EWED Highlights Fall 2022


EWED Roundup December-February

Economics of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Health Insurance Benefit Mandates and Health Care Affordability

What Proportion of Journalists Live in NYC?

SCORE Replications- Final Call

South Carolina Certificate of Need Repeal

Has the Economic Theory Job Market Returned to Equilibrium?

The Return of Independent Research

Best Books 2021

Is an Academic Career Still Worth It?

Certificate of Need and Mental Health

Hospital Merger Update

Lifespan / CNE Merger Economics

New: Journal of Comments and Replications in Economics

New blog roundup

Here’s what I’ve written over at the new site recently:

Happy 400th Thanksgiving from EWED

Inflation: Get Concrete, Get Specific

Starship: Quantity has a Quality of its own

Give the Gift of Cooking and Murder-Bears

Gifts for a Time of Inflation and Supply Bottlenecks

The Credibility Revolution: A Nobel for Taking (some of) the CON out of Econometrics

Weigh costs, benefits, and evidence quality

Tyler Cowen, Talent Curator

Covid, Cars, China, Crypto, Corruption

Why do Costa Ricans outlive Americans?

Institutions Getting Smarter on Covid

Remote Work vs Employer Power: Why I’m Not Sweating Tenure

Anti-coercive ways to fight Delta

Generous Health Insurance Makes Employees Stay

Delta: Danger is Rising, but 2021 is not 2020

Simone Biles and the Trojan War

Informational Diabetes

Cars Are Likely to Stay Expensive for Years

You Shouldn’t Be Writing (All the Time)

Editing: You Figure It Out

New Blog Update

This is a reminder for anyone who only follows me here that I’m now writing every Thursday at EconomistWritingEveryDay, and probably all of my posts will be there rather than here for at least a few months. Here’s what I’ve written there so far:

Predicting the NYC Mayoral Race

How Will Rich Country Fertility Ever Get Back Above Replacement?

Endless Frontiers: Old-School Pork or New Cold War Tech Race?

Does Cohabitation Predict Divorce?

What Forex says about cheap travel

Population Predicts Regulation

When will housing prices fall?

EconomistWritingEveryDay just won an Emergent Ventures prize, and I recommend following there to see the great posts from the other writers too.

Trust Experts vs Trust Knowledge + Reason + Candor

I previously wrote about experts vs non experts on Covid, but I now think that is not quite the right framing. When I’m deciding who to listen to on a topic, I am hoping to find someone with domain expertise (knowledge) AND great general reasoning skills AND who is truthfully sharing their best information. The problem is that on most topics, this person doesn’t exist. Covid is particularly challenging because its such a huge, fast-moving situation that no one can be an expert in all parts of it. Everyone’s domain expertise is partial at best, and there’s no guarantee that the most knowledgable people are also wise and honest. Instead, I must settle for listening to many people with varying levels of knowledge, reasoning, and candor. The tradeoffs among these three virtues are what I was trying to get at with “expert vs non expert”, but reality is messier than that binary.

The responsible-sounding thing to do is to trust the experts at the top of relevant scientific institutions like the CDC. But leaders like that haven’t had a great track record on Covid. 

Now-deleted tweet from 2/29/2020

People get to run institutions because they are skilled at running things or at maneuvering to get and keep top jobs- not because they are the most knowledgeable expert, not because they are the smartest, and definitely not because they tell the whole truth all the time. 

Before Covid, hearing that someone was at an agency like the CDC made me trust them more than someone with similar credentials (say, PhD and publications) in academia or the private sector, because I thought they would be more knowledgeable. Now their job title makes me trust them a bit less than otherwise- I’m no longer sure they are more knowledgeable, but I’m quite sure they are less candid. Former leaders, like ex-FDA head Scott Gottlieb, tend to be better- but they are always angling for the next position, which influences what they say.

One other update from Covid was the importance of learning from data and making accurate forecasts (and I say this as someone who already valued those things a lot). These are their own fields with their own domain experts (statistics / econometrics / ML/ et c), but learning from data is also a powerful general reasoning skill that works across many domains. Those who excel at it have a real shot at beating knowledgeable domain experts at what seems to be their own game- we’ve seen it in baseball, and now in public health (of course the learning can go both ways here, with subject-matter experts picking up data skills).

All this explains why the Rationalists have been ahead of the curve on Covid– great at general reasoning (including forecasting), honest to a fault, and so just need to pick up domain knowledge. Rationalists starting with partial domain expertise, like biologists and doctors, had a big head start.

It also explains why pseudonymous Twitter accounts were sometimes way ahead of the game. From the boring responsible point of view, this sounds crazy- would you really trust a Twitter anon over the Surgeon General? And trusting a typical Twitter anon would be crazy. But suppose the Surgeon General and the CDC Director actually do have anonymous Twitter accounts- wouldn’t these be amazing sources of information? They would have all the knowledge from their day job AND the ability to share their honest assessment without worrying about angering their boss, causing widespread panic, or inducing an N95 shortage. I think some people rely too much on the official/formal/institutional sources because they are choosing “who is higher status” or “who will others not blame me for listening to” rather than “who is most knowledgeable & accurate”. 

The opposite problem is also widespread, choosing first and foremost someone who is a “straight shooter” who “calls it as they see it”- but doesn’t see it well, because they lack domain knowledge and/or reasoning skills. Worse, people often mistake outrageousness for candor and wind up following those who are dishonest as well as ignorant. Disagreeing with the establishment is fine but making a big deal that “I’m telling you what the establishment won’t” tends to be a bad sign.

