Results for “africa”
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Housing Vouchers and Education Vouchers

Here’s a recent news headline, Can Biden Deliver on His Promise to Expand Housing Vouchers? The link discusses Biden’s efforts to increase housing vouchers which subsidize low-income households to help them rent a home on the private market. Housing vouchers are a solidly Democratic proposal. Moreover, as far as I can tell, there are few people advocating to replace vouchers with public housing. The progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has this to say about vouchers:

Housing Choice Vouchers sharply reduce homelessness and other hardships, lift more than a million people out of poverty, and give families an opportunity to move to safer, less poor neighborhoods. These effects, in turn, are closely linked to educational, developmental, and health benefits that can improve children’s long-term life chances and reduce costs in other public programs.

Here’s the Urban Institute:

The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program plays a critical role in helping to address housing needs for extremely low-income households. Its most important advantage is that vouchers give recipients the freedom to choose the kinds of housing and the locations that best meet their needs. As a consequence, many voucher recipients live in healthy neighborhoods that offer social, educational, and economic opportunities for themselves and their children….even for African Americans and Hispanics, vouchers perform better than public and assisted housing projects in giving families access to low-poverty and racially mixed neighborhoods.

Notice how often the words “opportunity”, “freedom” and “choice” appear. Indeed the testimony from the Urban Institute refers to “the freedom to choose.” Excellent.

I agree with these conclusions. Now here is what is strange. Exactly the same arguments apply to school vouchers and school choice. School vouchers give students the freedom to choose the kinds of schooling and locations that best meet their needs. Yet, while many on the left agree that vouchers are superior to public housing, which tends to freeze the poor into low-quality, poorly maintained housing in poor neighborhoods with a host of cognate problems, they are more reluctant to support education vouchers as superior to public schooling. But all the arguments against public housing also apply to public schooling. Public Housing=Public Schooling. (The right are also strangely reluctant to take credit for housing vouchers even though they have mostly worked in just the way that Milton Friedman would have predicted!)

It’s unclear to me why housing vouchers became accepted on the left but education vouchers are still regarded as suspect. Or to put it the other way, it would be useful to study how housing voucher won over the left.

I look forward to the day when a headline reads, Can the Democratic President Deliver on Her Promise to Expand Education Vouchers?

Ports and Tolerance

An elegant essay by Saumitra Jha on why tolerance between Hindus and Muslims evolved in India’s port cities.

Port Sea Monument Gateway Of India Mumbai Historic

[W]here do institutions of tolerance emerge? Combining the historical accounts, the fieldwork, and the data, it became clear that such institutions develop in very specific places, where two conditions were satisfied. First, Hindus and Muslims needed to have incentives to work together: for example, engaging in business relationships that complemented each other, rather than competed against one another. Second, this complementarity had to be robust: it had to be difficult for one group to replicate or simply steal the source of the others’ complementarity.

One important set of examples of these were ports—like Mahatma Gandhi’s own hometown, Porbandar—that had traded to the distant Middle East during the medieval period. For one month a year, for close to a thousand years, Mecca had been one of the largest markets in the world during the Hajj—and one had to be Muslim to go to Mecca. This gave Muslims in ports—in India, but also on the African coasts, the Malay peninsula, and beyond—a strong advantage in overseas trade and shipping. And, yet, this advantage nonetheless benefited the communities they connected by sail.

Further this complementarity in overseas trade came from a trading network that was intangible, and so impossible to seize, and the scale of the Hajj was so large it was impossible for a Hindu to replicate. Not surprisingly, then—before being disrupted by European colonial interventions beginning in the 16th century—Muslims had dominated overseas trade across the Indian Ocean, from the coasts of Zanzibar to India, Malaysia and beyond, as far as China.

Ports emerged at natural harbors along India’s medieval coasts to accommodate these trading relationships. These ports also witnessed not just the emergence of rules but also beliefs and organizations that supported trade, inter-group trust, and religious tolerance. So much so, that even three centuries later—after Muslim trade advantages had ended due to European colonial interventions, and many of the ports themselves had silted up and become inaccessible to trade—this legacy of beliefs, norms, and organizations continued to shape the way people interacted with one another. The institutions of peace and tolerance outlived the economic incentives that had once sustained them.

Photo Credit: MaxPixel.

What I’ve been reading

1. Carole Angier, Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald.  Might Sebald be the only semi-recent writer who can hold a candle to Ferrante, Knausgaard, and Houllebecq?  This book is sprawling, and suffers somewhat from lack of access to the author’s family, but it is a true labor of love.  And Angier has a deep understanding of Sebald, and also brings out the Jewish-related themes in his work (though he was not Jewish himself).  It attempts to be a Sebaldian work itself, and even if it does not always succeed it is the kind of passionate book we need more of.  Recommended, but you have to read Sebald first, if need be start with Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants].

