Here is the first round of winners of the new Emergent Ventures initiative at Mercatus, led by me. The list is ordered roughly in the order grants were made, and reflects no other prioritization. All project descriptions are mine alone and should not be considered literal attributions of intent to the project applicants. Here goes:
Anonymous grant for writing in Eastern Europe.
Pledged grant to San Francisco’s Topos House, conditional on finding a “social science prodigy” to live in the house for a while and interact with the other Topos fellows. Topos is a San Francisco house where several tech prodigies live and periodically seminars and larger group interactions are held there or connected to the house.
Travel grant made to 18-year-old economics prodigy, to travel to San Francisco to meet with members of the “rationality community.” The hope is to boost her career trajectory.
Grant to Harshita Arora to help her pursue work in brain science, including brain-computer interfaces to help disabled people manipulate and move objects. Harshita is a 17-year-old Indian prodigy, who first received attention for her programming work in the app space. Harshita made her bio and proposal public: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1j5Zf2RIiKVUUZzJb6qGQdx2WmG7q4NS9/view
Leonard Bogdonoff has a project to scrape Instagram and create a searchable concordance of street art around the world. His website is here and his blog is medium.com/@rememberlenny. One use of this project is to amplify the voice of “protest art” against the constraints of censorship from autocratic governments, but it is also a new way to glean usable information from Instagram.
Travel and conference grant to Juan Pablo Villarino, from Argentina, sometimes called “the world’s greatest hitchhiker.”
Ben Southwood, public intellectual from England, support for his writing and research on why progress in science has slowed down.
Eric Lofgren has worked at the Pentagon for seven years and now will spend a year at Mercatus/George Mason to develop the skills, including blogging and podcasting, to become the nation’s leading public intellectual on defense procurement.
A two-year pledge to Gaurav Venkataraman, at University College of London, to support his doctoral work on the idea of RNA-based memory. This research also has exciting implications for the design of artificial intelligence.
Joy Buchanan, economist, a grant to conduct research on why people become entrepreneurs and initiate start-ups, using the methods of experimental economics.
Michael Sonnenschein, Masters student at MIT in development economics (and a television screenwriter) a grant for research to reform and improve the Haitian lottery system, and turn it into a means to combat poverty.
Stefan Roots is writing and editing an on-line and also paper newspaper to cover local news in Chester, Pennsylvania, aimed at the African-American community.
Jeffrey Clemens, professor at UC San Diego, a grant to help him develop his on-line writing in economics.
Kelly Smith has a project to further extend and organize a parent-run charter school system in Arizona, Prenda, using Uber-like coordinating apps and “minimalist” educational methods.
David Perell, to encourage and support his work in podcasting and social media.
We are in the midst of processing several other awards as well, so do not worry if you are not yet mentioned.
I am delighted to welcome this very prestigious and accomplished “entering class” of Emergent Ventures fellows. If you are considering applying, please note that we are interested in other topics and methods as well.
The original Sears mail-order catalogue changed how African Americans in the South shopped:
…the catalogue format allowed for anonymity, ensuring that black and white customers would be treated the same way.
“This gives African Americans in the Southeast some degree of autonomy, some degree of secrecy,” unofficial Sears historian Jerry Hancock told the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast in December 2016. “Now they can buy the same thing that anybody else can buy. And all they have to do is order it from this catalogue. They don’t have to deal with racist merchants in town and those types of things.”
In a heartfelt essay Ashlee Clark Thompson explains how the “grab and go” technologies now being tested at Amazon Go made her confront lessons learned from decades of shopping while black:
The idea of walking into a store, taking an item or several off the shelves and strolling right back out again boggled my mind. It ran counter to everything I had learned about being black and shopping.
…I grabbed one of the orange Amazon Go bags and began to make my way around the perimeter of the store. I was studying the various bottled waters and debating whether to get fizzy or still, or a bottle of kombucha, when I realized what I was really doing: I was stalling. The fear I had carried with me for decades reared its head as I stood in front of the refrigerated display. I was afraid to make a choice, remove it from a shelf and put it in my bag. I was afraid someone would pop out from behind a display of Amazon-branded merch and scream, “Get your hands off that!” And I was mad that this fear couldn’t even let me fully enjoy an experience that’s designed for everyone to grab and go, no questions asked.
Eff this, I thought. I’m getting some Vitamin Water.
