Monday, August 31, 2015

What is exotic is ordinary when translated into our own terms

From Scott Alexander
70% of Pakistani medical students are female, but only 23% of doctors are. A medical education is a status symbol in Pakistan, and women seem to be pursuing it to increase their value in the marriage market, then getting married and dropping out of medicine. As a result, Pakistan spends a lot of money on medical education and is drastically short of doctors. What do they do? Does your opinion change if I tell you that people involved in US medical education have told me we have a similar problem here? (albeit much less severe, and more related to child-rearing than marriage)
When you first read this, it sounds like some exotic foreign phenomenon but it is actually prevalent across the OECD. Pakistan is typical in this manner rather than an outlier. In the US, in fields that entail lengthy and/or competitive periods of skill building (on the order of ten or fifteen years), women tend to represent 50% of the threshold of the beginning participants but only 15-30% of the workforce at the threshold achievement. Licensed doctors, law firm partners, accounting firm partners, CEO and CFOs, Senators, Senior management of companies, award winning authors, judges, etc.

The mediating factor is family formation and child rearing. I am reminded of Charles Murray's criticism in Coming Apart that the successful fail to preach what they practice. Education, then employment, then marriage and then family - regular as clockwork and with disproportionately positive outcomes.

Hence my perspective that we sometimes, in our emotional trope of the warm and cuddly elements of "family", lose sight of the fact that the family unit is also another economic and social unit and that there are varying degrees of effectiveness in structure and practices within such units. Looking at it from that dispassionate point-of-view, it is perfectly rational for Pakistani female medical students to leverage their academic career towards a marital outcome. We have assortative mating here in the US, why not in Pakistan? The mechanisms may differ somewhat but the process is similar. We may not like acknowledging the measured reality, but there it is.

Stray musings - follow the Benjamins

This passage sparked a thought. From Terrorists and Boxcars by James Taranto. Taranto is discussing a turn to the negative in Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, offering speculation as to what might be the cause. He includes:
The Boston Globe reported that “Biden expanded his exploration of a presidential campaign [a week ago] Saturday, sitting down for a private lunch with US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.” There was speculation about a Biden-Warren ticket. Last Monday CNN reported that Biden had “received President Barack Obama’s ‘blessing’ to make a 2016 bid for the White House, according to a senior Democrat.”
Ignoring Taranto's line of argument for the time being, what caught my eye was CNN's report. The Obama administration (and campaigns) have been famous for its steely defenestrations and under-bus-throwing. What CNN reports is almost certainly just gossip but you can't help but wonder. My chain of thought when speculating about inexplicable human actions always includes, close to the front of the list, the old Roman adage Qui bono?

Why would Obama throw Clinton under the bus, as is implied by greenlighting a Biden campaign? It is no secret that the Clinton-Obama relationship has always been cautiously distant, if not even antagonistic but endorsing Biden against Clinton seems improbable without some kind of motive.

What I have not seen discussed anywhere is the scenario of two post-presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Just as with Hillary Clinton's campaign right now, which sucks all the oxygen out of the room for other Democrat candidates, The Clinton Foundation, I presume, sucks all the money out of the Democrat philanthropic ecosystem.

If Hillary Clinton wins, I would assume that the Clinton Foundation goes from strength to strength (though presumably with a lot more protocols and scrutiny). Where is there room for Barack Obama, in that scenario, to raise money for his presidential library or other activities which he might want to sponsor as his legacy?

Could it be that Obama loyalists are doing battlefield preparation for the post-presidency when they might also want to raise funds for some form of an Obama Foundation with its own and different agenda from the Clinton Foundation? If Hillary Clinton wins, then their position is much, much harder. If she loses, and both Clintons are removed from the levers of governmental power and influence, then the Clinton Foundation receipts likely fall dramatically. Political money will always find a home, and where better to park than at the new Obama Foundation?

No idea whether there is any merit to any of this gossipy speculation but it has the ring of plausibility.

Chinese stimulus, in the broad sense of that word, thus worsens previous Chinese malinvestments

Several useful insights from Not all Chinese ngdp is created equal by Tyler Cowen.
Economists are familiar with the use of monetary and fiscal policy to stimulate or restore nominal gdp, or other measures of aggregate demand if you prefer. But China faces a bigger dilemma. Part of its earlier pro-growth program overstimulated particular sectors of the economy, for instance construction and a variety of heavy duty state-owned enterprises. Not coincidentally, those are the same parts of the economy which have experienced excess capacity and decreasing returns.

The more specific dilemma is this: China’s main paths for boosting its nominal gdp path also tend to stimulate or re-stimulate these overextended sectors. Think for instance of pushing more credit through state-owned banks to favored state-owned firms. Or consider fiscal policy. At the margin that could mean municipal governments spending more on what they know best how to do, namely building more physical infrastructure.

Chinese stimulus, in the broad sense of that word, thus worsens previous Chinese malinvestments. China would like to stay on a smooth ngdp growth path, but they don’t know how to do this without overextending themselves in particular sectors all the more.

It is fine to call for “reform,” but there are two extra problems. First, most of the best reforms will lower ngdp in the short run and maybe even the medium run. Second, the ngdp crunch may be coming more quickly than reforms can be instantiated.
RELATED: It is difficult for prescriptive planners to anticipate changes in comparative advantage

Sunday, August 30, 2015

It is difficult for prescriptive planners to anticipate changes in comparative advantage

I have never heard it put quite this way before. Interesting. From A Long History of a Short Block: Four Centuries of Development Surprises on a Single Stretch of a New York City Street by William Easterly, Laura Freschi, and Steven Pennings. From the abstract.
Economic development is usually analyzed at the national level, but the literature on creative destruction and misallocation suggests the importance of understanding what is happening at much smaller units. This paper does a development case study at an extreme micro level (one city block in New York City), but over a long period of time (four centuries). We find that (i) development involves many changes in production as comparative advantage evolves and (ii) most of these changes were unexpected (“surprises”). As one episode from the block’s history illustrates, it is difficult for prescriptive planners to anticipate changes in comparative advantage, and it is easy for regulations to stifle creative destruction and to create misallocation. If economic growth indeed has a large component for increases in productivity through reallocation and innovation, we argue that the micro-level is important for understanding development at the national level.

When is middle age?

I am interested in age. The cultural significance, the mechanics of it, how we measure it, how we recognize it, etc.

At the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy in the US was something on the order of 40 years. It is now close to eighty. This changed reality has unevenly filtered into our language and social norms.

A tragedy this weekend in Atlanta highlights this.

From Fan Dies After Falling From Upper Deck at Atlanta’s Turner Field by Billy Witz.
ATLANTA — A man in his early 60s died Saturday night after falling more than 40 feet from the upper deck at Turner Field during the seventh inning of the Yankees’ 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves.

After being attended to by fans and paramedics, the man was transferred to Grady Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

According to eyewitnesses, a middle-aged man wearing a Braves cap stood up from his seat in the second row behind home plate to boo the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez when he was announced as a pinch-hitter. The man then seemed to lose his balance and fell forward over several women who were seated in the front row.
I am not poking at Witz. I see this all the time and I think he simply reflects a societal shift that is not much talked about or reflected upon. The point of oddity is equating "A man in his early 60s" with "middle-aged."

Not only are we living longer, but some portion of those who live longer are also living far healthier. I know plenty of 60 and 70 year-olds who don't look much older than late forties or early fifties. I see why someone can be in his early sixties and also be seen to be middle-aged. But it still rings oddly.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The paper tigers roar at noon

By A.D. Hope
At noon the paper tigers roar
-- Miroslav Holub

The paper tigers roar at noon;
The sun is hot, the sun is high.
They roar in chorus, not in tune,
Their plaintive, savage hunting cry.

O, when you hear them, stop your ears
And clench your lids and bite your tongue.
The harmless paper tiger bears
Strong fascination for the young.

His forest is the busy street;
His dens the forum and the mart;
He drinks no blood, he tastes no meat:
He riddles and corrupts the heart.

But when the dusk begins to creep
From tree to tree, from door to door,
The jungle tiger wakes from sleep
And utters his authentic roar.

It bursts the night and shakes the stars
Till one breaks blazing from the sky;
Then listen! If to meet it soars
Your heart's reverberating cry,

My child, then put aside your fear:
Unbar the door and walk outside!
The real tiger waits you there;
His golden eyes shall be your guide.

