Thursday, November 19, 2020

Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’

By Ann Gibbons, contributing correspondent for Science. Volcanoes erupting put ash into the atmosphere, causing lower temperatures that hurt farming. Interesting article that also goes into the economic impacts. Excerpts:

"Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he's got an answer: "536." Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, "It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year," says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year," wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record "a failure of bread from the years 536–539." Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle."

 ""a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547."

"the summers around the year 540 were unusually cold"

"When a volcano erupts, it spews sulfur, bismuth, and other substances high into the atmosphere, where they form an aerosol veil that reflects the sun's light back into space, cooling the planet."

"A century later, after several more eruptions, the ice record signals better news: the lead spike in 640. Silver was smelted from lead ore, so the lead is a sign that the precious metal was in demand in an economy rebounding from the blow a century before, says archaeologist Christopher Loveluck of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. A second lead peak, in 660, marks a major infusion of silver into the emergent medieval economy. It suggests gold had become scarce as trade increased, forcing a shift to silver as the monetary standard, Loveluck and his colleagues write in Antiquity. "It shows the rise of the merchant class for the first time," he says."" 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Is There Economic And Political Meaning In "The Wizard of Oz?"

To get a handle on this, you can read Money and Politics in the Land of Oz By Quentin P. Taylor.  Below is an excerpt from the Taylor paper:

"Dorothy, the protagonist of the story, represents an individualized ideal of the American people. She is each of us at our best-kind but self-respecting, guileless but levelheaded, wholesome but plucky. She is akin to Everyman, or, in modern parlance, “the girl next door.” Dorothy lives in Kansas, where virtually everything-the treeless prairie, the sun-beaten grass, the paint-stripped house, even Aunt Em and Uncle Henry-is a dull, drab, lifeless gray. This grim depiction reflects the forlorn condition of Kansas in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when a combination of scorching droughts, severe winters, and an invasion of grasshoppers reduced the prairie to an uninhabitable wasteland. The result for farmers and all who depended on agriculture for their livelihood was devastating. Many ascribed their misfortune to the natural elements, called it quits, and moved on. Others blamed the hard times on bankers, the railroads, and various middlemen who seemed to profit at the farmers’ expense. Angry victims of the Kansas calamity also took aim at the politicians, who often appeared indifferent to their plight. Around these economic and political grievances, the Populist movement coalesced.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Populism spread rapidly throughout the Midwest and into the South, but Kansas was always the site of its most popular and radical elements. In 1890, Populist candidates began winning seats in state legislatures and Congress, and two years later Populists in Kansas gained control of the lower house of the state assembly, elected a Populist governor, and sent a Populist to the U.S. Senate. The twister that carries Dorothy to Oz symbolizes the Populist cyclone that swept across Kansas in the early 1890s. Baum was not the first to use the metaphor. Mary E. Lease, a fire-breathing Populist orator, was often referred to as the “Kansas Cyclone,” and the free-silver movement was often likened to a political whirlwind that had taken the nation by storm. Although Dorothy does not stand for Lease, Baum did give her (in the stage version) the last name “Gale”-a further pun on the cyclone metaphor.

The name of Dorothy’s canine companion, Toto, is also a pun, a play on teetotaler. Prohibitionists were among the Populists’ most faithful allies, and the Populist hope William Jennings Bryan was himself a “dry.” As Dorothy embarks on the Yellow Brick Road, Toto trots “soberly” behind her, just as the Prohibitionists soberly followed the Populists.

When Dorothy’s twister-tossed house comes to rest in Oz, it lands squarely on the wicked Witch of the East, killing her instantly. The startled girl emerges from the abode to find herself in a strange land of remarkable beauty, whose inhabitants, the diminutive Munchkins, rejoice at the death of the Witch. The Witch represents eastern financial-industrial interests and their gold-standard political allies, the main targets of Populist venom. Midwestern farmers often blamed their woes on the nefarious practices of Wall Street bankers and the captains of industry, whom they believed were engaged in a conspiracy to “enslave” the “little people,” just as the Witch of the East had enslaved the Munchkins. Populists viewed establishment politicians, including presidents, as helpless pawns or willing accomplices. Had not President Cleveland bowed to eastern bankers by repealing the Silver Purchase Act in 1893, thus further restricting much-needed credit? Had not McKinley (prompted by the wealthy industrialist Mark Hanna) made the gold standard the centerpiece of his campaign against Bryan and free silver?"
Now an excerpt from an economics textbook by Irivin B. Tucker:
"Gold is always a fascinating story: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900 and this children's tale has been interpreted as an allegory for political and economic events of the 1890s. For example, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, Oz in the title is an abbreviation for ounce, Dorothy is the naive public, Emerald City symbolizes Washington, D.C., the Tin Woodman represents the industrial worker, the Scarecrow is the farmer, and the Cyclone is a metaphor for a political revolution. In the end, Dorothy discovers magical powers in her silver shoes (changed to ruby in the 1939 film) to find her way home and not the fallacy of the Yellow Brick Road. Although the author of the story, L. Frank Baum, never stated it was his intention, it can be argued that the issue of the story concerns the election of 1896. Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan (the Cowardly Lion) supported fixing the value of the dollar to both gold and silver (bimetallism), but Republican William McKinley (the Wicked Witch) advocated using only the gold standard. Since McKinley won, the United States remained on the Yellow Brick Road."
But not everyone agrees with this. Economist Bradley Hansen wrote an article titled The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics in the Journal of Economic Education in 2002. Here is his conclusion:
"Rockoff noted that the empirical evidence that Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory was slim, but he compared an allegorical interpretation to a model and suggested that “economists should not have any difficulty accepting, at least provisionally, an elegant but controversial model” (Rockoff 1990, 757). He was right—we did not have any difficulty accepting it. Despite Rockoff’s warning, we appear to have accepted the story wholeheartedly rather than provisionally, simply because of its elegance. It is as difficult to prove that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was not a monetary allegory as it is to prove that it was. In the end, we will never know for certain what Baum was thinking when he wrote the book. I suggest that the vast majority of the evidence weighs heavily against the allegorical interpretation. It should be remembered that no record exists that Baum ever acknowledged any political meanings in the story and that no one even suggested such an interpretation until the 1960s. There certainly does not seem to be sufficient evidence to overwhelm Baum’s explicit statement in the introduction of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that his sole purpose was to entertain children and not to impress upon them some moral. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a great story. Telling students that the Populist movement was like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does seem to catch their attention. It may be a useful pedagogical tool to illuminate the debate on bimetallism, but we should stop telling our students that it was written for that purpose."
I found a review of the book in the NY Times from 1900 and it does not mention anything about OZ having political or economic meaning. The book was also made into a musical a few years later and none of the reviews of the musical mention any political or economic meaning.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Why do employers pay extra money to people who study a bunch of subjects in college that they don’t actually need you to know? Signaling

See School Is Expensive. Is It Worth It? For your kids, yes—at least assuming they graduate. But the author of ‘The Case Against Education’ says the benefits to society are vastly overstated. WSJ interview with James Taranto and economics professor Bryan Caplan. Excerpts:

"Mr. Caplan’s case against education begins by acknowledging the case in favor of getting one. “It is individually very fruitful, and individually lucrative,” he says. Full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree, on average, “are making 73% more than high-school graduates.” Workers who finished high school but not college earn 30% more than high-school dropouts. Part of the difference is mere correlation: Mr. Caplan says if you adjust for pre-existing advantages like intelligence and family background, one-fifth to two-fifths of the education premium goes away. Even so, it really does pay to finish school."

"“Why is it that employers would pay all of this extra money for you to go and study a bunch of subjects that they don’t actually need you to know?”

The answer is “signaling,” an economic concept Mr. Caplan explains with an analogy: “There’s two ways to raise the value of a diamond. One of them is, you get an expert gemsmith to cut the diamond perfectly, to make it a wonderful diamond.” That adds value by making the stone objectively better—like human capital in the education context. The other way: “You get a guy with an eyepiece to look at it and go, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, this is great—it’s wonderful, flawless.’ Then he puts a little sticker on it saying ‘triple-A diamond.’ ” That’s signaling. The jewel is the same, but it’s certified.

