Politics

Book review: State, Economy, and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s – 1850s, by Peer Vries.

Yet another book on why Britain and China diverged dramatically starting around 1800. This one focuses on documenting the differences between the regions, with relatively little theorizing.

Some interesting differences of possible relevance to the divergence:

  • British per capita tax collections were 15 times China’s [1]; Vries emphasizes the underlying British bureaucratic competence.
  • Britain changed its tax rules often; China treated tax rules as if set in stone.
  • British tax policy caused it to promote standardization of a wide variety of weights and measures, which helped long-distance trades; China had nothing similar.
  • Britain’s taxation was more egalitarian than China’s (but still much less egalitarian than today).
  • British government debt looked recklessly high; China consistently had a surplus.
  • British elites wanted to keep the masses poor (to make them industrious); China’s elites seemed neutral or had slight preferences for the poor to prosper.
  • Most British workers were nearly slaves – laws restricted their mobility due to the expectation that most who left their area of work were beggars/thieves; China was less restrictive.
  • Britain condoned or supported powerful monopolies; China broke up concentrations of merchant power / capital under the assumption that they came at the expense of ordinary people.
  • Britain had three times as much farm land per capita as China.
  • Britain was more urban, so it had more commercial / monetary activity.
  • China denied that anything outside its borders mattered. Britain had a fairly global worldview.

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Book review: Political Order and Political Decay, by Francis Fukuyama.

This book describes the rise of modern nation-states, from the French revolution to the present.

Fukuyama focuses on three features that influence national success: state (effective bureaucracy), rule of law, and autonomy (democratic accountability).

Much of the book argues against libertarian ideas from a fairly centrist perspective, although he mostly avoids directly discussing libertarian beliefs. Instead, he implies that we should de-emphasize debates over big government versus small government, and look more at effectiveness versus corruption (i.e. we should pull sideways).

Many of these ideas build on what Fukuyama wrote in Trust – I suggest reading that book first.

1.

War! What Is It Good For?. Fukuyama believes that war sometimes causes states to make their bureaucracy more efficient. Fukuyama is more credible here than Morris because Fukuyama is more cautious about the effects he claims to see.

The book suggests that young nations have some key stage where threat of conquest can create the right incentives for developing an efficient bureaucracy (i.e. without efficient support for the military, including effective taxation, they get absorbed into a state that does better at those tasks). Without such a threat, states can get stuck in an equilibrium where the bureaucracy simply serves a small number of powerful people. But with such a threat, politicians need to delegate enough authority that the bureaucracy develops some independence, which enables it to care about broader notions of national welfare. (Fukuyama talks as if the bureaucracies are somewhat altruistic. I think of it more as the bureaucracies caring about their long-term revenue source, when individual politicians don’t hold power long enough to care about the long term).

It seems plausible that China would have helped to lead the industrial revolution if it had faced a serious risk of being conquered in the 17th and 18th centuries. China’s relative safety back then seems to have left it complacent and stagnant.

2.

Fukuyama hints that the three pillars of modern nation-states (state, law, autonomy) have roughly equal importance.

Yet I don’t buy that. I expect that whatever virtues are responsible for the rule of law are a good deal more important than effective bureaucracies or democratic accountability.

Fukuyama doesn’t make a strong case for the value of democracy for national success, presumably in part because he expects most readers to already agree with him about that. I’ll conjecture that democracy is mostly a byproduct of success at the other features that Fukuyama considers important.

It’s likely that democracy is somewhat valuable for generating fairness, but that has limited relevance to what Fukuyama tries to explain (i.e. mainly power and wealth).

3.

Full-fledged rule of law might be needed to get all the benefits of the best modern societies. But the differences between good and bad nations seems to have originated well before those nations had more than a rudimentary version of rule of law.

That suggests some underlying factor that matters – maybe just the basic notion of law as something separate from individual leaders or ethnic groups (Fukuyama’s previous book says Christianity played an important role here); or maybe the kind of cultural advance suggested by Greg Clark.

Fukuyama argues that it’s risky to adopt democracy before creating effective states and the rule of law. He’s probably right to expect that such democracies will be dominated by people who fight to get the spoils of politics for their family / clan / ethnic group, with little thought to national wellbeing.

4.

National identity is important for producing the kind of government that Fukuyama likes. It’s hard for government employees to focus on the welfare of the nation if they identify mainly as members of a non-majority ethnic group.

He mentions that the printing press helped create national identities out of more fragmented cultures. This seems important enough to Europe’s success that it deserves more emphasis than the two paragraphs he devotes to it.

