Month: March 2016

Solitary confinement often isn’t solitary

…over 80 percent of the 10,747 federal prisoners in solitary have a cellmate.

In many places, prisons have turned to double celling to cope with overcrowding. “If you can come up with a better way to do this, understanding the fact that we are 162 percent of capacity without double celling, I’m willing to listen to you,” an Illinois Corrections Department spokesman told reporters and mental health advocates in 1994, when the state faced criticism for doubling up the mental health units at Menard. Illinois is under particular pressure as one of the most over-stuffed prison systems in the country.

“We’ve done this utterly bizarre thing, which is to put two people in cells that were built for one and leave them both in there for 23 or more hours a day,” says Craig Haney, a psychologist who has studied solitary for more than 30 years.

That is from Christie Thompson, via The Browser.

How to hide from the police in Los Angeles

Even the region’s flight paths have come to influence how criminals use the city. The heavily restricted airspace around Los Angeles International Airport, Burdette pointed out, has transformed the surrounding area into a well-known hiding spot for criminals trying to flee by car. Los Angeles police helicopters cannot always approach the airport because of air-traffic-control safety concerns. Indeed, all those planes, with their otherwise-invisible approach patterns across the Southern California sky, have come to exert a kind of sculptural effect on local crimes across the city: Their lines of flight limit the effectiveness of police helicopter patrols and thus alter the preferred getaway routes.

That is from an interesting Geoff Manaugh NYT piece on aerial surveillance in Los Angeles. Here is Manaugh’s forthcoming book A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which I have pre-ordered.

For the pointer I thank Alex Xenopoulos.

Monday assorted links

1. Good summary of the Clinton email scandals.

2. Why fiscal policy is not the answer for China.

3. Orbeht, “I can’t believe they published that,” they link to especially bad articles, a new experimental web site from the people who brought you The Browser.

4. Do the super-rich have worse taste than before?

5. “We find that an increase in Academic Progress Rate, as measured by the NCAA, for a college team in either sport significantly reduces the probability that the coach is fired at the end of the season. We find little to no evidence that an increase in the Academic Progress Rate enhances the chances of advancement (in the form of outside job offers) for these coaches.” Link here.

6. French average is over.

Where is higher education economically vulnerable?

Disruptive threats nearly always start with an attack on the large sources of profit. In the newspaper industry, the first real blow was not the replacement of the traditional newsroom as we initially feared: it was the erosion of classified revenue that paid for the newsroom by companies with weird names like eBay and Monster.

In higher education, the real threat won’t be a frontal assault on core degree programs, but the erosion of the most profitable continuing education courses and graduate programs. Coding bootcamps aren’t likely to expand their focus to challenge the preeminence of the degree any time soon. But the explosion of non-accredited programs is beginning to threaten the MBA. They have proven that they can iterate quickly and deliver a more modern learning product at a fraction of the price. Higher education will never be replaced, but the most profitable courses will be attacked, creating revenue implications that have a ripple effect across institutions.

That is from Frederick Singer, via Jeff Selingo.  Do note that Jeff’s new book There is Life After College is coming out April 12.

My conversation with Jonathan Haidt

This one is transcript and podcast only, no video, and we will be doing some more in that format.  Jonathan was in top form, here are a few bits:

COWEN: If we get to a very fundamental question — left‑wing individuals and right‑wing individuals, and let’s take, for now, only America. As people, in other ways, how different do you think they are?

Or, is it just there are these semi‑accidental triggers which have set off certain modules in the left‑wingers and different modules in the right‑wingers, but otherwise they’re going to dress the same, they’re going to treat their spouses the same way, or not? Are they fundamentally different?

HAIDT: Not fundamentally different, but different in predispositions. The most important finding in psychology in the last 50 to 100 years, I would say, is the finding that everything you can measure is heritable. The heritability coefficients vary between 0.3 and 0.6, or 30 to 60 percent of the variance, under some assumptions, can be explained by the genes. It’s the largest piece of variance we can explain.

If you and I were twins separated at birth and raised in different families, our families would pick which religions we were raised in and they would pick how often we go to church or synagogue, but once we’re out on our own, we’re going to both converge on our brain’s natural level of religiosity.

Same with politics, whether you’re on the right or left is not determined by your genes, but you’re predisposed.

And:

COWEN: If you’re in a swing state in, say, proverbial southern Ohio and in a natural setting you meet a person. With what probability do you think you can guess or forecast if they’re left‑wing or right‑wing? Even-up would be 0.5.

