My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.

Here is one bit:

KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?

I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.

That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.

COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?

KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.

COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?

KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?


KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.

Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.

The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.

I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.

That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?

KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.

I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.

I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.

Definitely recommended.

Hayek in the Machine

Medium: Nanoeconomics is about human-machine exchange, and machine-machine exchange. It is the economics of distributed ledgers and artificial intelligence, of object-capability programming and cybersecurity, of ‘central planning’ in the machine, and of ‘markets’ in the machine.

As we’ve come to understand blockchains and other distributed ledger technologies as an institutional technology, we’ve also learned that not only can blockchains coordinate and govern decentralised human economies (as governments, firms and markets do) but they can coordinate and govern decentralised machine economies (or human-machine economies).

This extends what Hayek called catallaxy — the spontaneous order of the market — from the market coordination of human action to the coordination of human-to-machine and machine-to-machine economies.

Nanoeconomics is not a new idea. In their Agoric papers published in 1988, Mark Miller and K. Eric Drexler developed the idea of a computational system as a space for economic exchange. The development of object-oriented programming has created software agents, which vie for scarce resources in the machine. But right now, these agents are governed through planning, not markets. Miller and Drexler suggested an alternative: a market-based computation system. In this system:

“machine resources — storage space, processor time, and so forth — have owners, and the owners charge other objects for use of these resources. Objects, in turn, pass these costs on to the objects they serve, or to an object representing the external user; they may add royalty charges, and thus earn a profit.”

With global computers like the smart-contract platform Ethereum we now have the bones of such a market-based computational architecture.

Interesting post from Chris Berg, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts of RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub in Australia and Bill Tulloh from Agoric.

China fact of the day

But China’s public capital stock per head is already far bigger than Japan’s at comparable incomes per head.

That is from Martin Wolf at the FT.  Here are the associated conclusions:

Slowing urban household formation means that fewer new homes now need to be built. Not surprisingly, returns on investment have collapsed. In sum, investment-led growth must come to an early end. Because of its size, China has also hit the buffers on export-driven growth, at a lower level of income per head than other high-growth east Asian economies. The trade war with the US underlines this reality. China’s working-age population is also declining. Given the huge rise in debt as well, sustaining fast growth will be very hard.

We will see, perhaps indeed in 2019, one way or the other.

What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit

I am tempted to call this long piece on a boring subject the best I have read in 2019, but you know I think that might remain true by the end of the year.  Here is an excerpt from the Belgium section:

I was in Brussels recently, taking my son to watch Anderlecht play, when I heard some English people in a café asking the waiter why no one liked the English. They were nice people asking a genuine question, but often it’s the wrong people who ask the right questions. The waiter replied, politely and in perfect English: ‘We can read your newspapers and watch your television; we hear what your politicians and your journalists say about us.’ That summed it up: all this time we Brits thought we were talking to ourselves, and we were, but everyone else was listening in. Belgians are not surprised by Brexit: it’s just the coagulation as policy of what’s been flowing as attitude for decades.

Or Denmark:

The leftish Information provides the most useful articles. One has a headline in English, though anchored in the land of Elsinore: ‘To Be or Not to Be, That Is Not the Question’. The real ‘question’ doesn’t concern the merits of Leave or Remain, but the complexities of a twin crisis, in both the UK and the EU. Another piece, published shortly after the referendum, describes the division of a nation into Leavers and Remainers as afgrundsdyb. Meaning ‘abyssal’, the term, I am told, hints at the unfathomable as well as the unbridgeable, while evoking something that is certainly dangerous to approach.

I enjoyed this line:

Croatia has more experience than most of entering and exiting alliances.

From the Germany section:

‘Brexit shows that the Brussels bureaucracy, that alleged monster that employs no more civil servants than a central German city administration, has done a great job. The extent of interconnectedness at all levels has to be renegotiated: supply chains, industry standards, food and pharmaceutical standards, security architectures, rural and air transport structures, fishing rights, research collaborations, student exchanges, a vast frictionlessness system is now in jeopardy’ (Gustav Seibt, Süddeutsche Zeitung).

This I had not known:

…in Norway the conservative right is overwhelmingly in favour of joining the EU.

And finally:

Being a Brit in Sweden can be embarrassing just now. We’re one of the Swedes’ favourite peoples, admired for our history and culture, and loved for Engelskt humor. Shocked they may be; but a diet of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers means that Swedes are not altogether surprised.

The authors are numerous, the whole piece was published in The London Review of Books, definitely recommended.  I would note that “what group X really thinks of Y” remains an under-exploited genre in journalism, and elsewhere, and it is one of the best ways of learning about a topic.

Tuesday assorted links

1. The father of Kamala Harris.  Here are remarks from the economist father.

2. New estimate of the death toll from the kidney shortage.  Yikes.

3. Claims people DMed anonymously to Austen Allred.

4. Arizonans attack self-driving cars (NYT).  Yikes.

5. AEA panel with Powell, Yellen, and Bernanke.

6. “With Caesars Entertainment’s Buffet of Buffets pass, you pay one price and get access to up to five buffets in Las Vegas for a 24-hour period.”  Yikes, welcome to 2019.

