09 July 2020

Winston Churchill's Last Words

Last night I finished Gretchen Rubin's Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill.

His mother was to eventually marry a man three years younger than him. As a young man Churchill’s father wrote him a letter in which he said, "I am certain that if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle useless unprofitable life you have had during your schooldays & later months, you will become a mere social wastrel .... and you will degenerate into a shabby unhappy & futile existence."

Whether because of or in spite of this fine bit of parental coaching, Churchill’s life was remarkable. He did, said, and wrote dozens – hundreds – of things, any one of which would define a lesser life.

His life spanned the presidencies of US Grant and LBJ. He was born before the use of electricity, the telephone, the radio or the automobile. In 1898, he fought in the last British cavalry charge to use lances as weapons. He pioneered the concept and development of the tank and the British Air Force and wrote “Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure or taught to be sure was impossible, has happened.” He was given to excess. After spending an evening with him, someone wrote, “We had two lovely films after dinner … Winston managed to cry through all of them, including the comedy.” He once traveled on holiday with 800 pounds of luggage. He escaped from prison as a soldier, escaped death half a dozen times, was prime minister twice, was a brave warrior who defeated Hitler, and a casual racist who insulted Gandhi, never attended university and yet won a Nobel Prize for literature (he was impossibly prolific: his papers weighed 15 tons and he created nearly 500 paintings), was given to excess (FDR said of him, “Winston has fifty ideas a day and three or four are good” and after being ousted from office after WWII, in the space of two weeks he drank 96 bottles of champagne while quaffing six or seven whiskies and soda and three brandies a day), was a polo champion, a fencing champion, on a book tour in the US was introduced by Mark Twain, and during his life met fellow luminaires like Charlie Chaplin and Prince Charles (Diana was a distant cousin), Haile Selassie, Keynes, JFK, Nixon, Einstein and HG Wells.

He died at 90 on the same date that his father had died. I don’t know if after such a grand life it was inevitable or incredible that his last words were, "I'm so bored with it all."

06 July 2020

Life as a Shut-In

Occasionally I forget that we've living through a pandemic and find myself suddenly questioning the poor life choices I must have made to be living as a shut-in decades ahead of schedule.

Job Transition Programs To Facilitate Progress

Economic progress means disruption and that creates pain. We could reduce that pain which would not only be a huge kindness but help to facilitate more progress. Some countries spend 2% of GDP on job transition programs. We spend 0.1%

Many European countries invest much more in their job transition programs than the United States. For the 2 percent of GDP Denmark spends on active labor market policies (training, job finding assistance, etc.), it gets high job-to-job mobility (going straight from one job to another) as well as lots of transitions in and out of employment. The rate of involuntary displacement is similar to that in other OECD countries, but the rate at which displaced workers find a job is much more rapid: three in four displaced workers find a new job within one year. Importantly, the Danish model survived the 2008 crisis and recession, with no large increase in involuntary unemployment at that time. Germany spends 1.45 percent of its GDP on active labor market policies, and this went up to 2.45 percent during the crisis, when unemployment was much higher than usual. In France, on the other hand, notwithstanding claims about how it wants to do more for the unemployed, expenditure on active labor market policies has been stuck at 1 percent of GDP for more than a decade. The corresponding measure for the United States is just 0.11 percent.
Banerjee, Abhijit V and Duflo, Esther. Good Economics for Hard Times (p. 314). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

How a Series of Seemingly Random Events Might Shape a Generation: Millennials, 9-11, the Great Recession & a Pandemic

I had an exchange with Jackie and conversation with my son Blake, two millennials born in the late 1980s.

9-11 and its aftermath in the form of the war on terror hit when they were about 10. The Great Recession hit when they were about 20. Now COVID and its aftermath has hit when they were about 30. Every decade, some cataclysmic event that seems to send the future in a new direction.

