Thursday, October 19, 2017

Technology, Robots, Growth, Jobs, etc

James Pethoukakis at AEI has a long-running series where he does detailed interviews with interesting economists about burning issues of our time--like technology, robots, growth, jobs, etc. I highly recommend these three recent interviews with Andrew McAfee, Daron Acemoglu and Joel Mokyr exploring these issues. No definitive answers but much food for thought.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Why It's Your Duty To Be Optimistic

Martin Luther King did not say, "I have a problem". So says Andrew Balmford, conservation biologist and activist in the new environmental movement, Earth Optimism. Their point is that a great deal of progress is being made on the environmental front--from reforestation to the recovery of the ozone layer to renewable energy beating out coal--but the standard approach of environmentalists does not acknowledge this. Instead, the preferred approach is to emphasize how dire the situation is and how close we are to catastrophe.

The reason the Earth Optimists think this approach is wrong is not so much that they believe it is unduly gloomy (though some do). It is rather that it is, very simply, ineffective. A feature article in New Scientist explains their views:
The movement wants to shift the narrative on the environment to “celebrate a change in focus from problem to solution, from a sense of loss to one of hope”. Conservation biologists such as [Andrew] Balmford, who works on conflicts between biodiversity and farms at the University of Cambridge, were the first to get on board. But since the Paris climate agreement was struck in 2015, optimism appears to be taking hold among even the grumpiest of environmental researchers – climate scientists. “With radical collaboration and relentless optimism, we will make the 2020 turning point a reality,” proclaims Mission 2020, a project set up by the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that seeks to radically curb emissions in the next three years….
Going back to the movement’s roots, [oceanographer Nancy] Knowlton says part of its aim is to inspire the next generation of planetary doctors. “Bad news without solutions is not very helpful,” she says. That mentality extends beyond professional conservation biologists to the general population. “If you give people negative, threatening messages, they don’t engage, they pretend it’s not happening, because you’ve given them no alternative,” says Balmford.
Among the positive trends Earth Optimists highlight:
[B]etween 2004 and 2012, government-led initiatives cut the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 80 per cent. Today, nearly half of the Amazon’s original rainforest is protected or part of an indigenous reserve. Worldwide, more land is being returned to nature than is being cleared of trees to make way for agriculture. In the oceans, many whale populations are recovering thanks to the 1982 moratorium on whaling, and oil spills are at an all-time low.
Perhaps the most significant change for the better has come from the energy sector. Due largely to shifts in China and the US, the coal industry appears to have peaked in the last three years. A key driver has been the Chinese government’s desire to clean up its polluted skies. Meanwhile, renewable energy is on the rise. In 2016, global solar capacity jumped by 25 per cent, largely thanks to falling costs and enormous expansion in China.
The combined effects of the death of coal and the rise of renewables are causing ripples where they are most needed. Over the last few years, global greenhouse gas emissions have plateaued – the first time this has happened during a period of economic growth. 
At about the time this article came out, I noticed a couple of other interesting articles that reinforced this theme:  

  • An article on World Economic Forum on how "The US is rapidly outpacing its clean energy forecasts". Not just outpacing but obliterating the clean energy targets set by the Department of Energy back in 2006. 
  • A lengthy, data-packed editorial in the New York Times on "Five Climate Truths Donald Trump Doesn't Understand". The five climate truths are: Trump can't save coal; coal use is declining; renewable energy is coming on strong; wind and solar are becoming cheaper; and technology is helping renewables. Note the lack of calamity predictions among these truths.
The point of course is not that we're now out of the woods on climate change and other issues; it's how do we get people to help us get out of the woods. I say give 'em hope and they will help. And we do not lack at this point for positive stories that we can tell.

While I like what the Earth Optimism people are doing, I would actually broaden their approach to other issues--economic, social, moral--that the left tends to be concerned about. Truth be told, folks on the left are much more comfortable talking about all the inequities and injustices we face today than talking about the many ways in which we've seen great progress, despite the fact the left has had a great deal to do with that progress. The ascension of Trump has only accentuated the left tendency to talk of present problems in such apocalyptic terms that they seem insoluble. No "I have a dream" here.

