Which cities have people-watching street cafes?

D. asks me that question, citing Morocco, BA, and Paris.  Here are a few factors militating in favor of such cafes:

1. The weather should be reasonable.  This militates in favor of Mediterranean climates, with Paris eking through nonetheless.  It hurts much of Asia.

2. The broad highways and thoroughfares should be removed from where the cafes might go.  This factor harms Los Angeles, which otherwise has excellent weather, and helps La Jolla.  Note that BA and some of the larger Moroccan cities were designed and built up around the same time, based on broadly European models, and to fit early 20th century technologies.

3. Street crime must be acceptably low.  Bye bye Brazil.

4. Pollution should be fairly low, otherwise sitting outside is unpleasant.  This harm many Indian and Chinese cities.

5. Streets must not be too steep.  Sorry La Paz, and yes here at MR we adjust steepness coefficients by altitude.

6. Skyscrapers must not be too plentiful.  This harms Manhattan, because the sunlight is mostly blocked.

7. Explicit or implicit marginal tax rates on labor should be relatively high.  Another boost for the Mediterranean.  And is cafe culture therefore correlated with smoking culture?

7b. Explicit or implicit land rents should be “low enough.”  After all, they have to be willing to let you sit there all day.  Just try that in midtown Manhattan.

8. The cities should have mixed-use neighborhoods, well-connected to each other by foot, conducive to many diverse groups of people walking through.  This hurts many parts of the United States and also some parts of Latin America.  It is a big gain for Paris.

9. The city dwellers need some tradition of “being alone,” so that these individuals use the cafe to connect to the outside.  You will note that in many parts of Italy, the people-watching street cafe is outcompeted by the “stationary street conference, five guys who know each other really well yelling at each other about who knows what?”  They never get around to that cafe chair.  So the city needs some degree of anonymity, but not too much.  This harms some of the more traditional societies found around the Mediterranean.  On the other side of the distribution, too strong a tradition of television-watching hurts cafe life too.

10. Another competitor to the people-watching street cafe is the zócalo town square tradition of Mexico.  I myself prefer the centralization of the zócalo (though admittedly it does not scale well fractally).  So the city also has to fail in providing just the right kind of parks and park benches and focality in its very center.  Surprise, surprise, but dysfunctional local public goods are by no means unheard of around the Mediterranean, Paris too, BA, and cities such as Casablanca.

What else?

The important thinkers of the future will be religious thinkers, installment #1637

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her Catholic faith and the urgency of a criminal justice reform

From her:

By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself. That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And let us not forget the guiding principle of “the least among us” found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes—the imprisoned.

For the pointer I thank Nick C.

Why Sexism and Racism Never Diminish–Even When Everyone Becomes Less Sexist and Racist

The idea that concepts depend on their reference class isn’t new. A short basketball player is tall and a poor American is rich. One might have thought, however, that a blue dot is a blue dot. Blue can be defined by wavelength so unlike a relative concept like short or rich there is some objective reality behind blue even if the boundaries are vague. Nevertheless, in a thought-provoking new paper in Science the all-star team of Levari, Gilbert, Wilson, Sievers, Amodio and Wheatley show that what we identify as blue expands as the prevalence of blue decreases.

In the figure below, for example, the authors ask respondents to identify a dot as blue or purple. The figure on the left shows that as the objective shading increases from very purple to very blue more people identify the dot as blue, just as one would expect. (The initial and final 200 trials indicate that there is no tendency for changes over time.) In the figure at right, however, blue dots were made less prevalent in the final 200 trials and, after the decrease in the prevalence, the tendency to identify a dot as blue increases dramatically. In the decreasing prevalence condition on the right, a dot that previously was previously identified as blue only 25% of the time now becomes identified as blue 50% of the time! (Read upwards from the horizontal axis and compare the yellow and blue prediction lines).

Clever. But so what? What the authors then go on to show, however, is that the same phenomena happens with complex concepts for which we arguably would like to have a consistent and constant identification.

