Happy 400th Thanksgiving from EWED

In 1621 the pilgrims were starving after their communal farming system gave them little incentive to work hard, leading them to rely on the generosity of their native neighbors at the first Thanksgiving. But in the long run they were able to produce their own feasts after switching to a private property system. Economist Ben Powell tells the story briefly here, or you can read the primary source, William Bradford’s Diary here.

It is customary in many families to “give thanks to the hands that prepared this feast” during the Thanksgiving dinner blessing. Perhaps we should also be thankful for the millions of other hands that helped get the dinner to the table: the grocer who sold us the turkey, the truck driver who delivered it to the store, and the farmer who raised it all contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner because our economic system rewards them

Powell calls this “the real lesson of Thanksgiving”, and while I think there are other great angles to the story this is certainly a real lesson of Thanksgiving.

Inflation: Get Concrete, Get Specific

The recent debate over US inflation seems to be full of mood affiliation on both sides, where people start with a mood (“panic” or “don’t worry”) and then look for facts to fit the mood.

My natural temperament is “don’t worry” and that is what I’ve generally thought about inflation, but the latest number of 6.2% inflation over the last year is a bit concerning, and makes me glad the the Fed has announced they plan to taper off of new asset purchases. But overall I think people are still talking past each other, and I wish more people would answer these questions:

What will CPI inflation be over the next 12 months?

What specifically should the Fed do differently, if anything? How quickly should they taper and raise rates?

If you are currently thinking “panic” or “don’t worry”, what data could come in that would change your mind?

I’ll start with my answers, informed more by my gut than by quantitative models: my guess for inflation over the next year is 4-5%, the Fed has things about right but I’d say “tighten faster” rather than “tighten slower” if I had to pick. I expect inflation to slow noticeably in the spring as the economy transitions from the unusual boom in demand for goods back to demand for services after Christmas and the Delta wave, as more people get back to work and supply bottlenecks have time to work themselves out. I would start to get more seriously concerned if we see no slowing by June, or if market-based measures of inflation or NGDP projections start to move substantially (2pp) higher.

To the extent that I’ve been on the wrong side of this, I blame the cognitive bias I seem to fall prey to most often- mistaking reversed stupidity for intelligence. Just because lots of people make obviously incorrect predictions of hyperinflation doesn’t mean that inflation will be low.

No, 6.2% inflation per year is not in the same universe as hyperinflation (50% inflation per month)

*The usual disclaimer applies- my affiliation with the Fed gives me zero insider information about or influence over monetary policy and I don’t speak for them.

Starship: Quantity has a Quality of its own

If the SpaceX Starship ends up working as planned, it will do the same things our rockets do now, but at one one-hundredth the price. In an inspiring blog post, Casey Handmer argues that even people within the industry have yet to appreciate the qualitatively different opportunities that this price drop would enable:

By refilling in LEO, a fully loaded deep space Starship can transport >100 T of bulk cargo anywhere in the solar system, including the surface of the Moon or Mars, for <$100m per Starship. Starship is intended to be able to transport a million tonnes of cargo to the surface of Mars in just ten launch windows, in addition to serving other incidental destinations, such as maintaining the Starlink constellation or building a big base at the Lunar south pole.

Second, and more importantly, shoehorning Cassini 2.0 or Mars Direct into Starship fails to adequately exploit the capabilities of the launch system. Not to pick on Cassini or Mars Direct, but both of these missions were designed with inherent constraints that are not relevant to Starship. In fact, all space missions whether robotic or crewed, historical or planned, have been designed with constraints that are not relevant to Starship. 

What does this mean? Historically, mission/system design has been grievously afflicted by absurdly harsh mass constraints, since launch costs to LEO are as high as $10,000/kg and single launches cost hundreds of millions. This in turn affects schedule, cost structure, volume, material choices, labor, power, thermal, guidance/navigation/control, and every other aspect of the mission. Entire design languages and heuristics are reinforced, at the generational level, in service of avoiding negative consequences of excess mass. As a result, spacecraft built before Starship are a bit like steel weapons made before the industrial revolution. Enormously expensive as a result of embodying a lot of meticulous labor, but ultimately severely limited compared to post-industrial possibilities. 

Starship obliterates the mass constraint and every last vestige of cultural baggage that constraint has gouged into the minds of spacecraft designers. There are still constraints, as always, but their design consequences are, at present, completely unexplored. We need a team of economists to rederive the relative elasticities of various design choices and boil them down to a new set of design heuristics for space system production oriented towards maximizing volume of production.

As they say, read they whole thing, especially the part about space tractors. I leave you with one final quote:

It is time to raise the scope of our ambition and think much bigger

Give the Gift of Cooking and Murder-Bears

What is the point of reading non-fiction?

