Month: June 2011


Excellent piece in the Village Voice (some ads nsfw) about the Ashton Kutcher-Demi Moore campaign on child prostitution:

“It’s between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today,” Ashton Kutcher told CNN‘s Piers Morgan on April 18. That, says Kutcher, is how many kids are lost to prostitution in America every single year.

…”Last month, the New York Times breathlessly confided, “An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 American-born children are sold for sex each year.”…

USA Today: “Each year, 100,000 to 300,000 American kids, some as young as 12…”

• CNN: “There’s between 100,000 to 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States…”…

• C-SPAN: “Children in our country enslaved sexually…from 100,000 to 300,000…”

But a detailed review of police files across the nation tells another story.

Village Voice Media spent two months researching law enforcement data.

We examined arrests for juvenile prostitution in the nation’s 37 largest cities during a 10-year period.

To the extent that underage prostitution exists, it primarily exists in those large cities.

Law enforcement records show that there were only 8,263 arrests across America for child prostitution during the most recent decade.

That’s 827 arrests per year.

The article has much more detail on how an already bogus figure of 100,000-300,000 children “at risk” of prostitution expanded and then went viral. 

Patents out of control

Apple has been granted an incredibly broad patent giving them monopoly rights to gesture recognition on multitouch displays.

“It covers the basic user interface concept of moving touch-screen content with multitouch gestures–not just one particular way to programmatically recognize one particular gesture for this purpose, but any or all ways to do so,” Mueller said. “This patent describes the solution at such a high level that it effectively lays an exclusive claim to the problem itself, and any solutions to it.”

Patents are supposed to increase the progress of the useful arts. But does anyone really believe that gesture technology would have been left undeveloped without the prospects of a 20-year monopoly?

Papers about robot vacuum cleaner personalities

There are some, and they are important:

In this paper we report our study on the user experience of robot vacuum cleaner behavior. How do people want to experience this new type of cleaning appliance? Interviews were conducted to elicit a desired robot vacuum cleaner personality. With this knowledge in mind, behavior was designed for a future robot vacuum cleaner. A video prototype was used to evaluate how people experienced the behavior of this robot vacuum cleaner. The results indicate that people recognized the intended personality in the robot behavior. We recommend using a personality model as a tool for developing robot behavior.

A summary discussion is here, interesting throughout.  From this paper you can surmise a bit about the origins of religion, the seen and the unseen, and the demand for conspiracy theories, in addition to robot vacuum cleaners.

There is No Great Stagnation

Greenhouses lined with genetically modified marijuana sit on a mountainside just an hour ride from Cali, Colombia, where farmers say the enhanced plants are more powerful and profitable.

One greenhouse owner said she can sell the modified marijuana for 100,000 pesos ($54) per kilo (2.2 pounds), which is nearly 10 times more than the price she can get for ordinary marijuana.

Here is more and for the pointer I thank MT.

Inconsistent Stories

Yglesias on the inconsistent stories told by the teachers unions.

[there] is a huge consistency problem in the messaging coming out of teachers unions. Sometimes I hear from union-affiliated folks that it’s unfair to attribute differences in student learning to differences in teacher skill, because everyone knows that socioeconomic and home environment factors drive a lot of this. Other times I see the American Federation of Teachers building a messaging program around the idea that its members are Making A Difference Every Day. To me this leads to the obvious conclusion that while socioeconomic and home environment factors do drive a lot of student learning, teachers are also making a difference every day. And it makes a lot of sense to ask which teachers are making the most difference. The teachers who are in the top 20 percent of difference-makers are playing a vital role to the future of America, and we ought to pay them more money and make sure they don’t leave the profession. But the teachers who are in the bottom percent of difference-makers are doing us little good, and we should try to replace them with other people.

Read the whole thing,  he makes a number of good points.

Coasean markets in everything (the culture that was Sydney)

From a distance Sydney may seem like one of the world’s most desirable places to call home: a sparkling harbour, enticing beaches and a climate to die for. It’s regularly rated as one of world’s 10 most liveable cities. But, as of Friday, the state government of New South Wales will pay residents A$7,000 (£4,500) to leave it.

It’s part of a new scheme to boost the population and economy of country areas.

Here is more and for the pointer I thank Bruno Hernan.  Of course by global standards Sydney isn’t crowded at all; this also relates to an earlier Megan McArdle post about whether we are willing to let our cities become much more dense.

Signaling vs. credentialism

From Arnold Kling:

The relationship between education and earnings is not entirely market driven. Within the government sector, pay grade is affected by education levels. Government also has educational credentials that affect many professions, including teaching, health care, and law. That is why I do not look to signaling as the explanation for the returns to schooling. For signals of ability, there are alternatives available. But strict credential requirements leave no alternative.

There is more at the link.  While I trust the best individual researchers in the area, I share Arnold’s fear that the macro-organization of the education field is not structured to produce totally objective results.  Still, a natural experiment showing a high signaling premium would yield accolades to its author and I still would like to see your nominations for the best work — and I do mean natural experiments — pointing in this direction.

