own? How do you sell upzoning, walkable neighborhoods, transit-oriented development, and so on to people who largely like (or think they like, at least) the American suburban lifestyle?

MY: Logically, there’s just no contradiction here. It’s clear that there is significant unmet demand to live in New York, Boston, D.C., and San Francisco, and it’s also clear that most people don’t want to live in those cities. Right now, they collectively account for maybe three to four percent of the U.S. population, and in YIMBYtopia, maybe that would go up to five to six percent.

But mostly, the thing I want to sell people on is freedom. It should be legal to build a detached single-family home on any parcel of residentially zoned land in America. But it should also be legal to build a duplex or some rowhouses there. The point of making it legal to build mid-rise apartments isn’t that there’s something incredibly awesome about living in a mid-rise apartment. It’s that in a world of tradeoffs, you might prefer it to an alternative living situation where you have a longer commute or higher expenses.

Yglesias is correct. Yimby is a natural libertarian issue, it’s good for freedom, efficiency and the poor. It’s unfortunate that in recent years there has been some slippage among libertarians to adopt a “conservative” approach to Yimby and immigration by arguing for local and national rights to determine neighborhood and country composition. Sorry, you can twist words all you want, but that isn’t libertarianism it’s collectivism.

The NSF Career Award

From an email from an anonymous correspondent:

Tyler, you may already know this, but I don’t think most people outside of STEM do. The NSF CAREER award (grant) is viewed as a major stepping-stone towards tenure, and there is an expectation that most people will “get one” on their way to tenure at top universities. Yet the requirements are:

1. Write 15 pages, outlining your entire ambitious research agenda for the next 5 years, generally organized as 3 major thrusts with 2-3 paper-sized ideas each.

2. Write 2-3 pages about broader impact, which generally includes broadening participation goals explaining the new undergraduate classes, graduate classes, and extensive community outreach you will engage in.

3. You have about a 20% chance of being awarded this grant, and will hear in 6-9 months (~10% of your tenure clock!)

4. It’s for only $500k, which at most top STEM programs covers about a grad-student per year by the time all the indirect costs are included.

(You may guess that I am writing one right now). The idea that we basically have “prestige” grants that everyone agrees are way too much effort for way too little money blows my mind. And everyone goes along with it!

Other unintended consequences include that you’re effectively forbidden from proposing the same ideas to other funding agencies while the grants is under review, locking you out of other funding sources!

Imagine if I pitched a VC and they said “We’ll get back to you in six months and in the mean time you can’t pitch anyone else, and we’ll only give you enough for one employee for the next five years”. How could anyone do innovation in that kind of environment?!

TC again: Of those it is #4 that I find most astonishing.  That is some rate of overhead!  Keep in mind that throughout world history the costs of intermediation generally have run at about two percent of wealth.  And that is for intermediaries that have to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers, not just send money along.