By ‘candor’ I mean more than not lying- to be a useful source you need to publicly share information, and keep doing it; many experts would never lie but simply don’t have the time or inclination to share much publicly apart from writing the occasional journal article.

To find accurate information, it is not enough to simply “trust the experts”, and worse to simply ignore the experts. Instead we must continually seek out new sources and re-evaluate old ones, finding the domain experts who are relatively open/honest/clear/brave/well-reasoned, and tracking which of the smart/wise/honest non-experts are doing particularly well at learning the subject.

P.S.- Give Helen Chu a medal already. Courage + expertise make a great combination.

The Dictator’s Handbook as development book

Bueno de Mesquita, author of The Dictator’s Handbook, is a political scientist but his analysis is very much economic, in both the methods (rational choice & methodological individualism) and in the focus on material incentives as the main driver of behavior. The book is good as a manual for aspiring tyrants, but suprisingly great as an explanation for why many poor countries stay poor.

In short, leaders’ primary goal is to stay in power, and their secondary goal is to enrich themselves. 

Staying in power is easier when the people have little freedom and little ability to communicate and coordinate, but restricting these freedoms also tends to suppress economic activity. Leaders then aim to appropriate as much of the economy as possible for themselves (and, where necessary to maintain support, their essential backers). This further harms ordinary people, both by directly taking resources from them and by disincentivizing economic growth (because corrupt politicians or their cronies will just take what you build). Thus, poor countries are stuck being poor unless they get lucky with a benevolent dictator (though even a dictator who isn’t personally greedy may be pushed by his greedy essential backers to plunder) or if the dictator is willing to risk losing power to grant more economic freedoms (so he can tax a larger economy, perhaps because another source of revenue like oil money or foreign aid is running out).

It gives a visceral feel for the reasoning behind the resource curse that I didn’t have before: resources provide enough revenue to let a dictator be rich and pay off his key backers without needing to allow the freedoms necessary for broad economic prosperity and a broad tax base.

Favorite Books 2020: Non-Fiction


Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World– inspiring stories of people succeeding after a late start or in fields outside their speciality, with theories of why this happens. Many examples from sports and science, argues that good generalists will become more important in science as there are more siloed specialties that could benefit from connections. The irony of economics: economists emphasize the value of specialization but economics itself is, according to the author, one of the best forms of “generalist” training.

Reality Ahead of Schedule: How Science Fiction Inspires Science Fact– shows the power of imagination and inspiration, and the ability of some generalists to forecast scientific developments

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution– perhaps this should be 4 stars, because it was written in 2009 and historic genomics has moved very quickly since then (see Who We Are and How We Got Here for an excellent and more up-to-date book on the subject). But there are so many cool facts I hadn’t heard, and powerful general theories that are used to explain these facts and to make speculative predictions- some of which, like Homo Sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals, have since been proven correct.

Murder-Bears, Moonshine, and Mayhem: Strange Stories from the Bible to Leave You Amused, Bemused, and (Hopefully) Informed– Crazy stories you might have missed, and digging in to stories you have heard of to show key details you might have missed. For instance, people have generally taken the story of Onan to mean one thing, but if you read the actual verse they are referring to it means something else, then if you read the story in context it means something different still. Funny but not just funny.

The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution– Math professor gives up tenure, becomes a codebreaker, then starts one of the most profitable hedge funds of all time. Book is excellent on both the personal stories of Simons and the people around him, and on explaining as much as possible of how Simons did what he did when he goes to great lengths to keep it secret. Makes it clear just how far you have to go to consistently beat the market, getting data that no one else had and analyzing it with supercomputers and quant PhDs at the top of their fields.

The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life– I finally started really cooking this year, and I credit this book more than the lockdowns


The Millionaire Next Door; I Will Teach You to Be Rich; and Rich Dad Poor Dad– See my full review of these 3 personal finance books here

10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites A Little More and the Masses a Little Less– Its an academic book, more convincing but less interesting/provocative than you’d think from the title

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back-Row America– Physicist-turned-finance-quant Chris Arnade turns into a photojournalist who talks to people in ‘the bad part of town’ and in out-of-the-way towns that many have left. 5-star book for anyone who hasn’t heard of the author; I give it 4 stars because I’ve followed him on Twitter for years and had seen much of the material.

The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium– Martin Gurri wrote this in 2014 and it has been incredibly prescient about politics around the world. As I said in a tweet liked by all 3 authors, if 10% Less Democracy is a thesis (trust elites) and Dignity is its antithesis (trust the public), Revolt of the Public is the synthesis of the two- describing from a neutral point of view how the relationship between elites & the public is being changed by the internet (Gurri doesn’t think either group is handling this well). Why just 4 stars when the book successfully predicted so much? Gurri lays out his theory early on but for whatever reason I kept losing interest before finishing the book.

The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream– Another book from a few years ago (2017) that looks especially prescient in 2020

How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems

Science: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness

Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness

SCIENCE: Ruining Everything Since 1543

RELIGION: Ruining Everything Since 4004 BC

Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

As you can see, one thing I tried to do this year was to read books in clusters- personal finance, elites vs the public, and books by the best webcomic writers were the big clusters this year. This worked well for getting a better sense of a subject and I’ll likely continue this with new subjects, though I see now that all the 5-star books were 1-offs. Overall I’d say Range was my favorite book of the year while The 4-Hour Chef is the one that most obviously made my life better.