The Mormon asymptote?

…compared to some other religions, Mormonism is not doing too badly.  Mormonism’s US growth rate of .75 percent in 2017 — kept in positive territory by still-higher-than-average fertility among Mormons — is actually somewhat enviable when compared to, for example, the once-thriving Southern Baptists, who have bled out more than a million members in the last ten years.  Mormonism is not yet declining in membership, but it has entered a period of decelerated growth.  In terms of congregational expansion, the LDS Church in the United States added only sixty-five new congregations in 2016, for an increase of half a percentage point.  In 2017, the church created 184 new wards and branches in the United States, but 184 units also closed, resulting in no net gain at all.

By some estimates (p.7), only about 30 percent of young single Mormons in the United States go to church regularly.  The idea of the Mormon mission, however, is rising in import:

More than half of Mormon Millennials have served a full-time mission (55 percent), which is clearly the highest proportion of any generation; among GenXers, 40 percent served, and in the Boomer/Silent generation, it was 28 percent.

In contrast, “returning to the temple on behalf of the deceased” is falling (p.54).

Mormons are about a third more likely to be married than the general U.S. population, 66 to 48 percent.  But note that 23 percent of Mormon Millennials admit to having a tattoo, against a recommended rate of zero (p.162).

And ex-Mormon snowflakes seem to be proliferating.  For GenX, the single biggest reason giving for leaving the church was “Stopped believing there was one church”.  For Millennials, it is (sadly) “Felt judged or misunderstood.”

That is all from the new and excellent Jana Riess, The Next Mormons: How Millennials are Changing the LDS Church.

Oxford University Press also sent me a copy of J. Brian O’Roark Why Superman Doesn’t Take Over the World: What Superheroes Can Tell us About Economics, which I have not yet read.

Hayek auction markets in everything

Friedrich Hayek’s personal copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, complete with pencilled annotations by the champion of free market economics, is to go on sale as part of a trove of personal items being sold by Hayek’s family. Hayek’s typewriter, writing desk, photo albums, passports, a speech signed by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher and a set of cufflinks given to him by ex-US president Ronald Reagan are among the items set to go under the hammer in an online sale at Sotheby’s later this month.

That is from James Pickford at the FT, the Smith copy is estimated to go for £3,000 to £5,000, plus buyer’s premium of course.

Friday assorted links

What are hologram-based concerts really like?

The technology behind these posthumous encores is complex; the truth is that holograms as many imagine them – exact 3-D digital replicas of humans, constructed from video footage – do not exist. Instead, as Martin Tudor of Base Hologram explains of their own process, “We start with a body double who works closely with our director to choreograph the performances and then we take the results of that and go to work on it digitally.” So while Mitch Winehouse insists that the tour will be a chance for audiences to see the “real” her, what they’ll actually be presented with is footage of a lookalike actress with a CGI 3-D mask on. Unlike Winehouse, who appeared to dislike touring, this digital spectre will be controlled and compliant. Recordings of the voice may belong to the original singer, but the physicality of the performance will be wholly manufactured.

Here is much more, by Olive Pometsey, via Ted Gioia.

Which changes in economic policy are actually going to happen?

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

A second pattern from U.S. history is that the federal government generally likes to hand out benefits perceived as “free.” This dates at least as far back as the establishment of Social Security in the Great Depression, when the initial benefit recipients weren’t paying taxes into the system.

I therefore expect federal government action on subsidized child care, preschool programs and paid family leave, all financed by increases in budget deficits rather than higher taxes. Such policies would hand out goodies to millions of families, and appeal to women in particular.

Again, ask the basic questions. Is there “pro-family” rhetoric emanating from both left and right? Yes, whether it is the socialist proposals from Matt Bruenig or paid family leave bills introduced by congressional Republicans. Can you imagine members from both parties claiming these issues as their own? Yes. Is there the possibility of free goodies being handed out? Again, yes, as the national debt held by the public is now over $16 trillion.

I consider also tech regulation, trade issues, immigration, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal, with only the first of those likely to see big changes.

In a world of smartphones, should pedestrians have fewer rights?

Pedestrian deaths plummeted from 6,482 to 4,109 from 1990 to 2009, federal figures show.

