My dialogue with Lipton Matthews

I appeared on his podcast, and we discussed trust, Jamaica and Trinidad, what you can learn from visiting funerals for five years, what I want for my non-funeral and why, social media and outreach, neurodiversity and autism, the importance of Kant and Hegel, and more.

Here is Lipton’s broader podcast series, many good guests.  Here is Lipton on Twitter.

Thursday assorted links

1. John Tomasi to head Heterodox Academy.

2. Browser interview with Applied Divinity Studies.

3. Maxwell T. on start-up cities and the housing crisis.  And here is the new Profectus Magazine more generally.

4. A vision of the future inspired by classical antiquity.

5. Florida now 19th for per capita vaccinations.

6. Stupid barter markets in everything how can this kind of stuff happen?

7. Has Australia gone too far?

The Kids are Doing Alright

You may have seen the viral tweet suggesting that boomers own all the wealth and millennials are poor. It’s hard for me to get worked up. Talk about a problem that will solve itself!

The problem that the graph suggests, however, is not even correct. Why are we looking at generational wealth shares when we could be looking at the much more straightforward statistic, wealth per capita. Jeremy Horpedahl does just that:


Looking at the exact same data (from the Fed Distributional Financial Accounts) from a different perspective gives us a much different picture of recent history. In this version, Gen X is now richer (30% richer!) than Boomers were at the same age (late 40s). Millennials don’t yet have a year of overlap with Boomers, but they are tracking Gen X almost exactly. There is no reason they won’t continue to track Gen X, and therefore exceed Boomers as well when they are in their late 40s (which will happen in about 2037 for Millennials).

In other words, people in the current generation have as much or more wealth than people of previous generations did at the same age.

Read the whole thing if you want some additional astute points about student debt and politics but I call this one busted. The kids are doing alright.

A simple illustration of the benefits of feminization

Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the most important nationalist voice in America, seemed to sympathize with the gender politics of Taliban-supporting Afghans. “They don’t hate their own masculinity,” he said shortly after the fall of Kabul. “They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.” (By “neoliberalism” he seems to mean social liberalism, not austerity economics.)

From Michelle Goldberg (NYT), that in a nutshell is the case for the feminization of society, which I see as bringing strongly positive net benefits for both men and women, in most but by no means all cases.

Do note that if you ever see me describing this feminization in not entirely glowing terms, that is part of my desire to give you the entire unvarnished picture, as I would with most other topics.  (The most common reading mistake you can make in these parts is to over-infer an entire mood affiliation from a single post.)

When it comes to feminization, I also think sometimes of my grade and junior high school gym teacher, Mr. O (I will omit his full name, but in fact we also called him “Mr. O”).  He acted like a tough guy, but in fact was just a…grade school gym teacher.  Nonetheless he acted as if he was auditioning for the role of Patton in a Hollywood movie.

He smoked his cigarillos (?) in that kind of plastic thing-y, like the Penguin did on the original Batman show.

If a smaller or less athletic kid took a tough spill, or was picked on by the others, he would say “Suck it up, kid!”, with little sympathy.  (If you are wondering, the worst he ever said to me was “That was a stupid foul, kid,” in a fifth-grade basketball contest.  So I didn’t bear a personal grudge against him.)

He seemed to love the game of Bombardment, as in fact I did too.  (I still remember being one of the last two men standing, but losing to Jimmy Gravelis, who caught my too-weak toss.)

He was a Roman Catholic and a veteran of the Korean War.  He seemed to stare too long at the boys entering and leaving the shower, after the exercise period of gym.  But no one really questioned this.

Even as a kid, I thought he was a bit…sick and also over the top.  In some ways though he was a good teacher and he definitely maintained discipline.  Kids were afraid of him.  And he toughened them up for the world to come.

Still, at the end of the day I am not wishing to return to the cultural ascent of Mr. O.

I would rather live in a more feminized world, even if I still miss Bombardment.  But if you are not a fan of this new arrangement…hey, “Suck it up kid!”

Addendum: You might argue that I had the best of both worlds, namely to grow up in the “tougher” society, but live most of my life in the more feminized society — maybe so!

Toward a theory of Emergent Ventures

Tony Kulesa, a biomedical venture capitalist, has a very nice new piece up about how Emergent Ventures works.  He overrates me in particular, but the overall account is quite accurate and insightful, and the piece is based on a considerable amount of detailed research.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler’s success at discovering and enabling the most talented people before anyone else notices them boils down to four components:

  1. Distribution: Tyler promotes the opportunity in such a way that the talent level of the application pool is extraordinarily high and the people who apply are uniquely earnest.
  2. Application: Emergent Ventures’ application is laser focused on the quality of the applicant’s ideas, and boils out the noise of credentials, references, and test scores.
  3. Selection: Tyler has relentlessly trained his taste for decades, the way a world class athlete trains for the olympics.
  4. Inspiration: Tyler personally encourages winners to be bolder, creating an ambition flywheel as they in turn inspire future applicants.

