Too much transparency makes the world more opaque.

Kathleen Kingsbury of the NYTimes editorial page is proudly announcing that instead of following their historic practice of talking with the candidates off-the-record and then announcing an endorsement they will be utterly “transparent.”

On Jan. 19, the @nytimes editorial board will publish our choice for the Democratic nomination for president. It won’t be the first time we’ve endorsed a candidate — we’ve been doing that since 1860 — but we aim to make it our most transparent endorsement process to date. Historically, endorsement interviews are off-the-record — meaning nothing said leaves the room, other than the board’s final judgement.

[But now,] in a first for @nytopinion, all presidential candidate interviews will be on the record and filmed. Next week, we’ll be publishing the full, annotated transcripts online.

What an awful idea, sure to neuter whatever influence the NYTimes might once have had.

Here’s the problem. Under the off-the-record system a candidate could sit down with some smart people and say things like “look, I know tariffs won’t help but the WTO will knock them down anyway and I need to appeal to my base.” Or, “taxes on billionaires won’t raise enough to fund everything I want but to raise taxes on the middle class we need the middle class to know that everyone is going to pay their fair share.” Or “Our troops are demoralized and the plan isn’t working.” If everything is recorded, none of this can happen.

Indeed, what possible value-added can the NYTimes make with a “transparent,” “public” process? Everything that will be said, has been said.

In contrast, a non-transparent, off-the-record process can reveal new information because less transparent can be more honest. The off-the-record system isn’t a guarantee of useful information, as the NYTimes has its biases and the off-the-record system only works because it is coarse, but coarse systems can reveal more information.

The demand for transparency seems so innocuous. Who could be against greater transparency? But transparency is inimical to privacy. And we care about privacy in part, because we can be more honest and truthful in private than in public. A credible off-the-record system leaks a bit of honesty into the public domain and thus improves information overall. Too much transparency, in contrast, makes the world more opaque.

China’s Great Transformation

Here is a new paper from Christopher Balding, and it seems to be connected to a larger book project:

How will China transform its economy from middle income to high income country in the coming decades? While economists spend large amounts of time studying debt and demographic challenges, I will take a wider approach to the structural challenges facing China needing to remake society from a middle income to income country.

I consider Chris to be one of the least-heralded very influential people.  Perhaps more than anyone else, he has brought many American elites around to a more hawkish view of China.

Is U.S. average body temperature decreasing?

In the US, the normal, oral temperature of adults is, on average, lower than the canonical 37°C established in the 19th century. We postulated that body temperature has decreased over time. Using measurements from three cohorts–the Union Army Veterans of the Civil War (N = 23,710; measurement years 1860–1940), the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey I (N = 15,301; 1971–1975), and the Stanford Translational Research Integrated Database Environment (N = 150,280; 2007–2017)–we determined that mean body temperature in men and women, after adjusting for age, height, weight and, in some models date and time of day, has decreased monotonically by 0.03°C per birth decade. A similar decline within the Union Army cohort as between cohorts, makes measurement error an unlikely explanation. This substantive and continuing shift in body temperature—a marker for metabolic rate—provides a framework for understanding changes in human health and longevity over 157 years.

That is from a new paper by Protsiv, Ley, Lankester, Hastie, and Parsonnet.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Thursday assorted links

The new culture of matching

Using detailed data on individual campaign contributions to Democrats and Republicans, our estimates show that firms are considerably more likely to announce a merger, complete a merger, and a have shorter time-to-completion when their political attitudes are closer. Furthermore, acquisition announcement returns and post-merger operating performance are significantly higher when the acquirer and the target have more similar political attitudes.

That is from a new research paper by Duchin, Farroukh, Harford, and Patel.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Big Farmer Bailout Was Never Debated

Farmers are getting billions of dollars in bailout money to compensate for the trade war with China. If big banks or big business were being bailed out there would be an uproar but big farmer bailouts seem immune to opposition as Dan Charles points out in this piece from NPR:

…a few weeks later, the USDA announced another $16 billion in trade-related aid to farmers. It came on top of the previous year’s $12 billion package, for a grand total of $28 billion in two years. About $19 billion of that money had been paid out by the end of 2019, and the rest will be paid in 2020.

…it’s an enormous amount of money, more than the final cost of bailing out the auto industry during the financial crisis of 2008. The auto industry bailout was fiercely debated in Congress. Yet the USDA created this new program out of thin air; it decided that an old law authorizing a USDA program called the Commodity Credit Corp. already gave it the authority to spend this money.

“What’s unique about this is, [it] didn’t go through Congress,” Glauber says. Some people have raised questions about whether using the Commodity Credit Corp. for this new purpose is legal.

This is a telling example of how politics works–the process rather than the fundamental question determines much of the outcome. In this case, since the spending was not authorized by Congress there was no debate. No debate in Congress meant no opportunity for soundbites, no debate in the media and thus no debate among the public. The battle for attention was lost before it was begun. On the plus side there was no opportunity for grandstanding in Congress either and the money was approved and spent quickly.