As context for these events, there is another, bigger shift. 100 years ago, three really big, really important things in life were essentially just given to you, defined for you as defaults that many simply accepted: where you would live, what you would do, and your religion. You lived where you were born. For work, you did what your parent did. And you continued in the religion you were raised in. Now, all three of those are things most wrestle with, have to question, and are often forced to define. (My daughter’s Bachelor’s degree was in a major that did not exist when I went to university.)

Erich Fromm wrote this fascinating book, Escape from Freedom, trying to make sense of Hitler in the wake of WWII and he said that true freedom, true responsibility to define one's own life, is an overwhelming task and one that people might easily flee from - even into the arms of authoritarian leaders who dictate all that. Freedom of choice can be terrifying – or at least stressful. Rather than contemplate our freedom, we might actually turn to authoritarian leaders who will dictate to us what we find too overwhelming to choose or even create.

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were also exploring many of their big ideas in the wake of World War 2. This choice we have to define ourselves on so many dimensions is the stuff of the freedom and angst that they explored in their existential philosophy. Sartre argued that it was on the other side of existential angst that one created a life that wasn’t merely a continuation of what came before. Like Fromm, he believed that freedom was really stressful.

Millennials have more freedom – and thus more burden – of choice than any previous generation. (Not that this is a bad thing. I would argue that one measure of progress is exactly this: more choice about how to live one’s life, what to buy, where to live, how to live …) Couple that with the fact that the first decade of their careers is now bookended by two of the most cataclysmic recessions in the last 80 years. They are keenly aware of how contingent life is and how much can be changed by random, big events or even small, individual choices. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll expect any sense of permanence in the midst of this.

Blake opined that this is one of the big reasons the millennials are far more likely to support stronger social safety nets, from universal healthcare to welfare. That sounds right to me. It also makes me wonder the extent to which millennials will be more likely to press into situations that let them maximize freedom or create stability. Whether all this will make them more or less tolerant of uncertainty.

And of course, maybe this is just life. We’re always shocked at falling in love or how adorable a baby is even though every generation before has felt the same wonder at these things. Each generation has its defining struggles, whether it be a civil war or world war or civil rights. But I think the shape of these events in turn help to shape a generation. It’s not clear to me how these events will shape this generation of millennials who I love. The good news is that no generation has been more educated, more aware, and less tolerant of injustice. They seem well prepared. he good news is that no generation has been more educated, more aware, and less tolerant of injustice. They seem well prepared but of course preparation seems like an elusive concept when your life has been impacted by so many seemingly random events.

04 July 2020

Follow Walt Whitman's Advice and "Your Very Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem"

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is 165 years old today. It's fitting that it debuted on the 4th of July as it is such a distinctly American creation. This preface appeared only in the initial edition and I love the bit about re-examining all you have been told but this whole preface is quite the advice, boldly given.

Excerpts from here:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. ..... the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors—the fluency of their speech their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul . . . their good temper and openhandedness— the terrible significance of their elections—the President’s taking off his hat to them not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.
The old red blood and stainless gentility of great poets will be proved by their unconstraint. A heroic person walks at his ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits him not. Of the traits of the brotherhood of writers savants musicians inventors and artists nothing is finer than silent defiance advancing from new free forms. In the need of poems philosophy politics mechanism science behaviour, the craft of art, an appropriate native grand-opera, shipcraft, or any craft, he is greatest forever and forever who contributes the greatest original practical example. The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one.

Great genius and the people of these states must never be demeaned to romances. As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances.

Only the soul is of itself. . . . all else has reference to what ensues. All that a person does or thinks is of consequence. Not a move can a man or woman make that affects him or her in a day or a month or any part of the direct lifetime or the hour of death but the same affects him or her onward afterward through the indirect lifetime. The indirect is always as great and real as the direct. .... Did you guess any of them lived only its moment? The world does not so exist . . . no parts palpable or impalpable so exist . . . no result exists now without being from its long antecedent result, and that from its antecedent, and so backward without the farthest mentionable spot coming a bit nearer the beginning than any other spot.

