Month: November 2018

Friday assorted links

What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?

Why historians worry more about Trump than economists do

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

…historians stress the importance of contingency, that things really could have gone another way. The decisions of a solitary assassin or the outcome of a single battle can shift the course of history. Particular leadership decisions might have avoided or limited World War I. Or what if the Germans had not, in 1917, put Lenin on a train back into Russia? The Bolshevik Revolution might have been avoided and probably the entire course of history would have been different. A shrewder President Paul von Hindenburg might have prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler.

If you think about these questions enough, you can end up very nervous indeed. Historians have seen too many modest mistakes spiral out of control and turn into disasters.

Economists, in contrast, work more with general models than with concrete historical situations, and those models emphasize underlying structural forces. Economies have fairly set populations, birth rates, natural resources, capital stocks, savings rates, trading partners, and so on. So to an economist, the final outcomes are closer to necessary than contingent…

And when it comes to politics, economists of the “public choice” variety tend to see outcomes as controlled by a fairly tight structure of voter preferences and interest groups, variables which a president can change only at the margin and with great effort.

So which perspective is correct — the historian’s or the economist’s?

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of how Paul Krugman’s strong anti-Trump stance fits into this picture.

Thursday assorted links

How to save the future of chess

Matt asks:

I saw your post about whether the 12th game draw was wise or not, but I haven’t seen this bit so far – I’m curious what you think the 12 draws mean for the future of classical chess? Have we hit the point where the very best in classical will just resign themselves to draws? Should we look to blitz or Chess960 to determine the very best?

It is now 24 world championship games in a row, spread out over two contests, with only two decisive results.  Games between top grandmasters don’t end in draws nearly so often, so something is wrong with the incentives!  The most common claim you hear is that in a 12-game match it is “too hard to come back from a loss,” so the players don’t take enough chances.  That to me seems under-argued from a “maximize expected value backwards induction” point of view (a given move either boosts your expected value from the game or it doesn’t), but in any case there does seem to be a problem.  (Too much advance preparation of openings?)  On top of that, people are upset that two “classical time control” world championships in a row have been decided by the Rapid tiebreaker.

My first suggestion is to extend the matches to 24 games, but in the event of a tie at the end leave the reigning world champion with the title.  That avoids the arbitrariness of any tie-breaking method, places what is to me a justified burden on the challenger, and seems to be enough games to prevent the reigning champion from simply stonewalling with a long series of draws.  And there is plenty of precedent in chess history for matches that long, was it not nice when the Soviets paid for everything?

That said, I fear that venue costs are too high, the length of the match too variable (try booking a top hall under such conditions), and the drawing out of play would make the match harder to market to corporate and other sponsors, who are more interested in concentrated media attention (“In the future, every contender will be famous for fifteen chess games.”)

Chess960 games I find ugly, counterintuitive, and hard to follow.

So how about this?  Have the openings in each game — say the first eight to ten moves — be chosen randomly, but out of a set of high quality but somewhat riskier than average alternatives (no Petroff!).  This would limit the ability of players to choose intrinsically drawish lines with Black.  It also would steer the games away from paths where both players know the main lines thirty moves deep or more, which of course is boring and also conducive to lots of draws.

I would note that many computer vs. computer matches already are played with such a method, and it does seem to make those games more dynamic.

I don’t doubt this method might cause top players to invest all the more time in preparing openings, to avoid being caught entirely off guard (everyone would end up knowing at least something about the Poisoned Pawn Sicilian).  Still, there are limits to total prep, and the games would end up as more exciting, and probably more decisive, whether the players like it or not.

Let’s do it, and limit the impact of this insane arms race in opening preparation.

Insurance markets in everything

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has paid $424,000 to insure itself against a significant drop in tuition revenue from Chinese students.

In what is thought to be a world first, the colleges of business and engineering at the university signed a three-year contract with an insurance broker to pay the annual six-figure sum, which provides coverage of up to $60 million.

The university came up with the idea in 2015 and implemented it last year but received permission from the broker to discuss it in public only earlier this month.

