Christopher DeMuth on national conservatism

I thought the recent WSJ Op-Ed by DeMuth was one of this year’s more important essays.  DeMuth argues that conservatism needs a new [and also older], less libertarian, less cosmopolitan turn.  Here is his core message:

When the leftward party in a two-party system is seized by such radicalism, the conservative instinct for moderation is futile and may be counterproductive. Yet many conservative politicians stick with it, promising to correct specific excesses that have stirred popular revulsion. Republicans will win some elections that way—but what will they do next? National conservatives recognize that in today’s politics, the excesses are the essence. Like Burke after 1789, we shift to opposing revolution tout court.

Why national conservatism? Have you noticed that almost every progressive initiative subverts the American nation? Explicitly so in opening national borders, disabling immigration controls, and transferring sovereignty to international bureaucracies. But it also works from within—elevating group identity above citizenship; fomenting racial, ethnic and religious divisions; disparaging common culture and the common man; throwing away energy independence; defaming our national history as a story of unmitigated injustice; hobbling our national future with gargantuan debts that will constrain our capacity for action.

The left’s anti-nationalism is another sharp break with the past.

Do read the whole thing, as they say.  I cannot summarize his entire argument, but here are some points of push back:

1. It is a mistake to start by defining one’s view in opposition to some other set of views, in this case progressivism.  You will end up with something limited and defensive and ultimately uninspiring.

2. Unlike many classical liberals, I’ve long made my peace with nationalism, but for pragmatic reasons.  I view it as morally arbitrary, but also as the only possible solid foundation for a stably globalized world, given the psychologically collectivist tendencies of most humans.  DeMuth opposes national conservatism to globalization for the most part, but strong nations and strong globalizations go together.  There is talk of “global markets that eclipse the nation and divide its citizens,” but the case needs to be stronger and more specific than that.  National security arguments aside (yes we Americans should produce more chips domestically), which exactly are the global markets that are eclipsing us?  And is it global markets that are polarizing us?  Really?  Which ones exactly and how?

3. Virtually every critic of globalization wants to pick and choose.  There is plenty of “globalization for me, not for thee” in these ideological arenas.  (In similar fashion, I don’t quite get the Peter Thiel bitcoin > globalization point of view….crypto has been quite international pretty much from the beginning, and often at least in spirit directed against national monies.)  And which exactly is the national body we are going to trust with micro-managing globalization?  Some DC bureaucracy that operates as effectively as the CDC and is filled 90% or more with Democrats?  From a national conservative point of view, or for that matter from my point of view, why do that?

4. For better or worse, Biden is far more of a nationalist than DeMuth makes him out to be.  “Confiscating vaccine patents” is the only example given of this supposed excess cosmopolitanism, but hey just look at the allocation of those third doses, something Biden has pushed hard himself.  On many matters of foreign policy, including China, the differences between Trump and Biden are tiny.  And Europe isn’t exactly happy with Biden either.

5. The policy recommendations toward the end of the piece are underwhelming.  Common carrier regulation to prevent Facebook from taking down controversial opinions is the first suggestion.  Whether or not you agree with that proposal, the major social media companies were not doing much in the way of “take downs” as recently as ten years ago.  To return to that state of affairs, but with the whole thing enforced by government (“Some DC bureaucracy that operates as effectively as perhaps the CDC and also is filled 90% or more with Democrats?”), is…uninspiring.

6. The next set of policy recommendations are “big projects” for cybersecurity and quantum computing.  Again, whether or not you agree with those specific ideas, I don’t see why they need national conservatism as a foundation.  You might just as easily come to those positions through a Progress Studies framework, among other views.  And is a centralized approach really best for cybersecurity?  How secure were the systems of the Office of Personnel Management?  Doesn’t the firming up of all those soft targets require a fairly decentralized approach?

7. DeMuth refers to our “once-great” museums as deserving of revitalization.  I would agree that the visual arts of painting and sculpture were more culturally central in earlier decades than today.  But putting aside the National Gallery of Art in D.C. (in a state of radical decline…maybe blame the national Feds?), and the immediate problems of the pandemic, American museums are pretty awesome.  MOMA for instance is far better than it used to be.  If there has been a problem, it is that 9/11 made foreign loan contracts for art exhibits more difficult to pull off, in part for reasons of insurance.  In other words, the contraction of globalization has hurt American museums.

8. I wonder how he feels about crypto, Web 3.0, and the Metaverse?  I think it is perfectly fine to regard the correct opinions on those topics as still unsettled, but is national conservatism really such a great starting point?  Aren’t we going to rather rapidly neglect the potential upside from those innovations?  Shouldn’t we instead try to start by understanding the technologies, and then see if a nationalist point of view on them is going to make sense?