HAIDT: Probably 0.58, 0.57. People are incredibly variable.

And:

COWEN: Would it be a partial test of your theory if we looked at a lot of different cultures and asked, “Who are the people who dress neatly and who have a lot of calendars and stamps?” to measure whether those were typically the conservatives?

HAIDT: Yes, that would be a test.

And:

COWEN: For gay individuals, maybe not all minorities, but many minorities this is very much a positive thing. If morality is fundamentally so nonrational or arational in some key ways, is it not the case we’re always either undershooting or overshooting the target, that we can never hit it just right?

Maybe for America to be more tolerant, you need the norms to be quite crude and blunt, and overstated, and we get this political correctness. Yes it’s bad, but maybe it’s less bad then when we used to undershoot the target?

Jonathan had a good answer but it is too long to excerpt.

COWEN: Let’s say you’re Brown or Yale, and students set up a lacrosse team, and they call it the Brown Redskins, and they do some rituals which offend some people. No matter what the intent would be, should Brown or Yale step in and say, “You can’t do that?”

HAIDT: There’s a big, big line between saying, “Brown or Yale should step in and tell people what they can’t — .” In general I think no, in general the idea — .

COWEN: No they shouldn’t step in?

HAIDT: They should not step in. We should be extremely limited when we say that authorities can step in and change things. The very fact of doing that encourages microaggression culture, encourages students to orient themselves towards appealing to these authorities. The point of the microaggression article is young people these days have become moral dependents.

And:

COWEN: Let me try another analogy on you. You mentioned the army, but take private corporations, and Brown and Yale are in a sense private corporations. Harvard was originally. I wouldn’t call them restrictions on free speech, I think that’s the wrong phrase, but if one’s going to use the phrase that way, there are numerous restrictions on free speech within companies, at the work place.

If you went to the water cooler and said a number of offensive things, you would be asked to stop and eventually fired, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. So if we think of Brown, Yale, or Harvard as like a normal company, isn’t there still even with all the nonsense, a lot more free speech on campus than in actual companies?

HAIDT: Yes, and there should be. Again, a company is organized to be effective in the world. Just like the army where their priority is unit cohesion, in a company your goal isn’t to encourage everyone to express their values and criticize each other, your goal is to get them to work together.

There is much much more, including on LSD, Sigmund Freud (overrated or underrated), Cecil Rhodes, how Jonathan would change undergraduate admissions, whether behavioral economics is realizing its full potential, Adam Smith, antiparsimonialism, the replication crisis in psychology, and whether Jonathan enjoys eating insects.

Which is the most obscure Chinese province?

This is one of my favorite links of the year so far, namely how every Chinese province got its name.  I cannot recommend it to most of you however, but if you ever have worried about Shanxi vs. Shaanxi, this is the place to go:

Shaanxi is unique amongst Chinese provinces in being the only one whose name is rendered not in Hanyu Pinyin but in Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR), the romanization system used in pre-Communist China. Instead of using accents above letters as in Pinyin, tones in GR were reflected in spelling. In Pinyin, which was invented in 1958, the provinces Shanxi and Shaanxi are indistinguishable in spelling, so the old romanization was retained to remove this ambiguity. However, authorities still tacked on the Pinyin “xi” instead of the GR “shi” to spell out the second character, making Shaanxi’s name even more unusual by combining two entirely different romanization systems within a single name.

I say the most obscure Chinese province is the very small Ningxia 寧夏, outlined in red below, what do you think?  Or does it count only as an autonomous region?  Is Gansu perhaps a runner up?

ningxia

Which is the most obscure American state to an outsider?  Nebraska?  Idaho?  Somewhere else?  (I say it helps the Dakotas that you have two of them.)  I believe the Clintons put Arkansas on the map, globally speaking that is, thereby removing it from contention for this honor.

This year’s Candidates tournament

The final and deciding chess games are today, 8 a.m. EST, with Caruana and Karjakin in the lead and fortuitously playing each other in the final round.  The winner has the right to play Magnus Carlsen for the world championship in New York this November, or Karjakin wins on tiebreak if there is a draw (unless on another board Anand wins, then a draw elevates Caruana; don’t tell Ken Arrow!).  We have been learning a few things:

1. The English and Giuoco Piano are not bad openings if you are playing for a win; only first prize in this tournament counts for much, due to the embedded challenge option.

2. Risk-aversion does indeed vary with the prize environment — the Berlin defense has not been popular and every game has been hard fought.  That said, Anish Giri probably holds a lot of T-Bills in his portfolio.

