The Social Drug of Prohibition

Why does the average drinker consume alcohol? There are plenty of reasons, one of which is social. Alcohol, while inhibiting clarity, precision, and discretion, is a social lubricant. If you’re one of those drinking, then it’s enjoyable to be around other drinkers. Also, people build the habit of drinking *something* while socializing. We all know that prohibition resulted in bootlegging and tainted cocktails. But what were the legal alternatives? One was that you could purchase grape juice and make your own wine (that’s a story for another time). Another is to switch to another drug.

Alcohol is a depressant and arguably the most popular one in the US. It’s not a clear substitute for alcohol in terms of its direct effects on the body. However, it’s a liquid, safe, and tasty. That make is a good candidate for satisfying the physical urge to imbibe. But, importantly, it is also a social drug. People would get so hopped up on coffee and feed off of one another’s high that Charles the II of England banned coffee houses in order to prevent seditious fomentation. This brings us to an important characteristic of coffee. It’s a stimulant. You’d think that a stimulant would not be a substitute for alcohol. If anything, one might think that they are complements. Coffee helps to provide that kick in the pants after having an enjoyable night. But, the social feature makes coffee a good candidate to substitute alcohol, should the times be dire.

Illegal activity aside, people wanted an outlet for their physical and social proclivities. They wanted intoxication. Coffee provided exactly that. Conveniently, the continental US didn’t grow any of its own coffee. That means that imports and domestic consumption have a tight relationship.

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Chesterton Views on Work in 20th Century America

One hundred years ago, the British writer G.K. Chesterton traveled to the United States for a lecture tour. He published his observations of America in What I Saw in America (1922). In an essay titled “The American Businessman”, Chesterton notes with surprise how passionate Americans appear about their professional work.

Chesterton recognizes this enthusiasm for work as more than mere greed.

This is the intro to my latest article for the OLL Reading Room. I discuss the American work ethic and Chesterton’s prescient insight into American economic dynamism compared to Britain. (Relatedly, Alex on British stagnation this week.)

Here’s a fun bit of the book that I didn’t include in the OLL article. Chesterton wrote this about seeing New York City for the first time:

But there is a sense in which New York is always new; in the sense that it is always being renewed. A stranger might well say that the chief industry of the citizens consists of destroying their city; but he soon realises that they always start it all over again with undiminished energy and hope. At first I had a fancy that they never quite finished putting up a big building without feeling that it was time to pull it down again; and that somebody began to dig up the first foundations while somebody else was putting on the last tiles. This fills the whole of this brilliant and bewildering place with a quite unique and unparalleled air of rapid ruin. 

Interested New Yorkers can find the rest online at Project Gutenberg. Delightful throughout if you like history. Amazon link to the book here.

Waxing Crescent: New Orleans 2013-2023

The scars of Hurricane Katrina were still obvious eight years afterward when I moved to New Orleans in 2013. Where I lived in Mid-City, it seemed like every block had an abandoned house or an empty lot, and the poorer neighborhoods had more than one per block. Even many larger buildings were left abandoned, including high-rises.

Since then, recovery has continued at a steady pace. The rebuilding was especially noticeable when I spent a few days there recently for the first time since moving away in 2017. The airport has been redone, with shining new connected terminals and new shops. The abandoned high-rise at the prime location where Canal St meets the Mississippi has been renovated into a Four Seasons. Tulane Ave is now home to a nearly mile-long medical complex, stretching from the old Tulane hospital to the new VA and University Medical Center complex. There are several new mid-sized health care facilities, but most striking is that Tulane claims to finally be renovating the huge abandoned Charity Hospital:

Old Charity Hospital, January 2023

The new VA hospital opened in 2016 as mostly new construction, but they’ve now managed to fully incorporate the remnants of the abandoned Dixie Beer brewery:

VA Hospital incorporating old Dixie Beer tower, January 2023

Dixie beer itself opened a new beer garden in New Orleans East, and just renamed itself Faubourg Brewery. Some streets named for Confederates have also been renamed, though you can still see plenty of signs of the past, like the “Jeff Davis Properties” building on the street renamed from Jefferson Davis Parkway to Norman C Francis Parkway.

Other big additions I noticed are the new Childrens’ Museum and the greatly expanded sculpture garden in City Park:

Of course, even with all the improvements, many problems remain, both in terms of things that still haven’t recovered from the hurricane, and the kind of problems that were there even before Katrina. The one remaining abandoned high-rise, Plaza Tower, was actually abandoned even before Katrina.

