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State of the Fediverse in 2021!

Great thoughts on the history and current state of the decentralized social web (the fediverse) from Sean Tilley. Link is to his video on Spectra Video, which itself is part of the decentralized social web as well!

Masks after the pandemic

Image/photo"Face masks, Japan" by shibuya246, CC BY-NC 2.0

Early on when I was living in Japan, my Australian housemate came home from work and started ranting. “Japanese people are so paranoid!”, she exclaimed in disgust. “They wear masks on the train because they’re afraid of getting sick!” I explained that she had it all wrong; though some Japanese people wear masks in order to keep out pollen during allergy season, mostly it’s something that sick people do, in order to keep their own germs from spreading to other people. It’s not germophobia; it’s social responsibility.

As the COVID-19 pandemic slumps toward its end here in the U.S., people are looking forward to taking off their masks. And that’s good! I no longer wear a mask outside (I was fully vaccinated long ago), and I only wear one inside because it’s still mandated. Community transmission in San Francisco is down to a small trickle, and most people here have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine. Soon, as low case counts and high vax rates become the norm in all parts of America, mask mandates can disappear, and we can all breathe easy again — literally.

But now that we Americans have all learned how to wear masks, my question is: Why not adopt the Japanese custom? Mask mandates are unnecessary outside of a pandemic, but Americans who are sick with the flu or a cold can still voluntarily choose to mask up on public transportation or in crowded places, to keep from spreading their germs around. It would be a nice thing to do.

Unfortunately, some Americans are not big fans of doing nice things. When I suggested on Twitter that mask-wearing by sick people could become a normal part of American culture, most people were highly supportive, but there was ferocious pushback from an outspoken few.

Twitter avatar for @NoahpinionNoah Smith 🐇 @Noahpinion
We should permanently normalize wearing a mask when you have a cold or the flu, in order not to infect other people. Japanese people do it. Why not us?

May 15th 2021
1,966 Retweets22,576 Likes

For whatever reason, some people are in a mood to inveigh against masks. For some people, fighting against the last remnants of the social norm of mask-wearing probably feels like a way of reasserting control over their lives. Yascha Mounk, for example, wrote a recent blog post urging people to take off their masks in order to “resume normal life.”

For these people, the notion that the pandemic could permanently change something in our society might feel like a defeat or surrender. So I expect some of them to vigorously resist the idea that Americans should now start wearing masks when we’re sick. A few will probably even harass and ridicule those who choose to altruistically protect others from their germs.

But this is a misguided impulse Sometimes crises have a silver lining; they force us to learn better ways of doing things. COVID-19 taught us the value of mRNA vaccines, for example, which may now be used to vanquish a large number of other diseases. It also taught us the importance of keeping supply chains for crucial medical equipment in the United States.

And hopefully, it has taught us the usefulness of masks.

Masks work

By now, there is a vast preponderance of evidence showing that masks help to reduce the spread of COVID-19. If you still don’t believe that evidence, then no amount of studies I could quote you will change your mind; you’re on your own personal journey that has little to do with science. The fact, is, masks work.

But what’s less known is that masks also work to some degree against other respiratory viruses like the flu. A 2020 meta-analysis of 21 studies showed that while masks don’t stop the flu as much as they stop COVID-19, they do significantly reduce transmission. Dummy simulations and physical measurement of flu particle exhalation from infected patients also find a protective effect. Studies of schoolchildren find that masks reduce flu transmission in Japan, etc. etc.

In a normal year, somewhere between 12,000 and 60,000 Americans die of the flu. That’s no COVID-19, but if the practice of wearing masks when you’re sick could prevent even just a thousand deaths a year, it seems like it would be worth it. And what’s the cost, really? Masking up is mildly annoying, but for someone already sick with the flu it’s not much additional pain. And we already wash our hands and avoid sneezing or coughing in other people’s faces; how different is this?

Of course, people can theoretically just stay home when sick, as many people suggested in their responses to my tweet. Then there’s no need to mask up. But realistically, lots of people can’t take time off, and our nation also simply can’t afford to keep every worker home who’s feeling under the weather.

We should copy good ideas from other countries

One common (and angry) response to my suggestion of adopting the Japanese practice of mask-wearing was “We’re Americans; we don’t do that.” But a chavinistic attachment to local tradition is a terrible reason to resist adopting practices from other countries.

To a large degree, countries’ economic development depends on absorbing and adopting technologies from other countries; figuring out how to do what foreigners already know how to do is a lot easier than reinventing the wheel yourself. Countries’ institutional and cultural ability to import foreign innovations can determine their success or failure.

In 1793, when Britain sent a diplomatic mission to China that displayed examples of new industrial technologies, China’s emperor haughtily sniffed that “I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures.” Almost two centuries of national decline followed. But in 1853, when Japanese leaders beheld the sight of American steamships, they knew their country could no longer afford to resist foreign ideas; the most rapid technological and social modernization the world had ever seen followed shortly thereafter.

Masks are nowhere near as big a deal as steam ships. But they’re just one of a bunch of small Japanese ideas that Americans have refused to adopt, like washing toilets or buttons to call wait staff (fortunately we do seem to be slowly learning to take off our shoes inside the house). And there are many institutional practices that we could also stand to adapt, like effective train systems. I’m sure there are other ideas from many other countries besides Japan that would also benefit America, if only we could dispense with the notion that “that’s not how we do things around here.”

This is not to say that America a uniquely closed-minded or parochial society; there are plenty of American things Japan could stand to import, like walk signals that give you enough time to cross the street. Nor is it to say that we should copy everything Japan does differently; for example, scrapping and rebuilding all of our buildings every few decades seems like it would be a waste of resources.

Instead, the point here is that nations succeed when they pay attention to other nations and copy best practice. Often this involves a lot of adaptation of foreign practices to local cultural particularities; when Japan imported American and European innovations in the 1800s, they strove to maintain a native feel to the things they imported (an idea known as “wakon yosai”, meaning “Japanese spirit, Western things”). So if Americans do adopt mask-wearing, expect the practice to be a bit different from the way they do it over there.

I believe that America has gotten too insular and complacent. Other countries have been passing us up in a lot of areas, from health insurance systems to construction costs to infrastructure, and we should start paying more attention to alternative ways of doing things. Masks are just one tiny tiny piece of this, but we need to get into the habit of not instinctively resisting foreign ideas.

America needs a dose of social responsibility

Finally, I think adopting a practice of wearing a mask when you’re sick, to protect other people, would be a good way for Americans to practice pro-social behavior.

Many of the people who responded negatively to my tweet declared that they weren’t scared of the risk of cold or flu. This is an inherently selfish perspective; infectious diseases are infectious, and masks are for reducing your chances of making someone else sick. That some people didn’t seem to grasp this speak to the toxic selfishness that has pervaded parts of American culture.

Thinking only of yourself is not a healthy form of individualism; instead, it is a toxic abdication of your personal responsibility to protect other people. Healthy individualism should emphasize not just freedom to do whatever you feel like, but also the individual’s duty to others.

Sociologist Robert Putnam has written about how America experienced an upswing in pro-social behavior in the mid 20th century that then began to erode in the 70s and 80s. It’s not clear what caused this swing toward selfishness. It probably had something to do with the divisive politics and culture wars that began in the late 60s. The proliferation of car culture and the internet might have isolated us from our surrounding communities as well. Those on the political Right will undoubtedly blame immigration and diversity for the change, but given that it seems to be a faction of people on the Right who despise the idea of masks, I’d say some introspection is required there.

In any case, I think wearing masks to protect others from your germs would be one small step in the direction of becoming a more pro-social, considerate society. And becoming a more pro-social, considerate society seems like an important step toward healing the toxic, crippling divisions that are holding our nation back from achieving its full potential.

In the end, masks are not a huge deal, but I think the idea of looking out for the people next to you has important symbolic value.
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The Darkness


“この世界は, 暗黒に包まれている. 風は止み. 海は荒れ. 大地は腐っていく.” — Final Fantasy

There is a Darkness creeping over our world.

That is a melodramatic thing to say. But when I reach for words to express the profound unease that I feel watching the advance of illiberalism across my planet, the language of fantasy novels, children’s movies, and video games is the only one that seems up to the task. Throughout my youth, I consumed a great many stories that all had the same basic premise — an ancient evil, long ago banished from our world, is now returning, and once again we are called upon to rise up and fight it. Perhaps all those stories shaped my worldview and made me see complex, gritty reality in epic, Manichean terms. Or perhaps the stories were written by people who had themselves lived through a global wave of illiberalism, and were trying to pass down a warning.

There is plenty of darkness in the world even at the best of times. Wars, ethnic cleansing, rights violations, suppression of speech and religion…these things are always, or almost always, happening in some part of the globe. No leader and no country is spotless. And yet observers of comparative government and human rights are able to clearly identify times when respect for the rights and liberties of human beings begins to gutter and wane.

We are now in one of those times. The news headlines from around the world give us a continual stream of dark portents. Concentration camps and forced mass sterilization of minorities in China. Millions rendered stateless by a new law in India amid a retreat of secularism. A coup attempt and election denial as a normalized political strategy in America. Rising authoritarianism in Turkey, in Hungary, in Brazil, in the Philippines, in Israel. Protesters massacred in Myanmar, massacred in Iran, suppressed in Belarus, suppressed in Hong Kong. Mass surveillance everywhere. Internet shutdowns. “Anti-terrorism” laws.

But headlines are just anecdotes. Unfortunately data tells the same story.

Freedom House, a think tank that tracks political and civil liberties around the world, warns in its 2020 report that “democracy and pluralism are under assault”. You can quibble with Freedom House’s measurements and definitions, but at least they’re consistent across time, and for a decade and a half now they’ve shown a world inching toward illiberalism:


The Economist’s Democracy Index shows a deterioration in the last two to six years:


The V-Dem Institute, a Swedish think tank, finds much the same in their 2021 report:


The world is entering its darkest moment at least since the 1970s, when it saw the Cultural Revolution, Indira Gandhi’s brief dictatorship, and a resurgence of expansionist Soviet authoritarianism under Brezhnev. The key difference is that this time, as Freedom House’s report warns, all of the world’s most powerful countries are trending toward illiberalism at the same time.

China is by far the most autocratic of the great powers; however much Trump and Modi have chipped away at democracy, they’ve created nothing like the massive surveillance state, pervasive party apparatus, and systematic minority repression that China has built. Its slow but steady territorial expansionism against multiple neighbors threatens to bring back an era where big countries take what they want, regardless of international rules. It doesn’t seek (yet?) to advance a global totalizing ideology like the USSR or seize racial lebensraum like Hitler, but China’s neighbors clearly realize the danger represented by its growing power and aggression.

Even more troubling, however, is America’s democratic decline. In the 70s, remember, Nixon failed to become any kind of authoritarian, and social movements forced the U.S. to evolve in a more liberal direction in most respects. That assured that America and its rich and powerful allies in Europe and Asia became bastions of liberalism (more or less) in the later stages of the Cold War.

That is not happening today. The United States is not yet an authoritarian country, but Freedom House catalogues its slow slide in that general direction:


The key threat here is the rejection of democracy by the dominant faction of the Republican Party. Trump’s attempt to brazenly deny the result of the 2020 election and use every means short of civil war to overturn the result might not a one-off thing; they provided a blueprint that the GOP now seems to be embracing for the future:

Twitter avatar for @ThePlumLineGSGreg Sargent @ThePlumLineGS
Let's be even clearer. Republicans more broadly appear to be in process of unshackling themselves from any obligation to abide by future election outcomes they hate, and are putting in place the machinery to overturn them. My piece and thread on that:

Greg Sargent @ThePlumLineGS
The @Liz_Cheney ouster is about more than loyalty to Trump. It shows the GOP effectively liberating itself to overturn future elections whose outcomes Republicans hate, by any means necessary. Note that these same House Rs may be in control on Jan 6, 2025:

May 8th 2021
1,190 Retweets2,451 Likes

If electoral democracy in America relies on Democrats never losing an election, it’s doomed. If the GOP doesn’t change its tune and agree that the rules by which Americans choose their leaders are legitimate, the next decade could be one of rolling constitutional crises…or worse.

But beyond America’s flirtation with autocracy, the coalition that it assembled to win the Cold War is just much weaker now than it was in the 1980s. China has seen its share of world GDP balloon from less than a fiftieth to almost a fifth; it’s now the world’s largest manufacturer, and a strong technological rival to the U.S. Not only that, but unlike in the latter half of the cold war, China and Russia appear to be solidly allied. Meanwhile, America’s old Cold War allies in West Europe and Japan have are still rich, but they’re relatively small countries with aging economies.

