I Got Five on It: Newsletter #5

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 5

Thanks for joining for the fifth edition of my newsletter in five weeks. I’m getting into something of a rhythm and I hope you are too. Welcome to the handful of new subscribers. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. If you’d like to check out the previous editions, I have been cross-posting them on my website. If you think a friend would enjoy this, I’d probably like to meet your friend! Feel free to forward it along.


1. Too many workers, too few jobs
“The future of work” is part of what I research, so I try to read every prominent new book on the topic. Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans is the latest entrant to the public conversation. If you’ve been following that discussion and reading things like The Second Machine Age or Rise of the Robots or Average is Over, you will find nothing new in this one regarding the technological aspects of automation. But this book has a broader focus (maybe too broad). The title refers to a worldwide labor glut of which Avent thinks automation is just one cause; the other main ones are globalization and rising productivity. In other words, there are too many workers so wages are low. In manufacturing, productivity increases make it worthwhile for American companies to re-shore their plants. This is especially troubling for India, which hardly ever industrialized in the first place and now skips ahead to a becoming a service economy, which offers way fewer jobs. Avent thinks that the 20 years starting around 1990 in which developing countries grew at much faster rates than the developed world was mostly thanks to participating in manufacturing supply chains, and is now over. In the U.S., we know that education and healthcare can easily become the sponges for excess labor, but only if we are happy with no productivity gains and rising costs. Maybe we can’t have it both ways. If creating labor scarcity is the goal, Avent discusses the unattractive options: exclusion of outsiders from expensive gated cities, immigration restrictions, occupational licensing. More education is the solution for many problems but probably not this one: it just makes labor more abundant!

If you read The Economist, where Avent works, most of the analysis and the flavor of the recommendations will be familiar: unions are a bad way to increase labor scarcity, clearing away urban zoning restrictions is the way to give everyone access to high-wage jobs, open borders are the best way to help residents of poor countries (and even to improve those countries long-term through social capital transfer). On most days I agree with at least two of those views, but I quickly grew tired of the breezy, assured, cheerfully technocratic writing style Avent brings from The Economist. Issues this complex should require a self-doubting, skeptical voice.

Avent’s most original contribution is his decision to use “social capital” as a framing device for how productivity works at both firm and national levels. In this usage, “social capital” is meant to be the thing in between capital capital (the stuff firms own) and human capital (the stuff individuals own, like your education and skills). Modern firms are productive, Avent says, because people learn how to work together and with technology in context-specific ways. You know exactly how things get done in your office, and if an equally smart person showed up tomorrow it would take him or her months to become as effective as you. The kicker: “(W)hile social capital lives in the heads of the people who make the economy go, its benefits flow disproportionately to the owners of financial capital.” I think this is a legitimately interesting way to think about who adds value in firms, or, more to the point, whether it even makes sense to think about individuals adding discrete value in collective processes. I will be stealing it for my research. Avent goes on to frame the challenge of international development in social capital terms, and I found this shakier. He sees social capital (what does it even mean across a nation? knowing how to work together? how to keep contracts?) as a prerequisite, not a product, of institutions. When I write about Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order books, I’ll come back to this point and assess whether we can understand Fukuyama’s evidence on creating democratic institutions and rule of law in social capital terms.

2. How to think
I’m making my way through Venkatesh Rao’s archived essays on ribbonfarm, one thematic group at a time. I recently made it through fifteen essays on “refactored perception,” which is basically Rao’s term for learning how to think. Rao is an extremely unusual writer. Almost every sentence is an aphorism: dense, elliptical, tantalizing. The essays “Diamonds versus Gold” and “Just Add Water” explore this aspect of his approach. Where some writers discover gold–immediately valuable in whatever form simply due to its rarity–Rao’s task is to take utterly common carbon and transform it, through sheer unyielding application of pressure, into diamonds. He pulls it off. It’s very difficult to summarize these essays because he has already shrunk the ideas down to the densest form; to “rehydrate” them, as it were, would extend into the thousands of words. I will share some of my favorite gems without any of the context necessary to appreciate them.

  • There is something called a “scientific sensibility” and it is much more important than the “scientific method.” The method is “a sensibility crammed into the mold of a system.” The only reason for this is to give people who lack the sensibility a structure to perform science at industrial scale.
  • To number something is to make water-tight categories; to name something is to find leaks. “To create difference — irreplaceability and non-interchangeability — as fast as numbering creates homogeneity.”
  • Many systems require both “lawyer-minds,” which oppose another dialectically, and “judge-minds,” which make sure the dialectic is working fairly. “By its very nature, you cannot structurally advantage judge-minds at the ultimate boundary of a social system. If you do, you are essentially legitimizing a sort of divine authority.”
  • What you can find “interesting” is a function of what patterns you already know.  “Interesting is a lot of existing ideas in your head clamoring to meet a new idea.”
  • The Internet (or, better, the sum of recorded culture, which the Internet approximates) is one big book. Hyperlinks are how you turn the pages. “In other words, when you browse and skim, you aren’t distracted and unfocused. You are just reading a very dissonant book you just made up.”