More generally, if you are going to do the NatCon thing, how about embracing the tech companies as America’s great national champions?  Embracing them as your only hope for countering left-wing MSM?  Somehow that is missing from DeMuth’s vision.

So I liked the piece, but I say it is a rearguard action, destined to fail.  We need a more positive, more dynamic approach to a free society of responsible individuals, and that is probably going to mean an ongoing expansion of globalization and also a fairly new and indeed somewhat unsettled understanding of what the nation is going to consist of.  What DeMuth calls “empirical libertarianism,” as he associates with Adam Smith, I still take as a better starting point.

What price the Blue Plaque?

In many places commemorative plaques are erected on buildings to serve as historical markers of notable men and women who lived in them – London has a Blue Plaque scheme for this purpose. We investigated the influence of commemorative Blue Plaques on the selling prices of London real estate. We identified properties which sold both before and after a Blue Plaque was installed indexing prices relative to the median prevailing sales prices of properties sold in the same neighborhood. Relative prices increased by 27% (US$165,000 as of July 2020) after a Blue Plaque was installed but not in a control set of properties without Blue Plaques, sold both before and after a Blue Plaque was installed in close proximity. We discuss these findings in relation to the theory of magical contagion and claims from previous research suggesting that people are less likely to acknowledge magical effects when decisions involve money.

Here is the full article by Peter Ayton, Leonardo Weiss-Cohen, and Matthew Barson, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Sunday assorted links

1. “In 2018, there were 20,933 calls to San Francisco’s government complaining about human feces.

2. Does urbanization contribute to depression?

3. China polygenic scores comparison of the day.

4. Informal norms for surfing property rights, a’la Schelling.

5. A Chinese liberal reviews Thomas Piketty.

6. Can you undo your vaccine?

7. Abhijit Banerjee, chef.  And his new cookbook is here.

Economics job market observations

As you may recall, each year I scour the job market websites to see what new job candidates are working on and presenting.  Unlike many years, this year I did not find the top or most interesting papers at Harvard and MIT.  Northwestern and UC Davis seem to be producing notable students.  More broadly, interest in economic history continues to grow, and the same is true for urban, regional, and health care economics.  There were fewer papers on macro than five or ten years ago, and very few on monetary economics or crypto.  Theory papers are rare.  Overall, the women seem to be doing more interesting work than the men.  Many schools seem to be putting out fewer students than usual.  University of Wisconsin at Madison was the website with (by far) the most “pronouns” listed.  I fear that this year’s search was more boring than usual, at least for my tastes, due to hyperspecialization of the candidates and their research topics.  Perhaps the worst offender was papers based on balkanized, non-generalizable data sources.  I’ll be continuing to look at a few more sites.

How the crypto skeptics changed their minds

That is a Walter Frick feature story at Quartz, the other answers are interesting throughout, here is my contribution:

What was your original reaction to cryptocurrencies and blockchain?

Just for a bit of background, I wrote a series of papers on monetary economics, and then a book (Explorations in the New Monetary Economics, with Randall Kroszner) which argued that technological changes were going to fundamentally revolutionize monetary institutions and finance over the next few decades. Those papers start in the mid-1980s and the book comes in the early 90s. So I was primed to see this coming, but in fact utterly failed.

I just wasn’t expecting crypto!

When bitcoin first came out, someone sent me the link and I put it on my blog Marginal Revolution —we were one of the first places to report on it.

But after that, the thing seemed to sour. It looked like a bubble. I didn’t see the use cases for bitcoin. So I became pretty crypto negative. Perhaps I was also turned off by the dogmatism shown by many crypto advocates.

What changed your perspective on blockchain’s potential?

A few things. First, in decentralized finance (DeFi) I began to see viable and important use cases. Superior returns for depositors might now drive broader crypto adoption

Second, after a market price crash, prices came back. That suggested to me this was not just a bubble. Crypto had its chance to go away and never come back, but it didn’t. Third, I have seen incredible energy and vitality in the crypto community. Many of the best discussions are held there, it attracts amazing talent, and the conversations are overwhelmingly positive. All big pluses and signs of a movement that is going somewhere. I am still broadly agnostic, but now see the positive scenarios as more likely than the negative scenarios.

What projects or trends in crypto are you most excited about right now?

DeFi, or Decentralized Finance.

NFTs, not only for the art world but also as a new system of property rights for the metaverse, and as a new method of fundraising.

Use of crypto to lower the costs of sending remittances abroad to poorer countries.