America prepares with composure and goodwill for the visitors that have sent word. It is not intellect that is to be their warrant and welcome. The talented, the artist, the ingenious, the editor, the statesman, the erudite . . . they are not unappreciated . . . they fall in their place and do their work. The soul of the nation also does its work.


03 July 2020

1776 and the founding of modern democracy and capitalism

1776 was a good year for world changing documents.

The founding fathers gave us the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith gave us The Wealth of Nations. Oh, and across campus from Adam Smith in Glasgow, James Watt was perfecting the steam engine.

The combination of markets and democracy since has transformed lives. The two enable each other. Usually, what is wrong with democracy can be solved with more democracy, and what is wrong with markets can be solved with more markets.

It's funny how nobody tells a runner that they should make one leg weaker and yet in my lifetime I've seen lots of folks argue that we would make progress more rapidly if only we made one leg weaker, weakening government or markets. (For instance, the Republican Party was hijacked by Grover Norquist who famously quipped, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." His weird worldview has become gospel for many. Of course now that we're witnessing the literally fatal consequences of a weak government in handling a pandemic, perhaps more people will abandon this odd theology.)

We're looking back to 1776 this weekend. It's worth remembering that the gains we have made since are less product of markets or democracy than what is created in the interaction between the two.

I would like to think that Adam Smith and James Watt were walking on this very spot on campus one day and Adam said, "Imagine someday that a person will be able to capture this image with a device."
"Oh sure," said James. "And then they'll be able to send that image to a friend on the American continent."
And then they laughed and laughed and said, "Ha! We could tell that to our peers, but really, who would believe us?"

Glasgow University. Adam Smith taught here and James Watt worked on campus, tinkering away with the steam engine. When I visited a few years ago, I was giddy.

02 July 2020

Wealth of Nation's Poorest 165 Million is 10X Bezos' Wealth (so there's that)

Jeff Bezos net worth is now $171.6 billion. (It would be nearly a quarter of a trillion if not for his divorce settlement.)

The bottom 50% of Americans hold 1.4% of the country's wealth.
Bezos holds 0.15% of the country's wealth.
So, Bezo's wealth is 10% of the total held by the poorest 50% of (or 165 million) Americans.

So that's kind of interesting.

29 June 2020

Conspiracy Theorists or Believers?

Joe Uscinski on reasoning with conspiracy theorists. (And I'm paraphrasing.)
"People like to imagine that reasoned dialogue changes minds. I'm not so sure. Lock a Jew and a Catholic in a closet for two hours and tell me that they'll come out with some compromise on their beliefs."
We call them conspiracy theorists but of course theories are subject to test and revision. Might be more honest to call them conspiracy believers.

28 June 2020

It's All Made Up (but the consequences are very real)

There seems to be a dawning realization that our social inventions - institutions, norms, culture, processes - are invented just as our products are. At that point of realization, some people become a nihilist, believing that because it is all made up, none of it matters. I feel very differently.

777s are just made up. I was at Boeing in one of the rooms that had file cabinets with various designs for this jet that could carry 400 people 7,000 miles. The complexity is mind boggling. And they have to get it all right to make it successful. A jet is just made up, just invented, but it matters a great deal that designers, builders and operators get it right.

Churches, states, banks, schools, and corporations, even marriage is just made up. But it takes a lot to get them right. And they really do make us different people.

Polygamy and monogamy are completely made up. At different times and in different places, communities embrace one or the other. But the consequences are very real. The 10 most violent nations in the world practice polygamy. When swaths of young men can't get a partner, the community is more violent.

Theocracy and democracy are completely made up. Voice of God or voice of the people? It's all social invention. But the consequences are very real. The 10 most prosperous countries in the world are democracies. Better truths come out of debate and multiple perspectives than from dictates from a religious elite.