3. (Working) family values
For someone who is probably going to be the president, there has been remarkably little discussion of Hillary Clinton’s policy ideas. Yes, I’m slowly realizing that politics is mostly about expressing an identity. But some of us like to pretend that we live in a policy world, and in that world Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn are rock stars. This week on The Ezra Klein Show they asked: what is Clinton’s core policy agenda? It’s sort of hard to figure out because she has very well-informed views on everything and is not great at framing speeches around simple, resonant messages. But Klein and Cohn agreed that her deepest commitment is probably to an agenda we might call “working family values” (that’s mine, do you like it?). This is shorthand for a set of policies meant to make life easier for households where both (or single) parents work: expanded family and medical leave, child care credits, early childhood education, etc. It’s interesting that this suite of ideas has been so low-salience this year; arguments might be that only women take these issues seriously, or that Clinton hasn’t framed them well enough (though she does talk about them a lot). One interesting thing Klein pointed out is that a discussion of “low labor force participation” has been pretty salient in the past few years (admittedly mostly among wonks), and while we usually picture laid-off factory workers who stop looking for jobs, stay-at-home mothers might be a larger group capable of boosting those labor force numbers if they had the proper supports. Not that we necessarily want more labor force participation, if you ask Ryan Avent…

4. No college left behind (but really this time)
Assuming that Clinton is president, one of her other top priorities appears likely to be her “New College Compact,” a federal reform program for public colleges. The Bernie-approved “free college” part of this plan has gotten most of the attention, but Rick Hess, a conservative education policy scholar, writes in National Affairs to warn us that other parts of the plan may do for college what No Child Left Behind did for K-12. That’s probably not a good thing. The basic concern is that Washington will impose standardized rules on public colleges, homogenizing a system whose strength, at least compared to K-12, is variety. Hess identifies three problematic assumptions of No Child Left Behind that are likely to reappear in the college plan: that educational quality could be measured, that those measures could and should guide rewards and sanctions, and that Washington could suggest useful institutional recipes to fix failing schools. Largely as a result of having worked in the education world, I am a huge skeptic about tying incentives to new measurements of complicated processes. The Obama administration had proposed to disburse aid to colleges that scored high on a new measure of poor students’ experiences, but Hess credits the administration for where they ultimately landed: publishing an informational guide to affordable colleges with good outcomes, but not tying consequences to it.

On paying for college, Hess’s recommendations seemed eminently reasonable. He does not want the government to prescribe particular reforms to states or colleges. Instead, he wants to publish more transparent information on college quality, streamline the student loan process by replacing a hodgepodge of federal loans and tax credits with a single $50,000 line of credit to be repaid as a percentage of eventual income when filing federal taxes, make colleges share in the risk by holding them responsible for a portion of unpaid loans, and let students vote with their feet. I think this a great example of combining the libertarian principle that consumers know best with a recognition that consumers also need better information, all backed by a commitment to spend a lot of money, as long as it goes directly to the right people. I am afraid that progressives are going to get caught up in the excitement of the “free college” tagline and shrug at the idea of a national college measurement system and a national reform playbook. We will then repeat the exact same mistakes for which many of us, especially progressives, rue No Child Left Behind.

5. The widening gyre
Steve Randy Waldman, who blogs as Interfluidity, comments on the election. I do not agree with all of it but it is one of the most thoughtful things I’ve read, especially trying to look beyond this election toward the longer-term problem of national unity. In his view, nation-states are always either integrating or fragmenting. For much of the 20th century America was integrating; now it’s fragmenting.

Physical segregation, widely divergent education, commercial segmentation or exclusion, self-organizing point-to-point communication networks, the absence or decay of civic religion, political polarization, absence of a broad popular culture, economic dispersion that stratifies lifestyles, perceived unfairness in patterns of prosperity, and immigration from external communities can be sources of fragmentation. Some of these “sources of fragmentation” are very good things!

But a successful nation-state must budget the centrifugal forces it can tolerate against the centripetal forces it can generate.

