↳ History

November 9th, 2018

↳ History

Banking with Imprecision

​In 1596, Spanish troops under the leadership of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia set fire to their own ships in the waters near Cadiz. The sinking of these thirty-two vessels was a tactical necessity: a joint Anglo-Dutch navy had annihilated the slapdash defenses of the city, driving the Spanish ships off to nearby Puerto Real. The Spanish had preferred to see their ships sunk rather than captured by the enemy. Cadiz itself was occupied and sacked, and its most prominent civilians were held for ransom. War, as the Spanish were acutely aware, was very costly. Later that very year, Philip II, King of Spain, would declare bankruptcy. 1

Though he was one of the most powerful monarchs of the era, it is difficult to sympathize with the sheer magnitude of the work with which King Philip II of Spain had to contend. Not only did he have to protect his Iberian possessions, but he also had to prosecute a war against the recalcitrant Dutch in the Low Countries, outmaneuver the Protestants in France, and maintain a bulwark against the Turks in the Mediterranean. 2

In their book, Lending to the Borrower from Hell, Drelichman and Voth have done a remarkable job of illuminating Spanish finance in the 16th century.Notably, the fiscal machinery underpinning imperial operations was managed mostly by a tight-knit cartel of Genoese bankers. Sovereign lending, astonishingly, allowed for a plethora of state actions in a time before instant communication. The foundations of empire rested on a relatively simple model: control certain streams of income and then borrow against them. The institutional origins of our modern sovereign lending come from this tradition. Dealing with uncertainty is an inherent part of this model – now as it was then. What is of use to modern scholars is how the same problem was conceived of and partly surmounted by our institutional forebears.

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November 3rd, 2018

Absorbs The Shape

FUTURE OF WORK | MEDIEVAL FLOOD INSURANCE | GENDERED EMPLOYMENT

POLITICAL TURBULENCE

How do we meaningfully compare regime change?

In last week’s newsletter, we spotlighted work by Elliott Ash, Daniel Chen, and Suresh Naidu that provided quantitative analysis of the judicial effects of the law and economics movement. More generally, the paper examined how small-scale intellectual projects—like a series of economic seminars by the Manne Economics Institute—carry significant judicial and ideological outcomes. This week, we examine ideological diffusion on the macroscale and explore the role of external and international influences on democratic uprisings throughout history.

Democratic uprisings (beginning with the American Revolution and culminating in the Arab Spring) mark the last two hundred years of global democratization. The specific regional, historical, and economic circumstances surrounding these turbulent and diverse democratic revolutions make meaningful and effective comparisons hard to achieve.

In a recent paper, SEVA GUNITSKY offers a conceptual framework for better comparing democratic regime shifts over time and identifies the recurring mechanisms that catalyze and shape democratic uprisings. The work approaches regime changes as clusterings or cascades and so organizes thirteen democratic 'waves' into four typologies along two central dimensions: the origins of external influences (horizontal or vertical) and the role of those influences in timing the democratic wave (contagion or emulation). With this framework, Gunitsky claims that global interactions spark democratic changes:

"The looming presence of waves suggests that studies of democratization cannot focus only on the local drivers of revolts from below or elite concessions from above. Episodes of mass political contention were often embedded in broader transnational processes that involved regional cross-border ties and global hegemonic rivalries. More generally, examining the causes of democratic waves is a reminder that global democratization is more than the sum of its parts. The spread of democracy embodies multiple facets of a systemic phenomenon, driven by cross-border linkages that cannot be reduced to their individual components. Examining how democracy spreads can offer fundamental insight into the nature of democracy itself."

Gunitsky delves further into democratic regime changes—and those that resulted in fascism and communism—offering prescient insight into the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil:

"Sudden shifts in the structure of hegemonic power have produced some of the most consequential regime cascades in modern history. In some ways, the twentieth century can be imagined as a series of hegemonic shocks and institutional waves. Yet the links between systemic shifts and institutional waves were not limited to democracy: German economic recovery in the 1930s led to the diffusion of fascist ideas and institutions, and the Soviet victory in World War II prompted a global communist wave that spread through both force and admiration. Future hegemonic transitions, including the decline of American dominance, are likely to produce similar anti-democratic cascades, particularly in case of a sudden U.S. decline."

Link to the paper, and link to Gunitsky's book on the same topic.