Are people susceptible to prevalence-induced concept change? To answer this question, we showed participants in seven studies a series of stimuli and asked them to determine whether each stimulus was or was not an instance of a concept. The concepts ranged from simple (“Is this dot blue?”) to complex (“Is this research proposal ethical?”). After participants did this for a while, we changed the prevalence of the concept’s instances and then measured whether the concept had expanded—that is, whether it had come to include instances that it had previously excluded.

…When blue dots became rare, purple dots began to look blue; when threatening faces became rare, neutral faces began to appear threatening; and when unethical research proposals became rare, ambiguous research proposals began to seem unethical. This happened even when the change in the prevalence of instances was abrupt, even when participants were explicitly told that the prevalence of instances would change, and even when participants were instructed and paid to ignore these changes.

Assuming the result replicates (the authors have 7 studies which appear to me to be independent, although each study is fairly small in size (20-100) and drawn from Harvard undergrads) it has many implications.

in 1960, Websters dictionary defined aggressionas an unprovoked attack or invasion,but today that concept can include behaviors such as making insufficient eye contact or asking people where they are from. Many other concepts, such as abuse, bullying, mental disorder, trauma, addiction, and prejudice, have expanded of late as well

… Many organizations and institutions are dedicated to identifying and reducing the prevalence of social problems, from unethical research to unwarranted aggressions. But our studies suggest that even well-meaning agents may sometimes fail to recognize the success of their own efforts, simply because they view each new instance in the decreasingly problematic context that they themselves have brought about. Although modern societies have made extraordinary progress in solving a wide range of social problems, from poverty and illiteracy to violence and infant mortality, the majority of people believe that the world is getting worse. The fact that concepts grow larger when their instances grow smaller may be one source of that pessimism.

The paper also gives us a way of thinking more clearly about shifts in the Overton window. When strong sexism declines, for example, the Overton window shrinks on one end and expands on the other so that what was once not considered sexism at all (e.g. “men and women have different preferences which might explain job choice“) now becomes violently sexist.

Nicholas Christakis and the fearless Gabriel Rossman point out on twitter (see at right) that it works the other way as well. Namely, the presence of extremes can help others near the middle by widening the set of issues that can be discussed or studied without fear of opprobrium.

But why shouldn’t our standards change over time? Most of the people in the 1850s who thought slavery was an abomination would have rejected the idea of inter-racial marriage. Wife beating wasn’t considered a violent crime in just the very recent past. What racism and sexism mean has changed over time. Are these examples of concept creep or progress? I’d argue progress but the blue dot experiment of Levari et al. suggests that if even objective concepts morph under prevalence inducement then subjective concepts surely will. The issue then is not to prevent progress but to recognize it and not be fooled into thinking that progress hasn’t been made just because our identifications have changed.

The resurgence of China pessimism

Agree or not, it has returned.  Here is David G. Landry from Foreign Policy:

A recent Foreign Policy piece points out that individuals and firms have made up an increasingly large share of China’s total foreign asset purchases in recent years, from 12 percent in 2011 to nearly 40 percent in 2017, as the People’s Bank of China’s share of total foreign direct investment shrank. It turns out that these new investors are poor asset judges. As their share of China’s portfolio grew, its aggregate returns dwindled. In 2016, the total return on Chinese foreign investment was 0.4 percent, which is dramatically lower than the 4 percent earned by foreign reserves.

And Gabriel Wildau at the FT:

…fixed-asset investment — a core driver of Chinese growth that includes spending on new buildings, machinery and infrastructure — grew at its slowest annual pace since at least 1995 through the first five months of this year. Retail sales, an indicator of consumer demand, also increased at their slowest pace since 2003. China’s currency, meanwhile, hit a six-month low against the dollar this week, while the Shanghai Composite index, the country’s key stock market index, dropped 10 per cent in June. Last weekend, the People’s Bank of China cut the reserve requirement ratio, the amount of cash that banks must hold in reserve at the central bank, freeing up Rmb700bn ($106bn) for new lending and investment. The PBoC insists that monetary policy remains “prudent” but the cut to the RRR is the latest in a series of “ subtle easing” moves in recent months, including other forms of cash injection into the financial system.

…much of the recent slowdown is perceived to be the result of Beijing’s policies. A sharp fall in infrastructure spending by local governments led the drop in fixed-asset investment, as the central government reined in runaway borrowing by local governments.

