Saturday, December 24, 2016


Before signing off of the internet for the last time in 2016...

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard: Crazy stories from the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole, in which the pole party made it there one month after the Norwegian team beat them and then all perished on the return. And that isn't even the worst journey in the world referred to in the title...

The Economics of Rights, Cooperation and Welfare by Robert Sugden: Good, but outdated now.

The Commitment, by Dan Savage: Funny followup to The Kid but not as interesting.

The Kid, by Dan Savage: Both funny and interesting tale of gay open adoption.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson: You can't not love Bill Bryson, and these make me homesick for small-town America. I can't tell how much of my enjoyment of these essays is due to being written from the perspective of an expat returning from another commonwealth country but the humor definitely transcends it.

In the interest of time I've been watching lots of Antarctica-relevant documentaries rather than reading the books... Highly recommend Around Cape Horn, Life in the Freezer, Antarctica: A Year on the Ice, Welcome to Union Glacier, Encounters at the End of the World, Race for the Pole, and The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Of course March of the Penguins is also great, and Operation High Jump is dated in a hilarious American military/cold war/exploration manner that will almost make you forget what an asshole Admiral Byrd was.

See you in 2017!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I knew this must exist somewhere!!

I am so happy right now. Linguaphiles, musicophiles, cartophiles, geographiles, politiphiles, and surely many others will love this: (If it doesn't work, try a different browser).

Unfortunately lots of the African stations are unresponsive but I'm quite satisfied with Nigeria's Beat 97.9 for the time being.

Friday, December 16, 2016

price inequality

I can't believe I haven't done this before, but I finally went to a really nice concert at the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, a gorgeous 160 year old theater* that reminded me eerily of certain great European tiered-style theaters like the Berlin Staatsoper. We heard a lovely solo piano program of Beethoven, Scriabin, Chopin, Mozart, and Schumann. The best part: it was $3.

This is an instance of a very convenient phenomenon in Chile (and many other non-Euraustramerican countries) in which great economic inequality is matched by great price inequality. Of course prices are correlated with quality for the most part (although my daily $1.50 fresh chicken fajita bought from the street vendors outside PUC is much, much tastier than a $6 Starbucks sandwich) or at least search costs (I tried several very underwhelming hamburguesas before finding the delicious fajitas) it means that cheapskates price sensitive people like me can get by on dramatically less money than average Chilean upperclassman. It's my penny pinching paradise.**

Nonetheless I was surprised this also applies at a fancy concerthall. My 12 year old self already experienced the thrill of a partial view ballet (at the aforementioned Berlin Staatsoper) in which graceful swans leapt into oblivion and then reappeared in midair after a suspense-filled indeterminate delay, so now that I'm an adult with a good income I would certainly be willing to spring for floor seats in such a situation. But for a piano recital, why on earth would I pay $60 for the privilege of seeing the guy's head swaying above the piano lid?

Peacocking is such a waste of money...

Obviously nothing can compare to the cultural scene of New York or Berlin or London or other such cities, but after this experience I might be even more aggressive about seeking out live music opportunities outside of those places than in them. The bang for your buck is just incredible.

Actually, this goes back to what I've said before about the merits of small university towns. You may expect a town of 38,000 people isolated in the Oklahoma plain to be the cultural middle of nowhere, but because Stillwater is a university town there were more free or nearly-free concerts than any normal person wants to go to. I certainly never would have had so much classical music exposure growing up in a big expensive city.


* Unoriginally, great composers and playwrights' names were inscribed over the ground floor entryways, and also unoriginally, Beethoven took the honored center aisle position. I don't care how unoriginal, deference to Beethoven*** will always put me on your side.

** Q: Who invented copper wiring? A: Two dutchmen on either side of a penny. (HT to my uncles).

*** or emacs

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

free normative lunches

Lots of social norms are arbitrary (kiss or shake hands) and lots are obvious encouragement to contribute to public goods (don't double park) and there's no great, comprehensive model of which norms should arise in a given society, but any model I would consider credible would predict that if public good is free to contribute to, a norm will dictate that you should.

Apparently I would be wrong.

Speaking in generalities (as always), Chileans are ... not the most polite. Not like the Italians, who seem to be impolite even by their own definitions, but definitely impolite by German or even American definitions. The most obvious difference is that the concept of proactively getting out of the way doesn't exist. If you say permiso, they'll always move (albeit grudgingly if it's a crowded subway), but walking down the sidewalk is like an endless chicken series; I always lose and weave through so I have no idea how right of way is negotiated usually... a bit like bumper cars, I can only imagine.

The obvious explanation would be that conscientiousness of this sort is not zero cost and Chile is simply in the noncooperative equilibrium. It seems more efficient to choose the everyone-habitually-cooperates-and-socially-punishes-noncooperation-to-maintain-the-equilibrium equilibrium, but inefficient norms abound so that's not a mystery.

But in some situations I just can't imagine that the cost isn't zero! In one instance (only the most clearcut, but a thousand subtle variations prove it wasn't a singular bitchy woman) someone was standing squarely in the middle of a doorway, and I walked up to her and stopped right in front of her, obviously wanting to go through. There was nowhere else for me to go, no one else around, and although she was talking to her friend down the hill, she looked right at me and still didn't scoot six inches to the side so I could pass. This was shortly after I arrived in Chile for my first longish stay*, so I was too confused to gather enough wits to string any Spanish together, so I ljust ooked over my shoulders and turned in a circle trying to figure out what was going on, but nope, nothing. Luckly she left on her own volition around then and spared me further embarrassment.

If this is a phenomenon, it's strange that I can't think of other examples of this (although most costless cooperative actions at least require paying attention, like merging to the right when not passing). So which is it? 1) I'm culturally blind to other zero-cost public goods that aren't provided and the true model of norm selection needs to explain these, or 2) I'm culturally blind to hidden cost of taking a step to the left?

* I'm currently in Chile for two months visiting my wonderful coauthor Rosario Macera at PUC Santiago.

Friday, October 7, 2016

a reminder to assume good intentions

I was happily ignoring American politics in my happy Australian bubble, but then made the mistake of coming back to visit the bay area a month before the election, and was forcibly exposed to more than I wanted to be. So now I have to blog at least once about it.

But at least not directly about it. Instead I just want to remind everyone of Hanlon's Optimistic Razor. Never attribute to malice what can be explained with misguided good intentions, or different but still good intentions, or ignorance. No matter how true you think it is (or how demonstrably true it is!), dismissing a disagreement with bafflement at the other side's stupidity and/or insanity and/or malice is counterproductive, not just unproductive.

Maybe instead of calling people racists directly descended from the Hitler tradition, we could try understanding the concerns that lead to calls for wall-building. Maybe saying "Like you, I care about the wellbeing of Americans who are struggling to find work and feel their communities fracturing. And like you, I care about the American public and economy. I think it's better for the overall economy and certainly more humane for immigrants not to build a wall, but I don't want to leave you behind either, so tell me, what are your concerns and what can we do to ensure you remain free to build/maintain the kind of community you want to live in?" might put people less on the heel-digging defensive than "You backwards idiots should read a book and come talk to me when you agree with me. Or build a wall around Mississippi and go banish yourselves there."

Maybe instead of calling people raving misogynistic racist lunatics, we could try to interpret people in a way that provides more benefit of a doubt instead of calling out anyone who hasn't got the hang of the secret elite PC code. (At which point the "offenders" band together in defensive resentment against those who jumped to such malicious conclusions so quickly.*) I'll comfortably label someone a racist who says "I hate all Arabs" but my first reaction to "All lives matter!" is more like "You're right, all lives matter and maybe sloganizing a huge issue meant that some important content was lost. It's not that only black lives matter, or that police are only awful to black people, but it seems like they have to put up with a lot more abuse so focusing on this clearly unjust disparity is a useful approach to reigning in the police state. If we're successful, this will hopefully have great spillovers for everyone else as well. Do you still object to that goal?" And then listen to the answer. It astound and depresses me that an issue like the out-of-control police state, which small-government conservatives should be absolutely irate about, was so badly bungled into a highly partisan issue instead of a common ground to build from, just by highly ineffective rhetoric and dismissiveness of the Other Side.

I assume the hellfire will die down after the election when everyone remembers we have things like checks and balances that will prevent the world from ending no matter the outcome.** But in the meantime, if you honestly want to persuade people, it's not going to help to start from the assumption that they're stupid and evil.


* People ask why the popularity of Trump, and that's my confident answer. Well, combined with the fact that said dismissive liberal elite is in power and dominates the national conversation; otherwise they would simply be reciprocally dismissed.

** I'd rather not put them to an extreme test, especially given the fractures in the balance of powers that have emerged in the foreign policy arena since 9-11 or even earlier, but they're there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

obesity statistics

I've heard a lot of Australians say that Australia has higher rates of overweightness and/or obesity than the U.S. I've been quite skeptical of this, because, well, take a walk around Oklahoma sometime and you'll see why. I finally looked it up and it is indeed definitely not true.

Summary: As of 2009-2012 in the U.S., 68.7% of adults were overweight, and 35.3% were obese. As of 2011-2012, 63% of Australian adults were overweight, and 28% were obese.

I'm not saying the truth is any less scary, and Australia and U.S. are indeed duking it out ahead of most of the rest of the world, but rest assured, we're still Mississippi to your Texas.

*Because it costs at least $15 to eat at McDonald's, I mean Maccas, for one thing.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

first seven jobs

I'm such a sucker for list memes.

1. Selling headbands made out of woven loops of colorful nylon for 50 cents at school. Unfortunately I was such a goody two shoes prior to teenagerhood I actually asked the school counselor if I could do it, and of course they made me stop. (Way to go corrupting harmless little kids with lessons about asking forgiveness later, Stillwater Middle School :)

2. Paper delivery. This was like hitting the jackpot since it was the only job I could legally do at age 13; correspondingly, it paid about a third of (1999 Oklahoma) minimum wage. (Way to go, nanny state!) I did it for 17 months until I had enough money to buy my first telescope, a Meade 10 inch equatorial Newtonian that I still use.

3. Sporadic babysitting, which I hated, but making $10 in one day was a rare opportunity not to be turned down. I think it was evident how much I hated it though, because the only family who called me more than once was the one with the kids who were such hellions no one else would take them... I also tried to sell my lawnmowing skills but never had any takers, for reasons that still elude me.

[Two year hiatus while I went to a boarding school and summer science programs.]

4. Research assistant at the Jet Propulsion Lab. This was my third astronomy RA job but the first one that was paid, the summer before college. I got to analyze some photos of the most distant non-quasar galaxies known at the time and attended the talk that made me decide to double major in economics, never to return to astronomy research.

5. Research assistant in the Caltech department of economics during the three summers between college years. Caltech is awesome for having such a ridiculously high faculty to student ratio, so RA jobs are everywhere, and OSSM and RSI were awesome for teaching me programming, linux, and LaTeX, so that I actually had some skills that were in demand. That's my advice to any smart high schooler who wants to get involved in science: learn programming fundamentals and get confident at figuring out computer-related details in new situations independently. It's not hard, gets easier with experience, and should be a basic part of education, but it isn't yet so grab the low-hanging fruit.

6. Assistant trader at Susquehanna International Group, a private hedge fund. I would have preferred babysitting, but at least I got to live in NYC for a year. And make a bigger pile of money than my 21 year old brain could imagine spending. I went back to grad school to make approximately minimum wage for six years and then get hired for less pay than I made straight out of undergrad, and it was totally worth it. Don't sell your life satisfaction.

7. Research assistant in the Berkeley department of economics, first three years of grad school. As in #5, computer literacy paid off, but of course as soon as I was able to do independent research rather than being a code monkey, that was the more important thing to focus on. Actually the computer literacy paid off even more in that phase...

I guess the only legally recognized jobs I've ever had have been in research (defacto true on Wall Street); I had phenomenally good luck with stumbling into great opportunities...

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Certified Random

Yay! I love it. For obvious reasons.

Explanation for non-economists: Economics has a very unusual tradition of listing authors in alphabetical order by last name, which is nice in the sense that it obviates squabbling, but is not nice in the sense that authors with last names from the end of the alphabet end up being forgotten or lost in the "et al." or are less willing to coauthor in the first place. This has been shown to be significant. The paper above suggests randomizing author ordering and putting an ® symbol at the end of the list to indicate that order was randomized.

The paper points out the excellent feature of this trend which is that it can invade the current norm in a decentralized way, and doesn't even have to take over as the norm to be helpful. It preserves nonsquabbling and other nice attributes of alphabetical ordering but spreads the benefits around. What the authors don't mention, though, is that the decision to use random ordering may itself be a source of squabbling or at least tension. Aaron Aaronson has no incentive to suggest it, while Zach Zeno might not want to suggest it for fear of seeming petty. We'll see what happens.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


I have major catchup to do on book reviews, and am surely forgetting some.

Natural Justice, by Ken Binmore: I actually read a draft of this book in 2005 when Ken was visiting Caltech and taught a class on it, but I've forgotten 90% of what I learned in college and 100% of that class, other than that I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I was thrilled when my reading group picked it. It's one of the most thought-provoking and deliciously idea-dense books I've read in a long time and I say this despite the fact is it horrifically badly organized (not badly written, per se - I loved most sentences but then had no idea what they added up to...) I planned to read the two-volume treatise that it is a condensation of in order to get a better handle on what the actual theory is, but Robert Sugden's review pans the original version for being miserably organized/written and expresses hope that the condensation will clear things up, so I guess I'm out of luck either way. We'll see; fingers crossed since I'm now working on project pretty directly related to his theory. As best as I can tell it is written in reverse order (half a book of justification for approaches that will only be revealed later), so maybe the second time through will make more sense.

Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms, by Vernon Smith: Unnecessarily long and dense, but hey, Ken Binmore makes him look like a literary master. Very interesting, needless to say. I loved his memoir but found this one merely good without it taking up residence in my subconscious, in part I think because I'm the choir.

Feeling Smart, by Eyal Winter: Fluffy.

On Democracy, by Robert Dahl: Oh boy I could rant about this one at length. Maybe I'll do a separate blog post on it.

Evolution and Rationality: Decisions, Co-operation and Strategic Behaviour, edited by Ken Binmore and Samir Okasha: This was the first book I read (most of) with the interdisciplinary reading group that has become a reliable weekly highlight. It, and readings since, have definitely changed how I think about behavioral economics, spending much more thought on the evolutionary context in which behavior arises. I therefore recommend it highly.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov does it again. I've only read three of his books but I can't even express how great each of them was, in completely different ways, although with the common denominator of the most amazing prose and character development I've ever encountered. This was definitely the strangest; it opens with a poem taking up a quarter of the book, which put me off of it for years (my eyes glaze over and reading comprehension plummets to an elementary school level at the first sign of lyricism) but Matt eventually persuaded me, and boy was he right. Go read now.

Museums and Women, by John Updike: Picked up this short story collection on the communal bookshelf of Barry's "eco-lodge" on Atauro Island, East Timor, when Matt and I were there on vacation prior to my teaching a class at the ministry of finance (unlikely things happen when you can't say no to travel opportunities). It was great and definitely reminded me why I loved John Updike when I first read The Same Door, but man that guy was obsessed with infidelity.

Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, by Robert Kurzban: I saw a fantastic seminar by Robert when he visited UQ and had a thoroughly enjoyable dinner with him and a couple other behavioral economists and psychologists afterwards, so I read his book, which was a little underwhelming comparatively. I think I'm not the audience he is arguing with, and by the time he backs down from the polemic, I can't quite tell how literally to take him anymore. I'm sure there is some degree to which I disagree. He aggressively argues that brains are composed of modules, rather than having coherent preferences. Modularity is certainly and obviously true, but it doesn't mean you have to model reasoning as a bunch of independent modules running around! We have executive function (which he seems to deny exists, and I admit I may be using the term incorrectly by psychologists' standards) to integrate modular function, perhaps subconsciously, and ultimately choice tells you which module(s) have won out in a given situation, which he seems to ignore. Models that treat the brain as weighing competing incentives (the definition of choice...) therefore work well even if biologically "competing incentives" are represented by "different modules".

Hiroshima, by John Hersey: An extended essay, really, from the August 1946 New Yorker. Seeing the A-bomb museum in Hiroshima was extremely powerful, and two years later, I finished reading this before even making the conscious decision to start. Intense stuff.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, by Walter Mosley: During those couple of weeks in East Timor I also crashed an ex-pat book club, which had read this. Relatively entertaining. Writing in accents annoys me, although I don't know what better alternative there is.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion: Couldn't put it down.

This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin: This would probably be great for someone who isn't already quite educated about the mechanics/physics of music.

Surviving Maggie, by John Fingleton: This was a good story, engrossing despite not being great writing, based in Brisbane. It was recommended to me by a colleague when I first arrived here but took forever to read just because I couldn't get a kindle version. It's always fun to read books based in a location you're familiar with so I'd recommend it to Brisbanites but probably not others.

What Women Want, by Daniel Bergner: If Dan Savage says everyone needs to read a book, I believe him. It was good but not as illuminating as I'd hoped, perhaps because I'm a woman so what it's like to be a woman is kind of old news, and also because the scientific questions I'm really curious about simply don't have answers yet (stunningly).

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson: Not as entertaining as his travel stories but it's definitely the most entertaining history of science I'm aware of. Most of it was old news to me, given how much science and history of science I read as a kid, but the parts and anecdotes that weren't made it very enjoyable.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

satellite data

Planet Labs, Matt's former company and a very cool project that I'm surprised to find I haven't blogged about explicitly previously, has a fun blog with company news and demonstrating cool uses of and findings from their high-frequency land imagery data from their flock of small satellites. They recently featured an awesome use of satellite data to measure trade between China and North Korea via counting containers at border crossings in photos from this year and last. Economists out there involved in the harrowing task of accurately measuring trade and related quantities may want to consider this source of data!

The funniest thing about the post, though, is that apparently the Washington Post thought comparing photos from a Saturday and Sunday at the end of the lunar new year holiday week to photos from a more normal time the year before was a reasonable way to measure the time trend in trade levels... *Sigh*

Friday, July 1, 2016

is the referee process fair?

I'm at the Western Economic Association International annual conference in Portland and just saw a fascinating keynote address by David Card, on his work in progress with Stefano DellaVigna on "What Gets In" top economic journals. The paper is unfortunately not yet available online, so I can't excerpt or show any of the very interesting diagrams that go with the analysis, but in the meantime I can tell you to keep a (skeptical) eye out for it when it does get posted.

The paper aims to confirm or dispel the common belief that the editorial process is unfair because of some combination of three factors: 1) Referees aren't good at assessing quality, 2) the process is biased in favor of big name authors, and 3) the editors overweight their own priors relative to referee recommendations. The authors acquired data from QJE, JEEA, ReStud, and Restat* and looked at three stages of the editorial process in comparison to ex post citation rates (controlling for journal and time) as the measure of paper quality. The three stages of the referee process are 1) the decision to desk reject, 2) the decision to send the paper to a particular number of particular referees, and 3) the decision to reject or RR/accept after receiving the reports.

Bullet points:

  • Referees are good at assessing paper quality in the sense that their ratings (from 1-7; definitely reject, reject, no rating, weak R&R, R&R, strong R&R, accept) line up well with ex post citations.
  • Higher quality referees, measured either by citation counts or publication numbers in 35 top journals in the preceding 5 years (I can't remember which), aren't better at assessing paper quality.
  • Papers that are sent to a larger number of reviewers are cited more, so the number of reviewers is a proxy for the editor's prior belief about the paper.
  • Prolific authors (measured by publication numbers in 35 top journals in the preceding 5 years) get many more citations controlling for reviewer rating.
  • So do papers with more authors.
  • Editors increase the citations of published articles by publishing papers by prolific authors more often, conditional on reviewer rating, but they could go further and do even better.
  • Editors do not seem to take into account the number of authors, and could increase citations by publishing more of these articles.
  • Editors could also increase citations by putting larger weight on their own prior relative to reviewer ratings.

The conclusions David drew are that 1) referees are indeed good at assessing quality, 2) the process contains affirmative action for junior/less prolific authors, and 3) editors are not overconfident. Thus, the myth of unfairness is dispelled.

The assumption this story rests on is glaring and glaringly fragile: ex post citations is the relevant measure of paper quality when people assess whether papers are fairly treated.

From the perspective of editors, I completely understand why you would focus on citations. That's how your journal gains prominence. But as a scientist, what I want and what I believe is the gold standard for fairness is that papers are published and cited in proportion to their quality. Treating citation rates as quality assumes away half of the problem.

Are citation numbers just the best measure of quality that we're stuck with? Well I'm sure that was the reason for using it, and I'm sure citations are correlated with quality, but as they show, referee ratings are also correlated with citation numbers. Since the citation process is self-evidently biased in favor of prolific authors** (I'm sure you can prove this to yourself through introspection just as easily as I did), and since referees are several of a very small number of people who thoroughly study any given paper, it seems utterly bizarre that the former, and not the latter, would be treated as the primary proxy measure of quality (if the goal of the paper is in fact to assess fairness rather than to assess journal performance.)

If we consider referee ratings the better measure of quality, the conclusions exactly reverse and exactly confirm some of the common suspicions of the editorial process: 1) Citations are a good measure of quality but substantially biased in favor of prolific authors and multi-author papers, 2) editors are biased in favor of prolific authors, but not as much as citations are, and they are not biased in favor of multi-author papers, and 3) editors could reduce their bias by putting less weight on their personal priors.***

I do suspect citations are a better proxy for quality in the sense that they are less noisy (but more biased). I'm sure this noise is why people complain about the competence of referees, in fact. This does mean that saying a particular paper was treated unfairly based on the average of three wildly different referee ratings isn't going to be credible. But when we're looking at data from 30,000 paper submissions, the signal shines through the noise and bias is much more important to worry about.


*Iirc, which applies to the entire summary.

**and it certainly makes sense to me that it could be biased in favor of multi-author papers as well, since more authors are necessarily more in contact with potential citers. Then again it also makes sense to me that multi-author papers could be higher quality, since there are more eyes on every step of the process.

***I asked David about this at the end of the talk (and several people immediately thanked me for it), and he readily admitted the alternative interpretation. I appreciate that and don't wish to accuse him of any suspect interpretation of data when I can't even read the paper yet, but it's a point worth discussing even if the paper makes it much more clearly than he did in his talk.

Friday, June 24, 2016


Re-SMBC part 7, number 4137:

Friday, June 10, 2016

epic retraction

30 hours later I am still not done laughing hysterically at this. It cannot get any better: a study that showed a correlation between psychotic traits and political conservatism has been retracted, not because the statistics were done wrong, or because further evidence showed that it was a spurious result, but because they switched the labels and it's actually liberalism that is correlated.

It's so good that I suspect this has to be a meta-experiment on motivated reasoning. Are all the people doing followup work on this correlation now going to conveniently lose interest? Will their framing change? Will a whole new rush of interest spring up that wasn't there before? We'll see!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

a failure of inference

Some idiots put a baby bison in their car in Yellowstone National Park out of "misplaced concern" for its wellbeing. He imprinted on humans and cars so quickly that he could not be persuaded to rejoin its herd, and the herd rejected him as well, including his mother. The calf was causing a danger to cars in his insistence on returning to the road, and so for reasons detailed below, park staff were forced to euthanize the calf.

Cue 13,000 comments on Yellowstone's facebook page accusing them of being heartless murderers.

There are plenty of fact-based suggestions and objections to be made on both sides, and the NPS has responded to most of these comments with the form response "In order to ship the calf out of the park, it would have had to go through months of quarantine to be monitored for brucellosis. No approved quarantine facilities exist at this time, and we don't have the capacity to care for a calf that's too young to forage on its own. Nor is it the mission of the National Park Service to rescue animals: our goal is to maintain the ecological processes of Yellowstone. Even though humans were involved in this case, it is not uncommon for bison, especially young mothers, to lose or abandon their calves. Those animals typically die of starvation or predation."*

But that's beside the point. I don't have to know any of the facts involved in order to have an opinion on the matter, because of all people, the park service is staffed by the ones most likely to go to the end of the earth to care for wildlife, especially in this heartwrenching case of a baby calf rejected by its mother due to human interference. Not only do I know for certain that they are much better informed of the options and issues than I am, I know that they have infallible intentions when it comes to conservation as well. So, I don't even have to "trust" them to make the right decision (since "trust" connotes a leap of faith that the right thing will be done despite conflicting personal incentives), I can infer with high confidence that they will do, and did, the right thing. Because if there were any kinder option, I know the people involved would have wanted to take it.

I sure hope these 13,000 commentators aren't representative of humanity overall, because the signaling models I'm so fond of are doomed if they are. I know people underestimate the intentions of others when they disagree, but in this case everything lines up including intentions; there is no basis for doubt that the right thing was done.

*They probably could have left off the part about their mission, which is completely reasonable and accurate but doesn't help project a superficial image of compassion (emphasis on superficial).

Monday, April 4, 2016

minimum income and employment-tied benefits

The universal minimum income idea seems to be really taking off at least in the highly unrepresentative niche of the internet and population that I inhabit. So I've been thinking more about it, tied into my slow-paced long-term still-evolving ponderings on utilitarianism.

I don't know much about the health care shitshow but one thing that is absolutely clear is that having health insurance so closely tied to employment in the U.S. is an unmitigated disaster. I was convinced of that while I lived there and even more convinced of it now that I see how an alternative system can work in Australia*. The discontinuity in incentives in the U.S. when transitioning from a 39 to 40 hour per week job and the disincentives for self-employment and entrepreneurship are Very Bad**.

The minimum wage has the same problem: it ties the minimal survival income*** to employment. In doing so, it provides this benefit to those lucky enough to have a job in a market with involuntary unemployment (which it plays a role in creating in the first place) and increases the number of people left out entirely. If we're at the point where we agree, as a society, that we're rich enough that it's a worthwhile tradeoff to redistribute income to the lower end so that the overall size of the pie shrinks but no one is left starving (which we are if we have a minimum wage in the first place), then we should do that universally and not make it contingent on employment.

It's a little different from the healthcare situation because the minimum wage applies to all hours worked even if fewer than 40, but the disincentives to freelance and take entrepreneurial risks are even stronger.

If you don't believe in providing a minimum income to everyone, only those who deserve it, for some definition of "deserve", you may object that the minimum wage is about ensuring that labor is fairly compensated rather than providing a minimum income. But what is a fair wage other than the efficient or market wage? One that lets people survive by doing it a certain number of hours per week? If you think that someone's labor should be rewarded with a minimum income even though that labor is not providing the same (market-measured) value to society, why do that by tallying the hours worked for formal employers, (and suffering all the distortions that this system creates)? You should also want to subsidize work done by freelancers and self-employers and entrepreneurs starting not-yet-profitable, or even not-yet-marketable, companies. That's unbelievably hard to define, measure, or enforce, so let's rely on the fact that humans don't just want to sit around watching TV 100% of the time and approximate this minimum-living-for-minimum-effort principle with a universal minimum income. Some people won't put in what you think of as minimum effort, but some will put in a lot more (like those latent entrepreneurs and innovators), so close enough.

Note that this is independent of the number one reason for a universal minimum income, which is that it gets rid of the incentive distortions of extremely high implicit marginal tax rates. Means-testing may be politically attractive but creates the same awful distortions. I do think there will be higher voluntary unemployment (and lower unemployment statistics, i.e. involuntary), and I have more to say about that and some unrelated factors, but I think this point is too important to hide within a longer list, so that'll have to come later.

CORRECTION: I think a universal minimum income would cause many people to become voluntarily unemployed but would also cause many people who are currently un- or under-employed to increase their employment, due to the marginal tax issue, so the net effect could go either way.


*Not to praise every aspect; I'm still strictly speaking about the employment issue.

**Although I also think that that these disincentives are exaggerated in the popular discourse because healthcare isn't thought of as just a less-fungible component of normal compensation. For some reason people seem to like being forced to buy expensive healthcare that they don't want to buy if they have to consciously pay the sticker price****. The tax craziness means the disincentive is very real, but the psychology exaggerates it.

***Some people say things like "Don't worry, it won't affect employment too much because it's not enough money to survive on." I call BS. Of course it will affect employment and it's silly to deny this obvious fact. And $12k, e.g., per year is most definitely enough to survive on when you don't have to live near and commute to a particular job.

****I've had this argument with several people who are perfectly smart enough to understand the economics so I'm convinced the preference is real, not a mistake. I understand it as something similar to a commitment device or a behavioral self-manipulation, akin to joining a gym to force yourself to go so you feel like you're getting your money's worth, even when you fully understand the sunk cost fallacy.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

mathematical modeling guide and contest for high schoolers

If I ever teach research methods to the right audience I will absolutely assign a class project similar to this fantastic contest for high school juniors and seniors. The goal is to build a mathematical model to answer some open ended real world question, like what recycling system should a city adopt. Bright STEM-focused high schoolers should be jumping all over this.

Mathematical modeling is really hard to teach, since it's so resistant to recipification. Experience and reading/questioning other models is the best way to grok the fuzzy metrics of model quality. Nonetheless, this contest comes with a great handbook that is a better guide than anything else I've seen (and I looked around quite a bit while teaching research methods to masters students a year ago). Check it out.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

gravity waves!!!

I've got plenty more tedious thinking out loud to do on utilitarianism, but there are more important things going on right now. Gravitational waves!!

This. Is. So. Cool.* And what an awesome time in space science: first we went to Pluto, then found pretty striking evidence for Planet 9, then SpaceX friggin landed a rocket, and now we can listen to black holes colliding.

I can't even count how many talks on LIGO I heard at Caltech, and after arriving seriously excited about the project being located right there, got completely bored by it after about one semester, because the entire project up until now has frankly been engineering, not astronomy.** (I mean, you should read about the engineering, because it is a mind-boggling achievement: they detected a vibration the width of one thousandth of a proton!! Do you have any idea how tiny a proton is? An atom the size of a football stadium would have a nucleus (containing the protons) about the size of a pea, and a single human hair is about a million atoms thick. I can't believe someone thought "yeah we can do that" let alone did it.) So I kinda forgot about it, like I did New Horizons, and then bam, Einstein's prediction was confirmed on its 100th anniversary.

And now the real astronomy is coming back into play, and somehow we're now able to know things like that two black holes 1.3 billion light years away collided and 3 solar masses worth of material was converted into gravitational waves, briefly emitting more energy than the rest of the visible universe combined, and 1.3 billion years later we managed to detect spacetime smoothing itself back out as the black holes stopped spinning and combined into a single stable unit. That's ridiculous.

The New Yorker article is pretty good if you don't want to watch the press conference. Or just read the paper.


*I used to be highly averse to acquiring information through videos and would never link to one, but with the new ability to increase the speed with two clicks in youtube, I relent, especially in this case because the press conference with the actual scientists is a much better source of information than journalists. It's definitely worth watching.

**Engineering is cool too, but I'm not interested in it automatically, only when excited knowledgeable people (i.e. Matt) tell me about it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

picking on Scott some more

Or at least using him as an example, with only the friendliest intentions, I swear :)

Scott Sumner is both a libertarian and a utilitarian (rounding to the nearest word, in both cases). As far as I can tell, I have very similar views on both topics. But I'm also a behavioral economist, which is a field Scott is skeptical of. But I think that part of the reason libertarians are frequently skeptical of utilitarianism is related to the reason why libertarians are frequently skeptical of behavioral economics. So, my hope is that if someone can reconcile the former pair, as Scott and I have, I can convince them to also reconcile the latter.

This is certainly only part of the story, but utilitarianism is viewed skeptically by many libertarians for two reasons.

First of all, it's frequently used an an excuse for redistribution and other types of government meddling. Honestly I think it's a little odd that any one school of thought is mad about utilitarianism being used as a justification for another particular school of thought, since utilitarianism can be used to argue for a pretty wide range of schools of thought, since the argument over what provides the most aggregate utility does not exactly have a straightforward answer, and since it's natural for anyone with a particularly high utility from X to believe that X is overly important for everyone else's utility as well, leading to plenty of disagreement automatically. But, maybe because of the historical accident that Bentham invented utilitarianism in order to justify redistribution, they've become tightly associated.

Second of all, moral libertarians place liberty on a pedestal above all else, regardless of consequences. That is, they want liberty even when people on aggregate don't want it. This is utterly bizarre to me. I'm quite sure that the reasoning went in backwards order:

  1. Want liberty. 
  2. Invent coherent philosophy justifying the supremacy of liberty by assuming the supremacy of liberty as the first principle.
  3. Conclude that liberty is supreme, even when not wanted. 
  4. WTF? Oh well, double down.

instead of (the pragmatic libertarian approach)

  1. Want utility. (By definition).
  2. Conclude that this is best extended to all of society by aggregating individual utility.
  3. Conclude that liberty is a critical component of the best society, since liberty is so important to utility, both individually and especially in equilibrium societal outcomes.
  4. Want liberty.
You can argue about points 2 and 3 but you really can't start with anything but number 1. That's the definition of utility!

This finally brings me to the punchline; sorry for the delay. The only way to be uncomfortable with step 1 is if you can't imagine the many ways in which nonmaterial things contribute to utility. For some reason, aggregating everything you could want into a single concept seems to be really distasteful and difficult for many people. Perhaps this is another historical accident: the word "utility" is usually used by economists who, for the sake of tractable models, are using a proxy for utility (usually money). So people say, but money isn't all that matters! What about love! And the economist should say "well yes, of course, but I'm talking about shoe stores, so I really don't think that's going to substantially make a difference to my analysis in this context" but more likely than that there are no non-economists in the audience and so no one asks the question and so over the years the economists forget that money was only a proxy for happiness in the first place. Or they don't forget, but they don't have a reason to point it out because all the other economists who are listening already know this, but then non-economists read economic papers and don't realize that the caveat is implicit.

But even more than not being able to think of creative sources of utility, I think the more fundamental problem people have with the concept of utility is with the notion you might try to measure it. These things feel very beyond quantification, and so how can you possibly summarize all of them in a single number when you can't even assign one number to each attribute, much less add them together. I acknowledge this is very hard. But we don't really do it, we barely even try, so it doesn't really matter. These arguments are always qualitative as soon as they move beyond basic monetary cost-benefit analysis. We can't even incorporate the statistical value of a life without a great deal of confusion and counterintuition, let alone love and fulfillment and ego and excitement and anxiety and spirituality and all the rest of the uncountable facets of human experience. And as long as we're dealing with grand qualitative concepts, is it really so hard to imagine that there are indeed tradeoffs between different priceless things? 

Consider religion. On the one hand we have the joy and inner peace and sense of community and cultural continuity that comes with religion, and on the other hand we have the conflict and human lives that come from religion. Do you think it's worth it? I don't know. I know that if religion meant permanent world war, I would definitely vote for no religion. And I know that if there was only one world religion and no resulting conflict or death and this particular religion didn't get in the way of science and the only downside was the discomfort of the minority who inevitably feel a little excluded because they just don't have the gene for that spiritual stuff, myself included, I'd vote for religion. So there are tradeoffs. I have no idea where the line is, but I know there is one.

