Tyler Cowen's Blog, page 8

April 24, 2015

Marijn Roovers’ epicurean delights have graced the tables of some of the Netherlands’ finest restaurants. But the food designer’s Chocolate Globe is his most intricate — and technologically advanced — creation. A chocolate shell just 0.8 millimetres thick is embossed in gold with the chocolate’s continent of origin, and it holds delicacies that symbolize the region.

Roovers and chef Wouter van Laarhoven printed it — layer-by-layer of chocolate — on a 3D printer. Roovers is at the forefront of a small group of gourmets and technophiles who want to revolutionize how food is prepared. On 21 April, they will gather in the Netherlands for the first conference dedicated to the 3D printing of food.

But do note this:

3D food printers tend to be slow: Roovers’ chocolate globes, for example, currently take about an hour to print. To prepare one per guest in a restaurant with 40 patrons would take almost 2 days of continuous printing. “It’s not very realistic,” he says. “At the moment it’s a way to show craftsmanship.”

Then there is the matter of texture. Most 3D printers work with either pastes or powders, so the resulting food tends to be mushy, says Julian Sing, founder of 3DChef, a firm near Tilburg, Netherlands, that specializes in 3D printing of sugar. “The food needs to have the right texture,” he says. “It needs to look like food and not like slop.”

There is more here, via Michelle Dawson.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 24, 2015 22:24 • 30 views

The announcement is here., with lots of detail.  Here is the first paragraph:

Roland Fryer is an influential applied microeconomist whose work spans labor economics, the economics of education, and social problems and social interactions.  His innovative and creative research contributions have deepened our understanding of the sources, magnitude, and persistence of U.S. racial inequality.  He has made substantial progress in evaluating the policies that work and do not work to improve the educational outcomes and economic opportunities of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  His theoretical and empirical work on the “acting white” hypothesis of peer effects provides new insights into the difficulties of increasing the educational investments of minorities and the socially excluded.  Fryer is the leading economist working on the economics of race and education, and he has produced the most important work in recent years on combating the racial divide, one of America’s most profound and long-lasting social problems.

Here are previous MR posts about Fryer, lots of interest there, a very good and deserving choice.  His home page is here.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 24, 2015 11:58 • 48 views

1. Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, by Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine.  Why not read a biography of one of the most important men of the twentieth century?  I found this book valuable even though I am already familiar with the Ezra Vogel tome on Deng.  Recommended.

2. Restless Empire: A Historical Atlas of Russia, by Ian Barnes, Belknap Press.  This is not only one of the best introductions to Russian history, there are clear and excellent maps every two or three pages.  More history books should follow this standard.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 24, 2015 10:43 • 30 views

Joseph Heath has written an interesting and thoughtful comment on my review of his excellent book Enlightenment 2.0 (fyi, we have never communicated but it turns out that Heath is a long time reader of MR.). Samuel Hammond concisely summarized on twitter part of Heath’s response:

In reply to @ATabarrok, Joseph Heath shares the dire Straussian reading of his own book: The US is Rome burning

Quite accurate but I want to focus on a different point.

Finally, Tabarrok suggests that I am “too sanguine about the role of politics.” I thought I was being fairly pessimistic about politics. I think the nub of the disagreement between Tabarrok and myself on this point – and certainly the basis of our major differences of political ideology – is that I am much more sanguine about the role of the state than he is. This is not the same as being sanguine about democratic politics. For example, he points out that:

In a large electorate, no individual’s vote is likely to change the outcome of an election. As a result, it doesn’t pay to be informed about politics nor to think about politics in objective and rational terms. Consider an individual who spends time and effort to be informed about politics. What does this individual receive in return for their investment? The same thing as the uninformed individual. Since better information doesn’t lead to better consequences, it doesn’t pay an individual to be informed.