Once the plastic bottle hit the bottom of my reusable bag, I glanced around to see if anyone noticed. The Amazon employees shuffled around the small store and restocked shelves. Tourists chatted in small groups as they pointed and looked for the sensors that were keeping track of our every move. One guy with his phone on a selfie stick recorded himself as he selected snacks. And then there were the folks for whom the novelty had worn off and just wanted a vegetarian banh mi sandwich.
No one cared what I was doing. Is this what it feels like to shop when you’re not black?
…Amazon Go isn’t going to fix implicit bias or remove the years of conditioning under which I’ve operated. But in the Amazon Go store, everyone is just a shopper, an opportunity for the retail giant to test technology, learn about our habits and make some money. Amazon sees green, and in its own capitalist way, this cashierless concept eased my burden a little bit.
The similarities in these cases are interesting but so are the differences. In the Sears case most of the effect of diminished discrimination was driven by greater competition in one-shop towns. In the one-shop town the owners sometimes took a share of their monopoly profits in invidious racism–this appears to explain why shop owners would prevent blacks from buying more expensive products (or perhaps the one-stop shop had to cater to racist customers who demanded invidious discrimination.)
In the Uber case my bet is that a large share of the reduction in discrimination was due to the fact that Uber drivers don’t carry cash and so are less worried about robbery and the app increases safety because it records in detail rider, driver and trip data. In other words, the Uber system reduced the value of statistical discrimination. It’s difficult to know for sure, however, because there was probably also some decline in invidious discrimination brought about by Uber hiding some rider information from drivers until trips are accepted.
The last case, the Amazon Go case, is in part a decline in the value of statistical discrimination since shoplifting is no longer a problem (in theory, assuming the technology works) but in this case the decline in statistical discrimination is driven by much finer discrimination. The moment a shopper enters the Amazon Go store, Amazon knows their name, address, entire shopping history, credit history and potentially much more. Moreover, a shopper’s every movement within the store is tracked to a level of detail that no store detective could ever hope to match. To the customer, especially the black customer, it may feel like they are no longer being watched but in fact they are watched more than ever before–the costs of technological monitoring, however, are mostly fixed which means that everyone is monitored equally. No need for statistical discrimination in the panopticon.
Addendum: A good dissertation might be to incorporates the cost of information, the value of statistical discrimination and the demand for invidious discrimination in a general theory that explains the various cases mentioned here and the effects of information bans such as ban the box.
1. MIE: “Travel to the summit of Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, where Three Twins Ice Cream’s founder will hand-churn a batch of ice cream with glacial ice from the mountain’s summit. The mountain’s glaciers are predicted to disappear within the next 10-15 years due to climate change – and your purchase helps raise awareness of this fact with a five-figure contribution to an African environmental non-profit. The sundae’s price also includes first class airfare to Tanzania, five-star accommodations, a guided climb, as much ice cream as you can eat and a souvenir t-shirt made from organic cotton.”
7. My Farnham Street podcast, mostly about how to reason, came out very well I thought. And you can buy a transcript at the link.
5. How are the prospects for Irish unification looking these days? What is the correct underlying model here?
6. “People’s recollections after driving a familiar road were very poor, with most memories involving the bad behavior of other motorists.” Link here.
7. Witchcraft in the #MeToo era (NYT, satire).
Food insecurity can be directly exacerbated by climate change due to crop-production-related impacts of warmer and drier conditions that are expected in important agricultural regions. However, efforts to mitigate climate change through comprehensive, economy-wide GHG emissions reductions may also negatively affect food security, due to indirect impacts on prices and supplies of key agricultural commodities. Here we conduct a multiple model assessment on the combined effects of climate change and climate mitigation efforts on agricultural commodity prices, dietary energy availability and the population at risk of hunger. A robust finding is that by 2050, stringent climate mitigation policy, if implemented evenly across all sectors and regions, would have a greater negative impact on global hunger and food consumption than the direct impacts of climate change. The negative impacts would be most prevalent in vulnerable, low-income regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where food security problems are already acute.
In other words, one needs to be very careful with a carbon tax. For the pointer, I thank Charles Klingman.
These are past suggestions from MR readers, pulled from the comments, endorsed by me only on a stochastic basis:
Michela Wrong, Eritrea
Rwanda: something Prunier, probably Rwanda Crisis though it stops in 1996
Uganda: Season of Thomas Tebo, though it’s fiction (is that disqualifying?)
Eastern Congo: Jason Stearns Dancing with Monsters (like China, the country is too big for one book)
The Government of Ethiopia – Margery Perham’s Ethiopian answer to Ruth Benedict’s Japanese The Sword and the Chrysanthemum.
