Don’t Look Back

On the Positivity Blog are no less than “67 Don’t Look Back Quotes to Help You Move on and Live Your Best Life”. Some of these sayings from notable folks include:

“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.”
– Henry David Thoreau

“If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.”
– Steve Jobs

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
– C.S. Lewis

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”  

– attributed to Dr. Seuss, though that attribution is heavily disputed

The Random Vibez offers another “60 Don’t Look Back Quotes To Inspire You To Move Forward”’ including “Don’t look back. You’ll miss what’s in front of you” and “I tend not to look back. It’s confusing”.   The Bible would add sayings such as, “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you” (Proverbs 4:25); Paul wrote to the Philippians, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me”.

The Landy-Bannister Statue

What put me in mind of this whole theme of not looking back was seeing a bronze statue involving Roger Bannister. Sports buffs, and most educated people who are over 60, will know that he was the first man to break the four-minute mile. During many previous decades of trying, no human had been able to run that fast that long: that is a velocity of 15 miles per hour, sustained for a full four minutes. That is like a full sprint for most people, or a moderate bicycling speed. 

Bannister found that he was naturally a fast runner, and he employed scientific principles in his training. (He was a medical student at the time, and went on to become a noted research neurologist).  On May 6, 1954 Bannister finally cracked the four-minute mile, with a 3:59.4 time. As may be imagined, the crowd went wild.

Records, however, are made to be broken, and just 46 days later a rival runner, John Landy, ran the mile in just 3:57.9 to become the world’s fastest man. A few months after that Bannister and Landy ran head-to-head in the August, 1954 Commonwealth games in Vancouver. Landy was in the lead nearly the whole way, with a ten-yard lead by the end of the third lap. Bannister then started his signature kick and managed to catch up with Landy on the final bend. Landy must have heard footsteps, and at the end of the race glanced over his left shoulder to gauge Bannister’s position. That distraction slowed him just enough to allow Bannister to power past him on his right side. Landy’s time was still a respectable 3:59.6, but Bannister won with 3:58.8. Both runners later agreed that Landy would have won if he had not looked back.

This finish of this “Miracle Mile” race was immortalized by a larger-than-life bronze statue by Vancouver sculptor Jack Harman. Landy later quipped, “”While Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back, I am probably the only one ever turned into bronze for looking back.”

Estimating the effects of a slow news cycle

A the moment, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank is the dominant story in the news cycle. It seemed like a big deal to me at first, then less of a big deal, then of enormous consequence again. At the moment, my estimation has settled into “A negative event that will hurt some people but will only be of long run consequence unless it yields sufficiently bad new economic policy out of it i.e. receive a bailed that entirely shields them from consequences. But honestly I don’t know. My estimation really shouldn’t move your priors too much unless you were previously sitting at one of the extremes of “Nothing actually happened” or “This is the beginning of a new Great Depression”. I’m quite confident neither of those is correct. If you want a solid accounting, read Noah Smith’s post. I think he probably nailed it.

What I do want to consider is enthusiasm within the “take marketplace” for breathless concerns this was the beginning of a financial meltdown, a desperate situation that calls for a federal bailout, the beginning of inevitable hyperinflation, evidence even that catastrophic consequences of “wokeism” for <checks notes> risk hedging within bank portfolios. All of these seem somewhere between overwrought and stupid, all got a non-trivial amount of oxygen within the news cycle. [UPDATE: Depositors were maintained through federal liquidity, shareholders were not bailed out. Seems pretty reasonable to me.] Many takes were no doubt motivated by personal assets at stake or economic hobbyhorses, but I’m more concerned with how much traction they got than their origin stories.

So here’s a research idea so quarter-baked I haven’t even looked on google scholar to see if it’s been done, let alone would work. What is the relationship between a slow news cycle and pessimistic affect in event coverage? Here’s I’d go about it:

  1. Create an idex of news story variation. Variation in news coverage is an indicator that nothing is happening. When important things happen, they get covered alot, which means there is less variation in stories across outlets.
  2. Run an natural language algorithm for measuring “pessimistic affect” i.e. doomerism in news stories.
  3. Estimate the relationship between lagged news story variation and current pessimistic affect.
  4. ?
  5. Publish

The hypothesis is simple: when the news cycle is slow, outlets and pundits have an incentive to not just hype the importance of any event, but accentuate it’s potential negative consequences going forward so they can keep talking about it.

