My Favorite Podcast: The Always-Enlightening EconTalk

listening-to-mp3Audiobooks and podcasts are handy when you’re on-the-go–while in the car as driver or passenger, sitting in an airplane (especially during meal time), or walking around outside. Both formats are experiencing a renaissance: audiobook sales are booming, and, more anecdotally, I’m told podcast listenership and ad rates are up across the board.

The comparative advantage of podcasts over audiobooks is that they are short and self-contained, so unlike in a book, you needn’t remember where in a long narrative you left off. If you drive or fly every day, or have an especially long one-off drive or flight, an audiobook makes sense. Otherwise, I prefer podcasts.

I subscribe to several. The HBR Idea Cast delivers informative 15 minute segments on important business themes. Dan Savage’s Savage LoveCast is frequently hilarious and wise on all things love and sex. Longform has interviews with interesting writers.

But the best podcast I subscribe to is EconTalk. It really is a central part of my continuing education. Russ is a first rate host and moderator, and his guests are distinguished in their fields. The topics run the gamut–sometimes Russ pairs a fundamental economic framework with a timely issue of the day, other times the topic is completely random. Almost always I leave feeling enlightened and entertained.

One podcast tip: if a guest is speaking slowly, change the speed on your audioplayer to 1.5x, and you’ll finish an hour-long podcast in no time.

Here are a dozen of my favorite episodes from the EconTalk archives.

Nina Munk on the Millennium Villages Project

Nina Munk, journalist and author of The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about her book. Munk spent six years following Jeffrey Sachs and the evolution of the Millennium Villages Project–an attempt to jumpstart a set of African villages in hopes of discovering a new template for development. Munk details the great optimism at the beginning of the project and the discouraging results after six years of high levels of aid. Sach’s story is one of the great lessons in unintended consequences and the complexity of the development process.

Jeff Sachs Responds on the Millennium Villages Project

Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University and the Millennium Villages Project talks with EconTalk host about poverty in Africa and the efforts of the Millennium Villages Project to fight hunger, disease, and illiteracy. The project tries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in a set of poor African villages using an integrated strategy fighting hunger, poverty, and disease. In this lively conversation, Sachs argues that this approach has achieved great success so far and responds to criticisms from development economists and Nina Munk in her recent EconTalk interview.

Jonathan Haidt on How Morality Binds and Blinds

Jonathan Haidt of New York University and author of The Righteous Mind talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book, the nature of human nature, and how our brain affects our morality and politics. Haidt argues that reason often serves our emotions rather than the mind being in charge. We can be less interested in the truth and more interested in finding facts and stories that fit preconceived narratives and ideology. We are genetically predisposed to work with each other rather than being purely self-interested and our genes influence our morality and ideology as well. Haidt tries to understand why people come to different visions of morality and politics and how we might understand each other despite those differences.

Michael Munger on Violence in Sports

Michael Munger of Duke University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the role of formal rules and informal rules in sports. Many sports restrain violence and retaliation through formal rules while in others, protective equipment is used to reduce injury. In all sports, codes of conduct emerge to deal with violence and unobserved violations of formal rules. Munger explores the interaction of these forces across different sports and how they relate to insights of Coase and Hayek.

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers on Happiness and Money Being Correlated

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, of the University of Michigan talk with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about their work on the relationship between income and happiness. They argue that there is a positive relationship over time and across countries between income and self-reported measures of happiness. The second part of the conversation looks at the recent controversy surrounding work by Reinhart and Rogoff on the relationship between debt and growth. Stevenson and Wolfers give their take on the controversy and the lessons for economists and policy-makers. This conversation was recorded shortly before Betsey Stevenson was nominated to the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Dan Pallotta on The Idiocy of Measuring Non-Profits by Their Overhead

Dan Pallotta, Chief Humanity Officer of Advertising for Humanity and author ofUncharitable talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in his book. Pallotta argues that charities are deeply handicapped by their culture and how we view them. The use of overhead as a measure of effectiveness makes it difficult for charities to attract the best talent, advertise, and invest for the future. Pallotta advocates a new culture for non-profits that takes the best aspects of the for-profit sector to enhance the mission and effectiveness of charities.

First of all, this focus on costs and this focus on overhead eliminates any conversation about impact. So, we’re not having a conversation about how effective the organization actually is at solving problems. So, who cares if the overhead is low if no problem is getting solved? And really, who cares if the overhead is high if the problem is getting solved, because ultimately we want the problem to get solved?