He describes several countries that started out as a patchwork of ethnic groups, and had differing degrees of success at developing a unified national identity: Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, and Indonesia. I was a bit disappointed that the differences there seemed to be mostly accidents of the personalities of leading politicians.

He talks as if the only two options for such regions were to develop a clear national identity or be crippled by ethnic conflict. Why not also consider the option of splitting into smaller political units that can aim to become city-states such as Singapore and Dubai?

5.

He makes many minor claims that sound suspicious enough for me to have moderate doubts about trusting his scholarship.

For example, he tries to refute claims that “industrial policy never works”, mainly by using the example of the government developing the internet. (His use of the word “never” suggests that he’s not exactly attacking the most sophisticated version of the belief in question). How familiar is he with the history of the internet? The entities in charge of internet tried to restrict commercial use until 1995. Actual commercial use of the internet started before the government made a clear decision to tolerate such use, much less endorse it. So Fukuyama either has a faulty understanding of internet history, or is using the phrase industrial policy in a way that puzzles me.

Then there’s the claim that the Spanish conquered important parts of the New World before the native nations had declined due to European diseases. Fukuyama seems unfamiliar with the contrary evidence reported by Charles C. Mann in 1491 and 1493. Mann may not be an ideal source, but he appears at least as reliable as the sources that Fukuyama cites.

6.

That leads into more general doubts about history books, especially ambitiously broad books aimed at popular audiences.

Tetlock’s research into the accuracy of political pundits has led me to assume that a broad range of “expert” commentary is roughly equivalent to random guessing. Much of what historians do [1] seems quite similar to the opinions of the experts that Tetlock studies. Neither historians nor political pundits get adequate feedback about mistaken beliefs, or get significant rewards for insights that are later confirmed by new evidence. That leads me to worry that the study of history is little better than voodoo.

7.

In sum, I can’t quite decide whether to recommend that you read this book.

[1] – I.e. drawing inferences from aggregations of data. That’s not to say that historians don’t devote lots of time to reporting observed facts. But most of those facts don’t have value to me unless I can generalize from them in ways that help me understand the future. Historian’s choices of what facts to emphasize will unavoidably influence any generalizations I draw.

Book review: Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner.

This book reports on the Good Judgment Project (GJP).

Much of the book recycles old ideas: 40% of the book is a rerun of Thinking Fast and Slow, 15% of the book repeats Wisdom of Crowds, and 15% of the book rehashes How to Measure Anything. Those three books were good enough that it’s very hard to improve on them. Superforecasting nearly matches their quality, but most people ought to read those three books instead. (Anyone who still wants more after reading them will get decent value out of reading the last 4 or 5 chapters of Superforecasting).

The book’s style is very readable, using an almost Gladwell-like style (a large contrast to Tetlock’s previous, more scholarly book), at a moderate cost in substance. It contains memorable phrases, such as “a fox with the bulging eyes of a dragonfly” (to describe looking at the world through many perspectives).

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The stock market reaction to the election was quite strange.

From the first debate through Tuesday, S&P 500 futures showed modest signs of believing that Trump was worse for the market than Clinton. This Wolfers and Zitzewitz study shows some of the relevant evidence.

On Tuesday evening, I followed the futures market and the prediction markets moderately closely, and it looked like there was a very clear correlation between those two markets, strongly suggesting the S&P 500 would be 6 to 8 percent lower under Trump than under Clinton. This correlation did not surprise me.

This morning, the S&P 500 prices said the market had been just kidding last night, and that Trump is neutral or slightly good for the market.

Part of this discrepancy is presumably due to the difference between regular trading hours and after hours trading. The clearest evidence for market dislike of Trump came from after hours trading, when the most sophisticated traders are off-duty. I’ve been vaguely aware that after hours markets are less efficiently priced. But this appears to involve at least a few hundred million dollars of potential profit, which somewhat stretches the limit of how inefficient the markets could plausibly be.

I see one report of Carl Icahn claiming

I thought it was absurd that the market, the S&P was down 100 points on Trump getting elected … but I couldn’t put more than about a billion dollars to work

I’m unclear what constrained him, but it sure looked like the market could have absorbed plenty more buying while I was watching (up to 10pm PST), so I’ll guess he was more constrained by something related to him being at a party.

But even if the best U.S. traders were too distracted to make the markets efficient, that leaves me puzzled about asian markets, which were down almost as much as the U.S. market during the middle of the asian day.

So it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the market either made a big irrational move, or was reacting to news whose importance I can’t recognize.

I don’t have a strong opinion on which of the market reactions was correct. My intuition says that a market decline of anywhere from 1% to 5% would have been sensible, and I’ve made a few trades reflecting that opinion. I expect that market reactions to news tend to get more rational over time, so I’m now giving a fair amount of weight to the possibility that Trump won’t affect stocks much.

Book review: The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens, by Samuel Bowles.

This book has a strange mixture of realism and idealism.

It focuses on two competing models: the standard economics model in which people act in purely self-interested ways, and a more complex model in which people are influenced by context to act either altruistically or selfishly.

The stereotypical example comes from the semi-famous Haifa daycare experiment, where daycare centers started fining parents for being late to pick up children, and the parents responded by being later.

The first half of the book is a somewhat tedious description of ideas that seem almost obvious enough to be classified as common sense. He points out that the economist’s model is a simplification that is useful for some purposes, yet it’s not too hard to find cases where it makes the wrong prediction about how people will respond to incentives.

That happens because society provides weak pressures that produce cooperation under some conditions, and because financial incentives send messages that influence whether people want to cooperate. I.e. the parents appear to have previously felt obligated to be somewhat punctual, but then inferred from the fines that it was ok to be late as long as they paid the price.[*].

The book advocates more realism on this specific issue. But it’s pretty jarring to compare that to the idealistic view the author takes on similar topics, such as acquiring evidence of how people react, or modeling politicians. He treats the Legislator (capitalized like that) as a very objective, well informed, and altruistic philosopher. That model may sometimes be useful, but I’ll bet that, on average, it produces worse predictions about legislators’ behavior than does the economist’s model of a self-interested legislator.

The book becomes more interesting around chapter V, when it analyzes the somewhat paradoxical conclusion that markets sometimes make people more selfish, yet cultures that have more experience with markets tend to cooperate more.

He isn’t able to fully explain that, but he makes some interesting progress. One factor that’s important to focus on is the difference between complete and incomplete contracts. Complete contracts describe everything a buyer might need to know about a product or service. An example of an incomplete contract would be an agreement to hire a lawyer to defend me – I don’t expect the lawyer to specify how good a defense to expect.

Complete contracts enable people to trade without needing to trust the seller, which can lead to highly selfish attitudes. Incomplete contracts lead to the creation of trust between participants, because having frequent transactions depends on some implicit cooperation.

The book ends by promoting the “new” idea that policy ought to aim for making people be good. But it’s unclear who disagrees with that idea. Economists sometimes sound like they disagree, because they often say that policy shouldn’t impose one group’s preferences on another group. But economists are quite willing to observe that people generally prefer cooperation over conflict, and that most people prefer institutions that facilitate cooperation. That’s what the book mostly urges.

The book occasionally hints at wanting governments to legislate preferences in ways that go beyond facilitating cooperation, but doesn’t have much of an argument for doing so.

[*] – The book implies that the increased lateness was an obviously bad result. This seems like a plausible guess. But I find it easy to imagine conditions where the reported results were good (i.e. the parents might benefit from being late more than it costs the teachers to accommodate them).

However, that scenario depends on the fines being high enough for the teachers to prefer the money over punctuality. They appear not to have been consulted, so success at that would have depended on luck. It’s unclear whether the teachers were getting overtime pay when parents were late, or whether the fines benefited only the daycare owner.

Will young ems be created? Why and how will it happen?

Any children that exist as ems will be important as em societies mature, because they will adapt better to em environments than ems who uploaded as adults, making them more productive.

The Age of Em says little about children, presumably in part because no clear outside view predictions seem possible.

This post will use a non-Hansonian analysis style to speculate about which children will become ems. I’m writing this post to clarify my more speculative thoughts about how em worlds will work, without expecting to find much evidence to distinguish the good ideas from the bad ones.

Robin predicts few regulatory obstacles to uploading children, because he expects the world to be dominated by ems. I’m skeptical of that. Ems will be dominant in the sense of having most of the population, but that doesn’t tell us much about em influence on human society – farmers became a large fraction of the world population without meddling much in hunter-gatherer political systems. And it’s unclear whether em political systems would want to alter the relevant regulations – em societies will have much the same conflicting interest groups pushing for and against immigration that human societies have.

How much of Robin’s prediction of low regulation is due to his desire to start by analyzing a relatively simple scenario (low regulation) and add complexity later?

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Book review: The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression, by Scott B Sumner.

This is mostly a history of the two depressions that hit the U.S. in the 1930s: one international depression lasting from late 1929 to early 1933, due almost entirely to problems with an unstable gold exchange standard; quickly followed by a more U.S.-centered depression that was mainly caused by bad labor market policies.

It also contains some valuable history of macroeconomic thought, doing a fairly good job of explaining the popularity of theories that are designed for special cases (such as monetarism and Keynes’ “general” theory).

I was surprised at how much Sumner makes the other books on this subject that I’ve read seem inadequate.
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NGDP targeting has been gaining popularity recently. But targeting market-based inflation forecasts will be about as good under most conditions [1], and we have good markets that forecast the U.S. inflation rate [2].

Those forecasts have a track record that starts in 2003. The track record seems quite consistent with my impressions about when the Fed should have adopted a more inflationary policy (to promote growth and to get inflation expectations up to 2% [3]) and when it should have adopted a less inflationary policy (to avoid fueling the housing bubble). It’s probably a bit controversial to say that the Fed should have had a less inflationary policy from February through July or August of 2008. But my impression (from reading the stock market) is that NGDP futures would have said roughly the same thing. The inflation forecasts sent a clear signal starting in very early September 2008 that Fed policy was too tight, and that’s about when other forms of hindsight switch from muddled to saying clearly that Fed policy was dangerously tight.

Why do I mention this now? The inflation forecast dropped below 1 percent two weeks ago for the first time since May 2008. So the Fed’s stated policies conflict with what a more reputable source of information says the Fed will accomplish. This looks like what we’d see if the Fed was in the process of causing a mild recession to prevent an imaginary increase in inflation.

What does the Fed think it’s doing?

  • It might be relying on interest rates to estimate what it’s policies will produce. Interest rates this low after 6.5 years of economic expansion resemble historical examples of loose monetary policy more than they resemble the stereotype of tight monetary policy [4].
  • The Fed could be following a version of the Taylor Rule. Given standard guesses about the output gap and equilibrium real interest rate [5], the Taylor Rule says interest rates ought to be rising now. The Taylor Rule has usually been at least as good as actual Fed policy at targeting inflation indirectly through targeting interest rates. But that doesn’t explain why the Fed targets interest rates when that conflicts with targeting market forecasts of inflation.
  • The Fed could be influenced by status quo bias: interest rates and unemployment are familiar types of evidence to use, whereas unbiased inflation forecasts are slightly novel.
  • Could the Fed be reacting to money supply growth? Not in any obvious way: the monetary base stopped growing about two years ago, M1 and MZM growth are slowing slightly, and M2 accelerated recently (but only after much of the Fed’s tightening).

Scott Sumner’s rants against reasoning from interest rates explain why the Fed ought to be embarrassed to use interest rates to figure out whether Fed policy is loose or tight.

Yet some institutional incentives encourage the Fed to target interest rates rather than predicted inflation. It feels like an appropriate use of high-status labor to set interest rates once every few weeks based on new discussion of expert wisdom. Switching to more or less mechanical responses to routine bond price changes would undercut much of the reason for believing that the Fed’s leaders are doing high-status work.

The news media storytellers would have trouble finding entertaining ways of reporting adjustments that consisted of small hourly responses to bond market changes. Whereas decisions made a few times per year are uncommon enough to be genuinely newsworthy. And meetings where hawks struggle against doves fit our instinctive stereotype for important news better than following a rule does. So I see little hope that storytellers will want to abandon their focus on interest rates. Do the Fed governors follow the storytellers closely enough that the storytellers’ attention strongly affects the Fed’s attention? Would we be better off if we could ban the Fed from seeing any source of daily stories?

Do any other interest groups prefer stable interest rates over stable inflation rates? I expect a wide range of preferences among Wall Street firms, but I’m unaware which preferences are dominant there.

Consumers presumably prefer that their banks, credit cards, etc have predictable interest rates. But I’m skeptical that the Fed feels much pressure to satisfy those preferences.

We need to fight those pressures by laughing at people who claim that the Fed is easing when markets predict below-target inflation (as in the fall of 2008) or that the Fed is tightening when markets predict above-target inflation (e.g. much of 2004).

P.S. – The risk-reward ratio for the stock market today is much worse than normal. I’m not as bearish as I was in October 2008, but I’ve positioned myself much more cautiously than normal.

Notes:

[1] – They appear to produce nearly identical advice under most conditions that the U.S. has experienced recently.

I expect inflation targeting to be modestly safer than NGDP targeting. I may get around to explaining my reasons for that in a separate post.

[2] – The link above gives daily forecasts of the 5 year CPI inflation rate. See here for some longer time periods.

The markets used to calculate these forecasts have enough liquidity that it would be hard for critics to claim that they could be manipulated by entities less powerful than the Fed. I expect some critics to claim that anyway.

[3] – I’m accepting the standard assumption that 2% inflation is desirable, in order to keep this post simple. Figuring out the optimal inflation rate is too hard for me to tackle any time soon. A predictable inflation rate is clearly desirable, which creates some benefits to following a standard that many experts agree on.

[4] – providing that you don’t pay much attention to Japan since 1990.

[5] – guesses which are error-prone and, if a more direct way of targeting inflation is feasible, unnecessary. The conflict between the markets’ inflation forecast and the Taylor Rule’s implication that near-zero interest rates would cause inflation to rise suggests that we should doubt those guesses. I’m pretty sure that equilibrium interest rates are lower than the standard assumptions. I don’t know what to believe about the output gap.

Book review: War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris.

This book’s main argument can be broken down into two ideas:

  1. War creates powerful leviathans and occasionally globocops.
  2. The resulting monopoly on the use of violence is important for (or necessary to) creating low-violence societies.

(2) overlaps a lot with Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s version is sufficiently better that reading Morris’ version adds little value.

(1) is an old idea (“war is the health of the state”) that seems mildly controversial in its stronger versions. But Morris is relatively cautious here, admitting that many wars were destructive.

He goes around labeling many wars as productive or not, in a way that had me wondering whether he thought that was observable while the wars were in progress. When he got to World War II, it became clear that he considered that at least sometimes impossible: World War I initially looked harmful (ruining Britain’s globocop status), but when seen in combination with World War II he is able to classify it as productive (enabling the US to become a globocop).

Morris sometimes hints at a stronger version of (1) that would say leviathans or equivalent civilizing institutions couldn’t have been created without war. Morris never attempts to make much of an argument for such a strong claim. He does provide some arguments for the hypothesis that wars sped up the creation of peace-keeping leviathans. Whether that makes some wars good depends heavily on what would have happened without those wars, and Morris provides little insight about that.

If Morris were interested in testing his claims, wouldn’t he have discussed Switzerland? Swiss involvement in war over the past 200 years seems to consist of just a civil war in November 1847 with fewer than 100 deaths. Morris’ beliefs seem to imply Switzerland has lots of violence, yet Swiss homicide rates are unusually low (lower than the rest of western Europe). Maybe responding sensibly to the threat of war provides the benefits that Morris talks about, with few of the costs?

Much the book’s claims seem reasonable: wars did have some tendency to create stronger leviathans, and those leviathans did have some peace-keeping benefits. Yet those claims don’t come close to demonstrating the existence of “productive war”.

Book review: Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History, by William J. Bernstein.

This is a history of the world which sometimes focuses on how technology changed communication, and how those changes affected society.

Instead of carefully documenting a few good ideas, he wanders over a wide variety of topics (including too many descriptions of battles and of individual people).

His claims seem mostly correct, but he often failed to convince me that he has good reason for believing them. E.g. when trying to explain why the Soviet economy was inefficient (haven’t enough books explained that already?) he says the “absence of a meaningful price signal proved especially damaging in the labor market”, but supports that by mentioning peculiarities which aren’t clear signs of damage, then describing some blatant waste that wasn’t clearly connected to labor market problems (and without numbers, doesn’t tell us the magnitude of the problems).

I would have preferred that he devote more effort to evaluating the importance of changes in communication to the downfall of the Soviet Union. He documents increased ability of Soviet citizens to get news from sources that their government didn’t control at roughly the time Soviet power weakened. But it’s not obvious how that drove political change. It seems to me that there was an important decrease in the ruthlessness of Soviet rulers that isn’t well explained by communication changes.

I liked his description of affordable printing presses depended on a number of technological advance, suggesting that printing could not easily have arisen at other times or places.

The claim I found most interesting was that the switch from reading aloud to reading silently and the related ability to write alone (as opposed to needed a speaker and a scribe) made it easier to spread seditious and sexual writings due to increased privacy.

Bernstein is optimistic that improved communication technology will have good political effects in the future. I partly agree, but I see more risks than he does (e.g. his like of the democratic features of the Arab Spring aren’t balanced by much concern over the risks of revolutionary violence).