I couldn’t agree more….Indeed, the sort of considerations that motivate Tabarrok’s enthusiasm for making decisions through betting markets are, I would guess, quite similar to the ones that motivate my own enthusiasm for cost-benefit analysis. The key difference is that Tabarrok (and Bryan Caplan) tend to assume that democracy gives “the people” much greater control over the behaviour of the state than it actually does. In the background there is, I suspect, a somewhat public-choicy picture of legislation as a complex process of preference-aggregation. By contrast, I follow Ian Shapiro in thinking that we need to get past these sorts of “general will” theories of democracy.

There is one point in the last chapter where I say what I really think, but again, it might easily be overlooked. So let me just say, for the record, that I was also dead serious when I wrote the following paragraph (and that it comes closest to summarizing my considered view):

It is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision-making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded. They do so largely by shifting power and control away from elected representatives toward experts. Even in the United States, where this is difficult to do, one can find examples all over. The most obvious example is the enormous role that the Supreme Court has played in making decisions that, in most other democracies, would be left to the legislature. But one can see it in other areas as well, such as the amount of autonomy that government agencies have or the increased use of cost-benefit analysis in public decision-making (338).

So if you want to know what I really think, it’s that we are not going to be able to fix the problem of increased irrationalism in politics — at best we will be able to limit its most toxic effects. As a consequence, the legislature will increasingly become a sideshow, with the two other branches of the state assuming more and more of the responsibility for actually governing.

Heath has hit on an important similarity and difference in our views. We are both skeptical about democracy as a way of making rational, coherent policy. But in response to the defects of democracy I want to devolve more decisions to the individual and the market while Heath wants to centralize more decisions to the state and expert bureaucracies.

One of the reasons that I oppose the extension of democratic politics into every aspect of modern life is precisely that in trying to do too much, democracy delivers incoherence, gridlock and frustration, forces that eventually undermine its own legitimacy. I worry about democratic legitimacy because I see democracy as a check and balance on Leviathan (while Heath sees it as a check on government by experts).

The legislature has become a sideshow. But I worry, because the more Congress is held in contempt the greater the support for a bold executive that takes charge, makes decisions and gets things done. Under these pressures, executive power has grown not just in the United States but also in Canada and Great Britain (on this theme see F.H. Buckley’s The Once and Future King.) But for all its faults, the legislature and the rule of law are more conducive to liberty than the executive and the administrative state. Legislators are satisfied with reelection and a bit of pork but executives hunger for greatness and in so doing they promote the real dangers, idolatry, the centralization of power and war.

In short, I worry that the pathologies of democracy drive the demand not for rational, technocratic government but for Caesarism.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 24, 2015 04:23 • 45 views

April 23, 2015

Chad writes me:

What jobs (particularly ones we think of as being inherently beneficial to society) might America have too many of? Political journalism comes to mind this particular month, since we apparently have enough to carefully monitor the Chipotle orders of presidential candidates 19 months before the election. Writers might be another, particularly in a world of self-publishing.

One can imagine lots of reasons for a greater-than-optimal number of people in a particular profession, from government subsidies to cultural biases, but I’m curious if you have a gut feeling about any professions in particular.

A good question, in my view the answer is not so simple.  Writers and artists are indeed a possible nomination, but some of the demand for these professions is likely for consumption, which makes the overinvestment difficult to judge.  And what about lawyers?  Relative to the number of laws and regulations (too many in my view, but take them as given), it is not obvious to me that we have too many lawyers.  Someone has to tell companies when it is safe to proceed, or not.

How about too many people selling medical devices and other high margin items?  Too many people making alcohol?  Too many people raising and selling animal meat?  Those would be my picks.