That’s it. Thats the idea. I hope you will include me in the acknowledgments when accepting your various research awards and accolades.

Be Posting Always

James wrote about our posting philosophy in “Always Be Posting”. The regularity is the point. This strategy is not our original idea, but this specific manifestation of blogging is a kind of experiment that we are running in front of everyone. I’ll add a few comments on this practice.

  1. I blogged more than once a week at first. Although I believe in the benefits of writing, once a week is the right amount for me.
  2. Tyler recently asked Brad Delong about Substack. Delong says, “Substacking is blogging, except that Substacking is blogging where you have explicit permission to send things to people’s email inboxes, and also to have a rather large tip jar.” Tyler mentioned that Substack posts tend to be longer. Delong admits, “I thought blogging was more fun.” Delong thinks longer posts are better because they fight the trend of short posts that I earlier called Poastmodernism. I would say that if you are going to blog regularly for free like we do, it should be fun. That is also what Tyler said when I asked him if young people should blog regularly in “The New Econ Bloggers.”
  3. If you are going to blog, you might wonder when you should start. Society seems obsessed with young geniuses today. I started blogging before tenure but not when I was very young. I should not have started any earlier. Think about the research that shows your brain is still forming until you are about 25. If Leonardo DiCaprio would date you, then be careful about what you say on the internet. What I would hope for teens or undergraduates is that they would have smart safe people to bounce ideas off of. You certainly need to practice writing and questioning. Even though it nearly kills me at the end of every semester, I assign papers in my classes, because I believe that college students should be writing. I was and am lucky to have teachers and friends who I talk to one-on-one when I want to try out ideas. You should be “posting” in the most abstract sense when you are young, but a private paper journal is not a bad place to start.
  4. When the internet first started, I don’t think anyone would have guessed how much content people would create for free. People are posting so much. Despite worries that media pirating would lead to too little content creation, we have more content than ever.

Something fun about regular short posts is that you can put a stake down and then revisit it years later. Here are two of my posts that have turned out well.

  1. In 2022, I went to Disney World for the first time. Ross Douthat criticized Disney World in his book The Decadent Society. I like the book, but I thought that he clearly hadn’t been there. I wrote a whole blog about Disney being the opposite of infrastructure stagnation. Here is Ross now with his New York Times column saying “Wow, I had never actually been there, and the physical infrastructure is amazing.”
  2. In 2021, I wrote “I encourage parents to read fantasy with children. I see a lot of children’s books that promote science or STEM-readiness… Those games that try to trick 5-year-olds into “programming” are less valuable than reading and discussing fantasy stories… What your child will need to be able to do when they are 20 is read and comprehend a textbook that explains a totally new technology that no one alive today understands. Then they will need to think of creative ways to apply that technology to real world problems.” The developments in ChatGPT are making this look pretty good, even earlier than I expected.

We are a posting kind of species.

The Allure of Overconfidence

I say what economists are supposed to say. I tell everyone who will listen that they should invest in index funds and then don’t check their balances. I explain that abnormal returns stem from abnormal information. Individuals are unlikely to have abnormal insight about publicly traded companies because other people have more time and resources to find that information. Further, even if a professional has abnormal insight, it’s not likely to persist over time. Index funds get around the problem of idiosyncratic risk and the brevity of abnormal insight by riding on the back of the more informed. I say all of this and I believe it in my heart.

I teach macroeconomics and I’ve published about asset volatility. I know more about inflation and the macroeconomy than the typical investor. From mid-2020 through now the S&P500 has gained 11.3% annually. My personal return has been 21% annually. It’s true, however, that the first half of 2022 was rough. But I can’t help but feel happy and confident.*

Continue reading

Regulatory Costs and Market Power

That’s the title of a blockbuster new paper by Shikhar Singla. The headline finding is that increased regulatory costs are responsible for over 30% of the increase in market power in the US since the 1990’s. That’s a big deal, but not what I found most interesting.