The wisdom of Scott Sumner

On structural unemployment:

…there is no hard and fast distinction between cyclical and structural unemployment. For instance, if structural unemployment in American has risen closer to European levels, it may be partly due to the decision to extend unemployment insurance from 26 weeks to 99 weeks, and to increase the minimum wage by over 40% right before the recession. Does that mean that demand stimulus cannot lower unemployment? No, because the maximum length of unemployment insurance is itself an endogenous variable. If stimulus were to sharply boost aggregate demand it is quite likely that Congress would return the UI limit to 26 weeks, as it has during previous recoveries. For similar reasons, the real minimum wage would decline with more rapid growth in demand. Aggregate supply and demand are hopelessly entangled, a problem that many economists haven’t fully recognised.

Read the whole thing.  I would add a few points.  First, structural and cyclical hypotheses interact in another way, namely that the degree of nominal stickiness for unemployed workers will depend on structural factors.  Second, the partially structural nature of unemployment is becoming increasingly clear with time; wages are not sticky forever and we are not at risk of a downward deflationary spiral from a round of wage-cutting among the unemployed.  Third, the unemployment itself is becoming increasingly structural, even if you think it was mostly cyclical in the first place.  Not working is bad for people.  Fourth, structural unemployment does change the appropriate mix of monetary and fiscal policies, although the net effect is indeterminate in theory.  Monetary policy should be expansionary, but structural forces behind unemployment can make traditional fiscal policy either more or less effective (it is more important to target disaffected workers, but also harder to do so) and you can think of that as the frontier policy question of the day.

Here is Scott’s bleg.  Could Scott be blogging again?  The consumer surplus from the internet just went up.

Does the returns to education literature really test the signaling model?

Here is a comment by Matt, and also by ArnoldBryan’s response argues that the returns to education tests consider “ability bias” but not “signaling.”  For a lot of the tests that is a distinction without a difference, and indeed you can see this on the first two pages of Angrist and Krueger, which discuss “omitted variables that are correlated with educational attainment and with earnings capacity.”  The tests still discriminate against the signaling model, even if signaling and ability bias differ in other regards.  In a nutshell, artificially or randomly elevated workers fare better in the longer run than the signaling model predicts.

Here’s a parable to illustrate.  Imagine a market situation with wages and different education levels observed for two classes of workers — call the locale Honduras.  Now compare that to another setting — Nicaragua — where education is handed out on some subsidized, randomized basis.  In the latter case some of the low ability group will be induced to get more schooling, and the pool of the educated will contain more low ability individuals in Nicaragua, compared to Honduras.

Now measure the long term earnings and compare.

If the signaling model is correct, the average long-term wage rates of return for the subsidized/elevated group in Nicaragua will be noticeably below the average wage rates of return of the educated group from the separating equilibrium in Honduras.  After all, the subsidy-elevated group adds many more “low ability individuals” to the Nicaraguan mix of the educated than one would find in Honduras.  According to the signaling model, in Nicaragua eventually the lower skill level of the elevated group will be discovered and their wage rates of return won’t stay so high forever.

But the wage rates of return for the elevated groups do not plummet back to earth and generally they are robust over time.  That measures the real learning which went on in school, or so it would seem.  Education is good for more than getting a good first job offer right off the bat.

The modern liberal interpretation (which may or may not be true) is that these poor people were waiting for a helping hand up the ladder, and then they took good advantage of it when it came.  And if the elevated group in Nicaragua has higher long-term wage rates of return than the educated Hondurans (a result which does sometimes pop up in the data), that is because their lower initial margin of education made them an especially potent investment.

The actual tests are more complicated than this, and I use the country names to make the example easy to follow, not out of verisimilitude.  But this example is one way to see some of the intuitions behind why the data do not treat the signaling model so kindly.

One empirical implication is that crude OLS measures of the return to education are much better than they may at first appear.  These results are also one reason why most modern labor economists might object to the arguments of Charles Murray.

Here is a recent Brookings piece on the return to education, I have not had time to go through it.

Assorted links

1. Another list with different countries in a rank order.

2. Ross Douthat on Unnatural Selection.

3.  Not just CPI bias, and contrary to common impression per capita gdp growth rates also have been falling.  If median income growth rates are slower yet, that is a sign of potent rent-seeking by minority groups (finance, medicine, politicians, lobbyists, etc.).

4. Update on who is the world’s most traveled person.

5. Debate over whether ATM sounds are real.

What I’ve been reading

1. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin.  I hadn’t read this since I was fourteen, but it held up surprisingly well and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  This time around I could see how much the author is the daughter of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.

2. My Blood Approves, by Amanda Hocking.  A landmark in the history of e-publishing, and a real button-clicker too.  But I can’t say I actually think it’s good.  Still, I finished it.

3. Patrick French, India: A Portrait.  Consistently thoughtful.  I didn’t love it, but a reader could do much worse.  I finished it.

4. John Gimlette, Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge.  Yes, this book covers Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.  A revelation, I loved it.  Could Gimlette be my favorite current travel writer?

5. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.  I like the first hundred pages very much, so you’ll probably be hearing more about this one, which is a major study of its topic, with a good deal of coverage of Canada and Mexico too, often from a comparative perspective.

Also in my pile is Menzie D. Chinn and Jeffry A. Frieden, Lost Decades: The Making of America’s Debt Crisis and the Long Recovery.