Thus, even if America manages to pull out of its downward spiral and become a reliable bastion of democracy again, it faces a much sterner opposition than it did in the 70s and 80s, with generally weaker allies. India, a democracy that will soon overtake China in population, is the one bright spot, but it’s trending in an illiberal direction as well, and was showing distinct economic weakness even before it was ravaged by COVID.

We could therefore be looking not at the darkest time since the 1970s, but the darkest time since the 1930s. And anytime someone says “the 1930s”, you know it’s bad news.


Why has the Darkness broken the seals and returned?

How did our world begin to fall into Darkness? Why did a 25-year trend of increasing human freedom and human rights stall and go into reverse? Everyone is going to have their favorite answer to this question. Those will include the death of the WW2 generation, the rise of social media, new disruptive technologies, economic inequality, the failures of late capitalism, and so on. Any and all of those might well be contributing factors. But while we’re here, I might as well tell you my answer.

My answer is “fear”.

If Freedom House and V-Dem are to believed, the Darkness began to return right around the mid to late 2000s. Two notable geopolitical events occurred in that decade — the rise of China, and the Iraq War. And both events can be interpreted as being broadly part of the same overarching trend — diminution of the United States of America.

The Iraq War did incalculable damage to the moral standing the U.S. had accumulated since its intercession in World War 2 and its construction of the postwar liberal order. We invaded a non-threatening country on the thinnest of false pretexts (don’t deny it), inflaming an entire region of the globe. Hundreds of thousands died. A few of our troops committed well-publicized atrocities. If I had to tell you a single moment when the Darkness was released from the barriers that sealed it beyond the boundaries of the world, it would be this moment:


And the Bush Administration did all this while cynically claiming the cause of “democracy promotion”, sullying the name of democracy at home and abroad for years to come.

That war crushed the U.S.’ image across most of the globe:


There was a brief but only partial rebound in our image, and then another collapse under Trump. Unlike during the Bush years, foreigners now seem to generally realize that America is a divided country rather than a militaristic monolith, and they sympathized with the slightly more than half of the country that resisted Trump’s encroachments on liberal values. But the fact that America is deeply divided made it clear that it could no longer function as the bastion of democracy that it represented during World War 2 and the latter part of the Cold War.

But at the same time we were flushing our moral leadership down the toilet of an unnecessary war, America was rapidly losing our status as the center of the global economy. China’s spectacular rise — much of which came at the expense of workers in America and our allied countries — placed it at the center of the Asian economy, which in turn is rapidly becoming the beating heart of the global economy.

The Great Recession then caused a general loss of faith in America’s finance-and-consumerism-driven model, while China’s manufacturing-based model seemed to shine in comparison. That was always partly an illusion — China’s rapid growth is enabled by the fact that it’s still much poorer than developed countries, while its conquest of recessions comes at a cost in terms of slowing productivity. But it’s just so dang big of a country that to many onlookers, those technicalities may not matter. In economic terms, America was The Big One; now China is The Big One, or will be soon. And economic terms have a way of translating into military terms.

America’s simultaneous relative economic decline and absolute moral decline created a vacuum at the top of the world. The world is not a governed place; what order exists is provided only by hegemonic powers. And when the U.S. forfeited its moral hegemony and lost its economic hegemony, every country in the world suddenly found themselves in a position of not knowing either whose power or which principles were in charge of the planet.

Not knowing who is in charge creates fear. Fear that if you get into a war with your neighbor, there won’t be a hegemon to appeal to. Fear that your local regional powers may be able to slice off bits of your territory and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it. Fear that your government will be able to abuse you without international moral condemnation. Fear that you won’t have a foreign market to sell your goods to. Fear that you won’t be able to move your goods freely by sea. Fear that trade deals will break down. Fear of genocide. Twitter is always awash with genocide threats. Occasionally they become reality.

And when you’re afraid, you turn to someone to protect you. A strongman politician. A ruthless military. A powerful neighbor, even if it’s an autocratic one. An ethnonationalist movement. Any source of strength, of security, of safety. And if necessary, as a last resort, your own two hands.

That is what happened to the world in the 1930s. When Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, he was talking about a banking crisis, but on some level he already knew that he was really talking about the Darkness. World War 1 had collapsed the old European-centered global power structure, and the U.S. and USSR had not yet taken on their superpower roles. Germans lusted for revenge for World War 1, but that wasn’t the only thing that drove them to Hitler — it was fear, of economic devastation, of foreign domination, of permanent instability and decline. A similar process brought the rise of militarism in Japan, and Stalin and Mao leveraged plenty of fear as well.

As Antonio Gramsci said, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

How to stand against the Darkness

In an earlier post, I characterized the great global protest wave of 2019 and 2020 as a spontaneous uprising against the Darkness. I wasn’t alone; Freedom House made the same inference, even titling its 2020 report “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy”. But while these protests are valiant, they just aren’t going to be able to beat this enemy on their own.

The world needs champions against the Darkness, and those champions have to be large and powerful states. Japan, Germany, and some other countries are doing their part, but they’re just too small. America and India are going to have to step up. That means restoring both economic power and moral leadership. Biden is trying to do both, but he’ll fighting an uphill battle.

Restoring economic leadership will be hard when America is on the other side of the globe from the emerging economic center of the world. Our best bet is to continue to dominate in cutting-edge knowledge industries. That means dishing out a lot of money for scientific research, as Chuck Schumer and others are now proposing. It also means continuing to take in large numbers of skilled immigrants, so that America dominates the global pool for top technical talent. It means maintaining and building infrastructure. And it means attacking the problem of ruinous costs in the health and construction sectors, which have reached the point where they’re dragging the whole nation down. The successful vaccination effort offers encouragement that the U.S. is more economically robust than many had believed, but at best it’s just a good start.

Economic leadership also requires creating dense networks of trade and production between the U.S. and all the countries we want to make into our allies, like we did during the Cold War. This will require doing deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But if economic leadership will be hard, moral leadership will be even harder, especially given the deep hole that Bush and Trump left us in. We’ll have to take the lead on tackling international problems like climate change, instead of dragging our feet. We’ll have to reduce inequality and poverty here in America, to show the world that the American model can provide for all of our citizens. We’ll have to show the world that we’re doing something to address the racial inequities that led to the George Floyd protests.

But even more importantly, we’ve got to address our own democratic deficit — to reverse the slide of the last decade. Before we can defeat the Darkness abroad, we’ve got to defeat it at home. And realistically, since Democrats will definitely not win an unbroken string of electoral victories from here to infinity, this means Republicans who recognize the threat of the Darkness have to stand up and take their party back from the people who think coups and election denial are good ideas.

In fact, I think what America really needs to do is to rediscover the idea of democracy as an ideology, not just as an electoral system. I’ll write more about this, but democracy as an organizing principle of society basically emphasizes inclusion and participation in all social institutions — which in turn emphasizes society’s respect for the individual. The ideas of classic American philosophers like John Dewey and modern ones like Elizabeth Anderson can help. Here’s a quote from Dewey from 1939:
The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions similar to those which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon the Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is accordingly here -within ourselves and our institutions…[it] can be won only by extending the application of democratic methods, methods of consultation, persuasion, negotiation, communication, cooperative intelligence, in the task of making our own politics, industry, education, our culture generally, a servant and an evolving manifestation of democratic ideas.
If you read histories of FDR’s presidency, or his speeches, you’ll know he conceived of it much the same way.

In the 20th century, democracy — not just the system of holding elections, but the entire package of human rights, minority rights, free expression, civil liberties, and social-democratic welfare protections — was the only system, the only ideology, that managed to defeat totalitarianism instead of morphing into totalitarianism. At its most fundamental level, what I’ve been calling the Darkness is a lack of respect for the value of individual human beings, while democracy (should I capitalize the “D”?) is the elevation of respect for humanity to the status of society’s fundamental organizing principle.

Recalling that history teaches us an important lesson — perhaps the most important lesson. Which is that we’ve done this before. Just like in those fantasy stories I used to read when I was a kid, our ancestors faced down the Darkness and threw it back.
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Kazimierz Kurz reshared this.

Well, this situation is a consequence of neoliberalism promoted forcedly by USA and The Economist as panacea for anything. This was even not ideology, it was purely political and sociological manipulation allowing privatisation of resources around the world. In propaganda it was equated with democracy. Now we know it leads to modern, digitally founded, neofeudalism. Most of resources are now in a hands of 1% of ruler barons. They do not need democracy. They need Greta Thunderg. For making hysteria and taking off fossil fuels industry off the powers. It has nothing related to global warming.

Evidence in the Apple/Epic Games lawsuit is coming out, including this 2013 exchange between Apple executives:
Cue: We really need to bring iMessage to Android. I have had a couple of people investigating this but we should go full speed and make this an official project.... Do we want to lose one of the most important apps in a mobile environment to Google? They have search, mail, free video, and growing quickly in browsers. We have the best messaging app and we should make it the industry standard. I don’t know what ways we can monetize it but it doesn’t cost us a lot to run.

Federighi: Do you have any thoughts on how we would make switching to iMessage (from WhatsApp) compelling to masses of Android users who don’t have a bunch of iOS friends? iMessage is a nice app/service, but to get users to switch social networks we’d need more than a marginally better app. (This is why Google is willing to pay $1 billion — for the network, not for the app.)...In the absence of a strategy to become the primary messaging service for [the] bulk of cell phone users, I am concerned [that] iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.

Is conflict with China fueling anti-Asian attacks?

'Soul Consoling Tower' @ Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp"'Soul Consoling Tower' @ Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp" by jvoves, CC BY 2.0

Here’s something that keeps me up at night. I’ve always been a little bit of a China hawk. Back in the 2000s I was heavily skeptical of the idea that opening up trade with China would make them less authoritarian, and I already worried about the impact on American workers (both fears turned out to be justified). In recent years I’ve become alarmed at China’s crushing of Hong Kong and its increased aggression toward neighboring countries, and both have caused me to speak out more against the Chinese government; meanwhile, the persecution of the Uighurs, whether or not it amounts to a genocide, seems to suggest that the leadership in China has taken a darker, more authoritarian turn.

But at the same time, I’ve been dismayed at the massive increase in violence and harassment against Asian Americans. And I’ve wondered if there’s a connection between U.S.-China conflict and that outbreak of racist aggression. In fact, one of my first Bloomberg posts, back in 2014, was about the possibility that this might happen:
The "coming war with China" feels like the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of Chinese-Americans.

The U.S. has a bad record when it comes to this sort of thing. The most famous and shameful example, of course, is the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II -- just read "Star Trek" actor George Takei's account of growing up in a U.S. concentration camp. But it isn't the only example…

Our leaders haven't been vocal enough or persistent enough in saying that this is a multiracial country[.]
Now it seems like my fear might have come to pass. And even worse, there are a few people out there who accuse me of feeding the hate:


Now, this person is a tankie who says a lot of very ridiculous things on Twitter. I don’t take them seriously (in fact, I blocked them). But I do take the allegation seriously, because I do worry that hawkish rhetoric on China is contributing to anti-Asian hate. You’d have to be a complete fool to look at history and not worry about international conflict causing violence against minority populations. And when we look at the violence against Asian Americans, it’s clear that it’s very real and racially motivated, and that it coincides with a hardening of attitudes toward China around the world.

The question then becomes: What do we do about it?


The increase in anti-Asian violence is real, and it is racial

Every time I tweet about the anti-Asian attacks, a couple of Twitter “reply-guys” pop up to question whether it’s actually a real increase, or whether it’s racially motivated. People just really don’t want to believe that a wave of racist, xenophobic violence could be a real thing in the America of 2021. And of course if you want to stick your fingers in your ear and go “LA LA LA, CAN’T BE REAL”, then of course you can do that — in fact, Americans have become quite adept at sticking our fingers in our ears and blocking out unpleasant truths. But the truths are still out there, regardless.

There was a 150% increase in reported anti-Asian hate crimes in American cities in 2020 (by some measures, the total number of reported violent incidents was about 3000). That’s compared to a 30% rise in murder and a 6% rise in aggravated assault. Violent crime has obviously surged during a year of pandemic, social unrest, and economic devastation, but the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes is far bigger — about 5 times as big as the rise in murder and 25 times as big as the rise in aggravated assault. In Vancouver, Canada, reported anti-Asian hate crimes rose from 12 to 98, an 8-fold increase, and there’s also a reported increase in Europe. (That shows that the wave of hate stretches far beyond America’s borders, which casts heavy doubt on the idea that Black-Asian racial tensions are behind the violence.)

These numbers are just too big to be part and parcel of an overall increase in violent crime.

