American families shouldn’t be separated, either

That is the title of my Bloomberg column, here is my basic proposal:

Let’s take one-tenth of those women and move them from prison to house arrest, combined with electronic monitoring. That would allow for proximity to their children. If the U.S. isn’t plagued by a subsequent wave of violent crime — and I don’t think it will be — let us try the same for yet another tenth. Let’s keep on doing this until it’s obviously not working.


According to one 2010 study, more than 1.1 million men and 120,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons have children under the age of 17.


From 1991 to 2007, the number of children with a mother in prison more than doubled, rising 131 percent. About two-thirds of the women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. Sixty percent of those women have children under the age of 18, and in one survey one-quarter of the prisoners’ children were under the age of 4. Forty-one percent of the women in state prison had more than one child…One estimate suggests that 11 percent of the children of imprisoned mothers end up in foster care.

We can do this.

Spatial Competition, the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence

There is a new NBER working paper on those topics by Klaus Desmet, Avner Greif, and Stephen Parente:

A market-size-only theory of industrialization cannot explain why England developed nearly two centuries before China. One shortcoming of such a theory is its exclusive focus on producers. We show that once we incorporate the incentives of factor suppliers’ organizations such as craft guilds, industrialization no longer depends on market size, but on spatial competition between the guilds’ jurisdictions. We substantiate our theory (i) by providing historical and empirical evidence on the relation between spatial competition, craft guilds and innovation, and (ii) by showing the calibrated model correctly predicts the timings of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence.

From the body of the paper, I found these two sentences especially useful:

First, using city size and location data, we quantify how spatial competition increased in England between 1600 and 1800.  Using the same metric, we show that China at the end of the nineteenth century was about 200 years behind England.

Why consume the most recent news?

Here is another left-over question from my recent talk:

How do you think about when it makes sense for to consume the most-recent news, in light of Robin Hanson’s “news isn’t about info”?  How would you advise the rest of us?

I consume the news avidly for (at least) these reasons:

1. For professional reasons, I am required to do so.  That said, I am happy to note the endogeneity of that state of affairs.  Consuming the news is fun, though in a pinch more sports, games, and the arts could serve much of the same role.

2. I actually care what is happening.

3. Consuming the news is one of the best ways of testing your views about the past.  We are always revaluing what we thought we knew, in light of new data.  Brexit teaches us that the UK was never quite so well integrated into the EU.  The election of Trump may imply that certain late 19th century strands of American politics are enduring, and the evolution of the racial income gap will induce us to reassess various policies of the last few decades.

Under this theory, reading a lot of history books should raise the return to following the news.  For most people, they haven’t read so many books and at the margin they need more books rather than more news.  In this sense, following the news doesn’t make intellectual sense for most people, though they may need it for social bonding, signaling, and conversation purposes.

I would stress the concomitant point that following the news does not make one a much better predictor of the future, if at all.  It may even cause people to overweight the most recent trends, due to availability and recency bias.

4. I also use the news to make history more interesting to me.  It is easier to get “wrapped up” in the news, if only because of the social support and the element of dramatic suspense.  If somehow the Balkans no longer existed, I would find it hard to wish to understand that “…the medieval Serbian Orthodox Church had established a new see at Pec in Kosovo in 1297…”  As it stands, my interest in that event is sufficiently intense, and it remains important for understanding the current day.

5. It is perhaps addictive that the news comes every day.  But that is a useful discipline.  If you follow the news, you will work at it every day, more or less.  Better those compound returns than to do something else once every three months and a half.

In essence, the news is a good, cheap trick for getting yourself to care more about things you should care about anyway, but maybe don’t.

What I’ve been reading

1. Susan Napier, Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art.  A thorough and serious treatment of Miyazaki’s career, focusing on his creative works rather than biography per se.

2. Helen DeWitt, Some Trick.  Conceptual and informationally dense short stories for highly intelligent people.  Here is a good James Wood review.

3. Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee: A Life.  A quite good, serious, and well-researched biography of the master, especially good in setting up the context of the martial arts in Lee’s time.  I hadn’t known that James Coburn took 106 private lessons with Bruce, nor that Steve McQueen was another notable pupil.  Nor had I known how much Bruce studied the fights of Muhammad Ali for some of his film sequences.

4. James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age.  Delivers on exactly what it promises, a strong look at India’s wealthy class.

5. Thomas Weber, Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi.  Perhaps you, like me, are totally sick of Hitler books.  But how exactly did his ideas morph into…what they became?  This book is detailed, well-documented, psychologically insightful, at times even brilliant.

Sunday assorted links

1. Classic Merkelism (16/16).  And a more worrying thread.

2. Harvard Asian-American ouch: “Harvard admissions evaluators — staffers who are likely under pressure to deliver a target mix of ethnicities — rate Asian-American applicants far lower on subjective personality traits than do Alumni interviewers who actually meet the applicants.”  And double ouch.

