south africa

Russian bonds now investment grade

Baa3, that is. Here is the Financial Times story.

Russia’s debt to gdp ratio is 28 percent, Japan’s is 140 percent, but obviously Japan has more accumulated trust.

How much do these ratings make sense?

On May 31 the U.S. credit-rating agency Moody’s Investors Service lowered by two notches Japan’s credit rating on yen-denominated bonds issued by the government. Japan’s previous credit rating was Aa3, the fourth highest grade and already the lowest among developed nations. This was downgraded to A2, placing Japan below such nations as Chile and Botswana and on par with Israel, Poland, and the Republic of South Africa. As a reason for the downgrade, Moody’s stated, “There exists nothing within present financial policy that can put the brakes on the worsening debt situation.” The outlook for the credit rating is “stable,” so the series of downgrades appears to have ended for the time being. In addition, Japan’s government bonds issued overseas maintained their Aa1 rating with a “stable” outlook. Moody’s had announced in February that it was considering downgrading Japanese bonds and continued considering the matter based on the state of the Japanese economy and government finances.

Here is the link for the Japanese comparison. You might note that Botswana, although it received a higher rating than Japan, has Japan as its largest creditor.

Monday assorted links

1. “Sociable weavers work together to construct large nests in southern Africa, often in acacia trees. The nests can weigh as much as 1 ton and house up to 200 birds in individual chambers. Their cooperative behaviors also include chick rearing and defense against snakes and falcons.”  Link here.

2. Why so much regional inequality in Britain (The Economist).

3. Both of these supposed Gauguins look like fakes to me.

4. Shruti on Indian Matchmaking (Bloomberg).

5. A sort of funny tweet stream about cross-national comparisons of corporate tax laws.

6. New and positive results on deworming.

7. “Zombie cicadas” infected with mind-controlling fungus return to West Virginia.

A highly qualified reader emails me on heterogeneity

I won’t indent further, all the rest is from the reader:

“Some thoughts on your heterogeneity post. I agree this is still bafflingly under-discussed in “the discourse” & people are grasping onto policy arguments but ignoring the medical/bio aspects since ignorance of those is higher.

Nobody knows the answer right now, obviously, but I did want to call out two hypotheses that remain underrated:

1) Genetic variation

This means variation in the genetics of people (not the virus). We already know that (a) mutation in single genes can lead to extreme susceptibility to other infections, e.g Epstein–Barr (usually harmless but sometimes severe), tuberculosis; (b) mutation in many genes can cause disease susceptibility to vary — diabetes (WHO link), heart disease are two examples, which is why when you go to the doctor you are asked if you have a family history of these.

It is unlikely that COVID was type (a), but it’s quite likely that COVID is type (b). In other words, I expect that there are a certain set of genes which (if you have the “wrong” variants) pre-dispose you to have a severe case of COVID, another set of genes which (if you have the “wrong” variants) predispose you to have a mild case, and if you’re lucky enough to have the right variants of these you are most likely going to get a mild or asymptomatic case.

There has been some good preliminary work on this which was also under-discussed:

You will note that the majority of doctors/nurses who died of COVID in the UK were South Asian. This is quite striking. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/world/europe/coronavirus-doctors-immigrants.html — Goldacre et al’s excellent paper also found this on a broader scale (https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.06.20092999v1). From a probability point of view, this alone should make one suspect a genetic component.

There is plenty of other anecdotal evidence to suggest that this hypothesis is likely as well (e.g. entire families all getting severe cases of the disease suggesting a genetic component), happy to elaborate more but you get the idea.

Why don’t we know the answer yet? We unfortunately don’t have a great answer yet for lack of sufficient data, i.e. you need a dataset that has patient clinical outcomes + sequenced genomes, for a significant number of patients; with this dataset, you could then correlate the presences of genes {a,b,c} with severe disease outcomes and draw some tentative conclusions. These are known as GWAS studies (genome wide association study) as you probably know.

The dataset needs to be global in order to be representative. No such dataset exists, because of the healthcare data-sharing problem.