3. Vishny Anand at age 46 (!) was in strong contention until the final round, which is remarkable for a contest so heavily biased toward youth.

4. I don’t think a disproportionate number of Americans are rooting for Fabiano Caruana, an American-born but Italian-raised dual citizen who was induced by financial support to play under the American flag.  The brilliant but emotionally immature Hikaru Nakamura, from White Plains N.Y., did poorly.  Nonetheless America has two of the top eight spots.

5. Today we’ll get to see whether individuals really do make better decisions when the stakes are high.  At least they have not been playing the King’s Indian.

6. Given how complicated are the rules for tie break, and the lack of clarity for handling a three-way tie, there is a chance the eventual winner will not be considered a fully meritocratic victor.  (Plus neither Caruana nor Karjakin could handle a rook and bishop vs. rook endgame correctly in the penultimate round.)  Send a DVD of Apocalypse Now, and ask for a sudden death playoff in lieu of tie-breaking rules.  Someone needs to go down in dramatic fashion, rather than having it look like the three stooges stumbling exhausted toward the finish line.

You can follow along at www.chessbomb.com, with computer commentary, www.chessbase.com for background context.

Why does the United States keep killing #2 in ISIS?

Zack Beauchamp reports:

On Friday morning, a US air strike killed Abu Alaa al-Afri, a senior leader in ISIS, whom the US says it considers the organization’s second-ranked leader.

This isn’t the first time that al-Afri has been reported dead — though the US government has allegedly verified his death.

But if (as seems likely) al-Afri is dead, this will be yet another instance in which ISIS’s number two official has been killed. In August of last year, for example, a US airstrike killed Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, then identified as the group’s number two.

This continues a trend that news consumers may recognize from counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda, in which the group seemed to lose one third-in-command (after Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri) after another.

As some Twitter wags noted, this all hearkens back to a 2006 Onion article, “Eighty Percent Of Al-Qaeda No. 2s Now Dead.”

As Zack mentions, there may be reasons why the #1 is harder to find and kill, but I would suggest a complementary hypothesis.  At many points in time there is more than one #2, just as corporations may have a variety of Executive Vice Presidents.

If you a leader of a terror group, do you really want a well-defined #2 who is a focal alternative and who can move to overthrow you?  Or do you prefer seven competing #2s, with somewhat unclear status, whom you can play off against each other, or make compete against each other, and offer various sticks and carrots and promotions of influence against each other?

And let’s say that one of these #2’s is killed.  How will the United States report this?  “One of seven #2’s has been killed”?  Or perhaps the easier to communicate and more important sounding “We have taken out number two.”

On Wikipedia, the (a?) previous #2 of ISIS is described as “Deputy leader of ISIL?“, question mark in the original.

Here is one look at the command structure of ISIS (or try this alternative).  I cannot vouch for its accuracy, but it is one quick way to see that “#2” is perhaps not always so well-defined:

One concrete implication is this: the more number twos there are, the more likely you can kill one of them.  And those are exactly the same circumstances when killing a number two has a low marginal return.  Keep in mind that the kill is endogenous, and it could be indicating that one of the stronger #2s has strengthened his hand by betraying one of the weakies and getting the West to do the dirty work.  And that kind of competition across subordinates may be precisely what strengthens the hand of the leader.

The one hundredth anniversary of the Irish Easter 1916 uprising

Maria Farrell writes:

The events that precisely triggered the Easter Rising are a little murky. They involve the capture of Roger Casement’s arms shipment, and feature the great hero of the Rising, Padraig Pearse, lying to MacNeill, forging documents and kidnapping and holding his socialist rivals until they acquiesced. Whether the leaders were about to be rounded up and imprisoned is unclear. MacNeill believed it, until he didn’t, but by then it was too late.

How many of you (non-Irish that is, Irish try this) are emotionally stirred by that description, one way or the other?  How many of you recall reading about those events at all?

What I find most striking is how little I, as an Irish-American, emotionally identify with any of the sides in this conflict.  I recall being asked in New Jersey seventh grade, by another Irish-American, whether my family was Protestant or Catholic in background and I wasn’t even sure (Catholic, it turned out, though my paternal grandparents also had been non-believers).

I was born in Kearny, New Jersey, a working class town full of Irish and Scot atavisms, including bars where they raised money for the IRA, fish and chips, and good soccer teams.  My father was more interested in Barry Goldwater, and by the time we moved to the more suburban northern rim of the state all that old country history was forgotten.