Self-recommended!  The piece is interesting throughout, and has much social science in it.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Is America’s aerospace industry regenerating?

2. Sam Enright’s guide to recreational math videos on-line.

3. “A good start” — they should be working for us, not us for them.  And yes I believe in following the science — the science of expected utility maximization.  They are the ones who do not really believe in science, just their own status within their own branch of science.

4. What kind of Berkeley protest is this?

5. How transmissible is Delta?

6. Bird photography winners.

7. RCT for masking in Bangladesh.

What I’ve been reading

1. Anne Serre, The Beginners.  What is it like for a woman to go from loving one man to another?  This newly translated French novel was fun enough, insightful enough, and direct and short enough for me to finish.

2. Lachlan Goudie, The Story of Scottish Art.  Even if you don’t care about art, this is a wonderful way to learn the history of Scotland.  My takeaway favorite painters were Allan Ramsey (friends with Smith and Hume), Henry Raeburn, David Wilkie, and John Duncan, more or less consistent with my earlier views but now they are better informed.  A good book with a nice blue and yellow cover.

3. Frank Herbert, Dune.  For me a reread, I loved it when I was twelve, but how does it stand up?  I am struck by how excellent and pathbreaking the best chapters are, including the introductory chapter.  The influence on Star Wars is obvious, as is the role of Islam in the story.  It strikes me as remarkably cinematic, with the right kinds of transitions to boot — how was this never put successfully on the big screen?  I am about two-thirds through it right now, and maybe it 2/3 holds up?  But would you want all of the slow pacing of the detail removed?

Carole Hooven, T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us.  Recommended.

Aubrey Clayton, Bernoulli’s Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science.  I found this most interesting as a history of probability theory, and with more coverage of Quetelet than one usually finds.

How is nursing evolving? (from my email)

From Andrew K. Stein, MR reader:

There’s a massive and massively underreported shift going on right now in hospital nurse staffing that is interesting from a health and labor economics POV.

In normal times, hospitals pride themselves on having little or no use of “agency” nurses — i.e., not relying on nursing staffing companies to fill their bedside nursing slots. But it seems now that most hospitals can’t escape using agency (e.g., travel nurses) for a large plurality of their nursing staff. (In my day job, I talk to hospital Chief Nursing Officers somewhat regularly.)

Agency nurses are very expensive (high wages + agency markup) and also rather disruptive — every new travel nurse needs to learn the local hospital care processes (e.g., IV dressing changes). What you’re paying for as a CNO is the convenience of an on-tap nursing workforce. Pre-COVID, you’d hear agency labor described as an addictive drug — once you get hooked, it’s hard to wean yourself off.

What’s happening in the labor market, I think, is that there are two paths for a bedside nurse in the COVID era — keep working for a hospital or go work for an agency. Agency pay has gotten ridiculously high, so more and more nurses are quitting the local hospital, signing on with the agency, and then going to work for any hospital that can pay the agency’s rates. In exchange for going wherever the highest bidder is, they get huge increases in their take-home pay. No shame in that.

The net effect, I suspect, is that the bargaining power of nursing labor is going way up, though with unequal gains; to benefit, you have to quit your hospital-employed job and be willing to go wherever the agency sends you.

And then your open slot gets backfilled by another agency nurse from somewhere else!

It’s a reinforcing cycle: As nursing shortages rise, nurses increasingly “work short” — i.e., caring for more patients per shift than is reasonable — or work more shifts per week than typical. That daily stress spurs many nurses to either leave the bedside for something more 9-to-5 (think outpatient clinics) or jump into travel nursing to at least get paid for the extra load everyone is being forced to bear right now.

Agencies and travel nurses win, hospitals and hospital-employed nurses lose.

You could also tell the story that the labor supply of nursing has historically already been constrained (though of course now more so), and that nurses have historically been underpaid from a supply-demand perspective, and that now it’s a more liquid market (with agencies acting as market makers), so the price for labor is rising.

I’d be interested if any MR readers have seen data on how big of an effect this is (e.g., hospitals’ average % of agency staff).

I suspect that high use of agency staffing is the new normal, at least until the nursing labor supply grows to meet it — emergency authorization of 100,000 work visas for immigrant nurses? — or we invent robot nurses.

That was then, this is now, storm watch edition

In the years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the 911 system had undergone a major overhaul. The aging telephone system was replaced. Separate centers for medical, police and fire calls were consolidated under one roof. And new call-routing technology to prevent the whole thing from going down during a disaster was scheduled to be installed early next year.

Then Hurricane Ida hit, and the 911 call center crashed, failing its first major test. Calls for help didn’t go through. The center was offline for 13 hours on Monday. The Orleans Parish Communication District, which runs the dispatch center, was forced to take to Facebook to tell people that if they had an emergency, they should walk to a nearby fire station or flag down a police officer to report it.

“Our technology is antiquated,” Tyrell Morris, the district’s executive director, said Monday.

