From the monthly archives:

September 2020

Inequality and the Pandemic, Part 1: Luck

by John Q on September 30, 2020

Here’s an extract from my contingent* book-in-progress, Economic Consequences of the Pandemic commissioned by Yale University Press. Comments and compliments appreciated, as always.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us several things about inequality, or rather, it has dramatically reinforced lessons we, as a society, have failed to learn. The first is the importance of luck in determining unequal outcomes.

Some of us will get Covid-19 and die or suffer lifelong health consequences. Others will lose their jobs and businesses. Many, however, will be unaffected or will even find themselves better off. Some of these differences may be traced to individual choices that are sensible or otherwise, such as deciding whether to wear a mask in public places. But mostly they are a matter of being in the wrong (or right) place at the wrong (or right time).
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That might seem a silly question, but I’m finding myself genuinely wondering. I’m going to use this post to write through my confusion, building toward a second, deeper question, which arises if we’re willing to take that first question seriously: Should single-issue anti-abortion voters prefer a course of action that leads to fewer abortions, or should they prefer a course of action that leads to more abortions but that makes the laws better reflect their convictions about the ethics of abortion? This, I’ll suggest, is the actual choice situation they face.

I’m not a single-issue anti-abortion voter myself, so I might well misstep at various points. And, because most of the single-issue anti-abortion voters I know personally are Catholic, I’m still likelier to misstep with respect to the non-Catholic moral underpinnings of abortion opposition. Still, I don’t think anything I say in setting out the considerations as I see them needs to contradict the ethical or spiritual commitments that underpin these voters’ political stance. Indeed, I am trying to reason from those ethical commitments as I understand them to the political question at hand. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Amy Coney Barrett would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Why might a single-issue anti-abortion voter nonetheless oppose her appointment? As I see it, there are two types of reasons for opposition.

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Sunday photoblogging: Arles – jeux de mots

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2020

Arles jeux de mots

(For those who don’t have the French. “Tousse ensemble/crève générale” (cough together, general death) is a play on “Tous ensemble/grève générale” (all together, general strike.)

Story ate the world. I’m biting back.

by Maria on September 23, 2020

A piece I wrote elsewhere in March is doing the rounds again. ‘The Prodigal Tech Bro’ is about the privileged place in professional interactions and public discourse given to men who used to work in senior positions for tech platforms and are now surprised and disturbed by what those companies do. It points out how the ex-tech executives’ “I’m was lost, now I’m found; please come to my TED talk” redemption arc misses out a key part of the narrative groove they use to slide back into our good graces. It’s the bit in the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son where he hits rock bottom in a pigsty and decides to go home and beg to be taken on as one of his father’s servants. Ultimately, he’s forgiven, much to the chagrin of the brother who stayed home and did the work, but the original Prodigal Son understands where he went wrong, and more importantly who he has wronged, and believes all the long walk home that he will never regain his former status and comfort.

A new documentary on Netflix, The Social Dilemma, is about the harms of social media. It centres the wide-eyed gradualism of a former tech executive named in my piece, amongst others whose careers have followed a similar trajectory from poacher to … someone who thinks we should maybe sometime think about hiring some more gamekeepers, if that’s ok, though obviously not the radical gamekeepers, and definitely not gamekeepers who think their job is something more than game-keeping the herd so ‘we’ can conveniently shoot or farm it.

The film repeats the same failing of the former tech execs – it assumes that the privileged people who made the mess we’re all in should be at the centre of the conversation on how to clean their shit up, crowding out once again those who have suffered because of their shit, or who’ve wrecked their careers by speaking loudly about the existence of this shit, and – crucially – limiting our thinking about what we do now to the homeopathic solutionism of the slurry-drenched insider who is already defined by his insistence that what looks, smells and acts like shit is not, in fact, shit. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Fog at Bouzigues

by Chris Bertram on September 20, 2020

Bouzigues fog

The Supreme Court and Normcore

by Henry Farrell on September 19, 2020

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, we are going to see more debate over the norms on judicial nominations and whether they should be observed. The so-called “McConnell rule” – that the Senate should block Supreme Court nominations in the last year of their term to allow the people their say – is giving way to an equally fanciful McConnell exception stipulating that the rule only applies when Senate and President belong to different parties. So the question then emerges of how the Democrats should respond, if McConnell and Trump manage to get a Supreme Court nomination through, perhaps in the Senate’s lame duck session. Should they accept this or should they push back, perhaps through adding another two seats to the Court, something which is allowed under the Constitution, but that pushes back against long standing norms? [click to continue…]