My view at this point is that this is self-indulgent. If those on the left are concerned with being effective--building the broadest possible movement for progressive change--they must accept that people want and need hope (that was one of the great virtues of Obama's first campaign). And you cannot provide hope without an optimistic emphasis on what has been achieved and what can be achieved in the future. In short, the left has a duty to be optimistic. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Today's Useful Data: Economic Insecurity and Populism

Four European scholars have released an important study of populist politics in Western democracies. Their conclusion: yep, economic insecurity is central  to, as they put it, both the demand for, and supply of, populism in western countries in recent years. Here are the key bits from a summary of their work that was published on VoxEU:
We argue that economic reasons are the most important causes of the current wave of populism.
In western countries in the last decade a global crisis that has affected both markets and sovereign states simultaneously, leaving many people without a safety net. This had not been the case in the past: the crises of the 1970s were mainly market crises, while in the 1990s there were government crises while markets were thriving. Over the past ten years, neither markets nor governments have had the inability to guarantee economic security. This has shaken the confidence in traditional political parties and institutions. As a result, there has been an increase in fear, aggravated by other threats such as mass migration.
The rare combination of markets’ and governments’ inability to guarantee economic security has shaken the confidence in traditional political parties and institutions, leading to an increase in fear that has been aggravated by other threats such as mass migration. In a recent paper, we show how this global dual crisis affects the demand and supply of populism systematically, and argue that a key for understanding both demand and supply of populism is the effect of economic insecurity on voter turnout.
But what about cultural factors? Don't these populist voters just hate immigrants and people of color and that's all there is to it? Here's what the authors have to say about cultural factors:
Voting, and voting for a populist party, are affected also by two cultural variables:
·   Trust in political parties: People with greater confidence in political parties are more likely to participate in elections, and to vote for a non-populist party. We measured trust on a scale between 0 and 10. A drop of 5 points on this scale would increases the probability of voting for a populist party by 7.7% of the sample mean. Trust in political parties affects participation: a decline in trust of 5 percentage points lowers the chance of participation in elections by 8.8 percentage points, almost 11% of the unconditional mean electoral turnout.

·   Adverse attitudes towards immigrants: Those with more adverse attitudes towards immigrants are less likely to participate in elections, and more likely to vote for a populist party if they participated. These variables are themselves driven by economic insecurity. Using (pseudo) panel data, we can show that people who experienced an increase in economic insecurity lose faith in political parties and develop more adverse attitudes towards immigrants (Figure 1). Hence economic insecurity drives turnout and voting decisions, both directly and indirectly, because it leads people to change their beliefs and attitudes. 
So, there is a cultural channel causing people to vote, and vote for populism but not a cultural cause. The cause is still economic insecurity. Trust and attitudes towards immigrants are proximate causes of the populist vote, not deep drivers. 
Important work. I commend it to you.  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Science Fiction Saturday: Peter Watts

Peter Watts is a Canadian science fiction writer, trained in marine biology, who writes some of the wildest--and best--science fiction currently out there. His most recent novel, Echopraxia, is quite a ride: 
It's the eve of the twenty-second century: a world where the dearly departed send postcards back from Heaven and evangelicals make scientific breakthroughs by speaking in tongues; where genetically engineered vampires solve problems intractable to baseline humans and soldiers come with zombie switches that shut off self-awareness during combat. And it's all under surveillance by an alien presence that refuses to show itself.
Daniel Bruks is a living fossil: a field biologist in a world where biology has turned computational, a cat's-paw used by terrorists to kill thousands. Taking refuge in the Oregon desert, he's turned his back on a humanity that shatters into strange new subspecies with every heartbeat. But he awakens one night to find himself at the center of a storm that will turn all of history inside-out.
Now he's trapped on a ship bound for the center of the solar system. To his left is a grief-stricken soldier, obsessed by whispered messages from a dead son. To his right is a pilot who hasn't yet found the man she's sworn to kill on sight. A vampire and its entourage of zombie bodyguards lurk in the shadows behind. And dead ahead, a handful of rapture-stricken monks takes them all to a meeting with something they will only call "The Angels of the Asteroids."
Their pilgrimage brings Dan Bruks, the fossil man, face-to-face with the biggest evolutionary breakpoint since the origin of thought itself.
If this book doesn't blow your mind, you're just not paying attention! All his other books are excellent and almost equally mind-blowing. In addition, you can get free pdfs of a lot of his back catalog, completely approved by the author. And he has a very funky blog, with a very funky name, No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons, which I recommend. Time you made this gentleman's acquaintance!