2) Strain

It’s now mostly accepted that there are two “strains” of COVID, that the second arose in late January and contains a spike protein variant that wasn’t present in the original ancestral strain, and that this new strain (“D614G”) now represents ~97% of new isolates. The Sabeti lab (Harvard) paper from a couple of days ago is a good summary of the evidence. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.04.187757v1 — note that in cell cultures it is 3-9x more infective than the ancestral strain. Unlikely to be that big of a difference in humans for various reasons, but still striking/interesting.

Almost nobody was talking about this for months, and only recently was there any mainstream coverage of this. You’ve already covered it, so I won’t belabor the point.

So could this explain Asia/hetereogeneities? We don’t know the answer, and indeed it is extremely hard to figure out the answer (because as you note each country had different policies, chance plays a role, there are simply too many factors overall).

I will, however, note that this the distribution of each strain by geography is very easy to look up, and the results are at least suggestive:

  • Visit Nextstrain (Trevor Bedford’s project)
  • Select the most significant variant locus on the spike protein (614)
  • This gives you a global map of the balance between the more infective variant (G) and the less infective one (D) https://nextstrain.org/ncov/global?c=gt-S_614
  • The “G” strain has grown and dominated global cases everywhere, suggesting that it really is more infective
  • A cursory look here suggests that East Asia mostly has the less infective strain (in blue) whereas rest of the world is dominated by the more infective strain:
  • image.png

– Compare Western Europe, dominated by the “yellow” (more infective) strain:

image.png

You can do a similar analysis of West Coast/East Coast in February/March on Nextstrain and you will find a similar scenario there (NYC had the G variant, Seattle/SF had the D).

Again, the point of this email is not that I (or anyone!) knows the answers at this point, but I do think the above two hypotheses are not being discussed enough, largely because nobody feels qualified to reason about them. So everyone talks about mask-wearing or lockdowns instead. The parable of the streetlight effect comes to mind.”

The Deleted Clause of the Declaration of Independence

When Thomas Jefferson included a passage attacking slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence it initiated the most intense debate among the delegates gathered at Philadelphia in the spring and early  summer of 1776.  Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document.  It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.”  Decades later Jefferson blamed the removal of the passage on delegates from South Carolina and Georgia and Northern delegates who represented merchants who were at the time actively involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Jefferson’s original passage on slavery appears below.

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

From Blackpast.  Kevin Kallmes at Notes on Liberty has more details.

Hat tip: Brandon C.

The Gaslighting of Parasite

Amazon.com: Parasite: Kang Ho Song, Sun Kyun Lee, Yeo Jeong Cho ...I am late to this but Parasite, now available on streaming services, is the most willfully misinterpreted movie that I have ever seen. The conventional interpretation is so obviously wrong that I cannot but think that it is anything but a collective gaslighting. The conventional interpretation is that the film is about inequality and on the surface that makes sense. After all, there is a rich family and a poor family, and an upstairs and a downstairs, and everyone knows that inequality is the problem of our age so despite the subtitles this Korean film must be a version of what we expect to see. Hence, Manohla Dargis writing at the New York Times says “The story takes place in South Korea but could easily unfold in Los Angeles or London.” True but not in the way she imagines! Rather than a conventional discourse on “inequality,” Parasite is deeply, shockingly, politically incorrect, even subversive. Mild spoilers.

The Dargis review is spectacularly, hilariously wrong from the very first sentence “a destitute man voices empathy for a family that has shown him none. “They’re rich but still nice,” he says, aglow with good will.” The man is not destitute (his entire family has been raking in the cash by this point), the family has shown him nothing but generosity and respect, and he is not aglow with good will. But what do you expect from a newspaper that rates Parasite an R for “class exploitation”! The Times is leading the cultural revolution.