And, should he spare you in his wrath,
The world and all the worlds are yours;
And should he leap the jungle path
And clasp you with his bloody jaws,

Then say, as his divine embrace
Destroys the mortal parts of you:
I too am of that royal race
Who do what we are born to do.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Trust, Transparency, and Competition - The elixir of prosperity

From China: The new Spanish Empire? by Jacob Soll. Very interesting perspective and not wrong, though you always have to be careful with such macro-comparisons.
The Chinese turmoil roiling markets right now presents a fresh and profound challenge to the world economy: For the first time, a giant, non-European superpower threatens world financial stability and the powers that be seem at a loss. If the IMF and World Bank have stumbled with Greece, how are they going to get a hold on the stock market travails of Communist China? What tools do we even have to affect how it plays out?

But if the particulars are novel, in the bigger sense this is a movie we’ve seen before. Though China has been the global economic star of the last low-growth decade, it remains a totalitarian dictatorship, with its economy shrouded in state secrecy. What we’re encountering in this crisis is the spectacle of a closed society colliding with the forces of complex, free-market capitalism. If we look beyond China, we can find a long history of these collisions, dating back hundreds of years, as both closed societies and capitalism evolved and became more complex. And the history has a clear but unsettling lesson to offer: When such a collision happens, it’s a moment to genuinely worry.

Since the dawn of capitalism, closed societies with repressive governments have — much like China — been capable of remarkable growth and innovation. Sixteenth-century Spain was a great imperial power, with a massive navy and extensive industry such as shipbuilding and mining. One could say the same thing about Louis XIV’s France during the 17th century, which also had vast wealth, burgeoning industry and a sprawling empire.

But both countries were also secretive, absolute monarchies, and they found themselves thrust into competition with the freer countries Holland and Great Britain. Holland, in particular, with a government that didn’t try to control information, became the information center of Europe — the place traders went to find out vital information which they then used as the basis of their projects and investments. The large empires, on the other hand, had economies so centrally planned that the monarch himself would often make detailed economic decisions. As these secretive monarchies tried to prop up their economies, they ended up in unsustainable positions that invariably led to bankruptcy, collapse and conflict.
I have long noticed that people confuse the temporary evidence of effervescence with underlying productivity and this confusion arises from failing to take into account BOTH the costs and the benefits of any particular action. You can conquer a territory and fill up your coffers with looted gold but unless your economic system has changed, your underlying productivity has not changed at all. You have inflated the appearance of prosperity without actually creating the sustaining mechanism of continued prosperity. If you want continued prosperity, you have to keep feeding the beast with new conquests. At some point, you run out of wealthy regions to capture and you are left with a system that is still low on productivity. That's when empires, countries, and economies collapse.

The US government has been doing this at a social policy level for decades. It understandably wants people in the low productivity (poor) income quintiles to become middle class. Instead of focusing on how to equip them with the cognitive and non-cognitive skills that will allow them to become more productive (the ticket into the middle class), the government has instead focused on giving people the trappings of the middle class. It fails to recognize that the trappings of the middle class are only the outward manifestation of productivity, not productivity itself (which arises from cognitive and non-cognitive attributes).

The principal examples are homeownership and private university education, those archetypal milestones to the middle class. The government has worked hard (but disastrously and ineffectively) to make those hallmarks of middle class equally accessible to all, not realizing that these are consumption goods resulting from middle class behaviors, not the actual causes of middle class prosperity.

At a national level, what drives prosperity? Transparency, Trust and Competition - the constituent ingredients to the elixir of modern, liberal economies. Reduce or remove any one of these and the tap of prosperity, innovation and growth slowly closes.

Anyone can, for a period, look like they are producing a lot, as long as they hide the costs. What Western economies achieve is growth through productivity and they do that through a system of Transparency, Trust and Competition. A system like the Soviet Union (with low Transparency, Trust, and Competition) can grow and look like it is successful because it is able to hide the costs. The Soviet Union was fundamentally a failure because they were exploiting resources, first Human and later Natural (such as oil and gas), without ever acknowledging the costs. A productive, efficient system, such as in a Western economy can only grow when both sides of the equation are taken into account, the costs and the benefits. 15th century monarchical Spain, 17th century monarchical France, 20th century Soviet Union and 21st century China are all systems with low Transparency and Trust. Spain, France and China at least had some forms of competition, China especially. In fact, there has been a twenty year background discussion about when the conflict between the unleashed forces of market competition would finally come to a head with the political disposition to low Transparency and Trust. Perhaps now is that moment.
There is no historical example of a closed imperial economy facing large capital-driven, open states and sustainably competing over a long term. That is not to say that China isn’t an economic powerhouse and a remarkable site of energy and potential. It is certainly both. But we also know Chinese debt — as secret as the state likes to keep it — is enormous, and that its financial system is like any other bubble. It is predicated on inflated earnings reports and expectations. The great “Beijing Consensus,” China’s absolute commitment to showing 8% growth every year, is unsustainable, at least through legitimate means. And without it, China is beginning to look like an enormous totalitarian ponzi scheme — a phenomenon common enough in world history, but extremely dangerous be near in the long run.
For Americans, the saving grace is the relative insularity of our continental economy. Yes, we are a global economic behemoth, but compared to most other countries, particularly in Europe, a relatively small portion is actually traded globally. A slowdown in China hurts us but wounds others with more trade dependent economies.

UPDATE: A very current example of the consequences of eating the seed corn and never addressing real productivity: Printing Money Goes Haywire in Venezuela by Megan McArdle

The same outcome can be arrived at in many ways

From Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play by James C. Scott.
One need not have an actual conspiracy to achieve the practical effects of a conspiracy. More regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called “Irish Democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Class not race

From NYT Spins Racial Discord with Bad Evidence by Walter Russell Mead. Read the whole, brief, thing.
In noting the approaching tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of New Orleans, the New York Times chose to run with the race angle: “Racially Disparate Views of New Orleans’s Recovery After Hurricane Katrina” screams the headline.


But the facts don’t fit the narrative, and the story quickly falls apart. Readers who go below the first two paragraphs will discover that the big difference after Katrina is between people who live in neighborhoods that were deeply flooded, who have a less positive view of the recovery, and those who live in neighborhoods where the damage wasn’t as severe. This is hardly surprising. And it turns out that whites outside New Orleans, in parishes where the flooding was bad, are less positive about the recovery than New Orleans residents:
That the extent of the flooding is directly connected to the perception of recovery is also reflected outside New Orleans. The survey shows that people in neighboring Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, both of which were predominantly white and were catastrophically flooded, have even dimmer views of the extent of recovery than the residents of New Orleans.
So it isn’t a black-white divide; it’s a flood damage divide, and whites as well as blacks fell on the wrong side of it.
I have commented many times about the tendency, in much of the media, to indulge in advocacy journalism but to then subvert their very goal by the facts of their own reporting. They have a hard time finding genuinely sympathetic victims of whatever the problem is that they are profiling. It isn't that you can't sympathize with the victim. It is too often the case that the outcomes were a predictable result of the victim's own actions. I am sorry you lost your house to a hurricane on the coast and didn't have insurance. But why did you choose to build an uninsured, wood construction house, on a beach front with a regular history of hurricanes?

Mead says it better.
It’s clear that there’s a full court press at the Gray Lady to focus on race these days. There’s nothing wrong with that; race remains a major issue in the U.S. But the hunger to fit facts to a narrative ultimately devalues the very concerns that the Times wants its readers to focus on. Good journalism certainly isn’t incompatible with a strong point of view. But far too often, the Times slips into bad advocacy journalism, using the journalistic equivalent of hamburger helper to bulk up a case that otherwise looks weak. That makes for both poor journalism and poor advocacy.
I would go one step further than Mead. He correctly, using the facts reported by the NYT itself, notes that the divide is between flooded populations and those who were not and that there were both flooded white neighborhoods and flooded black neighborhoods and they have comparable views on how the recovery has proceeded.

I would add that there is a missing class division as well. Whether white or black, most of the areas that were flooded were poor neighborhoods. Their circumstances were hard to start with and Katrina made them much worse. They lived in flood prone areas because that is what they could afford. The real NYT headline would actually read "NOLA Poor, Hardest Hit!" It has the virtue of being true and consistent with the information the Times itself reports. From the perspective of advocacy journalism it has the disadvantage of taking the heat out of the preferred jeremiad.

As always is the case, to solve a problem, you have to define it well. Misdirecting the reading public as to what is actually happening is not only bad journalism but it fosters bad solutions.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.