Sitting next to Nelly*

by John Q on September 19, 2020

One of the big questions about the shift to working remotely has been “what about new staff?”. To spell this out, the idea is that, while experienced workers can do everything they need to online, new employees will need personal contact to pick up tacit knowledge and firm culture. It’s inherent in the argument that these terms are difficult to define with any precision – if not, they could be formalised and taught.

This is part of a debate that’s been going on for a couple of centuries, between proposals for formal education in work-related skills and learning on the job, sometimes through apprenticeships and sometimes through “sitting next to Nelly”, that is, picking up the relevant skills by working with people who have already acquired them.

Before 1800, and with the partial exception of ministers of religion, on the job training was the only kind on offer. Since then, starting with lawyers and doctors, formal education has steadily expanded at the expense of on the job training, across a wide range of occupations and in many different countries with radically different labor markets. That includes some economies and industries where lifetime employment by a single firm has been the norm and others where work is largely done on a contract or ‘gig’ basis.

This process has always been contentious. Terms like “credentialism”, “overqualification” and “academic” (used pejoratively) have set the tone of much of the discussion. Nevertheless, there has been little evidence that the trend has been or will be reversed, and no one has managed to find, and sustain, a successful altern ative.

The work of hiring, ‘onboarding’, promoting and firing employees has not been exempt from the process. “Human resource management” emerged as a distinct profession in the second half of the 20th century, taking over much of this work from individual managers. HR departments have in turn begun to outsource some of these tasks to specialised firms such as headhunters and ‘separation management advisers’, though onboarding still appears to be done in-house for the most part.

The shift to remote working will provide another test of this process, at least when firms start hiring new staff on a large scale. Some of the concerns expressed about lack of in-person contact will probably prove to be well-founded (though not insuperable). Others, I think, will not. After a few in-person (and ideally one-to-one or small group) meetings to be introduced to new colleagues, most new hires will be able to learn the ropes through email and Zoom.

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Firm-specific skills and working from home

by John Q on September 17, 2020

One of the central features of the debate about working from home is that it leads to the loss of random, but productive, encounters with colleagues. I’ve responded with the observation that some of my best research ideas have come from largely unplanned encounters on the Internet.

It’s just struck me that there is a conflict here between the interests of workers and those of firms and managers.

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Sunday photoblogging: Lac de Vailhan, dragonfly

by Chris Bertram on September 13, 2020

Lac de Vailhan - dragonfly

The weirdness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

by Henry Farrell on September 11, 2020

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a few years, and the impending publication of Susanna Clarke’s new book, Piranesi, has finally prompted me to get off my arse and do it. The short version  – Clarke’s first book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is deeply beloved, as it damn well ought to be. But it’s often misclassified. Because it is so funny and charming, people tend to read it as whimsical, but beneath the whimsy lies the weird. It’s usefully read (as Clarke herself suggested in her contribution to the seminar we ran with her), as a book about the weirdness of the English landscape, and in a backhanded way about Piranesi too.
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Budapest (or should that be Beijing?)-on-Thames