 

Kevin Kelly on Productivity in the Internet Age

Kevin Kelly talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about measuring productivity in the internet age and recent claims that the U.S. economy has entered a prolonged period of stagnation. Then the conversation turns to the potential of robots to change the quality of our daily lives.

Gary Taubes on Why We Get Fat (Low Carbs)

Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, talks with EconTalk host Russ Robertsabout why we get fat and the nature of evidence in a complex system. The current mainstream view is that we get fat because we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. Taubes challenges this seemingly uncontroversial argument with a number of empirical observations, arguing instead that excessive carbohydrate consumption causes obesity. In this conversation he explains how your body reacts to carbohydrates and explains why the mainstream argument of “calories in/calories out” is inadequate for explaining obesity. He also discusses the history of the idea of carbohydrates’ importance tracing it back to German and Austrian nutritionists whose work was ignored after WWII. Roberts ties the discussion to other emergent, complex phenomena such as the economy. The conversation closes with a discussion of the risks of confirmation bias and cherry-picking data to suit one’s pet hypotheses.

Richard Burkhauser on the Trickiness of Measuring the Middle Class

Richard Burkhauser of Cornell University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the state of the middle class. Drawing on recently published papers, Burkhauser shows that changes in the standard of living of the middle class and other parts of the income distribution are extremely sensitive to various assumptions about how income is defined as well as whether you look at tax units or households. He shows that under one set of assumptions, there has been no change in median income, but under a different and equally reasonable set of assumptions, median income has grown 36%. Burkhauser explains how different assumptions can lead to such different results and argues that the assumptions that lead to the larger growth figure are more appropriate for capturing what has happened over the last 40 years than those that suggest stagnation.

David Weinberger on How Knowledge Has Changed in the Age of the Internet

David Weinberger of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of Too Big to Know, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in the book–how knowledge and data and our understanding of the world around us are being changed by the internet. Weinberger discusses knowledge and how it is attained have changed over time, particularly with the advent of the internet. He argues the internet has dispersed the power of authority and expertise. And he discusses whether the internet is making us smarter or stupider, and the costs and benefits of being able to tailor information to one’s own interests and biases.

Alain de Botton on the Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Author Alain de Botton talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. How has the nature of work changed with the increase in specialization? Why is the search for meaningful work a modern phenomenon? Has the change in the workplace changed parenting? Why does technology become invisible? These are some of the questions discussed by de Botton in a wide-ranging discussion of the modern workplace and the modern worker.

Adam Davidson on Manufacturing in America

Adam Davidson of NPR’s Planet Money talks with EconTalk host Russ Robertsabout manufacturing. Based on an article Davidson wrote for The Atlantic, the conversation looks at the past, present, and future of manufacturing. Davidson visited an after-market auto parts factory in Greenville, South Carolina and talked with employees there as well as with executives at corporate headquarters. What is the future of factory work in America? Why are some manufacturing jobs in America while others are in China or elsewhere? The conversation looks at these questions as well as how well or poorly the U.S. education system prepares students for the world of work.

Dani Rodrik on Productivity and Globalization

Dani Rodrik of Harvard University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about trade, the labor market, and trade policy. Drawing on a recent paper with Margaret McMillan on trade and productivity, Rodrik argues that countries have very differing abilities to respond to increases in productivity that allow production to expand using fewer workers in a particular sector. When workers are displaced by productivity increases, what is their next best alternative? Rodrik discusses how this varies across countries and policies that might improve matters. He argues that poor countries should subsidize new products as a way of overcoming uncertainty and externalities from new ventures.

Number of Job Openings Go Up; Actual Hiring Not So Much

Peter Orszag very succinctly addresses the following riddle:

Over the past three years, the number of job openings has risen almost 50 percent, but actual hiring has gone up by less than 5 percent. Companies are advertising a lot more jobs, in other words, but not filling them.

He describes three possible explanations. First, there could be a skills mismatch:

One possibility is that there is a mismatch between the work that companies need done and the skills that workers have. As Peter Newland of Barclays Plc has said, “We believe that this divergence between openings and hiring is consistent with our view that some of the loss of employment during the recession was structural, rather than purely cyclical, in nature.”

Second, the long term unemployed may not be willing to return to the job market for lower wages. Companies aren’t willing to pay enough to attract them:

A second explanation is that employers are offering jobs at wages that are too low to attract good applicants. Alan Krueger…believes this to be an important piece of the puzzle. He argues that the unemployment rate for those just recently out of work has now returned to roughly pre-crisis levels, and that people who have been out of the labor force for an extended period are exerting little downward pressure on wage rates. This combination means that, although the long-term unemployed still face a tough road ahead because they are essentially on the margins of the labor market, pressure is growing for higher wages for everyone else.