Part of his argument is that we should be careful about framing Trump support as fundamentally about racism, or white nationalism, or whatever you want to call it, even if that is correct for a lot of people. It leaves those who are already committed to Trump (what would it take for us committed Democrats to vote for a Republican?) “little choice but to own what they’ve been accused of.”

The assertion that Trump’s supporters are all racists has, I think, become partially self-fulfilling. In and of itself, that will make America’s already deeply ugly racial politics uglier. It will help justify the further pathologization of the emerging white underclass while doing nothing at all to help communities of color except, conveniently for some, to set the groups at one another’s throats so they cannot make common cause.

It’s too late to undo the damage this election has done to national unity (by the way, check out ex-banker photojournalist Chris Arnade talking about “two Americas” on this week’s EconTalk). But in evaluating policies in the future, I am going to try putting this notion of creating centripetal or unifying forces front and center. In our personal lives, most of us reading this are very happy with how America is working. That means we have an enormous blind spot for how half our fellow citizens think. If you care about America continuing to exist as we know it in the long run, that should freak you out.

Four Questions: Newsletter #4

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 4

Today’s newsletter turned out to be an extended meditation on a theme (maybe it always is). After as many words as I can in good conscience spend, I still have many other links to share but will save for later. If you think a friend would enjoy this, please forward along.


1. Nothing special about special interests
I’ve been on a reading binge about what’s wrong with American government. Jonathan Rauch’s Governments’s End was written in the 90s but has aged very well. Rauch was inspired by one of my all-time favorite political economists, Mancur Olson, and the book is a reverent application of Olson’s ideas about collective action problems to contemporary American politics. The basic idea is that Washington is captured by groups representing narrow interests rather than our collective public interest, and that the cross-cutting, contradictory demands of these groups mechanically produces subsidies and transfer-seeking while blocking off reform in any policy area. Note that Rauch does not speak about “special interests” in the same pejorative tone most of us do: his point is that we’re all represented by interest groups (industry associations, unions, advocacy groups, the AARP), so they’re not very special, and in any case the point of democracy is to give voice to our various interests. The problem is a set of biases (all predictable in Olson’s collective action framework) that tilt legislation in the favor of narrow interests rather than broad ones. It’s easy to form an interest group but hard to dissolve one once the mission has been accomplished; transfers and subsidies baked into legislation are nearly impossible to excise; it’s easy to mobilize for reform in general but even easier to mobilize against any specific reform that threatens a narrow group. The result is a century of legislative crud clogging the system. Any large, coherent policy change will be blocked or compromised against the original intent of its authors (see Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act).

Rauch is a pessimist (or a believer in entropy), and thinks this is basically the end state of American democracy; life will go on but policy mostly won’t. He rejects usual good government reforms e.g. campaign finance, arguing that as long as interests exist, we will find a way to mobilize around them. To the extent that change is possible, liberals need to take the lead. That’s because change necessarily involves removing legislation, which is considered a conservative move. In my view, liberals shouldn’t be ashamed to stand for simple, flexible, if smaller government. Thinking about this opportunity to find common ground with conservatives (if real conservatives exist anymore) over clearing away narrow rent-seeking legislation was motivational at the end of this depressing book.

2. A day to atone for the “curse of bigness”
Jeffrey Rosen’s new biography of Louis D. Brandeis is a not-so-thinly-veiled argument that Brandeis, the “Jewish Jefferson,” gave us the intellectual blueprint for uniting liberals and conservatives against the “curse of bigness” in business and government. Brandeis was perhaps the leading political philosopher and jurist of the Progressive Era, and in Rosen’s view a modern flagbearer of the Jeffersonian tradition of political and economic liberty against monopolies and invasive governments. In regulatory matters, Brandeis preferred to limit firm size through “regulated competition” rather than allow monopolies to form and then regulating them. He tended to dismiss the benefits of economies of scale, rejecting efficient prices for consumers in favor of maximizing the number of citizens civically engaged as producers (see this trade-off concretely in the “Wal-Mart helps poor people get cheap stuff” vs. “small businesses build community, responsibility, and civic engagement” debate). In Whitney, he wrote one of the most profound defenses of free speech, which I will quote at length because it’s so good:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary.They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed the freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.”

He was also prescient about some of the thorny legal issues of the digital age: he wanted to give the same privacy protections to electronic communication that the Founders had given to letters, and he (like Jefferson) was skeptical of overly aggressive patent protection of ideas. Rosen sees Brandeis as a clear paragon of anti-corporate, pro-civil liberties ideology fit to unite populist right and populist left today. Brandeis gives us little to resolve the racial tensions between those two groups, but otherwise I strongly agree.

