Does the right-wing or left-wing have better graphics?

Tom Martin emails me:

Might be my aging brain hallucinating again, but I would swear that the average right-leaning publication has fairly ugly graphics and the average left-leaning publication is ‘nicely/artfully’ designed.

• National Review: consistently ugly covers

• Bryan Caplan’s new book: not a cover of beauty

• The New American: ugly

• Reason: getting better, but from an ugly past just 5 years ago

• The American Spectator: goofy?

Compared to:

• New Yorker

• New York Times

• Atlantic

• Dissent

• Jacobin

Maybe my tastes are just left wing, despite my politics, but I sense there is something deeper here.

Agree?  If so, what is the best theory of this?  I don’t think it is educational polarization alone, as the readers of say National Review, or for that matter MR, are going to be pretty highly educated.  Nor do I think it is about budget per se, though that is likely one factor.

The nuclear bunker culture that is Finnish

With its brightly coloured slides, trampolines and tunnels, the soft play area at the Hakaniemi Arena, near the centre of Helsinki, looks much like any other. The difference is that it lies 25m below ground in a cavernous space hollowed out of the Precambrian bedrock beneath the city, and is designed to withstand nuclear, biological and chemical attacks.

The clambering children may not realise it, but they are in one of the safest playgrounds on earth.

Most of the time, this is a family-friendly sports centre. Above ground, the only visible clue to its second identity is a small orange and blue triangle on the wall by the entrance that states: “VÄESTÖNSUOJA SKYDDSRUM”, or “defence shelter”. In the event of an emergency, the arena would revert to being the Merihaka bomb shelter, a subterranean living quarters where up to 6,000 people could exist for weeks, or even months…

Helsinki alone has more than 5,500 bunkers, with space for 900,000 people. Finland as a whole has shelter spaces for 4.4 million, in more than 54,000 separate locations.

Here is more from The Telegraph, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Thursday assorted links

1. More on the new Bryan Caplan collection.

2. Alice Evans on the new Robin Dunbar book on religion.

3. Ideological equilibrium?  Don’t be one of those!

4. New data study on transgender kids (NYT), original paper here.  You can read these results either way.  I was surprised to see 6.5 as the average age for the transition to start.

5. Is Jimmy Highroller the biggest star in NBA media?

6. Daniel Akst great novels about business quiz (WSJ).

Learn Public Choice!

The Public Choice Outreach Conference is a compact lecture series designed as a “crash course” in Public Choice for students planning careers in academia, journalism, law, or public policy. The Outreach Conference will be online Monday July 25 to Saturday July 30, noon to 1:15 est daily. Sign up here!

Everyone welcome. Teachers please do let your students know about this opportunity!

Monday, July 25
An Introduction to Public Choice—Alex Tabarrok
Tuesday, July 26
Arrow’s Theorem and All That—Alex Tabarrok
Wednesday, July 27
Public Choice and Development Economics—Shruti Rajagopalan
Thursday, July 28
Public Choice and The Military Industrial Complex—Abby Hall Blanco
Friday, July 29
Government by Insurance or Who vouches for You?—Robin Hanson
Saturday, July 30
Hayek and Buchanan—Peter Boettke

Sign up here!

Automatic Tax Filing?

Pro-publica regularly reports that H&R Block and Quicken lobby against allowing the IRS to pre-fill tax forms. Sure, of course they do and that’s bad. It doesn’t quite follow, however, that “Filing Taxes Could Be Free and Simple” if only for such lobbying. In fact, Lucas Goodman, Katherine Lim, Bruce Sacerdote & Andrew Whitten estimate that less than half of tax forms could be filled out correctly by the IRS and those are the simpler types where the costs of private tax preparation services are lower:

Each year Americans spend over two billion hours and $30 billion preparing individual tax returns, and these filing costs are regressive. To lower and redistribute the filing burden, some commentators have proposed having the IRS pre-populate tax returns for individuals. We evaluate this hypothetical policy using a large, nationally representative sample of returns filed for the tax year 2019. Our baseline results indicate that between 62 and 73 million returns (41 to 48 percent of all returns) could be accurately pre-populated using only current-year information returns and the prior-year return. Accuracy rates decline with income and are higher for taxpayers who have fewer dependents or are unmarried. We also examine 2019 non-filers, finding that pre-populated returns tentatively indicate $9.0 billion in refunds due to 12 million (22 percent) of them.