  • In a 2013 paper, Nathan Nunn and Paola Giuliano examine the importance of local-level democracy—a tradition of electing a local leader through consensus rather than appointment—and its relationship to state and national level democratic institutions. Link.
  • James Kloppenberg's Toward Democracy probes the Atlantic Democratic Wave and provides a major synthesis of Western intellectual thought. Link.
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October 6th, 2018

Earth Men

GREEN GROWTH CONDUNDRUM | PEOPLE AND THE POOR LAWS

HARD CAPS

Economic growth vs. natural resources

A recent Foreign Policy op-ed by JASON HICKEL examines “green growth,” a policy that calls for the absolute decoupling of GDP from the total use of natural resources. Hickel synthesizes three studies and explains that even in high-efficiency scenarios, economic growth makes it impossible to avoid unsustainably using up natural resources (including fossil fuels, minerals, livestock, forests, etc).

“Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Sure, we might be able to produce cars and iPhones and skyscrapers more efficiently, but we can’t produce them out of thin air. We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs. Once we reach the limits of efficiency, pursuing any degree of economic growth drives resource use back up.”

The op-ed sparked debate about the state of capitalism in the current climate crisis, most notably in an Bloomberg op-ed by NOAH SMITH, who claims that Hickel is a member of “a small but vocal group of environmentalists telling us that growth is no longer possible—that unless growth ends, climate change and other environmental impacts will destroy civilization.” Though Smith’s op-ed doesn’t directly engage with many of Hickel’s points, his general position prompted a clarifying (and heated)response from Hickel:

“Noah is concerned that if we were to stop global growth, poor countries would be ‘stuck’ at their present level of poverty. But I have never said that poor countries shouldn’t grow—nor has anyone in this field of study (which Noah would know had he read any of the relevant literature). I have simply said that we can’t continue with aggregate global growth.

...
While poor countries may need some GDP growth, that should never—for any nation, rich or poor—be the objective as such. The objective should be to improve human well-being: better health, better education, better housing, happiness, etc. The strategy should be to target these things directly. To the extent that achieving these goals entails some growth, so be it. But that’s quite different from saying that GDP needs to grow forever.”

  • From a study on the limits of green growth: “GDP cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible. GDP is increasingly seen as a poor proxy for societal wellbeing. Society can sustainably improve wellbeing, including the wellbeing of its natural assets, but only by discarding GDP growth as the goal in favor of more comprehensive measures of societal wellbeing.” Link.
  • In a recent article, Juan Moreno-Cruz, Katharine L. Ricke, and Gernot Wagner discuss ways to approach the climate crisis and argue that “mitigation (the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions at the source) is the only prudent response.” Link.
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September 22nd, 2018

Red Wall

AI LABOR CHAIN | BIOETHICS

MATERIAL UNDERSTANDING

The full resource stack needed for Amazon's Echo to "turn on the lights"

In a novel new project, KATE CRAWFORD and VLADAN JOLER present an "anatomical case study" of the human labor, data, and planetary resources necessary for the functioning of an Amazon Echo. A 21-part essay accompanies an anatomical map (pictured above), making the case for the importance of understanding the complex resource networks that make up the "technical infrastructures" threaded through daily life:

"At this moment in the 21st century, we see a new form of extractivism that is well underway: one that reaches into the furthest corners of the biosphere and the deepest layers of human cognitive and affective being. Many of the assumptions about human life made by machine learning systems are narrow, normative and laden with error. Yet they are inscribing and building those assumptions into a new world, and will increasingly play a role in how opportunities, wealth, and knowledge are distributed.

The stack that is required to interact with an Amazon Echo goes well beyond the multi-layered 'technical stack' of data modeling, hardware, servers and networks. The full stack reaches much further into capital, labor and nature, and demands an enormous amount of each. Put simply: each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch."

Link to the full essay and map.

  • More on the nuanced ethical dilemmas of digital technology: "Instead of being passive victims of (digital) technology, we create technology and the material, conceptual, or ethical environments, possibilities, or affordances for its production of use; this makes us also responsible for the space of possibilities that we create." Link.
  • As shared in our April newsletter, Tim Hwang discusses how hardware influences the progress and development of AI. Link.
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August 4th, 2018

The Great Abundance

CARBON TAXES | WORLD TRADE DATABASE

ENERGY BOOM

A new carbon tax proposal and a big new carbon tax research report

Representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) introduced a carbon tax bill to the House last week (though it is “sure to fail” with the current government, it's unusual to see a carbon tax proposed by a Republican). According to Reuters, “Curbelo said the tax would generate $700 billion in revenue over a decade for infrastructure investments.” A deep analysis is available from The Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia SIPA, which started up a Carbon Tax Initiative this year.