And although “you can’t PROVE it’s racial!” is a perpetual rallying cry among the fingers-in-ears types, tons of corroborating evidence suggests a massive wave of increased animosity toward Asian Americans in the past year. Interviews with kids report a substantial rise in racial bullying, often related to COVID. A study found that media use of the term “Chinese virus” was associated with an increase in measures of implicit bias toward Asians, which was more pronounced among conservatives (who tend to hear the term “Chinese virus” and similar terms much more often in their media outlets). Meanwhile, someone bombed a Chinese community center in Nebraska, anti-Asian racist graffiti abounds, researchers report a big increase in anti-Asian rhetoric online, and some people have actually declared their specific intent to attack Asian people!

Now, the fingers-in-ears crowd might say that anecdotes are anectodes, qualitative research is qualitative, implicit bias tests have plenty of problems, graffiti can be faked, and reports of abuse can’t be independently verified. But we’ve clearly entered the region where the burden of proof is on the denialists to show why there isn’t an outbreak of violent racially motivated anti-Asian hate crime.

Until someone comes out with some very convincing evidence pushing back on the notion that the wave of anti-Asian hate is real, we should regard it as a very real problem in need of immediate solutions.

Attitudes toward China have turned sharply negative

Now let’s look at attitudes toward China. The best data I know come from Pew, which does very large-sample studies with lots of face-to-face interviews. Their data shows an enormous spike in unfavorable opinions of China:


Now, this is only developed countries, because in the time of COVID it was hard to do face-to-face interviews in developing countries. But other data suggests that a similar hardening of opinion is underway in Southeast Asian countries.

The obvious cause would be COVID itself — even if the press refuses to say the name “Wuhan”, but everyone in the world knows that the virus originated in China. Whether or not it makes sense to blame China for failing to suppress the virus or warn the world earlier, it’s clear that many people do blame China. In the U.S., fully half of people say that we should “hold China responsible” for the role it played in the pandemic, whatever that means.

Nor does this attitude shift seem like a pure effect of Trumpian rhetoric. Yes, Trump loved to say “China virus”, and conservative media is full of terms like that. But Democrats, who on most issues tend to go the exact opposite direction from Trump, have also soured on China:


Nor should we expect Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, etc. to think what Trump wants them to think, especially because they have very poor opinions of Trump as well!

So it’s not just Trump making people mad at China. But is it just COVID? Here are Pew’s numbers, broken down by year:


There was certainly a big negative swing in the year of the pandemic. But there were also pretty substantial negative swings across the board in 2019, before anyone knew COVID existed. Here are the increases in negative opinion toward China from 2018 to 2019:

Australia: +10%

UK: +20%

Sweden: +18%

Netherlands: +13%

Germany: +2%

U.S.: +13%

South Korea: +3%

Spain: +5%

France: +8%

Canada: +22%

Italy: -3%

Japan: +7%

And though the data is patchier, it looks like there were substantial increases in negative opinions of China in many countries well before Trump ran for President. Negative sentiment toward China was at its lowest before the Great Recession, and seems to have ticked up in the U.S, UK, and Japan in the early 2010s around the time that Xi Jinping took power.

So while COVID seems like a factor, the timing is wrong for this to just be COVID. Other possibilities include:
  • Fear of China’s economy
  • China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and repression of the Uighurs
  • Increasing military tensions (South China Sea, etc.)
The timing seems off for the “fear of China’s economy” explanation. China’s growth was very fast before the Great Recession, but has slowed substantially since then.

I could see people being scared of how much better China’s economy did in the pandemic, thanks to its effective suppression efforts. But that doesn’t explain 2019, or the earlier increases either. And with Chinese labor costs much higher than a decade ago and rising steadily, the competitive threat to workers in the developed world has receded.

That leaves geopolitical tensions and human rights abuses. The parsimonious explanation for rising anti-China sentiment is that China is an increasingly powerful superpower that also looks both increasingly authoritarian and illiberal and increasingly aggressive territorially. People don’t like big scary countries (this applies to the U.S. as well), and China is bigger than ever and looking scarier than before.

And what about the link between anti-China sentiment and hate crimes against Asian Americans? The big worldwide uptick in negative opinions of China in 2019 didn’t apparently coincide with any wave of anti-Asian racial violence. For example, here’s the NYPD’s numbers from September 2020:

Anti-Asian hate crime jumps 1,900 percent 1

The FBI shows 158 anti-Asian hate crime incidents in 2019 compared to 148 in 2018 and 140 in 2014 (before Trump). They don’t have 2020 numbers yet, but it definitely looks like the big increase is 2020-specific, even though people around the world were souring on China in 2019.

Obviously this data doesn’t prove that anti-China sentiment over geopolitics and human rights is unconnected to anti-Asian hate crimes. Maybe the effect happens with a lag. Maybe conflict with China didn’t create anti-Asian hate before, but is now interacting with misplaced anger over COVID in some complex way. Etc., etc. But it does seem to suggest that COVID, rather than Hong Kong or Xinjiang or the South China Sea or the trade war, is the thread connecting anti-China sentiment to anti-Asian racism.

Specific forms of violence are self-sustaining memes

I should mention my own hypothesis for why anti-Asian racial violence is exploding. Misplaced anger over COVID seems like the obvious instigating factor. But I suspect that anti-Asian violence then became a self-sustaining meme — just like other waves of violence.

An example is the big rise in Islamophobia in 2015-17. In the U.S., attacks on Muslims during the early Trump Era exceeded those in the wake of 9/11. Most of the high-profile incidents were during this period. But after early 2017, Islamophobic attacks began to fall at a rapid pace.

Another example is the giant wave of terrorism in the U.S. in the late 60s and early 70s. Most of that violence was nonlethal (bombing of empty buildings), but size of the peak in the early 70s, and the rate decline afterwards, is just incredible.

A third example is the trend of high-profile mass shootings that arose in the 2010s. It didn’t get any easier to go shoot a bunch of people, nor was there any political connection between most of the various incidents. Some researchers believe that many of these were copycat crimes — when one mass shooter gets a lot of attention in the media, it makes other violent, unhinged people want to do the same thing so they can get attention too.

So my theory of anti-Asian violence is that misplaced anger over COVID kicked it off (perhaps aided by Trumpian rhetoric), but it became a self-sustaining meme. Violent people looking for someone to attack — whether because of pandemic stress, natural aggression, a desire to rob someone, a yearning to find someone to hate and exclude, or whatever — zeroed in on Asians as potential victims instead of looking elsewhere.

Because memes like this can be self-sustaining, the violence and hate threatens to outlast Trump. And even if geopolitical tensions with China didn’t give rise to the anti-Asian meme in the first place, they might end up sustaining it or reigniting it. At least, we can’t rule out the possibility. So we have to use every trick in the book to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The return of “racial liberalism”?

If you haven’t read Ellen D. Wu’s “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority”, you really should read it. The book chronicles the history of what the author calls “racial liberalism” — official attempts by the U.S. government to paint Asian Americans in a positive light.

Interestingly, these attempts began during the Depression, under FDR, even before World War 2. But they accelerated during the war, when China was a key U.S. ally in the fight against Japan. The Roosevelt Administration and media outlets made concerted attempts to humanize and praise Chinese Americans, in order to combat the pervasive anti-Chinese racism that existed on the West Coast. Interestingly, in the later years of the war, this hagiographic approach was extended to Japanese Americans, who by then were joining the U.S. Military in significant numbers; Japanese Americans, though they had only recently been mass interned and dispossessed, were painted as noble, heroic, etc. in official government propaganda.

During the early days of the Cold War, when China was a U.S. opponent (rather than a de facto ally as it would later become), the U.S. government consciously promoted an Asian American identity — which looked surprisingly like modern multiculturalism — as part of an effort to distinguish “our” good Asians from “their” bad ones. This didn’t stop suspicion from being directed at Chinese Americans on the West Coast, but it probably prevented the kind of mass hatred and systematic discrimination that was directed toward Japanese Americans at the beginning of WW2.

Obviously these past efforts by the U.S. government to tell Americans not to hate Asian people were ham-handed propaganda that would look painfully dated to modern sensibilities. But they offer the possibility that a modernized form of “racial liberalism” could quash the meme of anti-Asian violence. (Side note: Though the title might imply it, the “racial liberalism” of WW2 and the early Cold War was not anti-Black; comparisons between Black and Asian Americans were weaponized later, mainly by conservatives, during the Civil Rights movement and afterwards. FDR and Truman also pushed for more positive perceptions of Black people, as illustrated by the 1947 propaganda film “Don’t Be a Sucker”, which helped promote the integration of the U.S. Military.)

Already, the Biden administration is making moves in this direction. On January 26th, the President released a memo announcing a broad-spectrum effort to combat racism against Asian Americans. Some excerpts:
The Secretary of Health and Human Services shall, in coordination with the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, consider issuing guidance describing best practices for advancing cultural competency, language access, and sensitivity towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the context of the Federal Government’s COVID-19 response…

Executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that official actions, documents, and statements, including those that pertain to the COVID-19 pandemic, do not exhibit or contribute to racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders…

The Attorney General shall explore opportunities to support, consistent with applicable law, the efforts of State and local agencies, as well as AAPI communities and community-based organizations, to prevent discrimination, bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against AAPI individuals, and to expand collection of data and public reporting regarding hate incidents against such individuals.
In other words, Biden has placed the U.S. government firmly on the side of Asian Americans, not just with words but with concrete actions.

Civil society, too, is mobilizing on behalf of Asian Americans. Jennifer Lee and Tiffany Huang report on grassroots efforts to protect Asians from violence:
This is a moment of reckoning for all Americans—not only Asian Americans—to reimagine what safety, belonging, and justice could look like. We are already seeing signs of this. Hundreds of Americans are volunteering to escort elderly Asian Americans to help them feel safe, and hundreds more gathered over the weekend at a rally in New York to protest anti-Asian violence. When neighbors learned that an Asian American family with two young children in Orange County, California was being harassed repeatedly by a group of teenagers, they organized to stand guard each night to protect them and their home.
This won’t completely prevent anti-Asian attacks. America is a huge country with a lot of anger and a lot of violence, and neither the U.S. government nor community defense organizations can be everywhere at once. But hopefully it will send a message to all the violent people out there that Asian Americans are not some special category of people that it’s OK to attack.

In fact, more efforts like this might be needed in the near future. The U.S. is simply not going to appease China’s territorial ambitions or look the other way regarding its human rights abuses just to reduce the risk of racism at home. Indeed, Biden’s policy stance toward China is arguably tougher than that of his big-talking predecessor.

Official government actions to protect Asian Americans, both in rhetoric and in deed, will be necessary to prevent tensions with China from reinforcing or rekindling the anti-Asian meme. The U.S. probably can’t avoid tensions with China, but it must not repeat its mistakes of the early 20th century — national conflicts can’t be allowed to spill over into racial persecution.
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Katherine Gehl (former CEO of the Wisconsin-based food company Gehl Foods) makes a compelling case in this TED talk about how to fix US politics by injecting competition into it, with open primaries and ranked choice voting.

What do short-sellers really do?

Image/photoPhoto by Dicoplio Family, CC BY-SA 2.0

A lot of the populist anger related to the GameStop saga has focused on short-sellers. Why? Well first of all, normal people don’t do much short-selling, so it’s viewed as the purview of a wealthy elite. Second, short-sellers bet on companies’ stock prices to go down — not only does it seem sort of mean to bet on businesses to fail, but because most investors are long (i.e. make money when stocks go up), short-sellers profit when most people get hurt.

So why don’t we ban short-selling? Every so often, people start asking this, and economists and financial pundits march out to patiently explain why short-sellers are our friends, and we shouldn’t interfere with their good work.

But is that true? Let’s think about it carefully.


The theory: Short sellers correct overpricing

In financial economics, “market efficiency” means that the market price should reflect all available information. We can basically interpret that to mean that if the stock market is efficient, the price of a stock should equal the best possible guess of its fundamental value (i.e. the discounted future value of its free cash glows blah blah blah).

If you don’t allow short-selling, then it could be hard to correct overvaluation. Suppose Facebook stock is at 0 a share. And suppose half the people (let’s call them the “realists”) realize that Facebook is only worth 0 a share, and half are just crazy bullish and incorrectly think it’s worth 0 a share. Do their opinions just sort of cancel out? Well, no. Sure, the realists could push the price down by selling shares — if they had any. But remember, the realists think FB is overvalued at 0, so they don’t actually own much of it, because why would you own an overvalued stock? Instead they already offloaded it to the optimists, who eagerly paid higher prices for it. Now the optimists own all the stock, and there’s no way to get the price back down to 0 by selling it.

Enter short-sellers. They borrow FB shares (from the optimists) and sell those shares, pushing the price down. Then in a little while when all the optimists wake up and realize that FB is really only worth 0 a share, and the price goes down, the shorts can buy the stock back for the cheaper price, return the shares to whoever they borrowed it from, and pocket the difference. That is how shorts make money.