Indeed, in the entire film the rich family does nothing wrong whatsoever. This is not my judgement it is what the film tells us. The rich family pay their employees generously (the film goes out of its way to note that they pay overtime), the work is not especially hard (English tutor, art therapist, chauffeur, cook and cleaner), and the employees are treated with respect. Moreover, the rich family are kind and loving. The father works hard but he is not absent. The rich family’s wealth is explicitly shown as coming from innovation and entrepreneurship (not say shady deals or stock market manipulation).

Are the poor family destitute? Not really. The son is handsome, he knows English well and he has an exceptional psychological sense which he uses to teach his student and his father; the daughter is gorgeous and skilled with computers. The mother was a champion athlete, the father is intelligent enough. It’s obvious that this family has everything needed for success. Moreover, the family isn’t discriminated against–they aren’t African-American in the 1950s south, they aren’t Dalits, they aren’t even North Koreans. So why aren’t they successful? One reason is because they aren’t willing to do an honest days work for an honest day’s pay. They fail utterly at folding pizza boxes–not because they are stressed or because the job is difficult–but because they are lazy and don’t give a damn. The film also shows that it is other hard-working, honest-people who are harmed by their laziness (not some evil pizza corporation). The fact that the kids are gorgeous, by the way, is important. The director Bong Joon-ho (and writer Han Jin-won) are telling us to look below the superficial. Note that everything the poor family gets they get by lying and stealing–they are grifters. The son even steals his best friend’s girlfriend–whom he doesn’t even especially like. To exploit her further, he steals her diary.

In fact, Bong Joon-ho hits us over the head with his message. In an early scene, for example, we see the poor family being fumigated but this is not played for pathos. Indeed, the family welcomes the fumigation. The director is telling us that this is the family’s natural habitat. Who gets fumigated? Work it out. The title may help.

Toilets also play a big role. There are many scenes with the poor family and toilets (and none with the rich family). In one scene the poor family is literally swimming in shit. This is not played for pathos. Bong Joon-ho covers the family in shit because he wants us to know they are a shitty family. (This scene comes immediately after a scene making this clear.) The daughter is so comfortable in the shit she relaxes and smokes a cigarette.

At one point, the rich family is away and the poor family takes over their house. What do they do? They immediately get drunk, including the kids. And not just drunk but slovenly drunk with food and garbage spread all over what had been an immaculate house. The family talks about what it would be like if they lived in this house–the film makes it clear that if they lived in this beautiful house it would soon go to shit.

The shit is not an accident. A key element of the film is that the poor family smells bad. Some people read this as a sign of disrespect but the rich family never demean the poor family or bring it up to their face. Indeed, we know the smell isn’t a class marker because it’s the youngest child of the rich family, a pure innocent, who notes it first. Moreover, even after the poor family know that they smell and make plans to fix the problem their bad smell remains. Why? Because they can’t wipe the shit off–a smell they can’t escape is the director telling us that they are a shitty family. A bad smell is a signal that something is rotten, something is off, something is shitty. It’s an elemental warning to the rich family.

Finally we come to the remarkable climax in which the father does something so stupid, so utterly impulsive, so completely contrary to his interest that we see immediately why he has never been able to hold down a job for very long. (The previous “no plan” scene foreshadows.) The first time I saw this scene I thought it didn’t make sense because the father could be a hero and solve all his problems by attacking the person who has probably just killed his son and daughter. Yet instead of doing the sensible thing he does something quite different. The director then metes out his punishment which is to put the father where he belongs, in a prison where he emerges only at night to scuttle around the floor stealing food like a….parasite.

It’s amazing that a film this politically incorrect, even reactionary, could win multiple awards, it’s as if The Camp of the Saints won best picture. Of course, the message had to be ignored to win but even so. I should emphasize that everything I have said is drawn from very obvious scenes. It doesn’t take Freud to understand the meaning. If you must, cancel Bong Joon-ho not me!

Perhaps readers can tell us whether Korean reviewers saw the obvious and were willing to say so.

Thursday assorted links

Friday assorted links

What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism

Having tracked the libertarian “movement” for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow.  One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.  For one thing, it doesn’t seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems, most significantly climate change.  For another, smart people are on the internet, and the internet seems to encourage synthetic and eclectic views, at least among the smart and curious.  Unlike the mass culture of the 1970s, it does not tend to breed “capital L Libertarianism.”  On top of all that, the out-migration from narrowly libertarian views has been severe, most of all from educated women.

