*Serious Noticing*, the new James Wood book

The subtitle is Selected Essays 1997-2019, here is one excerpt:

A genre is hardening.  It is becoming possible to describe the contemporary ‘big, ambitious novel’.  Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: Dickens.  Such recent novels as Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, DeLillo’s Underworld, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges.

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity.  It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.  Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, and these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.  Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs.  Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

I do not love the big, ambitious novel, as portrayed here.  As for Wood, the best parts of this book are excellent, and none of the lesser parts would seem to lower the sustainable growth rate of gdp.

Thursday assorted links

1. New Sam Peltzman paper about people moving to the political right as they age: “The change in mean Libcon from early adulthood (25) to old age (80) is substantial (over. 20 on the -1, 1 scale), and around half of this occurs after age 45.

2. Ryan Avent on E. Warren.

3. Meet the Pioneers crop of January 2020.

4. “Sperm donations taken from men after they have died should be allowed, a study says.

5. Malaysian 3-year-old joins Mensa (NYT).

6. Craig Palsson interviews Jason Crawford.

Countering The Narrative

A surprising fact about the 2016 election is that Trump received fewer votes from whites with the highest levels of racial resentment than Romney did in 2012…Trump’s vote totals improved the most among swing voters: low-socioeconomic status whites who are political moderates.

That is from recent research by Justin Grimmer and William Marble, hat tip anonymous.

Peter Thiel on the funding of science

At a keynote address at the Precision Medicine World Conference, Thiel argued for enabling riskier research grant-making via institutions such as the NIH, as well as abandoning the scientific staple of the double-blind trial and encouraging the U.S. FDA to further accelerate its regulatory evaluations. He said that these deficiencies are inhibiting the ability of scientists to make major advances, despite the current environment that is flooded with capital and research talent.

Make science great again?

“There’s a story we can tell about what happened historically in how processes became bureaucratized. Early science funding was very informal – DARPA’s a little bit different – but in the 1950s and 1960s, it was very generative,” said Thiel. “You just had one person [who] knew the 20 top scientists and gave them grants – there was no up-front application process. Then gradually, as things scaled, they became formalized.

“One question is always how things scale,” he continued. “There are certain types of businesses where they work better and better at bigger and bigger scales,” he said, pointing to big tech.. “And, if big tech is an ambiguous term, I wonder whether big science is simply an oxymoron.”

He then cited the success of major scientific programs – such as the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project, the Apollo space program and Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA – that hinged on having “preexisting, idiosyncratic, quirky, decentralized scientific culture[s]” and were accelerated rapidly by a major infusion of cash.


When I invest in biotech, I have a sort of a model for the type of person I’m looking to invest in,” said Thiel. “There’s sort of a bimodal distribution of scientists. You basically have people who are extremely conventional and will do experiments that will succeed but will not mean anything. These will not actually translate into anything significant, and you can tell that it is just a very incremental experiment. Then you have your various people who are crazy and want to do things that are [going to] make a very big difference. They’re, generally speaking, too crazy for anything to ever work.”

“You want to … find the people who are roughly halfway in between. There are fewer of those people because of … these institutional structures and whatnot, but I don’t think they’re nonexistent,” he continued. “My challenge to biotech venture capitalists is to find some of those people who are crazy enough to try something bold, but not so crazy that it’s going to be this mutation where they do 100 things differently.”

Here is the full story, via Bonnie Kavoussi.

The economics of pandemic preparation

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one short excerpt:

…most of the vaccine-making capacity against a new virus would be concentrated in a few multinationals, and much of that activity occurs outside the U.S. If a pandemic were to become truly serious, politics might intervene and prevent the export of doses of the vaccine, no matter what the price.

The economic case for free trade is entirely sound. But here is one case where the U.S. government should take the initiative to support a domestic vaccine industry — because that trade is unlikely ever to be free.

And if you think the market will provide the solution, consider that potential suppliers may fear being hit with price caps, IP confiscations, or other after-the-fact “takings” by the U.S. government. So it is important to think now about how to create the right structures for the eventual creation of treatments and cures.

In the meantime, wash your hands!  Nonetheless, so far the smart money still ought to bet that this one will evolve into less virulent forms, and it already seems that a disproportionate number of the people dying are quite old.

How bad are smart phones for people and kids?

The latest research, published on Friday by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry…

The new article by Ms. Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the planned publication of similar work from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Both reached similar conclusions.

“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Mr. Hancock said. “But if you compare the effects of your phone to eating properly or sleeping or smoking, it’s not even close.”

Here is the full NYT piece by Nathaniel Popper.

*Smith: It’s a Capitalist World*

That is a new magazine, on UK-style paper, nice-looking, and presented by Jamie Whyte.  The first issue was published this December, and contributors include Dominic Hilton, Vernon Bogdanor, Helen Dale, David Friedman, Steven Landsburg (who seems to have a column on economic puzzles), Matt Ridley, Martha Bayles, and others.

So far my impressions are positive, though I despair at the economics of magazines more generally.

Googling the title of the magazine seems to yield nothing, and the issue I was sent does not obviously explain how to subscribe.  So I am not sure where to send those of you looking for more, but if anyone from the magazine is reading, would you please include that information in the comments section of this post?

Addendum: “Anybody who would like to see the PDF of Smith, please email me and I will send it to you. jamie.whyte@smithmagazine.com”

Wednesday assorted links

1. Megan McArdle on Elizabeth Warren, recommended.

2. Damien Ma Iowa China podcast.

3. “The church wants to attract more young families. The present members, most of them over 60 years old, will be invited to worship somewhere else. A memo recommends that they stay away for two years, then consult the pastor about reapplying.”  Link hereCottage Grove, Minnesota.

4. “And the island’s puffin population has almost trebled in 15 years.”

5. Rent control #TheGreatForgetting.

Marginal Revolution University video for Anna Schwartz

It is excellent, one of my favorite MRU videos to date:

Here is some text from the release email:

The second episode of Women In Economics is out today! Join Harvard’s Claudia Goldin, UC Berkeley’s Christina Romer, and more on an insightful, engaging look at Anna Jacobson Schwartz’s life and achievements.

Did you know that Anna graduated from high school at 15?

Or that her dissertation couldn’t be published because of paper rationing during World War II? Yet despite this setback, she went on to coauthor one of the most important books about monetary policy and the Great Depression. Because of her work, she was hailed as one of the leading monetary economists of the 20th century by the end of her career!

We’re so excited to share Schwartz’s incredible story—click here to watch the video!

We’re also excited to announce our next video in our Women in Econ series, about Janet Yellen, will be released on March 8th. It will feature Yellen in her own words, along with Ben Bernanke and Christina Romer. Stay tuned!


Tomb Economics

The Mughals of Northern India are famous for their tombs, Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, Jahangir’s Tomb in Lahore and, of course, the Taj Mahal. Why so many tombs? Culture surely has something to do with it, although conservative Muslims tend to frown on tombs and ancestor worship as interference with the communication between man and God. Incentives are another reason.

Under the Mansabdari system which governed the nobility, the Mughal Emperor didn’t give perpetual grants of land. On death, all land that had been granted to the noble reverted back to the Emperor, effectively a 100% estate tax. In other words, land titling for the Mughal nobility was not hereditary. Since land could not be handed down to the next generation, there was very little incentive for the Mughal nobility to build palaces or the kind of ancestral homes that are common in Europe. The one exception to the rule, however, was for tombs. Tombs would not revert back to the Emperor. Hence the many Mughal tombs

Here is some lovely jali (stone lattice) work in Barber’s tomb in the Humayan tomb complex.

The Aga Khan Development Network has done some great restoration work on Isa Khan’s tomb, again in the Humayun’s tomb complex. Here’s  the ceiling and another piece of jali work.

