Stuff to read

  1. “Russia Is a Rogue, Not a Peer; China Is a Peer, Not a Rogue”
  2. How America welcomed Russian kleptocrats (and domestic corruption)
  3. A nice discussion of Core Economics and the quest to make economics more useful (realistic) to students.
  4. Dear Mr Zuckerberg: the problem isn’t the internet, it’s Facebook
  5. This book review on the varying and pervasive impacts of climate change leads me to think that we are moving from a world dominated by the “information revolution” (the one displacing the industrial revolution) to one dominated by the “climate revolution,” which is — as all good revolutions do — overturning our ways of living. The sad part is that most of the climate-driven change will be unpleasant, expect perhaps for those who swap reality for a virtual lifestyle (ironically, and too late, reducing the footprint of their consumption).
  6. The pay gap between skilled and unskilled workers is growing dramatically in the US. The need for basic income (as a way of preventing rebellion) is rising.
  7. Data trackers and advertiser don’t even know what they’re doing.
  8.  Interacting environmental problems mean more, worse crises.
  9. Heineken’s behavior depends on local norms (of sexual harassment)?
  10. Will these guys save the world by sucking out carbon? (Carbon tax!)

H/T to MdG

Stuff to read

  1. Aeromexico helps Americans “get over the wall”
  2. (Government-sponsored) fake news in Hungary is pretty weird.
  3. Utilities (once “safe as houses”) are under pressure from climate change
  4. How Google sells ads (and Facebook sells promise) Related: Zuckerberg says people want targeted ads. He’s wrong.
  5. Patriots are better than nationalists. Related: The history of flags
  6. The Dutch need a carbon tax if they’re serious about meeting their Paris commitment.
  7. Should leisure be taxed to force young men to work rather than play games?
  8. Anand Giridharadas takes the piss, posing as #DavosMan
  9. Peter Thiel has some great ideas on markets.
  10. Poverty isn’t increasing if you consider how colonialism immiserated “poor” but free peoples. Related: Colonialism is only another form of free-riding on the wealth of others (or our future)

H/Ts to PB and RN

Recommended reading

  1. A podcast on tribe and belonging (in contrast to “neoliberal” life)
  2. Ethereum (a crypto-currency) will cut its energy use by 99 percent.
  3. China’s share-bike schemes are crashing and burning
  4. The podcast revolution is here to stay.
  5. A profile of the Chinese who censor the country
  6. Read this review of Surveillance capitalism: “Behavior modification is the thread that ties today’s search engines, social networks, and smartphone trackers to tomorrow’s facial-recognition systems, emotion-detection sensors, and artificial-intelligence bots. What the industries of the future will seek to manufacture is the self.” Related: Facebook knows everything about you when it sells adverts but not when politicians are asking about manipulation. I’m betting they are lying about how much they know and don’t know.
  7. Your friends may not be happy is you try to live without a smart phone.
  8. Forget counting calories. Eat good food.
  9. People have a hard time understanding logic and data. That doesn’t mean — IMO — that they should be voting on policies that affect the rest of us.
  10. How the Ostrom School limited Tragedies of the Commons

Recommended reading

  1. “Giving back” is inadequate if you’re a robber (or Silicon Valley expropriator).
  2. Why is “share data” the default? Smart cities are not for us.
  3. Life is too short for bullshit (so choose your priorities)
  4. Ralph Pentland on the past and future of sustainable water management in Canada [pdf].
  5. Economists (including me) on the world economy in 2019
  6. China’s economy is in real trouble, and its leaders are doubling down on control
  7. I’m glad to see Gillette asking men to do better #metoo. Related: Men taking “pick up” classes so they can “score”. FAIL.
  8. Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” and the Fourth Amendment
  9. Andrew Yang for President!
  10. A great summary of how megaprojects go wrong

Ego or learning?

I sent this article (“I’m a Developer. I Won’t Teach My Kids to Code, and Neither Should You.”) to Jan, who graduated from LUC a few years ago and taught coding to some of our students as part of a start-up idea.

I thought his reply was interesting, and Jan agreed I could share it:

“This came up during the class. Very soon those who were not intrinsically motivated started lazing off. It’s better to have a small group of people who really are fascinated with the world. However I still think it’s worth teaching.
 
I don’t think this is much different from other subjects that you’d teach at a university. In every class there are really just a few who learn, the others will just memorize or pass to get by. 
 
If you want to be a scholar you really have to want your research or paper to “work”. If you don’t, you are just putting words on paper, maybe to cash a check, get a diploma or boost your ego. A lot of people write papers but very few of those papers would “work” if they were held to the same mathematical standard as code is.
 
So, in my opinion the difference between coding and “social sciences” is that the former must make sense before it can be published, used or referenced while the latter, more often than not, doesn’t. 
 