Without short-sellers, it’s theoretically very hard to push stock prices down past a certain point. Many economic theorists have argued that this tends to lead to persistent overvaluation in the market. Without shorts, prices are higher than fundamentals.

Some economists even think that short-sellers can pop stock bubbles, or prevent them from getting started. Maybe when prices rise because of a burst of optimism, it gets everyone’s attention and causes some people to think the rising prices are a new trend, so they all buy in and push the price to the moon. Then the crash comes and regular folks lose their life’s savings to the savvy hedge funders who knew exactly when to time the top. But with short-sellers around, maybe that bubble would never get started, and normal people wouldn’t lose their life’s savings to savvy market-timing hedge funds, because they wouldn’t have seen that initial price rise to begin with.

It’s a theory, anyway.

OK, so that’s what short-sellers are supposed to do. They obviously can’t always do it, because in real life shorts don’t have infinite firepower (aka “liquidity”) to short stuff. If you get enough optimists together, you can overwhelm the hedge funds, and cause a short squeeze, which forces the prices even higher! 🚀🚀🚀

So whether short-sellers actually can stop bubbles in practice, we don’t know, since we don’t know entirely what causes bubbles to start forming, and at some point they get so big that shorts are powerless to stop them. (Though it’s worth noting that shorts do moderate bubbles in lab experiments.)

But anyway, theory says short sellers should at least be able to reduce overpricing on a day-to-day basis.

Are higher stock prices good or bad?

This is an important and subtle question. On one hand, regular people’s 401(k)s and IRAs and pension plans are invested in stocks, so when stock prices are higher, regular people feel wealthier. On the other hand, rich people have a much higher percent of their wealth in stocks compared to middle-class people, and poor people don’t own stock at all, so when stock prices go up, wealth inequality increases, at least on paper.

But does any of that matter? If stock prices are persistently above fundamental values, then the wealth isn’t real. The ability of companies to generate economic value remains the same. If people are willing to pay each other 00 for a share of Facebook stock instead of 0, it just means they shuffle around more money each time the stock changes hands. So what?

Sure, the rich people are all richer on paper, but what are they going to do — sell all their stock to middle-class dopes, pocket the cash, and throw a party while the middle-class dopes are stuck with overvalued crap? Seems unlikely. Instead they’re going to just hang on to the overvalued stock, and go “Hrm hrm hrm, yay for me, I’m so rich!” Again, not a big deal, unless you’re one of the people who stays up late at night seething with rage at the thought of rich people feeling self-satisfied.

OK, one real thing it would mean is that Facebook, the actual company, would have an easier time raising money. Too easy! If Facebook’s shares sell for 00 a pop, that means Zuck can just raise tons of cash by issuing some overvalued shares. Basically, Facebook’s cost of capital gets really low.

Economists generally think this is bad. If Zuck can raise money too easily, he’ll embark on inefficient projects and waste the money (and, more importantly, the time and effort of his employees). That will make the economy less efficient.

In reality, corporations rarely issue stock to fund their business activities. They almost always rely on debt instead. Maybe if stocks were really really overpriced, this would change — AMC, for example, is using a day-trading frenzy to issue stock to keep it afloat during the pandemic! But it seems highly unlikely that modest overpricings, of the type that short-sellers would be realistically able to correct, would move the needle at all on actual corporate finance.

In other words, it seems unlikely that a modest stock overpricing from a short-selling ban would have much of an effect on the real economy. If the S&P goes up by 10%, does the world really change at all?

But OK, on top of that, we have evidence that short-selling bans don’t even push prices up in the real world.

The evidence: Short-selling bans just gum up the works

Sometimes policymakers ignore the economists and ban or restrict short-selling anyway. And this allows economists to study what actually happens when you ban shorting. It turns out that while short-selling bans are it’s not quite important than you might think.

For example, when Australia banned short-selling in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, it made stock prices a bit more volatile, and made trading a bit more expensive, but it didn’t actually boost prices. Another study around the world from the same period found the same thing — bans on short-selling made stocks more volatile and more expensive to trade, but they didn’t actually make prices higher!

Remember that the theoretical reason shorts push prices down is that normal traders don’t actually have enough of the stock to sell when things go bad, because they’ve already unloaded it all to the most optimistic people in the market. That probably just isn’t that realistic. In the real world, people do usually have enough to sell when they get more pessimistic. So we probably don’t actually need shorts to keep prices from getting inflated, at least most of the time.

Now, that said, there are a whole lot of papers that find that when short selling is banned, stock prices respond more sluggishly to news and other shocks. This is pretty close to being an established scientific fact. In other words, short-sellers might not affect the overall level of prices much, but they help prices change faster when fundamentals change. That makes markets more “efficient”.

But again: Do we really care that much? Precisely zero companies are making business decisions or financing decisions based on whether their stock price takes 3 hours or 3 weeks to respond to a change in corporate value. Economists may feel a shiver of delight at the idea of prices making a swift, unerring beeline for their efficient value, but the actual economy is likely to be less affected.

Predatory shorting

There’s one more thing shorts might possibly be able to do that bears mentioning. If short-sellers short a stock enough, they can maybe possibly potentially drive down the price so much that the company gets delisted. At that point they make maximum profit, whether or not the company was perfectly healthy. Of course, it’s illegal to do that intentionally, but some people try to do it anyway — Jim Cramer once admitted to doing this on live TV. But this is really hard and risky to do.

Maybe short-selling just doesn’t matter that much

So what do short-sellers really do? They make markets work a little bit faster, and they damp out market swings a little bit. They might be able to stop some bubbles from forming, but we don’t really know. They might in rare cases murder companies for profit, but probably not.

As for whether or not short-sellers are The Man and long traders are The Little Guy, I highly doubt this proposition. Yes, shorts tend to be well-heeled hedge fund types. But really so do longs. In fact, so does pretty much everyone in the stock market — it’s a rich person’s game. The number of actual Little Guys who stand to gain from bans on short-selling is going to be miniscule.

Thus, it seems to make sense to have some modest, reasonable restrictions on short-selling (like bans on the dubious practice of naked shorting). But overall, short-selling bans don’t seem very likely to make a difference one way or another. That’s an answer that’s not going to please either side of the debate, of course.
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"Own a Newspaper for $1 per Month." An interesting story about a growing experiment in cooperative local journalism.

It's official.

Why minimum wage is pretty safe


When David Card and Alan Krueger came out with a landmark study in 1994 showing that a big minimum wage hike didn’t cause unemployment (as most economists predicted), Card was actively shunned many of his colleagues, who were deeply invested in the theory that minimum wage kills jobs:
[E]conomists who objected to our work were upset by the thought that we were giving free rein to people who wanted to set wages everywhere at any possible level…I've subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons. First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.
Note that this opposition wasn’t just the anger of theorists who didn’t like having their favorite theories debunked by empiricists. The anger was partly political and ideological. The economists Card describes saw themselves as guardians of the free market, and viewed Card’s research as giving succor to advocates of command economies.

But over the next few decades, an interesting thing happened — empiricists like Card and Krueger began to take over the discipline of economics, while the scholars who recoiled at his minimum wage research became both rarer and quieter. And as the economics profession evolved, so did economists’ beliefs about the minimum wage.

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The Shift

Actually there were really two shifts. Economists became more concerned with topics like inequality. Here’s a graph for the field of public economics (which deals with things like taxes and spending):


And thanks to computerization, empirical economics research steadily took over the field — become more credible and careful as it did so.


Over this time period, economists changed their beliefs about the minimum wage. As the chart at the top of this post shows, the percent of economists who think minimum wage is a substantial job-killer went from an overwhelming majority in the late 70s to a modest minority by the mid 2010s. That data is from an older version of a presentation by Arin Dube, an expert on minimum wage research. Here’s the slide from the most recent version:


That’s a pretty dramatic change, and you can see that it started before Card and Krueger did their famous study. So it’s not immediately clear how much of the shift was due to economists’ changing ideological views, and how much was due to the accumulating mountain of evidence.

But a mountain of evidence was accumulating.

The Evidence

At the behest of the UK government, Dube recently wrote a summary of the evidence. Instead of going through a bunch of papers like I did for immigration, I’ll keep it short here and just quote Dube. He writes:
In the US, a large body of high-quality research has investigated the impact of minimum wages on employment. Overall, this body of evidence points to a relatively modest overall impact on low wage employment…Across US states, the best evidence suggests that the employment effects are small up to around 59% of the median wage…Research conducted for this report also finds that in the 7 US states with the highest minimum wage, where the minimum is binding for around 17% of the workforce, employment effects have been similarly modest. Not all US studies suggest small employment effects, and there are notable counter examples. However, the weight of the evidence suggests the employment effects are modest.
And here’s a graph aggregating a bunch of studies’ results. A positive value here means that minimum wage was found to increase employment, while a negative value means it was found to kill jobs:


Note that while most studies conclude that the effects of minimum wage are small, many actually conclude that higher minimum wages create jobs.

In fact, there’s a pretty clear and simple reason why this could happen. It’s called “monopsony power”. So let’s take a moment and review the basic Econ 101 theory of the minimum wage.

The Theory

If the market for low-wage labor is competitive — if there are a bunch of companies all scrambling to compete to hire workers, and a bunch of workers all scrambling to compete for jobs — then you can represent the labor market with a good ol’ supply-and-demand graph. In that competitive world, a minimum wage drives a wedge between employers and employees, by forcing companies to pay more than the market rate. Theoretically, that would cause unemployment. When people say minimum wage kills jobs, this is the theory they typically have in mind.


OK, but suppose the labor market ISN’T competitive. Suppose some employers are big and powerful, or they somehow cooperate to keep wages down, or simply that it’s really hard to switch employers. Then the theory changes a lot. In the extreme case — a “company town” with only one employer — the market outcome is whatever The Company wants it to be (technically, where The Company’s marginal cost equals its marginal revenue). It has nothing to do with supply and demand! And of course, The Company is going to hold wages artificially low, which kills jobs because some people just can’t afford to work for wages that low.

In that case, minimum wage can actually create jobs. It forces The Company to raise wages, which allows more people to work. It looks like this.


This is called a monopsony model. “Monopsony” means “single buyer”, which refers to the big and powerful Company. As you can see in the graph, minimum wage moves the economy closer to full employment — it creates jobs.

Now, in the real world, you almost never have an actual monopsony. But what you often do have is something in between the first graph and the second graph. Employers don’t have complete market power, but they do have some market power. And thus, it’s possible for minimum wage to create jobs, as long as the minimum wage isn’t set too high.

That could explain why some studies find positive employment effects from minimum wage. Those could just be cases where companies’ market power was strong, and minimum wage wasn’t too extreme. And it also could explain why most minimum wage studies only find very small employment effects in either direction.

In other words, the question “Does minimum wage kill jobs?” doesn’t have a definitive, universal answer. It depends on how high the minimum wage is. It depends on how high prevailing wages are. It depends on the local labor market, and how powerful local employers are. And it probably depends on other things too, such as whether we’re in a recession.

So incoming President Joe Biden is proposing a federal minimum wage. Would this kill jobs, or create jobs? Is a national one-size-fits-all policy safe, or would it screw over places where wages are naturally lower?

Federal Minimum Wage

So, Dube’s literature review above suggests that in general, minimum wages aren’t harmful if they’re below about 60% of the median wage. The median weekly earnings of U.S. workers currently stands at around 4, so assuming a 40-hour workweek that’s about .85/hour. 60% of that is about .91, meaning that is right around the maximum safe level. But because the economy will recover from COVID-19 and wages will rise, and because Biden’s minimum wage would undoubtedly be phased in over time, will probably be under the national “safe” level by the time the law goes into effect. And thanks to inflation, it will be further and further below the “safe” level every year (we really should index minimum wage to inflation, but that’s another story).

But that’s at the national level. What about at the local level? In big cities where wages (and living costs) are naturally higher, won’t be any problem at all. But in small towns in Kansas, where wages (and living costs) are naturally a lot lower, a federally mandated wage could be a big problem.

Fortunately, there’s reason to think that small towns won’t be so screwed by a too-high minimum wage. The reason is that these small towns also tend to have fewer employers, and therefore more monopsony power. And as we saw above, more monopsony power means that minimum wage is less dangerous, and can even raise employment sometimes.