3. From Jeffersonian populism to corporate liberalism
Indeed, an inability to account for race (as you’ll recall, maybe the fundamental division in American political history) seems to plague otherwise insightful populist arguments. This was at the top of my mind while reading Jeff Taylor’s Where Did the Party Go? I came to this book via Brandeis; it’s an encomium to Jeffersonian political philosophy and a history of how the Democratic party abandoned populism. The book is framed as a comparison between William Jennings Bryan, who represents populism, and Hubert Humphrey, whom Taylor scorns as the epitome of the midcentury corporate liberal, at which point “liberalism” was no longer an ideology but an attitude of compassion and niceness, as Humphrey seems to have seen it. The transition from Bryan to Humphrey is dissected as one from ideology to pragmatism, commitment to compromise, populism to elitism, morality to economics, common good to special interests, agrarian to urban, left to center, and radical to respectable. I’m sympathetic to the critique implied by some of these transitions but certainly not all; I think urban society has many advantages and isn’t going away, and Jefferson’s opposition to banking was probably the least timeless of his principles. Thank goodness we’re not all still farmers.

The strange thing about the book is that, while Taylor seems to believe that FDR’s presidency was the turning point at which “liberalism” lost its meaning (“Roosevelt’s twin legacy is centralized government and permanent militarism. You are supposedly “liberal” or “conservative” according to which part of this legacy you prefer”), that time period is only obliquely discussed. I would have rather read about this turning point than about Humphrey, several decades later in full corporate liberal mode. So now I’ll need to read a few FDR books. There are a bunch of very fringe opinions in this book, like the notion that entering World War II was a betrayal of Jefferson’s principle of isolationism. And then there’s race. Taylor writes approvingly of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace (whose states-rightism was, according to Taylor, really about populism and economic liberty) as two of the few legitimately populist candidates in the second half of the 20th century. Trump is less sincere in his populism, but we might add him to the list. Is it a mere coincidence that these campaigns relied, at base, on white ethnic nationalism? Or were economic populism and white nationalism deeply intertwined in the Southern strategy? I think we’ll need to deal with this unsavory relationship before populism can be salvaged.

4. Where to shelve a basket of deplorables
Ezra Klein has been thinking about the above, specifically how to talk productively about “demographic anxiety” and white resistance to multiculturalism without rubber-stamping people as “racist.” He brought this up in recent conversations with Tyler Cowen and Francis Fukuyama (both, especially the former, recommended). We’ve successfully updated the rules of polite society so that racial animus is unacceptable, but I don’t think we’ve figured out what to do with people who apparently hold unacceptable views. You can see how easy it is to overreach with HRC’s “deplorables” comment, which, even if you think was descriptively accurate, surely you don’t think was productive. Jeff Taylor offered something of a template in his book: “Racism and multiculturalism both overemphasize our differences. Ethnic inclusiveness acknowledges differences and respects the right to be different–even when it is seen as incorrect–but stresses what we have in common.” I like that, but it’s still too vague to employ with people who are unhappy that Nevada, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, New York, and New Jersey will soon join Hawaii, California, New Mexico, and Texas as majority-minority states (welcome). On the plus side, according to Pew, 47% of American conservatives believe that diversity makes the country better, a greater share than liberals who say the same in most European countries. If you have an idea of how to answer Ezra’s question, please share.

Threepeat: Newsletter #3

Thanks for reading this third edition of my newsletter–now and forevermore graced with a topical numerical title. If you think a friend would enjoy it, please forward or share the link. Thanks!


1. I enjoyed Ezra Klein’s conversation with Molly Ball, which he called the best conversation he’s had about the election. Their discussion of Trump was especially good as it synthesized a few compelling angles on why he has been so successful. Purely descriptively, I think it’s correct to say that he is succeeding at what Pat Buchanan tried to do, which is shift the Republican Party from a conservative party to a white ethno-nationalist party. He understands (I use that word loosely and hesitate to assign much intentionality) better than most politicians that you only need 51% to win, so he picks issue that appeal very strongly to some people rather than trying to please most people. And as Ezra said in his most insightful comment, not all economic issues demand a zero-sum frame, but Trump has managed to pick out the economic issues where people’s perception of zero-sum is the strongest. Immigration, trade; issues where you can argue there are winners and losers. I would add that this is the way to move beyond the debate of “is Trump’s support about racism or economic anxiety?” By picking economic issues that lend themselves to the zero-sum frame, Trump has constructed a conduit between people’s frustration about stagnant median incomes and their willingness to blame the Other. It’s hard to blame Mexicans or Muslims for technological change, for example.

