Month: April 2009

Markets in less than everything

But to other writers and editors, the Kindle is the ultimate bad idea whose time has come. Anne Fadiman,
the author, was relieved to learn that her essay collection, “Ex
Libris,” was not available on Kindle. “It would really be ironic if it
were,” she said of the book, which evokes her abiding passion for books
as objects.

Here is the article, interesting throughout.

The new swine flu: this is not a joke

The outbreak even hit Mexico's beloved national pastime — two sold-out
football matches Sunday — Pumas vs. Chivas and America vs. Tecos —
will be played in empty stadiums to prevent the spread of the disease.

Here is the story.  Some people are puzzled as to how human, pig, and bird strains of the flu have mixed together, but if you have spent any time in rural Mexico the answer is obvious: these creatures all live together in close quarters.

Here is my earlier study on how an economist should think about avian flu and pandemics.  You can follow the latest developments at Recombinomics and Crofsblog (the best blogroll on the topic) and Effect Measure.  Revere, an experienced professional, puts it simply:

There is ample room for serious worry. WHO is convening its expert
panel under the International Health Regulations to determine if the
pandemic threat level should be increased from phase 3 to phase 4. In
our view, this isn't even a close call. We are in phase 4 and if WHO
doesn't call it they risk being considered irrelevant and without

I will repeat the general point that public health is one of the best ways to spend government money, as it is (often, not always) a true public good.

What I’ve been reading

1. Siddharth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.  A serious research effort and the best book so far on its topic.

2. Joseph Contreras, In the Shadow of the Giant: The Americanization of Modern Mexico.  A neglected side of recent Mexican history; one of the best books on where Mexico is headed.  Here is a recent article on related progress in Mexico's legal system.

3. Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.  This revisionist account argues the conflict is political rather than racial and that the notion of "genocide" is an externally imposed category for international political reasons.  I found the arguments of this book hard to assess but it made for stimulating reading.

4. George Scialabba, What are Intellectuals Good For?, recommendation via Henry.  Fascinating essays on 20th century intellectuals, from an "ethical left" point of view.  I especially liked the piece on Pasolini (a favorite director of mine).

5. Dying Inside, by Robert Silverberg.  This 1972 classic has just been republished.  Is it science fiction or speculative fiction?  In any case it is full of social science; the basic premise is about how other people react to a man who has the ability to read peoples' minds and how psychologically destructive this power turns out to be.  If you wish to read every great science fiction book this is a must.

Debating Economics

Intelligence Squared has held a series of debates in which they poll ayes and nayes before and after.  How should we expect opinion to change with such debates?  Let’s assume that the debate teams are evenly matched on average (since any debate resolution can be written in either the affirmative or negative this seems a weak assumption).  If so, then we ought to expect a random walk; that is, sometimes the aye team will be stronger and support for their position will grow (aye after – aye before will increase) and sometimes the nay team will be stronger and support for their position will grow.  On average, however, we ought to expect that if it’s 30% aye and 70% nay going in then it ought to be 30% aye and 70% nay going out, again, on average. Another way of saying this is that new information, by definition, should not swing your view systematically one way or the other.

Alas, the data refute this position.  The graph shown below (click to enlarge) looks at the percentage of ayes and nayes among the decided Underdogbefore and after.  The hypothesis says the data should lie around the 45 degree line.  Yet, there is a clear tendency for the minority position to gain adherents  – that is, there is an underdog advantage so positions with less than 50% of the ayes before tend to increase in adherents and positions with greater than 50% ayes tend to lose adherents.  What could explain this?

I see two plausible possibilities.

1) If the side with the larger numbers has weaker adherents they could be more likely to change their mind.

2)  The undecided are key and the undecided are lying.

For case 1, imagine that 10% of each group changes their minds; since 10% of a larger number is more switchers this could generate the data.  The problem with 1 and with the data more generally is that we don’t seem to see a tendency towards 50:50 in the world.  We focus on disputes, of course, but more often we reach some consensus (the moon is not made of blue cheese, voodoo doesn’t work and so forth).

Thus 2 is my best guess.  Note first that the number of “undecided” swing massively in these debates and in every case the number of undecided goes down a lot, itself peculiar if people are rational Bayesians.  A big swing in undecided votes is quite odd for two additional reasons.  First, when Justice Roberts said he’d never really thought about the constitutionality of abortion people were incredulous.  Similarly, could 30% of the audience (in a debate in which Tyler recently participated (pdf)) be truly undecided about whether “it is wrong to pay for sex”?  Second, and even more doubtful, could it be that 30% of the people at the debate were undecided–thus had not heard arguments in let’s say the previous 10 years that converted them one way or the other–but on that very night a majority of the undecided were at last pushed into the decided camp?  I think not, thus I think lying best explains the data.

Some questions for readers.  Can you think of another hypothesis to explain the data?  Can you think of a way of testing competing hypotheses?  And does anyone know of a larger database of debate decisions with ayes, nayes and undecided before and after?

Hat tip to Robin for suggesting that there might be a tendency to 50:50, Bryan and Tyler for discussion and Robin for collecting the data.