Assessing State Capacity Libertarianism

Ryan Murphy and Colin O’Reilly suddenly have a 33 pp. (yes substantive) paper on my January 1 blog post on State Capacity Libertarianism (on speed, perhaps they have learned from a master).  Here is the abstract:

Cowen (2020) argues for a redirection of effort towards “State Capacity Libertarianism,” which keeps the core of policy proposals from libertarianism intact while emphasizing a select set of policies aimed at furthering economic growth. These policies center on the ability of the state to accomplish that which it sets out to accomplish, i.e. state capacity. This paper interprets Cowen’s proposal in terms of an interaction between economic freedom and state capacity. Using four measures of state capacity, it finds that state capacity and economic freedom are neither additive nor complementary. Rather, they are substitutes for one another. These results are uncomfortable for conventional libertarianism, for the advocates of state capacity, and for State Capacity Libertarianism itself. One measure of state capacity we use is a novel measure using data from the Varieties of Democracy dataset, which may be useful for researchers in other contexts.

I am very pleased (and flattered) they undertook this investigation.  In terms of response on the particulars, I would say that State Capacity Libertarianism is about living standard levels, not marginal growth rates holding per capita income constant (as they do), which tends to drain off the benefits of state capacity.  You can run into similar misspecification problems by regressing against growth rates for the particular American states, whereas again the levels ought to be central to the analysis.  I readily admit the levels are not easy to handle econometrically, mostly because (outside of some oil principalities) “all good things go together,” and the correct causal model is not well understood.

In any case, the debate will go on.

Tuesday assorted links

Facts from The Browser

Each year, about 15% of queries on Google have never been searched for before

The average American church sermon lasts for 37 minutes — but only 14 minutes in Catholic churches

Japan now has over 70,000 people who are more than 100 years old

The average human-body temperature is 97.5 degrees, not 98.6 degrees

The average new American home now has more bathrooms than occupants

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How economics has changed

Panel A illustrates a virtually linear rise in the fraction of papers, in both the NBER and top-five series, which make explicit reference to identification.  This fraction has risen from around 4 percent to 50 percent of papers.


Currently, over 40 percent of NBER papers and about 35 percent of top-five papers make reference to randomized controlled trials (RCTs), lab experiments, difference-in-differences, regression discontinuity, event studies, or bunching…The term Big Data suddenly sky-rockets after 2012, with a more recent uptick in the top five.

Note that about one-quarter of NBER working papers in applied micro make references to difference-in differences. And:

The importance of figures relative to tables has increased substantially over time…

And about five percent of top five papers were RCTs in 2019.  Note also that “structural models” have been on the decline in Labor Economics, but on the rise in Public Economics and Industrial Organization.

That is all from a recent paper by Janet Currie, Henrik Kleven, and Esmee Zwiers, “Technology and Big Data are Changing Economics: Mining Text to Track Methods.”

Via Ilya Novak.

Is there a happiness cost to being too patient?

We find that excessive patience is costly for individual well-being. This result is consistent across nine different measures of subjective well-being. Our measure of patience varies from a minimum of -1.31 to a maximum of 2.76 (this measure has standardized mean of zero and standard deviation of 1). For one of the main well-being indices, the life evaluation index, the level of patience that maximizes happiness is equal to 1.56, a numerical value similar to the one obtained using other well-being indicators.


…moving from a level of patience of 1.40 corresponding to the peak in the positive experience index to the 99thpercentile in patience reduces the positive experienced index by 1.07, equivalent to 26% of the difference in happiness between those who completed college (7.16) and those with a high school diploma (3.12).

Contrary to how the language of the authors might be interpreted, this is a correlation rather than an established relationship.

The 13 pp. paper by Paola Giuliano and Paola Sapienza is too short, but interesting nonetheless.  I also would like to see a study on how the patience of parents affects the happiness of their children and grandchildren.