A recent study by Azar et al. confirms this simple theoretical intuition. They find that in markets with fewer employers — where you’d expect employers’ market power to be stronger — minimum wage has a more benign or beneficial effect on jobs:
We find that more concentrated labor markets…experience significantly more positive employment effects from the minimum wage. While increases in the minimum wage are found to significantly decrease employment of workers in low concentration markets, minimum wage-induced employment changes become less negative as labor concentration increases, and are even estimated to be positive in the most highly concentrated markets.
This implies that in smaller towns where wages are naturally low, the danger of minimum wage is reduced because employers are more powerful to start with. And in bigger cities where there are lots of employers and labor markets are more competitive, the danger of minimum wage is reduced because wages are naturally high.

In other words, a federal minimum wage just might be pretty safe after all.

Of course, I expect Biden’s policy — if it passes — to include a number of safeguards. It’ll probably be phased in over a number of years, like city-level minimum wages typically are. There will probably be some partial exemptions for small businesses, startups, etc. There should be a policy allowing the government to reduce the minimum wage during a recession. And despite the mitigating factor of monopsony power, there may be some kind of policy that allows towns to get partial exemptions from the federal minimum wage if their prevailing wages are low enough, just to be on the safe side.

But anyway, the overarching point here is that minimum wage is a lot safer than economists used to think. And we have a pretty good idea why this is true. And economists have really changed their minds on the matter.

When the evidence is clear, true scientists follow the evidence.
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Interview: Claudia Sahm


Macroeconomist Claudia Sahm and I share a PhD advisor (Miles Kimball). We go way back. In the unedited, rollocking interview that follows, Dr. Sahm and I discuss the problems of economics culture, and how to fix them. And we even talk a little about economic policy!

Wow, I always wanted to use the word “rollicking”, and I finally got the chance.

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N.S.: So, we’ve known each other for a long time. We had the same PhD advisor (Miles Kimball), and he had me ask you a few questions about a statistical procedure you developed. Then I think you randomly mailed me to talk about my blog back in 2011. Amazing how the time goes by, huh?

C.S.: Yes, back in 2011 I ventured into the economics blogosphere and found you, along with Tyler Cowen, Brad Delong, Scott Sumner, and many others. All men, sigh. You caught me on a bad day. The first post I read of yours was, “What I learned in econ grad school,” in which you bashed macro and specifically, the grad macro class at Michigan that I was a teaching assistant for. AND Chris House who taught the class and who I very much like Chris. Annoyed I sent you a snippy email. Your reply was basically, “who the heck are you?” and “chill out.” So began our friendship.

Next time I should’ve met you was the following year when you were on the job market. I came to Michigan to interview candidates for the Federal Reserve Board and talk with students about internship opportunities there. You totally ghosted your one-on-one. I always thought you would’ve added some spice at the Fed, but it’s probably for the best that your opinions went out to the world and didn’t get trapped in the Boardroom.

N.S.: OMG yes. Me at the Fed would have been...not good. And I didn’t ghost, I just cancelled. 😉

But OK, fast forward eight years, and it’s you who’s become the big macroeconomics-basher. Your blog post, “Economics is a Disgrace”, blew up the internet for a while and caused a lot of people to sit up and take note of problems in the professional culture of econ -- particularly macro. I’m sure after that, you had to say “Who the heck are you?’ and “Chill out” to a number of critics!

So tell me about how you got from there to here. Did you know about the toxicity of the macroeconomics culture already back in 2012? Or did it take a while to realize what was going on?

C.S.: I am not a “macroeconomics-basher.” I love the field and know we can do more good in the world. To do so, we must clean up our act. I believe in ‘tough love.’

To your question: when did I become convinced that macro had problems? The data points were there from the start, but it took me years to see the problems were systemic not people specific. I heard my first ‘story’ about Larry Summers behaving badly twenty years ago as a research assistant at Brookings. So I knew macro could be a little rough and tumble. But it wasn’t directed at me--I worked for amazing economists there--so it felt more like a clown act than a threat. Throughout my career from Econ 101 to today, I have been largely surrounded by people who share my love of economics and who keep high standards for the work without hurting people.

Sure macro is heavy on bravado, but that’s what you get when you have very little data to answer very big questions about the world. I became a macroeconomist because I am convinced that economic policy is so important in the real world, especially. I worked over a decade at the Federal, starting in 2007, right before the financial crisis. My determination to support good policy grew even stronger during my time there, as did my awareness of our shortcomings. I have become convinced that we will never achieve our best policy advice until we clean up our act as a profession. I wrote my “economics is a disgrace” blog post out of anger about the treatment of students and as a vivid wakeup call to the profession.

Economists are a tough bunch to wake up. Over the past several years, I have tried every way I could think of to light a fire I can think of--doing diversity and inclusion at the Fed before it was ‘sexy’--and more publicly for over three years on my blog and Twitter. I shared my experiences. I shared things I saw. I was nice. I was angry. No one really listened until I named names this summer and destroyed my career in economic policy. Sad that’s what it took. So be it.

I stand by my blog post.I have receipts, even more than when my post went viral. I knew the problems in economics were real. They were NOT about me. They are about all of us. In my first year at the Board in 2008, I had demoralizing experiences with a handful of senior colleagues, who called my expertise into question and made me question whether I belonged at the Fed. Others said I was doing an amazing job as a newbie. It was hard to know who was right. In my mind, the harassers won out.

Eventually, that self doubt and the stress of the work, led to a very tough time in my life in 2011. I thought I was done. I lost my health, my marriage, and a lot of time as I was getting back on track. I did. In fact, by the time, I started my macromom blog in 2017, I was doing great. I had just gotten a promotion. By the time I wrote the “disgrace” post I had the Sahm rule and was doing high-profile work on economic policy. I also knew by then that I was not alone. Many women and men, from all career stages and a range of institutions, had had awful experiences. People like the ones who had made my life miserable at the Fed were everywhere. And people who looked the other way were even more common. The culture of economics failed us all.

So enough was enough. Early in the summer, after a week of painful mentoring calls, I lost it. Why did people have to devote so much time to putting themselves ‘back together’ again? Why shouldn’t the people hurting others be the ones to put in some time? They had to stop and the culture of economics had to change.

In my “disgrace” post, I shared my experiences in vivid detail to get people’s attention. I shared others but in less detail with victims names redacted. No one knows their names (and some details are fuzzed) except for me. Retaliation is real and they have suffered enough. I wrote my post for them and for the others out there.

I am not alone in sounding alarm bells. Others have for decades. One recent effort brought numbers to the table: The American Economics Association conducted its first climate survey of economists in the winter of 2018-19. The results are disturbing. For example, HALF of women had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment due to their gender. And HALF of Black economists had similar experiences due to their race. One Black woman economist wrote that, “I would not recommend my own (Black) children to go into this field. It was a mistake for me to choose this field. Had I known that it would be so toxic, I would not have….” Of course, some refuse to see the problem. One person in the survey said, “Devoting any time or attention to "diversity" and "inclusion" and "climate" is a ridiculous "politically correct" waste of time in the field of economics.” So yeah, economics has a big problem.

The American Economics Association has tried over the past three years to address our problems--after A LOT of pushing. We know have a code of professional conduct and a policy on harassment and discrimination. They even have a process to file complaints and they hired an ombudsperson. They have done other things to push change. I have MANY concerns about how the roll out has gone. But even I admit, it’s so much more than I expected to happen.

N.S.: That econ culture turned me off from day 1 as well, and I didn’t get anywhere near the worst of it. I’ve been thinking for a long while about why it’s so bad, and the best answer I can come up with is that it all comes down to hierarchy. As I see it, economics culture is really fundamentally about hierarchy; the profession is essentially self-judged, no one is checking on it to see whether it’s doing something useful, or threatening to take its resources if it doesn’t deliver. Money and respect just steadily pour in from outside, and the people at the top are able to determine how to allocate those money and resources. So everybody sucks up to the top people, even those who hate and resent them. And that hierarchy allows people to indulge their cruelest instincts by punching down on the people below them in the hierarchy. There are people in any organization who have the impulse to be cruel, but in econ they can get away with it. I see sexism in econ, and other forms of discrimination, as fundamentally an outgrowth of that hierarchy-driven cruelty.

How much does that fit with your diagnosis of the problem?

C.S.: I agree economics has a strong hierarchy. Elitism in economics stifles our research and policy work. Solid research continues to pile up. Here and here are two recent examples I called out elitism as one of many problems. I got a lot of pushback on that one. I agree it’s hard to disentangle merit from privilege. But it’s not hard to see that both must be at play.

So why is economics so hierarchical and so determined to protect its power structures? I think it’s how the hierarchy is reinforced: aggressive criticism of anyone who does not fit the mold and refuses to play the game. My blog post shines a bright light on the top of the house, the gatekeepers in economics. I named names and gave examples of the systemic problems in our culture. Enforcing the hierarchy means valuing a certain pedigree in training, rewarding certain research techniques, and clinging to a certain definition of an economist. None of that is particularly unique to economics, but economics embraces it in a way that is very unhealthy.

Hypercompetitiveness and toxic behaviors are rife in economics. Tellingly, parts of the discipline where toxicity is strongest in the United States, like macroeconomics, tend to be led largely by White men. That group has enjoyed privilege for generations in our society and in economics. Plus, testosterone is one hell of a drug. I get it that some people are wired to see every shiny bauble as a conquest. However, we are taught in kindergarten that it’s not okay to destroy people, and gets you sent to the principal's office or expelled. Those hard-nosed principles are missing from economics when it’s time to mete out punishment. Some economists seem to have forgotten that rolling people is not okay, and it's bad for our science. So economics is exclusionary, shuts down people who go against the grain (Noah, that’s you), and worst of all it denies that it has a systemic problem. Diversity in the degree of hair loss is not good enough.

To be fair, many, many White men economists are open minded, welcoming, creative, and admit we have a problem. We simply need more people to accept that we must do better. We must hold everyone in the profession accountable. That’s hard, but the cruelty must stop. Everyone must work to make it stop.I know we can do better.

N.S.: Ha. I do go against the grain a little bit, when I have the energy for it.

But OK, here’s one more hypothesis. Physics, math, engineering, and so on have all traditionally been dominated by White men (biosciences too, until recently). Yet although those fields have all had issues of sexism and racism, none of them developed anything like the toxic, hierarchical, down-punching culture of econ. So I’m wondering -- does politics have something to do with it? In the 70s and 80s, the econ profession got sort of tied up in the conservative fightback against the Great Society. A lot of young conservative guys probably joined the field hoping to be the next Milton Friedman, dreaming of putting lefty kids in their place by telling them government interference in the economy is bad and blah blah. And people who dream of a job denying poor people money tend to be a certain type of person -- hierarchical, un-generous, dominant, unwilling to recognize systematic exclusion, etc. Obviously not every economist who came up in the 70s and 80s was a right-winger; today, the field leans pretty strongly toward the Democrats, and toward redistributionary policies. But might there have been enough of those guys -- the same kind of guys who now lurk on anonymous econ forums -- to sort of poison the culture?

C.S.: I don’t know about the culture in other disciplines. I have heard stories of abuse and harassment in fields as wide ranging as philosophy to math to biology to anthropology. And out in the wider world you can find women and men of color, along with people with less formal education or from families not considered elite, who are abused and harassed by people in power and by institutions designed for them to fail. I find the punching down in economics and in society abhorrent. People in power must use it responsibly. Punch down is the worst.

One thing I find peculiar in economics is that way in which we rationalize it. Even today, you can hear economists (always from the dominant, powerful group) argue that people from these other groups are choosing not to be economists. The ‘equilibrium’’ we are in is stable and thus must be optimal. It blows my mind that they are not intellectually curious enough to ask, “well, why is it that systematically a group does not want to join our ranks?” Could it be that something about the profession repels others who do not fit the mold. I believe it does and I have a talk, “Women in Economics: What Does the Research Say?” that I’ve given to many groups.

I do a lot of mentoring too. When young adults come to me who are considering economics but are concerned about its hostile culture. I tell them, economics, “we need you, but we do not deserve you.” I want them to join us and change us. I also want them to go in with open eyes -- I did not -- and know from the start when people try to hurt them, “it’s not you; it’s them” who is the problem.

You asked about politics and the legacy of Uncle Milt. I did touch on politics in economics in my blog post. I think politics is a poison pill to evidence-based economic policy. I am distrurbed when economists are attacked simply for advising one political party or the other. That discourages economists who want to bring evidence and expertise to policy makers, regardless of the party affiliation, and might leave us with blind spots and hacks. Good intentions are not enough for good policy.

I doubt that those views won me fans at some progrssive think tanks, including Equitable Growth where I worked. But they knew how I felt. Early in this crisis I asked to take time off to do a detail at the Trump Council of Economic Advisers. I had been there in the Obama Administration, and I knew how much they could use another macroeconomist. Heather Boushey and some of my mentors convinced me to stay. Later I formally volunteered to go to CEA. It didn’t work out (progressive think tanks were not the usual feeders into the Trump Administration). I continued to sometimes send them my macro analysis.