One way or another, you will be hearing more about this.

The Ex-Post Dead Are Not Ex-Ante Hopeless

It’s well known that a large faction of medical spending occurs in the last 12 months of life but does this mean that the money spent was fruitless? Be careful as there is a big selection effect–we don’t see the people we spent money on who didn’t die. A new paper in Science by Einav, Finkelstein, Mullainathan and Obermeyer finds that most spending is not on people who are predicted to die within the next 12 months.

That one-quarter of Medicare spending in the United States occurs in the last year of life is commonly interpreted as waste. But this interpretation presumes knowledge of who will die and when. Here we analyze how spending is distributed by predicted mortality, based on a machine-learning model of annual mortality risk built using Medicare claims. Death is highly unpredictable. Less than 5% of spending is accounted for by individuals with predicted mortality above 50%. The simple fact that we spend more on the sick—both on those who recover and those who die—accounts for 30 to 50% of the concentration of spending on the dead. Our results suggest that spending on the ex post dead does not necessarily mean that we spend on the ex ante “hopeless.

…”Even if we zoom in further on the subsample of individuals who enter the hospital with metastatic cancer…we find that only 12% of decedents have an annual predicted mortality of more than 80%.

Thus, we aren’t spending on people for whom there is no hope but it doesn’t follow that it’s the spending that creates the hope. What we really want to know is who will live or die conditional on the spending. And to that issue this paper does not speak.

Tyrone on polarization, polarization is good polarization is gone

For a few years now, a number of you have been asking me where Tyrone, my evil twin brother, has gone.  The truth is a sad one: I have had to put him away, because in these especially fractious times his particular brand of malfeasance is less funny than before.  His wisecracks cut too close to the bone, and so many matters on MR have become more somber — no more dating advice either!

Nonetheless, is there a stable equilibrium to be had?  If Tyrone receives little or no surplus, he becomes all the more…unruly.  And so, risking punishment, he snuck out this message to Alex T., and I agreed to print it, for fear that further transmissions would occur (I do respect the Laffer Curve, and at an optimal punishment level I still can get away with some editing of his words).  Here is the ridiculous nonsense that Tyrone reports this time around, and you can see he is gaming the message to encourage his own liberation:


Tyler and his media friends keep on reporting that political polarization has gone up.  But that’s wrong: it has radically fallen.  Just look at economic issues.  As of 2011, many Republicans were for some ostensible Tea Party version of economic liberty, or at least they pretended to be.  Now both parties are very bad on economic issues.  For instance, you’ll find protectionist ideas all over the political spectrum.

The wonderful thing about polarization was this: it forced people who didn’t really believe in economic liberty to act as if they did.  The resulting gridlock was better than letting people’s real instincts come out.

Trump of course used to be a Democrat, and our president himself draws bad ideas from both sides of the aisle.  Which party again was campaigning against NAFTA?  What is they say?: Look into trade as an issue. and you see a man’s soul.

What about abortion, that (supposedly) most polarizing of issues?  As Matt Yglesias noted:

About a third of Republicans are pro-choice and about a third of Democrats are pro-life.

Yes that is a real difference, but it hardly sounds like two worldviews, standing irrevocably cleaved and apart.  And a lot of those positions are in actuality fairly nuanced in their details.

According to Larry M. Bartels, about a quarter of the Democrats on cultural issues stand closer to the Republican party than to the average position of their own party.  And talking through the poll data on Christian black women — often Democrats but on average not exactly “progressives” — would require a lengthy missive of its own.

Nor do I see either party speaking up for free speech on campus, except in the most opportunistic terms.  Republicans are pushing bills to crack down on left-wing protests against conservative talks, while the left is trying to limit those same conservative talks.  Distinction without a difference, your Tyrone says, and he should know.  I yearn for the “good ol’ days” when the New Left was for free speech and the conservatives were largely more skeptical.  At least someone was for it, and in an oppositional kind of way.

Contrary to standard reports, the urban-rural divide has not really been growing.

Is the view that Asian-Americans have the wrong personality a Steve Bannon idea, or is it a Harvard idea?