by Chris Bertram on September 9, 2020

These are unpleasant times to be British, if you also happen to be of cosmopolitan disposition, if you value good governance, and if you think that government ought to be restrained by the law. Boris Johnson’s government has announce its intention to break international law “in limited and specific ways” as the UK’s negotiations with the EU over a future trade deal founder and we slide towards no-deal and international isolation. Henry explores some of the background to this in the “Northern Ireland backstop” over at The Monkey Cage. Johnson proposes to tear up parts of an international treaty, which he hailed as a good deal as recently as January and which was the basis on which he campaigned in the last general election. It was put into UK law by this Parliament, only a few months back, on a tight timetable with restricted opportunity for scrutiny. Various Tory politicians, including Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, are unhappy with the prospect of breaking international law, arguing that nobody will have reason to trust the word of the British government ever again. The government’s senior legal civil servant has resigned over the issue and its implications for the rule of law. Critics point out that it weakens the UK’s ability to complain when other states, such as China, break their international agreements at will. (I assume that assurances will be given and any rebel Tories will back off, as they have done repeatedly over the past four years.) Johnson’s more extreme supporters, in places like Spiked,1 are already engaging in the familiar rhetoric of treachery to defame anyone who is critical of the UK’s “negotiating position”. Presumably Johnson is banking on Trump’s re-election, a further trashing of international norms and a friendly US government, because without that complete isolation beckons.

Meanwhile, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, a member of the Cabinet that is happy to disobey the law, has characterized climate protestors as “criminals” and suggested that Extinction Rebellion could be classified as an organized crime group. She’s also been active around a confected “refugee crisis” concerning a few people who have crossed the Channel in dinghies (most of whom, it turns out are bona fide refugees) and the government is making noises about changing the law to make it easier to deport people, raising the possibility in the minds of observers that the UK could walk away from its obligations under the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. It is almost as an afterthought that I mention that because of the Johnson government’s mismanagement, the UK has one of the highest death rates in the world and a strategy for fighting the disease that seems to consist mainly of announcing “world beating” measures that fail to materialize. Meanwhile, because of COVID-19, rights to political protest have been severely curtailed,2 and organizers of gatherings face financial penalties of £10,000 each. If COVID doesn’t go away soon, then restrictions on our ability to resist the policies of the Johnson government will be in place when no-deal Brexit comes in January and the economic hit from COVID is compounded by food shortages and further mass job losses. Will the UK even survive all this? Pro-EU Scotland will want to secede as soon as it can, which might mean a hard border at Berwick-on-Tweed and a united Ireland would be one solution to the problems caused by the Conservative and Unionist Party’s Brexit outcome. I’d say “Hungary here we come”, but at least Hungary, as an EU member, continues to enjoy access to European markets.

  1. Spiked is the website of the network of the former Revolutionary Communist Party, some of whose members are intertwined with Johnson’s administration. Johnson has recently decided to elevate one of its senior cadres, Claire Fox, in earlier times an enthusiast for IRA bombings, to the House of Lords.↩

  2. It almost seems superfluous to recall, amid this litany of perfidy, that in the case of Johnson’s adviser or controller, the Rasputinesque Dominic Cummings, the legal restrictions on movement because of COVID didn’t apply. Another instance of one law for them ….↩

Teaching in-person

by Harry on September 7, 2020

The Wisconsin State Journal ran this article (for which I was interviewed) about return to school. (For reasons I don’t understand, the article is not accessible in many countries: sorry). A colleague in the Economics department emailed me after seeing the article saying that, quite apart from admiring the picture of the back of my head, he envied me the in-person experience, and wished that the campus had a physically distance-able space for his 420-person class. The email brought into focus the thought that I’m kind of a free-rider here. If everything were in-person I don’t think I – or anybody – would be feeling safe, or enjoying it very much. But, given how we are actually doing it (with most teaching online), I feel very good about teaching in-person, and will regret it if we aren’t able to continue through to Thanksgiving (which is the plan). I have those of my colleagues who are not teaching in-person to thank.

How are we doing actually doing it? Well, it’s true, as the article says, that 43% of classes have some in-person component. Every single in-person element is small, socially distanced, and masked. And the 43% figure might really mislead you. For many classes ‘component’ is a key term. I’m thinking of a 240-person 4-credit class in which everything is online, except for 3 discussion sections. That class is included in the 43%: but out of 960-person-credit hours, only 60 are actually in-person. I don’t know the exact proportion of credit hours that are in-person, but judging by conversations I’ve had with students, and comparing the trickles of students on campus with the usual crowds I would be really, really, surprised if it is as much as 15%.