2. Arthur Herman, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World.  Ignore the subtitle!  There have been a number of good books on the Vikings lately, and this is perhaps the most “popular” and big picture of the lot.  The early Vikings swept through Europe in a matter of decades, mixing conquest and trade.  King Canute was pretty impressive it seems.  Specialists may pick nits, but it is very readable and seems to me to give a good overview of the role of the Vikings in European history.  This would be the one to start with.

3. Lawrence Rothfield, The Measure of Man: Liberty, Virtue, and Beauty in the Florentine Republic.  An excellent introduction to Florence, with some focus on issues of liberty and also civic leaderhip.  One should never tire of reading about this particular topic.

4. Howard W. French, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World 1471 to the Second World War.  Think of this book as a retelling of some standard historical episodes, but with Africa at the center rather than as a recipient of European advances.  This is a useful reframing, and I enjoyed the read.  But perhaps by the end it was the New World that in my mind was upgraded as a more central spot for the rise of modernity?  Too frequently the relevance of Africa has to be rescued by invoking Portugal, as Sweden, Russia, and Turkey simply will not do the trick there.

New out is Diane Coyle, Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, and What It Should Be; she is typically wise.

I am happy to see the publication of Calvin Duke’s Entrepreneurial Communities: An Alternative to the State, The Theories of Spencer Heath and Spencer MacCallum.

There is also Kyle Harper, Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History, long and comprehensive.

Which were the best eras to visit various places?

Francis Quinn emails me:

I’m an American man, 29, arrived in Amsterdam for the first time yesterday, and I am finding it to be the least crowded European city I’ve been to. Is this COVID-related possibly, do you think, or did the city used to be empty? I even thought I was on a college campus, almost. I’m loving it.

I’m now thinking of a new question for Tyler: *when* was the best year to have visited various places? From 1900-2100 (past and present, future possible travel times for all your readers)?

Good idea, let’s put aside Covid, here are a few observations:

1. The best time to visit the United States is now.  The country keeps on getting better and more interesting, most of all the latter.

2. New York City is a big exception here.  It probably was more interesting to visit NYC in the 1950-1978 period when it was clearly the world’s leading city, culturally and otherwise.  San Francisco (1970s?) and Detroit (1960s?) are exceptions also.

3. Most of Western Europe probably was best to visit in the 1970s or 1980s?  Modern enough to be comfortable, less ruined by excess tourists, and the internet doesn’t really raise the value of Europe much at all.  Note that I am putting aside “visit in 1920 so you can be shocked by the novelty and then brag about it.”  That is an interesting plan, but I think not the question at hand.  And the danger of disease and poor medical care still would have been high.

4. Much of Eastern Europe was best to visit right after the Iron Curtain came down.  Poland is an exception to this, and it is best to visit Poland now.

5. For most of Asia, the best time to visit is right now.  Perhaps Japan was more exciting in the bubble years.  Some parts of China were wrecked by the Cultural Revolution, and Hong Kong was more fun before the takeover.  China was freer and more fun ten to fifteen years ago.  So there are exceptions, but mostly the point stands.  Asia as a whole is getting better and more interesting.

6. For most of Africa, the best time to visit is right now, wars aside.  Ethiopia for instance was obviously much better to visit a few years ago.  I am not sure about Nigeria.  Obviously, for some anthropological or wildlife-related interests, much earlier times might have been better, but not for the typical educated tourist.

7. Right now is the best time to visit Israel.  I suspect some of the Arab countries in the Middle East were better to visit much earlier — Beirut and Cairo for instance.  Yemen was clearly better to visit in the early 1990s.  Iran during the time of the Shah.  And so on.  Overall these points are not a promising sign for the region.  Dubai and the like are clearly best to visit now.

8. Most of Latin America is best to visit now, as the region remains largely unspoilt.  Brazil might be an exception to this, though I have not been lately.  Some parts of Brazil seem to be more dangerous, and an earlier visit may well have been superior.  Ever see the movie Black Orpheus, set in Rio?

9. The 1960s were the best time to visit Haiti.

What else?

Wednesday assorted links

1. Microsoft Taj Mahal no Straussian readings allowed.

2. Evictions have not skyrocketed.

3. Claims about overrated and underrated historical events.  Interesting, though I think he is quite wrong about ancient Greece and Rome.

4. Deriving Covid heterogeneity.  And is Africa more protected?

5. Beethoven’s AI-finished 10th symphony, with a 3:38 clip at the end of the piece.  Eh.

6. A guy who works full-time within VR.

7. Mortality: “Power calculations make it implausible that there is an upper bound below 130 years.”

Are machine guns on the side of the civilized?

