Where do you get your ideas?

The most memorable answer to this question came from science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who said “Poughkeepsie” (on checking Wikipedia, I learn that he died a couple of years ago).

But in the context of discussions about remote work, I’m interested in the claim that random physical meetings (the archetypal example being corridor or water-cooler encounters with colleagues) are an important source of ideas, and therefore a reason for not working remotely.

This seems to be the kind of topic for which the data will consist mostly of anecdotes and introspection. A marginal improvement is too look over my own list of publications to see if I can identify any where the source arose from some particular interaction.

Looking at my 100 most-cited papers in Google Scholar, most collaborations are the result of planning rather than chance. In pre-Internet days, most of my collaborations started from seminars and conferences I spoke at or attended because the topic was of interest, or else from direct approaches by a colleague, usually in the same department. From the early 1990s onwards, direct approaches mostly came by email, and work has been done the same way. In several cases, I have written joint papers before ever meeting my co-author(s), though in other cases in-person collaboration with one or two co-authors works better.

More interesting to me, are the cases where the idea has come from blogging. Some notable examples

  • My Zombie Economics book. Starting with blog discussions, the idea for a book came from blog commenter Max Sawicky, and was picked up by Seth Ditchik at Princeton UP, who also commissioned Economics in Two Lessons and my current book-in-progress Economic Consequences of the Pandemic
  • Cross-disciplinary collaborations with Henry Farrell and LA Paul both arising from my involvement with Crooked Timber
  • This paper, which started with a comment on a blog post to the effect that “future generations” are in fact already alive (At least I think that’s how it happened. I could never locate the comment to acknowledge the source.)

It seems to me that that these are much more like the kind of serendipitous links that are supposed to be generated by water coolers.

Of course, academic research is a special kind of work, and I’m much more involved with the Internet than most of my colleagues (or, at least, a few years ahead of the general adoption trend). So, I’d be interested in anecdotes from others and links to actual research, if there is any.

Levelling up: a solution to antivaxerism

There’s been some good news on the local vaccine front, with a UQ vaccine project passing safety tests and showing early indications of effectiveness. With so many projects going ahead around the world, it seems likely we will have some usable vaccines by next year. On the other hand, based on past experience with similar diseases like influenza, it seems unlikely that vaccines will be perfectly effective. So, we’ll be living with some kinds of restrictions for the foreseeable future.

The prospect of a vaccine has, unsurprisingly, raised a lot of concern about anti-vaxerism and vaccine hesitancy, not helped by Scott Morrison’s short-lived suggestion that the vaccine should be mandatory. While there has been a fair bit of handwringing on this topic, our experience with varying levels of restrictions means that we have a fairly straightforward solution to the problem.

The characteristic of a pandemic is that everyone poses some level of risk to everyone else with whom they come into contact. Restrictions impose costs but reduce that risk.

The same is true of vaccines. As well as protecting those vaccinated to some extent, vaccines help to reduce the risk that we will infect others. On the other hand, they hurt, they pose a (probably small) risk of side-effects, and even if they aren’t actually dangerous, they are scary.

The crucial implication of this is that restrictions and vaccines are substitutes. A vaccinated person leading a normal, pre-Covid life poses a risk to others that can be matched by an unvaccinated person operating under some of the restrictions we have all experienced so far. Similarly, a vaccinated person who observes the basic restrictions (social distancing, masks, handwashing) might be comparable to an unvaccinated person on Level 2 or Level 3 restrictions (no bars, restaurant dining, large family groups and so on).

Assuming that we can get an expert assessment of the risks, we can make vaccination a matter of personal choice: the vaccine and low-level restrictions, or no vaccine and higher restrictions. Just as with that other highly risky activity, driving, this could be implemented through a license. But of course, starting from scratch, most of us wouldn’t need a physical license – this could be done with a QR code stored on phones, something much simpler than the ill-fated CovidSafe app.

Of course, there will still be objectors, like those who refuse both vaccines and other measures like masks, not to mention unlicensed drivers. But we are already working out how to deal with mask-refusers, border-hoppers and others. Even if compliance isn’t perfect, we will have a solution that works for most.

Every day, coal is killing us

That’s the headline for a piece I just wrote for Independent Australia, looking at a new report from Greenpeace about the harm done by air pollution from coal-fired power, in addition to the climate-destroying effects of CO2 emissions. The report estimates 800 deaths per year, and is, from what I can see, consistent with other studies.

Final para

As a possible recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic comes into sight, it’s time to place human health above the desire to maintain the economic status quo. Australia can and should get off coal by 2030, without harming workers employed in the industry. In doing so, we will be saving both lives and money.

The Big Apple

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story, expanding my earlier discussion of intangibles and monopoly to take account of Apple’s startling market valuation of $2 trillion. As I observe, this can’t be accounted for in terms of big profit gains

Admittedly, Apple’s business hasn’t been harmed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but neither has it greatly benefited — earnings in the June quarter were only about 10 per cent higher than in 2019, yet the stock price has doubled in less than six months.

It’s mostly about the combination of secure monopoly power and long term interest rates near zero, which increase the value of any stable source of income, like monopoly rents

So last millennium (repost from 2004, linking article from 1995)

I’m busy working on my book on the Economic Consequences of the Pandemic, and thinking about implications for the information economy. In the process, I dug up a blog post from 2004, which reproduces an article I wrote in 1995 (I can’t remember if I managed to get it published). An interesting aside is a reference to Camille Paglia, a big name back then, who did the whole Jordan Peterson thing earlier and better, though I’m obviously not a fan of either.

With 25 years of hindsight, I was quite pleased with how my 1995 piece stood up. But it would be interesting to see how others respond.

h.3 From 2004

Following up on a discussion at Crooked Timber, I looked at this much-linked piece by Camille Paglia, and was struck by its dated references to television and the 60s[1]. She goes on to talk about computers, but apparently sees the computer as nothing more than a turbocharged TV set. This impelled me to dig out a piece I wrote nearly ten years ago, making the point that far from privileging visual media, the computer, and particularly the Internet are contributing to a new golden age of text. Blogs weren’t thought of when I wrote this piece, but the argument anticipates them, I think.

fn1. Oddly enough, although the main argument is a restatement of positions that were familiar 50 years ago, the piece is full of references to the young, as though the current generation of young adults has been, in some way, more saturated in TV than were the baby booomers.

h3. The Coming Golden Age of Text

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r < 0

A few thoughts on the fact that r < 0, where r is the real rate of interest on long-term (< 30 years) debt for developed country governments

Situation predates pandemic and has happened despite central bank attempts to resist it, such as abandoned attempt by Fed to raise funds rate in 2019. Extends to corporate bonds as well. Lowest investment grade BBB currently offering 2.38 which implies expected real return (net of inflation and expected loss from default) also below zero. Was 5-6 per cent before GFC

Same for publicly traded stocks on plausible estimates of future earnings

Implies r < g (nominal growth rate), contra Picketty. But corporate profits are high and (ultra) rich are getting (ultra) richer. Presumably profits are being creamed off as rents in some way. Brett Christopher’s forthcoming Rentier Capitalism is highly relevant

If r < 0, any public investment that generates sufficient income to cover costs improves public finances. If we take r as social discount rate, scope for socially beneficial increased public investment is vast. Implied policy: nationalise sources of rent: IP, monopoly platforms, financial sector etc