Trump wants to change various governmental rules and norms to cement his own power, such as dumping the filibuster and perhaps reinterpreting the emoluments clause and expanding executive authority of trade and immigration.  Democrats talk of dumping the electoral college or, right now, bringing back FDR’s “court-packing” plan.

It is widely granted that traditional political parties are blowing up (NYT).  Plenty of people wanted Trump and Sanders to run together as a ticket.  And in just about every European country, immigration and terrorism poll as the major issues, neither of those being the traditional territory for previous polarization.

The thing is, when people really believe in something, they end up polarized.  Of course they don’t agree on everything, and so polarization ensues along the dimensions of difference.  Less polarization is a symptom of believing in less more generally, and don’t confuse the resulting obnoxious fractiousness with greater polarization.  Instead, it is a sign that ideas are no longer ruling the day.  And indeed, religious participation is down in America and the secularization thesis is finally beginning to bite.  Polarization, however unpleasant it may have felt at the time, meant order.

Tyler again:

What can I say people? Tyrone now opposed to obnoxious fractiousness?  In spite of his periodically reasonable tone this time around, don’t believe it for a moment — he hasn’t changed.  Nor is polarization down.  Polarization between Tyler and Tyrone clearly has gone up as of late, thus his enforced silence.  Tyler believes in free speech, and he knows that freedom from harm for others requires the silence of Tyrone.  And so is freedom realized, and to thunderous applause.

Who knows when you will hear from Tyrone again?  Maybe I’ll let him do a restaurant review instead.

How many places do you visit anyway?

The study, titled “Evidence for a conserved quantity in human mobility’ is published in Nature Human Behaviour is based on analyses of 40,000 people’s mobile traces collected in four different datasets.

It is also the first of its kind to investigate people’s mobility over time and study how their behavior changes.

Behind the project are Dr. Laura Alessandretti and Dr. Andrea Baronchelli, researchers in the Department of Mathematics at City, University of London, together with Professor Sune Lehmann from DTU Technical University of Denmark and the research team from Sony Mobile Communications.

“We first analysed the traces of about 1000 university students. The dataset showed that the students returned to a limited number of places, even though the places changed over time. I expected to see a difference in the behavior of students and a wide section of the population. But that was not the case. The result was the same when we scaled up the project to 40,000 people of different habits and gender from all over the world. It was not expected in advance. It came as a surprise,” says Dr. Alessandretti.

Old places disappear

The study showed that people are constantly exploring new places. They move to a new home, find a new favorite restaurant, find a new bar, or start going to another gym, etc. However, the number of regularly visited places is constantly 25 in a given period. If a new place is added to the list, one of the places disappears.

The pattern is the same when the researchers divide the locations into categories based on how often and how long time they spend at the location.

“People are constantly balancing their curiosity and laziness…

That is by John Stevenson, via K., here is the original research by Laura Andressetti et.al.  On this question I retain an open mind.

Thursday assorted links

The 8th Amendment Case Against Civil Asset Forfeiture

The Supreme Court has agreed to look at whether the 8th Amendment clause forbidding “excessive fines” applies against the states.

The case in question involves the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture. Tyson Timbs was convicted and served time and paid fines for selling a small amount of drugs to an undercover officer. The state also launched a civil asset forfeiture case against his car:

…But the trial court ruled against the government. Because taking Tyson’s car would be “grossly disproportionate” to his offense—for which Tyson had already been punished—the trial court held that the forfeiture would violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. Tyson suffered from drug addiction, the court noted, but his only record of dealing was selling a small amount of drugs to undercover police. The court also noted the “financial burdens” that Tyson had already faced when he pleaded guilty. Taking his car on top of all that would violate the Eighth Amendment.

Then the Indiana Supreme Court stepped in. Breaking with at least 14 other state high courts, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment provides no protection at all against fines and forfeitures imposed by the states.

…“This case is about more than just a truck,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “The Excessive Fines Clause is a critical check on the government’s power to punish people and take their property. Without it, state and local law enforcement could confiscate everything a person owns based on a minor crime or—using civil forfeiture—no crime at all.”

