Thursday, May 21, 2015

libertarians on climate change

I've been meaning to blog about this and a poll on the facebook page of the Australian Libertarian Society reminded me to do so.

According to the poll, which asked libertarians in the group to answer whether they believe in anthropogenic global warming*, about 2/3 said yes and 1/3 said no. I'd compare that to the overall public but I'm finding a big range of numbers and questions are never worded the same anyway. But it seems similar to the overall right wing opinion, or perhaps a bit higher acceptance, but still drastically less than among climate scientists. I'm interested particularly in libertarians because they are consistently opposed to government intervention in the economy, while Democrats are consistently in favor of it, and Republicans are a pretty mixed bag.

Motivated reasoning is very obviously going on; that's the only way an objective scientific topic could become such a partisan issue. But on which side? Both sides are frequently guilty of it, no matter how often science denialism is defined as an attribute of the right. But on this issue it seems to be abundantly clear that it's only happening on the right.**

A comment on the poll summed up what I believe is the reason the right uses to explain the alleged motivated reasoning of the left: "[It] seems clear that many would like to leverage AGW as a tool for greater government intervention in our lives, massive increases in the size of the state, and subordination to instruments of global governance."

This just makes NO sense to me. If global warming weren't true, why on earth would the left make it up to try to force more government on us? Why wouldn't they use the amount of government they can get away with imposing on us to fix one of the many many real common-resource problems? Why wouldn't they simply exaggerate the dangers of issues anyone can easily verify are problems, and that may even require more urgent action to turn around, like deforestation, the collapse of ocean ecosystems, overpopulation, human rights abuses, etc? Why waste so much energy fighting over the existence of a problem instead of over solutions to undeniable problems? Why would they want to invent a new reason for global governance if the right is already so reactionary to government intervention due to fears of slippery slopes? Doesn't it just give the slope a scarier endpoint?

I don't get it.

On the other hand, libertarians have an extremely obvious reason to deny climate change, just like they often deny other market failures. It's easier to deny the problem than to come up with a plausible nongovernmental solution to it.

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk arguing that behavioral economics does not justify government paternalism, and ended by saying that we libertarians should not take the approach of ignoring solid scientific evidence of mistaken reasoning and arguing the point on this basis. I intended, but forgot, to poke the bear a bit by making the analogy to climate change denialism, which I believe is a huge mistake because denialists have removed themselves from the discussion of what to do about it. Jerry Taylor gets it. The argument for liberty is not (or should not be) predicated on the perfection of markets or the perfection of individual decision-making, and where it is is where I usually depart from the hardliners.


* in effect; the wording was more complicated.

** I should say, I'm sure there's motivated reasoning going on on both sides in the sense that very few people are remotely scientifically literate so most people on both sides are holding much firmer beliefs than they can legitimately justify for the sake of party loyalty. But that only happened after it became a partisan issue in the first place.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Italy and Switzerland

  1. Cannoli is delicious. The pasta is great. The pizza is really not.
  2. Italians seem to be even more dedicated to honing their chimney impersonations than the Germans.
  3. Leonardo da Vinci is such a genius. A museum of models of his various ridiculous inventions that I randomly stumbled on was fantastic.
  4. Milan is nice but maybe you have to enjoy art more than I do to appreciate it. It's pretty limited otherwise.
  5. Italy is substantially behind northern Europe in terms of English fluency.
  6. But Italian is surprisingly decipherable based on Spanish.
  7. "Bars" are combinations of little bars and cafes and convenience stores. Newsstands are exclusively news stands and I have no idea how they're still in business.
  8. Happy hour in Italy is the best thing ever. Buy one drink and get a free buffet of a ton of different kinds of snacks/hors d'oevres, more than enough to substitute for dinner.
  9. Unfortunately, Italians (not individually, but in crowds) are quite rude. I'd think they'd never heard of a line, but at the Expo there were plenty of disregarded instructions to please line up more orderly. And if you give an inch, someone will forcefully shoulder their way in front of you. I literally stood at a cash register, maybe a foot from the counter, and two people in turn stepped directly in front of me and ordered before I could. I hadn't even hesitated, it was just like I wasn't there at all. And they certainly don't wait for people to get off the train before shoving on, or get out of the way for anyone in any context for that matter. And on the tram I only ever saw one person actually tap their fare card. I now understand why my Italian grad school professor (Stefano DellaVigna) marveled that carpool lanes are actually respected in the U.S.
  10. The World Expo is quite a spectacle. Quite a coincidence I happened to be here at the start of it; Since reading The Devil in the White City I've wanted to go to one but thought it was in Torino this year. It's certainly nothing like it once was, though.


  1. It's like Germany, but prettier and more expensive.
I should really write about Haiti and the Philippines. I'm now a year late on the former.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

problems with measuring personality

At lunch we were discussing Big Five traits (a common 5-dimensional categorization of personalities, measuring openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and this reminded me of the strange phenomenon in my Myers-Briggs categorization that I've noticed over time. In 8th grade I first scored INTP - entirely Introverted vs Extroverted,  strongly iNtuitive vs Sensing,  entirely Thinking vs  Feeling, and borderline Perceiving vs Judging. Nowdays I'm only mostly I and slightly J. I've only taken the Big 5 test recently so I unfortunately don't know the trend, but I assume something similar would have happened.

I don't feel like my personality has changed so this has puzzled me. But now I think I understand the source, and it is concerning with regard to the use of Big 5 in research (mostly in psychology but more frequently as control variables in economics.)

If people are free to maximize their utility of time use,  the marginal utility of any activity should be equal at the bliss point. Obviously we work with many constraints, so I don't expect this to be exactly true*, but I expect it to be closer to true the more freedom of choice we have.

In 8th grade I had no choice but to spend 8 hours a day around people and to follow the strict schedule of activities in general. This was far too much human interaction for me and I would nearly always opt for alone time when given the chance. Nowdays I've carefully engineered my life to have as little compelled socializing as possible, and will usually opt to go to any party friends of mine might have. Similarly,  in San Francisco Matt used to not believe me when I said I was more introverted than him, because I was usually the one wanting to go out and do stuff after work and on weekends. But I mostly worked at home alone,  while he spent 10 hours a day in an open plan office. I would (/did) have a nervous breakdown in that environment.

Along with having more freedom to be alone, I also have more control over my schedule and environment. So while previously the rigid structure and organized environment imposed on me was more than enough, I now realize that I do generally like having a plan and an organized approach to things, hence P became J.

I can't think of what might have suddenly given me more freedom to trade off S/N or T/F, so I'm not surprised those have remained steady.

What does this mean for using these scores in regressions? My first thought is that asking about marginal preferences to measure averages will make people look less variable than they are and will understate the importance of personality. But that's on average. I bet there are plenty of circumstances in which the measure is actually biased.

*but maybe surprisingly close since we should really be equating the marginal present value of activities,  not immediate happiness, which makes work and sleep seem a lot more attractive.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

tourism with economists

We went on a very nice group tour of some botanical gardens yesterday, guided by a sweet old Swiss lady. I don't think she knew what to do with us.

Guide: We don't have any tours in the winter because the ferry doesn't run.
Economist 1: Why not?
Guide: There are no tourists at that time of year.
Economist 1: But couldn't it be that there are no tourists because there are no ferries running?
Guide: [Blank dumbfounded stare.]
Economist 2: This isn't an academic seminar!
All economists: [hearty laughter; muttered discussion on causal mechanisms of tourism.]

Okay, so economists have a pretty terrible sense of humor...

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

awesome broken windows theory tests

This conference on "social norms and institutions", as you might expect, is quite cross-disciplinary. I'm not sure what the breakdown is, but there are plenty of behavioral economists, sociologists, psychologists, and even law professors and political scientists. So, I'm collecting quite a list of interesting new sources from lectures and conversations with these non-economists.

The most fun, and incredible, set of experiments I've learned about are the ones run by Siegwart Lindenberg and Linda Steg and colleagues at Groningen University. Despite having an unusually high prior*, I'm honestly stunned by their results, both in terms of the sheer size of the effects they're finding, and the stability of those large effects across a great number of slightly different situations.

They're studying, essentially, the broken windows theory. This theory hypothesizes that if there is evidence of some law/norm breaking behavior, that will cause people to break other laws/norms at a higher rate.** This is not due to inferences about levels of enforcement, because the findings are just as strong in purely normative (prescriptive, in addition to proscriptive) settings. In a world of marginally statistically significant results, it's a thrill to see such a long list of replications with huge and extremely statistically significant findings.
  1. Bikes are parked in a row next to a fence with a conspicuous "no graffiti" sign, and flyers are attached to each bicycle such that they must be removed to use the bike. If no graffiti is on the fence, 33% of subjects will litter their flyers. If graffiti is on the fence, 69% will. This was so surprising that a news station paid the researchers to replicate the study while they watched from rented rooms looking down on the area. The finding replicated very closely, and now the Netherlands requires immediate removal of graffiti.
  2. A temporary fence is set up around a parking lot. Two police ordinance signs on the gate state "no trespassing" and "no locking bikes to fence". People were directed 200 meters around to an alternative entrance, but the gate was left about 50cm ajar. If four bikes nearby were not locked to the fence, 27% of people squeezed through the gap in the main gate. If the four bikes were locked to the fence, 82% did.
  3. In a grocery store parking lot, a sign states "please return your shopping carts", and flyers are left under the driver-side windshield wipers on cars in the lot such that people had to remove them to safely drive away. When no stray carts were left in the lot, 30% of drivers littered their flyers. When several carts were improperly left in the lot, 58% of drivers littered.
  4. Bikes parked in a shed have flyers attached to them as in example 1. In the control condition, 52% of subjects littered their flyer. If fireworks were set off, within earshot but out of sight, which is a well-known offense prior to December 31 in the Netherlands, 80% littered.
  5. An envelope is left partially hanging out of a mailbox and visibly has a 5 Euro note inside, showing through a window in the envelope. In the control condition, 13% of people who passed the mailbox on foot stole the envelope. If the mailbox was covered with graffiti, 27% stole the envelope. If the mailbox was not covered in graffiti but litter was on the ground next to the mailbox, 25% stole the envelope.
  6. A stamped addressed envelope is on the ground next to a mailbox. In the control condition, 24% of passersby put the envelope in the mailbox. If bags of garbage are on the ground nearby (illegal in the Netherlands), 10% did.
  7. A bike is on the ground in an alley, having apparently accidentally fallen off its stand. If passersby have just entered the alley from an empty, clean street, 20% of individuals and 27% of groups right the bicycle. If garbage bags had been left on the street, then 6% of individuals and 5% of groups did so. If prior to entering the alley, passersby passed by someone who dropped an aluminum can and then picked it back up, 34% of individuals and 35% of groups picked up the bike.
  8. A person on the sidewalk accidentally drops some oranges just before meeting another pedestrian. Normally, 40% of passersby help the stranger pick up their oranges. If approximately 20 yards earlier, the passersby had witnessed someone drop an aluminum can and pick it up back up, 64% will help the stranger. If 20 yards earlier, the passerby had witnessed someone (a private citizen) sweeping the sidewalk, 82% helped the stranger.
  9. I can't find the numbers for this one, but in a mall where you have to walk down a hallway to get to a smoking zone, a certain percentage of people will start smoking before they reach the zone. If a group of typical looking Germans are standing around smoking prior to the zone, though, more passersby will light up early. If a group of goth teens are smoking prior to the zone, though, a higher than normal percentage of passersby will wait until they get to the smoking zone to light up.
Amazing. And while each individual study has many issues with interpretation and is targetting a different nuance of the phenomenon, the evidence from all 9 considered together is undeniably striking.

References: 1-8 come from here and here.


* Perceived unusuality is based on my reading of the literature (see next footnote). I've always been sure (without solid evidence) that the mechanism must be quite important.
** This motivated a famous crackdown on petty crime in NYC, which did undergo a drastic reduction in crime, but causality has not been convincingly established and the theory remains controversial.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Swiss regulation

This week I'm at a conference on "Social norms and institutions" in stunningly beautiful Ascona, Switzerland. So there might be a slew of broadly-uninteresting note-like posts on the topic. At conferences and during interesting seminars I usually end up with pages and pages of notes with these idle ponderings, but as long as the apparent norm that laptops can stay open persists, I might as well type them directly into blogger instead...

