Why the New Pollution Literature is Credible

My recent post, Air Pollution Reduces Health and Wealth drew some pushback in the comments, some justified, some not, on whether the results of these studies are not subject to p-hacking, forking gardens and the replication crisis. Sure, of course, some of them are. Andrew Gelman, for example, has some justified doubt about the air filters and classroom study. Nevertheless, I don’t think that skepticism about the general thrust of the results is justified. Why not?

First, go back to my post Why Most Published Research Findings are False and note the list of credibility checks. For example, my rule is trust literatures not papers and the new pollution literature is showing consistent and significant negative effects of pollution on health and wealth. Some might respond that the entire literature is biased for reasons of political correctness or some such and sure, maybe. But then what evidence would be convincing? Is skepticism then justified or merely mood affiliation? And when it comes to action should we regard someone’s prior convictions (how were those formed?) as more accurate then a large, well-published scientific literature?

It’s not just that the literature is large, however, it’s that the literature is consistent in a way that many studies in say social psychology were not. In social psychology, for example, there were many tests of entirely different hypotheses–power posing, priming, stereotype threat–and most of these failed to replicate. But in the pollution literature we have many tests of the same hypotheses. We have, for example, studies showing that pollution reduces the quality of chess moves in high-stakes matches, that it reduces worker productivity in Chinese call-centers, and that it reduces test scores in American and in British schools. Note that these studies are from different researchers studying different times and places using different methods but they are all testing the same hypothesis, namely that pollution reduces cognitive ability. Thus, each of these studies is a kind of replication–like showing price controls led to shortages in many different times and places.

Another feature in favor of the air pollution literature is that the hypothesis that pollution can have negative effects on health and cognition wasn’t invented yesterday along with the test (we came up with a new theory and tested it and guess what, it works!). The Romans, for example, noted the negative effect of air pollution on health. There’s a reason why people with lung disease move to the countryside and always have.

I also noted in Why Most Published Research Findings are False that multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable. The pollution literature satisfies this desideratum. Aside from multiple empirical studies, the pollution hypothesis is also consistent with plausible mechanisms and it is consistent with the empirical and experimental literature on pollution and plants and pollution and animals. See also OpenPhilanthropy’s careful summary.

Moreover, there is a clear dose-response effect–so much so that when it comes to “extreme” pollution few people doubt the hypothesis. Does anyone doubt, for example, that an infant born in Delhi, India–one of the most polluted cities in the world–is more likely to die young than if the same infant grew up (all else equal) in Wellington, New Zealand–one of the least polluted cities in the world?  People accept that “extreme” pollution creates debilitating effects but they take extreme to mean ‘more than what I am used to’. That’s not scientific. In the future, people will think that the levels of pollution we experience today are extreme, just as we wonder how people could put up with London Fog.

What is new about the new pollution literature is more credible methods and bigger data and what the literature shows is that the effects of pollution are larger than we thought at lower levels than we thought. But we should expect to find smaller effects with better methods and bigger data.  (Note that this isn’t guaranteed, there could be positive effects of pollution at lower levels, but it isn’t surprising that what we are seeing so far is negative effects at levels previously considered acceptable.)

Thus, while I have no doubt that some of the papers in the new pollution literature are in error, I also think that the large number of high quality papers from different times and places which are broadly consistent with one another and also consistent with what we know about human physiology and particulate matter and also consistent with the literature on the effects of pollution on animals and plants and also consistent with a dose-response relationship suggest that we take this literature and its conclusion that air pollution has significant negative effects on health and wealth very seriously.

Bitcoin and Electricity

How many times have you read something like this, “Bitcoin uses as much electricity as Malaysia or Sweden or Denmark or Chile….”. What a bore. Have you ever wondered, however, why the comparison is to countries? Why don’t they ever tell you what would seem to be a more natural comparison which is how much “Bitcoin” spends on electricity?

The reason is that electricity is incredibly cheap so Bitcoin electricity expenditures priced in dollars don’t look very large. Bitcoin uses something like 100 terawatt hours (TWH) of electricity annually (depending on the price of Bitcoin) but a TWH costs less than $100 million (10 cents per KWH times 1000000000). Thus, Bitcoin spends say $10 billion on electricity annually. (In fact, it’s less than this since bitcoin miners can be located in places where electricity prices are especially cheap.)

$10 billion in spending isn’t a lot. It’s less than the world spends on toothpaste ($30b), much less than the US spends on cigarettes ($80b), and considerably less than the US Federal government spends in one day ($18.65 billion).

If we think of the $10 billion spent by Bitcoin as a security budget (as the spending secures the blockchain) it also compares reasonably to US bank spending on cybersecurity. Bank of America alone spent more than $1 billion on its cybersecurity budget and the total financial security budget is much larger.

None of this proves that Bitcoin spending is well spent but it puts things in context. It is also true, of course, that most of the new crypto platforms such as Elrond (I am an advisor) use proof of stake which uses much less electricity than proof of work.

Still, the next time you read that Bitcoin consumes as much electricity as Sweden substitute Bitcoin spends as much on electricity as Americans spend on Halloween costumes.

Photo Credit: MaxPixel.

Air Pollution Reduces Health and Wealth

Great piece by David Wallace-Wells on air pollution.

Here is just a partial list of the things, short of death rates, we know are affected by air pollution. GDP, with a 10 per cent increase in pollution reducing output by almost a full percentage point, according to an OECD report last year. Cognitive performance, with a study showing that cutting Chinese pollution to the standards required in the US would improve the average student’s ranking in verbal tests by 26 per cent and in maths by 13 per cent. In Los Angeles, after $700 air purifiers were installed in schools, student performance improved almost as much as it would if class sizes were reduced by a third. Heart disease is more common in polluted air, as are many types of cancer, and acute and chronic respiratory diseases like asthma, and strokes. The incidence of Alzheimer’s can triple: in Choked, Beth Gardiner cites a study which found early markers of Alzheimer’s in 40 per cent of autopsies conducted on those in high-pollution areas and in none of those outside them. Rates of other sorts of dementia increase too, as does Parkinson’s. Air pollution has also been linked to mental illness of all kinds – with a recent paper in the British Journal of Psychiatry showing that even small increases in local pollution raise the need for treatment by a third and for hospitalisation by a fifth – and to worse memory, attention and vocabulary, as well as ADHD and autism spectrum disorders. Pollution has been shown to damage the development of neurons in the brain, and proximity to a coal plant can deform a baby’s DNA in the womb. It even accelerates the degeneration of the eyesight.

A high pollution level in the year a baby is born has been shown to result in reduced earnings and labour force participation at the age of thirty. The relationship of pollution to premature births and low birth weight is so strong that the introduction of the automatic toll system E-ZPass in American cities reduced both problems in areas close to toll plazas (by 10.8 per cent and 11.8 per cent respectively), by cutting down on the exhaust expelled when cars have to queue. Extremely premature births, another study found, were 80 per cent more likely when mothers lived in areas of heavy traffic. Women breathing exhaust fumes during pregnancy gave birth to children with higher rates of paediatric leukaemia, kidney cancer, eye tumours and malignancies in the ovaries and testes. Infant death rates increased in line with pollution levels, as did heart malformations. And those breathing dirtier air in childhood exhibited significantly higher rates of self-harm in adulthood, with an increase of just five micrograms of small particulates a day associated, in 1.4 million people in Denmark, with a 42 per cent rise in violence towards oneself. Depression in teenagers quadruples; suicide becomes more common too.

Stock market returns are lower on days with higher air pollution, a study found this year. Surgical outcomes are worse. Crime goes up with increased particulate concentrations, especially violent crime: a 10 per cent reduction in pollution, researchers at Colorado State University found, could reduce the cost of crime in the US by $1.4 billion a year. When there’s more smog in the air, chess players make more mistakes, and bigger ones. Politicians speak more simplistically, and baseball umpires make more bad calls.

As MR readers will know Tyler and I have been saying air pollution is an underrated problem for some time. Here’s my video on the topic:

Harford on a Carbon Tax

Tim Harford has a good piece on the virtues of a carbon tax:

A friend recently wrote to me agonising over an ethical question. He was pondering a long-haul trip to see his family but was all too aware that the flight would have a huge carbon footprint. Could the journey possibly be justified? I suggested that my friend find out what the carbon footprint was (a tonne of CO2, it turns out) and then imagine a hypothetical carbon tax. Would he still be willing to travel if he had to pay the tax? If not, the trip wasn’t worth it.

My advice raises the question of what this carbon tax should be. At a carbon tax of £5 per tonne of CO2 — plenty of carbon global emissions are taxed at less than that — the extra tax on that one-tonne return flight would be trivial. At a more serious £50, it would be noticeable but perhaps not decisive. (The emissions trading systems in the EU and the UK until recently implied a carbon price of around £50 per tonne of CO2; the UK price has since leapt. US Democrats are pondering their own carbon tax.) If the carbon tax were a deep-green £500 per tonne of CO2, my friend would have to be missing his family more than most of us ever do.

I realise it is quixotic to advise checking one’s personal consumption decisions against a completely hypothetical tax, but it gets to the core of what a carbon tax is for. It isn’t just an incentive to change behaviour; it’s a source of information about which behaviour we most urgently need to change.

Exactly right. Or as Tyler and I say in Modern Principles, a price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive. Put a price on carbon and every actor in the system will be incentivized to follow the signal and reduce carbon use in ways that no one can predict or plan.

Tim concludes:

…A carbon tax changes that by making the climate impact as real a cost as any other. It sends a signal along all those supply chains, nudging every decision towards the lower-carbon alternative. A shopper may decide that a carbon-taxed T-shirt is too costly, but meanwhile the textile factory is looking to save on electricity, while the electricity supplier is switching to solar. Every part of the value chain becomes greener.

Give Thanks to the Green Revolution

It’s well known that the Green Revolution dramatically increased crop yields. In a new paper, Gollin, Hansen and Wingender use a general equilibrium model to show that the effects were even more far reaching. For a given acre, the Green Revolution raised the yields of some crops by 44% between 1965 and 2010. But the total effect was even larger because higher yields incentivized farmers to substitute away from lower-yield crops into higher yield crops. Moreover, higher yields meant that less farm labor was required which shifted populations into manufacturing. When one takes into account all of these knock-on effects the authors find substantial effects on GDP. Indeed, the authors estimate that if the Green Revolution had never happened GDP per capita in the developing world would be half of its current level.

More realistically, if the Green Revolution had been delayed by ten years incomes in the developing world would be 17% lower today. In terms of cumulative GDP what this means is that the investments which made the Green Revolution possible were responsible for some US $83 trillion in benefits.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Green Revolution simultaneously prevented many people from starving but also reduced total population because of reduced fertility. The Green Revolution also meant that less land was used for farming not more.

As Tyler argues in Stubborn Attachments (see also this video) growth is a moral imperative. A ten year delay in the Green Revolution could easily have happened. Indeed, it is happening now.

Photo Credit: Norman Borlaug. 1960s. International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)

The Scientific Cost of Immigrant Quotas

In the 1920s immigration to the United States was restricted with quotas which were designed to reduce the number of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, then considered to be low-quality immigrants. One unintended consequence was that the number of immigrant scientists from these areas also declined. The awesome Petra Moser and Schmuel San have an excellent new paper documenting the cost on US innovation and patenting.

Naturalization data indicate a dramatic decline in the arrival of new ESE-born scientists after the quotas. Until 1924, arrivals of new ESE-born immigrant scientists were comparable to arrivals from Northern and Western Europe (WNE), who were subject to comparable pull and push factors of migration.1 After the quotas, arrivals of ESE-born scientists decline significantly while arrivals from Northern and Western Europe continue to increase. Combining data on naturalizations with information on scientists’ university education and career histories, we estimate that 1,165 ESE-born scientists were lost to US science under the quota system. At an annual level, this implies a loss of 38 scientists per year, equivalent to eliminating the entire physics department of a major university each year between 1925 and 1955. For the physical sciences alone, an estimated 553 ESE-born scientists were lost to US science.

To estimate the effects of changes in immigration on US inventions, we compare changes in patenting per year after 1924 in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born US scientists with changes in patenting in other research fields in which US scientists were active inventors before the quotas. This identification strategy allows us to control for changes in invention by US scientists across fields, for example, as a result of changes in research funding. Year fixed effects further control for changes in patenting over time that are shared across fields. Field fixed effects control for variation in the intensity of patenting across fields, e.g., between basic and applied research.

Baseline estimates reveal a large and persistent decline in invention by US scientists in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born scientists. After the quotas, US scientists produced 68 percent fewer additional patents in the pre-quota fields of ESE-born scientists compared with the prequota fields of other US scientists. Time-varying effects show a large decline in invention by US scientists in the 1930s, which persisted into the 1960s. Importantly, these estimates show no preexisting differences in patenting for ESE and other fields before the quotas.

Canada which did not implement quotas did not see a similar decline. One interesting case study which is quite astounding in its way:

A case study of co-authorships for the prolific Hungarian-born mathematician Paul Erdős illustrates how restrictions on immigration reduced collaborations between ESE-born scientists and US scientists. Erdős moved to the United States as a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton, and became a professor at Notre Dame, travelling and collaborating with many US scientists. As a Hungarian citizen, however, Erdős was denied a re-entry visa by the US immigration services in1954, and not granted re-entry until 1963. To examine how these denials affected Erdős’ collaborations with US scientists, we collect the location of Erdős top 100 coauthors at the time  of their first collaboration. These data show that Erdős’ collaborations shifted away from the United States when he was denied re-entry. Between 1954 and 1963, 24 percent of Erdős’ new co-authors were US scientists, compared with 60 percent until 1954. These patterns are confirmed in a broader analysis of patents by co-authors and co-authors of co-authors of ESEborn scientists, which indicates a 26 percent decline in invention by scientists who were directly or indirectly influenced by ESE-born scholars. 