7. Glen Weyl offers a critique of liberaltarianism on Twitter, I am not sure how to thread it, here is his account just scroll down.  Here is one bit: “The key point is that the focus on social insurance, “regulation” and a simplistic conception of the migration issue and total lack of attention to enormously growing concentrations of private power, lack of fundamental research funding, news quality”

Quito travel notes

LLapingachos are the way to go: “an Ecuadorian dish of potato patties or thick potato pancakes stuffed with cheese and cooked on a hot griddle until crispy.”

Given the landlocked nature of Quito, the seafood — and I don’t just mean lake fish — is remarkably good.  Try the fried corvina at Las Corvinas de Don Jimmy, in the Mercado Central, with a drink and ceviche only $6.  Zazu is one of the best restaurants in South America, and many of the dishes are below $15.  I recommend La Briciola for Italian food and chocolate ice cream, noting that in Latin America the most boring-sounding pastas, such as the ravioli, are the ones to order.

The 17th century heritage of Quito makes the colonial center feel like central Mexico.  Think “built up early, backwater later on, for a long time.”  The mix of mestizo and indigenous.  The design of the inner city and its churches.  The role of crafts.  The persistence of particular foodstuffs, in this case potatoes and corn and avocado and palmitos.  Popcorn was invented somewhere around here.

The weather is perfect every day.

Compañía de Jesús is arguably the most beautiful church I have seen.

There is an unusually high percentage of Indian-American tourists (do any of you know why?), that said the absolute number of tourists is quite small.  Most people are passing through on their way to the Galapagos, described by one skeptical pro-Trump tourist we met as “$7,000 worth of lizards.”

Following dollarization, it seems that all the Kennedy half dollars and Sacagawea dollar coins have ended up here.  .

Cops dress like superheroes to make themselves more approachable by children:

The Saturday “Indian market” at Otavalo is the nicest, most hassle-free market I know.  Cotacachi would be a wonderful place to retire, except I won’t.

The quechua-speaking guide for Cotopaxi volcano loves YouTube and listens to “adventures, news, music, and much more.”  He is still hoping to get a phone with an internet connection, and believes that lack of good education for indigenous children is the country’s biggest problem.

“In 2010, more than 2,600 people were killed in Ecuador, a homicide rate of about 18 per 100,000, almost twice the level the World Health Organization considers an epidemic. This year, the small Andean nation is expected to record 5.6 killed per 100,000, one of Latin America’s lowest rates.”  (Excellent piece, WSJ link).

On the “is now the right time to visit Quito?” scale, I give 2019 a 9.5.

Monday assorted links

1. “What does Adam Smith’s moral philosophy owe to the literary discourse of his time?”  A Berkeley dissertation by Shannon Frances Chamberlain, #GulliversTravels.

2. “OK, that’s the essentials I think. Happy new year, everyone!”  A fiction reading list from 2018 by Jenny Davidson.

3. Here you can donate to Conversations with Tyler.

4. The labor market really is strong: “Here’s a help wanted ad for you: Hard-working, career-oriented cats being sought by the Ontario SPCA for a new program that aims to match unsocialized strays with farms, warehouses and breweries where they can work as mousers.”

5. Some AEA sessions will be live streamed.

6. “No students from mainland Chinese schools have been admitted to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through its early admission programme this year…

7. Judith Harris has passed away.

The Amazon War and the Evolution of Private Law

It’s well known that to boost their sales, sellers sometimes post fake 5-star reviews on Amazon. Amazon tries to police such actions by searching out and banning sites with fake reviews. An unintended consequence is that some sellers now post fake 5-star reviews on their competitor’s site.

The Verge: As Amazon has escalated its war on fake reviews, sellers have realized that the most effective tactic is not buying them for yourself, but buying them for your competitors — the more obviously fraudulent the better. A handful of glowing testimonials, preferably in broken English about unrelated products and written by a known review purveyor on Fiverr, can not only take out a competitor and allow you to move up a slot in Amazon’s search results, it can land your rival in the bewildering morass of Amazon’s suspension system.

…There are more subtle methods of sabotage as well. Sellers will sometimes buy Google ads for their competitors for unrelated products — say, a dog food ad linking to a shampoo listing — so that Amazon’s algorithm sees the rate of clicks converting to sales drop and automatically demotes their product.

What does a seller do when they are banned from Amazon? Appeal to the Amazon legal system and for that you need an Amazon lawyer.

The appeals process is so confounding that it’s given rise to an entire industry of consultants like Stine. Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee, set up shop in 2014. CJ Rosenbaum, an attorney in Long Beach, New York, now bills himself as the “Amazon sellers lawyer,” with an “Amazon Law Library” featuring Amazon Law, vol. 1 ($95 on Amazon). Stine’s company deals with about 100 suspensions a month and charges $2,500 per appeal ($5,000 if you want an expedited one), which is in line with industry norms. It’s a price many are willing to pay. “It can be life or death for people,” McCabe says. “If they don’t get their Amazon account back, they might be insolvent, laying off 10, 12, 14 people, maybe more. I’ve had people begging me for help. I’ve had people at their wits’ end. I’ve had people crying.”