Hopefully it is entertaining, and you feel like you are learning something, though usually it is hard to recall much of a book a year after you read it. The best you can usually hope for is that it makes you look at the world differently. But how often does a book actually clearly change what you do?

While there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of books that changed how I think, Tim Ferriss’ books stand out for actually changing how I act. It was after reading The 4 Hour Body that I finally starting going to the gym every week, and it was after reading The 4 Hour Chef that I started to really cook.

Giving anything fitness-related as a gift can be dicey, so of the two I’d recommend The 4 Hour Chef as a gift. Its huge, its pretty, and its not just a book of recipes (though it has lots of them)- it is what made me think I no longer need recipes.

If instead you’d rather forget about big self-improvement books and just go for fun/entertaining, my best recommendation you’ve probably never heard of is Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed.

As a said as part of a review of my favorite non-fiction last year, its funny but not just funny. Its not just trying to highlight the craziest stories, its also full of lessons about how to read potentially confusing passages. “Murder-Bears” is a reference to the end of 2 Kings ch 2:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys

Gifts for a Time of Inflation and Supply Bottlenecks

I’ve never been great at gifts, and don’t have much in the way of specific ideas now. But I’ve been thinking about what the macroeconomic environment means for gift-giving.

First, as you’ve probably heard by now from us or elsewhere, if you want to get any physical gift I’d order it now, since shipping is a mess and prices are only going up. I’d especially recommend this for complex electronics that could become hard to find- its part of why I got my wife an iPad for her birthday this summer. Foreign food and drink that can be stockpiled is always a good idea, but perhaps especially now; think wine, Scotch, or Beirao liqueur (a Portuguese drink that was my favorite discovery this year). Wine and liquor make good stores of value in an time of inflation.

Alternatively, you could avoid the scarcity of physical goods by turning to the digital realm. If your economistic heart yearns to give cash, consider giving some your favorite stock or cryptocurrency instead- its both more personalized and less subject to inflation. Or if you think you can judge the recipient’s taste well enough, subscribe them to one of your favorite Substacks or podcasts. My recommendations:

Unsupervised Learning, Razib Khan– Genomics and History

The Diff, Byrne Hobart– Finance and Strategy

Astral Codex Ten, Scott Alexander– Rationality, Psychiatry, Everything

The Readers Karamazov– Funny podcast on literature and philosophy (now seems entirely free though)

Or if you really have money to burn, go for the Bloomberg subscription. I always run out of free reads on the Tyler Cowen articles and so can’t read Matt Levine, even though he has the magic ability to teach you finance while making you laugh. But the subscription is expensive and Mike Bloomberg doesn’t need the money, while the Substacks are relatively cheap and enable talented writers to spend a lot more time writing instead of needing to focus on a real job.

The Credibility Revolution: A Nobel for Taking (some of) the CON out of Econometrics

Yesterday Jeremy pointed out that while the 2021 economics Nobelists have reached various conclusions in their study of labor economics, the prize was really awarded to the methods they developed and used.

I find the best explanation of the value of these methods to be this 2010 article by Angrist and Pischke in the Journal of Economic Perspectives: The Credibility Revolution in Empirical Economics: How Better Research Design Is Taking the Con out of Econometrics

Like Jeremy, they think that empirical economic research (that is, research using econometrics) was most quite bad up to the 1980’s; as Ed Leamer put it in his paper “Let’s take the CON out of Econometrics”:

This is a sad and decidedly unscientific state of affairs we find ourselves in. Hardly anyone takes data analyses seriously. Or perhaps more accurately, hardly anyone takes anyone else’s data analyses seriously.

Angrist and Pischke argue that the field is in much better shape today:

empirical researchers in economics have increasingly looked to the ideal of a randomized experiment to justify causal inference. In applied micro fields such as development, education, environmental economics, health, labor, and public finance, researchers seek real experiments where feasible, and useful natural experiments if real experiments seem (at least for a time) infeasible. In either case, a hallmark of contemporary applied microeconometrics is a conceptual framework that highlights specific sources of variation. These studies can be said to be design based in that they give the research design underlying any sort of study the attention it would command in a real experiment.

The econometric methods that feature most prominently in quasi-experimental studies are instrumental variables, regression discontinuity methods, and differences-in-differences-style policy analysis

Our field still has big problems: the replication crisis looms, and the credibility revolution’s focus on the experimental ideal leads economists to avoid important questions that can’t be answered by natural experiments. But I do think that the average empirical economics paper today is much more credible than one from 1980, and that the 3 Nobelists are part of the reason why, so cheers to them.

