Lisa Servon on predatory check cashing services

Lisa Servon via Alex Morrell:

The prevailing wisdom from bankers and policy makers went like this: People who used alternative financial services — like check cashers and payday lenders — were making expensive and unwise decisions…

But Servon, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania and a former dean at the New School, spent 20 years studying low-income communities, and to her, that picture didn’t add up…

“The implication of that… was these people were making poor decisions,” Servon recently told Business Insider. “I knew that the people I had worked with closely who don’t have very much money know where every penny goes. They budget things. They know where to get the best deals on things. And so it struck me that if they were using check cashers, there must be a good reason for that.”…

Servon recounts her journey in her new book, “The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives,”…

Over and over, Servon heard and observed that check cashers often met customers’ needs better than banks did.

She discovered there were three main reasons people used these services instead of banks: cost, transparency, and service.

This is a great example of the value of how familiarity with target population can yield better research. Prior to this, I had always thought these types of services were overpriced relative to a traditional bank, but I was not a good judge of that because I never really need the services they provide, so I naturally discounted their value to those that do need them.

Andrés Miguel Rondón on how to resist a populist

Andrés Miguel Rondón

The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement…

In Venezuela, the urban middle class I come from was cast as the enemy in the political struggle that followed Chávez’s arrival in 1998. For years, I watched in frustration as the opposition failed to do anything about the catastrophe overtaking our nation. Only later did I realize that this failure was self-inflicted. So now, to my American friends, here is some advice on how to avoid Venezuela’s mistakes.

Don’t forget who the enemy is.

Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely…

The problem is not the message but the messenger, and if you don’t realize this, you will be wasting your time.

Show no contempt.

Don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind…

Shaming has never been an effective method of persuasion…

The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That’s the textbook definition of polarization. We thought our country was split between treacherous oligarchs and Chávez’s uneducated, gullible base. The only one who benefited was Chávez.

Don’t try to force him out.

Our opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Boycotting elections in hopes that international observers would intervene? You guessed it…

You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come.

To a big chunk of the population, the Venezuelan opposition is still that spoiled, unpatriotic schemer. It sapped the opposition’s effectiveness for the years when we’d need it most…

Find a counterargument. (No, not the one you think.)

Don’t waste your time trying to prove that this grand idea is better than that one. Ditch all the big words. The problem, remember, is not the message but the messenger…

In Venezuela, we fell into this trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about separation of powers, civil liberties, the role of the military in politics, corruption and economic policy. But it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans, too… It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

Joel Spolsky on the importance of talent and the implications for scalability

Joel Spolsky:

the scalability problem. When you try to clone a restaurant, you have to decide between hiring another great chef of your caliber (in which case, that chef will probably want and expect to keep most of the extra profits that he created, so why bother), or else you’ll hire a cheaper, younger chef who’s not quite as good, but pretty soon your patrons will figure that out and they won’t go to the clone restaurant…

How many times have you heard this story?

Mike was unhappy. He had hired a huge company of IT consultants to build The System. The IT consultants he hired were incompetents who kept talking about “The Methodology” and who spent millions of dollars and had failed to produce a single thing.

Luckily, Mike found a youthful programmer who was really smart and talented. The youthful programmer built his whole system in one day for $20 and pizza. Mike was overjoyed. He recommended the youthful programmer to all his friends.

Youthful Programmer starts raking in the money. Soon, he has more work than he can handle, so he hires a bunch of people to help him. The good people want too many stock options, so he decides to hire even younger programmers right out of college and “train them” with a 6 week course.

The trouble is that the “training” doesn’t really produce consistent results, so Youthful Programmer starts creating rules and procedures that are meant to make more consistent results. Over the years, the rule book grows and grows. Soon it’s a six-volume manual called The Methodology.

After a few dozen years, Youthful Programmer is now a Huge Incompetent IT Consultant with a capital-M-methodology and a lot of people who blindly obey the Methodology, even when it doesn’t seem to be working, because they have no bloody idea whatsoever what else to do, and they’re not really talented programmers — they’re just well-meaning Poli Sci majors who attended the six-week course.

And Newly Huge Incompetent IT Consultant starts messing up. Their customers are unhappy. And another upstart talented programmer comes and takes away all their business, and the cycle begins anew…

What’s the moral of the story? Beware of Methodologies. They are a great way to bring everyone up to a dismal, but passable, level of performance, but at the same time, they are aggravating to more talented people who chafe at the restrictions that are placed on them.

Some interesting post-election commentary

Brendan O’Neill

“You are a white man. Your whiteness defines you. Everything you think is because you’re white, everything you say is because you’re white. Don’t try to be post-white. Don’t try to be colourblind. Don’t say you are ‘over race’. You’re white, own it and deal with it.”

“Really? Oh. Okay. I identify as white.”


Scott Alexander

The only thing the media has been able to do for the last five years is shout “IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS IDENTITY POLITICS!” at everything, and then when the right wing finally says “Um, i…den-tity….poli-tics?” you freak out and figure that the only way they could have possibly learned that phrase is from the KKK.

Mark Lilla

[Interviewer] You’re white. You’re male. You’re heterosexual. Are you the best person to make this argument?

[Mark Lilla] Arguments are arguments. Period.

The Fed’s Revealed Preference: Inflation Level Targeting at 1.5%

For years monetary policy arguments have turned on whether the central bank should do more to stimulate the economy or whether trying would only generate excessive inflation. Recently, though, people have begun to wonder whether the Fed has the power to do either. After years of having an unofficial inflation rate target of between 1.7% and 2%, in 2012 the Federal Reserve committed to a goal of 2% inflation per year.

Yet as shown in the chart below, the Fed has not achieved its goal. Inflation has been below 2% since early 2012 (using the Personal Consumption Expenditures [PCE] price index). Even with a small margin of error, the Fed has been substantially below its 2 percent target 86% of the time from 2012 to the present.   fedtarget_g1

There are three options to explain how the Fed could so consistently undershoot its inflation target.

  1. Perhaps it is not possible for the Fed to achieve 2% inflation.

One reason for consistently undershooting their inflation target would be that the Fed does not have the tools necessary to achieve their goal. This is clearly not the case as history is full of central banks increasing inflation when they want to. The hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic between the world wars and Zimbabwe more recently should leave little doubt about the ability of central banks to inflate. Nor does this fact change in a liquidity trap. As James Hamilton argued way back in 2008, the Fed could just print money to buy up all the U.S. Public Debt, and any other asset it desired. Such a strategy would eventually lead to inflation.

If the Fed can inflate but isn’t, then…

2. perhaps the Fed really does want 2% inflation, but they keep making mistakes that result in less than 2% inflation.

While Hamilton’s argument shows that it’s possible to inflate, doing so under current circumstances may require the Fed to use unconventional methods since the Federal Funds Rate is near zero, and there may be a learning curve associated with these new tools. Indeed, the Fed has introduced a host of new tools and methods, from new lending facilities, to quantitative easing, and has announced and backed away from others (e.g., the Evans Rule). It could be the case that the Fed doesn’t yet have enough experience with these new tools (and their interactions) to achieve their goal.

While mistakes are certainly a possibility…

3. Perhaps the Fed doesn’t really want 2% inflation.

When given the option, economists usually prefer to study what an individual or organization does rather than what it says it is trying to do. I may say I want to go to the gym, but if I haven’t been to the gym in months, my actions speak louder than my words.

Similarly, if the Fed says it wants 2% inflation, but yet consistently undershoots, then perhaps they don’t really want 2% inflation. But if the Fed doesn’t want 2% inflation, what does it want? I’ve created a webtool that allows for the interactive investigation of this type of question. Using the webtool, a good argument can be made that the Fed has had a 1.5% inflation level target since 2008. An inflation level target is different from an inflation target because with level targeting, any over or under shooting is corrected whereas with a target, any over or undershooting is water under the bridge. For example, suppose the Fed was aiming for 2% inflation last year but inflation was 3%. With a level target, the Fed would then aim for just over 1% inflation this year (because they had an extra 1% inflation last year), whereas with a non-level target, the Fed would still aim for 2% inflation this year. In other words, an inflation level target forces the Fed to correct any errors, whereas an inflation target ignores any errors.

As the first graph nearby shows, starting in 2008, the Fed has been within a small margin of error of a 1.5% inflation level target for just under a decade (2008 to 2016). This graph uses the Personal Consumption Expenditures excluding food and energy (PCEPILFE). (Food and energy are notoriously volatile, so their inclusion tends to add a lot of unnecessary noise).


When including food and energy, the Fed is within a small margin of error 87% of the time.