And this is really troubling. The first worst thing about Trump’s campaign is that it has fanned the flames of ethnic resentment and fragmentation. But the second worst thing might be that it has encouraged people to view economic problems and solutions in these zero-sum terms. The most important thing in the long run is economic growth, which can and should be broadly shared. Our politics should be focused on growth, and we may need growth to save our politics. From the very interesting New Yorker profile of Sam Altman: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail.” I’m not sure if I agree with his next conclusion that Y Combinator is “hugely important to that growth.” But it’s more important than anything Trump would have us talk about.

2. Ok, just one more thing about Trump. One thing has stuck with me from the story about his $916 million net operating loss and subsequent exemption from 18 years of taxes. I don’t see anything here about Trump behaving particularly badly, or at least not surprisingly (though we do get more evidence that he is a terrible businessman). But something about the tax rules involved seems unfair (the horror!). I don’t know much about tax law, so the following could be off base; please tell me if you know better. The “net operating loss” rule in question lets you claim losses suffered by your business–even if it’s an LLC–on your personal tax return so to offset your future taxable income by the same amount. Business money is the same as personal money, right? Except it’s not, since the risks of business bankruptcy are less severe than the risks of personal bankruptcy. If your business is an LLC, you can declare bankruptcy and not pay your debts; not true for personal bankruptcy, at least for several classes of debt like student loan debt and income tax debt. So the net operating loss rule creates an incentive to take risks in business: the worst that can happen is you declare bankruptcy and won’t have to pay taxes on future income until you’ve cancelled out that loss. This seems like moral hazard funded by your fellow taxpayers. What am I missing?

3. Excellent Washington Post multimedia feature on cobalt mining in the Congo. You have to watch the camera phone footage of a miner descending into a narrow 100-foot deep shaft with no safety equipment. Over the course of the supply chain, cobalt moves from independent, small-scale Congolese miners to a large Chinese cobalt processor to cathode manufactures to lithium ion battery manufacturers to Apple to me, currently typing on a laptop with 25% battery life. Apparently Apple is pretty good at verifying that “conflict minerals” don’t go into its products…but cobalt isn’t technically a conflict mineral. It’s just a metal mined under really unsafe circumstances. Thanks to this reporting, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple exerts some pressure on its suppliers to buy from industrial cobalt mines rather than guys digging in their backyards. But from those guys’ perspective, that would only be a good thing if they could find some alternative work. A job in an industrial cobalt mine might be a step up, although those mines use fewer workers per unit of output than “artisanal” mines. I’ve read some things about development pathways recently, but the story often starts with manufacturing. What does the path from resource extraction to broader development look like? Reading recommendations welcome.

4. Our very own Jordan Schneider interviewed Venkatesh Rao for FiveBooks. Rao is one of my very favorite bloggers; his blog ribbonfarm is hard to summarize but I would say he is a much better sociologist of management and organizations than any of us who formally work in that field. In the interview with Jordan, Rao recommends five books; two of which I’ve read, one which I am currently reading, and two I will obviously add to my list. The unifying theme of his recommendations was “how the world works,” and on that point he said something that resonated incredibly strongly with me. He distinguishes between ‘appreciative’ and ‘manipulative’ models of reality:

An appreciative model is simply a satisfying understanding of the world. It may not necessarily allow you to do things—it may not allow you to build big companies or solve important problems like climate change—but it will give you an understanding of the world that satisfies you. That satisfaction, to people who seek knowledge, is very similar to the satisfaction that religious people get from having a religious idea in their head.

Thats the kind of satisfaction I reliably get from reading Rao, and it’s what I’m seeking all the time. I also liked his comments about studying history as a generalist:

Most of us, when we are first exposed to history in high school, learn an extremely dull, non-analytical version of history which is just one damned fact after another. It’s very unsatisfying.

Once you re-engage with history as an adult—and by this I mean intellectually aware, curious people not professional historians—there are very few treatments of all of history that truly satisfy your urge to understand just how human society functions and how it came to function the way it does. What are the variety of ways in which it functions around the world? How is the system in China different from the system in the United States. How did they each get to be where they are? All of these are questions that you could call analytical history.

In this model the (usually) narrower work of academic historians remains essential: they provide the basic building blocks of analytical histories. I’m sure some academic historians would be uncomfortable with this division of labor; a big macro book like Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order will always be criticized for misrepresenting the many small episodes from which it is composed. But I think the solution to that is just more macro histories to correct one another and fight over the really important big questions of how we got where we are.

