The real inflation inequality of our time

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and it is not (mainly) about rich and poor:

Consider people who love to consume information, or, as I have labeled them, infovores. They can stay at home every night and read Wikipedia, scan Twitter, click on links, browse through Amazon reviews and search YouTube — all for free. Thirty years ago there was nothing comparable.

Of course, most people don’t have those tastes. But for the minority who do, it is a new paradise of plenty. These infovores — a group that includes some academics, a lot of internet nerds and many journalists — have experienced radical deflation.

Here is another bit:

So who might be worse off in this new American world?

People who like to spend time with their friends across town are one set of losers. Traffic congestion is much worse, and so driving in Los Angeles or Washington has never been such a big burden. In-person socializing is therefore more costly. On the other hand, the chance that you have remained in touch with your very distant friends is higher, due to email and social media. Those who enjoy less frequent (but perhaps more intense?) visits are on the whole better off for that reason. It is easier than ever to go virtually anywhere in the world and have someone interesting to talk to.

Another group of losers — facing super-high inflation rates — are the “cool” people who insist on living in America’s best and most advanced cities. Which might those be? New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco? You can debate that, but they have all grown much more expensive. Many smaller cities, such as Austin, Washington and Boston, are going the same route.

And this summary point:

What is the common theme here? It is that those who love or need “the new” are often doing relatively well. Those who value the old standbys — the crosstown friend, the Manhattan brownstone, the uncomplicated visit to the local doctor to have a broken ankle set — are in a more dubious position.

There is much more at the link.  You might also see my earlier 1998 Kyklos article with Alex, “Who Benefits from Progress?“, and my book The Age of the Infovore.

Classical musical recordings of the year

We are approaching the year-end “best of” lists, so why not start with the one you care about least?  I had a very good year for classical music listening, with the following as new discoveries:

John Cage, Two2, by Mark Knoop and Philip Thomas, now perhaps my favorite Cage work?

Alvin Curran, Endangered Species, two CDs of jazz and popular song classics but done with piano distortion, plenty of spills and turns, a genuinely successful hybrid product.

James Tenney, Changes: 64 Studies for Two Harps, more listenable than you might think.

As for old classics, the Marek Janowski recording of Bruckner’s 4th is my favorite in a crowded (and impressive) field, recommended as a Bruckner introduction too.

This year I also started to enjoy Szymanowski for the first time, though that remains a work in progress.

I usually do a Fanfare meta-list, namely the recordings recommended the most by the critics of this outlet for classical music reviews.  This year there were three clear winners represented on the lists of multiple reviewers:

Poul Ruders, The Thirteenth Child (Danish opera, sung in English).

Feodor Chaliapin, The Complete Recordings, 13 CDs (not my thing).

Wilhelm Furtwängler, The Radio Recordings, 1939-1945 [sic].  James Altena writes: “…layers of aural varnish have been stripped away to uncover the true glories of one incandescent performance after another, from the conductor’s most inspired period of music-making during the horrors of the Nazi regime and World War II.”  Other critics concur, so political correctness has not yet come to classical music reviewing.  If you are reluctant to spend so much money, you can always try the Furtwängler 1942 “Hitler’s birthday” recording of Beethoven’s 9th and see how offended you feel.  So far I can’t bring myself to buy this one.  (By the way, even the Nazis still played Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza to the Beethoven violin concerto…Kreisler was Jewish).

I’ll turn to other musical genres soon.

*Jojo Rabbit*

I almost didn’t see this one, first because I didn’t like the preview (at all), second because in this post-Hogan’s Heroes era I am not sure another Nazi comedy (is that what it is?) is exactly what we need.  And yet…this is an excellent film and it expresses the power of cinema in a way one is no longer used to seeing from a Hollywood movie.  For the first half hour I wasn’t sure I liked it, though it improves steadily.  Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, and Ernst Lubitsch references abound, and the soundtrack starts with the Beatles singing in German (“Komm’ Gib Mir Deine Hand”).  Excellent cast and visuals too, so who cares if it ends up being known as “the Nazi rabbit movie”?