On the other side of the water, Ireland is one of the few countries to break through the middle-income trap, and last year it grew at 7.8%, an increasingly embarrassing fact for many “the long run is forever” commentators, not to mention investment up more than 28%.

(Yes, there is fairly rapid post-austerity catch-up growth when institutions are even moderately healthy, and if you are not seeing such growth the economy is probably at its new frontier or structural reforms are required.  And to point out that households are not capturing all of those gains — gdp vs. gnp —  is to save the pessimistic mood at the expense of the theory.  Without a Russian collapse, the Baltics probably would have continued along a similar track.)

Brexit of course would hit both Ireland and Northern Ireland fairly hard; it is strange how the Republic of Ireland has turned out to be the stable political unit in the family.

Here is a BBC piece on how to commemorate 1916.  The embarrassing parallel is that the modern IRA cites the 1916 heroes and considers their more recent terror acts to hold comparable status.  Somehow the balls must be juggled to avoid this conclusion, especially since there has been a recent uptick in unrest in Northern Ireland.

Various “victim monger” commentators don’t radiate too much sympathy for the Northern Irish republican cause.  Is it because the stereotypical representation of the fighters is a little too male, a little too grizzled, too conservative, too white Christian, too chauvinistic, and maybe even too mumbly?  I have to listen so closely to those movies to understand at all, and in the end they still bore me.  John Lennon’s John Sinclair song never seemed to stick.  Yeats too tried his best.

easter

I am struck by how underrepresented this topic is in my Twitter feed.

Don’t murder markets in everything

But when Holmes was released from prison last year, officials in this city offered something unusual to try to keep him alive: money. They began paying Holmes as much as $1,000 a month not to commit another gun crime.

Cities across the country, beginning with the District of Columbia, are moving to copy Richmond’s controversial approach because early indications show it has helped reduce homicide rates. [TC: that is Richmond, CA]

But the program requires governments to reject some basic tenets of law enforcement even as it challenges notions of appropriate ways to spend tax dollars.

…And yet, interest in the program is surging among urban politicians. Officials in Miami, Toledo, Baltimore and more than a dozen cities in between are studying how to replicate Richmond’s program.

…five years into Richmond’s multimillion-dollar experiment, 84 of 88 young men who have participated in the program remain alive, and 4 in 5 have not been suspected of another gun crime or suffered a bullet wound, according to DeVone Boggan, founder of the Richmond effort.

And how is this for bizarre?

Boggan believes that travel is another key to the program’s success. He sets aside $10,000 per fellow for trips that are often the first time participants have left the state or the country. But fellows must agree to partner with someone they have either tried to kill or who attempted to kill them.

“Wild, right?” Boggan says. “But they get out there and realize, ‘Hey, this cat’s just like me.’ ” Boggan’s measure of success: No fellows who have traveled together have been suspected in subsequent shootings against one another.

File under Department of Why Not?

Here is the full story, fascinating throughout, via Michael Rosenwald.

Facts about undocumented immigrants

…sometimes known as “illegal aliens.”  Here goes:

…the work propensity of undocumented men is much larger than that of other groups in the population; that this gap has grown over the past two decades; and that the labor supply elasticity of undocumented men is very close to zero, suggesting that their labor supply is almost perfectly inelastic.

That is from George J. Borjas, hat tip goes to Luke Hamilton Carlso.

The changing economics of food fraud

Vansteenkiste says: “In former days, we had fake champagne, vodka, Johnnie Walker whisky. What we see now is day-to-day consumer goods, [things like] tomato juice and orange juice. You wouldn’t expect it for a low-priced item like tomato juice — for God’s sake, why would they fake it? The answer is people don’t expect it to be cheated, and the profit is very low, but people drink more tomato juice than champagne.”

Tomato juice is usually adulterated by diluting a famous brand name with a cheaper product. Chocolate, coffee and cookies are also targets, says Vansteenkiste.

That is from an excellent Natalie Whittle feature article at the FT.

Real business cycle theory in Brazil

How much gdp shrunk last year: 3.8%

How much it is forecast to shrink this year:  about the same.

The current rate of unemployment: 8.2%, it had been 4.3% only three years ago.

The current inflation rate: over ten percent.

All critics of real business cycle theory should commit these numbers to heart; this is more than 200 million people we are talking about.  We’re at the point where impeachment of the President is the “good news scenario.”

Saturday assorted links