Ego forces you to take a position on a subject before you really know much about it.
Maybe that is why this guy feels it’s futile to teach today’s kids to code? Because they have been taught to learn just to get by, not to discover, improve or inquire? Often times real discovery requires being wrong and that comes at the expense of one’s ego. In class people were afraid to ask question about coding, which nobody knew anything about. Why?? If you have a big ego, can you show your buggy, horrible beginner code to the class? How does that compare to a well-worded essay with big concepts and great writing that makes no academic sense? I know I have seen a lot of those at LUC, hell I have written them myself. Never really got bad grades for those…
 
I know this is a bit (lot) off topic but this has got me thinking. The egos are only getting bigger and bigger. That, in my opinion, is the problem with college activism, political, environmental or otherwise. It forces you to take a position on a subject before you really know much about it. Later you are likely to investigate or choose a major in that area. If your real research or readings show or suggest you might be wrong, you can choose between betraying your activist community or your academic purpose. For 20 year olds, this is often not even a choice, especially if they are at university because their parents always told them they had to and not because they really wanted to become an expert at a field. I think anyone of any age with a reputation as a socialist, environmentalist, feminist, right-winger — you name it — is put in a very tough spot in the current environment.”

Recommended reading

  1. Real estate scams mess up the market in Russia
  2. Vegan junk food may save the Earth by delivering flavor without righteousness
  3. Fraud and ruthless competition at Amazon.com
  4. A dentist takes on Big Sugar by exposing their own damning research
  5. China’s white-elephant dam thrice screws over Ecuadorian citizens
  6. America is allowing Greek levels of tax cheating (“only suckers pay tax”)
  7. A fascinating investigation on the world’s NOT oldest woman
  8. A debate on the role of government in innovation (I agree with her, but yes, it’s hard to get government — a monopoly — to perform)
  9. The French battle over notions of place, community
  10. This article from 8 months ago details how peer-to-peer lenders lost investors’ money by failing to monitor borrowers. Here’s my explanation as to the perverse incentives.

Course announcement: “Fundamentals of Water Utility Regulation” will take place in March in Budapest. The registration fee is €1000-plus. (I taught there a few years ago but will not be this year.)

Life at 49C

This Guardian story sounds like one of the narratives in my cli-fi books Life Plus 2 Meters, which discuss how we will (not) adapt to climate change. Truth is stranger than fiction!

Michelle Coles, owner of the Cinema Augusta, Port Augusta, South Australia, (49C on Tuesday)

“I didn’t think it was that hot yesterday, if you want an honest answer. Yesterday at the cinema was very quiet. People tend to stay home. We’re quite used to it. Every summer is hot. A couple of degrees hotter doesn’t make that much difference.”

“Honestly I’d much rather be in 48C heat in Port Augusta than in the city – you’ve got so much concrete and it’s closed in, but here it’s quite open. You just don’t stand out in the sun though, that’d be stupid.”

“Most of us have got pretty good air-conditioning. Our local sporting centre is open with the aircon running for anyone who doesn’t have any. The one thing I do, is for the elderly people I know, I go and visit them.”

“We don’t take our dogs for a walk early in the morning, we take them out at night. Even then, the concrete can still be quite hot. I walk out and actually stand in my bare feet to check.”

“I think it’s different these days to what it was 20 or 30 years ago. You notice that people walk around with water bottles. Everyone has water bottles. I think people are sensible. We’ve got a couple of homeless people who pop into the cinema, and our girls are instructed to give them a drink. We have a really amazing community spirit here – everybody looks after everybody else.”

Weekend reading

  1. A podcast on rethinking economics (something I’ve been doing for awhile)
  2. The institutions of a liberal society depend on trust, which is  under assault. [This is one of the best essays I read in 2018.] Related: The Republican party is using authoritarian methods in a power grab.
  3. Facebook isn’t just showing you ads. It’s selling your data to companies and showing that revenue as “advertising”. Here’s an example:
  4. Humans have some terrible tendencies: lie, betray and more
  5. OTOH: Here’s the paper describing the “general purpose” AI that learned (from zero) how to beat the best chess computer in 4 hours.
  6. Are we getting sick because we’re killing the helpful bacteria in our gut?
  7. Bill McKibbon on how badly we’re screwing up the planet. Sad.
  8. China is buying up media and journalists world-wide to promote “its good side” in yet another step into an illiberal world where power decides truth. 🙁
  9. A really nice history of the synthetic drugs that are messing up so many people

H/T to CD

Porn and social capital

JB asks:

As an economist, what unique perspectives do you bring or how do you weigh in on the increasingly anecdotal if not manichaean (morally bipolar) debate of porn-good / porn-bad? Is porn’s ubiquity symptomatic of a larger cultural dysfunctionality that has yet to be articulated in clarity, and is porn’s popularity a (or the) cause of this so-called “sex recession”?

If you’re interested in the role of sex in society and our sexual habits, then read the linked article above to think over the many reasons why younger people may be having less sex, fewer partners, and (perhaps) unfulfilling relationships.

