Is the generalist returning?

It would be supremely ironic if the advance of the knowledge economy had the effect of devaluing knowledge. But that’s what I heard, recurrently, while reporting this story…If that’s the case, I asked John Sullivan, a prominent Silicon Valley talent adviser, why should anyone take the time to master anything at all? ‘You shouldn’t!’ he replied.

That is from a new Atlantic piece by Jerry Useem.  In essence, the division of labor may be running in reverse in some endeavors.  In Adam Smith’s argument, division of labor and specialization increase with the size of the market.  But say a mix of Moore’s Law and globalization means that software (output and operations) expands rapidly, yet companies seek to shed labor costs due to competition.  At the margin the new demand might be for generalists, who can step in whenever unforeseen problems arise which need fixing.  Or in other words, you may not wish to specialize with your truly scarce factor, namely labor.  In contrast, in Smith’s time, demographics were favorable and labor was pouring into cities from the countryside.

As for the Navy:

The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.


Minimal manning—and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists—isn’t a particularly nautical concept. Indeed, it will sound familiar to anyone in an organization who’s been asked to “do more with less”—which, these days, seems to be just about everyone. Ten years from now, the Deloitte consultant Erica Volini projects, 70 to 90 percent of workers will be in so-called hybrid jobs or superjobs—that is, positions combining tasks once performed by people in two or more traditional roles.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Why aren’t remote interviews as useful as face-to-face interactions?

Skype and Zoom aren’t quite as good as meeting in the physical world. But why? Pioneer and Emergent Ventures are looking to fund research on exactly how and why video conferencing interactions are different. Apply at and mention this tweet…Given the rise of remote work, the economic impact of this research could be Nobel-worthy.

That is from Daniel Gross, and here you can apply for Emergent Ventures.

Flying and academic quality

Using the University of British Columbia as a case study, we investigated whether the faculty at our institution who flew the most were also the most successful. We found that beyond a small threshold there was no relationship between scholarly output and how much an individual academic flies…

We certainly did find evidence that researchers fly more than is likely necessary. In the portion of our sample composed of only fulltime faculty, we categorized 10% of trips as “easily avoidable”. These were trips like going to your destination and flying back in the same day or flying a short distance trip that could have been replaced by ground travel. Interestingly, green academics (those studying subjects like climate change or sustainability) not only had the same level of emissions from air travel as their peers, but they were indistinguishable in the category of “easily avoidable” trips as well.

But success isn’t just measured by scholarly output, and so we also checked for relationships between how much academics flew and their annual salaries (which are publicly available). We did find a significant relationship: people who fly more, get paid more. Causation though, could lie in the other direction. Prestigious scholars with more grant money may have extra funds with which to book air travel, for instance.

Here is the full post by Seth Wynes, via Anecdotal.

*Talking to Strangers*, the new Malcolm Gladwell book

Definitely recommended, talking to strangers is one of the most important things you do and it can even save your life.  This book is the very best entry point for thinking about this topic.  Here is a summary excerpt:

We have strategies for dealing with strangers that are deeply flawed, but they are also socially necessary.  We need the criminal justice system and the hiring process and the selection of babysitters to be human.  But the requirement of humanity means that we have to tolerate an enormous amount of error.  That is the paradox of talking to strangers.  We need to talk to them.  But we’re terrible at it — and, as we’ll see in the next two chapters, we’re not always honest with each other about just how terrible at it we are.

One recurring theme is just how bad we are at spotting liars.  On another note, I found this interesting:

…the heavy drinkers of today drink far more than the heavy drinkers of 50 years ago.  “When you talk to students [today] about four drinks or five drinks, they just sort of go, “Pft, that’s just getting started,'” the alcohol researcher Kim Fromme says.  She says that the heavy binge drinking category now routinely includes people who have had twenty drinks in a sitting.  Blackouts, once rare, have become common.  Aaron White recently surveyed more than 700 students at Duke University.  Of the drinkers in the group, over half had suffered a blackout at some point in their lives, 40 percent had had a blackout in the previous year, and almost one in ten had had a blackout in the previous two weeks.


Poets die young.  That is not just a cliche.  The life expectancy of poets, as a group, trails playwrights, novelists, and non-fiction writers by a considerable margin.  They have higher rates of “emotional disorders” than actors, musicians, composers, and novelists.  And of every occupational category, they have far and away the highest suicide rates — as much as five times higher than the general population.