5. In America, lots of sushi restaurants are owned and operated by Chinese immigrants. Why? Because people are willing to pay more for Japanese food than Chinese food. “If I could be selling egg rolls for $3 each or cucumber rolls for $5 each, why am I not in that business?” And incomes in Japan are high enough that it only makes sense for a chef to emigrate to work in a high-end restaurant; for no-frills sushi places across the country, enter the Chinese. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting the day when Chinese restaurants also move upmarket.

6. This is from last week, but one for the history books: Obama exit interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin. My favorite part was Obama’s comments on ambition, riffing on the Lincoln quote “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition.” He said that when you’re young, everyone has a general, undifferentiated ambition: “you want to prove yourself” in some vague sense. But then:

I think that at a certain stage those early ambitions burn away, partly because you achieve something, you get something done, you get some notoriety. And then the particularities of who you are and what your deepest commitments are begin expressing themselves. You’re not just chasing the idea of “me” being important, but you, rather, are chasing a particular passion.

Yes. Ambition is cheap. Peculiar ambition is what changes the world. I also found Obama’s comments on his optimism inspiring. I take it to be genuine; it’s what lifts him above the fray of political intransigence and allows him to focus on the long run where a certain arc of the universe is said to bend.

Newsletter #2

Thanks for coming back for week 2! I appreciated your encouragement last week and had some nice chats in the replies. If you’re new, this newsletter contains stuff I learned or thought about in the past week.  If you think a friend would enjoy this newsletter, please go ahead and forward or share this link.


1. I’ve been looking for creative takes on what’s wrong with American democracy and how to fix it. Trump is just one symptom of something broader involving a loss of faith in government, especially (and justifiably) in Congress. One compelling take comes from Terry Moe, who in his new book Relic argues that because of bargaining among interest groups, Congress will always dilute legislation into an incoherent, contradictory mess. His solution is a supercharged presidency with the power to propose legislation to Congress and require a yes-or-no vote within a certain timeframe, no amendments allowed. I’m a big fan of this idea because I agree that presidents have better incentive to address national problems than Congress. I don’t think it’s a slippery slope to tyranny, as separation of powers enthusiasts might claim, because Congress can still propose its own bills, and can always vote no on the president’s.

2. If you thought the above solution was radical, try this incredibly original work of political theory by Jeffrey Edward Green: The Eyes of the People. This book was a great example of why we need academic political theory: to think not just outside the Overton window (the range of acceptable mainstream ideas) but outside our basic conceptions of the point of our democracy. Green observes that all democratic theorists, no matter their disagreements, converge on a vocal metaphor for democracy: democracy is about channelling the voice of the People. We see this in opinion polling, in voting, and in representative government. But can the People’s voice really be heard in a mass democracy? Green argues that most people’s lack of knowledge and interest in politics, the impossibility of communicating your views simply by voting on a two-party slate, the inequality in resources for amplifying your voice, and the theatricality of politics in a mass media age give lie to the vocal metaphor. I suspect I’m not alone in often struggling to reconcile this intuition–that politics doesn’t really reflect the People’s voice–with a belief that democracy is important, and shouldn’t be sacrificed to rule by enlightened technocrats. This book is one of the first times I’ve seen a proposal that honors both those views.

Green thinks a more realistic metaphor on which to base democracy is ocular: the People as spectators, watching over the leaders. In the vocal metaphor, the highest value is deliberation. In the ocular metaphor, the highest value is candor, which he defines as a requirement that leaders not be in control of their own publicity. To be concrete, there would be lots of debates and hearings and investigations, all unscripted, where politicians would cross-examine each other and expose wrongdoing–corruption, sure, but also just bad decisions–to the public. The People’s role, then, is not so much to supply a policy mandate as to discipline leaders of whom they disapprove. They do this through voting, which doesn’t disappear, but moreover through the very act of watching: a disciplinary gaze (inspired by, among other things, Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon). The weakness of the argument was in not saying enough about exactly how the people’s gaze would compel politicians to behave in the public interest; I think a deeper engagement with media studies, i.e. people who study images and mass communication, would have helped here. Still, I think the argument plays to the strengths of modern citizens, who don’t have coherent or good policy views but are very good consumers of media, appreciate a spectacle, and have decent judgment of trustworthiness.

An interesting side note is that, put in Green’s terms, Trump has subjected himself to way more candor than has Clinton. He frequently puts himself in unstructured situations where he’s forced to answer hard questions, and comes off looking uninformed in the process. That’s one reason why Trump is easier to judge than Clinton.