Here is the story.

Who should receive a cash transfer?, or the paradox of micro-credit

Let’s say you send regular money to a poorer individual in another country.  You might wonder what are the possible rates of return on those funds, and furthermore does that analysis shape to whom you should give the money?

I don’t quite believe the argument I am about to write out, but I can’t yet find the flaw in it either.

Let’s say you find an individual borrowing micro-credit.  It is well-known that rates of interest on these loans often run between 50 to 100 percent, annualized, and furthermore many individuals/families dip into these markets frequently.  Furthermore, very high quality RCTs by Duflo and Dean Karlan show that micro-credit is not on average harming the families who borrow.

That implies these economies — at least in some their corners — have investments and/or liquidity deployments worth at least fifty percent per annum.  For simplicity, I will use an estimate of fifty percent.

Go to a borrowing individual and give him/her some money for free.  If micro-credit is no longer necessary, you have given that individual a high return.  If it was a cash-free loan, the return to that person would be fifty percent.  By simply giving the money away, it would seem the rate of return would be at least 2x that, or at least one hundred percent.  That is pretty good too.  Of course that individual might stay in the micro-credit market (post-gift), but that implies there are still worthwhile additional uses for the marginal liquidity.  And we’ve already seen that micro-credit does not usually harm those who use it.

So you’ve generated returns of one hundred percent or more with your cash transfer.  This does not require heroic acts of entrepreneurship, merely that the individual was previously a responsible user of micro-credit.

It also requires that these individuals be reasonably conscientious, and do not simply squander their new-found wealth.

But the core recipe is to give to conscientious current borrowers, for very high rates of return.

What is wrong with this argument?

Is the internet good for African politics?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

A second dynamic is harder to measure or prove, but is also likely positive: greater national unity…

One source of gain is simply that the colonial era is receding ever further into the past. In the meantime, a wide array of media outlets have helped to further African notions of national unity and cultural coherence. Soccer and other athletic teams compete on the world stage, and African players competing in Europe are portrayed as representatives of their nations, not particular ethnic groups. Commercial brands and celebrities help define national identities. Exposure to international media, most of all through smart phones and the internet, cements the notion that these regions are indeed perceived as nations by the outside world and that such designations are likely to stick. Mobile phones have knit together different African regions, and ethnic groups, in closer economic ties.

The notion of a nation as an “imagined community,” to use a term from political scientist Benedict Anderson, is under accelerating construction in many parts of Africa. Cultures and cultural expectations are adapting to current borders, even given earlier injustices, thereby contributing to falling rates of violence and conflict.

Unfortunately, Africa is exposed to a lot of “fake news,” perhaps more than Americans are. The good news, if you would call it that, is that Africans seem to be relatively skeptical of social media as a news source, and they put a relatively high degree of trust in international media.

Better yet is that most Africans say that the internet has improved their politics and economics. For instance, 64 percent of Nigerians reported in 2017 that the increasing reach of the internet was good for Nigerian politics. That number compares to just 43 percent in 2014, and positive impressions of a similar nature are common throughout Africa. For all the talk about social media creating divisions (such as in Myanmar), the net effect of modern technology seems to be greater unity, including with respect to national borders.

Do read the whole thing.

Wednesday assorted links

1. The economics of border walls.

2. “We find that [occupational] licensing reduces equilibrium labor supply by an average of 17%-27%. The negative labor supply effects of licensing appear to be strongest for white workers and comparatively weaker for black workers.”  Link here.

3. Are there more witches than (American) Presbyterians?

4. How economics works (a parable of capital taxation, recommended).

5. Is carbon capture now more feasible?

6. The origins of the Schelling segregation model.

Fading Legacies: Human Capital in the Aftermath of the Partitions of Poland

This paper studies the longevity of historical legacies in human capital. The Partitions of Poland (1772-1918) represent a natural experiment that instilled Poland with three different legacies of education, resulting in sharp differences in human capital among the Polish population. I construct a large, unique dataset that reflects the state of schooling and human capital in the partition territories from 1911 to 1961. Using a spatial regression discontinuity design, I find that primary school enrollment differs by as much as 80 percentage points between the partitions before WWI. However, this legacy disappears within the following two decades of Polish independence, as all former partitions achieve universal enrollment. Differences in educational infrastructure and gender access to schooling simultaneously disappear after WWI. The level of literacy converges likewise across the former partitions, driven by a high intergenerational mobility in education. After WWII, the former partitions are not distinguishable from each other anymore.

