Lukas Püttmann    About    Blog

Collected links

  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. Why macropru can end up being procyclical

  6. Spotify’s musical map of the world

  7. 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. In addition, anti-pluralism is key. 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 cannot be 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 (in my crude 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 independent of globalization. More to the point: There is no 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.

  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)

Collected links

  1. Scott Alexander reviews Stefano DellaVigna and Devin Pope’s “Predicting Experimental Results” paper with an interesting reference:

    I think that, as in Superforecasting, the best explanation is a separate “rationality” skill which is somewhat predicted by high IQ and scientific training, but not identical to either of them.


    Another important caveat: predictive tasks are different than interpretative tasks. Ability to predict how an experiment will go without having any data differs from ability to crunch data in a complicated field and conclude that eg saturated fat causes/doesn’t cause heart attacks.


    The distinction between punditry and expertise is pretty fuzzy.

  2. BBC portrait of Hayao Miyazaki

  3. Myself When I Am Real – Charles Mingus:

  4. Mike Konczal on “Trump in Retrospect

  5. Great visualization by the Economist of Magnus Carlsen against Sergey Karjakin.

  6. (In German:)Ich habe die Bombe nicht gebaut. Ich habe nur gezeigt, dass es sie gibt.

  7. Aljazeera: “Saxony: Germany’s failed state?

  8. Erik Bernhardsson on the decay of codes bases: “The half-life of code & the ship of Theseus”.

  9. Aeon on the fear of losing home

My 10 favorite books 2016

It’s the time of the year for “best of the year” articles. I’m a sucker for these lists, so here’s mine. It draws not from books published in 2016, but from those I read in 2016. In reverse order:

  1. The Party”, by Richard McGregor. Take-away: The Chinese Communist Party is the operation system that all other Chinese institutions run on.
  2. Heretic: Why Islam needs a Reformation Now”, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Controversial and challenges your thinking. And how about this:

    The Free Europe Press mailed numerous books to dissidents in Eastern Europe, sneaking their materials past the censors wherever they could. By the end of the Cold War, “it was estimated that over ten million Western books and magazines had infiltrated the Communist half of Europe through the book-mailing program.”

    How much did these efforts cost? In the case of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, surprisingly little.

  3. Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction”, by Samir Okasha. Good, readable introduction to a topic we all think we know. I excerpt it here.
  4. Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy”, by Simon Blackburn. Contains gems like:

    We return to see this at various points in the book, but meanwhile I can promise that this book stands unashamedly with the tradition and against any modern, or postmodern, scepticism about the value of reflection.


    It is quite difficult to detect any universal pattern at all: flexibility rules. Human beings can grow to make killing fields, and they can grow to make gardens.

  5. The Language Instinct”, by Steven Pinker. I couldn’t put this book down.
  6. Jeder stirbt für sich allein”, by Hans Fallada. I mention it here.
  7. Doing Good Better”, by William MacAskill. Recalibrate your objective function.
  8. Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist”, by Niall Ferguson. Shines when Ferguson provides a feel for the times:

    It was 1967. It was the Age of Aquarius. It was the zenith of an extraordinary period of cultural creativity in the Anglophone world that had produced a musical fusion bomb composed of Celtic folk harmonies, the twelve-bar blues of the Mississippi delta, and a few sitar riffs knocked off, in the Great British Orientalist tradition, from Ravi Shankar. On both sides of the Atlantic, four increasingly shaggy Liverpudlians bestrode the charts.

  9. Im Westen nichts Neues”, by Erich Maria Remarque. Soldiers in the ditch used the same swear words and played the same card games as us.
  10. John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed, 1883-1920”, by Robert Skidelsky. Among the best books I’ve read. Ever.

Collected links

  1. I don’t agree with the conclusion of this piece, but I like this line:

    “… they use something based on natural language (because what else is there?) …”

  2. I do agree with this piece:

    There is always an alternative.

  3. The Economist on the Big Data Honeymoon: “Economists are prone to fads, and the latest is machine learning”.

    I like its discussion of the ebb and flow of our favorite methods, but I think they miss something here:

    Before, economists would try to predict things using only a few inputs. With machine learning, the data speak for themselves; the machine learns which inputs generate the most accurate predictions.

    Non-structural, statistical time-series forecasting (factor VARs anyone?) is nothing new. The way more interesting application of machine learning for economists is to measure concepts that were previously out of our reach and to use such new data in our causal studies. See, for example, here or here.