There is also the word “classical liberal,” but what is “classical” supposed to mean that is not question-begging?  The classical liberalism of its time focused on 19th century problems — appropriate for the 19th century of course — but from WWII onwards it has been a very different ballgame.

Along the way, I believe the smart classical liberals and libertarians have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.  I define State Capacity Libertarianism in terms of a number of propositions:

1. Markets and capitalism are very powerful, give them their due.

2. Earlier in history, a strong state was necessary to back the formation of capitalism and also to protect individual rights (do read Koyama and Johnson on state capacity).  Strong states remain necessary to maintain and extend capitalism and markets.  This includes keeping China at bay abroad and keeping elections free from foreign interference, as well as developing effective laws and regulations for intangible capital, intellectual property, and the new world of the internet.  (If you’ve read my other works, you will know this is not a call for massive regulation of Big Tech.)

3. A strong state is distinct from a very large or tyrannical state.  A good strong state should see the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties, in many cases its #1 duty.

4. Rapid increases in state capacity can be very dangerous (earlier Japan, Germany), but high levels of state capacity are not inherently tyrannical.  Denmark should in fact have a smaller government, but it is still one of the freer and more secure places in the world, at least for Danish citizens albeit not for everybody.

5. Many of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity.  Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending.  Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality.  I favor much more immigration, nonetheless I think our government needs clear standards for who cannot get in, who will be forced to leave, and a workable court system to back all that up and today we do not have that either.

Those problems require state capacity — albeit to boost markets — in a way that classical libertarianism is poorly suited to deal with.  Furthermore, libertarianism is parasitic upon State Capacity Libertarianism to some degree.  For instance, even if you favor education privatization, in the shorter run we still need to make the current system much better.  That would even make privatization easier, if that is your goal.

6. I will cite again the philosophical framework of my book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

7. The fundamental growth experience of recent decades has been the rise of capitalism, markets, and high living standards in East Asia, and State Capacity Libertarianism has no problem or embarrassment in endorsing those developments.  It remains the case that such progress (or better) could have been made with more markets and less government.  Still, state capacity had to grow in those countries and indeed it did.  Public health improvements are another major success story of our time, and those have relied heavily on state capacity — let’s just admit it.

8. The major problem areas of our time have been Africa and South Asia.  They are both lacking in markets and also in state capacity.

9. State Capacity Libertarians are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.  Modern Democrats often claim to favor those items, and sincerely in my view, but de facto they are very willing to sacrifice them for redistribution, egalitarian and fairness concerns, mood affiliation, and serving traditional Democratic interest groups.  For instance, modern Democrats have run New York for some time now, and they’ve done a terrible job building and fixing things.  Nor are Democrats doing much to boost nuclear power as a partial solution to climate change, if anything the contrary.

10. State Capacity Libertarianism has no problem endorsing higher quality government and governance, whereas traditional libertarianism is more likely to embrace or at least be wishy-washy toward small, corrupt regimes, due to some of the residual liberties they leave behind.

11. State Capacity Libertarianism is not non-interventionist in foreign policy, as it believes in strong alliances with other relatively free nations, when feasible.  That said, the usual libertarian “problems of intervention because government makes a lot of mistakes” bar still should be applied to specific military actions.  But the alliances can be hugely beneficial, as illustrated by much of 20th century foreign policy and today much of Asia — which still relies on Pax Americana.