How did this one ever get made?  Always go see movies by directors you like, in this case Taika Waititi, who also did the super-subtle Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Germany wind power fact of the day

In the first nine months of 2019, developers put up 150 new wind turbines across the country with a total capacity of 514MW — more than 80 per cent below the average build rate in the past five years and the lowest increase in capacity for two decades. The sharp decline has raised alarm among political leaders, industry executives and climate campaigners.

“For the fight against climate change, this is a catastrophe,” said Patrick Graichen, the director of Agora Energiewende, a think-tank in Berlin. “If we want to reach the 65 per cent renewables target we need at least 4GW of new onshore wind capacity every year. This year we will probably not even manage 1GW.”

The problem was two-fold, he said: “The federal states have not made available enough areas for new wind turbines, and those that are available are fought tooth and nail by local campaigners.”

Here is more from Tobias Buck at the FT.

Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot

The number and quality of studies showing that air pollution has very substantial effects on health continues to increase. Patrick Collison reviews some of the most recent studies on air pollution and cognition. I’m going to post the whole thing so everything that follows is Patrick’s.

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Air pollution is a very big deal. Its adverse effects on numerous health outcomes and general mortality are widely documented. However, our understanding of its cognitive costs is more recent and those costs are almost certainly still significantly under-emphasized. For example, cognitive effects are not mentioned in most EPA materials.

World Bank data indicate that 3.7 billion people, about half the world’s population, are exposed to more than 50 µg/m³ of PM2.5 on an annual basis, 5x the unit of measure for most of the findings below.

  • Substantial declines in short-term cognitive performance after short-term exposure to moderate (median 27.0 µg/m³) PM2.5 pollution: “The results from the MMSE test showed a statistically robust decline in cognitive function after exposure to both the candle burning and outdoor commuting compared to ambient indoor conditions. The similarity in the results between the two experiments suggests that PM exposure is the cause of the short-term cognitive decline observed in both.” […] “The mean average [test scores] for pre and post exposure to the candle burning were 48 ± 16 and 40 ± 17, respectively.” – Shehab & Pope 2019.
  • Chess players make more mistakes on polluted days: “We find that an increase of 10 µg/m³ raises the probability of making an error by 1.5 percentage points, and increases the magnitude of the errors by 9.4%. The impact of pollution is exacerbated by time pressure. When players approach the time control of games, an increase of 10 µg/m³, corresponding to about one standard deviation, increases the probability of making a meaningful error by 3.2 percentage points, and errors being 17.3% larger.” – Künn et al 2019.
  • A 3.26x (albeit with very wide CI) increase in Alzheimer’s incidence for each 10 µg/m³ increase in long-term PM2.5 exposure? “Short- and long-term PM2.5 exposure was associated with increased risks of stroke (short-term odds ratio 1.01 [per µg/m³ increase in PM2.5 concentrations], 95% CI 1.01-1.02; long-term 1.14, 95% CI 1.08-1.21) and mortality (short-term 1.02, 95% CI 1.01-1.04; long-term 1.15, 95% CI 1.07-1.24) of stroke. Long-term PM2.5 exposure was associated with increased risks of dementia (1.16, 95% CI 1.07-1.26), Alzheimer’s disease (3.26, 95% 0.84-12.74), ASD (1.68, 95% CI 1.20-2.34), and Parkinson’s disease (1.34, 95% CI 1.04-1.73).” – Fu et al 2019. Similar effects are seen in Bishop et al 2018: “We find that a 1 µg/m³ increase in decadal PM2.5 increases the probability of a dementia diagnosis by 1.68 percentage points.”
  • A study of 20,000 elderly women concluded that “the effect of a 10 µg/m³ increment in long-term [PM2.5 and PM10] exposure is cognitively equivalent to aging by approximately 2 years”. – Weuve et al 2013.
  • “Utilizing variations in transitory and cumulative air pollution exposures for the same individuals over time in China, we provide evidence that polluted air may impede cognitive ability as people become older, especially for less educated men. Cutting annual mean concentration of particulate matter smaller than 10 µm (PM10) in China to the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard (50 µg/m³) would move people from the median to the 63rd percentile (verbal test scores) and the 58th percentile (math test scores), respectively.” – Zhang et al 2018.
  • “Exposure to CO2 and VOCs at levels found in conventional office buildings was associated with lower cognitive scores than those associated with levels of these compounds found in a Green building.” – Allen et al 2016. The effect seems to kick in at around 1,000 ppm of CO2.