About 100, 150 years ago we got much better at product invention. (Edison may have "invented" the first R&D lab. He died with over 1,000 patents in his name partly because he was an inventive genius but more so because he was one of the first to hire people to turn out inventions the way that others hired people to turn out products.)

We are learning more about social invention. One of the things we are learning is that most progress is incremental. A gain of 2% a year in income will double incomes every 35 years. The American revolution that gave religious freedom went much better than the French revolution that outlawed religion. We experiment our way into the future and while we challenge everything we pause before we blow up institutions. (We blew up the monarchy. We did not blow up the nation-state.)

The most important thing we are learning about social invention is that social constructs are like products, like other tools. They make our lives better but they are our tools, we are not theirs. You can love the creative genius of Karl Benz and Henry Ford without wondering whether they would approve of cup holders in a car or marvel at the genius of Jefferson and Hamilton without wondering whether they'd approve of a law banning child labor.

Social invention is at least as hard as designing, building and operating a 777 and it is even more important. If you mess up on a 777, only 400 people die. Errors in social invention kill millions.

So yes, it's all made up. And that should make you take it all the more seriously rather than be more flippant, more nihilistic about it.

27 June 2020

How Narratives Define Racism - even for the victims of racism

Narrative plays a big part in not only how we look at others but how we look at ourselves. Finding a narrative that is both positive and honest is an important trick. Positive - being kind to ourselves - gives us courage to try new things, which is key for development. Honest gives us feedback about what is and what is not working - which is also key for development. Change your narrative about others and they might become someone different. Change your narrative about yourself and you might become someone different.

Here is a revealing excerpt from Good Economics for Hard Times by the most recent Nobel Prize in Economics winners, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. It turns out that the narratives of racism are not just something we apply to others but actually something we apply to ourselves.


What is strange about these self-fulfilling prophecies is just how predictable they are. It is always a traditionally disadvantaged person who ends up as the victim of a biased, but self-fulfilling prediction; you never hear about white males being systematically underestimated in anything except sports. The bias stems from a stereotype rooted in the social context.

A study of African American and white Princeton undergraduates shows how deep this runs. The students, who had no prior experience of golf, were asked to perform a series of golf exercises of increasing difficulty. In a first experiment, half of them were asked to indicate their race in a questionnaire before they played (the standard way to “prime” race; that is, to bring group identity to the top of the mind), and half were not. All students were then presented the golf exercises as a test of “general sports performance.” When race was not primed, white and black students performed very similarly. But once race was made salient, the fact that golf is a “white” sport (this was before Tiger Woods) made the African Americans worsen their performance and the white students improve theirs, creating a large gap between the two.

In a second experiment, researchers did not prime race, but instead the students were randomly assigned to one of two treatments. In both groups, the instructions said the exercises would become increasingly challenging. In one group, the instructions said the test was designed to measure personal factors correlated with natural athletic ability. Natural athletic ability was defined as “one’s natural ability to perform complex tasks that require hand-eye coordination, such as shooting, throwing, or hitting a ball or other moving objects.” In the other, the same test was presented as measuring “sports intelligence,” or “personal factors correlated with the ability to think strategically during an athletic performance.” In the “natural ability” condition, the African Americans did much better than the whites. In the “sports intelligence” condition, the whites did much better than the African Americans. Everyone, including the blacks themselves, had bought into the stereotype of the African American natural athlete and the white natural strategic player. And this was at Princeton…

Banerjee, Abhijit and Duflo, Esther, Good Economics for Hard Times (pp. 116-117). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

16 June 2020

Our Policy Penalizes Women for Creating the Next Generation

Given how much we tax women to give birth to and raise the next generation, women who have graduate or professional degrees are twice as likely to be childless as women who are high school dropouts. Women with a Bachelor's degree are 30% more likely to be childless than a woman with only a high school diploma. We penalize women for creating the next generation and the penalty comes in the form of lost income.