It also turns out that the immediate availability of particular methods of suicide significantly raises the suicide rate; it is not the case that an individual is committed to suicide regardless of the means available at hand.

Returning to the theme of talking with strangers, one approach I recommend is to apply a much higher degree of arbitrary specificity, when relating facts and details, than you would with someone you know.

In any case, self-recommending, this book shows that Malcolm Gladwell remains on an upward trajectory.  You can pre-order it here.

China Bible fact of the day

The parent company of the two largest Bible publishers in the United States has warned the Trump administration that proposed tariffs on China would amount to a “Bible tax.”

Trump’s proposed tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese-made products would affect books and other printed materials, according to Bloomberg. That includes Bibles, which are overwhelmingly printed in China because of the specialized technology and skills they require to produce…

More than half of the 100 million Bibles printed every year have been printed in China since the 1980s, he said. Of those, 20 million are sold or given away in the United States.

That’s because of the specialized printing requirements for a complex book such as the Bible, which requires thin paper that cannot be fed into standard printing equipment, leather covers, stitched binding, color pages and special inserts such as maps.

Here is the full Washington Post story.

The legal culture that is America

The battle for supremacy in the world of hand hygiene is a dirty one, and nothing demonstrates this better than the depressing sight of a paper towel dispenser with a EULA.

That’s right: even dumb plastic boxes whose only use in this world is to hold paper towels apparently need an end-user license agreement now. In this case, the EULA — spotted by Harvard Library curator and Twitter user John Overholt at a recent conference — forbids the people who have to refill this Tork dispenser from using rival, non-Tork products.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Civic honesty around the globe

I am a bit late to this party, having been traveling, but I will serve this one up anyway:

Civic honesty is essential to social capital and economic development, but is often in conflict with material self-interest. We examine the trade-off between honesty and self-interest using field experiments in 355 cities spanning 40 countries around the globe. We turned in over 17,000 lost wallets with varying amounts of money at public and private institutions, and measured whether recipients contacted the owner to return the wallets. In virtually all countries citizens were more likely to return wallets that contained more money. Both non-experts and professional economists were unable to predict this result. Additional data suggest our main findings can be explained by a combination of altruistic concerns and an aversion to viewing oneself as a thief, which increase with the material benefits of dishonesty.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Alain Cohn, Michel André Maréchal, David Tannenbaum, and Christian Lukas Zünd.  It is easy to say this ex post, but I find this intuitive.  Here is the famed country-by-country picture which is circulating:

Here is a picture of the actual vs. the predicted reporting rate.  Experts predicted more overall cooperation than turned out to be the case, most of all for the wallets with no money in them, but basically got it right for wallets with lots of money.  Non-experts got it backwards altogether.

For the pointer to this one I thank many different MR readers.

Friday assorted links

Labor market polarization and the fertility decline

In the years since the Great Recession, social scientists have anticipated that economic recovery in the United States, characterized by gains in employment and median household income, would augur a reversal of declining fertility trends. However, the expected post-recession rebound in fertility rates has yet to materialize. In this study, I propose an economic explanation for why fertility rates have continued to decline regardless of improvements in conventional economic indicators. I argue that ongoing structural changes in U.S. labor markets have prolonged the financial uncertainty that leads women and couples to delay or forgo childbearing. Combining statistical and survey data with restricted-use vital registration records, I examine how cyclical and structural changes in metropolitan-area labor markets were associated with changes in total fertility rates (TFRs) across racial/ethnic groups from the early 1990s to the present day, with a particular focus on the 2006–2014 period. The findings suggest that changes in industry composition—specifically, the loss of manufacturing and other goods-producing businesses—have a larger effect on TFRs than changes in the unemployment rate for all racial/ethnic groups. Because structural changes in labor markets are more likely to be sustained over time—in contrast to unemployment rates, which fluctuate with economic cycles—further reductions in unemployment are unlikely to reverse declining fertility trends.