From Technopoly by Neil Postman.
But such prejudices are not always apparent at the start of a technology’s journey, which is why no one can safely conspire to be a winner in technological change. Who would have imagined, for example, whose interests and what world-view would be ultimately advanced by the invention of the mechanical clock? The clock had its origin in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion. And indeed it did. But what the monks did not foresee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant.

“The mechanical clock;’ as Lewis Mumford wrote, “made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product.” In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.

Unforeseen consequences stand in the way of all those who think they see clearly the direction in which a new technology will take us. Not even those who invent a technology can be assumed to be reliable prophets, as Thamus warned. Gutenberg, for example, was by all accounts a devout Catholic who would have been horrified to hear that accursed heretic Luther describe printing as “God’s highest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.” Luther understood, as Gutenberg did not, that the mass-produced book, by placing the Word of God on every kitchen table, makes each Christian his own theologian—one might even say his own priest, or, better, from Luther’s point of view, his own pope. In the struggle between unity and diversity of religious belief, the press favored the latter, and we can assume that this possibility never occurred to Gutenberg.

Thamus understood well the limitations of inventors in grasping the social and psychological—that is, ideological— bias of their own inventions. We can imagine him addressing Gutenberg in the following way: “Gutenberg, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of printing, have out of fondness for your off-spring come to believe it will advance the cause of the Holy Roman See, whereas in fact it will sow discord among believers; it will damage the authenticity of your beloved Church and destroy its monopoly.”

We can imagine that Thamus would also have pointed out to Gutenberg, as he did to Theuth, that the new invention would create a vast population of readers who “will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction... [who will be] filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom”; that reading, in other words, will compete with older forms of learning. This is yet another principle of technological change we may infer from the judgment of Thamus: new technologies compete with old ones—for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their worldview. This competition is implicit once we acknowledge that a medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competitions can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool—the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another

From Technopoly by Neil Postman.
In addition to this, and more important, it is not always clear, at least in the early stages of a technology’s intrusion into a culture, who will gain most by it and who will lose most. This is because the changes wrought by technology are subtle if not downright mysterious, one might even say wildly unpredictable. Among the most unpredictable are those that might be labeled ideological. This is the sort of change Thamus had in mind when he warned that writers will come to rely on external signs instead of their own internal resources, and that they will receive quantities of information without proper instruction. He meant that new technologies change what we mean by “knowing” and “truth”; they alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like-a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is inevitable, of what is real. Since such changes are expressed in changed meanings of old words, I will hold off until later discussing the massive ideological transformation now occurring in the United States. Here, I should like to give only one example of how technology creates new conceptions of what is real and, in the process, undermines older conceptions. I refer to the seemingly harmless practice of assigning marks or grades to the answers students give on examinations. This procedure seems so natural to most of us that we are hardly aware of its significance. We may even find it difficult to imagine that the number or letter is a tool or, if you will, a technology; still less that, when we use such a technology to judge someone’s behavior, we have done something peculiar. In point of fact, the first instance of grading students’ papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish.3 No one knows much about William Farish; not more than a handful have ever heard of him. And yet his idea that a quantitative value should be assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity itself. When Galileo said that the language of nature is written in mathematics, he did not mean to include human feeling or accomplishment or insight. But most of us are now inclined to make these inclusions. Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express authentic knowledge.

I shall not argue here that this is a stupid or dangerous idea, only that it is peculiar. What is even more peculiar is that so many of us do not find the idea peculiar. To say that someone should be doing better work because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is a 7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man’s essay on the rise of capitalism is an A- and that man’s is a C+ would have sounded like gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson. If it makes sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they did. Our understanding of what is real is different. Which is another way of saying that embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.

This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by his famous aphorism “The medium is the message.” This is what Marx meant when he said, “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature” and creates the “conditions of intercourse” by which we relate to each other. It is what Wittgenstein meant when, in referring to our most fundamental technology, he said that language is not merely a vehicle of thought but also the driver. And it is what Thamus wished the inventor Theuth to see. This is, in short, an ancient and persistent piece of wisdom, perhaps most simply expressed in the old adage that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Without being too literal, we may extend the truism: To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. And to a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.

But such prejudices are not always apparent at the start of a technology’s journey, which is why no one can safely conspire to be a winner in technological change.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A tired and worn out lament

A wonderful example of the lack of self-awareness of the redistributionist mindset and the mainstream media, which is largely of the same ilk.

The Atlantic magazine has an article, How to Get Low-Wage Workers Into the Middle Class by Steven Greenhouse. As an economist, I look at that headline and it is close to asked and answered. How to Get Low-Wage Workers Into the Middle Class? Help them learn to increase their productivity. Productivity is the core of all national accounts. Low productivity, low wealth. High productivity, high wealth. So if you want to move from low income to high income, you have to figure out how to become more productive. Its that simple. You may not like the trade-offs you have to make, but still, the road to the middle-class is pretty clear.

Disappointingly, the article is actually about the challenges faced by unions when trying to make low productivity workers more expensive than the value of what they produce. A tired and worn out lament about the ignoble sentiments that prevent productive people from happily giving up their own income on behalf of others less productive. Age old but still there are the confused who want to focus on coercing money from the productive instead of teaching the less productive to become more productive. Missed opportunities.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The marriage of linked cause and random chance

I understand Hope's set up with the first three stanzas but it is the insight in the last four that I find valuable. So many people want to argue that there is no free will, that everything is ordained and that "each step is ruled by what has been." It is a convenient myth because without free will no one is at fault, we all live in blessed helplessness and innocence. It is also an attractive view for those who believe that man is, with sufficient research, perfectible as long as we can discover the rules.

On the other hand, there are also those who believe that every outcome is determined by random chance. Again, attractive because it frees individuals from having to make choices and accept accountability. The truth is not always midway between the extremes, but in this instance I think the midway point is a lot closer to the truth than either extreme, that we all are subject to "Determined pattern and incredible chance."

And for all our culture, sophistication and civilization, there are some base truths which we are too rarefied to acknowledge but which remain ineluctably true: "I have this thing, and only this, to do."

by A.D. Hope

Year after year the princess lies asleep
Until the hundred years foretold are done,
Easily drawing her enchanted breath.
Caught on the monstrous thorns around the keep,
Bones of the youths who sought her, one by one
Rot loose and rattle to the ground beneath.
But when the Destined Lover at last shall come,
For whom alone Fortune reserves the prize
The thorns give way; he mounts the cobwebbed stair
Unerring he finds the tower, the door, the room,
The bed where, waking at his kiss she lies
Smiling in the loose fragrance of her hair.

That night, embracing on the bed of state,
He ravishes her century of sleep
And she repays the debt of that long dream;
Future and Past compose their vast debate;
His seed now sown, her harvest ripe to reap
Enact a variation on the theme.

For in her womb another princess waits,
A sleeping cell, a globule of bright dew.
Jostling their way up that mysterious stair,
A horde of lovers bursts between the gates,
All doomed but one, the destined suitor, who
By luck first reaches her and takes her there.

A parable of all we are or do!
The life of Nature is a formal dance
In which each step is ruled by what has been
And yet the pattern emerges always new
The marriage of linked cause and random chance
Gives birth perpetually to the unforeseen.

One parable for the body and the mind:
With science and heredity to thank
The heart is quite predictable as a pump,
But, let love change its beat, the choice is blind.
'Now' is a cross-roads where all maps prove blank,
And no one knows which way the cat will jump.

So here stand I, by birth a cross between
Determined pattern and incredible chance,
Each with an equal share in what I am.
Though I should read the code stored in the gene,
Yet the blind lottery of circumstance
Mocks all solutions to its cryptogram.

As in my flesh, so in my spirit stand I
When does this hundred years draw to its close?
The hedge of thorns before me gives no clue.
My predecessor's carcass, shrunk and dry,
Stares at me through the spikes. Oh well, here goes!
I have this thing, and only this, to do.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The French can be a bit touchy behind the wheel

From The Strange Popularity of Corsican License Plates by Scott Sayare.
Corsica, the rocky island about 110 miles south of mainland France, has a reputation as a place of deep honor, short tempers, and easy violence.

These are characteristics for which motorists across France would like to be known, apparently. Since 2009, when a new rule permitted French drivers to order license plates from any region, Corsicans, or rather Corsican plates, have been appearing on roads throughout the country. (Under the old system, which was running low on numbers, plates were matched to one’s home region.)