Jeremy Horpedahl has an excellent post explaining why:

…there is one major thing missing from your income tax withholding estimate: your spouse’s income. You see, the United States is one of the few remaining OECD countries that primarily taxes income based on the family unit (you can use “married filing separately” as a status, but generally there is no benefit and you might lose some deductions). Most countries tax based on your individual income, even if you are married. This is important for two reasons. First, it means there is a “secondary-earner penalty,” where one spouse faces a much higher marginal tax rate (this is different from the “marriage penalty,” but that’s a topic for another day. For purposes of a pre-filled tax return, the second and larger issue is that your employer has no idea how much tax to withhold because it is dependent on how much your spouse makes (and whether you are married).

Moving the US to a system of individual taxation…would simplify the calculation of your taxes.

The other major factor that Jeremy mentions is that the US simply tries to do a lot through the tax code so we have lots of itemized deductions or special tax structures–veterans, widows, widows of veterans–which make it difficult to pre-fill taxes without either simplification or a major overhaul of the administrative data system.

Jeremy also worries that pre-filling will further disconnect the payment of taxes from services rendered thus making costs more opaque. Probably true, although I think that ship has sailed.

My Conversation with the excellent Chris Blattman

Here is the audio, transcript, and video, we did this one face-to-face.  Here is part of the summary:

What causes war?…Chris and Tyler also cover why he doesn’t think demographics are a good predictor of a country’s willingness to go to war, the informal norms that restrain nations, the dangers of responding to cyberattacks, the breakdown of elite bargains in Ethiopia, the relationship between high state capacity and war, the greatest threats to peace in Ireland, why political speech isn’t usually a reliable indicator of future action, Vladimir Putin’s centralized motives for invading Ukraine, why he’s long on Colombia democratically — but not economically, why more money won’t necessarily help the Mexican government curb cartel violence, the single-mindedness necessary for bouldering, how Harold Innis’s insights about commodities led Chris to start studying war, how the University of Chicago has maintained a culture of free inquiry, and more.

And from the dialogue:

COWEN: If you look at the marginal cases — since there are some wars — there’s a bunch of cases, even if unusual, where someone is right at the margin. At the margin, what are the factors that are most likely to account for the explanatory variation in whether or not a country goes to war?

BLATTMAN: For me, the one that people talk the least about that strikes me as the most important is how concentrated is power in the country. What’s holding back someone from considering all of the implications of their actions on other people, should they decide to take their society to war?

It’s maybe the most important margin in history, and it’s maybe the one that no one of my tribes — which are political economists — think and talk the least about. It’s the one that — in journalism, people leap to psychological explanations, and they try to understand the psychology of leaders, but they don’t try to understand the way in which they’re constrained. So, it’s this combination of the most important and the most ignored.

COWEN: So federal societies are less likely to go to war?

Interesting throughout.  And I am very happy to recommend Chris’s new and important book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace.  And here is my earlier 2018 Conversation with Chris.

Insurance markets in everything

In many golf circles, it was (and still is) customary for the lucky golfer to buy drinks for everyone in the clubhouse after landing a hole-in-one. This often resulted in prohibitively expensive bar tabs.

And an industry sprouted up to protect these golfers.

A newspaper archive analysis by The Hustle revealed that hole-in-one insurance firms sprouted up as early as 1933.

Under this model, golfers could pay a fee — say, $1.50 (about $35 today) — to cover a $25 (~$550) bar tab. And as one paper noted in 1937: “The way some of the boys have been bagging the dodos, it might not be a bad idea.”

Though the concept largely faded away in the US, it became a big business in Japan, where golfers who landed a hole-in-one were expected to throw parties “comparable to a small wedding,” including live music, food, drinks, and commemorative tree plantings.

By the 1990s, the hole-in-one insurance industry had a total market value of $220m. An estimated 30% of all Japanese golfers shelled out $50-$70/year to insure themselves against up to $3.5k in expenses.

Here is the full story, via Mathan.

Wednesday assorted links

1. The Vandal.  Covers Dali, Rand, Orwell, Jesus and nausea, among other topics.

2. Predicting the future of food?

3. Horn of Africa has its worst drought in decades (FT).

4. There is no great stagnation these Atlanta students made the world’s longest hopscotch course.

5. “Obstacle-course racing is close to being named as the new fifth sport in modern pentathlon, replacing equestrianism, in a highly contentious move that opponents warn will plunge the sport deeper into civil war.

