Archive for October 2021


Fun with Schopenhauer

Here are some quotes from The World as Will and Representation:

If I were to call to mind the way in which Hegel and his companions have misused such wide and empty abstractions, I should necessarily be afraid that both the reader and I would be ill, for the most sickening and loathsome tediousness hangs over the empty bombast of this repulsive philosophaster.

I feel the same way about MMT.

In volume one I regarded it as superfluous to illustrate this theory by examples, as everyone can easily do this for himself by reflecting a little on the cases of the ludicrous which he calls to mind. However, to come to the aid of the mental inertness of those readers who always prefer to remain in a passive state, I will meet their wishes here.

Yes, nothing worse than lazy readers.

In general, I make the demand that whoever wishes to make himself acquainted with my philosophy shall read every line of me.

I feel the same way. And on the same page he ridicules those who will have the nerve to criticize him without being fully informed:

[W]hoever wants to learn from me and to understand me must not read unread anything that I have written.Yet without this people can criticize and condemn me, as experience has shown; and for this also I further wish them much pleasure.

Once I start tweeting, I’ll demand that people read all my tweets before commenting on any one of them.

(At first, Schopenauer’s personality flaws seemed sort of ridiculous to me. Then I began wondering how many I share.)

Is this the least romantic paragraph ever written?

If, from the standpoint of this last consideration, we now contemplate the bustle and turmoil of life, we see everyone concerned with its cares and troubles, exerting all his strength to satisfy infinite needs and to ward off suffering in many forms, yet without daring to hope for anything else in place of it except just the preservation of this tormented existence for a short span of time. In between, however, we see in the midst of the tumult the glances of two lovers meet longingly: yet why so secretly, nervously, and furtively? Because these lovers are the traitors who secretly strive to perpetrate the whole trouble and toil that would otherwise rapidly come to an end. Such an end they try to frustrate, as other like them have frustrated it previously.

And some people think I’m a pessimist.

Schopenhauer has a chapter on homosexuality, a subject on which he seems to be unusually ill-informed. He eventually concludes that while it is a “disgusting depravity”, it is also a necessary evil that helps to preserve the species. The chapter itself is of little interest, but the conclusion is amusing:

Finally, by expounding the paradoxical ideas, I wanted to grant the professors of philosophy a small favor, for they are very disconcerted by the ever-increasing publicization of my philosophy which they so carefully concealed. I have done so by giving them the opportunity of slandering me by saying that I defend and commend pederasty.

I am equally generous. My China posts give my readers the opportunity to slander me with claims of sympathy for the CCP.

And finally, for those of you who wonder what our future AI overlords have in mind, Schopenauer has an answer:

It is a deduction from what has been said that we have no ground for assuming that there are even more perfect intelligences than those of human beings. For we see that this intelligence is already sufficient for imparting to the will that knowledge in consequence of which the will denies and abolishes itself. With this knowledge, individuality, and therefore intelligence, as being merely a tool of individual nature, of animal nature, cease. To us this will appear less objectionable when we consider that we cannot conceive even the most perfect possible intelligences, which we may tentatively assume for this purpose, as indeed continuing to exist throughout an endless time, a time that would prove to be much too poor to afford them constantly new objects worthy of them. Thus, because the inner essence of all things is at bottom identical, all knowledge of it is necessarily tautological. If this inner essence is once grasped, as it soon would be by those most perfect intelligences, what would be left for them but mere repetition and its tedium throughout endless time? Thus, even from this point of view, we are referred to the fact that the aim of all intelligence can only be reaction to a will; but since all willing is error, the last work of intelligence is to abolish willing, whose aims and ends it had hitherto served. Accordingly, even the most perfect intelligence possible can be only a transition stage to that which no knowledge can ever reach; in fact, such an intelligence, in the nature of things, can take only the place of the moment of attained, perfect insight.

What if a future AI decides that Schopenauer is right, that life is not worth living? And we program it to maximize aggregate human utility? Would this be a good thing?

I guess the answer depends on whether they are in fact correct.

Have a nice day!

Covid deaths and politics

Matt Yglesias directed me to an interesting graph showing the correlation between cumulative Covid deaths and county voting patterns:

At first glance this looks like proof that being a Republican makes you more likely to die of Covid, but correlation does not prove causation. After all, during the early months of the pandemic the Democratic leaning counties had much higher death rates. If correlation proved causation then that would suggest that early Covid deaths were partly caused by being a Democrat.

Nonetheless, I do believe there is a link between Covid deaths and politics, especially in recent months. In Florida, slightly less than 60,000 people have died of Covid, more than 22,000 just since the beginning of June. These recent deaths are especially important, as most were probably preventable via vaccination. So what about recent deaths among the unvaccinated, how are those associated with politics? We don’t know for certain, but we have three completely independent pieces of evidence that the unvaccinated skew Republican. I emphasize completely independent, as each individual piece of evidence can be questioned. But all three together are fairly persuasive.