The French can be a bit touchy behind the wheel: flip someone off and he is liable to swerve in front of you, slam on the brakes, hop out, and offer to defend his pride with his fists. Corsican plates, which bear an image of a Moor’s head—the emblem on the island’s coat of arms, as well as the symbol of its small but murderous independence movement—are thought to help avoid this sort of situation, signaling that their owners are not to be honked at, cut off, or otherwise crossed. “It’s becoming a code to show that you’re a rebel and that you’re hot-blooded,” the manager of one plate-maker told Le Figaro last year. Other people suggest that cars with Corsican plates may be less vulnerable to abuse by vandals and bored teenagers. In an interview with Le Parisien, Gabriel Xavier Culioli, a Corsican writer, called the popular image of the island’s residents “grotesque,” and lamented the plates’ appeal to men “who want to pass as tough guys.”

Not competent to argue

Neil Postman, in Technopoly, opens with a passage from Plato's Dialogues. Postman references a different translation but it is the same passage I cite September 8th, 2010, You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding. Go to the link for the whole passage but the heart of it is a tale out of ancient Egypt regarding the invention of writing.
But Thamus replied, "Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.
Thamus is warning of three things: 1) New inventions will be sued in ways different than anticipated by the inventor, 2) that writing will not serve to enhance memory, and 3) Easy access to information will foster an inclination towards the appearance of knowledge and wisdom and undermine the actual pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

Postman has a similar read. He points out that
In fact, there is even one error in the judgment of Thalmus, from which we may also learn something of importance. The error is not in his claim that writing will damage memory and create false wisdom. It is demonstrable that writing has had such an effect. Thalmus' error is in his believing that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden. For all his wisdom, he fails to imagine what writing's benefits might be, which, as we know, have been considerable. We may learn from this that it is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sded effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing, not either-or, but this-and-that.
I agree. It is one of the most common errors in argument - either all the costs are shown and none of the benefits (if you are against the proposed change) or all the benefits are shown and none of the costs (if you are for the proposed change). Both forms are profoundly wrong and disrespectful of the audience but they are a routine form of argument. I suspect they are not always maliciously intended. Keen enthusiasts can blind themselves to the costs of a proposal and Casanovas equally blind themselves to benefits. They simply do not see both sides of an argument, and hence are not competent to argue.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Our instinctive definition of the problem ineluctably leads to an instinctive definition of the solution

Too often, our instinctive definition of the problem ineluctably leads to an instinctive definition of the solution. This in turn leads to bad outcomes. Alternatively - foolish definitions lead to foolish solutions.

Our instinct is usually driven by heuristics, recent impressions, ignored biases and ill-grounded stereotypes. It is a weak foundation.

The correct approach, time and resources permitting, is to explore and iterate the problem until we can define it in its context and in terms of our objectives and then to explore the assumptions and possibilities of a range of solutions.

We treat ourselves as infallible gods, ignoring our history of fallibility.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

If you cannot precisely define the whole sample space . . .

Not disputing the statement but highlighting it as a catalyst for reflection.

From the Wikipedia entry for Probability Axioms, regarding the second axiom,
This is often overlooked in some mistaken probability calculations; if you cannot precisely define the whole sample space, then the probability of any subset cannot be defined either.
Probably related in some fashion to the inclination to make arguments based on apples-to-oranges comparisons.

Can you say Executive Order?

The spirit of the expert, the functionary, the central planner, the dictator is alive and well today but was described by Juvenal in Satire No. 6, line 223.

Hoc volo, sic lubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas.
I will have this done, so I order it done; let my will replace reasoned judgment.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Don't confuse de facto with de jure

Interesting example on the importance of context in deciding on measurement. Also a great example of the importance of using direct empirical evidence over abstract proxies. From Is the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ Report at Odds With How Business Is Done in the Developing World? by Raymond Zhong.
The World Bank’s ”Doing Business” report, an influential survey of the operating environment for companies in nearly 200 countries, doesn’t accurately reflect the experience of companies actually doing business in developing nations, a new study has found.

The annual publication from the development lender assesses the ease of compliance in 10 facets of private enterprise, from starting a business to getting electricity to paying taxes. The results are used to generate a much-publicized country ranking, which governments around the world take as a yearly checkup on their economic stewardship.

Singapore flaunts its top spot, while laggards turn improving their rank into national priorities. Retaking the Russian presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin vowed to vault Russia to 20th by 2018 from 120th in 2012. The country came in at No. 62 this year. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, testifies to his business-friendliness by promising to take his nation, 142nd in this year’s report, into the top 50 by 2017.

But Mary Hallward-Driemeier, a World Bank economist, and Lant Pritchett, a Harvard University economist, find “almost zero correlation” between the Doing Business findings and those based on surveys of business enterprises that the World Bank helps conduct around the world. On average, the amount of time companies tell surveyors they spend on three tasks—obtaining construction permits, getting operating licenses and importing goods—is “much, much less” than the times recorded in the Doing Business report.

The divergence, the authors hypothesize, stems from the gulf in poor countries between the laws and policies that exist on the books and the ones that prevail—or perhaps don’t prevail—in reality.

The Doing Business report “does not summarize even modestly well the experience of firms as reported by the Enterprise Surveys,” Ms. Hallward-Driemeier and Mr. Pritchett write in the latest edition of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Mr. Pritchett said in an interview that for developing-country policy makers, focusing on rising in the Doing Business ranks could draw scarce resources away from more-substantive reforms that would help the government better administer and enforce business regulations.

“The pretense that Doing Business measures the real rules, and that if we just modestly improve these Doing Business indicators, they would somehow become the reality of what the rules are and how business is really done—I think that’s a very dangerous fiction,” he said.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cultural practices and societal outcomes

From Scott Alexander.
A very neat study design provides strong evidence for the effect of intrauterine factors on IQ: Persistent Effects of In Utero Nutrition Shocks: Evidence From Ramadan Fasting. Children of Muslim mothers (but not non-Muslim mothers) have up to 7 – 8% lower test scores as adults if their birth month lines up such that Ramadan (when Muslims fast) fell during a crucial point in their fetal development. Obvious implication is that not getting nutrition during that developmental period permanently harmed their brain. Most Muslim scholars say that God offers pregnant women the option not to fast if they make it up later, and it looks like they should probably take that offer. Also: I wonder what percent of international IQ differences this explains.
Most differences in outcomes can be attributed to variation in choices, abilities and behaviors all of which are in turn influenced by general and familial culture. It is easy sometimes to overlook how both profound and widespread some of those elements can be.

7-8% is half a standard deviation. A shift of the distribution curve of that magnitude is material, particularly at the top end of the distribution curve. Of course this only affects those whose development coincides with a single month in the year but still. You add this to other cultural practices such as the prevalence of first-cousin marriages and you can begin to imagine a picture where a small handful of cultural practices end up having a determinative impact on overall outcomes. Of course this cuts both ways. It does suggest that there are positive impact cultural practices which can be emulated and expanded as well.

Monday, August 17, 2015

What College Majors are Most Likely to Marry Each Other?

Not sure that there is any significance but that doesn't make it any less interesting.

The fierce archaic cry

Meditation on a Bone
by A.D. Hope

A piece of bone, found at Trondhjem in 1901, with the following runic inscription (about A.D. 1050) cut on it: I loved her as a maiden; I will not trouble Erlend's detestable wife; better she should be a widow.

Words scored upon a bone,
Scratched in despair or rage --
Nine hundred years have gone;
Now, in another age,
They burn with passion on
A scholar's tranquil page.
The scholar takes his pen
And turns the bone about,
And writes those words again.
Once more they seethe and shout
And through a human brain
Undying hate rings out.

"I loved her when a maid;
I loathe and love the wife
That warms another's bed:
Let him beware his life!"
The scholar's hand is stayed;
His pen becomes a knife

To grave in living bone
The fierce archaic cry.
He sits and reads his own
Dull sum of misery.
A thousand years have flown
Before that ink is dry.

And, in a foreign tongue,
A man, who is not he,
Reads and his heart is wrung
This ancient grief to see,
And thinks: When I am dung,
What bone shall speak for me?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse

From The Logic of Effective Altruism by Angus Deaton. Deaton is echoing a conversation I had with my mother just a few hours ago. She lives in England and we were discussing the intractability of the refugee crisis in Europe. We lived in Europe through the latter half of the last century and particularly in the 1960s-80s, the refugee crisis was generally more limited in number but, critically, different in nature.

Then the issue was whether a refugee was a political refugee whose life was deemed to be in reasonable danger. Today, virtually all the refugees assailing Europe are economic refugees. Everyone sympathizes with their plight in their dysfunctional home countries but that does not militate against the negative impact they have on destination country budgets, culture, crime, economies, etc., not least of which is the impact on the already resident disadvantaged groups.

Deaton's comments are in the context of a discussion centered on a new book, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference by William MacCaskill. We know that much, if not most, of developmental giving in the past fifty years has at best been ineffective and at worst destructive to developing nation economies, no matter how good have been the intentions. The barrier to development is not knowledge or resources, it is the will of the political establishment to undertake what is known to work.
More broadly, the evidence for development effectiveness, for “what works,” mostly comes from the recent wave of randomized experiments, usually done by rich people from the rich world on poor people in the poor world, from which the price lists for children’s lives are constructed. How can those experiments be wrong? Because they consider only the immediate effects of the interventions, not the contexts in which they are set. Nor, most importantly, can they say anything about the wide-ranging unintended consequences.

However counterintuitive it may seem, children are not dying for the lack of a few thousand dollars to keep them alive. If it were so simple, the world would already be a much better place. Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse. The dedicated people who risked their lives to help in the recent Ebola epidemic discovered what had been long known: lack of money is not killing people. The true villains are the chronically disorganized and underfunded health care systems about which governments care little, along with well-founded distrust of those governments and foreigners, even when their advice is correct.

In today’s Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has discovered how to use Singer’s utilitarian calculus against his own people. By providing health care for Rwandan mothers and children, he has become one of the darlings of the industry and a favorite recipient of aid. Essentially, he is “farming” Rwandan children, allowing more of them to live in exchange for support for his undemocratic and oppressive rule. Large aid flows to Africa sometimes help the intended beneficiaries, but they also help create dictators and provide them with the means to insulate themselves from the needs and wishes of their people.

Scandinavia as no one knows it

Scandinavia is, in my view, widely misunderstood in the US with there being a general view of Scandinavia being stuck in some 1965 communitarian/socialist nirvana. These are great countries for whom I have many fond memories but their policies and achievements are quite different from what most people assume. This graphic provides a fairly striking counterpoint to the stereotype.

Cudgeling the shoulders of malefactors of great wealth

From Making Money by Owen Johnson. Johnson is famous for The Lawrenceville Stories (actually a compendium of books) of my alma mater but he was an author of some repute at the beginning of the last century. His writing, while distinctly of the era, is still very accessible and enjoyable. The Lawrenceville Stories surfaced in my office and I dipped into it. Prompted by its appearance I went to see if Gutenberg had any of these. They do, including The Eternal Boy, The Varmint, and Skippy Bedelle.

I liked the description of President Theodore Roosevelt in the opening paragraph of Making Money
Toward the close of a pleasant September afternoon, in one of the years when the big stick of President Roosevelt was cudgeling the shoulders of malefactors of great wealth, the feverish home-bound masses which poured into upper Fifth Avenue with the awakening of the electric night were greeted by the strangest of all spectacles which can astound a metropolitan crowd harassed by the din of sounds, the fret and fury of the daily struggle which is the tyranny of New York. A very young man, of clean-cut limbs and boyish countenance, absolutely unhurried amidst the press, without a trace of preoccupation, worry, or painful mental concentration, was swinging easily up the Avenue as though he were striding among green fields, head up, shoulders squared like a grenadier, without a care in the world, so visibly delighted at the novelty of gay crowds, of towering buildings decked in electric garlands, of theatric shop-windows, that more than one perceiving this open enthusiasm smiled with a tolerant amusement.

Good intentions - Causes, Consequences and Unintended Consequences

An interesting example of good intentions gone astray from In the Wake of Proposition 47, California Sees a Crime Wave by Debra Saunders.

"The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act" isn't living up to its promise. Also known as Proposition 47, the California ballot initiative, which was approved in November 2014 with 60 percent of the vote, downgraded drug possession and many property crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor. Proponents argued that lesser punishment for low-level offenders would enhance public safety. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon was the rare prosecutor who pushed for its approval. He told the San Francisco Chronicle, "What we have been doing hasn't worked, frankly."
In San Francisco, theft from cars is up 47 percent this year over the same period in 2014. Auto theft is up by 17 percent. Robberies are up 23 percent. And aggravated assaults are up 2 percent, according to San Francisco police spokesman Carlos Manfredi. Burglaries are down 5 percent.

The City of Angels saw a 12.7 percent increase in overall crime this year, according to the Los Angeles Times; violent offenses rose 20.6 percent, while property crime rose by 11 percent. Mayor Eric Garcetti says Prop 47 may explain Los Angeles' change in course from crime reduction to crime increases.
Unintended Consequence
"It used to be that if you were caught in the possession of methamphetamine, you would be arrested; you'd end up in drug court or in some other program, probably in custody receiving some type of treatment," Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig told the Daily Democrat. "Well, now the officers on the street just give them a ticket. So they have been arrested for a crime. The case actually gets forwarded to my office. We charge them with a crime, but they never show up to court. They get arrested again and are given another ticket for methamphetamine. And so we've seen that."

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell says LA substance abuse treatment rolls are down 60 percent. Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean told the Ventura County Reporter that Prop 47 got drug offenders out of jail "but it also got them out of treatment." He also believes the measure will increase violent crime, as substance abusers commit more robberies and assaults.

Or just a lack of common sense?

Reading this month's Atlantic, I came across this poem which serendipitously covers an increasingly common condition which I observe. People, acculturizing themselves to make decisions almost solely on how they feel and eschewing empirical data and simple measurement, get themselves into more and more precarious moral, legal and operational dangers.

Due Diligence
by David Lehman

They didn’t do their due diligence.
They didn’t do it,
And now they rue it,
And how they will rue not doing it
With vigilance when they had the chance.
They talked the talk but didn’t dance the dance.

They committed the folly
Of failing to follow the lolly.
They didn’t learn about the booze,
They didn’t learn about the flooze,
The smack, the jack, and the lolly.
And, in short, they missed the trolley.

They overlooked some obvious flaws.
Why? Was it arrogance
Or the need to spare the expense
Or just a lack of common sense?
Who can say? Whatever the cause,
They failed to observe the clause.

They didn’t do their due diligence.
They didn’t do it,
And now they rue it,
And how they will rue not doing it,
How they will rue the day
They didn’t do their due diligence.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Heritage knocks us askew

From Arnold Kling's askblog, Playing the Status Game. He is commenting on a discussion dealing with the role of status manipulation in discussions arising from Tyler Cowen's hypothesis: "So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status."

Kling's comment is succinct and on mark.
You can take man out of tribal society, but you cannot take tribal society out of man.
We may wish to be rational decision-makers but our heritage knocks us askew, leading to indulgences that have nothing to do with the optimum argument.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Unexpected variances in how a community processes information

The other day I made the statement, "there is no evidence . . ." It got me to thinking about how those words can be interpreted. I can think of six different interpretations of that one statement.
There literally is no evidence for or against the proposition. MEANING: The accuracy of this proposition is simply unknown.

The balance of the evidence which is available is against the proposition. MEANING: Based on what we know, the proposition is wrong.

All the evidence which is available is against the proposition. MEANING: We know the proposition to be wrong.

There is no evidence I can find for the proposition. MEANING: As best as I can tell, the proposition is wrong.

There is no evidence of which I am aware for the proposition. MEANING: I am guessing the proposition is wrong.

There is no evidence which I acknowledge for the proposition. MEANING: It is my belief that the proposition is wrong.
That is a strikingly wide range of interpretations. I am guessing that which interpretation is selected depends on the listener's opinion of the reliability and trustworthiness of the person making the statement.

Interestingly, the degree to which there actually is or is not evidence on the proposition is independent of the listener's opinion of the speaker.

If I am a sophmore in high school and my biology teacher says "There is no evidence that living next to power lines causes cancer," I may choose to understand that there is no evidence at all and that the issue is open to debate. Alternatively, I may understand that the teacher is making an assessment of the balance of the evidence and is telling me that it is her opinion that the bulk of the evidence is against a link between power lines and cancer. My interpretation of the statement hinges on my trust and opinion of the teacher and has nothing to do with the actual volume, availability, and quality of evidence to support the statement.

A person who makes the statement, "There is no evidence . . . " may understand themselves to be resolving an open question and might fail to realize that their personal brand leaves it open as to what the listener actually concludes.

It is an interesting twist on how information gets processed within a community.

Our unfortunate tendency to destroy absolute prosperity through battles over relative status

From Idiosyncratic Whisk a blog maintained by Kevin Erdmann, from We Are the 100%.

A complex argument but ending in three critical paragraphs, consistent with my criticism that we are far too focused on relative inequality and not nearly focused enough on increasing overall and individual productivity.
This is not a commentary on safety net policies. Before we consider social support policies, there is the simple point that progress is progress. There is a shocking amount of commentary in this country right now that amounts to saying we should undermine potential growth because it's the wrong kind of growth. Worse still, there are appeals to stagnation that come from confusion, such as misunderstanding the difference between high wage incomes and capital incomes.

The 1990s was a very prosperous time for households with lower incomes. It also happened to be a time when income variance grew and capital income was high. Given the state of technology and the state of the developing world, that is probably what success looks like today - for everyone.

The longstanding challenge of human civilization has been the struggle to overcome our unfortunate tendency to destroy absolute prosperity through battles over relative status.

Prison populations and young men's time discount rates

An interesting idea. The discussion is about the difficulty of making a real dent in prison populations as outlined by Erik Erik Eckholm in How to Cut the Prison Population (See for Yourself).

Tyler Cowen links to the article and among his commenters, there is this observation
Chris S August 14, 2015 at 8:14 am
Problem is most crimes are committed by young people, who are not good at valuing the future – they have way too high discount rates. Most people grow out of this by 25 or so.

But if you tag-for-life someone based on their 19-yo self, it is likely that information is of much less value when they are 30 and entering their most productive years.
It is an observation that is always sort of in the background in these conversations but one that warrants, as Chris does, foregrounding.

Most people want to exercise some mercy and generosity and would like to see a smaller prison population. The challenge which Eckholm points out (and he is only one among many, for example Megan McArdle), and contrary to popular perception, virtually everyone in jail or prison is in there for very good public safety reasons. There are vanishingly few inmates who could be released with high confidence that they would not imperil someone.

It has long been known that men, the vast majority of offenders, have a marked drop-off in proneness to violence sometime in their forties or fifties.

Still, I haven't seen anyone ever couch it in the terms Chris S uses. And he is right. It is not simply that young men are more prone to violence. It is, additionally, that they have such a high time discount rate. If you have low confidence in the distant future, then there is no point in saving today (putting off consumption), accumulating wealth or even moderating your behavior. Actions and consequences is only an equation that works if you believe there is a future in which the consequences occur.

Why I think Chris S's observation is important is that it points to an alternative approach. You can't do much about all the testosterone sloshing around in young men. You can do something about coaching, teaching, training them to have a lower time discount rate.

Big bird can't do for your children what you might be unwilling to do yourself

This is an interesting finding from Big Bird and Your Budding Bigot by Tom Jacobs.

In children's literature there have long been advocacy groups monomaniacally focused on increasing "representation" in children's literature. They are well intentioned people but their belief is that children are measurably affected by the presence or absence of characters that look like them in the books they read. The argument is that children won't like to read unless they see themselves.

For all the good intentions, I have long held that there is no basis for this belief. Immigrant groups arrive in the US (and other countries) and their children do perfectly well with no representation in the classic children's literature and the children of those immigrants have normal to better than normal life outcomes. In a recent survey of what children considered important in books they might want to read, only 17% indicated "looks like me" was important. There simply is no evidence that the contents of what is recreationally read as a child has any determinable impact on life outcomes. There are two caveats to that statement. 1) Simply the act of reading has a measurable impact on life outcomes (regardless of what is read) and 2) Purposeful reading (in contrast to elective reading) also has a measurable impact on life outcomes.

Otherwise, there is no connection and the whole movement to increase "representation" is, regardless of the good intentions, a wasted effort based on normative sociology and wishful thinking.

Jacobs article provides support for that position. The researchers were hoping to find that children exposed to multicultural or multiethnic casts in children's TV programming would demonstrate less non-group negative affiliation.
The years between the ages of three and six are particularly precious. That's the period kids begin school, start to establish their independence ... and form their racial and ethnic prejudices.

Attempting to counteract that last, problematic development has been a longtime goal of the creators of educational television series. Sadly, however, a research team led by Marie-Louise Mares of the University of Wisconsin–Madison reports the impact of such shows appears to be extremely limited.

"Despite our vigorous attempts to unearth associations between children's racial attitudes and their exposure to these types of programs, there were no significant direct effects of exposure to intergroup friendship shows such as Sesame Street, and minority hero shows such as Dora the Explorer," the researchers write in the journal American Behavioral Scientist.
Expecting that something as complex as prejudicial animus can simply be avoided by sitting children in front of a television is nobly hopeful but naively insulting. You can't program out positive or negative affiliation.

Everyone wants silver bullets and shortcuts but there is no avoiding the hard work of modelling to children and living a life of tolerance and respectfulness.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Many suffer from the incurable disease of writing

From Juvenal, satire No. 7 line 51. Bad as it was then, it is even worse now. What get's written get's published.

Tenet insanabile multos
Scribendi cacoethes et egro in corde senescit.

Many suffer from the incurable disease of writing, and it becomes chronic in their sick minds.

True but irrelevant

An interesting perspective in Buy Charity Now, While It’s Still Cheap by Alex Tabarrok.
Prior to 1800 or so there were no large differences in per-capita GDP between nations, differences were perhaps on the order of 2-3 at most. As modern economic growth took hold in some nations and not in others, between-country inequality increased dramatically with differences in per-capita GDP between nations of up to a factor of 100. As more and more nations enter a modern economic growth phase–which now includes a very rapid catch-up phase–between-country inequality has started to decline. In the future we may return to much smaller differences in per-capita GDP between countries.

As MacAskill points out in Doing Good Better (review here see also here) this means that we live today in an unusual time when charity is very cheap. Today, for example, it’s possible to save a life for as little as $4000. As other nations become rich that will no longer be true. More generally, the average person in a developed country can do a lot of good today by giving up relatively little. As MacAskill writes:
Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beer for five dollars or buy someone else a beer for five cents. If that were the case, we’d probably be pretty generous–next round’s on me! But that’s effectively the situation we’re in all the time. It’s like a 99-percent-off sale, or getting 10,000 percent extra free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in you life.
I like this because it is likely true and because it provides new insight on established knowledge.

But what to do with it?

First, how much charity is intercountry (as required in this observation) versus intra-country. I know in the US, which is exceptional and therefore unrepresentative of other developed countries, that we contribute more money and time to charities than most other developed countries. However, my impression is that, while that largesse does translate into large funds going overseas for charitable purposes, the great bulk of those contributions of time and money are within country to support all sorts of good communal good causes. That is not a criticism but it adds to the interesting oddity of MacAskill's observation. Yes, rich country giving to poor country can have inordinately large impacts, and yet the bulk of the giving (I am assuming) remains in-country where it is theoretically least effective.

Second, even though likely true, is it useful. If the bulk of charitable contributions are ineffective in achieving their stated goals (as is the implication of research such as Doing Bad by Doing Good by Christopher Coyne, and indeed often counterproductive and damaging, then the issue is not the relative value of giving intra-country versus intercountry, but rather that the giving should not occur at all (except where it is empirically demonstrated to be constructive and effective).

In the latter reading MacAskill's observation is true but irrelevant, which might explain why there has not been more discussion of the observation.

Balancing pragmatism and utopianism

In The Hidden Bias of Cameras by Adam Benforado, the author uses a terrible example in a bad way to try and support a good point for bad purposes.

The good point is that police cameras, whether dashboard or body cameras, will not eliminates disputes about evidence though they might reduce the number of disputes. Benforado correctly observes that a single camera provides only a single perspective. While it is good to have that information, it is better to have more. Benforado recommends that there should be multiple cameras from different perspectives. I agree within the constraints of the police budget (nothing is free and money spent on cameras is not spent on other good uses).

I saw an example of this years ago, in the early days of Youtube. It was a police shooting of a person who turned out to be unarmed. The officer claimed that he thought that the man was drawing a gun and the officer felt sufficiently threatened to warrant discharging his weapon. The context was a call from a gas station convenience store, late at night, regarding a man in the forecourt shouting and acting erratically. The first police car arrives, the officer steps out and calls to the man to get down on the ground. The man disobeys and is walking around, sometimes towards the officer and sometimes away. The officer draws his weapon and instructs the man again to get down on the ground. The man has his hand inside his jacket pocket.

At this point a second police car pulls up and that officer steps out, gun drawn, and joins the shouting to the man to get down on the ground. The man is still pacing, hand still in his pocket.

At this point, and in a split second, things going tragically wrong. The pacing man turns toward the first officer and in doing so, pulls his hand from his pocket. The first officer, thinking he is about to be shot, fires his weapon, fatally wounding the man. As the man falls, he releases what he had been holding in his hand. A cell phone.

So was this a reckless shooting? The man's family brought a suit against the officer and police department and introduced the dashboard camera of the second police car as evidence. In the fuzzy black and white video shot in the glare of the forecourt lights with the dark night as background, it certainly is clear that while the man is holding something in his hand, it does not appear at all like a gun. The officer might still be able to make the argument that he couldn't know that and that he was still justified firing his weapon but the video seems to strip away his capacity to claim that it looked like a weapon.

At this point, the police officer's credibility and position looks badly damaged. The police officer's defense attorney then introduced the video camera from the first officer's car. The cars were about twenty feet apart and at right angles to one another. The alternative perspective was striking. Seen from the shooting officer's angle, it looks just like a gun is being drawn and pointed towards him.

I really wish I could relocate this video clip because it is a compelling example that objective empirical evidence (such as a video) can be just as misleading as subjective evidence. Without the second video from just a slightly different angle, the police officer might have been in trouble. With the second video, the case was dismissed.

The challenge, always, is to get all the evidence and then weigh its interpretation in the balance. So I agree with Benforado's argument that there is value in having multiple sources of (video) evidence.

But, oh my, what a terrible example he provides. A driver speeds by a police car, 40% over the speed limit, and speeds up when the officer flashes his blue lights for him to slow down. The driver has multiple unpaid traffic tickets, has a suspended license, and is not wearing his seatbelt. And he is speeding. And not slowing down.

The officer gives chase across two counties with the driver speeding on narrow country roads at night creating a hazard to passing traffic. The officer eventually requests permission to perform a PIT maneuver, tapping the driver's bumper to spin him out of control and bring him to a stop. The officer receives permission and does so. The driver spins off the road and overturns. Because he has no seatbelt, he is thrown about the interior of the car, breaking his back. He is paralyzed from the neck down.

Now I believe virtually everyone can agree that this was a tragedy. The driver was 19 years old. His record indicated a past history of irresponsibility but not more than might be expected from someone out of a poor background. He was both working and attending school, so apparently trying to get himself on the right path, or so it would appear. And then to be cut down in this fashion. The very embodiment of tragedy.

But who is at fault. Though he never comes out and says so, Benforado clearly thinks that the police officer was in some way at fault. It is hard to see what it is that Benforado would have the officer do differently but he argues that
Victor Harris made a terrible error in judgment that rainy night, but he did not deserve to be paralyzed, and he did not deserve to have his case taken away from a jury. The system failed him because of the psychological limitations of the people who operate it—limitations we all share.
Harris certainly did not deserve to be paralyzed. But his injury was the consequence of his own decisions and actions, not those of the officer. The system did not fail him, he failed multiple times to do the right thing and pull over. In his effort to escape in a chase lasting a good while, he imperiled not only his own life but those of the other drivers and pedestrians on the road with him as well as those of the officers.

The police officer did not do anything wrong. The system did not do anything wrong. There is only the sad outcome of a young man's life radically changed for the worse as a consequence of his own actions.

For whatever reason Benforado wants to make this a case of psychological biases and of the system. He wants to make it the fault of someone else than the young man. His commenters eviscerate his example. No amount of additional cameras would demonstrate anything other than someone failing to obey the police by recklessly endangering others on the road. Contra Benforado's implication, had there been a forward and back pair of cameras in his car, we would still only have seen someone driving dangerously, seeking to elude the police. Benforado is absolutely correct that we need to be cautious about how to interpret evidence and that video shot from a single angle can create misimpressions. However, his use of this example to support his case, completely undermines it.

Why? Why did Benforado go all the way back to 2001 for an example which offers no support to his argument? It is an emotive tragedy, so from the perspective of trying to get the reader emotionally on board, I understand the rhetorical move. But his evidentiary example undermines his rhetorical strategy. I see this happen all the time with Social Justice Warriors and I don't understand it. You could argue that this is just Slate, a news organization notorious for its editorial laxity and left leaning bias.

But I hear the same thing at least once a week on NPR. Granted, it is also left leaning, but it has much more robust (though by no means infallible) editorial processes. But weekly, there is some report about some bad outcome where they bring in a person to serve as the poster child for whatever the injustice or tragedy might be and in support of some proposed action. The more you listen, though, the more you realize that the "victim's" actions were at least partially, or substantially, or wholly responsible for the bad outcome. Each time, I am left wondering, why did they choose this person as their poster child for this bad outcome?

I have no good answer for why this occurs and with such regularity. I am guessing that it comes down to two different mind sets, one being a pragmatic mindset accepting of the existence of tragedies, and the other being more utopian, a humanist hubris that all bad outcomes can be engineered out of human processes with sufficient good intent, money, time, and knowledge.

To the pragmatists, the utopian looks hubristic and ignorant. To the utopian, the pragmatists look uncaring and jaded. Neither is fully true. But I think that humanistic hubris is what blinds NPR reporters and editors to what seems obvious to everyone else - not all tragedies are the consequence of bad intent or bad actions on the part of others. Sometimes we grievously harm ourselves with no fault accruing to anyone else.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Though firepower has increased, lethality has decreased

From Better by Atul Gawande.
We have seen a similar evolution in war. Though firepower has increased, lethality has decreased. In the Revolutionary War, American soldiers faced bayonets and single-shot rifles, and 42 percent of the battle wounded died. In World War II, American soldiers were hit with grenades, bombs, shells, and machine guns, yet only 30 percent of the wounded died. By the Korean War, the weaponry was certainly no less terrible, but the mortality rate for combat-injured soldiers fell to 25 percent.

Over the next half century, we saw little further progress. Through the Vietnam War (with its 153,303 combat wounded and 47,424 combat dead) and even the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War (with its 467 wounded and 147 dead), mortality rates for the battle injured remained at 24 percent. Our technology to save the wounded seemed to have barely kept up with the technology of inflicting wounds.

The military wanted desperately to find ways to do better. The most promising approach was to focus on discovering new treatments and technologies. In the previous century, that was where progress had been found - in the discovery of new anesthetic agents and vascular surgery techniques for World War I soldiers, in the development of better burn treatments, blood transfusion methods, and penicillin for World War II soldiers, in the availability of a broad range of antibiotics for Korean War soldiers. The United States accordingly invested hundreds of millions of dollars in numerous new possibilities: the development of blood substitutes and freeze-dried plasma (for infusion when fresh blood is not available), gene therapies for traumatic wounds, medications to halt lung injury, miniaturization systems to monitor and transmit the vital signs of soldiers in the filed.

Few if any of these have yet to come to fruition, however, and none were responsible for what we have seen in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: a marked, indeed historic, reduction in the lethality of battle wounds. Although more U.S. soldiers have been wounded in combat in the current war than in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Spanish-American War combined, and more than in the first four years of military involvement in Vietnam, we have had substantially fewer deaths. Just 10 percent of wounded American soldiers have died.
The answer? Tight attention to detail.

Any damned data will do

From Robert Higgs
Among the many problems with using expenditure data to compare standards of living across different countries is the incomparability of their climates. For example, many people in temperate-zone countries, not to mention places farther north, spend thousands of dollars each year just to heat their homes in the winter, which are still not as comfortable as people's homes in tropical regions, where no heating expense at all must be incurred. One can make a long list of such incomparabilities. But econometricians want data, and for many of them any damned data will do, regardless of their substantive suitability for the measurement task at hand.
In an age when we are in the midst of Big Data, there is a curious inattention to the variability in the quality of data, not just in terms of measurement errors for precision and accuracy, but more importantly regarding context. Deracinated data is the bane of good analysis. It is as if a chef were told to "Put the meat in a broth for ten minutes." What kind of meat? what kind of broth? what temperature? You have stripped away too much information for the recipe to be useful.