Being public in my “disgrace” post, on many issues, including politics, turned into a personal fiasco. In my most recent blog post, “economics truly is a disgrace,” shared the retaliation I experienced at work after my “disgrace” post. Sigh. Equitable Growth tweeted on their official Twitter account (good lord) that I had been unhappy there and tried to quit before. Yeah, while revealing non-public personnel issues, ya’ missed a key detail: I wanted to go serve my country. I try hard to separate my politics from my economics. Not everyone does. I respect that choice. However, my respect ends when economists attack others purely on politics and disagree with policies simply because of the side it comes from. I have seen it among right of center, left of center, and libertatiran economists. It may be human nature to be tribal, but it undermines our science and muddies our policy advice. By the way, I quit after a few horrible months and am self employed now. Beliefs have consequences, and I accept it.

I experienced the toxic politics in economics this fall, and frankly it’s going to be a long time before I want to work in any Administration. Recently, I turned down an interview for a Deputy Assistant Secretary job at Treasury. It was weird to turn down what had been a dream job--working for Janet Yellen again--but even weirder that I got the invite as the Dem establishment was bashing me in the press. It was not a hard decision to say no. Their loss.

N.S.: Thanks. Well, I’m sure we could talk about econ culture all day, but we should probably at least touch on some actual macroeconomics before I take too much of your time!

You’ve been a big advocate of the “just give people money” approach to COVID-19 relief. And that really seems to be the consensus among macroeconomists. But I have two questions about that. First, does the same principle apply after the pandemic is over? When we’re faced with a more traditional recession, shouldn’t we switch over to spending on things like infrastructure, since government spending multipliers are typically larger than tax rebate multipliers?

And second, people have thankfully stopped worrying about deficits the way they used to. The rise of MMT seems to herald a new era of people just not caring about government debt or deficits at all. But is there ever a point where we have to start worrying again? Under what circumstances would that happen?

C.S.: Before we switch gears, I want to stress that my efforts to improve our culture are not a sideshow or a hobby. I truly believe that the quality of our work depends on how we work with each other. The exclusive and abusive parts of the economics profession create blindspots; impede the flow of new ideas; and silence new voices. That’s very bad for our knowledge we create and the policy advice we give.

I fell in love with economics as an undergraduate because I was told it could do good in the world. After more than a decade working in DC, I know that to achieve that goal, we must clean up our act. Our advice matters. The policy decisions at the Federal Reserve, at the White House, and other government agencies that are informed by economists touch the lives of millions of Americans. Our track record is not good. Duh. How can we serve others, if we hurt our own?

Now onto the money. you’re right, I have tirelessly advocated for Congress to send money directly to people in this crisis. On March 11 Jason Furman and I briefed House Democrats. My advice was, “go big, go fast, and go broad.” I told them payments checked all the three boxes. They are not targeted but in a crisis everyone needs to know that the government has their back. Money talks. Moreover, sending money to the vast majority of Americans, along with other more targeted aid that Congress does in nearly every recession, such as better jobless benefits, extra food stamps, and aid to state and local government, should be autopilot and not need approval from Congress. I wrote a proposal on automatic payments in a book full of great ideas to create or strengthen automatic stabilizers.

Now, you asked does my thinking extend to other policy ideas, like guaranteed income, and economic frameworks, like Modern Monetary Theory. I don’t know, but I have thought hard about that question in 2020. And will more in 2021.I appreciate everyone who has invited me to conversations on these topics. I have met many creative and innovative thinkers during this crisis. I have also thought about how much I should use this crisis to inform my thinking about future recessions. This time was different in some ways and similar in many others. We can learn so much from a very big event. The New Deal after the Great Depression led to some of core safety net programs like unemployment insurance and Social Security. Again, the jury in my head is still out what lesson we need to take from this crisis and apply in the future.

My belief in direct payments is grounded in high-quality economic research, including mine, about money sent widely to people in the 2001 and 2008 recession (summarized in my policy proposal to make them automatic). Research on the 2020 payment shows they mattered to families and the economic recovery. But I have learned this year from policy experts (mostly non-economists) how poorly some other safety net programs are administered--with unemployment insurance at the top of the list. Maybe that’s part of the reason that direct payments work so well. In this crisis, It took weeks, sometimes months for the unemployed to get their benefits and many didn’t even bother to apply. If that program worked better and workers knew it was there if they lost their jobs, then we would not need to send money to everyone.

I learn from others and I learn from digging into the data myself. I have started a research project for the Institute on New Economic Thinking on the benefits of automatic direct payment in recessions and recoveries. I will be using cutting-edge distributional macro models to assess whether it’s a faster path back to full employment and who it would support most. We must find a way to push against rising inequality.

The part of Modern Monetary Theory that I find most compelling so far is its goal post of full employment. That’s part of the dual mandate (along with price stability) that Congress gave the Federal Reserve. That mandate grew out of the Civil Rights movement. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King were some of the strongest advocates. The Fed has struggled since day one to achieve. After all these years, they have not even defined it. So anyone who grapples with full employment is a person I want to learn more from.

Finally, you are much more optimistic than I am that the thinking on deficit spending has changed. Yes, the CARES Act was massive at .2 trillion. The economy was in free fall and a deadly pandemic was killing people. What I worried about, after seeing it after the Great Recession, is the will to stay the course until everyone was back on their feet. The crisis has unfolded at light speed relative to past ones. And, hand wringing over the deficit and an activist federal government has appeared rapidly too. Yes, Congress just passed a 0 billion relief package but it took months and months. It created a massive amount of anxiety for Americans who really need more support. It put the dysfunction of DC on full display.

The Biden Administration with a Democratic House and Senate (!!) has promised that more help is on the way. I am thrilled to see ,000 checks on the table. And importantly, it looks like unemployment insurance could be strengthened, including adding automatic triggers on and off to the federal enhancements (like the extra weekly benefits and expanded eligibility. Hallelujah. All that said, I am pragmatic and know that the price tag would be big. Maybe too big for even moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans.

And then there are the economists to worry about. Even economists--especially academics vs policy wonks--do not agree on what are the best policies at this point in the recovery. The mixed messages make it hard to do evidenced-based policy. In the grand scheme, I am not sure it matters. Many policymakers and the public are already worried about the historically high levels of federal debt. (I believe that’s more about the size of the government than the deficit, but that’s another conversation.) We will learn so much about the pandemic, the economy, and policy actions (or lack thereof) in the coming months. 2020 was disastrous. I worry that 2021 could be a disappointment. I sure hope I am wrong but I am a pretty damn good macro forecaster.
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This is awesome

Dr. Akiko Iwasaki

Super interesting interview about COVID, pandemics, #scicomm, and women in science.

Interview: Dr. Akiko Iwasaki


I follow a lot of COVID-19 experts on Twitter, but perhaps none has been so informative as Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale. Somehow, she manages to communicate a very high volume of extremely technical information about viruses in a way that a layperson like myself can understand quite easily, but without sacrificing scientific accuracy. She also occasionally writes columns for the New York Times, Vox, and elsewhere, and appears on podcasts. Together with some other scientists, she helped create a plan to stop COVID-19. And she has done this while continuing to put out a high volume of research papers. She has also spoken out about the barriers women face in the field of biology.

Frankly, Dr. Iwasaki is pretty incredible. When I hear the word “biologist”, she is now the person who comes to mind. So it was a great honor to be able to interview her for my blog! Our unedited email exchange is below:


N.S.: So, let me say first of all, I'm a huge fan. I follow a lot of COVID experts on Twitter, and no one has taught me as much about COVID, or about viruses in general, as you have. You're so good at figuring out exactly what information people need to know, and sending them to the best source for that information.

A.I.: Wow. Thank you Noah. I am thrilled to know that you find my science communication efforts useful.

N.S.: So before I ask about viruses and vaccines, I just wanted to know: What made you feel the need to spend your valuable time bringing information to the masses? Was it just that COVID was such an emergency?

A.I.: Well, before the COVID pandemic, I have always felt it is the duty of a scientist to communicate research findings to lay people in accessible manner. We are in a privileged position to pursue science thanks to large part taxes people pay. We as scientists have an obligation to explain and discuss our scientific findings to the public. When COVID hit, I felt that this was important more than ever to not only communicate our own research but to put out information on some basic mechanisms of virus infection and immunity, and to dispel myths about the virus.

N.S.: That's awesome. We'll talk about dispelling myths in a bit.

But first, I wanted to ask: How worried should we be about this new COVID strain that has appeared in the UK? I've seen some preliminary data suggesting that one of the new strain's mutations, called N501Y, which is thought to make it more infectious, doesn't affect its resistance to antibodies. But aren't there several mutations in the new strain? How worried should we be that this strain, or a descendant of it, will make our vaccines substantially less effective?

A.I.: That’s right. The N501Y mutation, which is in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein, does not appear to evade antibody responses generated by prior infection or vaccines. There are several other mutations and deletions in both the spike and other viral genes. I do not think there is much to worry about vaccines not working against this particular variant. On average, people make multiple antibodies to different regions (called epitopes) within the spike protein alone. So even if the virus is able to evade some of them, other antibodies will still be active against the virus. In the future, a mutant virus may emerge that truly evades vaccine-induced immunity. However, at that point, the new sequence can be incorporated into a new mRNA vaccine – version 2.0. All the manufacturing and distribution infrastructure is already in place to making such a vaccine pretty rapidly.

N.S.: And, following up on that question: It seems like it will take years to vaccinate the entire world against COVID, if we even ever can do that. What are the chances that COVID will keep mutating among the unvaccinated population, and new vaccine-resistant strains will keep emerging?

A.I.: This is theoretically possible. However, for the mutant virus to evade all possible antibody responses it will take a long time. The fact that the SARS-CoV-2 polymerase has a proofreading capability makes the mutation rate low. Plus, we have not seen such variant arise during natural infection of 78 million people makes it very unlikely, or at least a very slow process.

N.S.: Got it. So if we get unlucky and a vaccine-resistant COVID strain does emerge, how quickly will we be able to re-vaccinate everyone? Will tweaked mRNA vaccines have to go through a long approval and testing process like the original ones did this year? Or can we quickly just swap out the spike protein and roll out the new one quickly?

AI: I am not sure how extensive such new versions of mRNA vaccines have to be tested. I bet you can just swap out the spike sequence and roll out the new vaccine relatively quickly. The new version may have to be tested in a small number of people before the roll out for safety but I am not sure. Every new vaccine will likely need regulatory approval.

N.S.: And on a related note: Suppose we do manage to vaccinate the great majority of the world against COVID. What is the endgame for this disease? Could it become endemic in some areas? Will we have to get regular vaccines against new COVID strains, like flu shots? Might the disease evolve into a less deadly form, as some predict? Or do we just not know yet?

A.I.: I think it is too early to say. If vast majority of the world is vaccinated against COVID, the virus may only cause sporadic small clusters of infection in areas that are not covered by vaccines (much like some measles outbreaks we see in some States with low vaccine uptake). However, widespread transmission of virus will be prevented by herd immunity. Even if the virus does not evolve into a less deadly form, disease will be prevented because of immune resistance.

N.S.: Got it. Well that's pretty comforting, I must say.

Now, another scary question is: What about the next pandemic? Have globalization and humanity's increasing encroachment on animal habitats put us in higher danger of novel pandemics like this one? What can we do to limit the danger or prepare better?

A.I.: Human behaviors such as deforestation, intensive animal farming, urban crowding, poor sanitation, and water storage practices have led to accelerated emergence of zoonotic infectious diseases in humans. Increase in world travel has allowed faster and wider transmission of infectious agents. I think it is time to take a hard look at our behavior and make changes where possible. For example, we should consider limiting the large indoor crowding events and make some of these virtual. If remote working is possible, encourage that over in person working. On the other hand, human interaction is absolutely important, especially for children and elderly. We need to ensure safer public and community indoor environment for schools and nursing homes.

N.S.: And why, after a long period of not worrying about coronaviruses at all, have we seen two novel coronavirus pandemics -- SARS in 2003, and now COVID-19 -- in less than two decades? Was that just a coincidence?

A.I.: You are right that these betacoronaviruses made zoonotic transmission and subsequent human to human spread in relatively short time period. This likely reflects more frequent encounter between humans and animal reservoir hosts. SARS and SARS-CoV-2 use ACE2 as entry receptor. It turns out that SARS-CoV-2 can use ACE2 expressed by a wide range of mammalian hosts including minks, cats, and other domestic and wild animals. So the evolution of the virus within and between these types of animals and jumping over to humans can lead to zoonotic transmission. Some of these viral strains capable of person to person transmission will have the pandemic potential.