3. Robin Hanson praises being a dad.

Technology in Kubrick’s *2001: A Space Odyssey*

This post serves up some spoilers of detail, though no major spoilers of plot until the penultimate “you must go see it” paragraph.  Upon a re-viewing of this movie, I found the following striking:

1. There is a Skype-like service for phone calls, but it never occurs to anyone that something like sending an email might be possible or even desirable.  A lot of major and even apparently simple technological advances just aren’t that self-evident.  The cameras in the movie also remained quite primitive and clunky, even by pre-smart phone standards.  Maybe people expected a great stagnation in cameras back then.

2. At the time, Kubrick apparently thought it plausible that the audience would buy into common, widespread and indeed commercially viable space travel by 1992.  The film was released in 1968.

3. Pan American flies people into outer space, and apparently used this new market to avoid total bankruptcy.  Their stewardesses still have silly hats and costumes, and they act in a vaguely self-demeaning manner.

4. The film shows some signs of recognizing that Moore’s Law might happen.  Hal for instance is advanced AI, but he is not huge in size.  And the portrait of voice recognition technology is quite realistic.

5. Stars do not twinkle in outer space, however.

6. Hal 9000 would be less creepy with a female voice, and indeed Apple and Amazon figured that out some while ago.  Note to my tech friends: do not program your personal assistant bots with a resentful, quivering, paranoid, passive-aggressive male voice.

7. The movie seems to suggest that chess-playing computers are a major achievement, when in fact this was mastered relatively easily, compared to many other AI problems.  The movie shows this chess game, with Hal as Black.  It is the kind of game you might expect a strong computer to play against a human, namely with a finish based on visually counterintuitive tactics.

8. It is a truly dystopic vision to think that Howard Johnson’s will be serving us food in space.

9. The first time I saw the movie, which I believe was in the mid-1970s, I was more stunned by seeing Americans talking to Russians “as if they were normal people” than by any of the technology.

Here is a good Wikipedia page on technologies in the movie.  Now a few spoilers:

The movie, which I had not seen in many years, I found quite stunning.  It took so many chances, and with so much self-confidence that the originality could be pulled off.  Imagine opening a film with minutes of discordant Gyorgy Ligeti music, played against a dark screen, with no signal that this is even part of the movie.  Then you see a long scene with apes, no dialogue to speak of, and no explanation of how this might fit into a commercially viable product.  Finally the Solow residual is explained!  There is not only no love story, the film arguably has no characters, Hal aside.  Kubrick often expects ballet music to keep you interested, and various movements in space are stretched out to interminable length, yet almost always with striking aesthetic success.  You could generously describe the ending as “underexplained.”  Hardly anything happens in the movie, and yet at the same time it encapsulates the entire history of humanity with extra material on both sides, beginning and end, and a nod in the Hegelian direction.

Go see it on the large screen if you can — I can’t think of any film that is so much worse (or simply different) on TV as this one.  It is one of the better movies ever made, and it dates from a time near Hollywood’s peak.  It is sad that nearly two generations of Americans now do not know this creation as it was intended to be seen, and indeed must be seen.  On 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the theatre had no more than twenty people in attendance.  When it comes to culture, salience usually matters more than you might think.

Economists in the Media

I am quoted on how economists are portrayed in the media:

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. It is not uncommon, for example, to see critiques of economics in the media which are about as sophisticated as saying “look at those silly physicists who think that a bowling ball and a feather fall at the same rate.” Even people who should know better like David Suzuki say ridiculously, obtuse things when it comes to economics–perhaps for ideological reasons.

At the same time, the quality of the coverage of economics in the media is often excellent and has never been better. Greg Ip, David Leonhardt, Catherine Rampell, Adam Davidson, Stacey Vanek Smith, Cardiff Garcia, Megan McArdle all do superb economic commentary and reporting not just about the economy but about economics. And those are only the people off the top of my head, I could name many more.

The public also has access to top economists through the blogs and social media. I would count Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen, John Cochrane, and Jeniffer Doleac in this category.

While some people claim that economics is out of touch or obsolete, economics passes the market test. Economists have never been more in demand. Designing new types of markets is a big part of the internet economy and computer scientists, followed by economists, are the leaders in this field. Google and Facebook run billions of dollars of auctions using what was once an obscure economic theory (Vickey-Clarke-Groves auctions). Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb all hire economists to better understand data and design new economic mechanisms. Even some online games like Eve Online are hiring economists to help to run virtual economies–one such economist, Yanis Varoufakis, went from a virtual economy to a real economy when he became Greece’s Minster of Finance.

If you want to understand the world and make it a better place there is no better degree than an economics degree because it is so versatile.

*Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls*

That is the new book by Tim Marshall, yes Trump and Israel and the like, but it goes much further than that.  Here is one excerpt:

Since 1971, Assam’s population has more than doubled, from 14.6 million to over 30 million, much of which is due to illegal immigration.  Hindu nationalists have argued that the area might have a Muslim majority by 2060.  In 2015 there were 19 million Hindus and 11 million Muslims, nine of the twenty-seven districts being Muslim majority.  Equally importantly, the 2017 census showed that people who are ethnically Assamese are now a minority in the state as a whole, and as people continue to arrive their proportions will continue to drop.

This is a depressing but thought-provoking book.  Bangladesh, by the way, is smaller than the state of Florida, but has 165 million people.  And I had not known there are about 800,000 Nigerians in South Africa.  You can order the book here.

Saturday assorted links

1. Is mindfulness demotivating?

2. “The likelihood of selling the company increases by 4X after migration to Silicon Valley (from 1.4% to 7.1%), and migrants also have higher patenting, commercialization, venture capital financing, and sales.”  Link here.

3. Are mammals becoming more nocturnal? (to avoid humans, NYT)

4. Why the term “classical liberal” is making a comeback.  And here is LiberalismUnrelinquished.

5. Superb David Pilling piece on southern Ethiopia and its vanishing ways of life.

Has the wage-education locus for women been worsening?

That question is the focus of some recent research by Chen Huang.

Women’s labor force participation rate has moved from 61% in 2000, to 57% today.  It seems two-thirds of this change has been due to demographics, namely the aging of the adult female population.  What about the rest?  It seems that, relative to education levels, wages for women have not been rising since 2000:

I discover that the apparent increase in women’s real wages is more than accounted for by the large increase in women’s educational attainment. Once I condition on education, U.S. women’s real wages have not increased since 2000 and may even have decreased by a few percentage points. Thus, the locus of wage/education opportunities faced by U.S. women has not improved since 2000 and may have worsened. Viewed in that light, the LFPR decrease for women under age 55 becomes less surprising.

You can consider that another indicator of the Great Stagnation.

Asian-American admissions at Harvard

Here is basic NYT coverage of the case:

University officials did concede that its 2013 internal review found that if Harvard considered only academic achievement, the Asian-American share of the class would rise to 43 percent from the actual 19 percent.

Here is the plaintiff’s brief by Peter S. Arcidiacono.  Here is David Card’s brief in defense of Harvard and Asian-American admissions.  Here is Arcidiacono’s response to Card.

Gabriel Rossman noted on Twitter: “Once you control for lacrosse, founding an NGO in high school, legacy status, alumni evaluation of personality, woke personal essays, and a 23&me test for EDAR, there’s no effect”

My take is simple.  Harvard is risk-averse with respect to the stream of future donations, as are many other schools.  Asian-American admissions don’t have the same donating track record as the white students traditionally cultivated by Harvard and other top universities.  Either Asian-Americans may seek out “diaspora philanthropy,” or they simply may have a more cynical attitude toward top institutions that they basically have never had any control over.

Furthermore, there is a common fear — repugnant to me I should add — that if a student body becomes “too Asian,” many white students will be less interested in going there.  I taught at UC Irvine for several years and found it to be a delightful experience, but this is exactly what many schools are afraid of (the UCI student body is disproportionately Asian, and the honors class I taught in my first year had only one non-Asian student in it).

And so they come up with every excuse possible — sometimes cemented in by self-deception — for maintaining a “balanced” student body.

It is incorrect to call it “racism,” but it is non-meritocratic and we should move away from those attitudes as quickly as possible.

In related news, the University of Chicago is moving away from the use of SAT scores in admissions.  The cynical might suggest this is so they are more insulated from potential lawsuits and also so they have more discretion in admissions.  If Chicago feels the need to do this, perhaps the system really is buckling under the strain of all these outside pressures.

Nonetheless, I predict ultimately the status quo will not change very much.  I just don’t see a strong enough popular or judicial constituency for righting the wrongs done to Asian-Americans.  Some kind of partial concession will be made, various terms and standards will be somewhat redefined, and we’ll be back to “rinse and repeat.”  Meritocracy: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

I am pleased to report that none of this tomfoolery goes on at my home institution, which is highly and truly diverse.

Raj Chetty is returning to Harvard

That is the word on Twitter.  Does he want grandchildren more than he used to?  You may remember my Conversation with him, a short while after he moved to Stanford:

CHETTY: So if you’re in your mid-30s, only something like a quarter or less of girls growing up in the Bay Area are married, and we show in our paper that every extra year you spend growing up in the Bay Area, you’re less likely to get married. I remember telling my wife, “I don’t think we need to worry. Our daughter will be fine in terms of earnings. It’s just that she might not be married if we move to California.”
COWEN: So, you’ve lowered your expectations for grandchildren?
CHETTY: Yes. [laughs]

Friday assorted links