The first piece of evidence is in the graph above, recent deaths (i.e., those since vaccines were widely available) skew heavily toward Republican areas. This is even true within states.

The second piece of evidence is that polls show a huge difference in vaccination rates between Democrats and Republicans:

Of Americans surveyed from Sept. 13-22, 72% of adults 18 and older had been vaccinated, including 71% of white Americans, 70% of Black Americans, and 73% of Hispanics. Contrast these converging figures with disparities based on politics: 90% of Democrats had been vaccinated, compared with 68% of Independents and just 58% of Republicans.

A Gallup survey released on Sept. 29 confirmed the KFF findings. As of mid-September, 75% of adult Americans have been vaccinated, including 73% of non-Hispanic white adults and 78% of non-whites. Along party lines, however, the breakdown was 92% of Democrats, 68% of Independents, and 56% of Republicans.

And the third piece of evidence is that much of the fake information about vaccine effectiveness is being spread on conservative news outlets. Here’s Tucker Carlson:

TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): Like almost everyone his age, Colin Powell was fully vaccinated against COVID. And yet according to his family and doctors, Colin Powell died of COVID. Of course, that fact does not make his death any less sad nor is it unusual. Many thousands of vaccinated Americans have died of COVID. 

Former CDC Director Robert Redfield announced just today that about 40% of all recent COVID deaths in the state of Maryland, for example, are among those who’ve had both shots. 

So, what does that tell you, exactly? Well, it tells you, you’ve been lied to. Vaccines may be highly useful for some people, but across a population, they do not solve COVID.

Of course this is false, this doesn’t show you’ve been lied to. From the beginning, vaccines were only claimed to be about 90% effective, and that still seems to be the case. Powell had previously had cancer, and thus was unusually susceptible to Covid. And the 40% figure is hugely misleading, as all but the most innumerate among you probably recognize. (What percentage of older Marylanders are unvaccinated, for instance?)

So Carlson’s wrong; the evidence he cites doesn’t prove we were lied to. (Of course we’ve been lied to plenty of times, but not on this specific point.)

Carlson isn’t explicitly telling people not to get vaccinated, but his frequent misinformation has the effect of discouraging people from getting vaccinated. What kind of people? The kind of people who watch Fox News. I have no proof that Fox News viewers skew Republican, but I’m pretty confident they do. And I suspect there’s even more inaccurate vaccine information on far right wing conspiracy websites.

The upshot of all of this is that the constant drumbeat of anti-vax misinformation coming from the right has recently contributed to the needless deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Florida Republicans, people who would be alive if those they look to for information had been more honest with them. This whole situation isn’t just sad—what happened in 2020 is sad. This is a disgrace.

BTW. People on the left should not be smug about this. There are 40,000 needless deaths each year due to the ban on selling kidneys. How many on the left are speaking out on that travesty? And how about the fact that illegal opioid deaths (especially fentanyl) soared by tens of thousands after the government cracked down on legal opioids? Who is speaking out on that issue?

Schrödinger’s inflation

There’s a lot of debate about whether the current burst of inflation is transitory or permanent. I worry, however, that many people misinterpret the question, thinking it’s about the nature of the inflation itself. Sort of like asking their friend whether an animal that they saw walking in the distance is a dog or a coyote.

But the transitory inflation question is not like that at all. The question is not whether this current bout of inflation is transitory or permanent, the question is whether the inflation surge will be transitory or permanent. No one asks whether that animal walking in the distance will be a dog or a coyote—they assume that that reality has already been established.

NGDP growth has been running at a bit below 4% over the past couple of years. That’s about right. If NGDP growth runs at about 4% over the next 3 or 4 years (as it should) then the inflation will be transitory. If it runs at 7% or 8% over the next few years then the inflation will be permanent, or at least relatively persistent. It’s that simple. (During 1971-81, NGDP growth averaged 11%. God help us if that occurs again.)

It is the Fed that will determine the rate of NGDP growth over the next few years, not housing shortages or labor shortages or supply chain disruptions, etc. The Fed will decide whether the inflation is transitory or permanent.

The current surge in inflation is like Schrödinger’s cat; it’s neither transitory or permanent until the FOMC meets and chooses a policy path for NGDP over the next 3 or 4 years. Let’s hope they choose wisely.

PS. Of course I’m a “many worlds” guy, so I’m going to claim that my prediction (and what is my prediction?) is correct in at least one universe. 🙂

Random articles

According to the state of Texas, 18-20 year olds are “children“:

Texas counters that it has “long used age restrictions on employment to reduce young people’s exposure to perceived social ills.”