Alex again. Here’s one more. Heissel et al. (2019):

“We compare within-student achievement for students transitioning between schools near highways, where one school has had greater levels of pollution because it is downwind of a highway. Students who move from an elementary/middle school that feeds into a “downwind” middle/high school in the same zip code experience decreases in test scores, more behavioral incidents, and more absences, relative to when they transition to an upwind school”

Relatively poor countries with extensive air pollution–such as India–are not simply choosing to trade higher GDP for worse health; air pollution is so bad that countries with even moderate air pollution are getting lower GDP and worse heath.

Addendum: Patrick has added a few more.

Is the rate of scientific progress slowing down?

That is the title of my new paper with Ben Southwood, here is one segment from the introduction:

Our task is simple: we will consider whether the rate of scientific progress has slowed down, and more generally what we know about the rate of scientific progress, based on these literatures and other metrics we have been investigating. This investigation will take the form of a conceptual survey of the available data. We will consider which measures are out there, what they show, and how we should best interpret them, to attempt to create the most comprehensive and wide-ranging survey of metrics for the progress of science.  In particular, we integrate a number of strands in the productivity growth literature, the “science of science” literature, and various historical literatures on the nature of human progress. In our view, however, a mere reporting of different metrics does not suffice to answer the cluster of questions surrounding scientific progress. It is also necessary to ask some difficult questions about what science means, what progress means, and how the literatures on economic productivity and “science on its own terms” might connect with each other.

Mostly we think scientific progress is indeed slowing down, and this is supported by a wide variety of metrics, surveyed in the paper.  The gleam of optimism comes from this:

And to the extent that progress in science has not been slowing down, which is indeed the case under some of our metrics, that may give us new insight into where the strengths of modern and contemporary science truly lie. For instance, our analysis stresses the distinction between per capita progress and progress in the aggregate. As we will see later, a wide variety of “per capita” measures do indeed suggest that various metrics for growth, progress and productivity are slowing down. On the other side of that coin, a no less strong variety of metrics show that measures of total, aggregate progress are usually doing quite well. So the final answer to the progress question likely depends on how we weight per capita rates of progress vs. measures of total progress in the aggregate.

What do the data on productivity not tell us about scientific progress?  By how much is the contribution of the internet undervalued?  What can we learn from data on crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law?  Might the social sciences count as an example of progress in the sciences not slowing down?  Is the Solow model distinction between “once and for all changes” and “ongoing increases in the rate of innovation” sound?  And much more.

Your comments on this paper would be very much welcome, either on MR or through email.  I will be blogging some particular ideas from the paper over the next week or two.

And here is Ben on Twitter.

Sunday assorted links

1. Chilean citizen lasers take down drones.

2. Those new service sector jobs is this a Straussian reference to the Rolling Stones song?

3. “Lotto lout Michael Carroll reveals he is ‘happier now’ working seven days a week as a £10-an-hour coalman after blowing £10m jackpot on drink, drugs and brothels (and claims he slept with 4,000 women).”  Link here.

4. BallerBusters “calls out” the phony rich people who in fact don’t have much money (NYT).

5. They let 70 different teams study the same fMRI results, you can imagine what happened.

The future of higher education?

Two public four-year institutions, Maine Maritime Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, rank in the top 10 colleges with the best long-term returns, while two four-year private colleges, St. Louis College of Pharmacy and Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, made the top 10 for short-term and long-term returns.

The report ranks 4,526 colleges and universities by return on investment.

Here is one article, with a graphic for the top ten, you will note that Harvard, Stanford, and MIT still do fine.  Babson is underrated, as it does much better over longer stretches of time.  Here is the Georgetown report.

Opioid deaths are not mainly about prescription opioids

A recent study of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts underlines this crucial point, finding that prescription analgesics were detected without heroin or fentanyl in less than 17 percent of the cases. Furthermore, decedents had prescriptions for the opioids that showed up in toxicology tests just 1.3 percent of the time.