Amazon is a marketplace that is now having to create a legal system to govern issues of fraud, trademark, and sabotage and also what is in effect new types of intellectual property such as Amazon brand registry. Marketplaces have always been places of private law and governance but there has never before been a marketplace with Amazon’s scale and market power. It’s an open question how well private law will develop in this regime.

Can less competition mean more meritocracy?

I am not so sure, but Dawei Fang and Thomas Noe say yes:

Uncompetitive contests for grades, promotions, and job assignments, which feature lax standards or consider only limited talent pools, are often criticized for being unmeritocratic. We show that, when contestants are strategic, lax standards and exclusivity can make selection more meritocratic. Strategic contestants take more risks in more competitive contests. Risk taking reduces the correlation between selection and ability. By reducing the noise engendered by strategic risk taking, dialing down competition can produce outcomes that better conform with the meritocratic ideal of selecting the best and only the best.

Here is the working paper, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

No brain drain from Filipina nurse migration?

We estimate the effect of skilled migration on educational investment in the country of origin by exploiting the aggressive nurse recruitment policies and subsequent visa restrictions employed by the United States in the 2000s. Using a new administrative dataset combining the universe of permanent migrant departures from the Philippines with the universe of institution-level post-secondary enrollment and graduation, we show that enrollment and graduation in nursing programs increased in response to demand from abroad for nurses. For each new nurse that moved abroad, approximately two more individuals with nursing degrees graduated. The supply of nursing programs increased to accommodate this. New nurses appear to have switched from other degree types. Nurse migration had no impact on either infant or maternal mortality.

That is from a paper by Paulo Abarcar and Caroline Theoharides, via Michael Clemens and Dina D. Pomeranz.

The difficulties of African supply chains

Supply chain problems in Africa are quite complex, with most of them stemming from the sheer size of the continent. Africa’s land mass is greater than the USA, Europe, and China combined. Within this huge space there are 54 unique markets, few of which provide scale or adequate distribution infrastructure. Further complicating matters, there are over 2,000 languages spoken and very diverse cultural dynamics from one market to the next.

That is from an article by Chuma Asuzu, the piece is interesting throughout, most of all for infrastructure supply chain nerds.  I so, so wish there were more articles like this.

For the pointer I thank Omar Mohamed.  Omar also recommends this site on manufacturing.

Markets in everything those new service sector jobs

In a nation where people lead ever more busy lives and increasingly view their dogs as family members, professional dog walking is flourishing. And along with it is what might be viewed as the unusual art of dog walker communication. Many of today’s walkers do not simply stroll — not if they want to be rehired, anyway. Over text and email, they craft fine-grained, delightful narratives tracing the journey from arrival at the residence to drop-off. They report the number of bathroom stops. They take artistic photos, and lots of them.

“For an hour-long walk, I send six or eight, depending,” said Griffin, 44, who holds a treat in her hand when shooting to ensure her charge is looking at the camera. “Then I give a full report that includes not only peeing and pooping but also kind of general well-being, and if the dog socialized with other dogs.”

After walking a dog named Stevie Nicks earlier this year, Griffin’s blow-by-blow mentioned that the dog had collected a chicken bone from under a bush, then “crunched down on it and broke into 3 pieces.” At the end of another walk, Griffin related that she “picked the foxtails out of her little beard and mustache,” and explained precisely where the foxtails had come from — “the fence around the yard at the corner.”

Dog walkers’ notes are often more exhaustive than those parents get from the caregivers of their human children.

The article is interesting throughout:

“Ongoing, two-way communication is actually one of the most important components to a successful walk,” White said. “What we’ve heard from owners is the more details, the better. You can’t have too many details.”…

“All of our dog walkers have been really good communicators, but Perry wins the prize,” said Tucci, a nonprofit executive. His texts “are really are more logistical and poop-oriented than anything else. But they’re always so enthusiastic.”

Here is the full WaPo story by Karin Brullard.

Saturday assorted links

1. The next generation of Indian intellectuals? Is the list maybe a bit too high-falutin’?

2. How some of China’s spies operate.  And update on Chinese CRISPR patients, lots is going on here and we are seeing just the tip of it.

3. “Libraries are incredibly risk averse…”  And this bit: “We will err very much on this side of caution. We would rather not gather the information in the first place, then run the risk of holding it and losing it. And we do have to have information. With one exception, we get rid of it the moment we can. The only one exception is fines information.”

4. “Ontario Provincial Police say a seven-year-old boy called 911 to report his dissatisfaction with receiving snow pants as a Christmas gift.

5. More skepticism about carbon taxes, from Justin Gillis (NYT).

6. Scott Sumner on how to teach economics (recommended, there is much truth and wisdom in this post).

7. Top economists pick the best research papers of the year.