Interview with Brad DeLong

Courtesy of Norman Geras. My favorite part:

What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate? > That science works.

My least favorite part:

What is your favourite song? > ‘Five Variations on a Theme of Dives and Lazarus’, by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

I’ll sympathize with Brad’s loyalty to Beethoven, but as for a favorite classical song I might opt for “Im Fruehling” or “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” both by Schubert. If we expand the domain I would consider the Beatles’s “Rain” or “You Won’t See Me,” or perhaps the Byrds’s “Eight Miles High.”

Google gets better

Enter an airline flight number — for example, “united 80,” — and the popular search engine will provide links to reports on that flight’s status at Travelocity.com and Fboweb.com, including maps showing its progress.

Type an area code into the search box, and you’ll be pointed to a MapQuest.com map of the general region that area code covers. A U.S. Postal Service package tracking number yields a link to a delivery-status page at the Postal Service’s Web site. A vehicle identification number will call up a page describing the car’s year, make and model type.

Or you can type in a universal product code number — minus the dashes, but including any tiny numbers appearing to the far left or right under the bar code — and Google will look up the product’s full name, then generate a list of Web sites selling the item or providing other information about it.

Check out Google’s own explanation, or this article from The Washington Post. The real question is where search engines are headed, and whether Internet gatekeepers will get more or less centralized. I have already predicted that Google essentially has peaked, though I will confess I used Google to find that very link.

Hubble to die

At first, I was merely uninspired by President Bush’s plan to resend men to the moon and then on to Mars (Here are better ideas from MR readers). Now I am upset and saddened. The Hubble telescope is one of the great achievements of the recent space program, especially after the amazing in-space eyeglass repair job. Data from the Hubble have helped us to understand the universe in all its awesomeness and yet the Hubble will now die an early death because of the budget shift.

Here is Hubble’s picture of the eye of Sauron:

Hubble1.jpg

Just kidding about the last one, it’s MyCn18, a young planetary nebula, the glowing relic of a dying, Sun-like star.

This is the Cartwheel Galaxy, located 500 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Sculptor.

Hubble2.jpg

Here are two galaxies, NGC 2207, is on the left and IC 2163 on the right that are slowly colliding.

hubble3.jpg

Here are more Hubble pictures.

Kristoff on sweatshops

In a hard-hitting NYTimes op-ed, Nicholas Kristoff writes:

I’d like to invite Richard Gephardt and the other Democratic candidates to come here to Cambodia and discuss trade policy with scavengers like Nhep Chanda, who spends her days rooting through filth in the city dump….Here in Cambodia factory jobs are in such demand that workers usually have to bribe a factory insider with a month’s salary just to get hired.

Along the Bassac River, construction workers told me they wanted factory jobs because the work would be so much safer than clambering up scaffolding without safety harnesses. Some also said sweatshop jobs would be preferable because they would mean a lot less sweat. (Westerners call them “sweatshops,” but they offer one of the few third world jobs that doesn’t involve constant sweat.)…

The Democratic Party has been pro-trade since Franklin Roosevelt, and President Bill Clinton in particular tugged the party to embrace the realities of trade. Now the party may be retreating toward protectionism under the guise of labor standards.

That would hurt American consumers. But it would be particularly devastating for laborers in the poorest parts of the world. For the fundamental problem in the poor countries of Africa and Asia is not that sweatshops exploit too many workers; it’s that they don’t exploit enough.

Be sure and look at Kristoff’s heartbreaking audio-slide show, the Realities of Labor available at the above link, halfway down the right hand side. Hat tip to Life, Liberty, and Property.

Is music file-swapping down?

Maybe not, according to Business Week, from the issue of 16 January. Some sources will tell you the practice is plummeting:

Two widely cited surveys seemed to show that legal action, which began in September, was chilling file-sharing activity. In December, a phone survey by the Pew Internet Project of 1,358 U.S. Net users found music downloading had dropped by half since May. And in November, comScore Media Metrix, monitoring 120,000 U.S. users, saw big yearly declines at four popular file-sharing services — KaZaA, Grokster, BearShare, and WinMX.

But the reality is more complex:

…those surveys provide a relatively narrow view of the file-swapping universe. BayTSP, a Silicon Valley watchdog that works for three of the major record labels, tracks the number of songs available for download worldwide. It sees just a 10% drop since July and also notes steady migration from older, virus-ridden programs like KaZaA to hipper peer-to-peer networks such as eDonkey and Bit Torrent — which were absent from comScore’s tally.

And Los Angeles-based researcher BigChampagne, which monitors millions of global file swappers, actually sees a 35% increase in illegal traffic from 2002 to 2003. Given BayTSP’s and BigChampagne’s broader sample sizes, says John Palfrey, of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, “They’re going to have more accurate empirical data.”

Note that the Pew study simply calls adults and asks them if they break the law. It underrepresents children and of course the respondent might think he is talking to the RIAA instead of a researcher. And much of the current growth in file-sharing is coming at the international level, not in the United States.

My predictions: Within two years Congress will revisit the 1998 Digital Act and give the music companies some extra legal weapons. It still won’t work, as downloaders will move to anonymous networks, possibly emanating from outside the United States.

Should we ban HIV-positive immigrants?

Jonathan Rauch says no. He argues that allowing HIV-positive individuals to apply for residence will bring those individuals into mainstream medical institutions. The alternative may bring undocumented HIV-positive individuals who never receive good medical care or perhaps never even discover their HIV status, infecting others in the process. Rauch writes:

The ban on aliens with HIV was first imposed administratively, by the Public Health Service, in 1987, when fear of AIDS was at its peak and the disease was effectively untreatable. As therapies became available, public health authorities soon came to believe that the policy merely drove the disease underground and thus was ineffective, if not counterproductive. The first Bush administration and then the Clinton administration tried to revoke it. To no avail: In 1993, Congress wrote the HIV ban into law. No other disease faces such a statutory ban.

Even in 1993, the ban made little sense. America was the world’s epicenter of AIDS, exporting rather than importing the disease, and so aliens were far more likely to get HIV in America than to bring it in. Anyway, the policy never required an HIV test for entry; only when an alien seeks permanent-resident status, usually after having already been in the country for years, is the blood test routinely required. So the policy, as put into practice, is about kicking people out, not keeping them out.

Congress was worried about the costs of welfare and publicly funded care for immigrants with AIDS. A valid concern, but one addressed by the underlying immigration law, which bars aliens deemed likely to become a “public charge,” whatever their disease. Today, diabetics and cancer patients can visit and live in the United States on showing they have insurance or resources to keep themselves off the welfare rolls; only people with HIV are barred, whether they are sick or not. This is discrimination, pure and simple.

The numbers suggest that much is at stake: for instance about 1 in 12 Africans is HIV-positive, by some estimates. Singapore has faced related issues with foreign prostitutes.

Rauch’s proposal, obviously is not a political winner, even though the Bush administration has been relatively sympathetic on the AIDS issue. I am interested in considering the deportation question more generally. Should we, for instance, deport SARS carriers? SARS is highly contagious to larger groups in a shorter period of time. Unlike HIV-positive status, you can’t (it seems) just walk around with SARS for years. You might argue that if we deport SARS carriers, undocumented immigrants with SARS will be reluctant to report to hospitals. A good point, but I suspect that many of them rather quickly cannot continue on their own without dying. On the other hand, say you have an undocumented SARS patient on your hands. It is crazy to put them on a plane (we cannot over time afford many quarantined flights), best to leave them in a hospital. Nor does it gain you much to deport them once they are better.

So in looking for standards for deportable diseases, we might focus on rapidity of contagiousness, and ability to deport without infecting others in the process. Whether an individual can serve as a “silent carrier” can cut either way. On one hand, silent carriers can infect others for a longer period of time, which suggests a reason to boot them out (though of course they must go somewhere). On the other hand, it is the silent carriers that you want to report to the medical establishment. There is also a question of stock vs. flow. If the potential future flow of HIV-positives is high, that argues for deportation, as an incentive to keep others away. But if the stock is high relative to the flow, that argues for greater tolerance.

Sometimes it puts the world at risk to deport individuals before their treatment is complete, read this story on tuberculosis. And of course some of the deported will simply die without the medical care of the wealthier nation.

Marriage Mathematics and Political Change

John Gottman has spent decades studying how married couples interact. His most striking finding is the tendency of couples at risk of divorce to have markedly different interaction styles. His recent book, The Mathematics of Marriage, summarizes his observations of married couples and presents a parsimonious model of marriage (see here for Slate’s review). The highlight of the research is that couples where the dominant mode of interaction includes criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are very, very likely to divorce. Successful marriages involve a great deal of mending and reworking of the relationship. The mathematics links some theories about emotions and interaction to this observed pattern.

What I find interesting is the implication for thinking about politics. Let’s assume that political order is a sort of “marriage” between state and citizen. At least from the perspective of the citizen, it’s a relationship that can be broken, if warranted. This is a premise of many normative theories of revolution – the citizens have a right to a new government if they feel the written and unwritten rules have been violated. Unfortunately, what we know about exactly how this happens – moving to abandon the social contract – is sketchy at best, although political scientists and sociologists have a hunch that it involves some combination of repression of the population and a de-legitimizing of the government, which itself might have multiple causes.

Gottman’s approach to studying relationships offers a useful way to think about these issues. Gottman’s point is that there may be varying sources of the emotions that destroy marriages, but the road to divorce usually starts in the same place – once spouses have learned certain interaction strategies, they create hard to change feedback loops. Similarly, governments and populations that learn certain strategies for interacting with each other probably set up hard to break cycles leading to long term stability or perpetual crisis. The nice thing about Gottman’s analysis of marriage is that the math predicts stability or decline, and not much in between – a non-trivial prediction. The same prediction for states is that states tend to be on a tough to change road to constant crisis (like in Africa and the Middle East) or stability (like in the US). Switches from one path to the other should be infrequent and difficult, which seems to describe the world pretty well.

Empire and Capital Flows

Brad DeLong laments that international capital in the late twentieth century did not flow to poorer countries the way it did in the late 19th century. Tyler comments here.

The key point that I think Brad and Tyler both miss is that in the late 19th century a lot of the capital was flowing within the structure of the British Empire. Whatever its faults (and there were many), the Empire did provide investors with the rational expectation that their property would not be expropriated. More broadly, the capital flows of the 19th century were accompanied by flows of intellectual capital – in the form of the rule of law and similar institutions. Japan and the East Asian tigers show that it is possible for a country to adopt these institutions without the imposition of Empire but it is not easy.

Where is our economy headed?

The ever-interesting Brad DeLong is on a real roll lately. Read his post on current economic trends. Here is my favorite part:

…more important than the short-run cycles are the long-run trends. Labor productivity growth in the United States rose from 1.2% per year from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s to 2.3% per year in the late 1990s to 4.2% per year–so far–in the 2000s. How much of that second jump-up in productivity growth will be sustained? We do not know, but it is safe to bet that some of it will. (Me, I don’t believe those numbers: I prefer to look at the income rather than the product side of the National Income and Product Accounts, and say that the three economy-wide productivity numbers are 1.2%, 3.1%, and 3.2% respectively, with the difference between the income and product side blamed on an erratic “statistical discrepancy.”) When will the rapid productivity growth that we have seen in the United States and ascribed to information technology spread to the rest of the rich countries? We do not know, but we do know that one of these years it will make itself visible. How long will it take world trade in information-services like form-processing, accounting, and customer service to truly boom as a result of the internet and the fiber-optic cable in the same way that the iron-hulled ocean-going steamship and the submarine telegraph made world trade in staple goods–not just luxuries and preciosities–boom in the late nineteenth century? Once again we do not know, but once again we do know that one of these years it will make itself visible.

It is time for governments, firms, investors, workers, and parents worldwide to begin betting on the long-run trends that have become visible over the past decade. Such bets probably won’t pay off in the next year, or two, or three. But they surely will start to pay off sometime in the next ten.

I will direct your attention again to Brad’s recent post comparing Bob Rubin and Paul O’Neill. I think it is one of the finest things an economist has written on bureaucracy, ever.

Risk aversion, immortality, and science fiction

Jacob Levy, following up on my earlier discussions (click here, here, and here) considers how immortal characters in fiction have behaved. Many but not all are extremely risk-averse. Part of the basic thread is how immortality would change our behavior. Randall Parker argues that immortality would not alter our behavior much, at least not until we could alter our genetic programming.

The Winners of the MR Challenge

As expected, President Bush’s plan for a moon base and eventual trip to Mars failed to ignite. MR readers have some better ideas.

Honorable mention goes to Roger Meiners for suggesting that a moon base is a good idea so long as Congress and the President must occupy it. Now I am inspired!

Third place goes to Chris Rasch for brain freezing. Chris Rasch writes “I believe that reversible cryopreservation of the human brain could be developed. Remarkable advances have already been made on a shoestring budget. Such a technology would allow people dying today to halt the dying process until technology can advance to the point that we can cure their disease or repair their injuries. I would wager that, for a mere billion dollars, which is far more than has probably been spent on cryobiology during the entire existence of the field, we could have effectively unbounded lifespans. We could then use those extra years to pursue all of the other goals that other submitters may send to you.”

Here is a good, short summary of cryonics and you can sign up to have you brain (or more) frozen here.

I like the cryonics idea and have thought seriously about signing up (believe it or not, one of my colleagues (not Tyler) has already done so). The reason the idea takes third place is that we don’t see a big private demand for cryonics and the public is more likely to think this idea crazy than inspiring.

Second place goes to Nick Shultz for suggesting that we “provide potable water for everyone on the planet.” A number of other ideas were also motivated by the goal of alleviating abject third-world poverty. I think these ideas are inspiring but am unsure whether we can deliver on them given that so many of the problems of the third world have to do with poor governance. My suggestion would be to work on something related but more under our own control. We could do far worse, for example, than following Bill Gates’s lead and put a billion or so into the Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

First place goes to David Wood and Robin Hanson both of whom suggested a space elevator. At first, the space elevator idea seems impossible, even absurd. The idea is to string a cable some 62,000 miles long from a spot on the equator up into outerspace. Wouldn’t it fall down? No, recall that a sateillite some 22,000 miles up is in geosynchronous orbit. The space elevator would extend enough past this point so that gravity at the lower end and centripetal acceleration at the far end would keep the cable under tension. Once the cable is strung, reaching outerspace is as simple as Jack climbing the beanstock.

The most difficult part of the space elevator is finding a material strong enough to carry a load yet light enough not to collapse under its own weight – a short time ago there was no such material but today it’s believed that carbon nanotubes could do the job (nano-technology more generally was another favourite of MR readers and this proposal would advance that cause.)

A space elevator is a game-changer because it dramatically lowers the cost of putting payloads into space. Moreover, once you have one elevator it becomes much easier to get a second. In contrast, rockets are always going to be expensive because you have to carry a lot of fuel just to lift the fuel and sitting on top of 4 million pounds of explosive is always going to be dangerous. The space elevator would provide a permanent access point to the stars and it can be had for less than 100 billion. Going up anyone?

More on the space elevator idea here and here.

Women now outspend men on electronic gadgets

Yes it is true:

Women actually spent more on technology last year than men, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. It says women accounted for $55 billion of the $96 billion spent on electronics gear.

Additionally:

* Women are involved in 89 percent of all consumer electronics purchase decisions.

* Eighty-four (84) percent of women believe that new technologies can help improve their lives.

* Forty-eight (48) percent of women age 18-34 own a digital camera.

On the downside, nearly three-quarters complain that sales personnel ignore, patronize, or offend them while shopping.

Read the full post of Robert Tagorda to learn how retailers and manufacturers are making greater efforts to appeal to this customer segment.

Who Needs Progressive Taxation?

Apparently not the Swiss residents of the canton of Schaffhausen, in the northern part of Switzerland. Schaffhausen is in fact moving to a system of “degressive” taxation. That’s right, lower tax rates for the rich:

Beginning in January 2004, Schaffhausen will replace its system of increasing marginal tax rates on income with a system of degressive marginal rates. The cantonal tax rate will be set at just under 8 percent for income of SFr 100,000. It will rise to a peak of 11.5 percent for income between SFr 600,000 and SFr 800,000. Thereafter, the marginal rate declines with each incremental chunk of income: 10 percent at SFr 1,300,000; 8 percent at SFr 3,000,000; and just over 6 percent for income more than SFr 10,000,000. This is a true incentive-based tax system–the larger one’s income, the lower one’s marginal rate.

Declining marginal tax rates will also apply to wealth taxes, further enhancing the degressivity of cantonal taxes.

Schaffhausen has its own legislative parliament, which contains eighty deputies representing all regions within the canton. Eight political parties compete for these seats. Evidently Schaffhausen’s voters support a tax cut that gives the greatest benefits to the richest people. They believe that attracting wealthy individuals to reside in their midst is good for everyone.

Here is the full story. I don’t expect to have any data on this soon, but I am pleased to see the experiment. One question, of course, is whether cross-canton migration effects (as opposed to labor supply effects) are beneficial for Switzerland as a whole, or just for Schaffhausen. It does not create aggregate value to shuffle rich people from one canton to another. In any case I am amused to see an idea that finally weakens Alvin Rabushka’s loyalty to the flat tax.

Addendum: I am embarrassed to admit that co-blogger Alex tells me he posted on this topic some time ago, read his coverage as well.