"Killer Incentives: Awards, Status Competition, and Pilot Performance during World War II"

New paper by Leo Bursztyn, Philipp Ager and Hans‐Joachim Voth (pdf):

How can [fighter pilots] be motivated to [risk their lives]? We study the role of awards and of status competition. We collect and compile new, detailed data on monthly victory scores of over 5,000 German pilots during World War II. Our results suggest that awards may have been an important incentive. Crucially, we find evidence of status competition: When the daily bulletin of the German armed forces mentioned the accomplishments of a particular fighter [pilot], his former peers perform markedly better. …

The authors write:

In an average month, [a] … German pilot scored 0.55 victories and faced a risk of 3.4% of exiting the sample permanently, synonymous in almost all cases with death.

How does that compare to other extreme activities?

  • The fatality rate for astronauts is about 1%.

  • The chance of dying while making it to a peak above 7000m in the Himalayas is also about 1-2%. Here are the numbers (totals for both members and hired personnel) according to the Himalayan Database assembled by Elizabeth Hawley (see p. 125):1

      Reached top Deaths Share
    1950-1989 16581 425 2.5%
    1990-2009 30738 340 1.1%

So pilots could not well expect to survive and – due to institutional change – those that survived weren’t seen as heroes and those that died weren’t revered as martyrs.

It would be interesting to learn more about the pilots’ motivations and their expectations of the end of the war and the time after. Did they bet on reaping the benefits of their status after the war? Or were they driven by duty, revenging the death of their friends and the wish to outshine their peers?

  1. The Economist puts the number higher for Mt Everest a chance of dying of 1 in 30 while a quarter of people have died that tried to climb Annapurna. 

Elon Musk

In the sci-fi novel “Seveneves”, the character Sean Probst looks suspiciously much like Silicon Valley founder and investor Elon Musk. In the book, earth is awaiting impending doom and collectively trying to bring as many people as possible into space to give mankind a chance to survive. The brilliant and eccentric billionaire Sean Probst considers the democratically agreed upon plan insufficient and sacrifices his life by flying his self-made space ship to gather a big block of ice that humanity needs as fuel.

Last year’s biography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance is a fascinating piece of contemporary history and a window into the character of such a driven person. Vance offers a balanced account of Musk’s charming and brilliant side and the Musk who ruthlessly abandons old companions and pushes out the original founders of a company. What becomes clear from reading this book is just how much risk Musk has repeatedly taken on himself and how hard he worked. Vance cites the investor Antonio Gracias as saying:

I’ve just never seen anything like his [Musk’s] ability to take pain. (Chapter 8: Pain, Suffering, and Survival)

So why does someone who has proven himself, is vastly rich and has five young sons push himself so hard?

In “Seveneves”, the catastrophe is near and Probst would die soon anyway, so he might as well risk his live. And similarly, Vance’s overarching theory is that Musk is not primarily driven by “status cocaine”, but is a hyper-“Efficient Altruist” who thinks he’s figured out the most important challenges facing humanity and focuses all his energy on these goals:

Musk’s behavior matches up much more closely with someone who is […] profoundly gifted. […] It’s not uncommon for these children to look out into the world and find flaws — glitches in the system — and construct logical paths in their minds to fix them. For Musk, the call to ensure that mankind is a multiplanetary species partly stems from a life richly influenced by science fiction and technology. […]

Each facet of Musk’s life might be an attempt to soothe a type of existential depression that seems to gnaw at his every fiber. […] The people who suggest bad ideas during meetings or make mistakes at work are getting in the way of all of this and slowing Musk down. He does not dislike them as people. It’s more that he feels pained by their mistakes, which have consigned man to peril that much longer. The perceived lack of emotion is a symptom of Musk sometimes feeling like he’s the only one who really grasps the urgency of his mission. […]

Musk has been pretty up front about these tendencies. He’s implored people to understand that he’s not chasing momentary opportunities in the business world. He’s trying to solve problems that have been consuming him for decades. (Chapter 11: The Unified Field Theory of Elon Musk)

Collected links

  1. FiveThirtyEight: “People are making Super Mario go faster than ever ”. I wonder what these players would say about MarI/O.

  2. Simon Kuper in the FT (if paywalled, google for it) on robots and journalism:

    Don’t make your job your identity.

  3. Some behavioral finance economist should exploit this to study the effect of fake news on the stock market:

  4. The first three points in this post by Olivier Blanchard are an interesting summary of what almost all macroeconomists can agree on. (Through Rüdiger Bachmann)

  5. Bundesbank (in German):

    Verteilungseffekte ein Erkenntnisziel der Geldpolitik, aber kein geldpolitisches Ziel.

  6. Vice: “When tourism turns into narcissism”

    I’m a travel writer, which is shorthand for saying that I’m a work-shy dilettante with an overinflated respect for the value of my own experience.

  7. MIT alumni are going to tech

  8. Literary Hub: “There’s still no word for ‘memoir’ in German publishing” (through Dan Wang)