My overall impression is that large institutions (university medical centers, the VA, the airport, museums, major hotels) have been driving this phase of the recovery. The neighborhoods are also recovering, but more slowly, particularly small business. Population is still well below 2005 levels. I generally think inequality has been overrated in national discussions of the last 15 years relative to concerns about poverty and overall prosperity, but even to me New Orleans is a strikingly unequal city; there’s so much wealth alongside so many people seeming to get very little benefit from it.

The most persistent problems are the ones that remain from before Katrina: the roads, the schools, and the crime; taken together, the dysfunctional public sector. Everywhere I’ve lived people complain about the roads, but I’ve lived a lot of places and New Orleans roads were objectively the worst, even in the nice parts of town, and it isn’t close. The New Orleans Police Department is still subject to a federal consent decree, as it has been since 2012. The murder rate in 2022 was the highest in the nation. Building an effective public sector seems to be much harder than rebuilding from a hurricane.

As much as things have changed since 2013, my overall assessment of the city remains the same: its unlike anywhere else in America. It is unparalleled in both its strengths and its weaknesses. If you care about food, drink, music, and having a good time, its the place to be. If you’re more focused more on career, health, or safety, it isn’t. People who fled Katrina and stayed in other cities like Houston or Atlanta wound up richer and healthier. But not necessarily happier.

Drivers of Financial Bubbles: Addicts and Enablers

I recently ran across an interesting article by stock analyst Gary J. Gordon, The Bubble Addicts Are Here To Stay: A Bubble Investment Strategy. This article may be behind a paywall.  I will summarize it here. Direct citations are in italics.

SOME RECENT FINANCIAL BUBBLES

Gordon starts by recapping four recent financial bubbles:

The commercial real estate bubble of the mid-1980s

The internet stock craze of the late 1990s (with the highest price/earnings valuations ever – – e.g., a startup called Netbank possessed nothing but a website, yet was valued at ten times book value; and went bankrupt a few years later)

The mid-00s housing bubble.

The 2020/2021 COVID bubble:  “The trifecta of a ‘disruptive business model’ stock bubble, SPACs and crypto. You know how this story is ending.”

Gordon then presents an explanation of why humans keep doing financial bubbles, despite the experiences of the past. He suggests that there are both bubble addicts, who have a need to chase bubbles and therefore create them, and bubble enablers who are only too happy to make money off the addicts.

THE BUBBLE ADDICTS

The greedy. Some of us just think we deserve more. I think of an acquaintance who said he was approached to invest with Bernie Madoff, who famously promised steady 10% returns. My friend turned down the offer because he required 15% returns.

Pension funds. This $30 trillion pool of investment dollars targets about a 7% return in order to meet future pension obligations. If pension fund managers can’t consistently earn at least 7%, they have to go to their sponsor – a state government, a corporate CEO, etc. – and ask for more money, or for pension benefits to be cut. And probably lose their job in the process.

Back in the day, bonds were the mainstay pension fund investment. But over the past 20 years, bond yields haven’t gotten the pensions anywhere close to 7%. So increasingly they have invested in stocks and alternative investments like private equity, as this chart shows:

Source: Pew Institute

And venture capital fundraising, in large part from pension funds, has soared since the pandemic…

How many great new ideas are out there for venture capitalists to invest in? [Obviously, not an unlimited number]. So their investments are by necessity getting riskier. But if the pension funds back away from the growing risk, they have to admit they can’t earn that 7%. Then bad things happen, to retirees and to pension plan sponsors and then to pension fund managers. So pension fund managers are pretty much addicted to chasing bubbles.

The relatively poor. The “absolutely poor” have income below defined poverty levels. The “relatively poor” feel that they should be doing better, because their friends are, or their parents did, or because the Kardashians are, or whatever. Their current income and prospects just aren’t getting them to the lifestyle they aspire to. [Gordon provides example of folks chasing meme stocks and crypto, and getting burned]. …But can the relatively poor just walk away from chasing bubbles? Not without giving up dreams of better lifestyles.

THE BUBBLE FEEDERS

Bubbles don’t just spontaneously occur; they require skilled hands to shape them. And those skilled hands profit handsomely from their creations. Who are these feeders?

Private equity and venture fund managers. They typically earn a 2% management fee plus 20% of profits earned. That adds up fast. A $10 billion venture fund could easily generate $400 million a year in income, spread among a pretty small group of people. VC News lists 14 venture capitalists who are billionaires.

SPAC sponsors. [ A SPAC (Special Purpose Acquisition Company) is a shell corporations which raises money through stock offerings, for the purpose of going out and buying some existing company. SPAC sponsors make a bundle, and so are motivated to promote them. SPACs proliferated in 2020-2021, and for a while pumped money into acquiring various small-medium “growth” companies. But now it is clear that there are not a lot of great underpriced companies out there for SPACs to buy, so SPACs are fizzling]

Wall Street earns fees from (A) raising funds for private equity, venture capital and SPACs, (B) buying and selling companies, (C) trading bubble stocks, crypto, etc., and (D) other stuff I’m not thinking of right now.

The Federal Reserve. Part of the Federal Reserve’s mandate is to reduce unemployment. Lowering interest rates increases stock values, which creates wealth, which drives the “wealth effect”. The wealth effect is the estimate that households increase their spending by about 3% as their wealth increases. More spending increases GDP, which reduces unemployment, which makes the Fed happy, and politicians happy with the Fed.

In my view, the wealth effect is why the supposed economic geniuses at the Fed never figure out that bubbles are occurring, so they never take steps to minimize them.

Social media and CNBC certainly benefit from more viewers while bubbles are blowing up [i.e., inflating].

INVESTING IN CURRENT MARKET ENVIRONMENT

Gordon sees us still in recovery from the recent bubble of “disruptor companies” and crypto, and so the market may have more than the usual choppiness in the next year. So he advises being nimble to trade in and out, and not mindlessly commit to being either long or short. “Value stocks are probably the best near-term bet, even if they can’t offer the adrenaline jolt offered by bubble stocks.”

Chesterton on Prohibition, and Game Theory

English philosopher G.K. Chesterton traveled to America for a lecture tour. His observations are recorded in What I Saw in America (1922).

The book is not primarily about Prohibition nor is it mostly critical of America. He wrote one of his essays on Prohibition, which begins as follows:

This was 100 years ago, so start with this summary of the facts from Britannica:

Prohibition, legal prevention of the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States from 1920 to 1933 under the terms of the Eighteenth Amendment. Although the temperance movement, which was widely supported, had succeeded in bringing about this legislation, millions of Americans were willing to drink liquor (distilled spirits) illegally…

Chesterton clearly is not a teetotaler, and I will not argue for or against temperance here. What was counterproductive about Prohibition is that elites passed a law that they would not abide by themselves.

Consider the decision by an individual to drink or not drink. For many people, drinking is social. If your friends are meeting at a bar, then you will drink at the bar to be with them. If your friends are going hiking with water bottles, then many people can pass the day without alcohol happily. We can model a game called Meeting Friends that has multiple equilibria.

Borrowing from Myerson (2009):

In such games, Schelling argued, anything in a game’s environment or history that focuses the players’ attention on one equilibrium may lead them to expect it, and so rationally to play it. This focal-point effect opens the door for cultural and environmental factors to influence rational behavior.

There was an opportunity for American elites to move social life to a new focal point after the 18th Amendment was passed. They could have led by example. Laws that do not follow norms cause problems, such as a large prison population arrested for drug offenses today. In 2021, I wrote about why attempts at drug prohibition helped the Taliban defeat the US coalition in Afghanistan.

Here’s my tweet thread last week about Chesterton and the American work ethic.

Myerson, R. B. (2009). Learning from Schelling’s strategy of conflict. Journal of Economic Literature47(4), 1109-25.

Average US Consumption: 1990 Vs 2021

On Twitter, folks have been supporting and piling on to a guy whose bottom line was that we are able to afford much less now than we could in 1990 (I won’t link to it because he’s not a public figure). The piling on has been by economist-like people and the support has been from… others?

Regardless, the claim can be analyzed in a variety of ways. I’m more intimate with the macro statistics, so here’s one of many valid stabs at addressing the claim. I’ll be using aggregates and averages from the BEA consumer spending accounts.

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Farewell to the First Normal Semester in 3 Years

Today as I gave my last final and took my kids to a huge school party, it struck me that things are finally back to something like 2019 levels of normality.