Today's Useful Data: Democrats Have the Big Mo!

Yep, things are looking up for the Democrats in terms of taking back the House in 2018. Not a done deal of course but the direction of change is good. David Wasserman of Cook Political Report explains their latest ratings of House races (including IA-01, pictured above):
President Trump and GOP control of Congress have sparked a 2018 Democratic candidate bonanza. Don't call it "recruitment:" for the most part, these aspirants decided to take the plunge on their own. Many are political newcomers; others have waited years for the right moment to run. And in light of national polling, it was only a matter of time before more GOP-held House seats joined the ranks of the vulnerable…..
Based on recent developments in races and conversations with candidates and operatives on both sides of the aisle, many races have the potential to become more competitive. This week, we're changing our ratings in 12 districts:

Friday, October 13, 2017

Obscure Music Friday: Pearls Before Swine

Pearls Before Swine was a psychedelic folk group from the late sixties who released some truly spectacular work. Their first two albums, One Nation Underground and Balaclava are particularly good but the fourth album, The Use of  Ashes, is very fine as well (it includes the cut "Rocket Man" which is absolutely gorgeous and was the inspiration for Elton John's hit song). 

The group was led by Tom Rapp, who was the driving force behind the ethereal music and beautiful lyrics. He has been hailed by some as an unappreciated genius and that may not be far off the mark. Certainly the music he made was very special indeed. Special, but not lucrative. He gave up music, went to law school and became a civil rights attorney (this profile gives the full story). But he was discovered and re-discovered by various bands and he did eventually release another album in 1999, A Journal of the Plague Year, which is actually quite good. 

Here are the lyrics to the song this post links to, Drop Out!, which was on the first album. Lovely song and if these lyrics don't bring out the inner hippie in you, nothing will!

Drop out with me, just live your life behind your eyes
Your own skies, your own tomorrows
Don't you worry now, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

Just be yourself, no one can step inside your mind
From behind, if you just walk and
Don't you worry, girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

They made the rules and they laid it on us all
Don't you fall 'cause then they'll own you
Don't you worry, girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

They're using you to kill all the echoes still around
From the sound of calendars crumbling
Don't you worry, girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

They made the bomb, would they drop it on us all?
Great and small, but must we follow?
Don't you worry, girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

Drop out with me, just live your life behind your eye
Your own skies, your own tomorrows
Don't you worry girl, don't you worry
Whole world's in too big a hurry

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Today's Useful Data: We ❤ Immigrants

Despite all the publicity anti-immigrant rhetoric and politicians get, it's pretty amazing how positive the trend lines are on what actually-existing Americans think about immigrants. In a recent Pew study, mostly devoted to showing how partisan views of various issues have diverged in recent years, it's worth noting that now almost two in three Americans think immigrants "strengthen the US with their hard work and talents" (highest ever! more than double the number back in 1994!) compared to little more than one in four who think immigrants "burden the country by taking jobs, housing and health care". And sure there is indeed a big divide between the parties on this issue but in recent years that's because both Republican and Democratic partisans have become liberal in their views, but Democrats are getting more liberal faster. This does not sound like a country about to cave in to a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria.