Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Antitrust in the 1520s: Diet of Nuremberg, Martin Luther, and the City of Augsberg

Monopolies can come into existence for reasons that are beneficial to consumers: for example, perhaps a monopoly has patent protection for an innovative new product, or perhaps economies of scale allow a big company to sell at a cheaper price. However, once the monopoly is in place, it then has incentives to increase its profits by raising prices for consumers. Thus, the ongoing challenge of antitrust law is to encourage behaviors that are beneficial to consumers. like innovation and economies of scale, while offering consumers some protection from the price-fixing power of monopolies. This story has of course played itself out numerous times in US economic history, from the trusts and "robber barons" of the late 19th century to more recent arguments about IBM, Microsoft, and the most recent batch of high-tech giants.

But these issues of the benefits and costs of monopoly behavior have a much longer historical pedigree. One prominent example is the situation that had arisen in Germany in the 1520s. It's described in some detail in "Social Reform and the Reformation," by Jacob Salwyn Schapiro, which was published in 1909 in a series of volumes edited by the Columbia University Political Science Department alled  Studies in History Economics and Public Law (Volume XXXIV, number 2). Here I'll focus on the story that Schapiro tells in "Chapter 1: The Growth of Monopolies." 

To set the stage, the end of the 15th century and into the 16th century is a very prosperous time for Germany. Schapiro writes:
The end of the fifteenth century witnessed Germany's high noon of prosperity. Old and insignificant towns like Augsburg Nuremberg and Ulm blossomed forth into wealthy and populous cities. The great merchants vied with princes and kings in magnificence and luxury. Their gardens palaces and entertainments were the envy of the poorer nobility. Aeneas Sylvius writing in 1458 says: "We proclaim it aloud Germany has never been richer or more prosperous than to-day. She takes the lead of all other nations in wealth and power One can say truly that God has favored this land above all others On all sides are seen cultivated farms cornfields and vineyards and gardens Everywhere are great buildings, walled cities and well-to-do farmers." Jacob Wimpheling, the famous humanist, declared fifty years later that Germany was never more prosperous than to day and she owes it chiefly to the untiring industry and energy of her people artisans as well as merchants. The peasants too are rich and prosperous."  The desire for wealth became the all absorbing passion and we find the popular preacher Martin Butzer denouncing the materialistic spirit of the time. "All the world," he says, "is running after those trades and occupations that will bring the most gain. The study of the arts and sciences is set aside for the basest kind of manual work. All the clever heads, which have been endowed by God with capacity for the nobler studies are engrossed by commerce, which nowadays is so saturated with dishonesty that it is the last sort of business an honorable man ought to engage in." The headquarters of German capitalism was the city of Augsburg which because of its situation acted as a distributing center for all Eastern goods received from both Lisbon and Venice. 
But the importance of ports and trade routes shifting. Venice, which was relatively close to German merchants, was declining while farther-away Lisbon was rising. Doing business at this greater distance tended to favor the larger German merchants, who could afford to have dedicated representatives in Lisbon to manage their transactions, warehouses, and shipping. As Schapiro explains, this shift provided a launching pad for Germany's wealthier merchants to act as price-fixing monopolists. He wrote:
The wealthier merchants quickly took advantage of this condition and organized themselves into associations or "companies." At first they united for the purpose of buying and transporting in common in order to reduce expenses; but very soon they united for the purpose of selling as well. These associations quickly developed into monopolistic combines that controlled the entire Asiatic trade in and arbitrarily fixed the prices of all Eastern articles. The small merchant found himself crowded to the wall. All methods familiar to monopoly everywhere and at all times were used to drive him out of business. 
Schapiro cites a number of contemporary complaints about the situation. Here are three, one from from Martin Luther, and the other two from religious and civil assemblies of that time:
Luther complains in his pamphlet On Trade and Usury, printed in 1524: "The monopolists succeed in driving out the small merchants by buying up large quantities of goods, and then suddenly raise the prices when they are left masters of the field. So, these monopolists, have everything in their hands and do whatever they wish raise and lower prices at will and oppress and ruin small dealers, just as a great pike swallows up a lot of little fishes. They have become lords over God's creatures and free from all bonds of religion and humanity ..... If monopolies are permitted to exist, then justice and righteousness must vanish." ...
The Diet of Nuremberg complained in 1522: "The companies take special care to monopolize those spices that are most needed. If one company is not rich enough it associates itself with another and so gets the article in its hands. If a poor merchant desires to deal in these wares, the companies are immediately at his throat. They are able to ruin him, because having more money and more goods, they are able to sell cheaper and give longer credit .... The companies are responsible for lessened business. To-day, there is one great concern with many branches where formerly there were twenty independent merchants ..."   
The Landtag of the Austrian hereditary dominions at Innsbruck in 1518 declared: "The great companies have monopolized all things and are not to be borne any longer. All sorts of merchandise-- silver, copper, steel, iron, linen, sugar, spices, corn, cattle, wine, meat, tallow. and leather--have fallen into their hands Through their money power, they have become so strong, that no merchant having less than 10,000 florins is able to compete with them. They raise prices arbitrarily when it is to their advantage and as a result their incomes are as great as those of princes. They are a great harm to our land."
The tensions created by these monopoly powers were then heightened by an enormous rise in the overall price level. Schapiro writes: "During the first quarter of the sixteenth century there occurred a most remarkable revolution in prices. Every article foreign and domestic rose enormously in some cases one hundred per cent and over Naturally the monopolies were blamed by all classes for this extraordinary advance in the prices of the necessities of life." As he is also quick to note, monopoly is not the only cause here, and may not have been the primary cause. For example, there were wartime shortages resulting from the conflict between Venice and the League of Cambray. There was also an enormous increase in the volume of currency in circulation, with large increases in silver and copper production in Germany and Hungary, as well as imported silver from the new world by Spain.