Ethiopia: – Wax and Gold by Donald Levine – Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia (edited by E. Ficquet & G. Prunier
Pre-colonial Africa: The Scramble for Africa
For DRCongo, I recommend The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila by Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja. It does a great job of distinguishing between the dizzying array of political factions in Congolese history. It’s shortcomings are in culture and economics. Not a lot to choose from with DRC unfortunately!
From Genocide to Continental War, by Gérard Prunier
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz was excellent, as was King Leopold’s ghost on the DRC.
Zimbabwe – The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe by David Coltart
Great Lakes region: this was actually good https://www.amazon.com/Great-Lakes-Africa-Thousand-History/dp/1890951358/
On Australia: Robert Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding”
On Hong Kong: Gordon Mathews’ “Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong”
Tyler mentioned Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s book on the Caribbean for the region, so how about Paul Theroux’s book about the South Pacific, “The Happy Isles of Oceania”?
And if Boston were a country: J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” J. Anthony Lukas
What about outer space? Best book on Mars? The moon?
As a besotted worshiper of Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, and Afro-Futurism more generally, I have been anticipating this one for many months. Since I wish that one-fifth of all movies had an Afro-Futurist background, and so few do, I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Still, I was disappointed by just about everything except some of the visuals.
The male characters were weak and most of the scenes dull, and worst of all most of the humor is mediocre. Furthermore, I found the movie uncomfortably prejudiced. There is such a thing as racism directed mainly at Africans (as opposed to blacks), and it seems to me this was it.
So many spears and wild animals? How about holding a referendum every now and then? And there were so many “Africanist” tropes. De facto, I thought the actual message was strongly pro-segregation, although wimpiness on that finally kicks in. The visual references to Narnia and to various Star Wars installments were fine, but was it necessary to cite the colonialist Zulu? The contrast with the resource-poor city of Busan, South Korea was almost Straussian in intent. Is wealth based on human capital so impossible in Africa?
I would say the more you know about actual African cinema, the less you will appreciate this one.
Christopher Lebron in Boston Review has written the best review (via Hollis Robbins).
I believe it was Dan Wang who loved the Robert Tombs book The English and Their History and asked for more books of that nature. Another reader wrote in and wanted to know what was the best book about each country.
To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country. So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance, nor is Allan Janik’s and Stephen Toulmin’s splendid Wittgenstein’s Vienna. I thought I would start with a list of some nominees, solicit your suggestions in the comments, and later produce a longer post with all the correct answers.
2. Germany: Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century.
3. Italy: Luigi Barzini, The Italians. Or David Gilmour, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Peoples, and their Regions.
4. Spain: John Hooper, The Spaniards.
5. France: Graham Robb: The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography.
6. Portugal: Barry Hatton, The Portuguese: A Modern History.
7. Ireland: Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History.
8. Russia: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians. One of the very best books on this list.
9. Ukraine: Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.
11. Canada: ????. Alex?
12. Mexico; Alan Riding, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans. Even though it, like the Barzini book, is out of date.
13. Caribbean: Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.
I’ll give South America further thought, Africa and the Middle East too.
14. Cambodia: Sebastian Strangio, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
16. Pakistan: Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country.
17. China: ???? I find this to be a tough call.
18. Singapore and Malaysia: Jim Baker, Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore.
19. Japan: In the old days I might have suggested Karel von Wolferen, but now it is badly out of date. What else?
Joe Studwell, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region gets tossed in somewhere too.
All of those are subject to revision.
Do leave your suggestions in the comments, and at some point I’ll publish an expanded and updated version of this post, with additional countries too, or perhaps split into multiple posts by region.
Here 22 ambassadors recommend one book to read before visiting their country, mostly mediocre selections. Here is a suggested list of the most iconic book from each country. Don’t take me as endorsing those.
2. Poverty and housing insecurity along Jefferson Davis Highway. By the way, did you know that a 1963 law required North-South streets in Alexandria to be named after Confederate generals, “insofar as possible”? And in one poll, a plurality of African-Americans think the statues should stay.
3. What does the CBO say about cutting off CSR subsidies? NB: We do not know if this is correct!
Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of concrete communist architecture.