(You can find the data for these calculations here:
https://www.census.gov/…/de…/fertility/women-fertility.html… )

We could change these results with a change in policy.

Make the rash assumption that you want someone to give birth to and raise the next generation. Further, rashly assume that you'd like those people to reflect the current workforce - people from the 1st to 99th percentile of income. That is, you don't want only the poor or very rich to be able to afford to take the time and afford the income cut that comes with having babies.

A wise society might not just minimize the cost for having a baby but actually provide a bonus to women who choose to become mothers.

As it is, women's wages first fall when they have a baby and then begin to rise again. But, "While this recovery is encouraging, it is not large enough to return women to their pre-birth earnings path." That is, women not only lose income at the time a baby is born but never quite get back to the same income trajectory they were on. An economist might tell you that the more something costs, the less of it people will buy. As crude as it sounds, the data suggests that this is even true for babies.


Even As COVID Cases Remain Steady, COVID Deaths Drop. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson Explains

Curious stats and theories from Derek Thompson at the Atlantic.

In the last 30 days, COVID cases per capita have remained steady but deaths per capita have fallen by 50%.

Thompson offers a few theories.

1. We're getting better at treating COVID.

2. Policy is more focused on protecting the vulnerable in places like nursing homes.

3. Knowing that the elderly are more vulnerable than the young, the elderly are generally not taking as many risks and not getting sick as often while the young are taking more risks and are the ones who make up a greater percentage of the new cases. If 100 people at random (let's say 33 young and 33  middle aged and 33 elderly and 1 person who would not tell us their age) get COVID, 5 might die. If 100 mostly young people (let's say 55 young and 35 middle aged and 10 elderly) get COVID, 2 might die. Bars filled with young people sharing COVID result in fewer deaths than COVID spreading through rest homes filled with old people.

Data from Florida supports Thompson's third theory: back in early April, people over 50 and under 50 were equally likely to get COVID. More recently, about 75% of the new cases have been among those under 50.

This is good news in that we are figuring out who most needs to protect themselves through physical isolation. It also suggests that 2020 is going to be a very long year for older people for whom shelter-in-place is still the right choice even in a world where things are gradually opening up.

His twitter thread on this is linked here.

14 June 2020

Nationalism vs. Economic Excellence

It still boggles my mind that nationalism has any support.

Here are two pie charts. It shows that the US has 3X as many top-tier AI researchers as it has produced. 

There is no country where mothers' wombs magically enable their children to excel at AI. These children are randomly born around the world. Of late, those babies tend to grow up to come work in the US. Our anti-immigrant, anti-trade policies are reversing that. It's nonsense.

Over the last decade, the US has led in the number of Nobel Prize winners: half of whom were born in other countries.

The US gets so many perks for being the place people come to work and research. The ripple effect of this is so great and goes in so many directions. Short-term, it creates jobs for American restaurant workers, dry cleaners, teachers, nurses ... Long-term, it creates new knowledge, technology, products, companies and industries.

My experience is that the more demanding the field, the greater the percentage of foreigners. It is about as hard for a product development team to be among the best in the world without immigrants as it is for a basketball, baseball or football team to play championship games without any players of color. Among their many evils, racism and nationalism lower levels of performance by creating artificial barriers to contribution and collaboration.

What the Right Gets Wrong About Voting by Mail

My friend Robert was very excited about voting by mail. This surprised me because he never really struck me as the kind of guy who was a big fan of more democracy. In fact, he seems to tilt authoritarian. A bit.

"Finally the left has come to its senses," Robert said excitedly.
"What brought this on," I asked.
"They're talking about voting by mail!"
"You're for that," I inquired.
"Of course! I think it's brilliant. Have you seen the polls that suggest how much that would change things? We would rock these elections!"
I paused a while, trying to process this.
"Robert," I finally responded. "You know that they are talking about voting by mail, M-A-I-L, not voting by male, M-A-L-E, right?"
He grew silent. About a minute later he muttered, "Stupid liberals."