Alexander Walley, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University, and five other researchers looked at nearly 3,000 opioid-related deaths with complete toxicology reports from 2013 through 2015. “In Massachusetts, prescribed opioids do not appear to be the major proximal cause of opioid-related overdose deaths,” Walley et al. write in the journal Public Health Reports. “Prescription opioids were detected in postmortem toxicology reports of fewer than half of the decedents; when opioids were prescribed at the time of death, they were commonly not detected in postmortem toxicology reports….The major proximal contributors to opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts during the study period were illicitly made fentanyl and heroin.”

The study confirms that the link between opioid prescriptions and opioid-related deaths is far less straightforward than it is usually portrayed. “Commonly the medication that people are prescribed is not the one that’s present when they die,” Walley told Pain News Network. “And vice versa: The people who died with a prescription opioid like oxycodone in their toxicology screen often don’t have a prescription for it.”

That is by Jacob Sullum at Reason, via Arnold Kling.

Saturday assorted links

1. Pain in Japanese cinema.

2. Converting dog years into human years kind of like a price index problem Eric Weinstein would say use gauge theory.  Yet “The new formula says a canine’s human age = 16 ln(dog age) + 31.”

3. Is the Fed permanently stepping up its involvement in money markets?

4. Alexey Guzey on sleep fallacies.

5. Is a living whale worth $2 million in fighting climate change?

6. The worst economic policies of any candidate in my lifetime: “Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has unveiled sweeping tax proposals that would push federal tax rates on some billionaires and multimillionaires above 100%.” (WSJ)

Pretty stunning data on dating

Interesting throughout, but most of all see pp.5-6, comparing how men rate women to how women rate men.  Here is half of that story:

Here is the link, by Dan McMurtrie, via David Perell.  The top of p.2 will indicate why friendship may be in decline:

You also can see that meeting on the job peaked in the 1990s, and do I need to tell you about meeting through church and the neighbors?  Recommended.

*The Decadent Society*

The author is Ross Douthat and the subtitle is How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.  Excellent book!  It has a real dose of Peter Thiel (and some Tyler Cowen), and most of it comes as fresh material even if you have read all of Ross’s other columns and books.  Imagine the idea of technological stagnation tied together with a conservative Catholic critique of decadence, and in a convincing manner with a dose of pro-natalism tossed in for good measure.  There is commentary on Star Wars, Back to the Future, Jordan Peterson, and much more.

America’s problems are not what you think they are!

Definitely recommended, due out February, and you can pre-order here.

Wojciech Kopczuk on wealth taxation

His comment on Saez and Zucman is one of the best pieces of policy economics I have read in the last few years.  Many of the main arguments have been debated on Twitter, or expressed by Larry Summers, so here I will stick with a few side points that have not received full attention.

First, if you hate monopoly rents, excess IP income, and the like, you should not be in love with a wealth tax, at least not in the steady state!  A wealth tax hits the base and the safe rate of return as well.  Ideally the anti-monopoly crowd should most of all favor higher taxes on net income.  Not taxes on wealth.

Second, a wealth tax will encourage the shifting of much more production into non-profit institutions, or perhaps even into nationalizations of industry.  Lots of hospitals would switch back to the not-for-profit form, not obviously a beneficial development in my view.

As a side note, many more non-profits would hire famous musical acts to play at their donor galas.  The quality of champagne and cheese at those events will rise too.  There would be much more pressure on non-profits to create private (non-taxed) benefits for their donors.  I predict government regulation of non-profits would end up rising considerably as well, and not for the better.

Privatizing government assets such as land or spectrum would become more difficult — people would buy only at much lower prices.  So the wealth tax is a recipe for greater statism in more ways than one.

Third, under a wealth tax Jeff Bezos would have lost de facto control over Amazon some time ago.

Those are my words rather than Kopfczuk’s, do read his entire paper.

I would add one final point.  I think we are at the margin where advocacy of a wealth tax is more of a performative exercise — “we hadn’t poked rich people in the eye with this rhetorical needle yet, therefore I won’t really speak against it” — than any kind of substantive analytic debate.

Mortality sentences to ponder paging Ross Douthat too

This paper uses complete death certificate data from the Mortality Multiple Cause Files with American Community Survey data to examine age-specific mortality rates for married and non-married people from 2007 to 2017. The overall rise in White mortality is limited almost exclusively to those who are not married, for men and women…

That is from Philip N. Cohen, via Arnold Kling.