Senate Bill 315 redefined 18- to 20-year-olds as children, making it a violation of the state’s ban on “employment harmful to children” to employ or induce adults younger than 21 to work nude, topless, or in any “sexually oriented commercial activity.” 

So it’s not just rebel armies in Africa that rely on child soldiers?

At long last, we have evidence of fraud in the 2020 election:

The lieutenant governor of Texas cut the check on his first bounty for voter fraud evidence to a poll worker in Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t the proof he was expecting.

Almost a year after Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced that he would pay for evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, someone has received their payout. Patrick sent a $25,000 check to Eric Frank, a Democratic poll worker from Chester County, Pennsylvania, who reported a 72-year-old Republican for voting twice.

You probably woke up this morning wonder what the far right thinks of left wingers. Here’s your answer, from a thoughtful website called “Breitbart“:

The organized left is deliberately putting unvaccinated Trump supporters in an impossible position where they can either NOT get a life-saving vaccine or CAN feel like cucks caving to the ugliest, smuggest bullies in the world.

In other words, I sincerely believe the organized left is doing everything in its power to convince Trump supporters NOT to get the life-saving Trump vaccine.

I’m sorry, but people willing to drone strike seven children and who are eager to unleash terrorists like Antifa and Black Lives Matter into our cities are sociopaths. The left’s morality is guided only by that which furthers their fascist agenda, and so using reverse psychology to trick Trump supporters NOT to get a life-saving vaccine is, to them, a moral good. The more of us who die, the better.

Politico has an article discussing whether Biden should declassify certain Trump documents. This made me laugh out loud:

A precedent for such broad use of the president’s declassification power comes from the Trump years. Famously, as president, Trump employed this power cavalierly to disclose classified information to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador. Trump also pushed law enforcement and intelligence agencies to declassify details about the Russia investigation. Having so recklessly used that power, he’s hardly in a position to complain about it now.

Is that final sentence a joke? Trump’s been on the political scene for 6 years; has Politico still not figured him out?

BTW, did you see that Trump will name his new social network “Truth”. The name sounds better in Russian.

Monetary policy: Levels and Growth Rates

In a recent Mercatus working paper, I argued that monetary policy works in two dimensions, by changing levels of key macro variables and by changing expected future growth rates of those variables.

This is easiest to see when looking at the impact of monetary policy announcements on the spot and forward exchange rate. A monetary policy announcement might cause the spot exchange rate to depreciate while also reducing the expected future appreciation in the currency. Or, it might cause the spot exchange rate to depreciate while raising the expected future appreciation in the currency. There are different kinds of “easy money” policies, and the actual outcome depends in part on “forward guidance”.

After writing this paper, I came across an interesting 2005 paper by Refet S. Gürkaynak, Brian Sack, and Eric T. Swanson. Here is the abstract:

We investigate the effects of U.S. monetary policy on asset prices using a high-frequency event-study analysis. We
test whether these effects are adequately captured by a single factor—changes in the federal funds rate target—and find that they are not. Instead, we find that two factors are required. These factors have a structural interpretation as a “current federal funds rate target” factor and a “future path of policy” factor, with the latter closely associated with Federal Open Market Committee statements. We measure the effects of these two factors on bond yields and stock prices using a new intraday data set going back to 1990. According to our estimates, both monetary policy actions and statements have important but differing effects on asset prices, with statements having a much greater impact on longer-term Treasury yields.

I like the way they look at policy shocks in two dimensions—immediate effects and changes in the expected future path of policy. It’s interesting that the impact on the future expected path of policy comes mostly from the policy statements that accompany the interest rate announcement.

Of course signals are only effective to the extent that they credibly describe future concrete actions by the central bank:

We emphasize that our findings do not imply that FOMC statements represent an independent policy tool. In particular, FOMC statements likely exert their effects on financial markets through their influence on financial market expectations of future policy actions. Viewed in this light, our results do not indicate that policy actions are secondary so much as that their influence comes earlier—when investors build in expectations of those actions in response to FOMC statements (and perhaps other events, such as speeches and testimony by FOMC members).

This is what I’ve been calling “long and variable leads”.

They also suggest that the findings support claims that monetary policy is still quite effective at the zero bound:

This finding has important implications for the conduct of monetary policy in a low-inflation environment—in particular, even when faced with a low or zero nominal funds rate, our results directly support the theoretical analysis of Reifschneider and Williams (2000) and Eggertsson and Woodford (2003) that the FOMC is largely unhindered in its ability to conduct policy, because it has the ability to manipulate financial market expectations of future policy actions and thereby longer-term interest rates and the economy more generally