What would you recommend our readers watch / listen to / read / follow to better understand crypto’s potential?

I am learning the most through conversations, meetings, and WhatsApp chatter—I am not sure how that easily can be replicated!

Books and most articles on this topic are simply too out of date, even if they are factually accurate, which is not always the case. The fact that the field is moving so fast is another reason for optimism.

The symposium is a good way to catch up quickly on many different views.

Saturday assorted links

1. “Each student is allowed to bring only one pet and must pay a $250 cleaning fee for the academic year; emotional support animals are free.

2. Japanese Columbo.

3. “Bar-tailed Godwits regularly travel more than 7,000 miles non-stop.

4. “Latvia bans unvaccinated lawmakers from voting, docks pay.

5. “Millions of people not fully vaccinated against Covid in the regions of Upper Austria and Salzburg will be allowed to leave their homes only for reasons considered essential to life, such as going to work, grocery shopping or visiting the doctor…”  Link here.

6. Those new service sector jobs? And why academics remain in the academy.  And further deflation in the Austrian brothel, including for fourteen-year-olds.

Negative-sum games

When Vespa soror — giant hornets found in parts of Asia — attack a honeybee hive, they kill as many bees as possible, decapitating them and scouring the hive to harvest their young.

To protect their hives from such a catastrophe, some species of honeybees have developed an arsenal of defensive techniques. They may forage for other animals’ feces and place it at their nest’s entrance to repel predators, a tactic called “fecal spotting.” Or, in a technique known as “balling,” a cluster of honeybees may engulf a hornet, vibrate their flight muscles and produce enough heat to kill the enemy.

Now, a new study published in Royal Society Open Science says honeybees have another defense: screaming.

More precisely, the bees in the study produced a noise known as an “antipredator pipe” — not something that comes out of their mouths, but rather a sound they produce by vibrating their wings, raising their abdomens and exposing a gland used to release a certain kind of pheromone.

Here is the full story.

Is Marriage A Normal Good? Evidence from NBA drafts

Little is known about the causal link between male economic status and marriage outcomes, owing to lack of data on unanticipated permanent income shocks for men. I tackle this by exploiting a natural experiment surrounding NBA drafts, an annual event where NBA teams draft college and international basketball players from 1st to 60th. Given high-quality expert predictions of player draft order and well-defined initial salaries decreasing monotonically by draft rank, I show that disparities between actual and predicted draft rank generate exogenous income shocks. This setup contributes novel income treatments that are not only large and individual-specific but also opportunely occurring early in both career and adult life, when marriage decisions are particularly salient. I additionally construct a new dataset tracking players’ major family decisions and am the first to show that marriage is indeed a normal good for men. All else equal, a 10% increase in initial five-year salary raises likelihood of marriage by 7.9% for the 2004-2013 draft cohorts. I argue my results constitute lower-bound estimates for general population men, as effect sizes are larger and more significant for lower expected salaries.

That is from Jiaqi Zou, who is on the job market from University of Toronto.  I like her statement of purpose: “I am particularly interested in identifying barriers and limiting beliefs that constrain individuals from their life’s pursuits.”

What would a world with very cheap energy look like?

I am indebted to Jason Crawford and Matt Yglesias for the inspiration on this topic, here is an excerpt from my Bloomberg column:

One second-order effect is that countries with good infrastructure planning would reap a significant relative gain. The fast train from Paris to Nice would become faster yet, but would trains on the Acela corridor?

Next in line: Desalinating water would become cheap and easy, enabling the transformation and terraforming of many landscapes. Nevada would boom, though a vigorous environmental debate might ensue: Just how many deserts should we keep around? Over time, Mali and the Middle East would become much greener.

How about heating and cooling? It might be possible to manipulate temperatures outdoors, so Denmark in January and Dubai in August would no longer be so unbearable. It wouldn’t be too hard to melt snow or generate a cooling breeze.

Wages would also rise significantly. Not only would more goods and services be available, but the demand for labor would also skyrocket. If flying to Tokyo is easier, demand for pilots will be higher. Eventually, more flying would be automated. Robots would become far more plentiful, which would set off yet more second- and third-order effects.

Cheap energy would also make supercomputing more available, crypto more convenient, and nanotechnology more likely.

And this:

And limiting climate change would not be as simple as it might at first seem. Yes, nuclear fusion could replace all of those coal plants. But the secondary consequences do not stop there. As water desalination became more feasible, for example, irrigation would become less expensive. Many areas would be far more verdant, and people might raise more cows and eat more beef. Those cows, in turn, might release far more methane into the air, worsening one significant set of climate-related problems.