2020 was a lost cause, of course. I had high hopes for 2021 that vaccines would immediately get us back to normal. They did get my school back to fully in-person by Fall 2021, but not really back to normal, partly thanks to the variants. My students were out sick more than normal, and I was out watching my sick kids more than normal, as every cold meant they would be home until the school was sure it wasn’t Covid. Toward the end of the Spring 2022 semester worries were subsiding, and my state was pretty much fully re-opened, but things still weren’t really back to normal. Student attendance and effort were still way below normal, partly from the lingering effects of Covid, and partly from celebrating its end- partying to make up for lost time (and cheering on a great basketball team).

Fall 2022 finally felt like a basically normal semester. I still see the occasional mask, still hear from the occasional student out with Covid, and still have one kid missing 2 school days with every cough (policies stricter than 2019, but much relaxed from the days when both kids were at schools that could have them miss 5+ days with every non-Covid cough). Overall though student attendance and effort are back to what seem like normal levels. Up to Spring 22 I’d have students just disappear for a few weeks, not in class, not answering e-mails about why they weren’t showing up or completing work, needing lots of help to get on track once they finally reappeared. This Fall that didn’t happen; in my Senior Capstone everyone turned in a quality paper basically on-time and without me having to chase anyone down for it. Also, everyone just seemed happier now that their stress levels are back down to the baseline for college students.

This semester was nothing special- and that was beautiful.

Sympathy for the Sauds

I’ve always been confused by the US alliance with Saudi Arabia. Its a state with values abhorrent to many Americans, and it seems like we don’t get much practical value out of the alliance.

This essay on Saudi history, politics, and economics by Matt Lakeman makes the situation more comprehensible. I still don’t know that I want the alliance, but I can now see how so many US presidents have continued with it without necessarily being stupid, crazy, or corrupt. In short, they think that most of the realistic alternatives are worse. Some highlights:

Before starting this research, I had the same perception as Wood that the Saudi economy is essentially what he calls a “petrol-rentier state.” Basically, Saudi Arabia sits on top of a giant ocean of easily-accessed oil which they suck out of the ground and sell at enormous profit to prop up the rest of their extremely inefficient economy and buy the loyalty of their own people and foreign powers. Saudi Arabia is the wealthiest large state in the Middle East today by sheer virtue of geographic luck rather than any innovation or business acumen on the part of its people.

And after doing my research, all of the above is… basically true.

But all of that should also be true of Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, and a few other countries which are also situated on giant oceans of oil but are far poorer than Saudi Arabia.

Economically, Saudi Arabia deserves little credit for its success. Politically, Saudi Arabia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for enabling its economic success. 

Dealing with the resource curse is always challenging, and foreign ownership is an additional challenge. How did they manage it?

the Sauds struck a clever balance between being too aggressive and too placating of the foreigners operating their oil wells. If the Saudi state had been aggressive and tried to nationalize its oil quickly, Saudi Arabia could have ended up becoming another Venezuela or Iran with lots of external political pressure from hostile Western countries and a low-efficiency oil industry. But if they had nationalized too late, they would have ended up like a lot of African nations who have all their natural wealth siphoned away by foreigners.

Instead, the Sauds executed a patient, and most importantly, amicable assertion of power over Aramco, which did not become fully owned by Saudis until 1974. At the very start of Aramco, the company was entirely owned and operated by Americans aside from menial labor. However, the Saudi government inserted a clause into their contract with the corporation requiring the American oil men to train Saudi citizens for management and engineering jobs. The Americans held up their end of the bargain, and over time, more and more Saudis took over management and technical positions.

In addition to carefully negotiating the balance of power with various foreigners, the Sauds have done so with the religious establishment:

Though the monarch has absolute power, his authority is at least in part derived from Saudi Arabia’s Islamic religious establishment. The ulema (a group of the highest-ranking clerics) is officially integrated into the government, and plays an important role in legal matters. However, the religious establishment has slowly been marginalized by the monarchy over the last few decades, and has possibly been subjugated entirely since the reform era began five years ago.

Winning freedom of action has been a long road with many setbacks:

[King] Abdulaziz constantly had to reassure enraged Wahhabi clerics that he wasn’t selling out the Arab homeland to treacherous infidels. IIRC, it was some time in the 1920s that Abdulaziz had to publicly smash a telegraph to prove to the clerics that he wasn’t bewitched by infidel technology.