Link here, photos recommended. It seems it is also the roast pepper capital of the world, and this:
The city center holds concrete masterpieces sitting alongside every possible era of architecture from the last two millennium. An ancient Castle fortress looks down from one side, and the world’s biggest cross sits atop an inner city mountain on the other. On one side of the Vardar river that cuts through the city center, is a ancient neighbourhood that could be straight out of Istanbul. On the other, the city square with an enormous “Man On a Horse” statue (just don’t say it’s Alexander the Great, believe me) is a pleasurable and walk-able area normally bustling with activity. Connecting the two areas, is the Stone Bridge, built about 700 years ago – on top of much older Roman foundations. The layers and the contrast is unique for any city of this size.
Imagine a city that is part Habsburg in style, part Ottoman, part communist brutalism, and part Las Vegas/Venetian kitsch except it isn’t kitschy, and with a dash of 300 thrown in for good measure, distributed across dozens or is it hundreds of large statues?
The earthquake of 1963 is mentioned fairly often; it destroyed about 80 percent of the city.
Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, and there is a museum in her honor. A good day trip from Skopje is the St. Jovan Bigorski monastery, some of the finest woodcarving I have seen. It is striking to view the church in conjunction with the Saudi-financed mosque across the valley, thereby inducing one to ponder the use of stones to capture space in the game of Go.
I am told there are Macedonian enclaves in Totowa, Clifton, and Garfield, New Jersey.
The food is phenomenal, in addition to the roast peppers there are breads, baked pies, meats stewed with vegetables, white beans, stuffed peppers, trout, and Balkan cheeses, all with that farm to table touch. Further to the south I recommend the garlic spread.
There is sexual dimorphism in Skopje, and I am told that Donald Trump is more popular in this country than in any other.
The major Macedonian exports are chemical goods, machinery, clothing, iron, and steel. The measured unemployment rate is about 23 percent, and there is a comparative advantage in producing “fake news.” There are varying estimates for per capita income, but about 13k (PPP) seems in the ballpark.
Politics was discussed and maps were shown. To put a twist on the famous quotation about religion in India, when it comes to history, every Macedonian is a millionaire.
English proficiency is high, as Macedonian has only slightly more than 2 million inhabitants and none of the immediate neighbors has a language that is very useful elsewhere. The people are very friendly and helpful, and it is quite safe here for a tourist.
On the television I watched the first quarter of “NBA Team Africa vs. NBA Rest of the World,” Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki, etc., a real game with refs and a crowd, does the NBA even tell the American market about contests such as this?
If food, architecture, and history interest you, visit the fresh and vibrant Skopje.
Amanda Lea Robinson has a new paper “Nationalism and Ethnic-Based Trust: Evidence from an African Border Region,” here is her main result:
In diverse societies, individuals tend to trust coethnics more than non-coethnics. I argue that identification with a territorially-defined nation, common to all ethnic groups, reduces the degree to which trust is ethnically bounded. I conduct a “lab-in-the-field” experiment at the intersection of national and ethnic boundaries in Malawi, which measures strength of national identification, experimentally manipulates national identity salience, and measures trust behaviorally. I find that shared nationality is a robust predictor of trust, equal in magnitude to the impact of shared ethnicity. Furthermore, national identification moderates the degree to which trust is limited to coethnics: while weak national identifiers trust coethnics more than non-coethnics, strong national identifiers are blind to ethnicity. Experimentally increasing national identity salience also eliminates the co-ethnic trust advantage among weak nationalists. These results offer micro-level evidence that a strong and salient national identity can diminish ethnic barriers to trust in diverse societies.
Hat tip goes to Ben Southwood.
1. Robert Knapp, The Dawn of Christianity: People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles. Jews, Christians, and polytheists, mostly in the first century after the birth of Christ. Strongly conceptual, rather than a string of hard-to-remember facts and citations. Here is a useful summary review.
2. Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream. A well-known Argentinean novel, finally available in English. A kind of ghost story, imagining wondering if the soul of your dying child really has been transferred to another person. Short and very powerful. Here is one very good review.
2. Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers. Plenty of libertarian thought in here, and many historical tidbits of interest, for instance Julia Caldwell-Frazier, “The Decisions of Time” (1889) p. 486:
What obstacles and failures Prof. Morse encountered when he completed his rough model of the recording electro-magnetic telegraph; but see of what inestimable value his invention has been to mankind! Was not public opinion opposed to the telephone?—styled it “a useless thing.” But within a decade the telephone has become the most patronized means of urban intercommunication. Through all the innumerable obstacles and oppositions, we see, by the decisions of time, science tracing the wild comet in its vast eccentric course through the heavens; we see science bringing down the very lightning from the clouds, making it a remedial agent and a messenger, quick as light, to carry our thoughts.