From Priya Satia’s recent and interesting Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire:

Evolutionary history likewise advised tolerance in the face of the mass death enabled by the new machine guns, which ended the long technological parity between Europeans and others, making it possible for Europeans to conquer Africa at least.  Robert Routledge’s popular 1876 history of science lifted Adam Smith’s language defending firearms a century earlier to assure those concerned about machine guns’ destructive nature that they favored “the extension and permanence of civilization.”  Their complexity and expense — itself testimony to European genius — ensured that they could be wielded only by “wealthy and intelligent nations.”  But for a notable substitution of “race” for “nation,” he echoed Smith’s language almost verbatim (without citation) in arguing that firearms gave a necessary advantage to “opulent and civilized communities” over “poor and barbarous races,” which were today “everywhere at the mercy of the wealthy and cultivated nations.”

Obviously the same always will be true for nuclear weapons as well, right?

The book, by the way, is especially interesting about how thinking about progress is related to views of imperialism, though note the first 100 pp. are significantly less focused than the rest of the text.

Hispanic and White Criminality are Converging

Keith Humphreys has a good post at the excellent Slow Boring on how Hispanics and White statistics on crime are converging.

An otherwise dull new government report on incarceration contains a startling fact: Hispanics are slightly less likely to be jailed than whites. It’s one of multiple unappreciated signs of fading disparities between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites in the criminal justice system, a phenomenon with substantial implications both for the future of reform and electoral politics.

To be clear this is about jails not prisons where there are still differences but those differences are also rapidly converging. Hispanics are also joining police forces in much higher numbers.

Parallel changes appear in who the criminal justice system employs. From 1997 to 2016, the proportion of police officers who were African-American was stable, whereas the proportion who were Hispanic increased 61%. This helps explain why a June 2021 Gallup poll found that the proportion of Hispanics expressing “a lot” or “a great deal” of trust in police was 49%, almost as high as whites (56%), and far greater than that of African-Americans (27%).  Hispanic views on policing and crime may also be similar to whites because the two groups rate of being violent crime victims is almost identical (21.3 per thousand persons for Hispanics, 21.0 for whites).

Maybe systemic racism isn’t so systemic after all.

…in an era of widespread despair about criminal justice reform and racism in America more generally, the declining disparities between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites merit reflection. A generation ago, the idea that such disparities would dramatically shrink or even disappear within the criminal justice system would have sounded naive. The fading of disparities should inspire reformers to even greater heights and also reduce cynicism about the alleged intractability of prejudice within American society.

Saturday assorted links

1. The Chinese war against celebrity (NYT).  And how much of the burden of The Woke falls upon (Western) female pop stars? Very important point in this piece, and oft neglected, about the incidence of Wokeness.

2. The most translated book from every nation?

3. Robin now sees a more fundamental problem in society.  Perhaps I would focus more on cruelty?

4. Drinking the Peter Leeson Kool-Aid.  And more here, why not?  I’d love to go.

5. The protest culture that is New Zealand.

Thursday assorted links

1. “If one wishes to stop the virus, only one goal matters: Getting the reproduction rate below one. e to the 3 t is not a lot less exponential growth than e to the 6 t.”  Is that nowadays a cancellable thought?

2. NPR covers Fast Grants.

3. New Danish data on vaccine effectiveness against delta.  And Bergstrom on Simpson’s paradox.  Based on UK data, Eric Topol has a contrasting view.

4. The economics of Mexican indigenous languages.

5. Austria and Croatia set “expiry dates” for vaccinated travelers — 270 days.

6. “The current landscape sees Economists lobbing impeccably crafted papers into any conceivable area of social science inquiry.

7. Why no Lyme disease vaccine?  (New Yorker)

8. Data fabrication?

9. Thomas Quasthoff update.

10. Has eighty percent of South Africa already had Covid?  (Bloomberg)

Who are the most rational people?

From John A. Doces and Amy Wolaver:

We examine the question of rationality, replicating two core experiments used to establish that people deviate from the rational actor model. Our analysis extends existing research to a developing country context. Based on our theoretical expectations, we test if respondents make decisions consistent with the rational actor framework. Experimental surveys were administered in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, two developing countries in West Africa, focusing on issues of risk aversion and framing. Findings indicate that respondents make decisions more consistent with the rational actor model than has been found in the developed world. Extending our analysis to test if the differences in responses are due to other demographic differences between the African samples and the United States, we replicated these experiments on a nationally representative analysis in the U.S., finding results primarily consistent with the seminal findings of irrationality. In the U.S. and Côte d’Ivoire, highly educated people make decisions that are less consistent with the rational model while low-income respondents make decisions more consistent with the rational model. The degree to which people are irrational thus is contextual, possibly western, and not nearly as universal as has been concluded.

Speculative, and not replicated, but the point remains of definite interest.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Immigration encouragement as the new form of hybrid warfare?