That is from Andreas Backhaus, a job market candidate from University of Munich.

Open questions from Gwern

This is all Gwern, I won’t add another layer of indentation:

Open Questions

Some questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find standard answers to be unsatisfying (along the lines of Patrick Collison’s list & Alex Guzey; see also my list of project ideas):

  • What is personal productivity and why does it vary from day to day so strikingly, and yet not correlate with environmental variables like weather or sleep quality nor appear as the usual kind of latent variable in my factor analyses? Is it something much weirder than the usual kind of latent variable, like a set of zero-sum measurements drawing on a generic pool of energy or mana?
  • Does listening to music while working serve as a distraction, or motivation?
  • What, algorithmicly, are mathematicians doing when they do math which explains how their proofs can usually be wrong but their results usually right?Is it equivalent to a kind of tree search like MCTS or something else? They wouldn’t seem to be doing a literal tree search because then there would almost never be mistakes in the proof (as the built-up tree of theorems only explores valid inferential steps), but if they’re not, then how are they handling logical uncertainty? Are they doing something like MCTS’s random playouts where lemmas are not proven but simply heuristically given a truth value to shortcut exploration and the heuristic is accurate enough to usually guess correctly and this is why the proofs are wrong but the results are right?
  • Why did Jean Calment live so many more years than other centenarians, breaking all records and setting a life expectancy record which decades later has not just not been broken, but not even approached? Which is extraordinary considering that she smoked, medicine has continuously advanced, the global population has increased, life expectancy in general has increased, and the Gompertz curve implies that, with mortality rates approaching 50%, centenarians should die like flies and ever closer in age to each other and not have occasional enormous permanent 3 year gaps between the record setter (Calment) and everyone since then.
  • Why do humans, pets, and even lab animals of many species kept in controlled lab conditions on standardized diets appear to be increasingly obese over the 20th century? What could possibly explain all of them simultaneously becoming obese?
  • What happened to the famous genome sequencing cost curve after late 2012, which stopped price decreases, damaged genetics, and delayed the advent of whole-genome sequencing by perhaps a decade? Was it really just the Illuminati’s fault?
  • Why do humans have such a large mutation load on common genetic variants? Common SNPs make up a large fraction of variance, even for traits which must be fitness-affecting. Culture or technology slow evolution doesn’t wash when human fitness differentials are so large and so many people died young or as infants, and how did the many deleterious variants get pushed up to such high frequencies in the first place?
  • Why does the immune system so often surface as a genetic correlation or tissue enrichment in GWASes for many things not generally believed to be infectious? Are we missing an enormous range of infections directly causing bad things (or indirectly through autoimmune mechanisms), or the immune system just sort of like intelligence in being a general health trait?
  • Why does catnip response vary so much across countries in domestic cats, and also across feline species, with no apparent phylogenetic or environmental pattern? It is so heritable in domestic cats that a genetic reason is plausible, but if it’s adaptive, what is it doing when catnip doesn’t exist in the ranges of most tested cats, and if it’s neutral why can so many closely-different different animals respond to it in different ways?

TC again: There is much more at the link.  If you don’t know Gwern, you should know Gwern.

Why do so many academics dislike the market?

It seems Nozick was right after all, here is Raul Magni-Berton and Diego Rios:

In this article, the authors explore why academics tend to oppose the market. To this intent the article uses normative political theory as an explanatory mechanism, starting with a conjecture originally suggested by Robert Nozick. Academics are over-represented amongst the best students of their cohort. School achievement engenders high expectations about future economic prospects. Yet markets are only contingently sensitive to school achievement. This misalignment between schools and markets is perceived by academics – and arguably by intellectuals in general – as morally unacceptable. To test this explanation, the article uses an online questionnaire with close to 1500 French academic respondents. The data resulting from this investigation lend support to Nozick’s hypothesis.

