Month: July 2012

Sicily fact of the day

In lieu of the Austerians:

Today, Sicily’s regional government has 1,800 employees — more than the British Cabinet Office — and the island employs 26,000 auxiliary forest rangers; in the vast forestlands of British Columbia, there are fewer than 1,500.

Out of a population of five million people in Sicily, the state directly or indirectly employs more than 100,000 of them and pays pensions to many more. It changed its pension system eight years after the rest of Italy. (One retired politician recently won a case to keep an annual pension of 480,000 euros, about $584,000.)

Here is more.

Honduras may appeal to London courts

Tricky legal dispute in Central America? Sort it out in the London courts. Honduras, the state with the highest homicide rate in the world, is preparing to send appeal cases to the judicial committee of the privy council (JCPC) in Westminster.

The extraordinary expansion of UK legal jurisdiction is being negotiated in an effort to support the development of a pioneering enterprise zone in the crime-scarred republic.

The Honduran government is establishing what amounts to semi-independent city states, hoping that improved governance backed by international partners will attract business investment and create employment.

The complex constitutional agreement under discussion involves Mauritius – an island 10,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean – guaranteeing the legal framework of the courts in the development zones, known locally as La Región Especial de Desarrollo (RED).

Here is more, and for the pointer I thank P.

There Will Be Blood

Economists often reduce complex motivations to simple functions such as profit maximization. Writing in The Economist, Buttonwood ably criticizes such simplifications. Buttonwood is too quick, however, to conclude that simplification falsifies. For example, Buttonwood argues:

If there is a shortage of blood, making payments to blood donors might seem a brilliant idea. But studies show that most donors are motivated by an idea of civic duty and that a monetary reward might actually undermine their sense of altruism.

As loyal readers of this blog know, however, the empirical evidence is that incentives for blood donation actually work quite well. Mario Macis, Nicola Lacetera, and Bob Slonim, the authors of the most important work on this subject (references below), write to me with the details:

The decision to donate blood involves complex motivations including altruism, civic duty and moral responsibility. As a result, we agree with Buttonwood that in theory incentives could reduce the supply of blood. In fact, this claim is often advanced in the popular press as well as in academic publications, and as a consequence, more and more often it is taken for granted.

But what is the effect of incentives when studied in the real world with real donors and actual blood donations?

We are unaware of a single study of real blood donations that shows that offering an incentive reduces the overall quantity or quality of blood donations. From our two studies, both in the United States covering several hundred thousand people, and studies by Goette and Stutzer (Switzerland) and Lacetera and Macis (Italy), a total of 17 distinct incentive items have been studied for the effects on actual blood donations. Incentives have included both small items and gift cards as well as larger items such as jackets and a paid-day off of work.  In 16 of the 17 items examined, blood donations significantly increased (and there was no effect for the one other item), and in 16 of the 17 items studied no significant increase in deferrals or disqualifications were found.  No study has ever looked at paying cash for actual blood donations, but several of the 17 items in the above studies involve gift cards with clear monetary value.

Although many lab studies and surveys have found differing evidence focusing on other outcomes than actual blood donations (such as stated preferences), the empirical record when looking at actual blood donations is thus far unambiguous: incentives increase donations.

Given the vast and important policy debate regarding addressing shortages for blood, organ and bone marrow in developed as well as less-developed economies, where shortages are especially severe, it is important to not only consider more complex human motivations, but to also provide reliable evidence, and interpret it carefully. The recent ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allowing the legal compensation of bone marrow donors further enhances the importance of the debate and the necessity to provide evidence-based insights.

Here is a list of references:

Goette, L., and Stutzer, A., 2011: “Blood Donation and Incentives: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” Working Paper.

Lacetera, N., and Macis, M. 2012. Time for Blood: The Effect of Paid Leave Legislation on Altruistic Behavior. Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, forthcoming.

Lacetera N, Macis M, Slonim R 2012 Will there be Blood? Incentives and Displacement Effects in Pro-Social Behavior. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 4: 186-223.

Lacetera N, Macis M, Slonim R.: Rewarding Altruism: A natural Field Experiment, NBER working paper.

Immigration to Australian jail

MANDATORY sentencing — a key element of Labor’s policy to deter asylum boats — is having the opposite effect, encouraging Indonesian crew attracted by Australia’s relatively high prison pay.

Lawyer and former diplomat Anthony Sheldon says jailed crew members can make $20 a day in Australian jails, in his submission to the Gillard government’s expert panel on asylum-seekers.