Or third, perhaps there’s an increasingly robust “internal” labor market at big companies:

A variety of other indicators — including fewer people moving to take new jobs — suggests that companies are often filling openings from within. Many nonetheless advertise such positions externally, which would boost the job-offer rate in the data. The survey counts only jobs filled from outside a company in its statistics on hiring, so the increase in job-offer rates for this reason would not correspond to an increase in hiring rates.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the link, whose post is titled Are we seeing skills mismatch after all?

Immigration and Tech Leadership

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s commencement speech at Stanford University the other week noted Reid and Mark Zuckerberg’s efforts to pass immigration reform:

Many university presidents – including President Hennessy – have spoken out on this issue and the tech community here and in New York City has been very vocal. That includes Stanford alum Reid Hoffman, and also Mark Zuckerberg – who dropped out of a university often called “The Stanford of the East.”

They – and other tech leaders – are pushing for immigration reform through a new group called “Forward.”

FWD.US, the group the Mayor mentioned in his speech, recently released a short ad to prompt folks to reflect on Emma Lazarus’s famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, as a reminder of immigration’s role in our national history. Embedded below.


And here’s a photo of the Mayor, Reid, Mark Zuckerberg, and a few other FWD founders discussing immigration. It’s awesome to see so many tech and political leaders stepping up to bring awareness to the vital legislation being debated right now in Congress.

Mexico’s New President and the War on Drugs

Mexico elected a new president last week, Enrique Pena Nieto. Mexico is the most important bilateral relationship to the United States, but Mexico’s politics and economics receive less attention from the American people and in the American press than it should — so blog about it I will!

Nieto recently did a sit-down interview after his victory in which he says he wants to tweak Calderon’s anti-drug strategy, but mainly stay the course. He cites the success of Colombia and — like so many in Latin America, the United States, and Europe — he sees the dogged persistence and strategies of President Uribe in Colombia as cause for inspiration.

But exporting the Colombia strategy to the rest of Latin America has been tried and hasn’t worked. Washington Monthly in January published a good piece on Mexico, Colombia, Uribe, Plan Colombia and why Colombia’s war on drugs strategy has failed in Mexico. One excerpt:

At a very basic level, Colombia circa 2002 faced a very different set of problems than what Mexico faces today—and Uribe’s “democratic security” strategy was tailored to the former. Drug trafficking was linked to an armed insurgency that, however corrupted over the years, still rested on an ideology and concrete political goals. FARC and the paramilitaries both cared about territory for its own sake. Mexican cartels, on the other hand, are less bothered by symbolic gains and are happy to operate near or even within state institutions.

The very natures of the two states are different as well. “Colombia had never been in control of its territory, so the real challenge was to assert state authority for the first time,” explains Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. “In Mexico, that’s not the problem. The government has a presence in every small municipality; the question is, who do they report to? It’s a very different challenge; Mexico’s challenge is corruption.”

Before we can draw lessons from something else, we have to make sure it’s actually analogous. Colombia and Mexico are both countries. They both have drug traffiking problems (which of course are fueled in part by the insatiable American demand for those drugs). But it’s still apples to oranges with respect to how the countries deal with the problem.

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Bret Stephens, who’s smart and, I should say, very funny in person, says in his most recent column that we shouldn’t forget the enormous strides Mexico has made to becoming a stable democracy–the fact that we don’t talk about it shows how far they’ve come.

What’s Driving Class Bifurcation?

On the economic and cultural gap between the so-called “Whole Foods people” (which has become a class in itself) and “Wal-Mart people”:

The vectors driving American class bifurcation are fundamental: the decline in demand for low-skilled labor, the rise in earning power and independence of women, the desire of people with talent and education to marry each other and socialize together. None of these things is likely to change, or even necessarily should change. Unless we abolish farm machinery and factory automation, good low-skilled jobs are never coming back. Women are not going to renounce their economic and social freedom. Yale-educated moms are not often going to marry high-school-educated dads.

Notice, too, how the vectors intersect with and reinforce each other. Low earnings and poor job prospects make men less marriageable, so women enter the work force without marrying, making work more optional for men and men more optional for women. More kids are thus born to single moms, who tend to wind up poor, disadvantaging the kids. Meanwhile, the very fact of not marrying reduces men’s earnings, so the less men marry the less they earn, and the less they earn the less they marry. As all the little gears and wheels turn, lower-class neighborhoods grow more disorganized and isolated. Wash, rinse, repeat.