It is interesting to contrast State Capacity Libertarianism to liberaltarianism, another offshoot of libertarianism.  On most substantive issues, the liberaltarians might be very close to State Capacity Libertarians.  But emphasis and focus really matter, and I would offer this (partial) list of differences:

a. The liberaltarian starts by assuring “the left” that they favor lots of government transfer programs.  The State Capacity Libertarian recognizes that demands of mercy are never ending, that economic growth can benefit people more than transfers, and, within the governmental sphere, it is willing to emphasize an analytical, “cold-hearted” comparison between government discretionary spending and transfer spending.  Discretionary spending might well win out at many margins.

b. The “polarizing Left” is explicitly opposed to a lot of capitalism, and de facto standing in opposition to state capacity, due to the polarization, which tends to thwart problem-solving.  The polarizing Left is thus a bigger villain for State Capacity Libertarianism than it is for liberaltarianism.  For the liberaltarians, temporary alliances with the polarizing Left are possible because both oppose Trump and other bad elements of the right wing.  It is easy — maybe too easy — to market liberaltarianism to the Left as a critique and revision of libertarians and conservatives.

c. Liberaltarian Will Wilkinson made the mistake of expressing enthusiasm for Elizabeth Warren.  It is hard to imagine a State Capacity Libertarian making this same mistake, since so much of Warren’s energy is directed toward tearing down American business.  Ban fracking? Really?  Send money to Russia, Saudi Arabia, lose American jobs, and make climate change worse, all at the same time?  Nope.

d. State Capacity Libertarianism is more likely to make a mistake of say endorsing high-speed rail from LA to Sf (if indeed that is a mistake), and decrying the ability of U.S. governments to get such a thing done.  “Which mistakes they are most likely to commit” is an underrated way of assessing political philosophies.

You will note the influence of Peter Thiel on State Capacity Libertarianism, though I have never heard him frame the issues in this way.

Furthermore, “which ideas survive well in internet debate” has been an important filter on the evolution of the doctrine.  That point is under-discussed, for all sorts of issues, and it may get a blog post of its own.

Here is my earlier essay on the paradox of libertarianism, relevant for background.

Happy New Year everyone!

*In the Closet of the Vatican*

That is the highly controversial book by Frederick Martel, subtitled Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy.  For some time I had been resisting reading the book, as usually I find tales of corruption and scandal boring.  But I misunderstood the fundamental nature of the account.  It is not quite a homage, but Martel seems to admire the evolved culture of homosexuality (not my preferred word, but appropriate in this context) in the Vatican.  See this review: “The tone falters because Martel seems unsure whether to be horrified by the church’s corruption or to let out a gasp of high-camp amazement at its excesses.”

If anything, the study reminds me of Diego Gambetta’s work on the Mafia, at least in terms of some of its methods.

Have you ever thought “there should be more books about how things actually work!?” — well, this is one of them.  Here is one excerpt:

‘Being of the parish’ could even be this book’s subtitle.  The expression is an old one in both French and Italian: I have found it in the homosexual slang of the 1950s and 1960s.  It may pre-date those years, so similar it is to a phrase in Marcel Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah and Jean Genet’s Notre Dame des Fleurs — even though I don’t think it appears in either of those books.  Was it more of a vernacular phrase, from the gay bars of the 1920s and 30s?  Not impossible.  In any case, it heroically combines the ecclesiastical universe with the homosexual world.

‘You know I like you,’ La Paiva announces suddenly.  ‘But I’m cross with you for not telling me if you prefer men or women.  Why won’t you tell me?  Are you at least a sympathizer?’

I’m fascinated by La Paiva’s indiscretion.

And another bit:

It took me several months of careful observation and meetings to understand the subtle nocturnal geography of the boys of Roma Termini.  Each group of prostitutes has its patch, its marked territory.  It’s a division that reflects racial hierarchies and a wide range of prices.  So the Africans are usually sitting on the guardrail by the south-western entrance to the station; the Maghrebis, sometimes the Egyptians, tend to stay around Via Giovanni Giolitti, at the crossing with the Rue Manin or under the arcades on Piazza dei Cinquecento; the Romanians are close to Piazzadella Repubblica, beside the naked sea-nymphs of the Naiad Fountain or around the Dogali Obelisk; the ‘Latinos’ last of all, cluster more towards the north of the square, on Viale Enrico de Nicola or Via Marsala.  Sometimes there are territorial wars between groups, and fists fly.