6. Gambian voters have lost their marbles.

7. The women who complete U.S. Army Ranger Course.

What should I ask Leopoldo López?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, do read his whole Wikipedia page but here is part of it:

Leopoldo Eduardo López Mendoza (born 29 April 1971) is a Venezuelan opposition leader. He co-founded the political party Primero Justicia in 2000 with Henrique Capriles and Julio Borges and was elected mayor of the Chacao Municipality of Caracas in the regional elections held in July 2000. He is the National Coordinator of another political party, Voluntad Popular, which he founded in 2009…

In September 2015, he was found guilty of public incitement to violence through supposed subliminal messages, being involved with criminal association, and was sentenced to 13 years and 9 months in prison.

He served seven of those years and now is free and has left Venezuela.  He is also an economist, with a Kennedy School background, and has written a book on energy issues.

So what should I ask him?

How can we improve the NIH?

The NIH’s extramural research is systematically biased in favor of conservative research. This conservatism is a result of both institutional inertia, concerns by the NIH leadership that the organization could lose the support of Congress, and efforts by NIH beneficiaries to maintain the status quo.

The extramural grant distribution process, which is run through peer review “study sections,” is badly in need of reform. Though there is considerable variability among study sections, many are beset by groupthink, arbitrary evaluation factors, and political gamesmanship. The NIH may be hamstringing bioscience progress, despite the huge amount of funds it distributes, because its sheer hegemony steers the entire industry by setting standards for scientific work and priorities.

Most problematic, the NIH is highly resistant to reform. Many proposals have been shot down during discussion phases, or scaled back before implementation. The NIH’s own internal review board has been inactive since 2015, as mentioned at the start of this report section. Still, many of the NIH’s problems are likely a natural product of being a $40 billion+ per year government bureaucracy.

That is from Matt Faherty, and here is 33,000 or so words more on why the NIH is a good idea, what is wrong with the NIH, and how to improve it.  It is by far the best piece written on the NIH, and if it were to count as a book would be on the year’s “best of” list.

The piece is based on extensive interviews, and here is one reflection of that:

An anonymous comment on an NIH article reflected the sentiments of the most negative interviewees: 

“It is well known that NIH ‘confidentiality’ [of the primary reviewer to the grant applicant] is anything but, and a young PI risks career and reputation if they shoot down big names (not all, but there is a mafia of sorts). I’ve sat on panels, I’ve seen the influence from afar. Young PIs fall over themselves to get it good with the power brokers. I’ve seen young PIs threatened when they mentioned quietly that Big Boss X has data that is wrong. Some fields are worse than others, but it is overall a LOT uglier than most would believe.”

As for two meta-points, a) it is striking how little quality analysis of the NIH has been done, and b) how many of the respondents to this current work feared consequences for their careers, some responding only on an off the record basis.  I am proud to have supported this work through Emergent Ventures.

A new twins study

An overall twin correlation across thirty-eight measures was r = 0.95, p < .001. In contrast with previous research, the twins’ general intelligence and non-verbal reasoning scores showed some marked differences.

Yes that concerns identical twins raised in separate environments.  Here is the paper by Nancy L. Segal and Yoon-Mi Hur, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

That was then this is now, Elon Musk edition

Dr. von Braun authored a book in 1948 while he was at Ft. Bliss, Texas, called Marsprojekt. The science fiction novel was published in German. Three years after Dr. von Braun relocated to Huntsville, the book was published in English by the University of Illinois Press in 1953 and titled, The Mars Project…

In 2006, the science fiction novel from Dr. von Braun from 1948, which had gone unpublished, was released by a Canadian publisher of space-related historical science fiction as “Project Mars: A Technical Tale.”

Chapter 24 of this science fiction work is titled, “How Mars in Governed.” In one passage of that chapter, the book states: The Martian government was directed by 10 men, the leader of whom was elected by universal suffrage for five years and had the title of “Elon.” Two houses of parliament enacted the laws to be administered by Elon and his cabinet. The upper house was called the Council of the Elders and contained 60 people who were named to those positions for life by Elon.

Here is the full story.