Or imagine Sophie's choice (which I haven't seen [is it a movie?] so if I have it wrong just go with it.) One's children are priceless and it seems impossible to choose one over the other. But if I had five kids and had the choice between killing one or killing the other four, that's an easier choice. Again, lines may seem impossible to draw, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

This a great SMBC that is relevant. Yes, do come to the dark side :)

Ok so the point: libertarians shouldn't be hostile towards utilitarianism because liberty provides enormous utility and so the two principles are compatible. And if you can accept that liberty is an input into utility, why can't you accept that behavioral economics, as the branch of economics that mostly explores non-standard sources of utility, is, if anything, a friend to libertarianism? There perhaps has not yet been much work on the inherent value of having choice (although I think I recall an experiment or two that touch on this), but when we get there, it will be behavioral economists studying it.

Well that was much longer than I intended.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

things are interesting

Replace "Sunday" with "obscenely early on Monday" and this xkcd strip, one of my favorites, fits me perfectly:*

Almost everything is interesting when you learn enough about it and/or when hearing about it from someone passionate about it. The silly hipsters who are too cool to admit to enjoying anything unironically are missing out on a great deal of unadulterated joy.

*Except I no longer don't know much about football, because I spent a lot of time listening to someone who was super excited and knowledgeable about football.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Scott Sumner on behavioral economics

Scott, who I generally love, has had two posts recently allegedly criticizing behavioral economics. But he's actually criticizing a small subset of behavioral economics, and on that subset, to the extent that he's right, he shouldn't be.

In a nutshell, he's saying that the problem with behavioral economics is that its practitioners are too quick to judge actions as irrational. He provides various examples that one might attribute to irrationality that are actually easily rationalized. But they are easily rationalized using concepts from behavioral economics! He uses social preferences to rationalize Christmas giving, anticipatory utility or something closely related to rationalize buying lottery tickets, any number of possible behavioral economic sources of utility to rationalize voting, and loss aversion to rationalize buying warranties on small purchases. Far from building my career on the idea that most people are stupid, I'm building my career on the idea that people are much less stupid than the average classical economist might think.

He even explains why himself: "This kind of thinking led Deirdre McCloskey to turn away from "maximizing utility" models of behavior. I see her point. But I don't see utility as the problem, but rather a lack of imagination as to all the subtle ways that people can derive utility." I completely agree. And a vast majority of behavioral economics is exactly in the business of imagining the subtle ways that people can derive utility and adapting classical models to incorporate them.

This definitely isn't a refutation or overhaul of classical microeconomic models**. It's a set of tweaks to deal with of situations in which those models can't handle the reality of utility. You don't need to tweak the standard model if people are discovered who really love drinking sour milk: that's a weird preference and seems pretty mistaken to me, but classical utility functions don't care what your preferences over regular goods are. De gustibus non est disuputandem. You do, however, need to tweak the theory to account for social preferences, because social preferences interact in ways that classical preferences aren't equipped to represent. Same thing for loss aversion, anticipation, ambiguity, ego, social image, guilt, etc etc etc etc.

I'm going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that the reason Scott seems to be fixating on a particular subset of behavioral economics (the part that catalogues the systematic ways in which people make mistakes*) and getting irate at the implications a particular subset of behavioral economists often prematurely jump to (that they therefore need help making better decisions), and unfortunately accusing the rest of the field of practices that I wholly agree are ill-advised, is that he is libertarian. There's quite a bit of animosity towards behavioral economics from libertarians, of exactly the type Scott is stating, due to their aversion towards meddling in people's choices. They worry that if behavioral economists are busy showing how people need help making decisions, someone will use this as justification for government meddling. I, as a basically-libertarian behavioral economist, share these concerns and it drives me nuts when I see my colleagues jump to these conclusions prematurely (that's a whole other argument).*** But the correct response is to appeal to better behavioral economics, which luckily is most of behavioral economics. It's the solution, not the problem.


*I am intentionally saying "make mistakes" here, as I really hate how the term "irrational" is thrown around when "mistake" is what is meant. Of course people make mistakes, even systematic mistakes. The fact that they correct (most of) them when they're pointed out means they're still perfectly rational.

**Contrary to popular belief among non-professionals, but certainly not among behavioral economists.

***It also worries me extremely how immediately students jump to "to help policy makers" as a justification for any economic study. Usually to the absence of any other justification. Sure that makes sense for public finance and monetary policy and such, but shouldn't be anywhere near the top of the list for most behavioral economic studies. (It often is, but I maintain it shouldn't be. That's that whole other argument I was mentioning.)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Recurrent neural nets

Super cool blog post demonstrating the "unreasonable effectiveness" of recurrent neural networks, which allow you to map 1-or-many input vectors to 1-or-many output vectors. Which lets you generate Shakespeare.

Can't wait to see what Susan Athey et al. come up with for economic applications.

And to Andrej: if you don't name your kids Jerin and Alessia, you've got some 'splaining to do.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

good sentences

Hoff and Stiglitz on the coordination utility of fads: "It is hard to conceive a single individual in isolation enjoying a hula hoop."

I think they mean: it's hard to conceive a single economist in isolation enjoying a hula hoop.* Introspection as a source of data is subject to severe selection bias.

*But I'm happy to provide a counterexample.