It is important to remember that during this period, other infectious agents also succeeded as emerging endemic and pandemic infections in humans, including H1N1 swine flu, Chikungunya, and Zika virus. So the threats of future pandemics can come from multiple viral types.

N.S.: I'd love to keep asking about viruses and have you give me a whole tutorial, but I don't want to take too much of your time! Instead I'll switch to another topic I wanted to ask you about: Women in science.

It's well known that the percent of women in bio- and life sciences has been increasing. Obviously it will take some time to reach parity at the level of tenured and senior professors, but it seems inevitable that this will also shift over time. Meanwhile, women were responsible for some of the key scientific advances involved in creating the COVID-19 vaccines. Do you think the field of bioscience is becoming more gender-equal? What are the barriers that still exist, and what are the most important steps we can take to knock them down? I know that you have struggled with sexism in biology. What can we do to fight it?

AI: While women make up more than 50% of the biomedical graduates, the percentage of women in faculty position, particularly at the professor level. There is no proportionate increase in the percentage of women faculty for decades. The percentage of women in academic positions drops most precipitously at the postdoc-to-faculty transition. In a typical open faculty search in biology, about 25% of applicants for an assistant professorship are women, whereas women comprise about 45% of the postdoctoral applicant pool. I hate it when people assign this disparity to “pipeline” problem because the pipeline is fixed, but the environment isn’t. The field of bioscience is inching towards gender equality but the pace is too slow. I will highlight some barriers women and underrepresented scientists face.
  • Bias: both explicit and implicit
  • Toxic work place experience
  • Sexual harassment/assault from colleagues and senior members
  • Lack of role models
  • Lack of confidence
  • Exclusion from the old boys club for membership, awards, prizes.
  • Women’s publications do not ‘count’ towards grant award as much as men’s.
  • Women’s publications do not receive as many citations as similar work by men’s.
  • Women don’t get to publish as much as men in high tier journals.
  • Women do not achieve promotion to leadership position at the same rate as men.
  • Lack of mentors and sponsors
  • Funding and pay gap
  • More time in parenting and domestic tasks than men, particularly during the pandemic.
How do we knock these down?
  • Infrastructure
  • Provide affordable and accessible childcare
  • Conduct couples recruitment, cluster recruitment to make it easy for families
  • Hold grant panel education to avoid implicit bias.
  • Need mind set change in recruitment
  • Change metric of success
  • Tactic:
  • Affirmation: band together preemptively to consciously support other women in discussion
  • Networking, identifying and hiring of qualified women and URM
  • Realizing this is not a woman/URM problem. Involving men (#HeforShe)
  • Mentoring and role model
  • Women/URM in leadership roles could effect change from the top
  • Leadership – change our concept of what a leader should look like.
  • Policy and institutional solutions
  • Reflective: not just have programs; change mind-set
  • Acknowledge and tackle biases
  • Leadership training and mentoring for women, boards, committees
This all sounds daunting but effort starts from one. A lot one can do on an individual level to start chipping away at the barriers.

N.S.: Wow, that is a big list. And I'm of course frustrated at how little I can personally help accomplish any of the tasks on that list!

So here's my next question: What can people like me, in the media but outside the biosciences, do to help this? What are the steps we can take, however small and modest?

A.I.: Thank you for asking this question. People in the media can help highlight the barriers so that people can understand what problems there still are in biomedical sciences. Once we acknowledge the problems, then we can begin to tackle them. If there is no public understanding of the issues women still face in academia, we will not have the public support we need to make the change. So you are doing a lot by writing this blog!


By the way, remember that if you like this blog, you can subscribe here! There’s a free email list, and a paid subscription too!

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FairVote's 2020 in Review

Some highlights of efforts to expand Ranked Choice Voting in 2020:
This entry was edited (7 months ago)

RCTs vs. intuition


Angus Deaton, the Nobel-winning economist, has done a lot of great work lately on “deaths of despair” in America. Recently, he went on Julia Galef’s “Rationally Speaking” podcast and discussed this research. It’s a good interview, and I recommend the whole thing.

But Deaton is also a harsh critic of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in development economics, and he also discussed this with Galef. At the end of the podcast, they had this amusing exchange:
Julia Galef: Well, I don't know what the people you're complaining about are doing, but I imagine if you're testing a specific intervention -- like giving out anti-malarial bed nets -- the cases in different countries or different regions aren't going to be identical, but it's still pretty similar, what you're doing from one region to the other. You're giving out bed nets.

Angus Deaton: I don't agree, because all the side effects, which are the things we're talking about, are going to be different in each case. And also, just to take a case -- we know what reduces poverty, what makes people better off: it's school teachers, it's malaria pills, it's all these things.

Julia Galef: How do we know that, though?

Angus Deaton: Oh, come on.

Julia Galef: No, I'm sorry, that was not a rhetorical or a troll question.

Angus Deaton: Really? I don't know how you get out of bed in the morning. How do you know that when you stand up, you won't fall over? I mean, there's been no experiments on that. There's never been an experiment on aspirin. Have you ever taken an aspirin?

Julia Galef: So, sorry, you think that increasing the number of schoolteachers -- or paying them better, or some intervention on school teachers causes people to be better off -- that that claim is as obvious as gravity?

Angus Deaton: It's pretty obvious. But that's not the point I'm trying to make.

What the heck is Deaton talking about here??

First of all, it’s pretty bizarre to say that there’s never been an experiment on aspirin. If I go to PubMed and search for “aspirin randomized controlled trial”, I get 7,586 results. There are reportedly 700 to 1000 clinical trials conducted on aspirin every year. There were also experiments involved in the invention of aspirin; people knew that salicylic acid helped with headaches, but extracting and buffering the chemical were both non-trivial tasks.

OK, but do we really need those experiments to know that aspirin helps get rid of headaches? That’s Deaton’s intended point here — that there are some things you just know will work, because of common sense and accumulated wisdom, and you don’t need a fancy RCT to know they’ll work. Just do the things that reduce poverty — provide more school teachers and malaria pills, etc. — and don’t worry about testing to verify the obvious.

But what if it’s not obvious? We know that in general, education reduces poverty. But that doesn’t mean that specific educational interventions reduce poverty — or that they’re worth the cost, or that they’re better than alternatives.

For example, as Jason Kerwin pointed out on Twitter, Indonesia’s experiment with doubling teacher salaries didn’t improve student learning outcomes (and so probably didn’t help much with poverty either). A 2007 study in Tanzania found that “high primary enrolment rates in the past did not lead to the realisation of the associated developmental outcomes”.

And Nancy Cartwright, who is Deaton’s co-author on his most famous critique of RCTs, describes how an experiment to double the number of teachers per student in California failed to improve outcomes — despite having encouraging evidence from an RCT.

The point here isn’t that education doesn’t reduce poverty; there are plenty of other cases where it did. The point is that educational programs don’t always work. And empirical research is how you figure out which programs work and which don’t.

And no, RCTs don’t always give you the right answer (as the California example demonstrates). To really get a full picture of the evidence you need policy experiments, natural experiments, and so on. But you do need evidence! Simply falling back on our intuition and wisdom when making policy is not enough!

One vivid illustration of the inadequacy of intuition and wisdom is that different people’s wisdom leads them to very different conclusions. For example, Lant Pritchett, also a renowned development economist and also a harsh critic of RCTs, strongly criticized the awarding of the 2019 Econ Nobel to three development economists who used RCTs to study the effectiveness of antipoverty programs. In a memorable Facebook rant, he declared:
Poverty rates across countries are almost perfectly correlated with the "typical" (median) income/consumption in that country...If poverty programs are defined as those that improve poverty rates, conditional on the typical level of income in a country, they account for less than 1 percent of total variation in poverty...

A commitment to "study global poverty" would probably ask: "what accounts for the observed reductions (or lack thereof) in poverty across time and across countries?" and discover that variation in the size and efficacy of poverty programs had little or nothing to do with poverty reduction...

So a focus on applying a method to the study of the effectiveness of (mostly) NGO programs is a commitment to not study global poverty.

So to Pritchett, RCTs are next to useless, because we know what reduces poverty. It’s economic growth!

And to Deaton, RCTs are next to useless, because we know what reduces poverty. It’s schoolteachers and malaria pills!

Each of these guys believes that we know what reduces poverty, and yet their answers don’t agree. The very kinds of “NGO programs” Pritchett dismisses are the things Deaton says are the obvious solution.

It would be kind of fun to get these guys in a room and have them hash it out. But the point here is that even among people who are obviously very wise, and have obviously well-developed intuition, answers to big questions like poverty reduction can vary dramatically.

This is why we can’t replace empirical evidence with “Oh, come on”. Even the most erudite and brilliant practitioners get things wrong fairly frequently. Empirical research, at least if done properly, doesn’t rely on any one person’s intuition; it’s a group effort, with large numbers of people checking and rechecking each other’s work, and holding that work to quantifiable and rigorous standards. The collective intelligence of science is more powerful than the expertise of any sage.

This is of course true in medicine as well; the greatest doctors on Earth will swear up and down that they’ve seen this or that treatment work miracles on their patients, and then RCTs come along and find the cure was no better than a placebo. This pandemic has vividly and cruelly demonstrated the necessity of high-quality evidence when evaluating cures.

In any case, Deaton’s critiques of RCTs are good, but the answer is to supplement them with other kinds of careful empirical evidence — not to simply say “Oh, come on” and decide that we already know the answers.

The Onion has weighed in:

Don’t just stand there... dance!!!

If you need a pick-me-up today, check out this amazing Reading Rainbow clip featuring the incomparable Levar Burton! And remember: don’t just stand there... dance!

Jevons' Paradox won't slow the energy transition


Green energy is cheap and getting cheaper fast:


I’ve seen some people worry that Jevons’ Paradox will slow or even prevent the transition from fossil fuels to green energy. But don’t worry! This won’t happen!

Jevons’ Paradox is about efficiency. When you get more efficient at providing something, sometimes you end up using more of it. This is why increasing energy efficiency can actually lead to higher energy usage.

But green energy tech isn’t about efficiency; it’s about substitution. Jevons’ Paradox doesn’t apply.

To see why, let’s explain why Jevons’ Paradox works. Suppose we’re talking about the market for oil. Let’s represent this with a simple supply-and-demand graph:


OK, so now suppose we become more efficient at using oil. Wikipedia depicts this situation in the following way:

Image/photoBy Lawrencekhoo - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

But cost doesn’t just move on its own. What’s really happening here is that the supply curve — which isn’t shown in the Wikipedia graph — has shifted to the right. If we become more efficient at turning oil into energy, it means that sellers of energy are able to provide more energy at any given price. So what’s really happening is this:


If the increase in energy use is large enough (which happens if the blue demand curve is flat enough, i.e. if demand is elastic enough), then it actually causes an increase in oil usage, despite the fact that we got more efficient at turning oil into energy!

That’s Jevons’ Paradox.

OK, but now let’s think about what happens when car batteries get cheaper. This is completely different from the example above. Car batteries are a substitute for oil. When substitutes for a good get cheaper, that good falls in price. Just think about pens and pencils. If pens get cheaper, people become less willing to pay high prices for pencils, since they can go buy cheap pens now instead. So demand for pencils falls.

Car batteries and oil are just like that. When car batteries get cheap, demand for oil falls. The situation looks like this:


Cheaper batteries mean that oil gets cheaper, and that we also use less oil.

At this point, you might ask: “OK Noah, but energy gets cheaper as a result of cheap batteries. Doesn’t that mean that people will use more energy, just like in the first example earlier? And doesn’t that mean that the people who still get their energy from oil will use more oil?”


The reason is that in the second example, the cost of getting energy from batteries goes down, but the cost of getting energy from oil stays exactly the same. A barrel of oil still costs the same to pump out of the ground and refine and deliver to the gas station. An internal combustion car still gets the same amount of energy out of a gallon of gasoline.

So what happens when batteries get cheaper is that the quantity of oil consumed just goes down. Marginal, expensive-to-extract oil like the Canadian tar sands will no longer be worth it to extract; for the same cost, you would be better off just building some batteries instead. So people will just leave the expensive oil in the ground.

Remember: Jevons’ Paradox is about efficiency, not about substitution. Green energy is about substitution. It’s like when cars came along and replaced horses. So while Jevons’ Paradox can be a problem for energy efficiency policies, it’s not a problem for green energy. Don’t worry!


(By the way, remember that if you like this blog, you can subscribe here! There’s a free email list and a paid subscription too!)