Baltic officials say his [Lukashenko’s] latest tactic is to offer migrants from Iraq, Syria or several African countries a package that includes passage to the Lithuanian border. More than 4,000 migrants have crossed into Lithuania this year alone, more than 50 times the number that entered last year.

Rinkevics said this was “a very clear case of hybrid warfare” by deliberately using migration to target the EU and Lithuania. “The migrants are actually being used as the weapon. The longer we live in this 21st century, the scarier it becomes. Things that we couldn’t imagine that could be used, they are being used,” he said.

Here is the full FT piece, unsettling throughout.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard Zenith, Pessoa: A Biography.  942 pp. of text, yet interesting throughout.  Brings you into Pessoa’s mind and learning to a remarkable degree.  (Have I mentioned that the world is slowly realizing that Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is one of the great works of the century?)  His favorite book was Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, and he very much liked Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.  This biography is also interesting about non-Pessoa topics, such as Durban, South Africa in 1900 (Pessoa did live there for a while).  I am pleased to see Pessoa finally receiving the attention he deserves — definitely one of the books of this year.  Here is a good review of the book.  For a man who never had sex, this book covers his sex life a great deal!  And what a short and lovely title, no long subtitle thank goodness.

2. Nicholas Wapshott, Samuelson Friedman: The Battle over the Free Market.  Quite a good book, though it is interior to my current knowledge set and thus better for others reader than myself.  Contrary to what I have read elsewhere, Wapshott points out that Samuelson did not support Nixon’s wage and price controls, but this LA Times link seems to suggest Samuelson thought they were a good idea?

3. Jamie Mackay, The Invention of Sicily: A Mediterranean History.  While it was less conceptual than I might have preferred, this is perhaps the single best general history of Sicily I know of.  Short and to the point in a good way.

4. N.J. Higham, The Death of Anglo-Saxon England.  In 1066, five different individuals were recognized as de facto King of England — how did that come to pass?  Why was Aethelred the Unready not ready?  (He was only 12 when he assumed the throne, though much of the actual criticism concerned the later part of his reign.)  I find this one of the most intelligible and conceptual treatments of Anglo-Saxon England out there.  I don’t care what the Heritage Foundation says, beware Danish involvement in your politics!

Peter Kinzler, Highway Robbery: The Two-Decade Battle to Reform America’s Automobile Insurance System is a useful look at where that debate stands and how it ended up there.  Here is a good summary of the book.

It does not make sense for me to read Emily Oster’s The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision-Making in the Early School Years, but it is very likely more reliable information than you are likely to get from other sources.

Saturday assorted links

1. Markets in everything.

2. “Perhaps they are everywhere? Undetectable distributed quantum computation and communication for alien civilizations can be established using thermal light from stars.

3. “Biles briefly posted videos of her practicing bars and landing on her back on two dismount attempts, unable to complete the double-twisting double tuck as normal.

4. Speculative short piece on brain synchronization.

5. West African talking drums really can imitate human speech.

6. Carl Shapiro quits the FTC case against Facebook: “…he has criticized new FTC Chair Lina Khan’s aggressive approach to antitrust enforcement, and she in turn has faulted the agency’s traditional reliance on economists’ analyses in its fights against alleged monopolists.”

A Step Closer to General AI

From Google’s Deep Mind:

In recent years, artificial intelligence agents have succeeded in a range of complex game environments. For instance, AlphaZero beat world-champion programs in chess, shogi, and Go after starting out with knowing no more than the basic rules of how to play. Through reinforcement learning (RL), this single system learnt by playing round after round of games through a repetitive process of trial and error. But AlphaZero still trained separately on each game — unable to simply learn another game or task without repeating the RL process from scratch.

…Today, we published “Open-Ended Learning Leads to Generally Capable Agents,” a preprint detailing our first steps to train an agent capable of playing many different games without needing human interaction data. We created a vast game environment we call XLand, which includes many multiplayer games within consistent, human-relatable 3D worlds. This environment makes it possible to formulate new learning algorithms, which dynamically control how an agent trains and the games on which it trains. The agent’s capabilities improve iteratively as a response to the challenges that arise in training, with the learning process continually refining the training tasks so the agent never stops learning. The result is an agent with the ability to succeed at a wide spectrum of tasks — from simple object-finding problems to complex games like hide and seek and capture the flag, which were not encountered during training. We find the agent exhibits general, heuristic behaviours such as experimentation, behaviours that are widely applicable to many tasks rather than specialised to an individual task. This new approach marks an important step toward creating more general agents with the flexibility to adapt rapidly within constantly changing environments. (Bold added, AT).

Hat tip: Daniel Kokotajlo at Less Wrong who notes “This seems like a somewhat big deal to me. It’s what I would have predicted, but that’s scary, given my timelines.” See also the LW comments.

In other news, South Africa awarded the first ever patent to an AI.