3. From Joe, a paper about the scant history of running randomized control trials to study the American legal system–and an argument that there should be much more of this. Part of the paper discusses how lawyers think highly of their own expertise and scoff at the notion that they might learn better ways of doing things. But surely doctors have the same ego problem, and RCTs are widely accepted and appreciated in medicine–so what’s the difference? The author suggests that medicine benefits from a “norm of acknowledging uncertainty” thanks to its roots in the physical sciences. “Within wide boundaries, the stereotypical lawyer’s diagnostic process is not a search for answers. Answers come from the client. The stereotypical lawyer’s diagnostic process is a search for arguments.” I am excited about this effort (and others) to turn law into a more empirical discipline in the sense of caring about outcomes as much (or more) than processes.

4. 6,700 people are homeless in San Francisco. Someone took some good notes at a community meeting with the city’s point person, and left “[F]eeling nervous. The session did not highlight innovative ways to deliver the 6,700 units.” Ok, so as you’ve probably heard, the most successful effort at combating homelessness has been in Utah, where the government has been giving apartments to the chronically homeless for a nominal (way below market rent) fee. I’ve seen some chinks in the armor of the Utah story, but nothing yet to convince me that this “Housing First” model isn’t the most effective (not to mention humane) solution available. Ok, but where do you find vacant apartments in San Francisco? The most innovative solution might be to place modular units on vacant lots or parcels–“infill housing,” as this excellent presentation calls it. This particular proposal imagines stacking 160 square foot shipping container-shaped on narrow plots, possibly between current buildings. They can be assembled in mere weeks and cost less on a nightly basis than shelters, jails, or hospitals.

This might sound too out-there, but actually this proposal has made major headway among city officials! The mayor and the homelessness office support it, but don’t worry, there is still a villain in this story. Enter the building unions. They oppose the plan because the modular units under consideration are made in China, and they believe the building code requirements for those units aren’t good enough. This last bit is particularly infuriating because however imperfect the units might be, the alternative is living on the street (p.s. lots of student dorm units are modular). This kind of failure to think comparatively reminds me of a Marginal Revolutionpost about an international body trying to ban the sale of low-end cars that lack airbags in India. Seems reasonable, until you consider that at the price point people are choosing between cheap cars and motorcycles, which are way more dangerous. “Safety is relative so cars judged unsafe by global standards could save lives in India. The bigger lesson is that it’s always dangerous to impose global standards without taking into account the differing circumstances of time and place.”

5. On EconTalk, John Cochrane (free market-y Chicago economist) said something great. He was extolling that classic economist’s dream of simplifying the tax code, and making the point that the structure of the tax code and its progressivity are entirely separate matters. When people argue about taxes, though, they get conflated. When you hear a conservative talk about simplifying the tax code, you know that’s code for lowering rates and removing taxed categories. But there is a compromise position–one that I happen to see as the best of both worlds–where you limit the number of taxed entities. tax brackets, and tax deductions, and you choose progressive rates. Cochrane put it this way: “Let me and Russ design the structure of the tax code, and let Bernie Sanders fill in the rates.” I’m in!

6. A review essay of several books about Putin. One big thing I took away from this is the importance of the long sweep of Russian history. For those of who grew up after the Cold War, it’s tempting to wonder why can’t Russia just enter modernity. But the 90s and the good Putin years were an aberration; Russia has had a strong, autocratic state for a very long time, and “empires do not go quietly.” “The current political generation was born and raised in imperial times.” And what will our generation of Russians have been raised in?

Newsletter #1

Hi friends. Welcome to the first edition of my hopefully-weekly email/blog!

As you know, learning new things and discussing with friends has always been very important to me. In recent years, that process has been mediated by Facebook and Twitter (and Point, although few of you made that leap) to an enormous extent. But I’ve grown dissatisfied with sharing and discussing on social media. There are a bunch of reasons: norms discourage long posts; I feel guilty for occupying too much of people’s feeds; people’s responses are constrained by the need to project a public image; and I don’t get practice writing real sentences. (And, of course, I end up spending too much time on there.) So I’m experimenting with this format. This will be a place to share interesting things I’ve read and heard in the previous week. The topics will probably revolve around social science, politics, and technology. Reply whenever you’d like; unsubscribe if you must. And since I’ll be spending less time on social media, you might need to send me the most interesting things you find directly. Thank you for reading!

p.s. if Google Reader still existed and/or people still used RSS feeds, as they should, this wouldn’t need to exist as an email/blog. But sometimes technology marches unmistakably backward.