That is from a new paper by Nathan Seltzer, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The politics of order in informal markets: Evidence from Lagos

That is the title of a new paper by Shelby Grossman, here is the abstract:

Property rights are important for economic exchange, but in much of the world they are not publicly guaranteed. Private market associations can fill this gap by providing an institutional structure to enforce agreements, but with this power comes the ability to extort from group members. Under what circumstances do private associations provide a stable environment for economic activity? Using survey data collected from 1,179 randomly sampled traders across 199 markets in Lagos, I find that markets maintain institutions to support trade not in the absence of government, but rather in response to active government interference. I argue that associations develop pro-trade institutions when threatened by politicians they perceive to be predatory, and when the organization can respond with threats of its own; the latter is easier when traders are not competing with each other. In order to maintain this balance of power, the association will not extort because it needs trader support to maintain the credibility of its threats to mobilize against predatory politicians.

Via Henry Farrell, that abstract reminds me of my earlier essay, and critique of libertarian anarchy, “Law as a Public Good,” shorter version of the argument here.

Glenn Loury Speaks

On a Thursday evening in April, Glenn Loury is talking about race, ethics, and affirmative action. And he’s getting emotional. “Don’t patronize my people,” he told an audience at the College of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts. “Don’t judge us by a different standard. Don’t lower the bar! Why are you lowering the bar? What’s going on there? Is that about guilt or pity?” He let the question hang in silence for a moment. “Tell me a pathway to equality that is rooted in either one of those things.”

That’s the opening to a sharp and very candid interview of Glenn Loury by Evan Goldstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Loury continues on affirmative action:

Equality is the only legitimate long-term goal — racial equality, not head-counting. I’m talking about equality of dignity, respect, standing, accomplishment, achievement, honor. People have to earn these things. What do I want to do? I want to reorient the discussion around the development of African-American capacities to compete.

On his personal life:

Q: By the late 1990s, you’d broken with many former friends on the right. You’d undergone a political conversion. Where did you land?

A: There’s an arc to this thing, and it’s odd. I describe myself today as right of center.

What happened is that I went through a trauma. I was accused of assaulting a woman with whom I was having an extramarital affair. I was publicly humiliated. I had to withdraw an appointment as undersecretary of education in the last years of Reagan’s second term. I was a crack-cocaine addict; it almost killed me. My wife at the time, God bless her, stayed with me, and we subsequently had two fine sons. But at the time, I was dying.

I found Jesus. I got my life together.

Read the whole thing.

G. Warren Nutter and Chile

In 1969, Warren Nutter left the University of Virginia Department of Economics to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Nixon administration. During his time in the Defense Department, Nutter was deeply involved in laying the groundwork for a military coup against the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Although Nutter left the Pentagon several months before the successful 1973 coup, his role in the ascendance of the Pinochet regime was far more direct than the better-known cases of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, and Arnold Harberger. This paper describes Nutter’s role in Chile policy planning and generating a “coup climate.” It shows how Nutter’s criticisms of Henry Kissinger are grounded in his economics, and compares and contrasts Nutter with other economists who have been connected to Pinochet’s dictatorship.

That is a new paper by Daniel Peter Kuehn.  You should note that Friedman and Buchanan have a truly scant connection to Pinochet and the coup (Harberger I do not know, Hayek was too skeptical of democracy in his thinking and informal remarks later in his life).

Claims about Iran (model this)

“Iran has probably arrived at the conclusion that it has less to lose from acting this way than from doing nothing,” Aniseh Tabrizi, a research fellow and Iran expert at London’s Royal United Services Institute, told CNBC via phone Tuesday.

“There is a gamble behind it that wasn’t there before, which is: ‘If other countries retaliate, we are willing to take the risk because we have really nothing to lose at this point’,” Tabrizi described. “And that is a dangerous way to feel.”

Iran’s economy is expected to shrink by 6% this year, after having contracted 3.9% last year, the International Monetary Fund says. By contrast, it clocked 3.8% growth in 2017, before the Trump administration re-imposed economic sanctions after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal that offered the Islamic Republic relief from prior sanctions.


“It’s all about careful calibration and plausible deniability,” Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told CNBC.

Iran’s tactics, experts say, are designed to disrupt but not provoke a military response. So far, attacks have specifically avoided civilian deaths and environmental damage like an oil spill.

Instead, the Revolutionary Guard or its naval equivalent may be sending the message that it’s capable of undermining U.S. and Arab Gulf states’ interests in the region. And if they feel they can get away with it, it’s because they’re banking on President Donald Trump not wanting to actually start a war.

“Ultimately, Iran’s intention is to call President Trump’s bluff,” says Ibish.

I don’t have a clear view on this matter, but find it an interesting and of course important question.  Here is more from Natasha Turak.