The new culture of matching

When Jenica Andersen felt the tug for a second child at age 37, the single mom weighed her options: wait until she meets Mr. Right or choose a sperm donor and go it alone.

The first option didn’t look promising. The idea of a sperm donor wasn’t appealing, either, because she wanted her child to have an active father, just like her 4-year-old son has. After doing some research, Ms. Andersen discovered another option: subscription-based websites such as PollenTree.com and Modamily that match would-be parents who want to share custody of a child without any romantic expectations. It’s a lot like a divorce, without the wedding or the arguments.

Here is more from Julie Jargon at the WSJ.

How is Twitter disrupting academia?

Kris on Twitter asks that question.  I have a few hypotheses, none confirmed by any hard data, other than my “lyin’ eyes”:

1. Twitter exists as a kind of parallel truth/falsehood mechanism, and it is encroaching on traditional academic processes, for better or worse.

2. Hypotheses blaming people or institutions for failures and misdeeds will be more popular on Twitter than in academia, but over time they are spreading in academia too, in part because of their popularity on Twitter.  Blame makes for a more popular tweet.

3. Often the number of Twitter followers resembles a Power law, and thus Twitter raises the influence of very well known contributors.  Twitter also raises the influence of the relatively busy, compared to say the 2009 world where blogs held more of that influence.  Writing blog posts required more time than does issuing tweets.

4. I believe Twitter raises the relative influence of women.  For one thing, women can coordinate with each other on Twitter more easily than they can in academic life across different universities.

5. Twitter can damage the career prospects of some of the more impulsive tweeting white males.

6. On Twitter is is easier to judge people by their (supposed) intentions than in academia, so many more people will be accused of acting and writing in bad faith.

7. On Twitter more people do in fact act in bad faith.

8. Hardly anyone looks better on Twitter, so that contributes to the polarization of many professions, especially economics and those professions linked to political issues.  Top economists don’t seem so glamorous any more, not even in their areas of specialization.

9. Academic fields related to current events will rise in status and attention, and those topics will garner the Power law retweets.  Right now that means political science most of all but of course this will vary over time.

10. Twitter lowers the power of institutions more broadly, as institutions typically are bad at Twitter.

What else?

Slavoj Žižek on His Stubborn Attachment to Communism

There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:

This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.

Excerpt:

COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.

[laughter]

ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?

COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.

I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”

Nepalese Seke clustering fact of the day

Many rare languages are at risk of disappearing, and Seke, which is spoken in just five villages in Nepal has only approximately 700 speakers left in the world, according to a recent study by the Endangered Language Alliance. The organization estimates there are roughly 100 Seke-speakers living in New York, and 50 of them live in one building in Flatbush, Brooklyn. One of the youngest residents there, Rasmina Gurung, has several relatives in the building, and is helping the Endangered Language Alliance compile a Seke-English dictionary. “I feel so much pressure,” she told the New York Times. “I need to get as much knowledge as possible. And fast.”

Here is the full story (NYT), via John Chamberlain.

40-year-old tractors are now a hot commodity

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques.

Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

BigIron Auctions, a Nebraska-based dealer that auctioned 3,300 pieces of farm equipment online in two days last month, sold 27 John Deere 4440 tractors through 2019.

The model, which Deere built between 1977 and 1982 at a factory in Waterloo, Iowa, was the most popular of the company’s “Iron Horse” series of tractors, which used stronger and heavier internal components to support engines with greater horsepower. The tractors featured big, safe cabins, advancing a design first seen in the 1960s that is now standard.

A sale of one of those tractors in good condition with low hours of use — the tractors typically last for 12,000 to 15,000 hours — will start a bidding war today. A 1980 John Deere 4440 with 2,147 hours on it sold for $43,500 at a farm estate auction in Lake City in April. A 1979 John Deere 4640 with only 826 hours on it sold for $61,000 at an auction in Bingham Lake in August.

Maybe there is a great tractor stagnation or in some cases even retrogression?  Here is more from Adam Belz, via Naju Mancheril.

Sentences to ponder

Gerald Reitlinger, in his 1963 book, “The Economics of Taste,” wrote that back in 1937, when 18th-century French furniture was all the rage with the ultrawealthy, a desk by Carlin sold for 8,000 pounds, or about $700,000 in today’s money. That same year, a Cubist still life by Picasso failed to sell at auction for £105, according to Reitlinger.

Here is more from Scott Reyburn at the NYT.  Will Warhol prices be the big loser, as future generations lose interest in images of Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor, Mao?  At the moment the less identifiable iconography of Basquiat seems to be holding up better, at least in the eyes of the market.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Why is children’s TV so weird and mesmerizing?  A little slow at the beginning, but recommended.

2. Products Elad Gil wishes to see.

3. The empire strikes back: Dominic Cummings not allowed to hire civil servants directly.  And: “One of the UK’s top employment lawyers previously told the Guardian that the post was “quite outrageous from an employment law perspective”.”

4. Robert Trivers on Jeffrey Epstein.

5. Why some knots work and others do not.

6. Thirteen tips for engaging with physicists, from a biologist.