You can buy the book here.  I would add this: I do not have much knowledge in this area, but Martel seems to go out of his way to avoid making speculative accusations.  But if you would like to read a negative Catholic review of the book, here it is.

*Maoism: A Global History*

By Julia Lovell, so far this is clearly the best book of the year.  I’ll have more to say about it, here is one excerpt:

Mao’s lack of enthusiasm for a risky conflict in Korea is understandable: the CCP’s military capacity was clustered around the south-east coast, perched for an invasion of Taiwan.  A Cold War conflagration on the north-east border would require the shifting of all these offensive troops to defence in the north-east — from one end of the country to another.  Drafts of telegrams and notes of conversations unearthed from archives make clear that Mao came within a whisker of refusing to help the Koreans…

Mao therefore was bounced into the Korean War — not as part of a long-term conspiracy, but through Stalin’s self-interested impulses and instinct for playing on Mao’s status-conscious desire to claim leadership of the Asian revolution.  Given that Mao and his immediate lieutenants had already committed themselves publicly to leading the world revolution — wit their Beijing training courses, their proclamations about the relevance of China to oppressed people in Asia — their revolutionary credentials would have been shredded had they not stepped into the war.  Stalin and Kim, in short, created a conflict that impinged not only on one of China’s most sensitive, complex frontiers — the Korean-Soviet-Chinese border — but also on Mao’s self-image.  The Chinese were thus forced to rescue Kim when the war turned against the North Koreans.

The book also covers Indonesia, Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia, Peru, Nepal, and more, all with an emphasis on China’s earlier foreign policy role.  Every chapter is full of fascinating information with strong but not overreaching conceptual framings.  Very strongly recommended, it comes out in America in September, I ordered my copy from the UK, available now and cheaper too.  Here is a review from The Economist.

*A Fistful of Shells*

The author is Toby Green, and the subtitle is West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution.  Here is one excerpt:

The past twenty years have seen a huge boom in studies that show the many different ways in which — even in the shadow of slavery — Africans were decisive actors in building modernity in the Americas.  Rice-growing technologies in West Africa contributed to the emergence of rice plantations in South Carolina and northern Brazil; livestock and herding skills from West Africa were used by Africa herders in many parts of the New World, from Louisiana to Argentina; and fencing techniques  were imported from West Africa and used in agriculture and in defending communities of runaway slaves (known as maroons).  Healing practices from Dahomey and Angola were brought to Brazil and the Spanish Caribbean, and helped to develop new treatments in the colonies; healing practices and medicines were also borrowed by the Portuguese in Angola in an early form of ‘bio-prospecting’.  Warfare techniques learn in the Kingdom of Kongo and in the Oyo-Yoruba Kingdom of what is now southern Nigeria were vital to the success of the Haitian revolution in 1804, as well as the rebellions against slavery in Brazil and Cuba in the early nineteenth century.  In short, just as there were shared frameworks of diplomacy through which Atlantic African kingdoms sought political influence, so the modern world emerged from a mixed cultural framework in which many different peoples from West and West-Central Africa played a significant part.

This book is full of economics, currency movements (both gold and cowrie shells), battles between empires (Portuguese vs. Dutch, above all), and the longue durée.  It is the “Braudel of West Africa,” and the best book on West Africa I have ever read.  It is especially strong on Lusaphone Africa, and one underlying theme is that West Africa was globalizing even before colonialism came along.  Toby Green, by the way, has an impressive background in philosophy and music as well as in history more narrowly conceived.

Very strongly recommended.  It is not out until March of 2019 but you can pre-order now.

Emergent Ventures grant recipients, the first cohort

Here is the first round of winners of the new Emergent Ventures initiative at Mercatus, led by me.  The list is ordered roughly in the order grants were made, and reflects no other prioritization.  All project descriptions are mine alone and should not be considered literal attributions of intent to the project applicants.  Here goes:

Anonymous grant for writing in Eastern Europe.