But first something more concrete, but still on the topic: Going back to this topic of libertarian societies, I previously mentioned that I frequently hear Australia cited as one of the better libertarian countries, mostly due to its fairly small government in terms of spending levels, but that I can't understand how this reputation persists given their intense love affair with regulation. Switzerland is another country that I also hear cited as a libertarian country for the exact same reason. I haven't been here until now and so haven't commented on it, but strongly suspected that the homogeneity of northern Europe that  effectively restricts freedom in Scandinavia, and the love of rules that effectively restricts freedom in Germany, would also exist here. And boy, is that ever true. Within two hours of being here I'd heard three Swiss residents independently joke about how there is a specific rule for everything under the sun. E.g., earthquakes never happen here but once every 300,000 years when the ground shakes a bit, every building will be up to code to withstand a magnitude 9. (Not surprisingly, real estate is ludicrously expensive.)

At dinner, we also all had a good laugh at the regimented approach to managing the buffet. The servers let each table know in sequence when they were allowed to get in line, and when I went up to an empty buffet for seconds and went straight to the end instead of around the "correct" direction, was immediately corrected (in jest, mostly, but it wouldn't have been funny if it weren't based in truth!)

Why?? So, I understand the logic, which is that clear rules ensure smooth functionality. But this logic is predicated on a very skewed belief about homogeneity in preferences. And this false notion of homogeneity is exactly what I think often leads people to support too much regulation*. If there were a more laissez-faire approach to the buffet line, a paternalistic Swiss might view the line as socially wasteful, and might view the first people to jump in line as selfishly impatient, and might pity the ones at the end of the line who only get the dregs from the salad bowl, and he might wish to institute this formal mechanism to correct these ills. But why does he think this will lead to an improvement? People who formerly waited in line were entirely free to remain seated until the line died down, and must have preferred to wait while standing. Those who jumped to the front of the line may have been particularly hungry or particularly concerned about getting a good helping of salad. Different preferences entirely warrant different choices. The formal approach restricts free choice on the grounds that this will solve some kind of public good or externality problem, and I have no idea what makes people think that the laissez-faire approach is so dysfunctional, or that preferences are so homogeneous that free choice is dispensable, to warrant this tradeoff.

Along the same lines, I suspect that a great deal of my aversion to paternalism is due to having pretty oddball preferences in many ways (in addition to an independent aversion to being told what to do in any case.) I'm frequently surprised that other oddballs are so trusting that more regulation will go in their favor, or maybe that they underestimate their oddness or the prevalence of oddness in general, even in the U.S., which has the huge advantage of being so diverse that homogeneity in any dimension is hard to believe in.

*In addition to selfishly wanting other people to behave a certain way that suits me, of course. Ignore that for now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

where can I buy insurance?!

I have terrible teeth. Every single year since the beginning of grad school I've both maxed out my coverage and put off major dental work in order to get at least part of it covered the next year. I've lost count of how many fillings I currently have that I've been told "hopefully this'll get you through a couple years, but you really need a crown."

So, I of course want good dental insurance. I'm a good economist though and am not terribly liquidity constrained, so 1) I don't want insurance for the smaller common expenses that I can afford, like cleanings and fillings (or product warranties or renter's or vision or vet insurance). I self-insure for those things by maintaining a savings account. And 2) I only want good insurance because I have private information indicating that I'm a terrible bet for an insurance company.

But I can't buy it! The only dental insurance available that I can find is the opposite of what insurance should be. It covers the first, e.g., $500 of dental expenses per year, and then you're on your own. I want a policy that won't cover the first $500, but will cover any unexpected disasters that push me over that limit. I don't care whether it's an Australian or American company as long as I'm covered in Australia. (No, Australian medicare doesn't cover dental.)

Help? And why don't these policies exist?? I know health care is just about the biggest mess imaginable, but my TANSTAAFL sensibilities are tingling uncontrollably. Why are these mutually beneficial trade opportunities left on the table? Or, what is preventing these trade opportunities from being mutually beneficial, and how can I get around it?*

*I know I just said I'm looking for this kind of insurance because I'm pretty sure it'll be a good deal for me even in a nearly expected utility sense, therefore likely making me a bad deal for an insurance company, but I think I'm on the end of a spectrum there. I'd expect policies to be available that serve the rest of the population.