Alex Tabarrok

The Right to Try

by on February 8, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

Here is a powerful video from the Tomorrow’s Cures Today Foundation on the right to try experimental medicines. I sometimes worry that we hold out too much promise to patients. Tomorrow’s drugs are rarely cures. Tomorrow’s drugs are a little bit better than today’s and that is how progress is made. What really matters is not the right to try per se but speeding up the process, reducing costs, and increasing investment in pharmaceutical R&D.

Nevertheless, I support the right to try. Watch the video.

Addendum: I have no direct connection to the Foundation but Bartley Madden is on the advisory board, as is Nobelist Vernon Smith, so I am delighted to promote.

Defer to the Algorithm

by on February 6, 2016 at 1:39 pm in Current Affairs, Economics, Web/Tech | Permalink

A BuzzFeed article predicts that Twitter will soon move from a time-ordered feed to an algorithmic feed, one that shows you tweets that it predicts you will like before it show you lesser-ranked tweets. Naturally, twitter exploded with outrage that this is the end of twitter.

My own tweet expresses my view ala Marc Andreessen style:

It is peculiar that people are more willing trust their physical lives to an algorithm than their twitter feed. Is the outrage real, however, or will people soon take the algorithm for granted? How many people complaining about algorithmic twitter don’t use junk-email filters? I want ALL my emails! Only I can decide what is junk! Did junk email filters ruin email or make it better?

Facebook moved to an algorithm years ago. At the time, the move caused complaints but I think algorithmic feed has made Facebook more relevant, especially in recent years when the algorithm has gotten quite good. The profits agree with my assessment. Many people don’t understand that there is no serious alternative to an algorithmic feed because most people’s uncurated feeds contain well over a thousand posts every day. It’s curate or throw material out at random.

Think of the algorithm as an administrative assistant that sorts your letters, sending bills to your accountant, throwing out junk mail, and keeping personal letters for your perusal. The assistant also reads half a dozen newspapers before you wake to find the articles he thinks that you will most want to read that morning. Who wouldn’t want such an assistant? Moreover, Facebook has billions of dollars riding on the quality of its assistant algorithms and it invests commensurate resources in making its algorithm more and more attuned to our wants and needs.

It’s not simply that the algorithms are good and getting better it’s that the highest productivity people will use their human intelligence to complement machine intelligence. That means trusting the machine to curate millions of items, bringing only the most important to your attention, and then using human intelligence to take action on the most important items. By trusting the machine intelligence to filter, you can open yourself up to a much wider space of information. I have many more friends on Facebook than I have IRL because I trust the algorithm to bring me only the best of my friends on any given day. A twitter algorithm will mean that I can follow more people without being overwhelmed. Even when the filter is imperfect, you are more likely to discover something of importance from 100,000 items imperfectly filtered to 100 than from 1000 items perfectly filtered to 100.

As Tyler argued in Average is Over, the future belongs to people who can defer to the algorithm.

In Launching the Innovation Renaissance I argued that students were not graduating with the degrees that pay (see also my piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education).

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering and math and statistics.

If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering and math, what are they studying?

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

So what has happened since 2009? The good news is that enrollment in STEM fields has increased dramatically. The number of graduates with computer science degrees, for example, has increased by 34%, chemical engineering degrees are up by a whopping 49.5% and math and statistics degrees have increased by 32%.

The bad news is that we are still graduating more students in the visual and performing arts than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined. As I said in Launching nothing wrong with the visual and performing arts but those are degrees which are unlikely to generate spillovers to society.

We are also graduating more students in communications and journalism than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more students in psychology than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined. Here’s what I said about psychology:

In 2009 we graduated 94,271 students with psychology degrees at a time when there were just 98,330 jobs in clinical, counseling and school psychology in the entire nation. The latter figure isn’t new jobs — it’s total jobs!

Despite these problems, the number of psychology degrees conferred annually has increased since 2008-2009 by an astounding 21.4%! Visual and performing arts degrees have increased by 9.7% and communication and journalism degrees are up 8.1%. Do you think that jobs in these fields have gone up by equal percentages?

Stated differently, in 2012-2013 we graduated 20,418 more students in computer science, chemical engineering and math and statistics than we did in 2008-2009 but we also graduated 20,179 more students in psychology alone! We have a long way to go.

Here is the data:


The Importance of Institutions

by on February 4, 2016 at 7:34 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

So far, in our Principles of Macroeconomics class at MRUniversity we’ve covered GDP (how it is calculated, nominal versus real, GDP as a measure of the standard of living etc.). We have also covered the basic facts about differences in income both across countries and over time, the importance of growth rates, and the presence of growth miracles and growth disasters, among other topics.

In our latest video, Tyler covers the Importance of Institutions. Next up geography and growth and shortly after that on to the Solow model!

As always, these videos are freely available for non-commercial use. They can be used with any textbook but why would you want any but the best?

Economics on Buying vs Renting a House

by on February 1, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics | Permalink

I was asked on Quora What do economists think about buying vs renting a house? Here’s my answer:

Housing is overrated as a financial investment. First, it’s not good to have a significant share of your wealth locked into a single asset. Diversification is better and it’s easier to diversify with stocks. Second, unless you are renting the basement, houses don’t pay dividends. Stocks do. You can hope that your house will accumulate in value but don’t count on it. Indeed, you should expect that as an investment your house will appreciate less than does the stock market. You didn’t expect to get a great investment and a place to live in the meantime did you? TANSTAAFL.

Another problem with houses is that home ownership locks people to location making it harder to move for jobs. The problem is especially severe because no one likes to sell at a “loss” even when it is rational to do so. So when jobs disappear and home prices fall instead of moving, people hold on for too long just hoping that things will get better. It’s troubling that both across states in the United States and across countries higher home ownership predicts higher unemployment rates. See Does High Home-Ownership Impair the Labor Market?

So why do so many people buy houses? Houses are lovely if you enjoy interior decorating, backyard barbecues and talking to your neighbors. Houses today also come bundled with a significant side asset – access to so-called public schools. One argument for school vouchers, by the way, which isn’t emphasized as much as it should be, is that vouchers would break the strong connection between where you live and what schools you attend. Poor people would have a better chance at attending good schools if schools and housing weren’t bundled together so closely

Owning a house is also a part of the “American Dream” and perhaps as a result the US tax code subsidizes houses, especially for the rich. Most economists, however, think that the United States tax code is inefficiently biased toward housing. There is no good reason to bias people away from renting and towards buying. Germany is a wealthy country and a majority of Germans get by just fine by renting. See Most Germans don’t buy their homes, they rent. Here’s why.

One final point: behavioral economics tells us that we quickly get used to big houses but we never get used to commuting. So when you have a choice, go for the smaller house closer to work.

Failing Slower?

by on January 29, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Fortune: Hiring a new employee, for instance, now takes 63 days, up from 42 in 2010, according to a 2015 study we did with 400 corporate recruiters. Meanwhile the average time to deliver an office IT project increased by more than a month from 2010 to 2015, and now stands at over 10 months from start to delivery—this particular nugget coming from a study we conducted with 2,000 project managers at more than 60 global organizations.

And when companies need to mesh processes, things get even slower. Multiple surveys we did with several thousand stakeholders in the realm of business-to-business sales revealed some striking evidence of institutional delay. The time required for one company to sell something to another, for example, has risen 22% in the past five years, as gaining consensus from one or two buyers has turned into five or more.

More here.

It certainly feels like more people are required to sign off on something than ever before and that fact is slowing things down. The time-series is short, however, and lots of other things are going on. Maybe firms take longer to hire when the growth rate is low. File under speculative.

Bloomberg: Apple Inc. said it acquired education-technology startup LearnSprout, which creates software for schools and teachers to track students’ performance.

Apple is working on education tools for the iPad, which will allow students to see interactive lessons, track their progress, and share tablet computers with peers….More than 2,500 school districts in 42 U.S. states use LearnSprout’s software, according to the company’s website.

As I said in my post, Apple Should Buy a University:

Apple University would be a proving ground for educational technologies that would be sold to every other university in the world. New textbooks built for the iPad and its successors would greatly increase the demand for iPads. Apple-designed courses built using online technologies, a.i. tutors, and virtual reality experimental worlds could become the leading form of education worldwide. Big data analytics from Apple University textbooks and courses would lead to new and better ways of teaching. As a new university, Apple could experiment with new ways of organizing degrees and departments and certifying knowledge.

Go Has Been Broken

by on January 28, 2016 at 7:26 am in Economics, Games, Science | Permalink

Tic-tac-toe fell in 1952, checkers in 1994, chess in 1997 and it now looks like Go, the ancient Chinese game that has a search space many, many times greater than chess, has fallen to a new AI from Google.

Go…our program AlphaGo achieved a 99.8% winning rate against other Go programs, and defeated the human European Go champion by 5 games to 0. This is the first time that a computer program has defeated a human professional player in the full-sized game of Go, a feat previously thought to be at least a decade away.

Importantly, AlphaGo isn’t based primarily on searching a huge space but on deep neural networks that learned first from human players and then from simulated play with itself. The techniques, therefore, are not limited to Go.

AlphaGo will face its greatest challenge in March.

AlphaGo’s next challenge will be to play the top Go player in the world over the last decade, Lee Sedol. The match will take place this March in Seoul, South Korea.

Win or lose, I will bet that Lee Sedol is the last human champion the world will ever know.

IMPACT is Working

by on January 27, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

In Launching the Innovation Renaissance I wrote:

…teacher pay in the United States seems more like something from Soviet-era Russia than 21st century America. Wages for teachers are low, egalitarian and not based on performance. We pay phys ed teachers about the same as math teachers despite the fact that math teachers have greater opportunities elsewhere in the economy. As a result, we have lots of excellent phys ed teachers but not nearly enough excellent math teachers….

Soviet style pay practices helped to eventually collapse the Soviet system and the same thing is happening in American education. Michelle Rhee is no longer the DC Chancellor but IMPACT, the teacher evaluation system developed under her tenure, is in place. IMPACT uses student scores to evaluate teachers but also five yearly in-class evaluations, three from the school administrator and two from master educators from outside the school. Evaluations are meant not only to reward but also to discover and spread best teaching practices.

The results from IMPACT are starting to come in and they indicate that pay for performance is encouraging low quality teachers to leave, good quality teachers to get better, and high quality teachers to continue teaching and improve even further.

Perhaps not surprisingly the schools with the poorest students see the most teachers leave and they also see the largest gains in student performance as average teacher quality rises. From a new NBER paper by Adnot et al.:

More than 90 percent of the turnover of low-performing teachers occurs in high-poverty schools, where the proportion of exiting teachers who are low-performers is twice as high as in low-poverty schools.

…Our estimates indicate that there are consistently large gains from the exit of low-performing teachers in high-poverty schools. In math, teacher quality improves by 1.3 standard deviations and student achievement by 20 percent of a standard deviation; in reading these figures are 1 standard deviation of teacher quality and 14 percent of standard deviation of student achievement.

These are big effects especially when multiplied over many generations of students.

Hat tip: Eric Crampton at Offsetting Behaviour.

The disaster in Flint, Michigan is being treated as an aberration but Werner Troesken’s excellent book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster demonstrates that there is a history of such problems in the United States.

In The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, Werner Troesken looks at a long-running environmental and public health catastrophe: 150 years of lead pipes in local water systems and the associated sickness, premature death, political inaction, and social denial. The harmful effects of lead water pipes became apparent almost as soon as cities the world over began to install them. Doctors and scientists noted cases of acute illness and death attributable to lead in public water beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and an editorial in the New York Herald called for the city to study the matter after a bizarre illness made headlines in 1868. But officials took no action for many years. New York City, for example, did not take any steps to reduce lead levels in water until 1992, long after the most serious damage had been done. By then, in any case, much of the old lead pipe had been replaced with safer materials.

Troesken examines the health effects of lead exposure, analyzing cases from New York City, Boston, and Glasgow and many smaller towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and England. He draws on period accounts, government reports, court decisions, and economic and demographic analysis to document the widespread nature of the problem, the recognized health effects—particularly for pregnant women and young children—and official intransigence. He presents an accessible overview of the old and new science of lead exposure—explaining, for example, why areas with soft water suffered more harmful effects than areas with hard water. And he gives us compelling and vivid accounts of the people and politics involved. The effects of lead in water continue to be felt; many older houses still have lead service pipes. The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster is essential reading for understanding this past and ongoing public health problem.

Full disclosure: Troesken was a colleague at GMU a few years ago around when this book was published.

Too Good to Be True

by on January 21, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

In ancient Israel a court of 23 judges called the Sanhedrin would decide matters of importance such as death penalty cases. The Talmud prescribes a surprising rule for the court. If a majority vote for death then death is imposed except, “If the Sanhedrin unanimously find guilty, he is acquitted.” Why the peculiar rule?

In an excellent new paper, Too Good to Be True, Lachlan J. Gunn et al. show that more evidence can reduce confidence. The basic idea is simple. We expect that in most processes there will normally be some noise so absence of noise suggests a kind of systemic failure. The police are familiar with one type of example. When the eyewitnesses to a crime all report exactly the same story that reduces confidence that the story is true. Eyewitness stories that match too closely suggests not truth but a kind a systemic failure, namely the witnesses have collaborated on telling a lie.

police lineupWhat Gunn et al. show is that the accumulation of consistent (non-noisy) evidence can reverse one’s confidence surprisingly quickly. Consider a police lineup but now consider a more likely cause of systemic failure than witness conspiracy. Suppose that there is a small probability, say 1%, that the police arrange the lineup, either on purpose or by accident, so that the “suspect” is the only one who is close to matching the description of the criminal. Now consider what happens to our rational (Bayesian) probability that the suspect is guilwitnessty as the number of eyewitnesses saying “that’s the guy” increases. The first eyewitness to identify the suspect increases our confidence that the suspect is guilty and our confidence increases when the second and third eyewitness corroborate but when a fourth eyewitness points to the same man our rational confidence should actually

Even though the systemic failure rate is only 1%, that small probability starts to weigh more heavily the more consistent (less noisy) the evidence becomes. The red line in the graph at right shows–using a 1% systemic failure rate and realistic probabilities of eyewitness identification–that after 3 witnesses more evidence decreases our confidence and when more than 10 witnesses identify the same suspect we should be less certain of guilt than when one witness identifies the suspect! The yellow line shows how certainty increases when there is no possibility of systemic failure which is what most people imagine is the case. Notice from the green line that even when the probability of systemic failure is tiny (.01%) it begins to dominate the results quite early.