And I really do mean trickle. One of my classes is T/Th 11am in the Business School building (one of the few buildings new enough that all the rooms really were designed for learning). Usually during that slot the building is heaving with students – like Christmas shopping on Oxford Street but without the packages. Normally all the classrooms are fully occupied. Last Thursday, at what would usually be its busiest time of the week, the building was almost empty, with most classrooms free. It was no challenge at all to keep a 6 feet gap between yourself and the next person. It wouldn’t have been a challenge to maintain a 60 feet gap, if that were your preference.

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Sunday photoblogging: Poilhes

by Chris Bertram on September 6, 2020


Choose your own 538 adventure

by John Q on September 6, 2020

Like lots of others, I’m anxiously watching forecasts of the US election outcome. But it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, with Biden way ahead in the polls, behind in the betting markets and rated a 70 per cent chance by the model at Inspired by this post from Andrew Gelman, who is working on the Economist model (Biden currently a bit over 80 per cent), and an informative tweet from Nate Silver, I’ve managed to improve my own understanding a bit. At least I think so.

Silver’s tweet confirms that the Electoral College system gives Trump a significant advantage relative to an election by popular vote. He syas
Chance of a Biden Electoral college win if he wins the popular vote by X points:

0-1 points: just 6%!
1-2 points: 22%
2-3 points: 46%
3-4 points: 74%
4-5 points: 89%
5-6 points: 98%
6-7 points: 99%

With that information, it’s easy enough to fit a normal distribution to the margin, and get an estimate probability of winning. By fiddling with the numbers, it’s easy to replicate the 538 probability estimate and also to get a probability distribution looking fairly similar to those displayed on te site. My best estimate is N(5,4), that is, the mean value for the margin is 5 points and the standard deviation is 4. The mean value is consistent with the description of the state level estimates on the 538 site, which (very roughly speaking) take the existing polls (which currently have Biden ahead by 7.4 nationally) and then give Trump 1 point for an incumbency advantage (reducing the margin by 2 points).

Looking at the Economist model (which doesn’t necessarily agree with 538 on the exact distribution of the Electoral College advantage) it fits pretty well with N(6,3)
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Dutch university protests, start of another year…

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 5, 2020

Last Monday was the opening of the academic year at Dutch Universities. Over the last three years, it has become a tradition for the activist group WOinActie to organise some sort of protest. This year, there was the challenge of how to organise a protest given COVID, but a solution was found.

WOinActie organised together with the labour union protest bicycle tours between various Dutch universities. The idea was to symbolise the lives of temporary part-time teaching staff, who teach a few years (often on a contract that doesn’t allow for research) at one university, and then have to move on to another university, since they are not offered permanent contracts (they universities don’t want to offer those because they claim they can’t take the financial risks). But those temporary instructors teach courses that are part of the regular curriculum, and the claim of WOinActie is that work that is permanent should be done by tenured teachers; instead, the Netherlands has in international comparison one of the highest percentages of temporary teaching staff. Of course, the protest was used to talk again to the press, and also to have a brief, open-air and corona-proof, conversation with the minister of HE before the cyclists took off at the University of Nijmegen to cycle to the University of Wageningen.

The students from Utrecht University supporting WOinActie painted 10.000 red squares in Utrecht, from the historic Academy Building in the city center all the way out of town to the University Headquarters (Bestuursgebouw) at Utrecht Science Park.
Each of the red squares symbolises one hour of unpaid work that is done by staff at Utrecht University each day; the students estimated that this amounts to 10.000 hours on a daily (workday) basis, and protest that their education should not depend on the unpaid overwork of their teachers. That estimation is probably an overestimation, but the point stands. It was pretty impressive to see those red squares through town, as you can see in this clip that my son Ischa made: #10.000 In Groningen, students also staged a protest around the 10.000 hours. [click to continue…]