Suppose you have a bachelor’s in philosophy from Mr. Caplan’s doctoral alma mater, and you’re applying for a job somewhere other than a college philosophy department. What does the sheepskin signal? His answer is threefold: intelligence, work ethic and conformity. “Finishing a philosophy degree from Princeton—most people are not smart enough to do that,” he says. At the same time, “you could be very smart and still fail philosophy at Princeton, because you don’t put in the time and effort to go and pass your classes.”

As for conformity, Mr. Caplan puts the signal into words: “I understand what society expects of me. I’m willing to do it; I’m not going to complain about it; I’m just going to comply. I’m not going to sit around saying, ‘Why do we have to do this stuff? Can’t we do it some other way? I don’t feel like it!’ ” It’s easy to gainsay the value of conformity, a trait the spectacularly successful often lack. Think Mark Zuckerberg. But then imagine how he would have fared as a 21-year-old college dropout applying for an entry-level corporate job.

Mr. Caplan believes these signals are reliable, that college graduates generally do make better employees than nongraduates. Thus it is rational for employers to favor them, and for young people to go through school."

"Because educational signaling is zero-sum, and because its benefits tend to flow to those who were well-off to begin with, the system promotes inequality without creating much wealth. Research comparing the personal and the national payoffs of schooling finds a wide discrepancy—in “the ballpark of, if a year of school for an individual raises earnings about 10%, [then] if you go and raise the education of an entire country’s workforce by a year, it seems to only raise the income of the country by about 2%.” Mr. Caplan therefore reckons that roughly 80% of the education premium comes from signaling, only 20% from marketable skills."

Also see The Philadelphia Eagles' Personnel Strategy: Targeting College Grads: Six of the Seven Players the Team Drafted This Year Are on Track to Graduate by Kevin Clark of the WSJ. It seems like NFL teams see the college degree as a signal. Exceprt:
"Philadelphia's philosophy of pursuing graduates was born when Roseman, the Eagles' general manager since 2010, and Kelly, the team's second-year coach, each discovered that teams with the most college graduates are overwhelmingly successful. Kelly learned this late in his coaching tenure at Oregon, when former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, whose son played at Oregon, mentioned in a talk to Oregon players that in the 2000s, the two teams who happened to have loads of graduates were the Colts and New England Patriots. Those teams dominated the first decade of this century.

"I didn't know he'd take it this far," Dungy said, jokingly.

In a private conversation later, Dungy, now an analyst for NBC, told Kelly that his research showed players with degrees were more likely to earn a second NFL contract and make more money. He told Kelly "the guys with degrees have what you are looking for. They are driven. If it's between two players, a degree might tip the scale. But at the time, I don't think he was even thinking of the NFL."
But before Kelly even arrived in Philadelphia, Roseman was doing his own research. Each year, Roseman and his lieutenants take the last four teams left in the playoffs and do reports on them—studying their players' height, weight, background and virtually everything else. Through those reports came evidence that the most successful teams had many college graduates on them. When Roseman and Kelly joined forces, the plan was clear.

The trends over the last five drafts are startling. Studies show that teams who select players who spent five years in college—and thus almost always have a degree—win big. Of the three teams with the most fifth-year seniors drafted, two of them met in February's Super Bowl: the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who went 4-12, took the fewest.

The team that drafted the most players who stayed just three years on campus? The New York Giants, who have missed the playoffs the past two seasons. The Colts, Patriots and Washington Redskins, who have five total playoff appearances in the last two years, have taken the fewest three-year players, who rarely have college degrees.

Kelly said a degree is more than proof of intelligence. "It's also, what is their commitment?" he said. "They set goals out for themselves and can they follow through for it? A lot of people can tell you they want to do this, this and this. But look at their accomplishments."

The Eagles say they want players who are prepared, and a degree confirms that. Take wide receiver Jordan Matthews, a Vanderbilt economics major whose study habits translated perfectly to the NFL."

A Doonesbury comic strip from 1980 seemed to predict this. One of the college players in the huddle says he is taking a course in Bio-Physics during football season to impress the scouts. The printing might be hard to read, so I typed up all the dialogue and put it after the strip.