Ultimately, these issues arose again in the Diets of Nuremberg from 1522-24. The main agenda of these gathering was to coordinate a response to Soliman the Turk, who had just invaded Hungary, and to Martin Luther, who was posing a danger to the established Catholic Church. But the issue of monopoly came up as well, and as Schapiro explains, a committee was appointed which "sent a questionnaire to the councils of the towns that represented the trading interests." The reply of the city of Augsburg has been much-quoted over the years, because it offers a defense of the large monopoly firms. Here are some snippets of the response from the city Augsburg, as quoted (and translated) by Schapiro:
Where there is no business, the country is of little account. Hence it follows that commerce is useful to kings and princes and good for the common weal. The more business a country does, the more prosperous are its people. There are lands where business interests are better protected than in Germany and where they do everything to encourage and attract the merchants .... Commerce adds to the coffers of princes and is besides absolutely essential to the common welfare where there are many merchants there is plenty of work. Only the great merchants are able to do business on a large scale, because the small traders have not enough capital.  ...
It is impossible to limit the size of the companies for that would limit business and hurt the common welfare; the bigger and more numerous they are the better for everybody. If a merchant is not perfectly free to do business in Germany he will go elsewhere to Germany's loss. Any one can see what harm and evil such an action would mean to us. If a merchant cannot do business, above a certain amount, what is he to do with his surplus money? It is impossible to set a limit to business and it would be well to let the merchant alone and put no restrictions on his ability or capital. ... Some people talk of limiting the earning capacity of investments. This would be unbearable and would work great injustice and harm by taking away the livelihood of widows, orphans and other sufferers, noble and non-noble, who derive their income from investments in these companies. Many merchants out of love and friendship invest the money of their friends--men, women and children--who know nothing of business in order to provide them with an assured income. Hence any one can see that the idea that the merchant companies undermine the public welfare ought not to be seriously considered. ... 
Of course, discussions making similar points have continued up to the present. Countries with lots of business activity are better off, and create jobs. If the companies are overregulated at  home, they will move elsewhere. Limiting what investment can earn would be unbearable. Out of love and friendship, the giant monopolists will look out for the widows and orphans. The committee for the Diet of Nuremburg didn't buy these arguments! But its report is an interesting mix of opposition to the big companies and admitting that their defenders are not altogether wrong. Here's Schapiro quoting from the committee report:
"The companies have done more injury to the common man than all the highwaymen and thieves put together yet the monopolists and their associates strut about in all the magnificence and luxury that wealth can buy. ...  We have already given reasons why the great companies should be destroyed but that does not mean that all business associations should be done away with. Such a course would be foolish and harmful to the whole German people, for the following reasons: In the first place, it would give the foreigners an opportunity to take over our business and then the companies could exploit Germany at will. Secondly, if we permitted only single individuals to trade, failure would be sure to result, which would be avoided by permitting associations of moderate size only. This, too, would give an opportunity to an individual who possesses great capital to do exactly what a company does and yet be within the law. Finally, a single individual cannot go to many places for goods and he cannot afford to hire agents as this costs money Therefore the foreign companies will have a great advantage over the German merchant."
Ultimately, the Diet of Nuremberg passed a set of anti-monopoly laws. Schapiro writes:
After a great deal of debate, the Diet passed a series of laws designed to mitigate the evils of monopoly. These provide that:
I. Companies are not to be capitalized for more than fifty thousand gulden and are to have only three branches. A statement of its membership and business must be filed with the government.
II. The profits must be divided every two years and the authorities notified of the fact.
III. No money may be loaned at usurious rates of interest.
IV. No commodity shall be entirely under one control.
V. No merchant shall buy during a single quarter of a year more than 100 cwt. of pepper, 100 cwt. of ginger, and 50 cwt. of other spices.
VI. The companies shall not impose a minimum selling price.
VII. The government shall regulate the prices of wares because the companies secretly agree to raise prices.
VIII. Each article imported shall be taxed by the imperial government a fixed sum on the hundredweight.
IX. Voyaging to Portugal is to be forbidden because of too much speculation there and the king of that country is to be asked to send the spices into Germany.
X. The penalty for violating these laws is to be confiscation of the property of the company one half to go to the imperial and the other half to the local government 
Whatever the merits and demerits of these rules, they made little difference. This early round of the anti-monopoly battles was won by the monopolists. As Schapiro explains: "In spite of the denunciations, petitions, laws, and decrees, the monopolies were not seriously disturbed. The vast wealth of the great companies, the political importance of the cities which they controlled, the weakness of the central government and the intimate relations of the merchants with the governing powers, were proof against all laws aimed at them." 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Should the Federal Reserve Buy Corporate Bonds?

