Non-economics note: I finished the Souther Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority , and Acceptance) by Jeff VanderMeer. I had been worried about a "Lost" situation, where the story doesn't tie off nicely at the end, and....the books do not tie off nicely. BUT the writing is hypnotic, and the stories weave together so nicely, that I still recommend the books. If you cannot handle books without neat answers to their mysteries (and I normally cannot) then you should be careful of these books. But if you can give that kind of story a chance, these are a great place to start.

On to links that have been piling up over the last two weeks:

  • Great visualization of the spread of mega-cities over time. When you go to the site, notice that large cities appear first in relatively rich places (Europe, North America) and then slowly spread across the rest of world. Now, most mega-city growth is in particularly poor countries. Remi Jedwab and I have a paper we are working on right now regarding this rise of poor mega-cities. We link it to the change in mortality rates within cities after World War II. Historically, cities were deadly, and their growth was muted by the awful conditions. But with the epidemiological transition, cities became in many ways healthier than rural areas, meaning explosions of population growth, which ultimately let congestion outweigh the positive agglomeration effects of cities.
  • Actual data on the effect of robots! VoxEU post by Guy Michaels and Georg Graetz. They build a new dataset of information on industrial robots in use in 17 countries (OECD) by sector. They find that robot use is associated with higher labor productivity, wages, and total factor productivity, but no effect on labor's share of output. They also find that robot use lowers the employment of low-skilled workers, and only a marginal effect on medium-skilled workers. They are studying industrial robots, and not necessarily the idealized general-purpose robot that seems to be the big worry of some, so their results are not immediately applicable to the future. But finally studying this in the data is a huge step. Original paper is located here.
  • Tim Harford on Luddites and their modern equivalents. A nice explainer of how Luddites were not anti-technology, and did not think that technology would result in aggregate loses of jobs. They were worried about losing their market power as skilled artisans.
  • This was floating around a lot on my Twitter feed. There was a severe bottleneck in the Y chromosome some time around 4-8 thousand years ago. What does that mean? It means the diversity of Y chromosomes in the human population dropped remarkably in that period, indicating that a relatively small number of men were fathering most children. The diversity of Y chromosomes recovers in most areas in the centuries that follow, indicating that more men are having children. So was it the onset of settled agriculture that led to this bottleneck, with a few males at the top of early agricultural civilizations able to dominate the pool of available females? Was early agriculture as bad for living standards, as has been suggested, so that many men were not healthy enough to have kids or have kids that survived?
  • Dated (from three weeks ago) but excellent post by Cardiff Garcia on the long lags between technology introduction and the effects on labor markets, using "Engel's pause" in the 19th century to illustrate. Strongest point made here is that we have so few points of evidence regarding the effect of massive technology shifts on labor markets that trying to say anything firm about robots, AI, or anything else is almost impossible.
  • Tim Taylor on Paul Rubin on the mis-use of the idea of competition. The economy involves far more cooperation (implicit or explicit) than we like to give it credit for. Perfect competition is a non-existent, theoretical construct that is useful when writing models and you want to avoid talking about irrelevant things. But that doesn't mean it is how things actually work, or how they should work. It definitely isn't true that perfect competition would necessarily make an economy richer in the long run.
  • Many poor people in developing countries are poor in part because they live on really poor agricultural land. About 1.3 billion people are on what Edward Barbier and Jacob Hochard term less-favored agricultural land. Which of course leads to the big question regarding development. Is it better (or even possible) to improve that land, or is it better (or even possible) to get those people to leave those less-favored areas? If it's the former, then your concern is more with technology and input provision (fertilizer, etc..). If it's the latter, then your concern is more with property rights and compensating people who have to adapt to additional farmers showing up in their favored areas.
  • A good economic smack-down on trying to use market-based arguments against paying college athletes.
  • Kindle-to-Evernote script. Simple Python script that will suck up your Kindle highlights when you plug it into your computer and e-mail them to your Evernote account, organized nicely by book. Small tweaking necessary/possible to get things to your liking. But I cannot tell you how much I love this script. I want to give it a great big hug for saving me from having to go to my Amazon account all the time for notes.