But all is not lost! Because energy would be so cheap, protective technologies — to remove methane (and carbon) from the air, for instance — are also likely to be more feasible and affordable.

In general, in a carbon-free energy world, the stakes would be higher for a large subset of decisions. If we can clean up the air, great. If not, the overall increase in radical change would create a whole host of new problems, one of which would be more methane emissions. The “race” between the destructive and restorative powers of technology would become all the more consequential. The value of high quality institutions would be much greater,  which might be a worry in many parts of the world.

This is a thought exercise, and I would say you are wasting your breath if you fume against fusion power in the comments.

Is the growing geographic concentration of innovation flattening out?

U.S. invention has become increasingly concentrated around major tech centers since the 1970s, with implications for how much cities across the country share in concomitant local benefits. Is invention becoming a winner-takes-all race? We explore the rising spatial concentration of patents and identify an underlying stability in their distribution. Software patents have exploded to account for about half of patents today, and these patents are highly concentrated in tech centers. Tech centers also account for a growing share of non-software patents, but the reallocation, by contrast, is entirely from the five largest population centers in 1980. Non-software patenting is stable for most cities, with anchor tenants like universities playing important roles, suggesting the growing concentration of invention may be nearing its end. Immigrant inventors and new businesses aided in the spatial transformation.

That is new research by Brad Chattergoon and William R. Kerr.

Legal Systems and Economic Performance in Colonial Shanghai, 1903-1934

Abstract: How important are legal systems to economic performance? To address this question, I focus on a historical period from colonial Shanghai, where quite different legal systems operated in the International Settlement andFrench Concession. In particular, employing novel historical data, I examine 1903–1934 land value discontinuities at the border between these Settlements. Substantial discontinuities were found in the 1900s, with higher land values associated with the International Settlement. However, by the 1930s, this land value advantage of the International Settlement had disappeared. A closer look at the institutions reveals that the French Concession adapted its operation to be more business friendly, under competition from the neighboring International Settlement. This suggests that the French legal system per se was not a barrier to economic growth, but rather it could function well if interpreted and implemented properly. This paper thus adds to evidence that formal legal system is not a key determinant of economic performance.

That is from Mingxi Li, who is on the job market this year from UC Davis.

Why group evaluations are overly conservative

The evaluation and selection of novel projects lies at the heart of scientific and technological innovation, and yet there are persistent concerns about bias, such as conservatism. This paper investigates the role that the format of evaluation, specifically information sharing among expert evaluators, plays in generating conservative decisions. We executed two field experiments in two separate grant-funding opportunities at a leading research university, mobilizing 369 evaluators from seven universities to evaluate 97 projects, resulting in 761 proposal-evaluation pairs and more than $250,000 in awards. We exogenously varied the relative valence (positive and negative) of others’ scores and measured how exposures to higher and lower scores affect the focal evaluator’s propensity to change their initial score. We found causal evidence of a negativity bias, where evaluators lower their scores by more points after seeing scores more critical than their own rather than raise them after seeing more favorable scores. Qualitative coding of the evaluators’ justifications for score changes reveals that exposures to lower scores were associated with greater attention to uncovering weaknesses, whereas exposures to neutral or higher scores were associated with increased emphasis on nonevaluation criteria, such as confidence in one’s judgment. The greater power of negative information suggests that information sharing among expert evaluators can lead to more conservative allocation decisions that favor protecting against failure rather than maximizing success.

Here is the full paper from Jacqueline N. Lanie, et.al., via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Apply for an ACX grant

From Scott Alexander:

I want to give grants to good research and good projects with a minimum of paperwork. Like an NIH grant or something, only a lot less money and prestige.

How is this different from Marginal Revolution’s Fast Grants, Nadia Eghbal’s Helium Grants, or EA Funds‘ grant rounds?

Not different at all. It’s total 100% plagiarism of them. I’m doing it anyway because I think it’s a good idea, and I predict there are a lot of good people with good projects in this community who haven’t heard about / participated in those, but who will participate when I do it.

How much money are you giving out?

ACX Grants proper will involve $250,000 of my own money, but I’m hoping to supplement with much more of other people’s money, amount to be determined. See the sections on ACX Grants + and ACX Grants ++ below.

Here is further detail, including a link to the application form.

Thursday assorted links

1. One version of a Chicago parable.

2. How is science policy going?

3. The culture that is Viennese (and alternatively, Swiss).

4. Vaccine take-up, from west to east.  Model this.

5. “Dólar “azul” y billete de 500 euros: las nuevas reglas del mercado blue que descolocan a los clientes.

6. Backlash to NFTs on Discord.

7. Bolsonaro cuts federal science budget by 90 percent.