One big advance is simply the data on regulation. If you want to measure the effect of regulation on different industries, you need to come up with a way to measure how regulated they are. The crude, simple old approach is to count how many pages of regulation apply to a broad industry. The big advance of Mercatus’ RegData was to use machine learning to identify which specific industry is being discussed near “restrictive words” in the Code of Federal Regulation that indicate a regulatory restriction is being imposed. But not all regulatory words (even restrictive ones) are created equal; some impose very costly restrictions, most impose less costly restrictions, and some are even deregulatory. Singla’s solution is to take the government’s estimates of regulatory costs and apply machine learning there:

This paper uses machine learning on regulatory documents to construct a novel dataset on compliance costs to examine the effect of regulations on market power. The dataset is comprehensive and consists of all significant regulations at the 6-digit NAICS level from 1970-2018. We find that regulatory costs have increased by $1 trillion during this period.

The government’s estimates of the costs are of course imperfect, but almost certainly add information over a word-count based approach. Both approaches agree that regulation has increased dramatically over time. How does this affect businesses? Here’s what’s highlighted in the abstract:

We document that an increase in regulatory costs results in lower (higher) sales, employment, markups, and profitability for small (large) firms. Regulation driven increase in con- centration is associated with lower elasticity of entry with respect to Tobin’s Q, lower productivity and investment after the late 1990s. We estimate that increased regulations can explain 31-37% of the rise in market power. Finally, we uncover the political economy of rulemaking. While large firms are opposed to regulations in general, they push for the passage of regulations that have an adverse impact on small firms

More from the paper:

an average small firm faces an average of $9,093 per employee in our sample period compared to $5,246 for a large firm

a 100% increase in regulatory costs leads to a 1.2%, 1.4% and 1.9% increase in the number of establishments, employees and wages, respectively, for large firms, whereas it leads to 1.4%, 1.5% and 1.6% decrease in the number of establishments, employees and wages, respectively for small firms when compared within the state-industry-time groups. Results on employees and wages provide evidence that an increase in regulatory costs creates a competitive advantage for large firms. Large firms get larger and small firms get smaller.

The fact that large firms benefit while small firms are harmed is what drives the increase in concentration and market power.

What I like and dislike most about this paper is the same thing: its a much better version of what Diana Thomas and I tried to do in our 2017 Journal of Regulatory Economics paper. We used RegData restriction counts to measure how regulation affected the number of establishments and employees by industry, and how this differed by firm size. I wish I had thought of using published regulatory cost measures like Singla does, but realistically even if I had the idea I wouldn’t have had the machine learning chops to execute it. The push to quantify what “micro” estimates mean for economy-wide measures is also excellent. I hope and expect to see this published soon in a top-5 economics journal.

HT: Adam Ozimek

Excess Mortality and Vaccination Rates in Europe

Much ink has been spilled making cross-country comparisons since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have made a few of these, such as a comparison of GDP declines and COVID death rates among about three dozen countries in late 2021. I also made a similar comparison of G-7 countries in early 2022. But all such comparisons are tricky to interpret if we want to know why these differences exist between countries, which surely ultimately we would like to know. I tried to stress in those blog posts that I was just trying to visualize the effects, not make any claims about causation.

Here’s one more chart which I think is a very useful visualization, and it may give us some hint at causation. The following scatterplot shows COVID vaccination rates and excess mortality for a selection of European countries (more detail below on these measures and the countries selected):

The selection of countries is based on data availability. For vaccination rates, I chose to use the rate for ages 60-69 at the end of 2021. Ages 60-69 is somewhat arbitrary, but I wanted a rate for an elderly age group that was somewhat widely available. There is no standard source for an international organization that published these age-specific vaccine rates (that I’m aware of), but Our World in Data has done an excellent job of compiling comparable data that is available.