For a broader look at carbon taxes, earlier this month the Columbia initiative published a significant four-part series on the “economic, energy, and environmental implications of federal carbon taxes” (press release here).

The overview covers impacts on energy sources:

“The effects of a carbon tax on prices are largest for energy produced by coal, followed by oil, then natural gas, due to the difference in carbon intensity of each fuel. Every additional dollar per ton of the carbon tax increases prices at the pump by slightly more than one cent per gallon for gasoline and slightly less than one cent per gallon for diesel.”

And examines a few possible revenue uses:

“How the carbon tax revenue is used is the major differentiating factor in distributional outcomes. A carbon tax policy can be progressive, regressive, or neither.”

Overview here. Link to report on energy and environmental implications; link to report on distributional implications; link to report on implications for the economy and household welfare.

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July 28th, 2018

Jetty

QUANTITATIVE ECONOMIC HISTORY | BEHAVIORAL ECON POLICY | CHINA IN THE 20TH CENTURY

BANKING AS ART

On the history of economists in central banks 

A recent paper by FRANÇOIS CLAVEAU and JÉRÉMIE DION applies quantitative methods to the historical study of central banks, demonstrating the transition of central banking from an "esoteric art" to a science, the growth of economics research within central banking institutions, and the corresponding rise in the dominance of central banks in the field of monetary economics. From the paper: 

"We study one type of organization, central banks, and its changing relationship with economic science. Our results point unambiguously toward a growing dominance of central banks in the specialized field of monetary economics. Central banks have swelling research armies, they publish a growing share of the articles in specialized scholarly journals, and these articles tend to have more impact today than the articles produced outside central banks."

Link to the paper, which contains a vivid 1929 dialogue between Keynes and Sir Ernest Musgrave Harvey of the Bank of England, who asserts, "It is a dangerous thing to start giving reasons." 

h/t to the always-excellent Beatrice Cherrier who highlighted this work in a brief thread and included some visualizations, including this one showing the publishing rate of central banking researchers: 

  • Via both Cherrier and the paper, a brief Economist article on the crucial significance of the central banking conference in Jackson Hole, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City: "Davos for central bankers." Link. (And link to an official history of the conference.) 
  • Another paper co-authored by Claveau looks at the history of specialties in economics, using quantitative methods to map the importance of sets of ideas through time. "Among our results, especially noteworthy are (1) the clear-cut existence of ten families of specialties, (2) the disappearance in the late 1970s of a specialty focused on general economic theory, (3) the dispersal of the econometrics-centered specialty in the early 1990s and the ensuing importance of specific econometric methods for the identity of many specialties since the 1990s, and (4) the low level of specialization of individual economists throughout the period in contrast to physicists as early as the late 1960s." Link
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July 14th, 2018

Traveling Light

DATA OWNERSHIP BY CONSUMERS | CLIMATE AND CULTURAL CHANGE

DATA IS NONRIVAL

Considerations on data sharing and data markets 

CHARLES I. JONES and CHRISTOPHER TONETTI contribute to the “new but rapidly-growing field” known as the economics of data:

“We are particularly interested in how different property rights for data determine its use in the economy, and thus affect output, privacy, and consumer welfare. The starting point for our analysis is the observation that data is nonrival. That is, at a technological level, data is not depleted through use. Most goods in economics are rival: if a person consumes a kilogram of rice or an hour of an accountant’s time, some resource with a positive opportunity cost is used up. In contrast, existing data can be used by any number of firms or people simultaneously, without being diminished. Consider a collection of a million labeled images, the human genome, the U.S. Census, or the data generated by 10,000 cars driving 10,000 miles. Any number of firms, people, or machine learning algorithms can use this data simultaneously without reducing the amount of data available to anyone else. The key finding in our paper is that policies related to data have important economic consequences.”

After modeling a few different data-ownership possibilities, the authors conclude, “Our analysis suggests that giving the data property rights to consumers can lead to allocations that are close to optimal.” Link to the paper.

  • Jones and Tonetti cite an influential 2015 paper by Alessandro Acquisti, Curtis R. Taylor, and Liad Wagman on “The Economics of Privacy”: “In digital economies, consumers' ability to make informed decisions about their privacy is severely hindered, because consumers are often in a position of imperfect or asymmetric information regarding when their data is collected, for what purposes, and with what consequences.” Link.
  • For more on data populi, Ben Tarnoff has a general-interest overview in Logic Magazine, including mention of the data dividend and a comparison to the Alaska Permanent Fund. Tarnoff uses the oil industry as an analogy throughout: “In the oil industry, companies often sign ‘production sharing agreements’ (PSAs) with governments. The government hires the company as a contractor to explore, develop, and produce the oil, but retains ownership of the oil itself. The company bears the cost and risk of the venture, and in exchange receives a portion of the revenue. The rest goes to the government. Production sharing agreements are particularly useful for governments that don’t have the machinery or expertise to exploit a resource themselves.” Link.
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June 23rd, 2018

Yielding Stone

FAIRNESS IN ALGORITHMIC DECISION-MAKING | ADMINISTRATIVE DATA ACCESS

VISIBLE CONSTRAINT

Including protected variables can make algorithmic decision-making more fair 

A recent paper co-authored by JON KLEINBERG, JENS LUDWIG, SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN, and ASHESH RAMBACHAN addresses algorithmic bias, countering the "large literature that tries to 'blind' the algorithm to race to avoid exacerbating existing unfairness in society":  

"This perspective about how to promote algorithmic fairness, while intuitive, is misleading and in fact may do more harm than good. We develop a simple conceptual framework that models how a social planner who cares about equity should form predictions from data that may have potential racial biases. Our primary result is exceedingly simple, yet often overlooked: a preference for fairness should not change the choice of estimator. Equity preferences can change how the estimated prediction function is used (such as setting a different threshold for different groups) but the estimated prediction function itself should not change. Absent legal constraints, one should include variables such as gender and race for fairness reasons.

Our argument collects together and builds on existing insights to contribute to how we should think about algorithmic fairness.… We empirically illustrate this point for the case of using predictions of college success to make admissions decisions. Using nationally representative data on college students, we underline how the inclusion of a protected variable—race in our application—not only improves predicted GPAs of admitted students (efficiency), but also can improve outcomes such as the fraction of admitted students who are black (equity).

Across a wide range of estimation approaches, objective functions, and definitions of fairness, the strategy of blinding the algorithm to race inadvertently detracts from fairness."

Read the full paper here.

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March 17th, 2018

Natatorium Undine

STATE SCHOOL RECRUITMENT | JOB GUARANTEE | BLOCKCHAIN

DEPENDENCE EXTERIOR

State universities' reliance on out-of-state enrollment

Research on enrollment patterns finds that shrinking state funds leads admissions departments to look for out-of-state tuition financing.

"Fixed effects panel models revealed a strong negative relationship between state appropriations and nonresident freshman enrollment. This negative relationship was stronger at research universities than master’s or baccalaureate institutions. These results provide empirical support for assertions by scholars that state disinvestment in public higher education compels public universities to behave like private universities by focusing on attracting paying customers.

We contribute to a growing body of evidence that showing that university revenue seeking behaviors are associated with a strong Matthew Effect. Cheslock and Gianneschi showed that only flagship research universities could generate substantial revenues from voluntary support. Therefore, increasing reliance on voluntary support increases the differences between ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ universities. Similarly, our results suggest that relying on nonresident enrollment growth to compensate for declines in state appropriations also increases the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Many public universities may desire tuition revenue from nonresident students. However, descriptive statistics suggest that only research universities are capable of generating substantial nonresident enrollment."

Link to the full paper, by OZAN JAQUETTE and BRADLEY CURS.

  • An NBER working paper, from 2016, produces similar findings in the case of international student enrollment: "Our analysis focuses on the interaction between the type of university experience demanded by students from abroad and the supply-side of the U.S. market. For the period between 1996 and 2012, we estimate that a 10% reduction in state appropriations is associated with an increase in foreign enrollment of 12% at public research universities and about 17% at the most resource-intensive public universities." Link to the paper, link to a summary.
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