The case has potentially very wide application, far beyond civil asset forfeiture, because municipal governments desperate for revenue are criminalizing and fining minor infractions (see also my posts on Ferguson, MO and here)

Hilda Brucker went down to the municipal court in October 2016 after receiving a phone call. She hadn’t received a formal summons or known of any wrongdoing; instead, she thought she needed to clear a ticket.

But when she arrived at the Doraville, Georgia, courthouse, Brucker said she was placed before a judge and prosecutor who accused her of violating city code — because of cracks in her driveway.

She was fined $100 and sentenced to six months criminal probation, even though this was the first time she was made aware her driveway was considered a problem.

…About 25 percent of Doraville’s operating budget is reliant on fees and fines, according to IJ, a nonprofit law firm. From August 2016 to August 2017, it raked in about $3.8 million in fines, according to IJ’s lawsuit.

“It’s unconstitutional because it creates a financial incentive for the city government … to ticket people,” Josh House, an IJ attorney on the case, told Fox News. He said people in the town were being “punished” for the condition of their property by having to “fund the Doraville city government.”

The Institute for Justice is doing great work.

Time of death, fame, and the internet: a hypothesis

If you were somewhat known, but not very super-duper famous to begin with, it was bad for your reputation to have died right before the internet became “a thing.”

You will have relatively few traces on the internet itself, and right after your death people all of a sudden had this new medium for chatting with others about all sorts of other fascinating things, most of them not you.

San Francisco substitution the rent is too damn high

Restaurateurs who say they can no longer find or afford servers are figuring out how to do without them. And so in this city of staggering wealth, you can eat like a gourmand, with real stemware and ceramic plates. But first you’ll have to go get your own silverware.

…Restaurateurs here have taken a model familiar to taquerias and fast-casual, cafeteria-style places like Sweetgreen and Chipotle Mexican Grill, and pushed it further up the fine-dining food chain. Call it fast-fine, they suggest, or fine-casual. Or counter service “in a full service environment” that includes $11 cocktails and $22 pan-roasted salmon.

By the way, rent is not the only problem:

On July 1, the minimum wage in San Francisco will hit $15 an hour, following incremental raises from $10.74 in 2014. The city also requires employers with at least 20 workers to pay health care costs beyond the mandates of the Affordable Care Act, in addition to paid sick leave and parental leave.

Even the dosa is troubled:

In December, he opened a counter-service version of Dosa in Oakland. The new restaurant serves cardamom- and fenugreek-spiced cocktails. But there’s also a self-service water station, and a busing station for diners inclined to clear their own tables. (If they aren’t, an employee will do the job.)

Here is more from Emily Badger (NYT).  Addendum: Hadur in the comments writes: “Who could have predicted that this would happen in America’s most high-tech city?”

Are asylum rights misguided?

Per capita income in Eritrea is about $600 a year (estimates vary however), and in El Salvador about $8000 a year, PPP-adjusted.  We hear a lot about the horrible violence in El Salvador, and indeed I have been to the country only twice, and yet saw a murdered dead body simply lying alongside the highway.  Here are various anecdotes about the problem, noting that not all of them involve death.  Nonetheless keep in mind that life expectancy in El Salvador is a bit over 73 years.  Life expectancy in Eritrea is about 64.

Yet a person from El Salvador can make his or her way to the U.S. border and plead for asylum rights, often with some justification I might add.  (More generally, the number of asylum seekers from Latin America is rising rapidly.)  It is much harder for an Eritrean to do the same, most of all because there is no direct land route and furthermore the paucity of resources in Eritrea makes almost any kind of action harder to pull off.  Eritreans do however request and sometimes receive asylum rights through the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea itself.

So asylum rights favor El Salvadorans relative to Eritreans, at least once people realize there is an incentive to try to migrate north.  Does that make sense?  In general, Latin American countries are wealthier and healthier than most of the world’s other poorer countries, though they are on average more violent.

To be clear, I do not wish to revoke or limit asylum rights today.  That would lead to less humane outcomes with no offsetting advantage.  But say we were designing an ideal immigration policy from scratch.  Would you not want to pare back asylum rights in return for allowing more legal immigration from very needy countries?