Pledged grant to San Francisco’s Topos House, conditional on finding a “social science prodigy” to live in the house for a while and interact with the other Topos fellows.  Topos is a San Francisco house where several tech prodigies live and periodically seminars and larger group interactions are held there or connected to the house.

Travel grant made to 18-year-old economics prodigy, to travel to San Francisco to meet with members of the “rationality community.”  The hope is to boost her career trajectory.

Grant to support the work of Mark Lutter and his Center for Innovative Governance Research, on charter cities and also an attempt to create a new charter city.

Grant to Harshita Arora to help her pursue work in brain science, including brain-computer interfaces to help disabled people manipulate and move objects.  Harshita is a 17-year-old Indian prodigy, who first received attention for her programming work in the app space.  Harshita made her bio and proposal public: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1j5Zf2RIiKVUUZzJb6qGQdx2WmG7q4NS9/view

Leonard Bogdonoff has a project to scrape Instagram and create a searchable concordance of street art around the world.  His website is here and his blog is medium.com/@rememberlenny.  One use of this project is to amplify the voice of “protest art” against the constraints of censorship from autocratic governments, but it is also a new way to glean usable information from Instagram.

Travel and conference grant to Juan Pablo Villarino, from Argentina, sometimes called “the world’s greatest hitchhiker.”

Ben Southwood, public intellectual from England, support for his writing and research on why progress in science has slowed down.

Eric Lofgren has worked at the Pentagon for seven years and now will spend a year at Mercatus/George Mason to develop the skills, including blogging and podcasting, to become the nation’s leading public intellectual on defense procurement.

A two-year pledge to Gaurav Venkataraman, at University College of London, to support his doctoral work on the idea of RNA-based memory.  This research also has exciting implications for the design of artificial intelligence.

Joy Buchanan, economist, a grant to conduct research on why people become entrepreneurs and initiate start-ups, using the methods of experimental economics.

Michael Sonnenschein, Masters student at MIT in development economics (and a television screenwriter) a grant for research to reform and improve the Haitian lottery system, and turn it into a means to combat poverty.

Stefan Roots is writing and editing an on-line and also paper newspaper to cover local news in Chester, Pennsylvania, aimed at the African-American community.

Jeffrey Clemens, professor at UC San Diego, a grant to help him develop his on-line writing in economics.

Kelly Smith has a project to further extend and organize a parent-run charter school system in Arizona, Prenda, using Uber-like coordinating apps and “minimalist” educational methods.

David Perell, to encourage and support his work in podcasting and social media.

We are in the midst of processing several other awards as well, so do not worry if you are not yet mentioned.

I am delighted to welcome this very prestigious and accomplished “entering class” of Emergent Ventures fellows.  If you are considering applying, please note that we are interested in other topics and methods as well.

Shopping While Black: Past, Present and Future?

The original Sears mail-order catalogue changed how African Americans in the South shopped:

…the catalogue format allowed for anonymity, ensuring that black and white customers would be treated the same way.

“This gives African Americans in the Southeast some degree of autonomy, some degree of secrecy,” unofficial Sears historian Jerry Hancock told the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast in December 2016. “Now they can buy the same thing that anybody else can buy. And all they have to do is order it from this catalogue. They don’t have to deal with racist merchants in town and those types of things.”

More recently, Uber has alleviated many of the traditional difficulties that blacks have had hailing taxis.

In a heartfelt essay Ashlee Clark Thompson explains how the “grab and go” technologies now being tested at Amazon Go made her confront lessons learned from decades of shopping while black:

The idea of walking into a store, taking an item or several off the shelves and strolling right back out again boggled my mind. It ran counter to everything I had learned about being black and shopping.

…I grabbed one of the orange Amazon Go bags and began to make my way around the perimeter of the store. I was studying the various bottled waters and debating whether to get fizzy or still, or a bottle of kombucha, when I realized what I was really doing: I was stalling. The fear I had carried with me for decades reared its head as I stood in front of the refrigerated display. I was afraid to make a choice, remove it from a shelf and put it in my bag. I was afraid someone would pop out from behind a display of Amazon-branded merch and scream, “Get your hands off that!” And I was mad that this fear couldn’t even let me fully enjoy an experience that’s designed for everyone to grab and go, no questions asked.

