415 (1 April 2020)

Welcome!  The articles below caught my attention this week.  Relatively objective “briefs” are preceded by dashes (——–), whereas additional material or relatively subjective comments are preceded by asterisks (********).  Article titles preceded by [SR] require a subscription. 

Here are two tools I learned about this week:

Online text highlighter.  While reading an article this week, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to highlight online text, so I could return to it more easily?”  So I searched and found that there is, indeed,  “an app for that.”  I installed the free Chrome extension Highlighter and it does exactly what I wanted.

EconoFactAnother “discovery” of the week was the website EconoFact, which I learned about via David Warsh’s Economic Principals.  “EconoFact . . . was founded in January 2017 by Michael Klein, of Tufts, and various colleagues. A former chief economist in the Office of International Affairs of the US Treasury Department, Klein was accustomed to writing policy briefs laying out options for decision-makers.”  Klein and colleagues aim “to convey to key journalists and others affecting policy in Washington and state capitals the scope of differences among mainstream views.”  You can learn more about EconoFact and its Mission here.  In its structure and concision, it strikes me as a policy variant of Bloomberg QuickTakes.

(25 March 2020)No Single Player Can Win This Board Game.  It’s Called PandemicThe New York Times

********Yes, this is a board game.  It was created by Matt Leacock—the author of this article—in 2008.  Pandemic is a co-operative game, in which the goal is for two to four players to co-operate to defeat infectious disease.  (I’ve been told that this game works better with four players.)  Amazon reviews of the game—there are more than 5,000—are glowing.  Leacock writes:

Players need to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively so that they are understood, acknowledged and challenged when necessary. They need to coordinate their plans to be most effective at slowing the spread of illness. More than anything, they need to cooperate: There’s no way any single player can win the game on their own.

A game for our time.

(27 March 2020) [SR]’Frank Ramsey’ Review: The Most Genial GeniusThe Wall Street Journal

********Frank Ramsey is known by few outside of academia and by few within.  Nonetheless, he was one of the great prodigies of the 20th century.  He died in 1930, at the age of 26, but not before he made “indelible marks in philosophy, pure mathematics, mathematical logic, economics, probability theory and decision theory.”  What’s more, he appears to have been well liked.  Now Cheryl Misak, of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Toronto, has told his story for the first time in Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (Oxford University Press, 2020).  No less a wide-ranging (and Nobel Prize winning) authority than Amartya Sen writes:

In this brilliantly written biography of Frank Ramsey, the philosophical and mathematical genius, Cheryl Misak helps us to understand how this innovative thinker could transform so much of the intellectual world of the twentieth century in a short life that ended before he turned 27. The story of Ramsey—his life, his ideas and his engaging arguments with others—as told by Misak is both deeply insightful and much fun to read.

The book-buying public seems to agree.  The book is out of stock at Amazon.

            You can learn more about Misak here.  Interestingly, she is a former Vice President and Provost at the University of Toronto

(27 March 2020)Why Are Tax Forms So Complicated? JSTOR Daily

——–Why are tax forms so complicated?  “One reason is that companies that benefit from the annoyance of tax season, like Turbo Tax, have put a lot of energy into making sure tax forms stay complicated.  But another is that the U.S. government uses tax breaks to accomplish a lot of things that other countries do through direct payments to citizens.  For example, instead of a child allowance sent to all parents, we have the child tax credit.” 

In a study by political scientists Christopher Faricy and Christopher Ellis, they found that “direct spending on things like Social Security, Medicare, and cash benefits to low-income families is highly visible.  On the other hand, tax breaks often go unnoticed.”  So, the authors assert, “the reason for packaging government spending as tax breaks is clear.”

********The paper by Faricy and Ellis—“Public Attitudes Toward Social Spending in the United States: The Differences Between Direct Spending and Tax Expenditures”—can be downloaded for free.  Go to the end of the “Tax Forms.”

(28 March 2020)Why Is America Choosing Mass Unemployment?The New York Times

——–Recent news that “more than three million Americans filed for unemployment benefits . . . has been greeted with surprising equanimity by the nation’s political leaders.  [As of April 2nd, 6.6 million have applied.]  They appear to regard mass unemployment as an unfortunate but unavoidable symptom of the coronavirus. . . . But the sudden collapse of employment was not inevitable.  It is a disastrous failure of public policy that has caused immediate harm to the lives of millions of Americans, and that is likely to leave a lasting mark of their future, on the economy and on our society.”  The U.S. reliance on unemployment benefits contrasts with the response of several European countries, for example, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the U.K., where central governments have agreed to compensate employers 80 to 90 percent of their payrolls, thus allowing workers to preserve their jobs, as well as “a sense of independence, identity and purpose.”

********This is an editorial.  It clearly points out that a reasoned alternative to mass unemployment exists, although maybe not so much in the short run,  Just as our tax forms are excessively complicated, so our social safety net is frayed and insufficiently comprehensive.  bullIt is not hard to imagine, though, the uproar that would result if the U.S. federal government were to pay significant portions of the payrolls of private companies.  So, why is America choosing mass unemployment?

(29 March 2020)The U.S. Tried to Build a New Fleet of Ventilators.  The Mission Failed.The New York Times

********This sobering tale tells how 13 years ago U.S. public health officials identified a crucial vulnerability of the health system: a shortage of ventilators.  “The plan was to build a large fleet of inexpensive portable devices to deploy in a flu pandemic or another crisis.  Money was budgeted.  A federal contract was signed.  Work got underway.”  But everything changed when a “multibillion-dollar maker of medical devices bought the small California company that had been hired to design the new ventilators.  The project ultimately produced zero ventilators.”  Evidently the firm that bought the smaller company saw the cheaper ventilators it was to produce as a threat to the profitability of the much more expensive ventilators it was already selling.  How might this have been avoided? 

(30 March 2020) [SR]’Extreme Economies’ Review: Let’s Make a DealThe Wall Street Journal

********Economist William Easterly here provides a positive review of Extreme Economics: What Life at the World’s Margins Can Teach Us About Our Own Future, by Richard Davies who is a fellow at the London School of Economics.  Through nine case studies of “extreme economies” “Mr. Davies draws a compelling portrait of market functioning—and sometimes malfunctioning—in all sorts of conditions and cultures.”  Easterly concludes, “It is clear from ‘Extreme Economies’ that the world deserves more market solutions and more competent governments.”  Happily, Davies’s book was also reviewed by The New York Times in January, which provides a review that is paywall free.  The reviewer, Matthew Yglesias, notes that the book

is divided into three parts—survival, failure, future—each of which subdivides into three case studies about specific places.  All nine studies are engagingly written and genuinely interesting, each a dive into a corner of the world you don’t hear much about that conveys, briefly and clearly, a sense of how this far-off place works.

Check out the Table of Contents at Amazon to learn the locations of the nine case studies.  Ultimately, Davies uses his tour through the extreme economies to argue for “a middle path between command-and-control planning and total marketization of everything has the virtue of being correct.”  That is not to say that Yglesias is impressed, holding that the conclusion reached is banal.  As he sees it, the failing of Davies’s book is it is insufficiently “animated by the thought that injustice stems not just from ‘mistakes’ of judgment but from malice an indifference on the part of the powerful.”  Best to read the book and make one’s own judgment.

Be well!

Bruce

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