Out of all the possible reasons listed in that article, I would emphasize how younger people are stressed about success, their “place” in social groups, and the paradox of (too much) choice. Back in the 90s, it wasn’t so easy to browse dozens of potential hook-ups per hour or compare your “success” to hundreds of “friends” and influencers filling social media feeds. Back then (and for all of human history), people hooked up according to their choices from a local pool of potentials. These days, you can compare yourself to the (artificial) profiles of far more people and get distracted/attracted to “horny locals” who are only a few clicks away.

Sadly, young people today are going to be less confident (and thus less attractive and less experienced at sex and relationships) if they get trapped in a downward spiral of “everyone has love… except me.” We see this problem at its worst with the InCel (involuntary celebrate) “movement” of guys who blame women for withholding sex. InCels didn’t exist 20 years ago (in any meaningful way) because it was harder to lust vicariously. With nothing to distract you at home, you went out and met other humans who were also looking for some action.

Turning to porn, I think that it is worsening this problem by creating false impressions of how people meet (“Hey pizza guy, how about anal?”); the role of romance, flirting and foreplay in sex (pizza guy is busy — drop your pants!); and conflating pay-for-view transactions with give-and-take relations.

I’ve never been a fan of porn (or prostitution), but I can see — as an economist — how there will be supply to meet demand. The drop in the price of porn has led to an increase in its variety and rate of consumption, which has probably had a negative impact on young men (usually) who spend time consuming porn rather than awkwardly learning how to flirt. (Girls tend to be more comfortable with the nuances of communication, but I’m sure those skills are underdeveloping as they too turn to social media fantasy, selfie narcicissm, and text-jibberish chatter.) Does porn contribute to cultural dysfunction? Absolutely: It offers an escape for guys trying to avoid the awkward phase of making themselves vulnerable by asking for others’ attention. It’s much easier to live in a fantasy relationship, just as it’s much easier to pretend you’re talking to someone by liking their update or texting some emoji’s.

(The alt-sex scene is different, but I think that gays and lesbians are experiencing similar issues. When it comes to trans-, queer- and gender-identity, I think that sex and relationships are going to be complicated by social norms and psychological wandering. Feel free to comment.)

So my one-handed conclusion is that porn is not the problem, nor the solution, but a symptom of young people having a harder time learning how to let go, take a chance, face rejection and get laid. We need more of this.

And a random question: First of all, is social capital a valid notion? And if so, why does it seem that social capital is not transactable via social media? Said differently, why is it impossible to actually make new friends on Facebook, get a job through LinkedIn, find a companion on OKStupid, etc? No matter what stage of trust one is at with someone else, it would seem that our social capital can only be accrued and spent in handshake transactions. And so, what can social media do for social capital at all? Simply squander it through embarrassing hyperbole or tactless attention-grabbing screeds?

This is a good question on one of my favorite topics. I’ll begin by referring you to my post (“Social media is neither social nor media“) but add a few more comments in response to your particulars.

First, social capital is indeed a real and important type of capital. People with more social capital are better insulated against shocks (insurance), better able to find work and other resources (information) and happier (collective identity). The bad news is that there is no short-cut to social capital: Money can’t buy you love. Relationships and trust need time and commitment.

Second, markets tend to displace social capital (relationships) by supplying substitutes at lower (transaction) costs. Thus, we can buy food from the store rather than bartering with the neighboring farmer. Thus, we hire babysitters for our kids and put grandma in the retirement home rather than living in extended families. In many cases, these market substitutions are better, but we also lose positive externalities (unintended benefits) when we replace relations with transactions. That’s why I worry sometimes that we’re overdoing it when it comes to outsourcing.

Third, most social media companies are promising something for nothing while manipulating you and selling your data. If you want to see what they really do, then read their financial and investor-facing documents. Facebook is NOT “connecting the world,” it’s selling advertising. LinkedIn is NOT about your career, but revenue from HR departments. OKCupid is NOT about love, but selling your personal details to marketeers. I can guarantee that any reader on this post is more likely to get friends, jobs and romance by meeting people face-to-face (at parties, bars, through friends, etc.) than putting in a few more clicks.

Fourth, social media has lowered the cost of connecting, which means that any given “demander” will be overwhelmed by supply. Influencers have so many friends that they cannot possibly say “hi” in response. Companies advertising jobs need bots to filter thousands of applicants. Attractive people on OkCupid and Tinder spend so much time saying no that they miss opportunities. Even when they do take a chance, they are nearly always tempted to drop someone with a slight flaw for a virtual perfection who pops into their feed.

(Stronger labor markets, btw, are reducing noise in this system as companies compete for workers and employed people waste less time on social media fantasies.)

My one-handed conclusion is that social media companies are making our lives worse by giving us false hopes, wasting our time, and selling our data. As above, I suggest spending more time in meat-space and less time in cyber-space.