Eff this, I thought. I’m getting some Vitamin Water.

Once the plastic bottle hit the bottom of my reusable bag, I glanced around to see if anyone noticed. The Amazon employees shuffled around the small store and restocked shelves. Tourists chatted in small groups as they pointed and looked for the sensors that were keeping track of our every move. One guy with his phone on a selfie stick recorded himself as he selected snacks. And then there were the folks for whom the novelty had worn off and just wanted a vegetarian banh mi sandwich.

No one cared what I was doing. Is this what it feels like to shop when you’re not black?

…Amazon Go isn’t going to fix implicit bias or remove the years of conditioning under which I’ve operated. But in the Amazon Go store, everyone is just a shopper, an opportunity for the retail giant to test technology, learn about our habits and make some money. Amazon sees green, and in its own capitalist way, this cashierless concept eased my burden a little bit.

The similarities in these cases are interesting but so are the differences. In the Sears case most of the effect of diminished discrimination was driven by greater competition in one-shop towns. In the one-shop town the owners sometimes took a share of their monopoly profits in invidious racism–this appears to explain why shop owners would prevent blacks from buying more expensive products (or perhaps the one-stop shop had to cater to racist customers who demanded invidious discrimination.)

In the Uber case my bet is that a large share of the reduction in discrimination was due to the fact that Uber drivers don’t carry cash and so are less worried about robbery and the app increases safety because it records in detail rider, driver and trip data. In other words, the Uber system reduced the value of statistical discrimination. It’s difficult to know for sure, however, because there was probably also some decline in invidious discrimination brought about by Uber hiding some rider information from drivers until trips are accepted.

The last case, the Amazon Go case, is in part a decline in the value of statistical discrimination since shoplifting is no longer a problem (in theory, assuming the technology works) but in this case the decline in statistical discrimination is driven by much finer discrimination. The moment a shopper enters the Amazon Go store, Amazon knows their name, address, entire shopping history, credit history and potentially much more. Moreover, a shopper’s every movement within the store is tracked to a level of detail that no store detective could ever hope to match. To the customer, especially the black customer, it may feel like they are no longer being watched but in fact they are watched more than ever before–the costs of technological monitoring, however, are mostly fixed which means that everyone is monitored equally. No need for statistical discrimination in the panopticon.

Addendum: A good dissertation might be to incorporates the cost of information, the value of statistical discrimination and the demand for invidious discrimination in a general theory that explains the various cases mentioned here and the effects of information bans such as ban the box.

Wednesday assorted links

1. MIE: “Travel to the summit of Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, where Three Twins Ice Cream’s founder will hand-churn a batch of ice cream with glacial ice from the mountain’s summit. The mountain’s glaciers are predicted to disappear within the next 10-15 years due to climate change – and your purchase helps raise awareness of this fact with a five-figure contribution to an African environmental non-profit. The sundae’s price also includes first class airfare to Tanzania, five-star accommodations, a guided climb, as much ice cream as you can eat and a souvenir t-shirt made from organic cotton.”

2. New South Wales town mobbed by thirsty emus.

3. Cowen’s Second Law there is a literature on everything including autistic zebrafish (110 papers).

4. It matters how seriously students take PISA testing.

5. Superb Samuel Hammond piece on codetermination.

6. Annie Lowrey on is pot too strong?

7. My Farnham Street podcast, mostly about how to reason, came out very well I thought.  And you can buy a transcript at the link.

Sunday assorted links

1. The Profanity Embroidery Group.

2. What is the African word you use most frequently?

3. Rail energy storage?

4. The culture and polity that is Swiss.

5. How are the prospects for Irish unification looking these days?  What is the correct underlying model here?

6. “People’s recollections after driving a familiar road were very poor, with most memories involving the bad behavior of other motorists.”  Link here.

7. Witchcraft in the #MeToo era (NYT, satire).