Profit is a price paid for efficiency

Hat tip to Don Boudreaux for highlighting this pithy quote from 114 of the 5th edition (2015) of Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics.
While capitalism has a visible cost – profit – that does not exist under socialism, socialism has an invisible cost – inefficiency – that gets weeded out by losses and bankruptcy under capitalism. The fact that most goods are more widely affordable in a capitalist economy implies that profit is less costly than inefficiency. Put differently, profit is a price paid for efficiency.
No opportunity for profit, no likelihood for efficiency.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

People underestimate the importance of diligence as a virtue

From Better by Atul Gawande.
People underestimate the importance of diligence as a virtue. No doubt this has something to do with how supremely mundane it seems. It is defined as “the constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken”. There is a flavor of simplistic relentlessness to it. And if it were an individual’s primary goal in life, that life would indeed seem narrow and unambitious.

Understood, however, as the prerequisite of great accomplishment, diligence stands as one of the most difficult challenges facing any group of people who take on tasks of risk and consequence. It sets a high, seemingly impossible, expectation for performance and human behavior. Yet some in medicine have delivered on that expectation on an almost unimaginable scale.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The positive deviance idea

From Better by Atul Gawande.
A few years ago, Paul O'Neill, the former secretary of the Treasury and CEO of the aluminum giant Alcoa, agreed to take over as head of a regional health care initiative in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And he made solving the problem of hospital infections one of his top priorities. To show it could be solved, he arranged for a young industrial engineer named Peter Perreiah to be put on a single forty-bed surgical unit at a Pittsburgh veterans hospital. When he met with the unit's staff, a doctor who worked on the project told me, "Peter didn't ask, 'Why don't you wash your hands?' He asked, 'Why can't you?'" By far the most common answer was time. So, as an engineer, he went about fixing the things that burned up the staff's time. He came up with a just-in-time supply system that kept not only gowns and gloves at the bedside but also gauze and tape and other things the staff needed, so they didn't have to go back and forth out of the room to search for them. Rather than make everyone clean their stethoscopes, notorious carriers of infection, between patients, he arranged for each patient room to have a designated stethoscope on the wall. He helped make dozens of simplifying changes that reduced both the opportunities for spread of infection and the difficulties of staying clean. He made each hospital room work more like an operating room, in other words. He also arranged for a nasal culture to be taken from every patient upon admission, whether the patient seemed infected or not. That way the staff knew which patients carried resistant bacteria and could preemptively use more stringent precautions for them--"search-and-destroy" the strategy is sometimes called. Infection rates for MRSA--the hospital contagion responsible for more deaths than any other--fell almost 90 percent, from four to six infections per month to about that many in an entire year.

Two years later, however, despite encouragement and exhortation, the ideas had spread to only one other unit in the hospital. Those other units didn't have Perreiah. And when he left the original unit for a different project elsewhere, performance on that unit began to slide, too. O'Neill quit the project in frustration. Nothing fundamental had changed.

The belief that something could change did not die, however. Jon Lloyd, a surgeon who had helped Perreiah on the project, continued to puzzle over what to do, and he happened across an article about a Save the Children program to reduce malnutrition in Vietnam. The story seemed to Lloyd to have a lesson for Pittsburgh. The antistarvation program, run by Tufts University nutritionist Jerry Sternin and his wife, Monique, had given up on bringing outside solutions to villages with malnourished children. Over and over, that strategy had failed. Although the know-how to reduce malnutritionwas long established--methods to raise more nourishing foods and more effectively feed hungry children--most people proved reluctant to change such fundamental matters as what they fed their children and when just because outsiders said so. The Sternins therefore focused on finding solutions from insiders. They asked small groups of poor villagers to identify who among them had the best-nourished children--who among them had demonstrated what the Sternins termed a "positive deviance" from the norm. The villagers then visited those mothers at home to see exactly what they were doing.

Just that was revolutionary. The villagers discovered that there were well-nourished children among them, despite the poverty, and that those children's mothers were breaking with the locally accepted wisdom in all sorts of ways--feeding their children even when they had diarrhea, for example; giving them several small feedings each day rather than one or two big ones; adding sweet potato greens to the children's rice despite its being considered a low-class food. And the ideas began to spread. They took hold. The program measured the results and posted them in the villages for all to see. In two years, malnutrition dropped 65 to 85 percent in every village the Sternins had been to.

Lloyd was bitten by the positive deviance idea--the idea of building on capabilities people already had rather than telling them how they had to change. By March 2005, he and Perreiah persuaded the veterans hospital leadership in Pittsburgh to try the positive deviance approach with hospital infections. Lloyd even convinced the Sternins to join in. Together they held a series of thirty-minute, small group discussions with health care workers at every level: food service workers, janitors, nurses, doctors, patients themselves. The team began each meeting saying, in essence, "We're here because of the hospital infection problem and we want to know what you know about how to solve it." There were no directives, no charts with what the experts thought should be done. "If we had any dogma going in," Jerry Sternin says, "it was: Thou shalt not try to fix anything."

Ideas came pouring out. People told of places where hand-gel dispensers were missing, ways to keep gowns and gloves from running out of supply, nurses who always seemed able to wash their hands and even taught patients to wash their hands, too. Many people said it was the first time anyone had ever asked them what to do. The norms began to shift. When forty new hand-gel dispensers arrived, staff members took charge of putting them up in the right places. Nurses who would never speak up when a doctor failed to wash his or her hands began to do so after learning of other nurses who did. Eight therapists who thought wearing gloves with patients was silly were persuaded by two of their colleagues that it was no big deal. The ideas were not terribly new. "After the eighth group, we began to hear the same things over and over," Sternin says. "But we kept going even if it was group number thirty-three for us, because it was the first time those people had been heard, the first time they had a chance to innovate for themselves."

The team made sure to publicize the ideas and the small victories on the hospital Web site and in newsletters. The team also carried out detailed surveillance--taking nasal cultures from every hospital patient upon admission and upon discharge. They posted the monthly results unit by unit. One year into the experiment--and after years without widespread progress--the entire hospital saw its MRSA wound infection rates drop to zero.

What kind of education do journalists receive?

It seems reasonably true that many/most journalists have no comprehension about how the economy works or about economics in general. That seems a bad thing but most the time you kind of sweep it under the cognitive rug. Then something like this comes along.

How can you be writing for a national and seemingly reputable magazine and ask that question? I can't believe that they don't understand the concepts of supply and demand and marginal costs but that seems to be the case. Hmmph.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Personal choices determine life outcomes

There's an interesting piece, Index of Culture and Opportunity from The Heritage Foundation.

It is interesting because it bridges two or three different perspectives. Their primary focus is on whether the trends are constructive or negative at a societal level across 31 social and economic indicators. Those indicators are:
Marriage Rate
Divorce Rate
Total Fertility Rate
Single-Parent Households
Teen Drug Use
Abstinence Among High Schoolers
Abortion Rate
Religious Attendance
Violent Crime
Labor Force Participation Rate
Unwed Birth Rate
Total Welfare Spending
Subsidized Housing Participation
Food Stamp Participation
TANF Participation
TANF Work Participation Rate
Reading Proficiency
Charter School Enrollment
Private School Choice Participation
High School Graduation Rate
Student Loan Debt
Employment-Population Ratio
Unemployment Rate
Job Openings Rate
Job Hires Rate
Money Taxed Away by Federal Government
Start-Up Job Share
Major Federal Regulations
Economic Freedom
Looking at this list, there is clearly an agenda being served in terms of focus on preferred policy solutions (such as Charter Schools among others). Fair enough. Looking at this list though, I am struck that a fair portion of it could be fruitfully applied to predict good life outcomes for individuals as well as society at large. Some of the measures are related but not directly. For example, I don't know that abstinence among high schoolers is a robust predictive metric, but no children before marriage is certainly predictive of good life-outcomes.

If we were to convert this from a societal list to an individual list, what might be kept, changed, added? Some of these measures might be only marginally relevant other than that they are proxies for something more important. For example, abstinence rate is probably not that powerfully predictive whereas the underlying behavioral attributes of self-control and self-discipline are powerfully predictive. If we drop this list down from the societal level to the personal level, I think it might look something like this.
Marriage Duration
Total Fertility Rate
Single-Parent Households
Teen Drug Use
Abortion Rate
Religious Attendance
Arrest Rate
Labor Force Participation Rate
Unwed Birth Rate
Reading Proficiency
High School Graduation Rate
Debt to Asset Ratio
The four variables in bold are very highly predictive. Graduate High School, Stay Employed, Get Married and Stay Married, No Children before Marriage. These four variables reduce the probability of being in poverty to less than 2%. Add in the other predictive variables and things begin to look pretty good.

Regrettably, I don't think these elements of practical wisdom and empirical reality are much taught in schools. Much easier to posit patriarchy, structural racism and colonial mindset.