As you might suspect from the Erdos example, scientists in the US became less not more productive without the benefits of cooperation with Eastern European scientists.

Some of the scientists denied entry to the US in the 1920s went to Israel instead and innovated there so their genius was not entirely lost to the world.

Photo: Paul Erdos with Terrence Tao. Attribution, either Billy or Grace Tao, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Resignation: Health Care Workers

We are short a million health care workers. Today with extreme stress on the system there are 16 million health care workers, about five hundred thousand fewer than when the pandemic began in January of 2020 and about one million fewer than would be expected based on decades of growth. A loss of this many workers is unprecedented.

Ed Yong in the Atlantic discusses Why Health-Care Workers are Quitting in Droves:

Health-care workers, under any circumstances, live in the thick of death, stress, and trauma. “You go in knowing those are the things you’ll see,” Cassandra Werry, an ICU nurse currently working in Idaho, told me. “Not everyone pulls through, but at the end of the day, the point is to get people better. You strive for those wins.” COVID-19 has upset that balance, confronting even experienced people with the worst conditions they have ever faced and turning difficult jobs into unbearable ones.

In the spring of 2020, “I’d walk past an ice truck of dead bodies, and pictures on the wall of cleaning staff and nurses who’d died, into a room with more dead bodies,” Lindsay Fox, a former emergency-medicine doctor from Newark, New Jersey, told me. At the same time, Artec Durham, an ICU nurse from Flagstaff, Arizona, was watching his hospital fill with patients from the Navajo Nation. “Nearly every one of them died, and there was nothing we could do,” he said. “We ran out of body bags.”

…Many health-care workers imagined that such traumas were behind them once the vaccines arrived. But plateauing vaccination rates, premature lifts on masking, and the ascendant Delta variant undid those hopes. This summer, many hospitals clogged up again. As patients waited to be admitted into ICUs, they filled emergency rooms, and then waiting rooms and hallways. That unrealized promise of “some sort of normalcy has made the feelings of exhaustion and frustration worse,” Bettencourt told me.

Health-care workers want to help their patients, and their inability to do so properly is hollowing them out. “Especially now, with Delta, not many people get better and go home,” Werry told me. People have asked her if she would have gone to nursing school had she known the circumstances she would encounter, and for her, “it’s a resounding no,” she said. (Werry quit her job in an Arizona hospital last December and plans on leaving medicine once she pays off her student debts.)

…Many have told me that they’re bone-weary, depressed, irritable, and (unusually for them) unable to hide any of that. Nurses excel at “feeling their feelings in a supply closet or bathroom, and then putting their game face back on and jumping into the ring,” Werry said. But she and others are now constantly on the verge of tears, or prone to snapping at colleagues and patients. Some call this burnout, but Gerard Brogan, the director of nursing practice at National Nurses United, dislikes the term because “it implies a lack of character,” he told me. He prefers moral distress—the anguish of being unable to take the course of action that you know is right.

Health-care workers aren’t quitting because they can’t handle their jobs. They’re quitting because they can’t handle being unable to do their jobs.

Hat tip: Matt Yglesias.

Housing Vouchers and Education Vouchers

Here’s a recent news headline, Can Biden Deliver on His Promise to Expand Housing Vouchers? The link discusses Biden’s efforts to increase housing vouchers which subsidize low-income households to help them rent a home on the private market. Housing vouchers are a solidly Democratic proposal. Moreover, as far as I can tell, there are few people advocating to replace vouchers with public housing. The progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has this to say about vouchers:

Housing Choice Vouchers sharply reduce homelessness and other hardships, lift more than a million people out of poverty, and give families an opportunity to move to safer, less poor neighborhoods. These effects, in turn, are closely linked to educational, developmental, and health benefits that can improve children’s long-term life chances and reduce costs in other public programs.

Here’s the Urban Institute:

The federal Housing Choice Voucher Program plays a critical role in helping to address housing needs for extremely low-income households. Its most important advantage is that vouchers give recipients the freedom to choose the kinds of housing and the locations that best meet their needs. As a consequence, many voucher recipients live in healthy neighborhoods that offer social, educational, and economic opportunities for themselves and their children….even for African Americans and Hispanics, vouchers perform better than public and assisted housing projects in giving families access to low-poverty and racially mixed neighborhoods.