In late 1979, 400-500 extremist Sunni Saudis seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca (the holiest Islamic site on earth) and demanded the overthrow of the Saud dynasty in favor of a theocratic state meant to await an imminent apocalypse. They held on for two weeks while managing to fight off waves of Saudi police and military squads. Eventually, three French commandos flew to Mecca, converted to Islam in a hotel room, and led a successful assault to retake the Mosque. Over 100 men died on each side, with hundreds more wounded.

The Grand Mosque seizure was the final wake-up call for the Saud dynasty. Something drastic had to be done or their regime would likely be ground down under mounting internal and external pressure…. King Khalid led a social/religious/political reactionary revolution within Saudi Arabia to align with the Sunni extremists. Up until about four years ago, Saudi society was still gender segregated and enforced a largely literalist interpretation of Sharia, hence the array of bizarre and antiquated laws – gender segregation in public, requiring women to cover their faces, outlawing of non-Muslim religious buildings (there are a few Shia mosques), restrictions on foreign media, etc. Saudi Arabia was always conservative, but most of these draconian laws were only put into place in the 1980s. The Saud dynasty purposefully induced a reactionary legal regime and pulled Saudi Arabia further away from liberalism.

The charitable take on making an already oppressive regime even more oppressive is that the Sauds were trying to bend Saudi Arabia to the extremists so the country would not break. And by all accounts, it worked; the conservative Wahhabi clerics backed by the Saud dynasty placated a sizeable portion of the Sunni extremists inside and outside of Saudi Arabia, and they became a pool of support against the Shia and Baathists. Saudi Arabia was certainly made a worse country for its citizens, but that was the price to pay for averting civil war.

More recently, Crown Prince Salman has consolidated power to the point where he can make modernizing reforms that Wahhabis might have opposed, like allowing women to drive, allowing non-Muslim foreigners to to get tourist visas, allowing music concerts, et c. Lakeman obviously likes these reforms, but at the same time worries that the concentrated power that so far Salman has largely used to enact positive reforms could be abused going forward, and on a larger scale than murdering the occasional dissident.

Wood argues that a worst case scenario parallel to MBS is Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Like MBS, there were high hopes that Assad would be a liberal reformer when he took over Syria. After all, Assad had been living and working in the UK as an ophthalmologist with no political aspirations, and was known to be a fan of Phil Collins. He was called to the throne after the unexpected death of his older brother, and so the West hoped that this nerdy British doctor would bring upper-middle class liberal values to Syria. Instead, Assad became one of the worst dictators of the modern Middle East, probably second only to Saddam Hussein.

I recommend reading the whole thing, here I’m quoting relatively small parts of an article full of interesting detail on the history, economics, and politics of Saudi Arabia. There’s also a section on visiting:

The silver lining to Saudi Arabia’s lack of tourism is that there aren’t many tourist restrictions. I went to two ancient settlements and I found no guards, no gates, no notices at all. I walked in, around, and on top of 2,000 year old houses, and I honestly have no idea if I was allowed to.

Thanksgiving Dinner is Once Again More Expensive (But Not the Most Expensive Ever)

Last year inflation hadn’t quite hit the levels we would see in 2022, but they were already rising. When Thanksgiving rolled around, many media sources were reporting that it was the “most expensive Thanksgiving ever.” In nominal terms that was true, though in nominal terms it isn’t that surprising. In a post last year, I compared the prices of Thanksgiving dinners (using the same data from Farm Bureau) to median earnings going back to 1986. While 2021 was more expensive the 2020, it turned out it was still the second lowest it had been since 1986.

As you might expect, this year’s Thanksgiving dinner is even more expensive than last year in nominal terms. It’s up about 20% since last year or over $10 more, according to Farm Bureau. That’s certainly more than the overall rate of inflation (7.7% in the past 12 months) and more than inflation for groceries (12.4% in the past 12 months). But how does that compare with median wages? Comparing the 3rd quarter of this year with the same quarter in 2021, median wages are only up about 7%, certainly not enough to keep up with those rising turkey prices.

When we add 2022 to the historical chart, here’s what it looks like.

The spike in the last 2 years is clear in the chart but notice that at about 6% of median weekly earnings, we have essentially returned to the average level of the entire series. From 2017-2021, we could be thankful that the price of your Thanksgiving dinner had dropped below that 6% level. We’ll have to find something else to be thankful for this year.