In sum, while it is certainly possible that the Fed really does have a 2% inflation target per year, their actions over the past 8 years are more consistent with a 1.5% inflation level target.

If that’s true, it’s not the Fed’s power to achieve 2% inflation that has been overestimated. It’s its will.

Josh Mitchell on the cost of student loan forgiveness

Josh Mitchell

The federal government is on track to forgive at least $108 billion in student debt in coming years, according to a report that for the first time projects the full cost of plans that tie borrowers’ payments to their earnings.

The report, to be released on Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office, shows the Obama administration’s main strategy for helping student-loan borrowers is proving far more costly than previously thought. The report also presents a scathing review of the Education Department’s accounting methods, which have understated the costs of its various debt-relief plans by tens of billions of dollars…

under current law, any amount forgiven would be taxed as ordinary income for private-sector workers, limiting the benefits for individuals. Public-sector workers aren’t taxed on forgiveness…

Warren Meyer on the fatal flaw in technocratic policy making

Warren Meyer:

Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry “our only mistake was letting those other guys take control”.  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable…

Joel Mokyr on why Europe grew more than China

Joel Mokyr:

The lower middle class in Western and Asian industrialized societies today has a higher living standard than the pope and the emperors of a few centuries back, in every dimension. That is the result of one thing: Our ability to understand the forces of nature and harness them for our economic needs.

If we understood how that happened, we would understand human history…

It isn’t just that China doesn’t have an Industrial Revolution, it doesn’t have a Galileo or a Newton or a Descartes, people who announced that everything people did before them was wrong. That’s hard to do in any society, but it was easier to do in Europe than China. The reason precisely is because Europe was fragmented, and so when somebody says something very novel and radical, if the government decides they are a heretic and threatens to prosecute them, they pack their suitcase and go across the border…

China was extremely innovative in its heyday… And yet, in the end, they did not turn that innovation into sustained economic growth.

I believe the fundamental reason is China’s position as a single empire, and also its bureaucracy, which is a unique and peculiar animal. On the one hand, it is very progressive, because it is a meritocracy. In Europe, the people who were in power were the sons and nephews of other people in power. But in China there’s an examination, and the people who did the best rose in the Mandarin civil service. So you’d think, “Wow, that’s very progressive.” Except if you look at what they were studying for these exams, they were simply regurgitating the classics. It was the perfect tool to keep reproducing from the same mold generation after generation…

In Europe, something different happens. People study classical knowledge, Ptolemy and Hippocrates and Archimedes, and they begin to say, “Most of this stuff is wrong.” You couldn’t do that in China. If you said “This stuff is wrong,” you failed your exam. But in Europe, the ability to challenge received wisdom is irrepressible…

There’s a French philosopher in the late 16th century, Pierre de La Ramée, who writes a book with the title “Everything Aristotle Has Said Is Wrong.” That’s chutzpah. A century earlier, he would have been strung up…

Jonathan Haidt on the telos of universities

Jonathan Haidt:

Aristotle often evaluated a thing with respect to its “telos” – its purpose, end, or goal. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a physician is health or healing. What is the telos of university?…

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” –Karl Marx, 1845

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…” –John Stuart Mill, 1859

Marx is the patron saint of what I’ll call “Social Justice U,” which is oriented around changing the world in part by overthrowing power structures and privilege. It sees political diversity as an obstacle to action. Mill is the patron saint of what I’ll call “Truth U,” which sees truth as a process in which flawed individuals challenge each other’s biased and incomplete reasoning…

no university can have Truth and Social Justice as dual teloses. Each university must pick one. I show that Brown University has staked out the leadership position for SJU, and the University of Chicago has staked out the leadership position for Truth U…

Glyn Moody explains an example of patent product hopping

Glyn Moody:

known as “product hopping”. That’s where:

“a company makes modest changes to a product to extend its patent protections so that other companies cannot enter the market and offer less-expensive generic alternatives”…

why Reckitt would want to pay for and then publicize a study that showed one of its own products was dangerous became clearer just a few hours later, when it submitted a “citizen petition” to the Food and Drug Administration:

“urging the US regulator to ban any future competitor pills to its suboxone tablets that were insufficiently “child resistant”.”

In other words, Reckitt effectively wanted the FDA to ban any generic versions of its own tablets, now out of patent, while leaving its patented film formulation on the market to enjoy a new monopoly…