Why did southern Italy lag behind?

I’ve long been suspicious of the “deep deep” roots theory of southern Italian stagnation, given the Neapolitan Enlightenment in the 18th century.  This explanation, however, at least in principle makes more sense to me:

The provincial gap in human capital at the time of Italy’s unification is a plausible explanation for the North–South divide of the following decades. We show that the roots of the literacy gap that existed in 1861 can be traced back to Napoleonic educational reforms enacted between 1801 and 1814. We use exogenous variation in provincial distance to Paris to quantify effects, linking the duration of Napoleonic control to human capital. If the south had experienced the same Napoleonic impact as the north, southern literacy rates would have been up to 70 percent higher than they were in 1861.

That is from M. Postigliola and M. Rota in European Review of Economic History.  Might Napoleon be underrated?

Where to put your nuclear arsenal

I’ve been thinking about the article on MAD you linked to: Haller & Fry’s “The Math is Bad”.  Their point — that you have to run the game theory for the case where a surprise first launch has already occurred — is interesting.

I agree MAD looks bad in that scenario.  But I think the authors misunderstand why.  And therefore their proposed solution — harden & build more capability — won’t work.

From a MAD point of view it’s incredibly stupid to put all your Minuteman missiles in a vast empty area no one cares about.  Obviously the better placement would be to intermix the missiles with major urban centers.

There’s a reason the Minutemen aren’t scattered about New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, et all, and it’s not because our 1950’s leaders were stupid.  It’s because we’re the good guys (or at least we were), and the good guys are inherently at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting.

It is at least possible to imagine a US president, facing either confirmed missiles in the air or the immediate aftermath of a successful first strike on the minutemen, might ask themself, at least for a moment, “what would be best for (my grandchildren) humanity?” rather than resignedly push the red button whilst saying “even though this won’t help anything, MAD requires I now launch more missiles.”

From that perspective, it really doesn’t matter how formidable our second-strike capacity is.  Our enemies will *always* question our willingness to launch a return strike (on no doubt much messier targets).  Indeed, during the cold war, even the allegedly inhuman Soviets worried about the human element, creating and possibly even implementing the famous Doomsday machine referenced in Dr. Strangelove in an attempt to prevent some wishy-washy comrade from choosing, in the heat of the moment, to avoid exterminating all life on the planet.

That doesn’t mean MAD is invalid, however.

There is another important component to the deterrent that Haller and Fry don’t consider: it may be that use of nuclear weapons even with no return strike is still not a survivable event.  Even if fallout/nuclear winter effects prove mild, a first strike on even the smallest scale would upend the world.  There is no leadership in any nation (save possibly North Korea) that could reasonably expect to survive the consequent metaphorical fallout.

This was put a little more pithily in the 1995 film “Crimson Tide,” when Denzel Washington says to Gene Hackman, “In the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.”

That is from Andy Lewicky.

My Conversation with David Rubinstein

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — David has a studio in his home!  Here is part of the CWT summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss what makes someone good at private equity, why 20 percent performance fees have withstood the test of time, why he passed on a young Mark Zuckerberg, why SPACs probably won’t transform the IPO process, gambling on cryptocurrency, whether the Brooklyn Nets are overrated, what Wall Street and Washington get wrong about each other, why he wasn’t a good lawyer, why the rise of China is the greatest threat to American prosperity, how he would invest in Baltimore, his advice to aging philanthropists, the four standards he uses to evaluate requests for money, why we still need art museums, the unusual habit he and Tyler share, why even now he wants more money, why he’s not worried about an imbalance of ideologies on college campuses, how he prepares to interview someone, what appealed to him about owning the Magna Carta, the change he’d make to the US Constitution, why you shouldn’t obsess about finding a mentor, and more.

Here is an excerpt from the dialogue:


And please note that David has a new book out, The American Experiment: Dialogues on a Dream.

Wednesday assorted links

1. A new Namewee video.  And some interpretation.

2. If Paul Krugman wrote “The Myth of the Rational Voter.” (NYT)

3. Craig Palsson on me and branding.

4. E. coli biocomputer.

5. Scott Alexander on ivermectin, recommended.

6. How modern universities “deconstruct” their students.  Mostly I disagree (are we really that effective?), but interesting.

7. Staples Center now to be Crypto.com arena.

Why is inflation so bad?

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the final bit:

I am left with two major worries. First, higher rates of inflation redistribute wealth in a disruptive manner. For better or worse, more and more Americans are employed in the relatively bureaucratic service sector, which includes education, health care and government. If price inflation spikes as high as 6%, most of those workers do not rapidly receive an offsetting wage hike to restore their previous standards of living.

They might get higher pay by getting a new job, or by credibly threatening to leave. But that’s often a tense and unsettling position, from both a personal and professional standpoint. People might even have received stimulus dollars earlier in the pandemic, either directly or indirectly, and thus broken even or come out ahead. Still, with inflation, they will experience a loss of purchasing power, and they will hate it.

The second major worry is that inflation tends to require a subsequent disinflation, if only because people hate inflation so much. And we macroeconomists know that disinflations (or outright deflations) tend to bring recessions. When the U.S. Federal Reserve tightens monetary policy by a significant amount, aggregate demand in the economy falls, leading to losses in output and employment.

Of course, that’s a funny way of explaining why higher rates of price inflation are bad: Essentially, inflation is bad because it has to end. A subtler version of this theory is that workers and voters have only a limited tolerance for disruptions — and when they occur, we end up making blunders in our efforts to get out of them.

The proper critique of inflation is thus quite general. A pandemic is also a disruption, and we’ve made many mistakes in our efforts to end that as well. One of those mistakes, in fact, has been excess inflation. It will not be our last mistake, as we are still building our ever-widening circle of errors.


Tuesday assorted links

1. More on the new antiviral pills.

2. Neurodiversity gets a corporate champion (FT).

3. Apply to be a Hoover fellow, five year contract (or more).  And “We find that weather disasters over the last quarter century had insignificant or small effects on U.S. banks’ performance.”  Ahem.

4. Ukraine as crypto capital? (NYT)

5. Why were the Trump tax cuts not more stimulative?  Important job market paper by Francesco Furno of NYU.

Increased politicization and homogeneity in NSF grants

  1. This report uses natural language processing to analyze the abstracts of successful grants from 1990 to 2020 in the seven fields of Biological Sciences, Computer & Information Science & Engineering, Education & Human Resources, Engineering, Geosciences, Mathematical & Physical Sciences, and Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences.
  2. The frequency of documents containing highly politicized terms has been increasing consistently over the last three decades. As of 2020, 30.4% of all grants had one of the following politicized terms: “equity,” “diversity,” “inclusion,” “gender,” “marginalize,” “underrepresented,” or “disparity.” This is up from 2.9% in 1990. The most politicized field is Education & Human Resources (53.8% in 2020, up from 4.3% in 1990). The least are Mathematical & Physical Sciences (22.6%, up from 0.9%) and Computer & Information Science & Engineering (24.9%, up from 1.5%), although even they are significantly more politicized than any field was in 1990.
  3. At the same time, abstracts in most directorates have been becoming more similar to each other over time. This arguably shows that there is less diversity in the kinds of ideas that are getting funded. This effect is particularly strong in the last few years, but the trend is clear over the last three decades when a technique based on word similarity, rather than the matching of exact terms, is used.

That is from a new CSPI (Richard Hanania’s group) study by Leif Rasmussen.

The Paxlovid Paradox

Zvi at LessWrong rounds up the COVID news including this excellent bit on Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill Paxlovid which looks to be very effective but is not yet FDA approved.

The trial was stopped due to ‘ethical considerations’ for being too effective. You see, we live in a world in which:

  1. It is illegal to give this drug to any patients, because it hasn’t been proven safe and effective.
  2. It is illegal to continue a trial to study the drug, because it has been proven so safe and effective that it isn’t ethical to not give the drug to half the patients.
  3. Who, if they weren’t in the study, couldn’t get the drug at all, because it is illegal due to not being proven safe and effective yet. 
  4. So now no one gets added to the trial so those who would have been definitely don’t get Paxlovid, and are several times more likely to die.
  5. But our treatment of them is now ‘ethical.’
  6. For the rest of time we will now hear about how it was only seven deaths and we can’t be sure Paxlovid works or how well it works, and I expect to spend hours arguing over exactly how much it works.
  7. For the rest of time people will argue the study wasn’t big enough so we don’t know the Paxlovid is safe.
  8. Those arguments will then be used both by people arguing to not take Paxlovid, and people who want to require other interventions because of these concerns.
  9. FDA Delenda Est.

What I’ve been reading

1. John Markoff, Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand.  He went from Ayn Rand to Buckminster Fuller, was deeply involved in Native American issues, saw the San Francisco scene arrive, did his share of LSD, and heralded the birth of Bay Area tech culture and also open source software, among other achievements.  Sometimes reads Marginal Revolution.  I enjoyed this book, but of course would defer to Stewart’s own judgment.

2. Bobby Duffy, The Generation Myth: Why When You’re Born Matters Less Than You Think.  Millennials, Gen X, Gen Z, and so on.  The generations just don’t differ that much from each other, at least not in ways that show up as strong effects in the data, adjusting for other demographic features.  This book is a useful corrective to numerous media discussions of these topics.  And yet…I am not entirely convinced.  That I grew up without an internet, for instance, really does seem to shape a lot of my perspectives, in a way that probably will not hold equivalently true for Generation Z.

3. Scottie Pippen, Unguarded, with Michael Arkush. “Michael Jordan was 1-9 in the playoffs before I joined the team.  In the postseason he missed, the Bulls went 6-4.  The Last Dance was Michael’s chance to tell his story.  This is mine.”  Get the picture?

4. Michael Cholbi, Grief: A Philosophical Guide.  I like the book when it veers in this direction: “Antipathy toward grief is a common theme among ancient Mediterranean philosophers.  Greek and Roman philosophers were far more hostile toward grief than we moderns, tending to view grief as, at best, a state to be tolerated or minimized.  For these philosophers, grieving others’ deaths is an unruly condition, a sign that one had become overly dependent on others and lacked the rational self-control characteristic of virtuous individuals.”  I like it less when it veers toward: “Regardless of whether there is duty to oneself to grieve, we have strong reasons of a self-regarding moral nature to grieve.  For grief presents us with a rare opportunity to relate to ourselves more fully, rationally, and lovingly.”

Michael S. Weisbach, The Economist’s Craft: An Introduction to Research, Publishing, and Professional Development.  A straight-up rather than cynical take.

Tao Jiang, Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China: Contestation of Humaneness, Justice, and Personal Freedom.  Too detailed for me to have time to read right now, but very likely an excellent book (I have browsed it), full of careful study and insight.

Useful is Paul Lockhart, Firepower: How Weapons Shaped Warfare.

Bruce J. Dickson, The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century is a good treatment of exactly what the title promises.

Congratulations to Joshua Broggi of Woolf University

An EV winner I might add, here is the news:

“Our software platform helps organizations meet and maintain regulatory and university standards by handling everything from course creation to degree issuance, so they get full accreditation and all the benefits of being a part of a major university while staying independent.”

Monday assorted links

1. The state of Illinois.

2. Robert Skidelsky reviews some biographies of economists.

3. Summers on Krugman on inflation.  In turn, Krugman on bottlenecks.  And Irvine-Broque.  A nice contrast of views.  And Andolfatto on inflation and the fiscal side.  All very good threads for those interested in money/macro issues.

4. A non-crazy, research-informed thread on how crypto could erode the power of fiat money over time.  How is this for an awesome sentence?: “Rehypothecation is the fractional reserve banking for crypto.”  From the great Tascha.

5. Luca Braghieri.  Very strong job market candidate.

Politicizing Medicine is Dangerous

Politicizing medicine is dangerous. Tens of thousands of people are dead because vaccines became politicized and people chose political identity over rationality. Yet instead of trying to depoliticize medicine, the AMA has doubled down and is going full woke. The AMA’s Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts is so over the top I thought at first it was satire from the BabylonBee. The guide, for example, recommends that instead of talking about poor health among low-income people that physicians should blame “landowners and large corporations” for “increasingly centralizing political and financial power wielded by a few” and limiting “prospects for good health and well-being for many groups.” Put aside that this is at best tendentious and at worst utterly fallacious and just imagine that you are a landowner or work for a large corporation (that’s most of us!). Would you trust a doctor spouting this rhetoric or might you feel that such a doctor doesn’t have your best interests at heart?

Conor Friedersdorf puts it well:

The medical profession won’t remain more broadly trusted than left-wing activists if the two become indistinguishable. And that’s what will happen if doctors follow the guide’s advice. Instead of saying, “Low-income people have the highest level of coronary artery disease,” it urges health professionals to substitute this doctrinaire sentence: “People underpaid and forced into poverty as a result of banking policies, real estate developers gentrifying neighborhoods, and corporations weakening the power of labor movements, among others, have the highest level of coronary artery disease.”

In a section attacking “the narrative of individualism,” the guide posits that health promotion “typically means educating people as individuals,” and urges “shifting this narrative, from the individual to the structural, in order to more fully understand the root causes of health inequities in our society.” It’s already hard enough to get my conservative grandfather to heed his doctors about how best to care for a bad back worn down from decades in construction. A new narrative meant to problematize real-estate developers or individualism would not improve his medical condition, but it would inflame his temper. One wonders if the AMA and the AAMC grasp how many patients of all races and socioeconomic groups (never mind doctors) strongly disagree with the agenda that the two organizations are pushing. Either way, patients will feel put off by doctors who sound like ideologues from a different political tribe.

If the AMA really wants to do something for health equity they should stop trying to police language and instead support nurse practitioners, midwives, physician assistants, and other healthcare professionals who want to expand their practices, lobby for more physicians and an end to the absurd residency bottleneck, and support greater hospital competition. Physician heal thyself.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.