What matters is not that the probability of systemic failure is tiny but how it compares to the probability of consistency which, with any reasonable estimate of noise, is itself getting tinier and tinier as evidence accumulates. In another application, the authors show how even the miniscule probability of a stray cosmic ray flipping a bit in machine code can materially reduce our confidence in common cryptographic procedures.

In summary, the peculiar rule of the Talmud receives support from Bayesian analysis–too much consistency is suspect of failure.

Nature reports that some of the research most-cited by opponents of genetically modifying crops appears to have been manipulated. In particular, images appear to have been altered and images from one paper appear in another paper describing different experiments with different captions.

Papers that describe harmful effects to animals fed genetically modified (GM) crops are under scrutiny for alleged data manipulation. The leaked findings of an ongoing investigation at the University of Naples in Italy suggest that images in the papers may have been intentionally altered. The leader of the lab that carried out the work there says that there is no substance to this claim.

The papers’ findings run counter to those of numerous safety tests carried out by food and drug agencies around the world, which indicate that there are no dangers associated with eating GM food. But the work has been widely cited on anti-GM websites — and results of the experiments that the papers describe were referenced in an Italian Senate hearing last July on whether the country should allow cultivation of safety-approved GM crops.

Three Words – Any Place

by on January 14, 2016 at 7:30 am in Data Source, Travel, Web/Tech | Permalink

Here’s an amazing new tool. what3words has identified every one of the 57 trillion 3mx3m squares on the entire planet with just three, easy to remember, words. My office, for example, not my building but my office, is token.oyster.whispering. Tyler’s office just down the hall is barons.huts.sneaky. (Especially easy to remember if you recall this is Tyrone’s office as well.)

Every location on the earth now has a fixed, easily-accessible and memorable address. Unpopulated places have addresses for the first time ever, of course, but now so do heavily populated places like favelas in Brazil where there are no roads or numbered houses. In principle, addressing could be done with latitude and longitude but that’s like trying to direct people to web sites with IP addresses–not good for humans.

Algorithms have assigned words to avoid homophones (sale & sail) and to place similar combos far from one another to aid in error detection. Simpler, more common words are used to address more populated areas and longer words are used in unpopulated areas.

Moreover the three word addresses are available not just in English but in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, Russian, German, Turkish and Swedish with more languages on the way. The addresses in other languages are not translations but unique 3 word addresses in those languages.

All of this is available in a small app so that it can be used even offline on a simple smartphone. Find your address here.

Hat tip: The Browser.

Economists on FDA Reciprocity

by on January 14, 2016 at 7:05 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

Daniel Klein & William Davis surveyed economists about whether it would be an improvement to reform the FDA so that “as soon as a new drug is approved by any one of five [FDA approved international] agencies, that drug automatically gains approval in the United States.” They report:

Of the 467 economists who answered the question and did not mark “Have no opinion,” 53 percent agreed that the reform would be an improvement, while 29 percent disagreed. (The remainder said they were “neutral.”) Moreover, those favoring the reform were more likely to say they held their belief “strongly.” Hence, the balance of economist judgment certainly leaned in favor of the liberalization.

Economists are not the only ones in favor of reciprocity. Others are also coming around, at least partially. In Generic Drug Regulation and Pharmaceutical Price-Jacking I argued in response to the massive increases in the price of Daraprim (generic name Pyrimethamine) that we ought to allow importation:

Pyrimethamine is also widely available in Europe. I’ve long argued for reciprocity, if a drug is approved in Europe it ought to be approved here. In this case, the logic is absurdly strong. The drug is already approved here! All that we would be doing is allowing import of any generic approved as such in Europe to be sold in the United States.

In a paper in JAMA discussing the same case, Drs Jeremy Greene, Gerard Anderson, and Joshua M. Sharfstein agree, writing:

A second option is to temporarily permit the importation of drug products reviewed by competent regulatory authorities and approved for sale outside the United States. For example, Glaxo, the original manufacturer of pyrimethamine, sells a version of the drug approved for use in the United Kingdom at less than $1 per tablet.

Dr Sharfstein by the way was Principal Deputy Commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration from March 2009 to January 2011.

Addendum: I will be discussing/debating pharmaceutical policy with Dr. Sharfstein at on event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC the morning of Monday January 25. Invitation only but email me if you want an invite.

Here’s the latest video from our MRUniversity course on the Principles of Macroeconomics; it’s an introduction to growth rates and comparing countries across time.