1. On The Weeds podcast, there was an interesting discussion of what I would call socially appropriate biases toward positivity and negativity. They were talking about economic journalism and the perennial question of “whether the economy is doing well.” As a liberal journalist, Ezra Klein is socially expected to be skeptical of positive economic statistics, both because his role involves uncovering how the poor get screwed and because he is personally affluent, so it would look bad to cheerlead the economy when many people are worse-off. But this dynamic encourages some blinkered thinking when the unemployment rate has dropped to 4.9%! Alternatively, it’s socially acceptable for Republicans to celebrate a booming economy–just not when Obama is the president. Ezra and Matt point out that if Mitt Romney were president with 4.9% unemployment, after promising 6% during the campaign, he would be hailed as a major savior. Liberals are tempted to cheerlead the Obama Boom–but if you do, you’re a corporate shill.

2. A book that I’d like to make time to read: The Half-Life of Policy Rationales: How New Technology Affects Old Policy IssuesVia Tyler Cowen, this book argues that the appropriateness of some policies depends on the technology in existence at the time, and as technology changes, some policy becomes outdated. That seems intuitively obviously true, but (a) barely ever discussed and (b) totally absent from how politicians and political analysts talk about policy. I think most of all I’m interested in the tricky issue of “solving for the equilibrium” of how technology and policy change iteratively in response to one another. I’d love to read case studies about that iterative process.

3. I’m interested in Brand New Congress and will probably write about them again. Short description: staffers from the Bernie campaign are trying to create a movement to draft candidates for every open Congressional seat in 2018. The candidates will be regular people, “leaders in their communities,” with no political background. Brand New Congress will operate a national fundraising and campaign management infrastructure so the candidates don’t need to deal with the massive fundraising obstacles that keep any sane person from running for Congress. My initial reaction is that this, as I’ve described it, is an incredible idea. The problem is the part I haven’t described: all candidates will adhere (roughly) to a policy litmus test equivalent to the Bernie platform, especially re: income inequality, trade, climate change, and criminal justice reform.  Of course I think this is a pretty good platform. But I also think it will brand the whole effort as Democratic and partisan, and will dilute some of the appeal of the pure idea: political outsiders with no special interest obligations. On the other hand, Josh rebuts me that very few people (donors or voters) will get as excited as I am about pure institutional reform; people want a platform. What do you think?

4. NYT story about how family-owned restaurants in Palo Alto are closing because the tech giants are hiring away their staff for in-house cafeterias (aaand because rent in Palo Alto is insane). Seriously, I suspect the anomalous real estate market in P.A. is more than half the story here. But putting that aside, this made me think about Enrico Moretti’s book The New Geography of Jobs. Moretti shows how high-wage jobs have a multiplier effect, creating other service sector jobs in the same region. He estimates that tech jobs, in particular, come with a 5x multiplier: two new professional jobs (doctors, lawyers) and three new low-skill service jobs (retail, food). This article is consistent with that story, with one big difference: the new service jobs are being created inside the tech firms rather than independently. I guess there are a lot of transaction costs to buying your own food during a busy day, so this outcome seems consistent with the Coase/Williamson approach. If this phenomenon turns out to be more broadly applicable than the weird Palo Alto real estate situation, it would pretty significantly change the view I took away from Moretti, which is that high-wage firms are very good for local economies.

5. Occasionally I read articles about social science on edge.org. I even have a book compiled by edge’s founder, John Brockman. But this week the sociologist Michele Lamont, visiting our department, revealed the sinister truth that edge is a front for the hegemonic takeover of the social sciences by cognitive psychology and behavioral economics. Why that would be a bad thing, I’ll have to explain some other time. But come to think of it, it’s true that most of their material fits into those disciplines. And what’s more, Lamont explained that Brockman is a literary agent for many of the authors who appear on edge. So it’s more of an advertising machine than I realized. My verdict on whether to keep reading edge is not yet out.

6. On the EconTalk podcast, guest Scott Sumner discussed a very important economic fallacy: “reasoning from a price change.” One example they gave: you own your house, and you notice a bunch of new houses being built in your neighborhood. Should you be worried about the value of your own home? A lot of people who’ve taken some microeconomics would say yes, supply is going up, so price is going to go down. But this is to “confuse a shift along a demand curve with a shift in the curve itself.” In other words, what you should probably infer from the new construction is that demand in your neighborhood has increased, which is going to push up both supply and price. More generally, it’s essential to know why a price is changing, not just which direction it changed. The point of this discussion, by the way, was to show why the question “Why is there so little investment if interest rates are so low?” (posed by Robert Shiller, no less) is fallacious. In Roberts and Sumner’s view, interest rates are low because the investment schedule has contracted inward.