Keep in mind that a stronger chance of asylum rights for Latin Americans, or those in the Caribbean, means more dangerous journeys to get here, and thus a greater exhaustion of “migration rents” through the very process of trying.  It would be possible to offer greater legal migration rights to more Eritreans, if only through a lottery (though I suspect a better method yet can be found), without inducing comparably risky or costly behavior.

Asylum rights still could be kept for situations of special humanitarian, cultural, or political importance, such as the Holocaust, Soviet Jews, or the current situation in Syria.  But ask yourself a simple question: when the genocide was going on in Rwanda, how many Rwandans did the U.S. grant asylum rights to?  Does that not indicate something is broken about the current system?

Consider these figures:

Immigration court records show that more asylum cases were denied over the previous five years than have been granted. In fiscal year 2016, 62 percent of asylum cases were denied, compared with 44.5 percent five years earlier. Among Mexicans and Central Americans, the approval rate is substantially lower.

You might think that is a sign of the system working along the ex post dimension, but it also indicates there is too much ex ante “regulatory arbitrage” across different immigration categories.

It seems that hundreds of millions of people in today’s world are worthy of asylum, given the criteria as written.  Yet during the Obama years a typical intake was about 60,000 asylum seekers yearly, which suggests an extreme degree of moral arbitrariness.  Is there not a better way to write asylum law to target…whatever you think is most worth of being targeted?  Admittedly opinions on the proper standard will differ.

Or consider this:

Every month, thousands of deportees from the United States and hundreds of asylum-seekers from around the world arrive in Tijuana. Many never leave….this flood tide of outsiders is pushing Tijuana toward a humanitarian crisis.

The best case for a broad application of asylum rights is simply that it gives the authorities more discretion to accept a larger number of very worthy cases.  For instance, teenager Martina Navratilova received asylum in the United States, and for the better, even though she was not facing death or torture back home in Czechoslovakia.  Keep in mind, though, that (for the moment) we are designing an ideal immigration system from scratch.  Cases such as Navratilova’s suggest that ordinary immigration policy ought to be more geared to taking in especially talented individuals, with or without an asylum case.

You should note, by the way, that Australia has relatively tough asylum rights, but takes in a large number of legal immigrants.  The country also goes to great lengths to stop people from showing up at the border in boats and claiming asylum.  So it seems there is at least one case where this is a sustainable posture.

In closing, I would note that asylum rights seem to be creating major political problems for Europe.  Partially for non-rational reasons, many voters view asylum-linked immigration as “more out of control” than other kinds of migration.  And the EU arguably has poorly designed institutions for handling asylum, and doling out relative responsibilities to member nations.  Plus Europe is very close to the Middle East and Africa.  Reforming the treatment of asylum in Europe might well improve the functioning of democracy there and actually put immigration on a more stable path.

How well can markets adjust to trade wars?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

By putting its European production in Europe, Harley is creating a similar tariff-neutralizing effect, reflecting the market’s ability to adjust to an ill-conceived policy. In turn, we can expect that some European producers will place new plants in the U.S. or expand the old ones.

Note that Harley already had plans to shrink its U.S. production, and it already was expanding into Brazil, Australia and India. So perhaps the result here isn’t so different from what might have happened anyway.


…if you’ve spent years painstakingly constructing one of these international supply chains, you’re not going to let a few tariffs on one part of the chain shut you down. Instead, you are likely to just eat the loss and move on, because there is so much total value at stake.

At the same time, very large tariffs and trade barriers now will have much higher costs, if they are capable of shutting down the entire supply chain and disrupting so many moving parts.

To be clear, trade wars are still a mistake, most of all when directed against one’s allies.  But it’s worth thinking more clearly about what the final costs might or might not be.

Another factor I only mentioned in passing is currency adjustment.  The dollar has been relatively strong this year.  One hypothesis (unconfirmed) is that prospective tariffs strengthen the dollar, but of course that it turns gives back some of the supposed gains on the export side.  And many of you already know the standard result that if a country subsidizes its exports and taxes its imports, the exchange rate adjusts to make the policy more or less neutral.  There are lots of moving pieces here, and it may in fact be hard for an under-informed government to even get the trade war it wants.