Notes on “Why Tech Didn’t Save Us From Covid-19”

The MIT Technology Review recently published an interesting, thought-provoking article with the title in quotes above. It was also a little bit one-sided, but we’ll get to that later.

  • The title itself brought to mind Peter Thiel’s quote about being promised flying cars, and being given 140 characters instead. You may want to make a snarky joke about whether 280 characters counts as progress or not, but the point is well taken. And indeed, reinforced by this quote from David Rotman’s article:
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    “In an age of artificial intelligence, genomic medicine, and self-driving cars, our most effective response to the outbreak has been mass quarantines, a public health technique borrowed from the Middle Ages.”
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  • The article then goes on to highlight at least three separate aspects of why tech has failed us: lesser government support for technology and innovation (particularly in the USA), a sclerotic bureaucracy, and policy-making that is not a) proactive enough b) good at managing risks effectively c) far too focused on short-term issues d) aware of the pitfalls of focusing solely on efficiency.
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    Let’s begin with the last of these points:
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  • ““The pandemic has shone a bright light on just how much US manufacturing capabilities have moved offshore,” says Erica Fuchs, a manufacturing expert at Carnegie Mellon University.”
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    I teach courses in international economics at the Gokhale Institute, and one of the fundamental insights that I think students need to walk away with is the concept of a non-zero sum game. Trade makes both parties better off, and therefore more trade is good, is literally the basic starting block of a course on trade. For an excellent summary of this idea, read this article by Paul Krugman, or watch this TED talk by Matt Ridley.
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    But two basic concepts from economics have come to haunt this rather neat idea. One is scale, and the other is the need to diversify. Both are very closely related.
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  • If, conventional theoretical thinking goes, a firm is able to scale up effectively, it will be able to produce more for cheaper. Yes, it is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of the benefits of scale. Now, think of all countries as firms, and China is the obvious example of a country that scaled more rapidly than other countries, and was able to produce stuff cheaper than almost anywhere else. And that’s how China became the “manufacturing centre of the world”. The more you import from China, the more they scale (and effectively!). The more they scale, they cheaper they can make stuff. The cheaper stuff gets, the more you have an incentive to import from China. And once the loop is up and running, it becomes difficult to stop.
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  • And that’s a simple explanation for how the world ended up putting all of its eggs in one basket. We failed to diversify, because we focused on efficiency, without worrying about risk. What happens if an increasingly efficient global trading order suddenly breaks down? The price of efficiency is two fold: a) a lack of diversification b) not enough risk mitigation measures that allow one to fall back on domestic production. Which is where most of the world finds itself today. Readjusting global supply chains away from China is necessary, but it will not be easy. Especially because most countries will not want to pursue twin objectives: a) diversification away from China into other potential export powerhouses b) some production to be kept at home, especially in crucial sectors such as healthcare.
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    Scale, and a lack of diversification. There’s a lesson in there for us at the individual level as well, of course. A single minded pursuit of some goal (say money, or career growth) at the cost of other things isn’t necessarily a good idea.
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  • “Why couldn’t the US’s dominant tech industry and large biomedical sector provide these things? It’s tempting to simply blame the Trump administration’s inaction.”
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    The truth is always more complicated than you think, and beware simple explanations, but that being said, you might want to read The Fifth Risk. Here’s a slightly tangential review from The Guardian if you are feeling lazy, and a quote from that article follows:
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    “But we’re actually much more likely to die driving to the shops. The fifth risk is something impossible to conceive of in advance, or to prepare for directly. What matters is having a well-organised government in place to respond to these contingencies when they hit – exactly what the Trump administration has failed to do.”
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    No government, or Big Ol’ Central Planner is perfect, of course (and there’s a very readable book about that topic, or here’s a fascinating review of the same book), but Michael Lewis makes the claim that the Trump administration is rather less than perfect even by our less than exacting standards.
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  • “Any country’s capacity to invent and then deploy the technologies it needs is shaped by public funding and government policies. In the US, public investment in manufacturing, new materials, and vaccines and diagnostics has not been a priority, and there is almost no system of government direction, financial backing, or technical support for many critically important new technologies. Without it, the country was caught flat-footed.”
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    The book to read about this topic, if you ask me, is The Entrepreneurial State, by Mariana Mazzucato. Here’s the Wikipedia link about the book. Governments need to play, she says (and I suspect the author of this article would agree), a more active role in fostering the tech ecosystem in a country. Shades of Studwell, perhaps, but I have a counterargument here:
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  • “Incompetence and a sclerotic bureaucracy” is a phrase David Rotman uses early in the article when speaking about the Center for Disease Control in the USA. I find myself in complete agreement with the adjectives used. Why presume, then, that other government departments are likely any better? The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. You can certainly make the case a la Michael Lewis, that the Trump administration took us to one end of the spectrum – but you should beware equally the other end of it!
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  • “Economists like to measure the impact of innovation in terms of productivity growth, particularly “total factor productivity”—the ability to get more output from the same inputs (such as labor and capital). Productivity growth is what makes advanced nations richer and more prosperous over the long run. For the US as well as most other rich countries, this measure of innovation has been dismal for nearly two decades.”
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    Well, yes, sure. And there is more than a grain of truth to the charge laid above, and not just for America. But keep in mind that measuring TFP is really and truly hard, and I am nowhere close to being convinced that we do a good job of it, even for a country like the USA, forget India. I am writing this post while sitting in my bed, using a laptop that allows me to keep multiple tabs (well over 50 right now) open in a modern browser, while being seamlessly connected to an overwhelming variety of news sources. All this while I listen to a Spotify playlist, and sip on excellent coffee that is made using home delivered Arabic beans. I’ll stop channeling my inner Keynes now, but most of this was not possible, especially at these prices, two decades ago.
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    Progress may not be fast enough for our tastes, sure – but it has been taking place. If you would like to read a book with a take contrarian to mine, try this on for size: The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert Gordon.
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  • “The problem with letting private investment alone drive innovation is that the money is skewed toward the most lucrative markets.”
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    Churchill’s quote about democracy comes to mind!
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  • “In a widely circulated blog post, internet pioneer and Silicon Valley icon Marc Andreessen decried the US’s inability to “build” and produce needed supplies like masks, claiming that “we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things.” The accusation resonated with many: the US, where manufacturing has deteriorated, seemed unable to churn out things like masks and ventilators, while countries with strong and innovative manufacturing sectors, such as China, Japan, Taiwan, and Germany, have fared far better.”
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    Here’s is Andreessen’s post, and also, this is your periodic reminder to read How Asia Works. China, Japan, Taiwan and Germany being up there isn’t a coincidence.
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  • ““The great lesson from the pandemic,” says Suzanne Berger, a political scientist at MIT and an expert on advanced manufacturing, is “how we traded resilience for low-cost and just-in-time production.””
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    Options are easy to teach, but difficult to grasp, and even more difficult to implement. See put, long.
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  • “…they are calling for an immediate ramp-up of public investment in technology, but also for a bigger government role in guiding the direction of technologists’ work. The key will be to spend at least some of the cash in the gigantic US fiscal stimulus bills not just on juicing the economy but on reviving innovation in neglected sectors like advanced manufacturing and boosting the development of promising areas like AI. “We’re going to be spending a great deal of money, so can we use this in a productive way? Without diminishing the enormous suffering that has happened, can we use this as a wake-up call?” asks Harvard’s Henderson.”
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    More participation from the government than is currently happening, but throw also into the mix a more venture-capital-ish approach, and don’t forget prizes! In fact, I found myself wishing midway through the article that the author had explored other options, rather than the government-or-markets binary.
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  • I hope I haven’t comes across as overly critical of the article, and my apologies if I have. That has certainly not been my objective. We rely far too much on the private sector now, that is true – and government can and should play a bigger role than is the case currently. But an extreme position, in either direction, always worries me a little!

Understanding Afghanistan A Little Bit Better

“Here is a game called buzkashi that is played only in Afghanistan and the central Asian steppe. It involves men on horseback competing to snatch a goat carcass off the ground and carry it to each of two designated posts while the other players, riding alongside at full gallop, fight to wrest the goat carcass away. The men play as individuals, each for his own glory. There are no teams. There is no set number of players. The distance between the posts is arbitrary. The field of play has no boundaries or chalk marks. No referee rides alongside to whistle plays dead and none is needed, for there are no fouls. The game is governed and regulated by its own traditions, by the social context and its customs, and by the implicit understandings among the players. If you need the protection of an official rule book, you shouldn’t be playing. Two hundred years ago, buzkashi offered an apt metaphor for Afghan society. The major theme of the country’s history since then has been a contention about whether and how to impose rules on the buzkashi of Afghan society.”

That is an excerpt from an excerpt – the book is called Games Without Rules, and the author, Tamim Ansary, has written a very readable book indeed about the last two centuries or so of Afghanistan’s history.

It has customs, and it has traditions, but it doesn’t have rules, and good luck trying to impose them. The British tried (thrice) as did the Russians and now the Americans, but Afghanistan has proven to be the better of all of them.

Let’s begin with the Russians: why did they invade?


 

One day in October 1979, an American diplomat named Archer K. Blood arrived at Afghanistan’s government headquarters, summoned by the new president, whose ousted predecessor had just been smothered to death with a pillow.

While the Kabul government was a client of the Soviet Union, the new president, Hafizullah Amin, had something else in mind. “I think he wants an improvement in U.S.-Afghan relations,” Mr. Blood wrote in a cable back to Washington. It was possible, he added, that Mr. Amin wanted “a long-range hedge against over-dependence on the Soviet Union.”

Pete Baker in the NYT speaks of recently made available archival history, which essentially reconfirms what seems to have been the popular view all along: the USSR could not afford to let Afghanistan slip away from the Communist world, no matter the cost. And as Prisoners of Geography makes clear, and the NYT article mentions, there was always the tantalizing dream of accessing the Indian Ocean.

By the way, somebody should dig deeper into Archer K. Blood, and maybe write a book about him. There’s one already, but that’s a story for another day.


Well, if the USSR invaded, the USA had to be around, and of course it was:

The supplying of billions of dollars in arms to the Afghan mujahideen militants was one of the CIA’s longest and most expensive covert operations. The CIA provided assistance to the fundamentalist insurgents through the Pakistani secret services, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in a program called Operation Cyclone. At least 3 billion in U.S. dollars were funneled into the country to train and equip troops with weapons. Together with similar programs by Saudi Arabia, Britain’s MI6 and SAS, Egypt, Iran, and the People’s Republic of China, the arms included FIM-43 Redeye, shoulder-fired, antiaircraft weapons that they used against Soviet helicopters. Pakistan’s secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was used as an intermediary for most of these activities to disguise the sources of support for the resistance.

But if you are interested in the how, rather than the what – and if you are interested in public choice – then do read this review, and do watch the movie. Charlie Wilson’s War is a great, great yarn.

 


 

AP Photo, sourced from the Atlantic photo essay credited below.

Powerful photographs that hint at what the chaos of those nine years must have been like, from the Atlantic.

 


 

And finally, from the Guardian comes an article that seeks to give a different take on “ten myths” about Afghanistan, including the glorification of Charlie Wilson:

 

This myth of the 1980s was given new life by George Crile’s 2003 book Charlie Wilson’s War and the 2007 film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks as the loud-mouthed congressman from Texas. Both book and movie claim that Wilson turned the tide of the war by persuading Ronald Reagan to supply the mujahideen with shoulder-fired missiles that could shoot down helicopters. The Stingers certainly forced a shift in Soviet tactics. Helicopter crews switched their operations to night raids since the mujahideen had no night-vision equipment. Pilots made bombing runs at greater height, thereby diminishing the accuracy of the attacks, but the rate of Soviet and Afghan aircraft losses did not change significantly from what it was in the first six years of the war.

RoW: Links for 25th December, 2019

  1. A collection of links about Thailand.
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  2. About East Asia, which is a region of the world I continue to be fascinated by – it began with How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell, and has been only accentuated by reading more about it.
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  3. This didn’t work out so well, in retrospect, but one lives in hope. Five articles about Australia.
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  4. Gun control and the USA.
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  5. And East Asia all over again – the 100 books about China is a treasure.

Row: Links for 18th December, 2019

  1. ““If a Chinese would come this road is done in a month,” explained Kenyan real estate entrepreneur George Hinga in a 2017 Vice China documentary. “With the Westerners,” he added, “the bureaucracy to get this approved would take a year, first of all, without any construction. I mean, why partner with the West?””
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    China full speed ahead in Africa.
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  2. A classic example of the seen and the unseen, from China and her implementation of the one child policy.
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  3. “In our prison example, for OPEC, and with the trade war, what is good for the group is not necessarily the individual’s “dominant strategy.” And that is why OPEC nations don’t necessarily listen to production quotas and the U.S. and China continue raising tariffs. Each one’s dominant strategy relates to their opponents rather than the benefits of cooperation.”
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    Elaine Schwartz on the USA, China and the prisoner’s dilemma.
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  4. “Xi sees that development economics as a discipline was largely created by Western economists using their own economies as a model, rather than being an indigenous creation of developing economies. “
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    Andrew Batson on a very early essay by Xi Jingping.
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  5. Speaking of unintended consequences…(with reference to number 2 above)

RoW: Links for 18th September, 2019

  1. How was London’s tech scene built?
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  2. If you ever get the chance to pick a train journey…. for me, this one, for sure.
    “And so it was no small relief when, there the next morning, was the train at the platform. Its Chinese provenance was confirmed by the ethnicity of the “Captain” ushering people aboard, and by our salmon-colored tickets, the same as those issued by China’s National Railway.An hour later, we were enjoying a rare sensation: swift, ceaseless movement through a sub-Saharan landscape.”
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  3. Or wait, hang on
    “For most of human history, it was impossible to grasp the range of the habitable world in a single day. Beginning in the mid-20th century, one could fly from a cool region to a hot region in one day. But that was an artificial experience—you missed everything in between. That all changed in 2012, when China built a high speed rail line from the north to the south of the country. Now you could board a train at 9am in cold, snowy Beijing, and get off 8 hours later in tropical Guangzhou, at the same latitude as Havana.

    A few years later the line was extended further south to Hong Kong, where you arrive an hour later. For the first time ever, humans can see the gradual change in landscape from the temperate zone to the tropics, all in a single day.”
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  4. “In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow.”
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    Especially given the context, the rest of this first paragraph is some of the finest writing I have ever read. That is not an exaggeration.
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  5. “But improving American higher education would be the final plank of the Tyler Cowen industrial policy.”
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    Tyler Cowen on industrial policy in America.

RoW: Links for 14th August, 2019

Five links about gun control from the United States of America:

  1. First, from Chriss Blattman, who knows a thing or two about violence.
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  2. Slatestarcodex, on trying to make sense of the data
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  3. and what the comments section from that blog has to say.
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  4. Gun control, the Japanese way.
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  5. To circle back to the beginning, a contemplative article from Vox.