When (not "if") the next recession arrives, the Federal Reserve will want to take action to stimulate the economy. In recent decades, this action has often involved cutting a certain targeted interest rate--the "federal funds interest" rate--by 3-4 percentage points. However, the federal funds interest rate is now in the range of 1-1.25%, and for a variety of underlying reasons, it seems unlikely that these rates will climb to the 4-5% range any time soon.  Thus, central banks around the world are experimenting with nontraditional tools of monetary policy. For example, a number of central banks have pushed their own targeted policy interest rates into mildly negative territory, with what seems to be mild success so far. The US Federal Reserve, along with a number of other central banks, has engaged in "quantitative easing" policies in which the central bank buys financial assets directly. So far, the Fed has focused on Treasury debt and on mortgage-backed securities. But when the next recession  hits, should the Fed think about buying government bonds?

Thomas Belsham and Alex Rattan provide an overview of the issues that arise in making this choice, along with a review of what has happened since the Bank of England made a decision in August 2016 purchase up to £10 billion in corporate bonds, in their article "Corporate Bond Purchase Scheme:design, operation and impact," which appears in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Bank of England (2017 Q3, pp. 170-181).

Why might a central bank decided to purchase corporate bonds at all, as opposed to other assets?

If more parties in the market are willing to buy bonds--whether government bonds, corporate bond, or mortgage-backed securities-- it should be easier for borrowers to issue such securities. But Belsham and Rattan offer a few arguments as to why buying corporate bonds might have a bigger effect on the real economy than buying government bonds.

For example, they argue that when a central bank buys investment-grade bonds, which are typically issued by larger companies, those large companies become more likely to obtain capital by issuing bonds and less likely to do so through borrowing from banks. In turn, this could cause banks to become more willing to lend money to medium-sized and smaller-sized firms. Another reason is that part of the risk in bond markets is that such markets are often not very liquid, meaning that it isn't always easy to buy or sell bonds right away--at least not without taking a hit on your desired price. But if the central bank is steadily involved as a buyer of bonds, liquidity in the bond market improves, and the risk of holding bonds diminishes accordingly. Finally, when a central bank buys corporate bonds, those who had previously been holding the bonds (or would have been holding the bonds) clearly have some appetite for the risks and returns associated with corporate activities, so they are likely to try to seek out some other ways to invest their funds into active corporate activities (rather than into lower-risk and safer investments).

If a central bank decides to purchase corporate bonds, how can it keep the risk of doing so relatively low and avoid favoritism to certain industrial sectors or specific corporations? 