Here is the full story, at least the levees did hold…

Econ 101, the Drug War, and Afghanistan

Jeffrey Clemens has an excellent piece summarizing his work on the economics of opium production and foreign policy:

From the perspective of Eurasian heroin traffickers, raw opium accounts for a small share of the cost of reaching either their middle- or high-income consumers. Most of the cost is driven by the expenses and risks associated with trafficking itself—bribery, money laundering, document forgery, and, when attempts to evade the authorities fail, violence. As a result, traffickers’ demand for the opium produced by Afghan farmers is inelastic, meaning that even a substantial change in the prices required by farmers will have a modest effect on the quantity the traffickers choose to acquire. This meant that the government’s efforts to reduce poppy cultivation had a greater effect on prices than on the quantity produced—the government drove up opium prices without reducing the quantity demanded by and produced for traffickers.

While overall opium production did not decline, it did undergo an important shift. Predictably, opium production shifted out of the government’s most tightly held provinces and toward provinces in which the government struggled to exert control. This stemmed from a straightforward issue of targeting and state capacity. Prohibitions can only be enforced on territory that the state governs. As a result, opium suppression efforts reduced poppy cultivation in provinces in which the Taliban had historically been weak. Before the increase in counternarcotics spending, poppy cultivation was prevalent in districts across the country. By the late 2000s, however, it had consolidated in areas dominated by the Taliban in the country’s southwest provinces, in particular in Helmand province, which regularly accounts for half of the land cultivated with opium poppies.

Thus, not only did the war on opium fail to reduce opium production it increased the strength of the Taliban. There are general lessons:

When a policy impinges on people’s livelihoods, it risks alienating the very population on whose loyalty the government relies. When state capacity is low, pursuing such policies is thus likely to be unwise. And it is precisely those who oppose the government’s authority, and have the means to resist it, who will tend to thrive in illicit markets. By creating such markets, then, prohibition policies can create economic environments that enrich the government’s adversaries. Similar dynamics have long been at play in the conflict between the Colombian government, drug cartels, and assorted paramilitary groups, where US aid has historically been linked to efforts to suppress cocaine production

…Economic prohibitions can thus have the unintended consequence of enriching the government’s opponents. When a state is weak, it should thus forego, or at least deemphasize, the imposition of economic restrictions. The ability to enforce prohibitions is a luxury reserved for stronger and more stable regimes.

This piece and the underlying research make for excellent undergraduate teaching material as it show the power of simple economic principles to understand the world.

Addendum: On the last point about weak states foregoing the imposition of economic restrictions, see also my piece with Shruti Rajagopalan on Premature Imitation.

Picture Credit: “Poppy Field (Chollerford)” by wazimu0 is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

The capital life extension query

From Arjun Narayan:

Loyal reader here and I’ve been pondering an altered version of your post [the other day] -You have the power to grant 100% more capital (that they deployed in their lifetime) to a person or institution who prematurely ran out of capital too soon. Who do you pick?

It’s worth considering the counterfactual: Elon Musk almost ran out of money in 2008 and was bailed out by Daimler. we would be far worse off on a few dimensions (lithium ion battery production, but also the urgency with which every carmaker is now attacking the transportation electrification problem). Who else should we go back in time and similarly bail out?

My answer is the companies that built the NYC subway which went bankrupt – the BMT, IRT, and IND. After the city takeover in ~1940, construction slowed over a generation, and no infrastructure has been built since. It’s unclear if infrastructure will ever be built in NYC again. It’s clear to me that the only time to build was right then and there, and we should have “overbuilt” to the maximum extent possible when we could.

And in terms of returns to society, what is the value of 10% more efficient subway service (faster/longer/more frequent)? 20? 50%? We could absorb more population (NIMBYs notwithstanding), and as the largest city in the US, the agglomeration effect means it is most impactful here.

I am very curious what your answer would be!

I do not have a better answer than that, unless you start getting into military scenarios.  If you are allowed to consider cyclical scenarios, how about more money to bail out U.S. banks in the 1929-1932 period?  More funds to limit the German deflation before Hitler, or alternatively to bail out the Weimar government so hyperinflation and later social collapse does not come?  But I take those possibilities as beyond the initial question.

Could a cash infusion alone have kept Intel active and successful in the high-quality chips market?  Somehow I doubt that.  More money for Novavax in 2020-21 as a contender?  That could have helped the rest of the world a good deal, given how slow they have been to convert their very important science into an actual product.

Don’t shoot the messenger — on the value of human life

Thus, to analysts, picking one such meta-analysis may feel as hard as picking a single “best study.” This paper responds by taking the meta-analysis another step, estimating a meta-analysis (or mixture distribution) of six meta-analyses. The baseline model yields a central VSL of $7.0m, with a 90% confidence interval of $2.4m to $11.2m. The provided code allows users to easily change subjective weights on the studies, add new studies, or change adjustments for income, inflation, and latency.

Here is the new NBER paper, by H. Spencer Banzhaf.