Markets in everything, photographs only edition

Most folks never realize how cute microbes can be when expanded
1,000,000 times and then fashioned into cuddly plush. Until now, that
is. Keep one on your desktop to remind yourself that there is an
"invisible" universe out there filled with very small things that can
do incredible damage to much bigger things. Then go and wash your
hands. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here is the web site.  The options include human sperm, toxic mold, and, best of all, gangrene.  If you read closely it seems you only get a picture, not the real thing.

I thank TheBrowser for the pointer.

False Economy, by Alan Beattie

I enjoyed the book, most of all the chapter comparing Argentina and the United States.  I was struck by this bit:

New York is the only one out of the sixteen largest cities in the northeastern or midwestern states whose population is larger than it was fifty years ago.

Over that same time period our national population has roughly doubled. The subtitle of the book is A Surprising Economic History of the World.

Gerry Gunderson and the battle at Trinity College

In one previously undisclosed fight, Trinity College in Connecticut
is facing government scrutiny for its plan to spend part of a $9
million endowment from Wall Street investing legend Shelby Cullom Davis.

Trinity's Davis professor of business, Gerald Gunderson, says he
believed the plan, which would have funded scholarships for
international students, violated the wishes of the late Mr. Davis. He
alerted the Connecticut attorney general's office. Then, Mr. Gunderson
said in notes submitted to the agency, Trinity's president summoned him
to the school's cavernous Gothic conference room, where he called the
professor a "scoundrel" and threatened not to reappoint him.

Gunderson is a market-oriented economist; here is the full story.

Handicappling the Clark medal

Justin Lahart reports:

Friday, the American Economic Association will present the John Bates Clark medal, awarded to the nation’s most promising economist under the age of 40.

The Clark is often a harbinger of things to come. Of the 30 economists who have won it, 12 have gone on to win the Nobel, including last year’s Nobel winner, Paul Krugman. Other past winners include White House National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers and Steve Levitt, of Freakonomics fame. Since it was first awarded in 1947, the Clark has been given out every two years, but beginning next year it will be given out annually.

With a deep pool of young talent to draw from, there’s no sure winner. But among economists, the clear favorite is Esther Duflo, 36, who leads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Jameel Poverty Action Lab with MIT colleague Abhijit Banerjee.

Ms. Duflo has been at the forefront of the use of randomized experiments to analyze the effectiveness of development programs. If teacher attendance is a problem in rural India, for example, what happens if teachers are given cameras with date and time stamps and told to take a picture of themselves and their students each morning and afternoon? Ms. Duflo and economist Rema Hanna tried it out and found that in the “camera schools,” teacher absences fell sharply and student test scores improved. Does giving poor mothers 60 cents worth of dried beans as an incentive to immunize their children work? It works astoundingly well. By answering these kinds of problems, Ms. Duflo, her colleagues, and the many economists around the world she has helped inspire, are uncovering ways to make sure that money spent on helping poor people in developing countries is used effectively.

Harvard University‘s Sendhil Mullainathan, who founded the Poverty Action Lab with Ms. Duflo and Mr. Banerjee, is also likely on the Clark short list. He’s a leading light in the fast-growing field of behavioral economics, studying ways that psychology influences economic decisions. For one paper, he and frequent co-author Marianne Bertrand sent out fictitious resumes in response to want ads, randomly assigning each resume with very African American sounding or very white sounding names. The resumes with the very white names got far more call backs. Mr. Mullainathan, 36, is also applying behavioral economics insights to development problems. One insight: The behavioral weaknesses of the very poor are no different than the weaknesses of people in all walks of life, but because the poor have less margin for error, their behavioral weaknesses can be much more costly.

Emanuel Saez at the University of Calif.-Berkeley, another Clark candidate, has been tenaciously researching the causes of wealth and income inequality around the world, with a focus on the what’s happening at the very tip of the wealth pyramid. But because there is very little data on the very rich, Mr. Saez, 36, and his frequent co-author Thomas Piketty have combed through income tax figures to come up with historic estimates. Among their findings: That before the onset of the financial crisis, the income share of the top 1% of families by income accounted for nearly a quarter of U.S. income – the largest share since the late 1920s.

You’re a bastard

According to one recent study, the portfolio effect dominates:

You might expect that being prompted (primed) to think of yourself as a good person would make you more altruistic or moral – but, in fact, the exact opposite appears to be
the case. Primed to think about what a good person you are, your most
likely reaction is to think you’ve paid your morality dues and go on
about your business.

The underlying model is this:

According to a new study in Psychological Science,
humans engage in a process called “moral self-regulation.” Basically,
we’re constantly calculating the trade-off between being able to see
ourselves as good people and the cost of engaging in all that
non-advantageous goodness.

One thought about the IMF

I believe this point has not received sufficient attention:

In a twist that leaves some experts shaking their heads, the fund needs
money from cash-rich developing countries, like China and India, to
help more developed but strapped countries, like those in Eastern

One possibility is that the recent IMF loan program is about making governments better off, not about making people better off.  Can you imagine that?