The Bank of England was willing to buy up to £10 billion in "investment-grade" corporate bonds (that is, relatively safe bonds, not high-yield, high-risk "junk bonds"). For comparison, the total amount of such bonds was about £500 billion. The goal of the BoE was to purchase these bonds without unbalancing the market.

In a regular auction, buyers compete to purchase an item. However, the Bank of England purchased bonds with a "reverse auction," in which sellers compete to sell an item--in this case a bond--to the central bank. Thus, the Bank of England was agreeing to pay the lowest possible interest rates (and there was also a "maximum price" that the Bank would not exceed when purchasing any given bond). In addition, the Bank of England looked at how much of the  £500 billion in bonds came from each sector of the economy, and took care to purchase bonds (tweaking the prices it was willing to pay just a bit as needed) so the Bank ended up owning bonds from each sector in the same proportion as these sectors were represented in the overall bond market.

What were some effects of the Bank of England Corporate Bond Purchase Scheme?
One quick-and-dirty way to evaluate the effects of this policy is to compare interest rates on corporate bonds of similar risk levels that are denominated in US dollars, euros, and pounds. If one sees a drop in the interest rate for these corporate bonds around the time the policy starts, a drop which isn't mirrored in the other markets, it suggests the policy had some effect.

The authors carry out some more sophisticated calculations, which tend to confirm this general result. They write: "Sterling-denominated investment-grade private non-financial corporate (PNFC) bond spreads fell 10 basis points on the day of the announcement of the CBPS, and around a further
10 basis points in the days that followed. Issuance in sterling by UK PNFCs picked up sharply after the announcement, with the highest recorded monthly issuance of sterling-denominated investment-grade bonds in September of that year. Market intelligence also suggests that there was an improvement in liquidity in the sterling corporate bond market ... While the direct impact on the corporate bond market is encouraging, it is still too early to assess fully the transmission of the Corporate Bond Purchase Scheme to the real economy."

What's the Bank of England plan going forward? 

The current plan is that as bonds make payments and mature, these amounts will be reinvested into other bonds. Thus, the Bank of England portfolio of corporate bonds is planned to remain at about £10 billion -- at least for now.

This experiment is worth watching. If the US Federal Reserve feels a need during a future recession to carry out large-scale quantitative easing, the Bank of England process is likely to serve as a model. It would be interesting, and perhaps not in a good way, to watch the political pressure that would surely be exerted if the US Federal Reserve attempting to purchase corporate bonds in a way that doesn't intervene to favor certain parts of the bond market.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Federal Subsidies for Health Insurance

When I posted a couple of days ago on the most recent Census Bureau report about "Health Insurance Coverage in the United States," I didn't know that the Congressional Budget Office was about to come out with an updated set of estimates for "Federal Subsidies for Health Insurance Coverage for People Under Age 65: 2017 to 2027" (September 2017). Obviously, it's useful to consider the number of people with health insurance and the government subsidies at the same time!

The CBO calculation is that federal subsidies for those under age 65 (that is, not counting Medicare spending on those over 65, and not counting the portion of Medicaid funded by US states) are $705 billion in 2017. Here's the graph from the cover of the report summarizing these subsidies:
A few thoughts:

1) Total US health care spending is about $3.5 trillion in 2017. For the present calculation, subtract out Medicare, which is about $700 billion. Thus, the total federal subsidies of $705 billion represent about one-fourth of non-Medicare health care spending.

2) The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 increased these federal subsidies in 2017 by $117 billion: that is $72 billion for expansions of Medicaid coverage and $45 billion for subsidies involving the state-based insurance exchanges that are called the "Basic Health Plan."

3) The federal government subsidizes employer-provided health insurance to the tune of $279 billion in 2017 by treating it as an untaxed fringe benefit. The single largest method through which Americans get their health insurance continues to be employer-based coverage.
4) The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 expanded Medicaid enrollment by about 13 million people, and another 8 million have received subsidies for purchasing insurance on the state-level exchanges.

5) It's a little tricky to calculate how much the Affordable Care Act of 2010 expanded coverage. For example, if some employers decided to stop providing health insurance with the idea that their employees could turn to the state-based health  insurance exchanges, one would need to take those effects into account. But as a back-of-the-envelope estimate, one could reasonably say that the Affordable Care Act provide health insurance for about 21 million people, with a corresponding increase in federal health care subsidies of $117 billion. Thus, the average cost of person of expanded health insurance coverage has been about $5,500. As I've written before, there was never any mystery in how the 2010 legislation expanded insurance coverage: if the federal government was willing to spend an extra $117 billion, it could provide insurance coverage for another 21 million people.