Sadly, the rest is gated…but there is also this bit:

“The preference of a number of older fishermen is to remain in detention in Australia,” Mr Sheldon says in the submission.

“Depending on their jobs in prison, they can earn up to $20 per day, making them wealthy beyond comparison upon their return to their villages after their sentence is served.

“They also receive free dental and medical services during their imprisonment. “Combined with the relative safety of their work in prison compared to the dangerous work at sea, Australian imprisonment is very desirable.”

For the pointer I thank Philip Hegarty.

Assorted links

1. Noah Smith’s dissertation, plus a mention of my most fundamental view: “”Larry Summer’s maxim,“It isn’t easy to understand how the world works.””

2. Spanish baby stealing as an approach toward social change, and an old argument for the minimum wage.

3. Henry’s music bleg, with lots of comments.

4. Arnold Kling on education, disruption, and Benjamin Lima.

5. China’s railway arteries, photographed.

6. Olympic runner to compete, without a passport or home country.

Mere exposure to money

The paper is by Eugene M. Caruso, Kathleen D. Vohs, Brittani Baxter and Adam Waytz.  The title of the paper is “Mere Exposure to Money Increases Endorsement of Free-Market Systems and Social Inequality.”  Abstract:

The present research tested whether incidental exposure to money affects people’s endorsement of social systems that legitimize social inequality. We found that subtle reminders of the concept of money, relative to nonmoney concepts, led participants to endorse more strongly the existing social system in the United States in general (Experiment 1) and free-market capitalism in particular (Experiment 4), to assert more strongly that victims deserve their fate (Experiment 2), and to believe more strongly that socially advantaged groups should dominate socially disadvantaged groups (Experiment 3). We further found that reminders of money increased preference for a free-market system of organ transplants that benefited the wealthy at the expense of the poor even though this was not the prevailing system (Experiment 5) and that this effect was moderated by participants’ nationality. These results demonstrate how merely thinking about money can influence beliefs about the social order and the extent to which people deserve their station in life.

For the pointer I thank Robin Hanson.

*Affluence and Influence*

The author is Martin Gilens and the subtitle is Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.  A few points:

1. It is an interesting book.

2. It is poorly written and the first fifty pages should have been abolished.

3. It argues, using a comprehensive data set, that the preferences of poor and even middle income people are neglected or underrepresented in the policy process.  The preferences of the wealthiest ten percent seem to have more sway.

4. It should take greater care to distinguish the preferences of the (often ill-informed) poor across means and ends.  Say a poor or middle class person feels “I want tariffs” and also “I want prosperity.”  The elites then push through free trade to produce prosperity and for that matter to get reelected and perhaps also to serve commercial interests and donors.  Have they met or frustrated the preferences of the poor?  By the metrics of Gilens the poor did not get their way but that is not obviously the correct conclusion.  Matt makes a related point.

5. Many lower- or middle-income voters decide to vote retrospectively over outcomes (mostly), rather than over policy inputs.  That suggests we should judge the responsiveness of the system in terms of how well it aims toward those outputs, not whether it gives lower-income voters their preferred policy inputs.

6. What is wrong with this simple alternative hypothesis?:  Politicians seek some measure of redistribution-weighted prosperity to get reelected.  Wealthier voters are better educated and smarter, so they have a better sense of which policies will bring that about.  It seems the wealthier voters are getting their way on policy inputs, but a deeper look shows the pressures on politicians are quite general.

7. I would be falling prey to the fallacy of mood affiliation if I simply assumed the author wanted policy to be more responsive to the wishes of the poor and middle class.  Still I can ask whether this would be a desirable end.  Aren’t they less educated and less well-informed on average?  Don’t they also care about politics less and derive less of their status from political processes and outcomes?  Do I want them to have a greater say over social issues, including gay marriage?  No.

Here is a Boston Review symposium on the book, including many responses from the notables on the sidebar, along with a response from the author.

Singapore R&D there is no great stagnation

Here is one description (with photo and a very good video):

Unveiled at a design conference in the UK recently, Kissenger is basically an egg-like orb outfitted with two soft plastic lips packed with sensors and actuators. When a human on one end of the kiss transaction plants a kiss on the robot lips, the sensors record the shape changes the kisser creates on the lips and translates those pressure patterns into a mirror image that can be beamed over the Web to another Kissenger. That Kissenger then reproduces the sender’s unique kiss for a human on the other end.