That’s from Jonathan Rauch’s informative and eloquent review of Charles Murray’s latest book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.

Other sentences from the review:

…marriage and family structure have surpassed race in determining socioeconomic standing. (If you are an unborn baby choosing parents and you want to avoid poverty, you should pick married black parents over unmarried white ones.)…

In my view (shaped by living and working in Britain), the overriding fact about Europe’s social systems and norms is their similarity to America’s, not their differentness; Europhobia, in my view, is one of modern conservatism’s more curious and unattractive tics.

Memorial Day Weekend

“It is on the smallest shoulders that the heaviest price of war is laid.”

(Hat tip: Kai Chang)

U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East and China

Two recent foreign policy articles are worth reading; they’re especially interesting when compared to each other.

Mark Helprin’s sobering essay in the Claremont Review of Books is titled The Central Proposition. It’s about American foreign policy as it relates to the utopian Bush/Obama vision of the Middle East. It opens:

For a decade, the central proposition in America’s foreign relations has been that it is possible to transform one or another Islamic nation and indeed the Arab Middle East or the entire Islamic world. We have apportioned a crippling share of our resources and attention to this project. We have tried force, diplomacy, aid, propaganda, confession, persuasion, apology, personality, and hope. And as one approach fails it is supplanted by or combined with another, the recipe depending upon who happens to be in the White House.

Helprin gives intellectual/historical credence to what many Americans are feeling on an emotional level: a desire to pull back, to restrain ourselves, to give up on democratization projects, to be less interventionist even when there’s humanitarian aims.

But isn’t democracy and the desire for freedom universal and shouldn’t powerful countries enable that?

To succeed, a paradigm of “invade, reconstruct, and transform,” requires the decisive defeat, disarmament, and political isolation of the enemy; the demoralization of its population; the destruction of its political ethos; and the presence, at the end of hostilities, of overwhelming force. In Iraq and Afghanistan none of these conditions was fulfilled, the opposite impression flowing mainly from our contacts predominantly with an expressive, Western-educated elite, and from our failure to understand that despite the universal human desire for freedom, equity, safety, honor, and prosperity, the operational definitions of each of these objectives can vary so much as to render the quality of universality meaningless.

Helprin ends his piece saying that as we’ve been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, China continues to rise as America’s most challenging long term foreign policy issue.

Which leads to Robert Kaplan’s fascinating profile of John Mearsheimer in the latest Atlantic. It’s an overview of the man, his ideas, how his “muscular” foreign policy beliefs compare and contrast to other thinkers. And it’s about his conviction that the smartest foreign policy minds and the bulk of the Pentagon budget should be focused on China, not the Middle East. (Kaplan spends ample time on Mearsheimer on Israel, so I won’t rehash those qualifications/disclaimers here.)

I found it broadly educational, but I wanted to point out two minor quotes/sentences somewhat unrelated to the thesis of the article:

“Offensive realism,” he writes in Tragedy, “is like a powerful flashlight in a dark room”: it cannot explain every action throughout hundreds of years of history, but he exhaustively goes through that history to demonstrate just how much it does explain.

I like the flashlight metaphor as a clever way of saying “despite a few exceptions, it’s mostly right.” Also this:

As Huntington once told his protégé Fareed Zakaria: “If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single [cause], or what are the couple of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.”

That’s the job of a lot of leaders, isn’t it? Take complexity and simplify it, then explain it, then assign causes, and finally propose action for dealing with it.

Book Notes: Launching the Innovation Renaissance

AlextAlex Taborrok's Launching the Innovation Renaissance is full of common sense about how to promote innovation in America. Unlike so much "innovation" literature that is disconnected from policy realities, Taborrok offers specific policy observations on patents, immigration, education, and more. He also offers helpful ways to think about themes like the rise of China. At two hours tops to read and a $2.99 price point for the e-book, it is an easy way to be brush up on some of the straightforward ways to accelerate innovation in a country.

My highlights from the book:

After hundreds of years of experience, there is surprisingly little evidence that patents actually do promote the progress of science and the useful arts.

Imitation is not as easy as it appears even with an exact recipe. What is true about recipes and the French Laundry is also true about innovation in general. It takes effort and time to imitate a product even when the formula is known.

The major vice of a prize fund is that it replaces a decentralized process for rewarding innovation with a political process.

"Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years," we tell students, "and all will be well." Most of them, however, crash before they reach the end of the road — some drop out of high school and then more drop out of college. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to knowledge.
How many visas are allocated to people of extraordinary ability from China, a country of over 1 billion people? 2,803. The same number as are allocated to Greenland.
Should Bill Gates get prostate cancer, his billions will get him a private room and a personal physician, but they won't do much to extend his lifespan beyond that of a middle-class man with the same disease.
The United States benefits not just from more idea creators in China, India and the rest of the world but also from more idea consumers. Recall the problem of rare diseases. People with a rare disease are doubly unlucky: They have a disease and only a few people with whom to share the costs of developing a cure. Misery loves company because company can help pay for research and development. Misery especially loves rich company. I wish ill on no man, but if I get a rare disease, I do hope that Bill Gates gets the same one.
I see two views of humanity. In the first view, people are stomachs. More people mean more eaters and less for everyone else. In the second view, people are brains. More brains mean more ideas and more for everyone else. The two different perspectives are not just a matter of ideology or mood. We can look for evidence for or against these views.

The Situation Room Photo

I've looked at it several times. It's the Situation Room during the Osama bin Laden assault. Gripping. A good example of the power of a photo to convey emotion.

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David Brooks and Gail Collins analyze:

David Brooks: The other photo I’ve been fascinated by is the one of the president’s security team gathered in the White House Situation Room. The first thing the photo illustrates is that whenever we disagree with an office holder, we should all nonetheless pay them a large dose of respect. Presidents and others make these horrific decisions that could lead to death and suffering for people thousands of miles away, and then they sit passively far removed from the action, hoping that things turn out right.

On a human level I’m struck by the varied emotions etched on people’s faces. I can read nothing on Bob Gates’s face or even Joe Biden’s, whereas Obama, Denis McDonough and John Brennan look tense. Hilary Clinton’s face is the most riveting, a mixture of anxiety, dread and concern. I suspect most people will relate to her expression.

Gail Collins: Did they have to pick the one where Hillary had her hand over her mouth? The secretary of state doesn’t need to prove her toughness, but it would be nice if the definitive photo didn’t show the only woman in the room looking stricken.

David Brooks: The second thing the photo shows is how small the room is. In the movies, executive decisions are made in big, Roman Empire type rooms. But the White House is an early 19th century kind of place. It does all it can to humble the people who work there with its smallness, at least in the work areas.

The posture of the president is fascinating. Instead of occupying the power chair in the center of the table, he is perched on a low chair off the side, hunched over looking tense. If you just looked at this picture, you might think that Joe Biden was president or Bill Daley, who is standing behind looking imposing and grave. You’d think Obama was a midlevel aide. 

Gail Collins: The president really did put all his chips on the line. These are the kind of moments we elected him for — we knew from the financial crisis that when all hell breaks loose, he doesn’t lose his cool.

But he’s also lucky. People partly make their own fortunes, but I wonder if he’d have had the confidence to take such a huge gamble if he didn’t believe innately that he’s the kind of guy fortune favors.

Meanwhile, our report says Biden was fingering his rosary beads. Luck is good, but the Blessed Virgin Mary is better.

David Brooks: In the case of Obama’s perch in the Situation Room, I think what happened is this: some sort of communication or technical relay had to be done, so the president got out of his chair and relinquished it to Brig. Gen. Brad Webb, who is the assistant commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command. The president just slid over to the low chair off to the side, which one of the standers must have relinquished.

Still, I wonder how many White Houses would have been confident enough to release a photo with the president looking so diminutive. I think it speaks well of Obama and the administration that they released this as the iconic image of the decision-making process behind the event.

A Pithy Sum-Up of the Structural Ailment of U.S. Government

The bigger problem with Obama's approach is his failure to address—at least so far—the reform of Medicare and Social Security. Without big reductions in spending on these programs, the kinds of investments in the future prosperity that Obama envisions won't be possible. We'll continue to evolve toward a government whose primary function is transferring income from working people to retirees. You don't have to frame this dynamic in racial terms, as Ross Douthat does, to see it as a recipe for social misery. The simple generational unfairness, as well as the drain on economic vitality, is going to become increasingly apparent. If Obama wants to offer a convincing vision of the federal government's role, he will need to recognize the growing imbalance between generosity for the old and investment in future generations. Preserving our biggest entitlement programs in their current form because they have a powerful constituency is hardly a progressive stance. It's the definition of reactionary liberalism.

That's Jacob Weisberg, at Slate.