Weigh costs, benefits, and evidence quality

Living means making decisions with imperfect information. But Covid provides many examples of how people and institutions are often still bad at this. A few common errors:

  1. Imperfect evidence = perfect evidence. “Studies show Asprin prevents Covid”. OK, were the studies any good? Did any other studies find otherwise?
  2. Imperfect evidence = “no evidence” or “evidence against”. In early 2020, major institutions like the WHO said “masks don’t work” when they meant “there are no large randomized controlled trials on the effectiveness of masks”
  3. Imperfect evidence = don’t do it until you’re sure Inaction is a choice, and often a bad one. If the costs of action are low and the potential benefits of action high, you might want to do it anyway. Think masks in 2020 when the evidence for them was mediocre, or perhaps Vitamin D now.
  4. Imperfect evidence = do it, we have to do something Even in a pandemic, it is possible to over-react if the costs are high enough and/or the evidence of benefits bad enough (possibly lockdowns, definitely taking up smoking)

Any intro microeconomics class will explain the importance of weighing both costs and benefits. But how do we know what the costs and benefits are? For many everyday purchases they are usually obvious, but in other situations like medical treatments and public policies they aren’t, particularly the benefits. We have to estimate the benefits using evidence of varying quality. This creates more dimensions of tradeoffs- do you choose something with good evidence for its benefits, but high cost? Or something with worse evidence but lower costs? Graphing this properly should take at least 3 dimensions, but to keep things simple lets assume we know what the costs are, and combine benefits and evidence into a single axis called “good evidence of substantial benefit”. This yields a graph like:

Applied to Covid strategies, this yields a graph something like this:

This is not medical advice- I say this not merely as a legal disclaimer, but because my real point is the idea that we should weigh both evidence quality and costs, NOT that my estimates of the evidence quality or costs of particular strategies are better than yours

Judging the strength of the evidence for various strategies is inherently difficult, and might go beyond simply evaluating the strength of published research. But when evaluating empirical studies on Covid, my general outlook on the evidence is:

Of course, details matter, theory matters, the number of studies and how mixed their results are matters, potential fraud and bias matters, and there’s a lot it makes sense to do without seeing an academic study on it.

Dear reader, perhaps this is all obvious to you, and indeed the idea of adjusting your evidence threshold based on the cost of an intervention goes back at least to the beginnings of modern statistics in deciding how to brew Guinness. But common sense isn’t always so common, and this is my attempt to summarize it in a few pictures.

Tyler Cowen, Talent Curator

Everyone else at EWED has been too classy (or earnest?) to post it, since it would implicitly be bragging.

But I’m home with a quarantined kid today and need the win. So here is biotech founder Tony Kulesa‘s article on how Tyler Cowen is the Best Curator of Talent in the World.

Highlights:

Tyler has identified talent either earlier than or missed by top undergraduate programs, the best biotech startups, and the best biotech investors, all without any insider knowledge of biotech. In comparison, Forbes 30U30, MIT Tech Review TR35, or Stat Wunderkind, and other industry awards that highlight talent are lagging indicators of success. It’s hard to find an awardee of these programs that was not already widely recognized for their achievements among insiders in their field. The winners of Emergent Ventures are truly emergent. 

What explains Tyler’s ability to do this?

1. Distribution: Tyler promotes the opportunity in such a way that the talent level of the application pool is extraordinarily high and the people who apply are uniquely earnest

2. Application: Emergent Ventures’ application is laser focused on the quality of the applicant’s ideas, and boils out the noise of credentials, references, and test scores. 

3. Selection: Tyler has relentlessly trained his taste for decades, the way a world class athlete trains for the olympics. 

4. Inspiration: Tyler personally encourages winners to be bolder, creating an ambition flywheel as they in turn inspire future applicants.

This seems right as far as it goes, and there is more depth in the article, but there has to be more to the story than we can see from the outside. Luckily Tyler has said he is writing a book on identifying talent.

Covid, Cars, China, Crypto, Corruption

We generally do long “effort posts” on specific topics here, but today I’m mixing things up with 5 quick updates.

