My List of Questions

a compendium of research questions I'm pondering
Feb 10, 2024

“help,” I cry, making a big show of waving my arms, “you’ve got the wrong person, I actually know everything already,” as the tide of learning in public sweeps me out to sea

  • If the Paul Romer charter-city model works, how come developing countries haven’t just copy-pasted other countries’ laws themselves already? Is the advantage supposed to be more about the developed country being rich enough to dump more money into governing the charter city at first than the host country could? In that case, why not just give out a loan? And that would defeat the point of experimentation (though not necessarily of growth). Is it that a charter city structure lets firms from the rich company operate in the host country more easily, and those firms will have private information that the host country and its own industries can’t just copy-paste?
  • If academic publishing is a racket, why doesn’t everyone just switch over to arXiv or an equivalent? Are people really that stuck on coordination? Or is there some other reason? Why do a few fields use arXiv successfully but all the others don’t? If the problem is reputation, how come citation count or h-index, or even just informal clout assessment, don’t work as alternatives?
  • What causes the European food effect? The one where Americans go to Europe and eat all the bread and pastries they could ever want and lose ten pounds, or their skin clears up, or their digestive problems go away? This happened to me personally and I am a hundred percent certain it’s real. I suspect a wheat contaminant, or maybe something with corn syrup, but I’m not sure.
  • No, really, why is the DMV bad? How come bureaucratic hell is the default even in a democracy? Why can’t a politician win on a platform of “I’ll make all your interactions with government agencies suck less”? What exactly are the incentives here, and how do bureaucracies get entrenched beyond the electorate’s ability to rein them in? Is it that strong special-interest lobbies exist to prop up any given unnecessary office or programs, but the anti-bureaucracy lobby is less motivated against any particular program and thus harder to organize?
  • Why are California governments so uniquely dysfunctional? The state government included, but I’m thinking mostly of city governments, with San Francisco probably the worst offender, then Berkeley or Oakland (although is Berkeley actually dysfunctional or does it just restrict zoning out of self-interest?), then maybe LA. It can’t just be that they’re leftist – Scandinavian countries execute a form of leftism that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that you wouldn’t really call incompetent. Is it just that West Coast cities are younger than eastern cities and haven’t gone through all their Kegan stages or whatever? Did they get some key parameter wrong at the start, like one bad law in the charter that poisoned everything downstream? Or does it have to do with the personal qualities of California politicians; does California just attract insane people, the way Florida is peopled by Florida Men? If you swapped out the members of the San Francisco City Council for the members of the Boston City Council, would that fix anything? Or maybe cities of transplants are worse at governing themselves?
  • How did (the precursor to TikTok, where users filmed lip-sync videos) work between its launch in 2014 and its deal with Warner Music Group in 2016? Why wasn’t copyright an issue? This has proved shockingly hard to google.
  • Why do companies overpay for acquisitions more often than not? Wouldn’t they figure out “hey maybe we should be more wary of doing acquisitions”? Is there some kind of principal-agent problem where the executives don’t act in the best interest of the shareholders? But then why would the board approve the deal? Or is the premise actually wrong or outdated?
  • Why do trees absorb less carbon than humans emit? The number everyone gives for carbon dioxide absorbed by a single tree is 48 pounds per year. There are three trillion trees in the world. So you’d expect trees to collectively absorb 144 trillion pounds of CO2 a year – almost twice as much as humans emit, about 80 trillion pounds of CO2 per year. But in reality, trees only absorb about 16 trillion pounds total. Why is the estimate so far off? Which number is wrong? The 48-pound number is apparently for “mature trees”, but even if we assume all trees are immature and absorb half that, we’re still way off. Should we be suspicious of that single-tree number, given that a sequoia probably has very different carbon absorption properties from a cherry tree?