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Great reading!
Do you have any explanation what happens when 75% of cars will work on batteries? I mean you have to exchange it after two years or so. How it works in agreement with ecology?
Batteries are certainly an environmental concern. I think a primary consideration is carbon emissions though, where electric cars are clearly better. Regarding batteries, of course gasoline fueled vehicles have batteries as well, and I think it's likely as battery technology improves, and we shift to solid state lituim ion batteries in electric cars, they will last longer and be more efficient.
Well, it doesn't answer my question: how electric cars can be ecological friendly now even if they have to change batteries once every two years.

But as you may gues, I know the answer 😀


I just re-watched the Master of None episode "Thanksgiving" (S2E8), and it gets me every time. So fitting that Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe won an emmy for outstanding writing in that one.
One of my favorite episodes of all time! Of any tv show!

Welcome to Noahpinion: The Substack!

Feels good to be back in the saddle. Yee haw!!

Feels Good to be Blogging Again

For about a decade, I blogged at I started when I was a graduate student, continued during my years as an assistant professor, and then kept the blog going intermittently after I started writing professionally for Bloomberg Opinion. That blog allowed me to refine my thoughts about economics and a huge variety of other topics, develop a voice as a writer, connect with other economics writers and commentators, and of course to begin building an audience. Over the past few years, though, my blogging dwindled, as I shifted more and more of my commentary to Twitter.

It’s time to go back. I’m definitely not giving up my awesome job at Bloomberg; I love the job and the people there, and they give me a platform that I would otherwise not be able to have. My writings on economic policy will continue to be available only at Bloomberg. But there’s lots of stuff I want to write that I can’t put in those op-ed columns, and that stuff will all go here.

Mostly, this blog will replace much of the commentary that I’ve been posting on Twitter. Twitter has become a dumpster fire of contentiousness, performativity, negativity, stupidity, and misinformation, and one solution is to go back to blogging. Blogs give readers time to digest and think about ideas, without being interrupted by random shouters with little context and lots of agenda. And they allow writers to insert nuance and elaboration without being forced into a 280-character format.

Note that this is a subscription blog. Some posts will always be free, and at first most of them will be free, but eventually most will be subscriber-only! You can subscribe here:

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What You’ll Get at This Blog

At Bloomberg Opinion, my job is to write about economic policy for a general audience, and I will continue to do that. Here at the Noahpinion blog, you’ll get:Basically, this will be very much like my old blog.

I plan to write a couple of posts a week, but I often find myself writing more than I think I’m going to, because ideas pop into my head and I have to get them out. 😀

So…Is This an Economics Blog, or What?

When I started blogging, I wrote mostly about economics. At that time, the big issue was the Great Recession and the financial crisis, and economists were the people society turned to in order to tell them how to get out of that mess. As an angry economics grad student frustrated with the many failures of the macroeconomics field, I was well-positioned to jump right into that great debate.

The current era is different. Economists are no longer the respected experts they once were. The era when people believed that an economist was a general sage who could tell you everything from which stocks to buy to where to get lunch is over. (Ironically, this comes at a time when econ itself is becoming a much humbler, more empirical discipline.)

But more fundamentally, the type of problems the U.S. and the world are facing are no longer so clearly economic in nature. Since at least 2014, America has been wracked by social unrest, and purely economic explanations for that unrest have been rightfully laughed off the stage. Cultural changes related to religion, gender, education, etc. have accelerated, powered by social media. The rise of China has brought great-power geopolitics back into the mix. There’s simply a lot of stuff to think about beyond minimum wages and fiscal stimulus.

Yet economics is still important. Things like inequality, mobility, health care, housing, wage growth, etc. interact with all the cultural changes in complex and subtle ways that can’t be glibly summed up as “economic anxiety”. The rise of a new socialist movement in America has centered economic issues and injected new ideas (and some old ideas) into the debate in a way that has energized huge numbers of young people. Geopolitics, too, depends on economics — the economics of trade, supply chains, industrial policy, international finance, growth, and so on.

Economics is just one way of thinking about society, and it can’t be the only one. I want to try to understand the world using a mix of the things I learned from economics and the things I’ve learned from other fields and disciplines. Not to mention a few things I’ve thought of myself. 😉

If that’s the kind of thing you want to read, then this blog is for you. Welcome, and great to have you along for the ride.

Watched Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film Rear Window this weekend for the first time. What an amazing film!

An eye-opening examination of the empty promises and ridiculousness of the FoxConn deal in Wisconsin

@Craig Regis Turns out the idea of fusing dance with rock climbing has already been done! This is really cool though, and I think I may be able to still contribute some content to the genre 😀

New genre of dancing fuses with rock climbing

These people can dance and rock climb at the same time and it's pretty darn incredible. The dance company, called "Ascendance Project", fuses climbing, music...
Oh. My. Gosh.
I have high expectations

I recently stumbled upon my YouTube browsing history from 2012. And re-discovered this video that really struck me at the time and still now too.

Octopus Houdini

video shot by Chance Miller: an octopus escapes from a boat through an unbelievably small hole. Filmed near the Chiswell Islands, Alaska. * credit millerslan...

My friend Aldo has been making some dance videos. I've pretty much learned all of my dance moves from this guy!

(Aldo Dances To) Locked Out Of Heaven by Bruno Mars

Would ya like to support my creations or buy me a burger? Share a buck here: Patreon

Make Way For Tomorrow

Unsolicited film recommendation: if you ever get a chance, I highly recommend Leo McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow.” The film centers around an elderly couple who, due to financial troubles, lose their home and have to split up to live with their less than eager adult children. I saw it a couple years ago and it has stuck with me more than most films. Its commentary on how we as a society view and treat older generations remains sadly relevant. This is the film that inspired Tokyo Story, which is probably more famous and similarly brilliant. I think a lot about this film during COVID-19 and can’t help but posit that our failure to contain a virus that poses particularly high risk to the elderly reflects our ongoing failure to value how much fuller our lives are when we can share with and learn from earlier generations.

Climate Action, Gandhian Ways

In October I was invited by the Indian Permanent Mission to the United Nations to give a presentation on the international Day of Nonviolence, which was also the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Below is the full text of my remarks, which were delivered at United Nations headquarters in New York.

In the remarks, I identified three aspects of Gandhian thought and action that are directly relevant to the challenge of protecting the environment and preventing climate disruption. At the end of my presentation, I added a brief comment on the situation in Kashmir, which seemed necessary to include in an event organized by the Indian government.


“Gandhi’s message is highly relevant to today’s global climate crisis. I emphasize here three of his most important themes: simplicity, equity and nonviolence.


Gandhi became the “greatest person in the world” (as many called him) not through power and wealth but through selflessness and humble service to others.

He didn’t have anything. All of his possessions at the end of his life fit into a small box.

He lived simply and rejected materialism. He moved from a large home to live communally in an ashram. He shed his three-piece suit to became a man in loincloth, wearing a simple dhoti and shawl of homespun, even in cold and rainy London.

In 1931, while participating in the round table negotiations with the British government, Gandhi and other Indian delegates were invited to tea with the king. When Gandhi arrived at Buckingham Palace in his usual sparse attire, ‘half-naked’ Churchill once derisively commented, a reporter asked if he was underdressed for the occasion. Gandhi replied, “Don’t worry. His majesty has on enough for both of us.”

In his emphasis on simplicity and non-possession, Gandhi was revealing a profound truth about the roots of our current crisis, and he was pointing toward the pathway to a more sustainable future.

In his early book, Hind Swaraj, he described the quest for material goods and the endless multiplication of wants as “satanic.” If India were to follow the industrialism and economic imperialism of the West, he later warned, it would “strip the world bare like locusts.”

Gandhi’s critique of excessive materialism calls into question today our constant striving and demand for more goods. Are we consuming too much? Have our wants out-stripped our needs?

His critique also calls into question our model of economics. Our modern economic system is predicated upon endless growth, but there are unavoidable limits to the earth’s biological carrying capacity. We cannot keep dumping ever greater amounts of waste products into the atmosphere and the oceans.

The current global effort to stem carbon emissions focuses on the supply side. Produce more efficiently with less energy. Use renewal materials and resources. All good, but it is insufficient. We must also look at the demand side and explore ways to produce less, to consume less.

The global supply chains of today stretch from the high consuming West, to the high producing East, especially India and China. While emission levels have moderated slightly in the West, they are rising in the East, to satisfy the excess wants and manufacture the superfluous goods demanded in the West.

Curbing our demand for products does not mean that we abandon the struggle against poverty. On the contrary, we must continue and accelerate the work of fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals, as was discussed recently at the UN. But surely we can find a way to continue lifting people out of poverty without further ruining the environment or undermining the life support systems that are necessary to sustain human dignity into the future.

In calling for fewer wants and less consumption, I am not saying we should go about in loincloth or live in an ashram. But we can and must commit ourselves to living more simply and modestly.

Those of us who have achieved middle class status must demand less for ourselves and share more with others, especially the disinherited.


Gandhi devoted himself to serving the poor. In his famous Talisman, he said we should ask ourselves how our actions will affect the poorest and the weakest. We should act in ways that will help to liberate the hungry and lift up the least of these.

We know that the harmful effects of pollution and climate chaos fall disproportionately upon the poor and powerless. The rich and mighty can move to higher ground or cooler climes, but the impoverished do not have that option.

We should heed the wisdom of Pope Francis on this issue. The Holy Father links the marginalization of the poor to the exploitation of the environment. In his historic encyclical Laudato Si, he calls us to be in solidarity with the miserando, the lowly who are “mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others … [are] vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind so much waste that, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet.”

Gandhi would agree with that. He thought of excess consumption as thievery. If we take more than is necessary for own needs, he believed, we take it from others. All people must have an equal opportunity, Gandhi said. This does not mean that everyone literally has the same amount, rather that everybody has enough for his or her needs.


Gandhi’s most important contribution to the world, I believe, is his philosophy and method of nonviolence. He demonstrated the power of disciplined peaceful disobedience, how mass noncooperation with injustice can change the course of history.

His philosophy of nonviolence is based on the principle of ahimsa, non-harm, the refusal to hurt another person, and also the responsibility to stand up for those who are harmed or threatened by others. He said that love and nonviolence are the pathway to spiritual fulfillment and divine truth, and he showed that they can also be means of overcoming oppression and injustice.

We reject violence because it is based on domination and coercion. Peace on the other hand is rooted in cooperation and freedom. Peace and nonviolence are indivisible. Life is sacred, and all living beings are interrelated. We are inescapably bound together in a web of mutuality through the interdependence of all living beings and the natural world.

As we strive to live peacefully with our fellow human beings, we must also be at peace with the earth. With all of our energy and strength, we must take up the responsibility to protect and preserve this precious, vulnerable envelope of air, water and soil that sustains all life and that is increasingly in peril due to our own actions.


As we reflect today upon Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence, we would be remiss, I believe, if we did not mention the current situation in Kashmir.

Gandhi played a role in Kashmir in 1947, traveling to Srinagar to meet with Maharaja Hari Singh. When discontent and violence ensued after Kashmir acceded to India, Gandhi said, “If anyone can save Kashmir, it is only the Muslims, the Kashmiri Pandits, the Rajputs and the Sikhs who can do so.”

Today there is renewed discontent, and a risk of violence, but this must be avoided, as Gandhi would insist. The only path to a just settlement in Kashmir is through nonviolent democratic means.

Long live the spirit and message of Mahatma Gandhi!”
Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Encyclical Letter (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2015), 62-63, ¶91.
Quoted in Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 823.

My home state of Wisconsin has been reeling from the events of the past week: from another incident of horrific police brutality toward Black civilians, to the killing of two demonstrators in the days afterwards by a 17 year old, radicalized by social media and information ecosystems fueled by dangerous right-wing rhetoric - that is endorsed by even the current president.

Many forces have created this perfect storm. Polarization has been tearing the social fabric apart, to the point of violence between armed militias and demonstrators in places including Kenosha, WI and Portland, OR. That is, polarization is to the point where Americans are killing each other because of their politics! Extremely lax gun laws, including Wisconsin’s open-carry laws which make it legal for someone to carry an AR-15 style rifle in the streets. And a trend of people becoming disaffected and left behind in society, without a community to support them; searching for belonging, they are susceptible to falling for extremist ideologies of online communities.

This past week, the past months, (the past years to be honest), have been intense. These are complicated problems that will take a long time to improve. Electing a new president who doesn’t fuel polarization and foment fear is only the very first step. There is so much more work to do afterwards. But the energy is there. The past months have seen widespread local demonstrations, and this past week saw the massive 2020 March on Washington and professional athletes striking for justice; these events have sent a message throughout the country and to political leaders that there is a deep hunger for justice. Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I believe this is a challenge we can overcome.

Photo by Simbarashe Cha and Myesha Evon. For more photos from the March on Washington, see their article.

I am happy to report that Sendero Social has never left drilling equipment and drilling fluid at the bottom of the seafloor. We always retrieve it when finished.