Joy’s Cartoon is in a French Textbook

This is my day in the sun. A decade ago, I started ecoNomNomNomics.com. Back then, I knew that my dream job was “economics professor”, but I was years away and also thousands of miles away from where I am now. I have barely updated the site since 2011, but every now and then new people find it. My hope has always been that it would be both helpful and happy.

A French publisher reached out to me and asked for permission to use one of my cartoons in their workbooks that will reach actual French students. I was delighted to say yes.

Allons-y! With their permission, I reproduce the page that has my picture:

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Thank you Tyler and Alex

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have done really good work on saving America and beyond from Covid and from bad Covid takes. It’s worth saying this in more places.

Here is Alex on how great Tyler’s work has been on advancing disease-fighting science. Here is Ezra Klein (NYT) on how Alex’s advocacy.

Recall how this all started, as per the Econtalk podcast record in March 2020:

Tyler Cowen: I have been hunkered down at home every day, with some quick trips outside, typically to use the printer at work or maybe to refresh some grocery supplies as quickly as I can. But, , I wake up; I get onto my sofa; I get into information-absorption mode, and just let it rip until it’s time to go to bed at night. And, I’ve been blogging and writing about this the whole time, and really not doing very much else. Although I am spending more time cooking.

So, what I see as the data come in is we ought to have greater concern as to the possible risks here, for this being a very large scale negative event.

… And in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been busier in my entire life. Reading materials, writing, passing along advice, just processing information. Every day feels like an enormous rush of things I have to do, even though in the sense of my physical surroundings it’s quite static.

No one had all the right answers in the Spring of 2002. How many people devoted themselves to figuring it out? Who was reading dense medical research papers instead of watching extra Netflix, after being forced into semi-quarantine? There have been many heroes of the pandemic (see data heroes). The Marginal Revolution blogging team is certainly among them.

I have a virtual heap of notes on pieces I would like to write. I made notes a few years ago for an essay with the working title “Tyler Cowen as pro life economist” (which has nothing to do with abortion, by the way). I was going to construct an original argument and pull together disparate facts. Someday, maybe I will write it, but now I’ll be leading with the example of the pandemic response. It’s so obviously “a matter of life and death”. If they caused the vaccine to arrive a month sooner, then we can count the lives saved.

I didn’t plan to phrase it this way, in my original essay, but everything is life and death to economists. Occupational licensing is life and death. Deflation is life and death, because if economic output is lost due to deflation that will be someone’s prescription payment and someone else’s ability to live a full life. Economic growth is life and death. Tyler is one of the few people pointing out that it’s not only today’s low-income people but also future generations that will have longer fuller lives if economic growth is higher.

The Sound of Silence

I became aware of SlateStarCodex during the online kerfuffle over the popular blogger, Scott, getting his real name and professional identity exposed by the NYT. He’s written a new post about the whole event. He is a victim of sorts, but he doesn’t ask for more sympathy than he deserves. His story is an interesting case study concerning free speech and the internet.

See here the consequences of becoming a known figure in 2020. Quotes from Scott:

The New York Times thought so. Some people kept me abreast of their private discussions (in Soviet America, newspaper’s discussions get leaked to you!) and their reporters had spirited internal debates about whether I really needed anonymity. Sure, I’d gotten some death threats, but everyone gets death threats on the Internet, and I’d provided no proof mine were credible. Sure, I might get SWATted, but realistically that’s a really scary fifteen seconds before the cops apologize and go away. Sure, my job was at risk, but I was a well-off person and could probably get another.

So, you know, death or abuse and unemployment is all. Scott recognizes that some people have it worse. He used his situation to discuss the whole issue of anonymity. Why do people want anonymity to discuss their ideas? Scott brings us some data:

And: a recent poll found that 62% of people feel afraid to express their political beliefs. This isn’t just conservatives – it’s also moderates (64%), liberals (52%) and even many strong liberals (42%). … And the kicker is that these numbers are up almost ten percentage points from the last poll three years ago

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Leopold on supply chain independence

Leopold said when he started his new blog that he would be thinking long-term. He has managed to stop staring at footage of the capital raid last week and produced a forward-looking blog. He is not the first person to speculate that the US has a vulnerability in its reliance on the country we buy the most stuff from.  