6) A substantial number of US residents continue to lack health insurance. The CBO breaks it down this way: "Over the next decade, roughly 1 out of every 10 residents under age 65 is projected
to be uninsured each year, and the number of people who are uninsured is projected to be 31 million in 2027 ...  In that year, according to CBO and JCT’s estimates, about 30 percent of those uninsured
people would be unauthorized immigrants and thus ineligible for subsidies through a marketplace or for most Medicaid benefits; about 10 percent would be ineligible for Medicaid because they lived in a state that had not expanded coverage; about 20 percent would be eligible for Medicaid but would not enroll; and the remaining 40 percent would not purchase insurance to which they had access through an employer, through the marketplaces, or directly from insurers."

7) For ll the controversy surrounding the 2010 health care legislation, both at the time and since, it was essentially incremental. For most Americans with health insurance--most of those with employer-provided plans, Medicare, or already eligible for Medicaid--the 2010 act did not disrupt their health insurance in any substantial way.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Health Insurance Coverage in the US

Since a number of major provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 took effect in January 2014, the share of Americans without health insurance has dropped substantially. But that success story remains incomplete, and the the progress that has been made has come at substantial financial cost.

Jessica C. Barnett and Edward R. Berchick of the US Census Bureau have authored this year's version of the authoritative report: Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2016 (Current Population Reports, September 2017, P60-660). Here's the share of Americans without health insurance from 2008-2016.  The big drop starting in 2014 is quickly apparent.
What forms of health insurance expanded in a way that can help to explain this decline? In private plans, employer-based health insurance didn't budge, but direct-purchase plans expanded--surely due to the expansion that occurred through the subsidized state-based insurance exchanges. On the government side, both Medicare and Medicare have seen expansions, with the rise in Medicaid in particular being traceable to the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The report offers lots of detail about what groups are more or less likely to have health insurance. Many of the correlations are unsurprising. Those with less work experience in the previous year, or lower levels of education,  are less likely to be covered by health insurance. Even with the existence of Medicaid and Medicare, those with lower incomes remain less likely to have health insurance (including both public and private health insurance).

But I was intrigued by this figure showing the likelihood of not having health insurance by age. The different shading shows different years, and the drop in the rate of uninsured over time. The big drop-off around age 65 shows the effect of Medicare. The uninsurance rate for children is also relatively low, because low-income families with children are typically eligible for insurance through Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The age group least likely to have health insurance are in their 20s and 30s.
This report from the Census Bureau is about documenting patterns, not drawing policy conclusions.  But I'll add that the gains that have been made in expanding health insurance coverage are costing the US government about $110 billion per year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.  As I've written in the past, I support expanded spending for this reason, given the very limited array of policy options actually available. But I do have a number of qualms.

For example, a number of recipients of public health insurance or insurance subsidies might prefer a lower level of health insurance and more income in their pocket for other purposes--but that choice isn't available to them. Employer-provided health insurance in the United States is an untaxed fringe benefit that cost the US Treasury $266 billion in 2016, which encourages employers and employees to provide compensation in the form of health insurance and helps propel the ongoing rise in health care costs. Finally, the rate of uninsurance has fallen by less than one-half since the provisions of the Affordable Care Act went into effect. Thus, the problem that millions of Americans lack health insurance is far from resolved.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Rationality is an Assumption I Make About Other People"