Here is useful NYT coverage. There is also:
Michael Vatikiotis, Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, a useful introduction to why that part of the world has not turned into paradise.
Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, is a quality treatment of its topic material.
Jesse Eisinger, The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives, is a useful look at why so many cases are leveled against the company rather than the CEO. I found the book worthwhile, but don’t think he offered much of an argument as to why that should be bad.
Bradley M. Gardner, China’s Great Migration: How the Poor Built a Prosperous Nation, is a good introduction to what the title promises.
Dennis was actually the first stagnation theorist I read, at about the age of eighteen, due to a recommendation from Walter Grinder. His strength is to tie stagnationist claims into the political economy of war. This is from 1940 (book link here), I hope it is no longer relevant:
The importance of clearly understanding the dynamic and purely unmoral function of change cannot be exaggerated at a time like this when the major problem is stagnation. America’s problem of unemployment could be solved by rebuilding America or going to war with Japan. The war with Japan is more likely. Why? The answer is that our social philosophy recognizes a need for national defense but not for social dynamism.
…stagnation in any culture is far more normal or usual than what we have been accustomed to think of as progress.
I found this interesting:
A civilization must exalt a tradition of heroism. This it may do in war or pyramid building. Liberalism never glorified heroism in theory but, in its frontier empire-building days, it exemplified heroism in its practice.
You can read Dennis as an extension of the Henry George model, except he is more bullish about population growth and adds the variable of war. In the George model, there are increasing returns and so city life becomes crowded and the scarce factor of land captures the social surplus. Think San Francisco or Singapore. Dennis assumes diminishing returns, and so the frontier is usually more potent than the city, if only a frontier can be kept open and alive. But that is hard to do because it runs against the natural desire of so many human beings for stasis, and thus capitalism tends to evolve into a kind of socialistic fascism.
Dennis, by the way, had an interesting life. Unlike most “alt right” writers, he was half black, but his skin was pale so he was able to pass for white. (In fact he started life as a child preacher, touring the south, accompanied by his African-American mother.) He spent some of his energies trying to convince his “fellow travelers” to support civil rights for blacks, but without much success, and he also was desperately afraid of being unmasked.
Early in his career, he was accepted into mainstream American intellectual life and hung out with elites, rising to the top through the State Department and Wall Street. As the 1930s passed, he became more extreme and the center became more hostile to fascist and semi-fascist ideas, especially if bundled with tolerance for potentially hostile foreign powers. His career had a long downward trajectory, and during World War II he was tried for sedition, though he got off and later died in obscurity, after a final gig as a critic of the Cold War. Gerald Horne wrote a very interesting biography of Dennis.
For the oligarchs the greatest challenge has been getting Greater Appalachia into their coalition and keeping it there. Appalachia has relatively few African-Americans, a demographic fact that undermined the alleged economic and sexual “threat” raised by black empowerment. Borderlanders have always prized egalitarianism and freedom (at least for white individuals) and detested aristocracy in all its forms (except its homegrown elite, who generally have the good sense not to act as if they’re better than anyone else.) There was — and still is — a powerful populist tradition in Appalachia that runs counter to the Deep Southern oligarchs’ wishes.
That is from Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, a book worth rereading in light of recent events.
Scott Sumner asks that question, I say this is an overrated pseudo-trend. Quebec secession didn’t happen, Scotland said no, Catalonia limps along but the smart money is betting against actual secession, and Belgium is still together. A weaker EU, NATO, and American hegemon lower the rate of return to striking out on one’s own. China, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria probably are more unified than they ever have been in their histories. Even Iraq is still holding together, sort of. Brazil and Mexico are two pretty large countries that show zero signs of splitting up. The two Yemens ended up back together again, albeit in a disastrous situation. An Irish reunion, while unlikely, is no longer so unthinkable post-Brexit. Some of Africa still could splinter, but that wouldn’t make this much of a global trend, especially not in gdp-weighted terms.
So where is the trend? Here is a list of ten possible new countries. South Ossetia and Transnistria and West Papua are not impressive entries! I do give some chance to Scotland and Catalonia, but nothing close to 50-50 odds.
How about the United States? No way, we are…united. The hatreds and polarizations don’t match up with state lines so simply, and it is hard to imagine an actual process of secession with focal boundaries and sufficient consent. Neither “racists, unite!” nor “pearl clutchers, unite!” is going to carry this one across the finish line.
I thank Noah Smith and Ben Casnocha for a useful conversation related to this point.