Free trade is awesome. Something that is going to link together all EWED writers is a common respect for the power of trade to make lives better. Consumers who have access to world market can have much more great stuff. Enjoying your chair, or your phone, or you lightbulbs right now? It’s great to have access to more stuff and be able tot get it cheaper.

However, there are those who worry that if country A abandons domestic production of widget B, then in the unfortunate/unexpected event of a war, country A will be in trouble. For example, it would be concerning for a military power if they are not able to make any steel themselves.

Should country A use tariffs to stimulate domestic production? Tariffs really bother economists. Tariffs bite into the wonderful benefits of free trade. Since I talk to economists, I have heard a lot of arguments against tariffs. Leopold makes a novel argument against using tariffs to advance national security interests.

The problem with tariffs, however, is that they are royally ineffective at reducing the security vulnerability we are concerned about. A general tariff incentivizes onshoring the production that is cheapest and easiest to onshore—but it is likely the imports for which onshoring would be the most expensive and difficult that present the greatest security vulnerability, as I will explain.  In the language of economics, I argue that the imports that present the greatest security vulnerability are those with the most inelastic import demand—while a general tariff most reduces those imports with the most elastic import demand.

I propose an alternative approach: general per-product quotas. These would better target vulnerability than a general tariff.

Instead of having tariffs, require that a certain number of several products be made domestically. That would be expensive, but we already put up with huge losses from tariffs. We already spend hundreds of billions of dollars on defense. The question is not whether we are going to spend money on defense. How can we spend money in the smartest way that recognizes how markets generate information? Think about the government buying 1,000 digital watches made on a friendly supply chain, and also dispensing with some costly tariffs.

Note that Leopold, if I understand him correctly, uses the word quota to mean that the government will buy a block of domestically produced goods at above-world-market prices. This is different from the way “quota” is sometimes used in international trade. See this MRU video narrated by Alex Tabarrok for a discussion of import quotas versus tariffs, a separate topic.

Dan Wang’s 2020 letter on China

Dan Wang is a writer who currently lives in Beijing. He’s released another long letter about what is going on in China. I’ll share the part that caught my attention.

Waiting politely in line is a pretty strong norm in America. I had heard from several sources that Chinese norms for waiting in an orderly line were weak. Here’s an update on that:

And for years, Xi has emphasized following clear rules of written procedure, under the rubric of “law-based governance.”  Since then, the state has improved regulatory systems, for example in setting clear standards for license approvals and in securities and antitrust regulation. The state has removed some of the arbitrary aspects of governance, thus bringing serious enforcement actions following the passage of relatively clear regulations. That has improved facts on the ground. Companies and lawyers tell me that a decade-long effort by the State Council to ease doing business has yielded real results. Obtaining business licenses no longer requires a relentless pace of wining and dining, and has instead become close to a matter of routine. I haven’t been able to verify this fact for myself, but one of my friends told me that the office of the National Development and Reform Commission used to be ringed by some of the fanciest restaurants in Beijing, offering mostly private rooms; many of these restaurants have now closed, following the professionalization of business approvals.

The lived experience of being in Beijing has improved in parallel. I remember what a nightmare it was to buy a high-speed rail ticket for the first time years ago, which involved lots of yelling and multiple people cutting in line. Today, I purchase one on my phone, with no need to obtain a paper ticket, and the lines to board are more or less orderly.

China is changing.

Incidentally, I tried to start a company when I was about 19 in New Jersey. Applying for a tax ID number for my sole proprietorship was quick and easy. All I had to do was fill out a form and pay a small fixed fee to some government office.

Economists Watching Vaccines Every Day

EWVED could be our new name. Americans worked so hard to develop a vaccine (here’s Jeremy’s ode to development) and now we are seeing the distribution become painfully slow.

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How Bayesians Read a Think Piece

How likely is it that an opinion critical of [topic] will get expressed by someone on the internet?

My good friend (call her Anne) texted me this week. Anne sent me a link to a blog that declared some of her preferred works of art (i.e. musicals) to be inferior. She loves art, so to be told that her tastes were not exceptionally good was disappointing.

In my reply I wanted to make sure that Anne wasn’t putting too much weight on this new evidence:

How should we incorporate blogs into our beliefs about reality? (I see the irony – I’m writing a blog right now.)

The non-technical summary: you should be skeptical of what you read online.

The technical summary: the fact that some writer said “H” on the internet, should make you only slightly more confident that “H” is true.