Fatalities then rose 45% from 2009 to 2017.

Link here.  Who is the least cost avoider here?  Here is my earlier post on liability and United Airlines.  And here is another Coasean parable: “Guy Asks If He’s Wrong To Make Obese Man Pay Him $150 For Taking Up Part Of His Seat On A 5-Hour Flight.”

Thursday assorted links

1. The world’s biggest MOOC?

2. Popular culture has stopped warning us against the dangers of nuclear devastation.

3. For economists: “receiving an education from a top 20 ranked university reduces the need to self-symbolize even when the scholars work for a non-top 20 university after earning the doctorate…academic maturity shows a tendency (albeit not a robust one) to reduce the need to self-symbolize.”  Link here.

4. Jonah Goldberg and Steve Hayes to start a new conservative media company (they are looking for investors).

5. “…with these new kinds of policies, all it takes to get the financial ball rolling is the occurrence of a trigger, a previously agreed-upon event: an earthquake of sufficient size, say, or a hurricane with winds of a given speed.

6. What a North Korean official says (NYT).  A good piece.

World Bank affiliate is not shielded from all legal action

The new Supreme Court ruling seems to me bigger news than the play it is receiving:

International organizations based in the United States are not completely shielded from legal liability in American courts, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The 7-to-1 ruling directly involves an arm of the World Bank, which provides loans for projects in poor and developing countries. The decision could have implications for other similar organizations involved in financing overseas development.

The case centers on the Washington-based International Finance Corp., which provided a $450 million loan for the construction of a coal-fired power plant in the state of Gujarat in western India. Farmers, fishermen and a small village went to federal court in 2015 over alleged air pollution and water contamination from the plant.

Here is the full story by Ann E. Marimow.  Once this door is open…And you also can consider this another move back toward nationalist organization of responsibility.

Toward a theory of random, concentrated breakthroughs

I don’t (yet?) agree with what is to follow, but it is a model of the world I have been trying to flesh out, if only for the sake of curiosity.  Here are the main premises:

1. For a big breakthrough in some area to come, many different favorable inputs had to come together.  So the Florentine Renaissance required the discovery of the right artistic materials at the right time (e.g., good tempera, then oil paint), prosperity in Florence, guilds and nobles interested in competing for status with artistic commissions, relative freedom of expression, and so on.

2. To some extent, but not completely, the arrival of those varied inputs is random.  Big breakthroughs are thus hard to predict and also hard to control.

3. A breakthrough in one area increases the likelihood that further breakthroughs will come in closely related areas.  So if the coming together of the symphony orchestra leads to the work of Mozart and Haydn, that in turn becomes an inspiration and eases the path for later breakthroughs in music, not just Mahler but also The Beatles, compared to say how much it might ease future breakthroughs for painting.

4. Some breakthroughs are very very good for economic growth, such as the Industrial Revolution.  But most breakthroughs do not in any direct way boost gdp very much.  The Axial age led to the creation of significant religions and intellectual traditions, but the (complex) effects on gdp are mostly lagged and were certainly hard to see at the time.

5. Even if Robert Gordon is right that we will never have a new period of material progress comparable to the early 20th century for improving living standards, the next breakthrough eras still might be very important.

6. One possibility is that the next breakthrough will be some form of brain engineering.  People might be much happier and better adjusted, but arguably that could lower measured gdp by boosting “household production” in lieu of market activity.  At the very least, gdp figures may not reflect the value of those gains.

7. Another candidate for the next breakthrough would be institutional changes that make ongoing international peace much more likely.  That would have some positive effects on gdp in the short run, but its major effects would be in the much longer run, namely the prevention of a very destructive war.

8. Judged by the standards of the last breakthrough, the current/next breakthrough is typically hard to see and understand.  It almost always feels like we are failing at progress.

9. When a breakthrough comes, you need to ride it for all it is worth.  Arguably you also should embrace the excesses of that breakthrough, not seek to limit them.  It is perhaps your only real chance to mine that mother lode of inspiration.  So let us hope that Baroque music was “overproduced” in the early to mid 18th century, because after that production opportunities go away.  For that reason, “overuse” of the internet and social media today may not be such a bad thing.  It is our primary way of exploring all of the potential of that cultural mode, and that mode will at some point be tamed and neutered, just as Baroque music composition is now dormant.

10. Progress in (many forms of) science may be more like progress in Baroque music composition than we comfortably like to think.  But I hope not.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Mercatus graduate student fellowships, including for shorter-term visiting programs.

2. Decline in EPA enforcement seems to predate Trump.

3. Short history of MMT (have any of them read Arthur Kitson?).

4. Puffin eats fish (photo).

5. “Many social media users have been baffled by the recent appearance of a video clip of a choir in St. Petersburg’s landmark cathedral, Saint Isaac’s, performing a song about total nuclear annihilation of the United States.”  It is a parody of former Soviet propaganda.  But a lot of parody doesn’t work so well in 2019.

My Conversation with Sam Altman

Yes, the Sam Altman of Y Combinator and Open AI.  We even got around to Harry Potter, James Bond (and Q), Spiderman, Antarctica, and Napoleon, what is wrong with San Francisco, in addition to venture capital and the hunt for talent.  Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is one excerpt:

ALTMAN: I think our greatest differentiator is not how we identify talent, although I will answer that question, but the fact that we treat our own business — we run Y Combinator in the way that we tell our startups to run as a successful startup, which almost no venture capital firm does.

Almost every venture capital firm gives advice they never follow themselves. They don’t build differentiated products. They are not network-affected businesses. They don’t try to build a brand and a community. And they don’t try to make something that gets better the bigger it gets and have the scale effects that anyone would tell you they want in a business.

We at Y Combinator always say we want to get a lot bigger because this is a network effect, this is a network that matters. Most venture capital firms will say out of one side of their mouth, “Oh no, smaller is better,” because they don’t want to work more. Then they’ll tell all their businesses, “The network effect is the only thing that matters.”

Many people are as smart as we are, think about the world in similar ways. But I think we have internalized that we run our firm the same way we tell our startups to operate, and we view the most important thing that we do is to build a network and a network effect.

And:

COWEN: Let me play venture capital skeptic, and you can talk me back into optimism.

ALTMAN: I might not.

COWEN: Let’s say I say, tech has had a stream of big hits: personal computer, internet, cell phone, mobile. You’ve had a lot of rapidly scalable innovations become possible in a short period of time. We’re now in a slight lull. We’re not sure what the next big thing is or when it will come. Without that next big thing, won’t the current equilibrium require a higher rate of picking the right talent than venture capitalists are, in fact, able to do?

ALTMAN: I will talk you out of that one, happily. The most expensive investing mistake in the world to make is to be a pessimist, and it’s a common one. I think that’s actually the most common mistake to make in life. It is true that we are in a lull right now, but it is absolutely, categorically false that — unless the world gets destroyed in a very short term — that we will not have a bigger technological wave then we’ve ever had before.

COWEN: Why can’t I be an optimist but not an optimist about VC? I think new ideas will come through established companies. They’ll be funded by private equity. They’ll happen in China. But the exact formula where you can afford to make so many mistakes because the hits are so big — to what extent does VC rely on that kind of rapid scalability that may not come back?

And:

COWEN: Young Napoleon shows up. What do you think after 5 minutes?

ALTMAN: How young? Like 18-year-old Napoleon or 5-year-old?

COWEN: Before he’s famous, 21-year-old Napoleon.

ALTMAN: From everything I’ve read that would be a definite yes. In fact, the best book I read last year is called The Mind of Napoleon, which is a book of quotes about his views on everything. Just that thick on Napoleon quotes. Obviously deeply flawed human, but man, impressive.

Definitely recommended.

Indian and Pakistani stock markets

Right now the Indian market is up a small amount for the week, of course that may change.

I know you all love to yelp that markets don’t predict well (not what markets do!…that word “predict” is loaded) and that stock markets did not predict WWII, etc.  The lack of an Indian market reaction here is fully consistent with the fact that prediction is very hard.  Investors might simply be unsure which priors to update, and thus prices haven’t changed much.  That is consistent with the work of Philip Tetlock, also indicating that prediction is very hard.  So this kind of market result does not have to conflict with the best knowledge we have from political science and the other social sciences.

The Pakistan stock exchange, by the way, is down a few percentage points but not seeing massive carnage.