The finance sector is another obvious culprit, but as a fraction of wealth I do not think it is larger than in the past.  Admittedly people in the finance sector may be engaging in the wrong activities, but I am not sure the case for fewer employees per se is so obvious.  Still, it is another candidate, if only because it (often) involves people selling high-margin items.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 23, 2015 22:08 • 31 views

A pressing question, said Rudolf Jaenisch, an M.I.T. biology professor, is why anyone would want to edit the genes of human embryos in order to prevent disease. Even in the most severe cases, involving diseases like Huntington’s in which a single copy of a mutated gene inherited from either parent is enough to cause the disease with 100 percent certainty, editing poses ethical problems. Because of the way genes are distributed in embryos, when one parent has the gene, only half of the parent’s embryos will inherit it. With gene editing, the cutting and pasting has to start immediately, in a fertilized egg, before it is possible to know if an embryo has the Huntington’s gene. That means half the embryos that were edited would have been normal — their DNA would have been forever altered for no reason. “It is unacceptable to mutate normal embryos,” Dr. Jaenisch said. “For me, that means there is no application.”

If I were grading an undergraduate philosophy class, I am not sure Dr. Jaenisch would exceed a C minus with that answer (the source article is here).  Besides I have never known a normal embryo.  Then there is the all too obvious question as to why it should be acceptable to abort embryos, but not to modify or mutate them.  Oops.

The better arguments are surely the slippery slope worries that embryo tinkering will change the nature and future of humanity in dangerous ways, perhaps producing too much conformity, too much zero-sum competition (“buy the Harvard splice”), too much discrimination against various “types,” too much induced family loyalty, legal discouragement of rebellious genes, excess advantages for elites, too many decisions which too explicitly lower the social status of some groups of people, and perhaps ultimately too much drift from the world we know (and love?).

Those are my worries.  Whether or not they are valid, they would seem to merit at least a C+.  But many commentators wish to ensure these issues are not actually argued.  Will this prove the new face of anti-scientific, anti-philosophical thinking?  Check out the closing quotation from Professor Daley at Harvard, and his use of the word “deranged.”

A lot of parents will strongly desire some future version of this product, and I believe a number of countries are going to be willing to proceed with such innovations, if and when they become possible.  They’ll also be willing to live with the costs of the failures in the meantime.  So I don’t think the strategy of shutting down debate is going to fare so well in this case.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 23, 2015 21:29 • 29 views

I had not known such a thing exists:

There are raisins stored in California warehouses as part of the U.S. government’s National Raisin Reserve — but the program may shrivel in the face of a Supreme Court challenge.

The National Raisin Reserve — which is overseen by the Fresno-based Raisin Administrative Committee — is part of post-World War II-era program that forces raisin producers to give part of their annual crop to the government to prevent an oversupply of the dried fruit. Controversially, the program seizes the raisins from the farmers without paying them, and that has created friction, lawbreaking farmers, and a Supreme Court case. One scofflaw farmer, Marvin Horne, has refused to surrender his raisins to the government and owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and over 1 million pounds of the sweet dried fruit to Uncle Sam.

The controversial raisin-seizing program could soon be, however, a relic of history.

Several Supreme Court justices expressed doubts Wednesday that federal officials can legally take raisins away from farmers without full payment even if the goal is to help boost overall market prices.

The article is here, via Jeffrey Lessard.  Here is commentary from Ilya Somin, here is an IJ video on the case.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 23, 2015 11:04 • 26 views

Do read the whole thing.  Excerpt:

There has been no sign of a reversal of the decline in labour’s share of total income and no body of research that supports the idea that it will. Productivity growth is definitely under way, at rates similar to those in the 1970s and 1980s, but well below the rates of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1990s. In particular, there is no sign that a burst of productivity growth will make up for the complete stall in productivity growth around the crisis, as Figure 3 shows.

Most importantly, there is no sign suggesting a departure from the decline in labour-force participation shown in Figure 6. Some commentators have declared a turnaround in participation based on recent monthly data, but Figure 9 suggests this is wishful thinking. Participation has declined along a straight line during the period of improving conditions in the labour market, suggesting a complete disconnect between participation and the state of the labour market.

Excellent throughout.

 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on April 23, 2015 10:18 • 50 views

Tyler Cowen's Blog

Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen isn't a Goodreads Author (yet), but he does have a blog, so here are some recent posts imported from his feed.
Follow Tyler Cowen's blog with rss.