Self-aware people recognize that they sometimes act irrationally. So how can self-aware economists assume that other people act rationally? Here's how David D. Friedman answered that question in his 1996 book Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life (pp. 4-5).
"Suppose someone is rational only half the time. Since there is generally one right way of doing things and many wrong ways, the rational behavior can be predicted but the irrational cannot. If we assume he is rational, we predict his behavior accurately about half the time--far from perfect, but a lot better than nothing. If I could do that well at the racetrack I would be a very rich man. 
“One summer, a colleague asked me why I had not bought a parking permit. I replied that not having a convenient place to park made me more likely to ride my bike. He accused me of inconsistency. As a believer in rationality, I should be able to make the correct choice between sloth and exercise without first rigging the game. My response was that rationality is an assumption I make about other people. I know myself well enough to allow for the consequences of my own irrationality. But for the vast mass of my fellow humans, about whom I know very little, rationality is the best predictive assumption available.
"One reason to assume rationality is that it predicts behavior better than any alternative assumption. Another is that, when predicting a market or a mob, what matters is not the behavior of individuals but the summed behavior of many. If irrational behavior is random, its effects may cancel out. 
"A third reason is that we are often dealing not with a random set of people but with people selected for the particular role they are playing. If firms picked CEOs at random, Bill Gates would still be a programmer and Microsoft would have done a much worse job than it did of maximizing its profits. But people who do not want to maximize profits or do not know how are unlikely to get the job. If they do get it, perhaps through an accident of inheritance, they are unlikely to keep it. If they do keep it, their companies are likely to go on a downhill slide. So the people who run companies can be safely assumed to know what they are doing--generally and on average. And since businesses that lose money eventually shut down, the assumption of rational profit maximization turns out to be a pretty good way of explaining and predicting the behavior of firms."

Monday, September 11, 2017

Interview with Jesse Shapiro: Media and Political Bias

Renee Haltom interviews Jesse Shapiro on the topic of media bias and political bias in Econ Focus,  published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (2nd Quarter 2017, pp. 24-29).  The entire interview is worth reading, but here are a few points that caught my eye. The headings are my words, and the explanations are Shapiro.

Newspaper political bias is more likely to reflect readership, rather than bias of owners.
"What we were trying to figure out is which newspapers are right-leaning and which newspapers are left-leaning and by how much. In the context of the news media in the United States, there isn't really a training set. So we took an idea that was developed by Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo to use the Congressional Record as the training set. We have a lot of text by speakers who have a known political affiliation — what party they belong to and how they vote on issues. Then we find the phrases that are diagnostic of the speaker's party. We came up with things like "death tax" for Republicans and "estate tax" for Democrats, or "personal retirement accounts" for Republicans and "private retirement accounts" for Democrats, or "the war in Iraq" for Democrats and "the war on terror" for Republicans. We could then look for those keywords or key phrases in newspapers and answer the question: If this newspaper were a speaker in Congress, would it be more likely to be affiliated with the Republican Party or the Democratic Party? That's our quantitative answer to how right-leaning or left-leaning a newspaper is. ...
"What we found is that newspapers with a more Republican customer base are much more Republican than newspapers in more Democratic markets. And once you control for geography, there's very little evidence of an influence of owner ideology — whether you measure that by the positions of the other newspapers owned by that owner or by the owner's donations to different political parties. There really isn't much evidence that the owner plays a big role in how a newspaper slants the news.
There is less ideological segregation in online media than you might have thought. 
"Think of an online news outlet, like a blog, as a neighborhood, and let's measure who's in that neighborhood: What fraction of those people would self-identify as conservative? What fraction would self-identify as liberal? And let's calculate how segregated is this universe, how segregated is the Internet. To what extent are people visiting news sites that are only populated by other people like them ideologically?
"We found that the extent of segregation on the Internet is surprisingly low. It's certainly true that people gravitate to like-minded sources. So for example, foxnews.com has a more conservative audience than nytimes.com. 
"But the Internet is not radically different from traditional media. Take the fraction of the audience on a given news site that is conservative and call that the conservativeness of the site. Then take the website visited by the average conservative on the average day — that website is about as conservative as usatoday.com. Now do that same thing for the average liberal, that's about as liberal as cnn.com. If you were to read those two outlets, you wouldn't find that they're radically different.
"In fact, we find that isolation is very rare in the data. We have individual-level data on users on the Internet. People who get all of their news from outlets to the left of, say, the New York Times are very unusual. Likewise, people who get all of their news from sites to the right of Fox News are extremely rare. Folks that go to a fringe conservative site like rushlimbaugh.com are more likely to go to nytimes.com than readers of Yahoo News. The people who are consuming niche media are probably pretty politically engaged people, and therefore they want to read a lot of things. So in the end, the picture is a lot more muted than what people have feared."
Use of online news and social media is not correlated with political polarization. 
"We just compare trends in polarization for groups of people that have high or low propensities to use the Internet and social media. Our favorite and most important comparison is with respect to age. People who are 75 years and over rarely use social media and don't report getting a lot of political information online. People who are 18 to 25 frequently use social media and report getting a lot of political information online. So if you thought that social media was contributing to the rise in polarization, what you would expect to see in the data is that polarization is rising especially fast for younger Americans — and if anything, the story is the opposite. The rise in polarization is similar between the relatively old and the relatively young, and if anything, maybe polarization is rising faster among the relatively old. So in that sense the data don't line up with the hypothesis that social media is driving the rise in polarization.
"I think the effect of the Internet on polarization remains an open question. We're arguing that it doesn't appear that social media is accounting for the increase in polarization, but we haven't offered a constructive account of what is driving it. Until we have a better understanding of that, it's hard to rule anything out."
Political phrases have become more specialized and identifiable by party affiliation over time. 
"So what we did is try to figure out, for every session of Congress and every point in time, how easily a neutral observer could tell whether someone is a Republican or Democrat based on how they talk. We took the entire Congressional Record and used computer scripts to turn it into quantitative data about the use of phrases. Then we took the counts of phrases by every speaker and every session of Congress back to the 1870s and fed that through a model of speech. The model can tell us, at every point in time, how informative your speech is about your party.
"What we find is that in the 1870s, if I give you a minute of random speech from somebody in Congress, you're going to guess his party correctly about 54 percent of the time, only modestly higher than chance. In the late 1980s, you'd be doing a little bit better, but barely. By the 2000s, the number is closer to 75 percent. Something enormous changes between the late 1980s and the 2000s to cause the parties to diverge tremendously in how they're talking — many more phrases like "death tax" and "estate tax."
"The timing of the change coincides with the "Contract with America" and the Republican takeover in the 104th Congress in 1994. That was a watershed moment in political marketing. It showed the power of language to frame a set of issues and craft a narrative that could be very powerful in winning elections and changing policy views. In the wake of that, strategies on both sides crystallized around trying to have a very consistent message and use very consistent language to try and influence how voters saw the issues. I think that's what's reflected in the data.
"In terms of implications, one speculative possibility is that the fact that Republicans and Democrats are speaking differently to each other might contribute to hostility. It might make it harder for them to find common ground or recognize positions on which they do agree. That's not something that we show in the study, but that's one not-so-optimistic possibility suggested by it."