  1. Covid My daughter got sent home with a cough Tuesday, which meant I cancelled classes Wednesday to hang out with her until we get a Covid-negative PCR. Last Thursday my son’s public school was closed for Yom Kippur, and I got so focused on hanging out with him I forgot to post here.
  2. Cars My wife bought a new used car last week. We’ve covered here how car prices have jumped up while inventories fell this summer, and the latest numbers show that used car prices are now falling slightly from very high levels while new car prices continue to rise. While actually buying a car, the low inventories stood out even more than the high prices. Several times we saw a promising car online, only to call or visit the dealer and find out it had sold the day before. The new Nissan Leaf sounds like an excellent value at its sticker price, but none were available in Rhode Island, and no blue ones anywhere in New England.
  3. China Scott covered the collapsing Chinese real estate market on Tuesday. I’ll just pass along the takes I’ve seen from Western economists and China-watchers Michael Pettis and Christopher Balding, which is that this is a big deal that will slow Chinese growth for years but is unlikely to precipitate a 2007-style financial crisis. I find Balding’s argument that financial contagion will be limited to be convincing partly because of his actual arguments about quasi-bailouts, and partly because he almost always argues that “things in China are worse than you think”, so if he says “Evergrande isn’t Lehman Brothers” I listen.
  4. Crypto Tuesday I met the co-founder of a new crypto-based prediction market, Melange, which sounds promising. The prediction market space is growing rapidly with PolyMarket and Kalshi joining the older PredictIt.
  5. Corruption Last week the World Bank announced it is discontinuing the Doing Business report/ranking due to apparent corruption; top Bank officials in the middle of raising money from countries including China pushed to raise the rankings of those countries beyond what the data justified. I hope another organization steps up do continue the good parts of the Doing Business report in a more trustworthy way.

Why do Costa Ricans outlive Americans?

Which country in the Western Hemisphere has the longest life expectancy?

Unsurprisingly its Canada, at 82.2 years (pre-Covid).

But which country in the Americas comes in second?

Surprisingly, its Costa Rica at 80.8 years.

Source

The United States, by far the richest country in the Americas, had a life expectancy of 78.4 years that was falling even before Covid.

How is it that Costa Rica outperforms not only the much richer United States, but also other somewhat richer countries like Panama, Mexico, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic?

Clearly they don’t do it by outspending us- Costa Rica spends the equivalent of $1600 dollars per person per year on health care, compared to nearly $12000 in the US (7.3% of their GDP goes to health care vs 16.8% for the US).

Source

So what exactly is Costa Rica doing right? Atul Gawande tackles this question in his latest article for the New Yorker.

He argues that the key has been Costa Rica’s investment in primary care and public health. The US might may have many more of the world’s best (and most expensive) hospitals, but the easiest and cheapest health benefits come from keeping people out of hospitals in the first place.

the country has made public health—measures to improve the health of the population as a whole—central to the delivery of medical care. Even in countries with robust universal health care, public health is usually an add-on; the vast majority of spending goes to treat the ailments of individuals. In Costa Rica, though, public health has been a priority for decades.

In the nineteen-seventies, Costa Rica identified maternal and child mortality as its biggest source of lost years of life. The public-health units directed pregnant women to prenatal care and delivery in hospitals, where officials made sure that personnel were prepared to prevent and manage the most frequent dangers, such as maternal hemorrhage, newborn respiratory failure, and sepsis. Nutrition programs helped reduce food shortages and underweight births; sanitation and vaccination campaigns reduced infectious diseases, from cholera to diphtheria; and a network of primary-care clinics delivered better treatment for children who did fall sick. Clinics also provided better access to contraception; by 1990, the average family size had dropped to just over three children.

The strategy demonstrated rapid and dramatic results. In 1970, seven per cent of children died before their first birthday. By 1980, only two per cent did. In the course of the decade, maternal deaths fell by eighty per cent. The nation’s over-all life expectancy became the longest in Latin America, and kept growing. By 1985, Costa Rica’s life expectancy matched that of the United States.

Gawande goes on to describe how every Costa Rican gets a home visit from a health care worker at least once per year. This is quite the contrast to the US, where even getting primary care doctors to let you see them in their office can be a fight. I moved to Rhode Island last year and this week finally tried getting a primary care doctor here. I looked through the list of doctors covered by my insurance that my insurer said were accepting new patients and started making calls (by the way, why calls? do any doctors book appointments online?). 2 said that they actually weren’t taking new patients. 9 never answered the phone. The 12th doctor I tried, one farther away and lower-rated than I’d like, finally agreed to see me- in 3 months.

For anyone with less free time, determination, or insurance coverage, it would be natural to just give up after the 5th or the 10th “no”. Clearly many Americans do, leading manageable conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure to turn into acute health crises and expensive hospital visits.

I do think individual doctors could do better here by thinking through their appointment process from the patient’s perspective. But at its core this is simply a numbers issue- we don’t have enough primary care doctors to go around. We actually have fewer doctors per capita than Costa Rica, and relatively high share of specialists means that we have even fewer primary care doctors to go around. More medical school spots, more primary care residency spots, and fewer restrictions on immigrant doctors could go a long way way toward helping to US catch up to…. Costa Rica.

That, or their secret is just the volcanoes. This is surprisingly plausible- the US state with the longest life expectancy is also the one best known for volcanoes, Hawaii.