ROW: Links for 17th July, 2019

  1. “A politically divisive debate continues to rage over U.S. President Donald Trump’s push to add a citizenship or nationality question to the U.S. census.That same question has been part of Canada’s long-form census for over a century without a ripple, although it’s not part of the short-form questionnaire.”
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    Via MR, an article that helps you learn that the citizenship question has been around for a while now.
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  2. “Not asking about citizenship seems to signify an attitude toward immigrants something like this: Get them in and across the border, their status may be mixed and their existence may be furtive, and let’s not talk too openly about what is going on, and later we will try to get all of them citizenship. Given the current disagreement between the two parties on immigration questions, that may well be the only way of getting more immigrants into the U.S., which I hold to be a desirable goal. But that is a dangerous choice of political turf, and it may not help the pro-immigration cause in the longer run.”
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    And here’s why Tyler Cowen linked to the piece we added above in the first place.
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  3. “The Indian Rupee will now be accepted for transaction at all airports in Dubai, according to a leading newspaper in the United Arab Emirates.The acceptance of Indian currency is good news for tourists from that country as earlier they lost a sizeable amount due to exchange rates, sources said.”
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    On the growing importance of India in the global scheme of things…
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  4. “By demanding that schools provide opportunities for young girls to play sports and mandating that universities provide equal scholarship funding for women, title IX created opportunity and incentive for girls to play sports. Suddenly, not only were energetic, athletic girls given the same opportunities to play as the boys were, but they also had the opportunity for their sporting talent to fund their educations through scholarships.”
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    Policies, politics, Title IX and the recently concluded World Cup.
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  5. “Yan said the data shows that housing prices have “decoupled” from income, and are instead driven by access to capital – giving investors a clear advantage over average Canadians. “It’s not about supply or demand any more,” said Yan. “It’s: who are we building for?””
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    Circling back to Canada, this time about housing and its excesses. This has a familiar ring to it…

Etc: Links for 12th July, 2019

  1. “Often failure is simply failure, and a setback is exactly what it seems. But sometimes the obstacle that has been placed in our path might provoke us to look around, and perhaps to discover that a better route was there all along.”
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    Tim Harford on the Doris Day effect
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  2. “If I have to be curt, they’re famous for being famous. Another way of understanding how a family (+ dogs+friends+assistants) has risen to unprecedented levels of fame and fortune is by the Principle of Cumulative Advantage. This principle is also known as the Matthew Effect, and refers to the phenomenon of those who already have an advantage acquiring more of it. This concept is applicable to both financial and social capital.”
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    …and since the previous article mentioned it, Reshu Natani in Think Pragati on the Matthew Effect.
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  3. “The last time I saw Bourdain was a few months ago, at a party in New York, for one of the books released by his imprint at the publishing house Ecco—of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight. At the bar, where I’d just picked up my drink, he came up and clapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when you asked me if I was a feminist, and I was afraid to say yes?” he said, in that growling, companionable voice. “Write this down: I’m a fuckin’ feminist.”
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    A lovely essay on the late Anthony Bourdain. Just in case you haven’t, do read this – the article that started it all.
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  4. “5-MeO-DMT is produced in large amounts by Bufo alvarius, a rare species of toad commonly known as the Colorado river toad or the Sonoran desert toad. When preyed upon, the toad secretes a venom that repels predators by causing them to, in scientific terms, trip balls. Psychonauts discovered that you can milk the toads’ venom, dry it out, and smoke it. The substance’s close relative, DMT, is an active ingredient in the traditional shamanic brew known as ayahuasca, but what they say about smoking the toad is that it’s like riding a rocket to the same place of total ego death that ayahuasca takes you to by riverboat.”
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    That, the excerpt above, is not what this article is about. It is about Mike Tyson. He, as the title says, smokes the toad.
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  5. “There are many ways to achieve success and fulfillment that do not involve attending an elite college. Instead of encouraging people to pursue options well-matched to their abilities, however, we tell young people that their self-worth hinges entirely on the brand name on their college diploma. This creates a perverse incentive to do whatever it takes to get into their dream school, to amass tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and to select a major based not on the professional opportunities it will open to them but on the ease of the program’s academic requirements. Small wonder we now have a generation drowning in debt and struggling to meet the traditional benchmarks of adulthood.”
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    A long, but very reasoned rant about education in America, and about how it isn’t quite as good as it is made out to be. Also, that rare article that distinguishes between education (teaching) and research.

EC101: Links for 11th July, 2019

  1. “The two approaches reflect different attitudes toward risk, the role of government and collective social responsibility. Analogous to America’s debate over health insurance, the American philosophy has been to make more resilient buildings an individual choice, not a government mandate.”
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    Risk, how (not) to measure it and therefore understand it. As Taleb is fond of saying, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.
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  2. “Is it possible that interest rates are a net input cost in the Indian context? This existential monetary question is yet to be even acknowledged by economists, let alone addressed.”
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    A superb (and I use the word advisedly) overview of monetary policy and how it works in India.
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  3. “I would challenge my students at the start of the new semester with the following three questions; 1) how much does it cost you to go to the beach (we lived in a coastal city)? 2) should Tiger Woods mow his own lawn? or 3) should Lebron and Kobie go to college?”
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    Opportunity costs, economic costs and accounting costs – all in one article, and therefore a great read.
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  4. “The cornerstone of Harvard professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics textbook, Principles of Economics, is a synthesis of economic thought into Ten Principles of Economics (listed in the first table below). A quick perusal of these will likely affirm the reader’s suspicions that synthesizing economic thought into Ten Principles is no easy task, and may even lead the reader to suspect that the subtlety and concision required are not to be found in the pen of N. Gregory Mankiw.”
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    A hilarious (but perhaps only to an economist) take on the ten principles of economics.
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  5. “And the long version of the history is crucial here. It shows that for much of the 20th century, total taxes on the very wealthy were much higher than they are now. Before World War II, the average rate hovered around 70 percent. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, the average rate was above 50 percent.”
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    David Leonhardt on taxing the rich in America. His newsletter is worth subscribing to, by the way.

ROW: Links for 10th July, 2019

  1. “The radio station, whose call letters are KHIL, has long been the daily soundtrack for this frontier town (population 3,500) that prides itself on its cowboy culture and quiet pace of life. But six decades after the founding of the station, the property is in foreclosure, with utility disconnect notices coming nearly every month.”
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    Culture and Coase (an updated version) in rural America. For both of these reasons and more, worth your time.
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  2. “When Amnesty International U.S.A. started looking for a new headquarters in New York City, the human rights group settled on office space in a modest skyscraper in Lower Manhattan known as Wall Street Plaza.But just as the organization was about to sign a lease last week, the building’s owner said that its new parent company, a giant shipping conglomerate owned by the Chinese government, decided to veto the offer. The company, Cosco Shipping, did not want the United States chapter of Amnesty International, which has produced scathing reports highlighting human rights abuses in China, as a tenant, according to the group.”
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    Business, culture, nationalism, America and China.
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  3. “When you’re doing everything wrong, the best way to fix the problem isn’t usually to go through the list of things you’re doing wrong and fix them one by one. It’s best to step back and ask why you’re so bad at everything, whether a systemic problem is causing you to make so many separate mistakes. And in the case of the MTA, the root cause of its capital-construction failures is usually diagnosed as unaccountability: Nobody knows who’s in charge, so nobody has to be terrified of taking the blame for obscene costs and endless delays.”
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    Coordinating stuff is hard. The New York version of this story. Also, this is why Singapore deserves all the admiration it gets (and more)
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  4. “During the French referendum on the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, we observed that 60% of the voters with the lowest incomes, personal wealth or qualifications voted against, whereas the 40% of the electorate with higher incomes voted in favour; the gap was big enough for the yes vote to win with a small majority (51%). The same thing happened with the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, except that this time only the top 20% were in favour of the yes vote, whereas the lower 80% preferred to vote no, whence a clear victory for the latter (55%). Likewise for the referendum on Brexit in the UK in 2016: this time it was the top 30% who voted enthusiastically to remain in the EU. But, as the bottom 70% preferred to leave, the leave vote won with 52% of the votes.”
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    An article which helps you think a little bit more about the European Union and what plagues it.
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  5. “China’s overall external surplus is down. That’s not surprising—China’s general government deficit is somewhere between 4 percent of GDP and 12 percent of GDP, depending on what measure you use. The gap between China’s fiscal stance and that of Korea is even bigger than the gulf between Germany’s surplus and the deficit of France—and the gap between the euro area’s (tight) overall fiscal stance and the much looser stance of the United States.But the surplus of China’s neighbors, who have responded, in many cases, to the “rise” of China with policy stances designed to maintain weak currencies and protect their exports, has soared over the past ten years, and now is substantially larger than it was prior to the global crisis.”
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    A useful article about Korea’s macroeconomic choices, and the reasoning behind them.