I can’t improve on the Wikipedia presentation of Bayes’ theorem, so I’ll just paste in:

Let’s consider the probability that it is true that Anne’s favorite musical is bad. We’ll call that hypothesis “H”. What’s the probability of H, given that one person wrote an article stating that the musical is bad?  

The evidence, E, is the article.

Instead of just evaluating whether the article is convincing or not, Bayesian inference requires that we consider

  1. Were we confident that H was true BEFORE seeing the article? Was there good data up until this point that convinced us H is true?
  2. If H is true, what’s the probability of this article being written?
  3. What’s the overall probability of this article being written, regardless of whether H is true?

The probability that musical is bad given that someone wrote an article saying so is :

P(H|E) = P(bad|article)

P(bad|article) = ( P(article|bad) x P(bad) )/ P(article)

The right side of the equation asks whether we are likely to see the article if the musical is bad. If the musical is actually bad, then we are likely to see it condemned in print. HOWEVER, if we had a prior belief that the musical is not bad, then the numerator gets smaller.

Finally, we consider the denominator, P(E) or the probability of seeing an article that is derogatory towards the musical. If that probability is high, then the probability of the musical actually being bad goes down.

Here’s how Anne should think:

P(bad|article) = ( likely that article will be written if bad x prior evidence suggests not bad) / snobby think pieces get written regardless

so

P(bad|article) = (big x small)/ big = small probability that Anne’s favorite musical is actually bad

You should be just the right amount of skeptical when it comes to internet content. Be Bayesian.

Only Real Quotes

I’m going to occasionally make cartoons of actual things that people have said. The real world can be very entertaining. I was a graduate student at George Mason University, so I got to take a class from Bryan Caplan.

He broke up his 3-hour lectures with Caplan-jokes. I only remember one. Maybe it stuck with me because of the funny voices. He was talking about happiness and consumption in the context of microeconomics. He impersonated a German philosopher debating a British philosopher.

This is an idea Bryan explores in a recent blog.

Do people do what makes them happy? What do we make, as economists, of people who claim that they want to write a novel but never do? If someone claims to prefer sad songs, can we really call them sad songs?

Next, here’s one from me and my son. I put his age on his cartoon shirt. I always ask him about the details of his day while I was away at work. He’s old enough to understand a little bit about how I spend my time, but sometimes I don’t get it right when I attempt two-way communication.  

Can I Borrow Your Reference Point?

That is the title of a blog I wrote for a new publication Works in Progress.

I summarize an article I published in 2020 and relate it to the current polarized political environment, which is not an extension I made as explicitly in the article.

We often talk of a moral obligation to sympathize with others and “walk a mile in his/her shoes”. We do not often “walk a mile” in the shoes of our neighbors just to be nice, and we can’t even do it for money. In a lab experiment, I put people in an environment where they could earn money for accurately guessing what others did. I found that people tend to transfer their own reference point on to other people, which causes them to make bad predictions.

There is more at the blog. I end with a conclusion that some might say is too optimistic or too generous to the opposing side:

If people of opposing political persuasions spent more time learning each other’s life stories, then we would end up with a less toxic climate.

Yglesias ‘One Billion Americans’ CWT podcast

I have been looking forward to this podcast. It dropped today. I was too busy “at work” (I work from home on Wednesdays) to listen. Then in the evening I wanted to tell my kids that I could not sing “Wheels on the Bus” another time for them because I had a podcast I really wanted to listen to. Of course that doesn’t really work with a toddler. The upshot is that I’ve only listened to half of it.

Here’s a quote that I thought was interesting

There could be a lot of benefits to that. I went to Ireland. It was the last international trip I took. It’s a beautiful country, very successful in a lot of ways, but obviously, a really empty country. If you’re working on a book about a billion Americans while going across from Dublin to Galway, I could not help but be struck. It’s like, “Where is everybody here? Couldn’t we do more?”

Matt Yglasias

One of the interesting questions when you think about packing more people into prosperous countries is why must we focus on making congested cities larger. There really is a lot of land around.

I know of “blighted” neighborhoods near me that already have streets and ample parking and just everything that you could want except rich neighbors. The shrinking cities in cold places seem like the ideal candidates for where more people could go.

I haven’t read Matt’s new book. I do not endorse it, since I don’t know what is in it. However, I like the fact that he has a vision, and I’m excited to read it.