Via Rolf Degen.

The Political Economy of Lobotomies in the United States

The actual title starts with: “Gordon Tullock Meets Phineas Gage:”, and here is the abstract:

In the late 1940s, the United States experienced a “lobotomy boom” where the use of the lobotomy expanded exponentially. We engage in a comparative institutional analysis, following the framework developed by Tullock (2005), to explain why the lobotomy gained popularity and widespread use despite widespread scientific consensus it was ineffective. We argue that government provision and funding for public mental hospitals and asylums expanded and prolonged the use of the lobotomy. We support this claim by noting the lobotomy had virtually disappeared from private mental hospitals and asylums before the boom and was less used beforehand. This paper provides a more robust explanation for the lobotomy boom in the US and expands on the literate examining the relationship between state funding and scientific inquiry.

That is from Raymond March and Vincent Geloso, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Tuesday assorted links

1. “I still want this, all of it. I want the tears; I want the pain.” (NYT)  Recommended.

2. “Cultural revolutions reduce complexity in the songs of humpback whales.

3. ““If I could have sold off a suicide attempt,” she said in a 2008 interview, “I would have had more time for reading Spinoza.” Duh.”  Link here, that is the excellent Helen DeWitt, interesting throughout.

4. “…we find consistent evidence that dystopian narratives enhance the willingness to justify radical—especially violent—forms of political action.

5. The new “woke”: “Is Lord of the Rings prejudiced against Orcs?

6. On Caplan on educational signaling.

7. Scientist nominations and odds for new fifty pound note.

Legalize Pay Toilets!

Image result for CEPTIAPay toilets are common in Europe but uncommon in the United States. Sophie House writing at City Lab explains why. Pay toilets were made illegal in much of the United States in the 1970s:

In 1969, California Assemblywoman March Fong Eu smashed a porcelain toilet with an axe in front of the California state capitol, protesting the misogyny of restrooms that charged entrance fees for stalls but not urinals. She was not alone in her frustration. The grassroots organization CEPTIA—the Committee to End Pay Toilets in America—mobilized against pay toilets, putting out a quarterly newsletter (the Free Toilet Paper) and exchanging warring pamphlets with Nik-O-Lok, the leading pay-toilet manufacturer. The group won a citywide ordinance banning pay toilets in Chicago in 1973, followed by bans in Alaska, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

The logic seems to be if we cannot sit for free then you cannot stand for free. House calls the pay toilet ban a triumph over sexism. Is it so hard to understand why urinals are cheaper to operate and more difficult to lock than stalls?

In any case, CEPTIA was remarkably effective. In 1970 there were some 50,000 pay toilets in America and by 1980 there were almost none. The attentive reader, however, will not be surprised to learn that smashing the pay toilet conspiracy did not result in an abundance of free toilets.

In the decades since CEPTIA disbanded, however, pay-toilet bans have proven to be a Pyrrhic victory. The committee’s vision of free toilets for all never came to pass. Cities have persistently refused to construct public restrooms, and existing facilities have fallen into disrepair. Citing the difficulty of keeping bathrooms safe and clean, municipalities are often unwilling or unable to pay. Even assuming that funds are available for initial construction of public toilets, the maintenance and operating costs are a deterrent.

By contrast, in cities from Europe to India to Latin America, small entrance fees help to cover the costs of keeping facilities in good condition. Creating a similar revenue stream to defray operating costs would likely make pay toilets more attractive to U.S. municipalities. For example, fees could offset the costs of hiring restroom attendants—an excellent, but expensive, way to keep bathrooms safe. Pay toilets also redistribute the operating costs of restrooms. Free toilets are, of course, taxpayer-funded, while under pay-toilet schemes, tourists who use urban infrastructure also contribute to its functioning.