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Netherlands: The #2 Food Exporter in the World

Densely populated Netherlands, with 17 million people and a GDP similar to the state of Illinois, is the second-largest exporter of food products in the world as measured by volume of sales. Frank Viviano explains in "This Tiny Country Feeds the World: The Netherlands has become an agricultural giant by showing what the future of farming could look like," which appears in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Essentially, Netherlands does it with high-tech farming and greenhouses, which enable very high yields. The online version of the essay has a number of remarkable photographs. Here's one showing a farmer's home surrounded by greenhouses:

The essay has lots of details and is worth reading in full, but the main points that jump out at me are that yields of many crops are vastly higher while environmental effects are lower. And while the high-tech agricultural model cannot be directly applied to every crop in every country (of course!), it does offer lessons that can be much more broadly applied.

For example, the Dutch are the world's top exporters of tomatoes, potatoes, and onions, and second-largest overall in vegetables (by value of sales). "More than a third of all global trade in vegetable seeds originates in the Netherlands. Some of the example read like science fiction: 15 varieties of tomato plants that are 20 feet tall, growing not in soil but in fibers spun from basalt and chalk.

Meanwhile, the plentiful use of sensors and enviromental controls means that many "have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent. They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent."

Of course, the Dutch expertise cannot simply be tranplanted to other places. Part of the technology is a use of geothermal energy--plentiful in Netherlands--to keep greenhouses at a reasonably consistent temperature. Another issue is that the Dutch are (understandably) focused on vegetable crops with relatively high values, more than on the field crops that are food staples around the world.

But there are lessons be learned, and probably the main one is the importance of research and development, even in an industry like agriculture that may seem fairly mature already. Apparently in the Netherlands, developments in high-tech agriculture and are facilitated by Wageningen University & Research. Instead of a US-style Silicon Valley, they aspire to a Food Valley. Moreover, there are now "a thousand WUR projects in more than 140 countries." However, "Less than 5 percent of the world’s estimated 570 million farms have access to a soil lab."

In the big picture, a crucial issue for the world economy is how to feed a world population that is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 or so. For some earlier posts on aspects of this topic, see: