# "Messy", by Tim Harford

But amid Berlin’s great museums, legendary bondage clubs, and tormented geopolitics, [David] Bowie found what he needed: new ideas, new constraints, and new challenges.

This is from Tim Harford’s book “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives” which I quite liked.

1. Alex Tabarrok walks through a new political science paper that shows how the Chinese government sponsors social media post to “Distract Rather than Debate” (recommended):

As if this weren’t enough, an early version of KPR’s paper leaked and when the Chinese government responded, KPR became part of the story that they had meant to observe. The government’s response is now in turn used in this paper to verify some of KPR’s arguments. Very meta.

2. Thomas Pepinsky writes “Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable”:

Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang.

(through the IPA’s excellent weekly links)

3. Borjas on a “Wall of Peace

4. It’s called survivorship bias.

1. Noah Smith (recommended):

A whole lot of [economics] is about technocracy. […] Legendary economist Hal Varian summed it up when he said that “economics is a policy science.”

What use at all is a policy science when the people who make policy don’t listen to the science?

[...]

So plenty of economists must be asking themselves: If no one with power is listening, what’s the use of writing papers?

[...]

By shifting their focus to state and local government, economists who study policy issues can ensure their continued relevance during the long winter of Trump’s populist reign.

2. FRED’s forecasting game (gdp, cpi, two labor market series)
3. George R. R. Martin: Would you prefer Donald Trump or Francis Underwood? (update)
4. $\phantom{a}$
5. buchrevier on “Leben ist keine Art mit einem Tier umzugehen ” (in German), by Emma Braslavsky.

# Other works by George R. R. Martin

The author George R. R. Martin is best known for his “A Song of Ice and Fire” (ASOIAF) series. For those of you waiting like me for the next installment in the series, I recommend reading his other stories, especially Martin’s short story “The Sandkings” and his novel “Fevre Dream”.

On his website, Martin writes that people – when starting to write – should begin with short stories:

These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft.

In ASOIAF, every chapter is complete in itself. The chapters start gently with often somebody approaching a castle or rowing over to an island. Then the person meets someone at the destination, the story builds up and some new information or some twist is revealed at the end of the chapter.

We recognize his style in Sandkings. Martin puts us in an imaginary world and introduces its elements on the fly. We learn about Kress who lives alone in his house with his pets, but then we suddenly get this sentence which tells us that this world is not like ours:

The next day he flew his skimmer to Asgard, a journey of some two hundred kilometers. (“The Sandkings”)

This story alludes to the motifs of sin and punishment and keeps you thinking after you’ve finished.

Fevre Dream” reminded me of “Heart of Darkness”. We’re in 1852 and the experienced river-boat captain Abner March strikes a Faustian bargain with odd stranger Joshua York: The elegant other will provide the funds for a shiny new boat that will outrun all other boats – even the arch-rival Eclipse – but in return March must ignore the oddities and eccentricities of York and his companions. As the boat cruises down the Mississippi, signs accumulate that something is wrong. One of York’s friends squashes a Mosquito, stares at a the blood and then licks away the blood. York insists of stopping at places for no economic reason; places where people had been disappearing for a while.

And as the sun went down, the muddy water took on a reddish tinge, a tinge that grew and spread and darkened until it seemed as if the Fevre Dream moved upon a flowing river of blood. Then the sun vanished behind the trees and the clouds, and slowly the blood darkened, going brown as blood does when it dries, and finally black, dead black, black as the grave. Marsh watched the last crimson eddies vanish. No stars came out that night. He went down to supper with blood on his mind. (“Fevre Dream”)

The plot line of Fevre Dream is pleasantly unpredictable. We see many of the motifs in this story that we find again in ASOIAF: unfulfilled longings, long time jumps, the undead, blood, the contrast of life and death and night and day. Even some phrases are familiar: “blood of my blood” and (almost like Melisandre) “The nights are full of blood and terror”; and at another place “The night is dark, the day is long”.

Let me know if you’ve read any other George R. R. Martin stories and can recommend any.

# David Autor in Zurich on automation and much more

Good talk by David Autor “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The Past and Future of Workplace Automation”:

Most job tasks, most activities, involve a panoply of skills. Brains and brawn. Technical expertise and expert judgment. Or “perspiration and inspiration”, in the words of Mark Twain. In general, all of these tasks need to be done to accomplish the work. So eliminating one set of them doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to do and in economic terms, automating a subset of the tasks increases the economic value of what’s remaining. It complements those workers. (link)

He also ventures into the marriage market, unequal child investment (the Trump family gets a laugh) and even artificial intelligence and the technological singularity.

Fundamentally, when we’re concerned about automation we’re talking about a concern about rising productivity, right? We’re not talking about shielding ourselves from a bomb that’s falling onto our city. The bomb is exploding productivity. It’s that we’re actually being able to do more and more with less. That may create a distributional problem, as I’ve highlighted in this talk. But it doesn’t create a wealth problem. It means we have lots and lots of wealth. (link)

A question/statement by Joel Mokyr prompts this:

In the West we’re hedged on both sides […]: If it doesn’t work out, we still have jobs. If it does work out, we own the machines. (link)

Related posts:

1. A discussion on the Fred Blog of “Price growth at the tails” (recommended); do check out the second plot. Here:

[T]o make the inflation rate meaningful, we must condense this distribution of prices to a measure of, as statisticians would call it, “central tendency.” However, reasonable people can differ on the proper measure because the distribution of price changes has long “tails.”

[...]

Within this basket, the distribution of price changes is usually approximately symmetric, […]. The interesting exception is during the Great Recession period, when commodity prices fell sharply, bringing a strong negative skewness for the first time since the mid-1980s. […] In this period when the economy seemed to be in tremendous flux, the headline, average CPI moved little. However, the skewness—and the tails of the price distribution—changed quite a bit.

2. Why don’t easy to use, helpful online banking accounts like the one described here exist?

Suppose you could design the interface for your own investing software. […] What would you put on that first landing page?

For mine, I’d intentionally not show most of what shows up on DIY brokerage sites today:

• The shares/price/value of each position I hold
• Whether those positions are in a gain or a loss
• The historical performance
• Market news related to my holdings

These aren’t just useless for making forward-looking decisions – they’re actively harmful.

3. New UBS Public Paper by Dominic Rohner (download pdf) on conflicts and institutions.

4. On giving up your native language by Yiyun Li in the New Yorker: “To Speak is to Blunder”:

Over the years, my brain has banished Chinese. I dream in English. I talk to myself in English. And memories—not only those about America but also those about China; not only those carried with me but also those archived with the wish to forget—are sorted in English.

5. 29% of German economists think Italy should exit the eurozone (in German).

# Knigge

In Germany, the book the “Knigge” describes the etiquette that the upper-class ought to follow. The first version was published by the nobleman Adolph Freiherr Knigge in 1788 as “Über den Umgang mit den Menschen” (roughly “How to interact with people”). Many updated Knigges have since been published and they reflect the values of their times. I read the version by Kurt von Weißenfeld “Der moderne Knigge” from 1950:

• I liked the part on children: Children who’re kept busy with good activities are well-behaved children. Sensible ways to engage children must be taylored to their abilities and interests (“Interessenwelt”). (p19)
• On relationships, a sentence that might have come from Esther Perel: Where there is closeness, there is soon tightness. (p29)
• A surprising amount of text is devoted to how a wife should treat a husband who comes home in a bad mood. Apparently, wife who doesn’t remain silent when the husband is in a bad mood is a “dumb goose” (p30). The supposedly correct response is for the wife to go to another room and leave cigarettes and cognac with him (p31).
• One of a wife’s duties is to install “half a dozen” ash trays in every room and empty them twice a day. She should also fake enjoying her husbands hobbies, such as playing cards.
• And then there’s this:

“Everybody considers Mrs Else enchanting”

“But enchanting she is only for others. At home she doesn’t even bother to put on a dress or make her hair. Such a “grabby” woman easily repels her husband, just as a too dashing man repels a woman.

• To top it all off, Weißenfeld delves into the 1788 Knigge’s treatment of women and how society has progressed and is now “egalitarian”.

Related posts:

1. John Myles White on “Type Safety and Statistical Computing”. This blog is definitely recommended. I particularly like this older post: “Modes, Medians and Means: A Unifying Perspective

2. Francis X. Diebold on “Varieties of RCT Extensibility

3. Andrej Karpathy reviewsThe Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes

4. Rubinstein reviews Rodrik:

Find those 5 books here and here.

5. Spotify’s musical map of the world

6. New paper on interest rates and the business cycle

# "What is Populism", by Jan-Werner Müller

The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada recently called the book “Was ist Populismus?” (“What is Populism”) by Jan-Peter Müller the “most enlightening” book of 2016.

In the book, Müller argues that populists set themselves apart by claiming to be the sole representative of the real people. And while all populists are against the elites and the establishments, that is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition for popularism. The second ingredient is anti-pluralism. So populists aren’t democratic, as democracy is necessarily pluralistic. Müller says that in a sensible debate about populism, one must talk about what to expect from democracy.

I also like this review by Müller of “Ruling the Void” by Peter Mair:

Parties used to be based on distinct social identities. […] Partisanship didn’t detract from, but increased, the legitimacy of the political system. Parties were not one mechanism among others that made ‘mass democracy’ acceptable: they were the principal means of transmitting popular will and opinion from civil society to the state. […] [P]oliticians could not simply go in search of support from the people as whole or adopt what Mair terms ‘the politics of “what works”’. The question was not ‘what works?’ but ‘what works for us?’ And that self-interest on the part of multiple constituencies was precisely what made democracy work as a whole.

Citing Mair, Müller writes in his book that parties are increasingly responsible, but have become less responsive.

It’s an argument against outsourcing our decision-making to a meritocratic technocracy. We would hope that non-elected institutions such as constitutional courts, central banks or nudge units can decide what’s best for us, but more delegation comes at a cost.

Some see popularism as a “necessary corrective” in democracies. But Müller instead considers populists a danger to democracy. And the response to populism isn’t to shut populists out of the debate, but the answer itself must be democratic.

He also offers an interesting discussion of the normative status of pluralism which he thinks is not a first-order normative value such as freedom or equality. Instead it follows from the freedom and equality of a diverse people that their different views must be respected.

My favorite quote from the book is this (my translation):1

In times of globalization – that is, porous or blurring borders – populists suggest with their “We” unambiguous affiliations and clear boundaries (“our western civilization”) – and all “true” Germans will know what is meant by that. Democracy, however, does not do well with unambiguousness and that is even independent of globalization. More precisely: There cannot be a democratic foundation of borders. Because for defining borders through the demos, one would have to know who the sovereign people is – and that is exactly the question.

Related posts:
1. Here the original in German:

In einer Zeit der Globalisierung – sprich: durchlässiger oder gar verwischender Grenzen – suggerieren die Populisten mit ihrem “Wir” eindeutige Zugehörigkeit und klare Grenzen (“unser Abendland”) – und alle “wahren” Deutschen wissen dann schon, was gemeint ist.) Die Demokratie tut sich hingegen mit Eindeutigkeiten schwer, und zwar ganz unabhängig von der Globalisierung. Genauer gesagt: Sie kann Grenzen gar nicht demokratisch begründen. Denn um die Grenzen durch den Demos zu bestimmen, müsste man ja schon wissen, wer das entscheidungsberechtigte Volk ist – und genau das war die Frage. (p21-22)