Here is another:

Kissing Bot. Singaporean robotics studio Lovotics has a new robot in the news. Kissenger is an advanced and intimate form of telepresence robot specially designed to transmit the senstions of a kiss. Two units are able to record and remotely reproduce the unique pressure sensations from a kiss … although the design looks pretty chaste and seems to lack an option to go French. Research like this while seeming silly is crucial for innovating next-gen avatar robot tech.

Here is more.  Hat tip goes to @GrishinRobotics.


The new Ron Unz piece on IQ

A new piece by Ron Unz, in The American Conservative, is subtitled “What the Facts Tell Us About a Taboo Subject.”  Excerpt:

Consider, for example, the results from Germany obtained prior to its 1991 reunification. Lynn and Vanhanen present four separate IQ studies from the former West Germany, all quite sizable, which indicate mean IQs in the range 99–107, with the oldest 1970 sample providing the low end of that range. Meanwhile, a 1967 sample of East German children produced a score of just 90, while two later East German studies in 1978 and 1984 came in at 97–99, much closer to the West German numbers.

These results seem anomalous from the perspective of strong genetic determinism for IQ. To a very good approximation, East Germans and West Germans are genetically indistinguishable, and an IQ gap as wide as 17 points between the two groups seems inexplicable, while the recorded rise in East German scores of 7–9 points in just half a generation seems even more difficult to explain.


Next, consider Greece. Lynn and Vanhanen report two IQ sample results, a score of 88 in 1961 and a score of 95 in 1979. Obviously, a national rise of 7 full points in the Flynn-adjusted IQ of Greeks over just 18 years is an absurdity from the genetic perspective, especially since the earlier set represented children and the latter adults, so the two groups might even be the same individuals tested at different times. Both sample sizes are in the hundreds, not statistically insignificant, and while it is impossible to rule out other factors behind such a large discrepancy in a single country, it is interesting to note that Greek affluence had grown very rapidly during that same period, with the real per capita GDP rising by 170 percent.


Interestingly enough, these rapid rises in IQ due to changes in the general socio-economic environment appear completely absent when we examine the international or domestic IQ data for East Asian populations, for whom even tenfold differences in real per capita GDP seem to have little or no impact on IQ. Missing this unexpected contrast between the impact of socio-economic factors on Europeans and on East Asians may have been a major reason that Lynn and Vanhanen failed to notice the serious flaws in their “Strong IQ Hypothesis.”

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout.  Here is a short profile of Ron Unz, noting rumors that he has an IQ of 214.  Here is his Wikipedia page.  Here is Unz’s new website.

The Great Olympic stagnation?

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED on the way to the London Olympics: Athletes stopped breaking world records. Remember the run-up to Beijing in 2008, when the sports world was abuzz over how many marks Michael Phelps would smash? He set seven world records there but hasn’t bested a global time since 2009. The Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 provided plenty of drama but few record-shattering wins — Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo’s highest-ever score in pairs figure skating wasn’t exactly a Bob Beamon moment. World records are now decades old in classic men’s Olympic sports such as the long jump (1991), shot put (1990) and discus throw (1986).

Many scientists have concluded from recent events that athletic performance is hitting a wall. Geoffroy Berthelot of INSEP, a sports research institute in Paris, looked at competitions from 1896 to 2007 and found that peak scores stopped improving in 64 percent of track and field events after 1993. Giuseppe Lippi of the University of Verona examined nine Olympic sports from 1900 to 2007 and found similar results. “Improvement has substantially stopped or reached a plateau in several specialities,” he wrote. Berthelot has predicted that the “human species’ physiological frontiers will be reached” in most sports around 2027.

Yet his conclusion is more measured:

But what these researchers are detecting isn’t some final biological frontier but rather a lull in technological enhancement. Athletes have always relied on science to push the bounds of achievement. Olympic athletes’ great stagnation, then, is really a temporary halt in innovation.

That is from Peter Keating, here is more.  For the pointer I thank Allison Kasic.

College fact of the day

What do families actually pay for college? On average, the answer was $20,902 in 2011-2012, which is down from $24,097 in 2009-2010.

That is from Timothy Taylor.  That is not deflation due to higher productivity, but rather mostly the result of a series of substitutions, including living at home and switching to two-year colleges.

File under “Further reasons why the current revenue model is unsustainable.”

Elsewhere, Mark Edmundson, a U Va. English professor, writes:

Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is — and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.

Boo hoo!  Poor you!  Poor me!  Poor Alex, que triste!

File under “The Empire Strikes Back.”