Note: I’m using the data on at least one dose of the vaccine. OWID also has it available by full vaccine series, and by booster, but first dose seemed like a reasonable approach to me. Also, I could have used different age groups, such as 70-79 or 80+, but once you get to those age groups the data gets weird because you have a lot of countries over 100%, probably due to both challenging denominator calculations and just general challenges with collecting data on vaccination rates. By using 60-69, only one country in my sample (Portugal) is over 100%, and I just code them as 100%. Using the end of 2021, rather than the most current data, is a bit arbitrary too, but I wanted to capture how well early vaccination efforts went, though ultimately it probably wouldn’t have mattered much.

Also: dropping the outliers of Bulgaria and Romania doesn’t change things much. The second-degree best fit polynomial still has an R2 over 0.60 (for those unfamiliar with these statistics, that means about 60% of the variation is “explained” in a correlational sense).

The excess mortality measure I use comes from the following chart. In fact, this entire post is inspired by the fact that this chart and others similar to it have been shared frequently on social media.

The chart comes from a Tweet thread by Paul Collyer. The whole thread is worth reading, but this chart is the key and summary of the thread. What he has done is shown the average and range of a variety of ways of calculating excess mortality. Read his thread for all the details, but the basic issues are what baseline to use (2015-2019 or 2017-2019? A case can be made for both), how to do the age-standardized mortality, and other issues. I won’t make a claim as to which method is best, but averaging across them seems like a fine approach to me.

For the y-axis in my chart, I just used the average for each country from Collyer’s chart. There are 34 countries in his chart, but in the OWID age-specific vaccination rates, only 22 countries were available the overlapped with his group. Unfortunately, this means we drop major countries like Italy, Spain, the UK, and Germany, but you work with the data you have.

For many sharing this and similar chart (such as charts with just one of those methods), the surprising (or not surprising) result to them is that Sweden comes out with almost the lowest excess mortality rate. Some approaches even put Sweden as the very lowest. Sweden!

Why is Sweden so important? Sweden has been probably the most debated country (especially by people not living in the country in question) in the COVID pandemic conversation. In short, Sweden took a less restrictive (some might say much less restrictive) approach to the pandemic. This debate was probably the most fevered in mid-to-late 2020, when some were even claiming that the pandemic was over in Sweden (it wasn’t). The extent to which Sweden took a radically different approach is somewhat overstated, especially in relation to other Nordic countries. And as is clear in both charts above, the Nordic countries all did relatively very well on excess mortality.

The bottom line from my first chart is that what really matters for a country’s overall excess mortality during the pandemic is how well they vaccinated their population. There seems to be a lot of interest on social media to rehash the debates about whether lockdowns (and lighter restrictions) or masks worked in 2020. But what really mattered was 2021, and vaccines were key. A scatterplot isn’t the last word on this (we should control for lots of other things), but it does suggest that a big part of the picture is vaccines (you can see this in scatterplots of US states too). It’s frustrating that many of those wanting to rehash the 2020 debates to “prove” masks don’t work, or whatever, either ignore vaccines or have bought into varying degrees of anti-vaccination theories. It’s completely possible that lockdowns don’t pass a cost/benefit test, but that vaccines also work very well (this has always been my position).

Why did Sweden have such great relative performance on excess mortality? Vaccines are almost certainly the most important factor among many that matter to a much smaller degree.

What About the US?

Note: for those wondering about the US, we don’t have the vaccination rate for ages 60-69 that I can find. Collyer also didn’t include the US in his analysis, it was only Europe. So, for both reasons, I didn’t include them in this post. The CDC does report first-dose vaccinations for ages 65+ in the US, though they top-code states at 95%. As of the end of 2021, here are the states that were below 95%: Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Wyoming, Georgia, Arkansas, Idaho, Alabama, Montana, Alaska, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, and Kentucky. These states generally have very high age-adjusted COVID death rates. Ideally we would use age-adjusted excess mortality for US states, but in the US that is horribly confounded by the rise in overdoses, homicides, car accidents, and other causes that are independent of vaccination rates (though they may be related to 2020 COVID policies — this is still a matter of huge debate).

Warren Buffett’s Secret Sauce: Investing the Insurance “Float”

Warren Buffett is referred to as “the legendary investor Warren Buffett” or “the sage of Omaha”. The success of his Berkshire Hathaway fund is remarkable. He is also a pretty nice guy, and every year writes (with help, I’m sure) a letter describing the activities of his fund, along with general observations on investing and the economy. His letter covering 2022 was published two weeks ago.

Buffett noted that he and his team invest in companies in two ways: by buying shares to become a partial “owner” along with thousands of other shareholders, and also by buying ownership of the whole company. They aim to hold American companies that have a good business model, and will keep growing profits for years or decades. They look for great businesses at great prices, but they would rather buy a great business at a good price, than to buy a (merely) good business at a great price.

He was refreshingly honest about his overall stock picking record:

In 58 years of Berkshire management, most of my capital-allocation decisions have been no better than so-so. In some cases, also, bad moves by me have been rescued by very large doses of luck. (Remember our escapes from near-disasters at USAir and Salomon? I certainly do.) Our satisfactory results have been the product of about a dozen truly good decisions – that would be about one every five years – and a sometimes-forgotten advantage that favors long-term investors such as Berkshire.

In 1994 they bought a then-huge stake ($ 1.3 billion) in Coca-Cola, and another $1.3 billion stake in American Express. As it turned out, these two companies had the staying power that Buffet had anticipated, and have grown enormously in value over the past three decades.

In addition to their wholesome stock-picking philosophy, the “secret sauce” of Berkshire Hathaway is having the available funds to make those great investments in those great companies. These funds came large from the “float” from their insurance businesses. In Buffett’s words:

In 1965, Berkshire was a one-trick pony, the owner of a venerable – but doomed – New England textile operation. With that business on a death march, Berkshire needed an immediate fresh start. Looking back, I was slow to recognize the severity of its problems. And then came a stroke of good luck: National Indemnity became available in 1967, and we shifted our resources toward insurance and other non-textile operations.

The insurance business is interesting, in that clients pay in money “now”, but it does not get paid out until “later”. The insurance company has the money to own and manage until there is some claim event (e.g., someone dies or gets their home flooded) perhaps many years later.  The traditional, conservative way for insurance companies to manage this float money was to invest it in low-paying but ultra-safe investment grade bonds.

Buffett’s key secret to success was to realize that he could invest at least part of these float funds in stocks, which would (hopefully!) over time make much more money than bonds. That gave him the cash to make those great investments in Coke and Amex. And his fund continues to have billions in hand to make strategic investments. He has made a bundle bailing out good companies that fell into short term difficulties. In his words:

Berkshire’s unmatched financial strength allows its insurance subsidiaries to follow valuable and enduring investment strategies unavailable to virtually all competitors. Aided by Alleghany, our insurance float increased during 2022 from $147 billion to $164 billion. With disciplined underwriting, these funds have a decent chance of being cost-free over time. Since purchasing our first property-casualty insurer in 1967, Berkshire’s float has increased 8,000-fold through acquisitions, operations and innovations. Though not recognized in our financial statements, this float has been an extraordinary asset for Berkshire.

You, too, can participate in Buffett’s investing magic, by buying shares in Berkshire Hathaway. The stock symbol is BRK.B. (Disclosure: I own a few shares). Buffett has been skeptical of flashy tech stocks, and so BRK.B’s performance lagged the S&P 500 fund SPY in 2020-2021, but over the long term Berkshire (orange line in chart below) has crushed the S&P:

Don’t get too mad about bad economics journalism

Rather than channel my inner, but very real, grumpy old economist, I want to instead reassure you that, yes, the NYT article “Is the entire economy gentrifying?” is as bad, if not worse than you think. I have a duty to link to it, but I’d actually prefer you not click through.

It’s bad in the all the ways that can make you feel crazy and gaslit.

  1. The title is a question even though the entire article is an assertion
  2. The subtitle uses colloquial language to signal condescension and superiority
  3. It makes grievous economic errors that betray the authors broad ignorance of the subject

There’s little doubt that part of why it so blatantaly telegraphs that it’s bad is for the very purpose of pulling in an additional audience of hate-readers. I could grump about the addition of that unnecessary question mark in the title to mitigate any culpability for the meandering anecdote driven assertions that follow. I could whine that describing profits as “fat”, rather than “large”, “growing” or, god forbid, without an adjective at all, let’s us know right away that their story has a villain that you can blame while feeling superior to all the fools who don’t realize they’re being taken advantage of.

I could definitely settle into a cathartic, apoplectic rage at the omission of the G*D D**M MONEY SUPPLY as a potential input into inflation. For such an economic sin they should have to take the train to Paul Krugman’s CUNY office and silently wait in contrition until he shows up to absolve them (pro tip: bring snacks).

I could do any of those things. You probably could, too.

But you shouldn’t. These are professional journalists, but amateur economists, filling column inches in the New York Times. Your sibling might have a marginally worse opinion on the economy tomorrow, but let’s be honest: their opinions were already pretty bad. Just enjoy your week.

Complacency and American Girl Dolls 2

It’s time to revisit American Girl Dolls and the Saturn V rocket. The trending topic among millennials is the new “historical” American Girl doll who lives in the year 1999.

Previously, I blogged about the historical Courtney doll from 1986 in “Complacency and American Girl Dolls.” I used Courtney’s accessories to illustrate stagnation in the physical environment (within rich countries) of recent decades. Courtney has a Walkman for playing cassette tapes and she has an arcade-style Pac-Man game to entertain herself. I pointed out that ’80’s Courtney had to be given the World War II doll Molly just to keep life interesting.

What do Isabel and Nicki have a decade later in 1999?  

They have a personal CD player and floppy disks. It’s cute and the toys will sell. However, it does not seem like innovation has introduced many new capabilities. Isabel can listen to music through her headphones and be entertained on screens, just like Courtney could.

Isabel eats Pizza Hut and has dial-up internet access. There is no sense of sacrifice or expanding the frontier. The world was settled, and history had ended.  

What counts for adventure in 1999? Shopping vintage clothing. Just like Courtney, Isabel revisits the past to get a sense of purpose or excitement.

This is Isabel’s diary. Having nothing to do besides look at clothes from past decades, she obsesses over status. Presumably “Kat” complimented her hat in person. Facebook didn’t start until 2004, so Isabel is not worried about “Likes” in social media.

So, what did I do with my kids for their school break on Presidents’ Day?  We went to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center to see the Saturn V rocket.

Continue reading

Self-Conception, Relative Prices, & Confabulation

We all like to think that we are individuals. We like to think that we grow and that our tastes develop and mature. We begin to appreciate different things in life, and among other behaviors, our spending habits change.

But what would you say if I told you that your maturing tastes didn’t cause your maturing consumption patterns? Indeed, what if it’s the other way around? Maybe, you’re just a bumbling ball bearing bouncing about and pinging off of various stimuli in a very predictable fashion. What if the prices that you face changed over the course of the past two decades, adjusting your optimal bundle of consumption, and then you contrived reasons for your new behavior in an elegant post-hoc fashion.

Have you *really* taken a liking to whole wheat bread and pasta over the past decade because your tastes have developed? Or maybe it’s because you found that scrumptious New York Times recipe that turned you away from potatoes and toward rice. Whether it’s a personal experience, a personal influence, or a personal development, we like to think about ourselves as complex organisms with a narrative that makes sense of the way in which we interact with the world.

On the other hand, we have price theory. Price theory still accepts that you are special and that you have preferences. Then, it asserts that your preferences remain fixed and that your changes in behavior are merely responses to changing costs and benefits that you perceive in the world. Maybe you’re not any more inclined to eat healthily than you were previously, but the price ratio of whole wheat bread to white bread is 10% less than it use to be. Maybe your east-Asian inspired recipe didn’t cause you to spurn potatoes, but instead the price ratio of rice to potatoes fell by 20%.   

Continue reading