Notice how often the words “opportunity”, “freedom” and “choice” appear. Indeed the testimony from the Urban Institute refers to “the freedom to choose.” Excellent.

I agree with these conclusions. Now here is what is strange. Exactly the same arguments apply to school vouchers and school choice. School vouchers give students the freedom to choose the kinds of schooling and locations that best meet their needs. Yet, while many on the left agree that vouchers are superior to public housing, which tends to freeze the poor into low-quality, poorly maintained housing in poor neighborhoods with a host of cognate problems, they are more reluctant to support education vouchers as superior to public schooling. But all the arguments against public housing also apply to public schooling. Public Housing=Public Schooling. (The right are also strangely reluctant to take credit for housing vouchers even though they have mostly worked in just the way that Milton Friedman would have predicted!)

It’s unclear to me why housing vouchers became accepted on the left but education vouchers are still regarded as suspect. Or to put it the other way, it would be useful to study how housing voucher won over the left.

I look forward to the day when a headline reads, Can the Democratic President Deliver on Her Promise to Expand Education Vouchers?

The Paxlovid Paradox

Zvi at LessWrong rounds up the COVID news including this excellent bit on Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill Paxlovid which looks to be very effective but is not yet FDA approved.

The trial was stopped due to ‘ethical considerations’ for being too effective. You see, we live in a world in which:

  1. It is illegal to give this drug to any patients, because it hasn’t been proven safe and effective.
  2. It is illegal to continue a trial to study the drug, because it has been proven so safe and effective that it isn’t ethical to not give the drug to half the patients.
  3. Who, if they weren’t in the study, couldn’t get the drug at all, because it is illegal due to not being proven safe and effective yet. 
  4. So now no one gets added to the trial so those who would have been definitely don’t get Paxlovid, and are several times more likely to die.
  5. But our treatment of them is now ‘ethical.’
  6. For the rest of time we will now hear about how it was only seven deaths and we can’t be sure Paxlovid works or how well it works, and I expect to spend hours arguing over exactly how much it works.
  7. For the rest of time people will argue the study wasn’t big enough so we don’t know the Paxlovid is safe.
  8. Those arguments will then be used both by people arguing to not take Paxlovid, and people who want to require other interventions because of these concerns.
  9. FDA Delenda Est.

Politicizing Medicine is Dangerous

Politicizing medicine is dangerous. Tens of thousands of people are dead because vaccines became politicized and people chose political identity over rationality. Yet instead of trying to depoliticize medicine, the AMA has doubled down and is going full woke. The AMA’s Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts is so over the top I thought at first it was satire from the BabylonBee. The guide, for example, recommends that instead of talking about poor health among low-income people that physicians should blame “landowners and large corporations” for “increasingly centralizing political and financial power wielded by a few” and limiting “prospects for good health and well-being for many groups.” Put aside that this is at best tendentious and at worst utterly fallacious and just imagine that you are a landowner or work for a large corporation (that’s most of us!). Would you trust a doctor spouting this rhetoric or might you feel that such a doctor doesn’t have your best interests at heart?

Conor Friedersdorf puts it well:

The medical profession won’t remain more broadly trusted than left-wing activists if the two become indistinguishable. And that’s what will happen if doctors follow the guide’s advice. Instead of saying, “Low-income people have the highest level of coronary artery disease,” it urges health professionals to substitute this doctrinaire sentence: “People underpaid and forced into poverty as a result of banking policies, real estate developers gentrifying neighborhoods, and corporations weakening the power of labor movements, among others, have the highest level of coronary artery disease.”

In a section attacking “the narrative of individualism,” the guide posits that health promotion “typically means educating people as individuals,” and urges “shifting this narrative, from the individual to the structural, in order to more fully understand the root causes of health inequities in our society.” It’s already hard enough to get my conservative grandfather to heed his doctors about how best to care for a bad back worn down from decades in construction. A new narrative meant to problematize real-estate developers or individualism would not improve his medical condition, but it would inflame his temper. One wonders if the AMA and the AAMC grasp how many patients of all races and socioeconomic groups (never mind doctors) strongly disagree with the agenda that the two organizations are pushing. Either way, patients will feel put off by doctors who sound like ideologues from a different political tribe.

If the AMA really wants to do something for health equity they should stop trying to police language and instead support nurse practitioners, midwives, physician assistants, and other healthcare professionals who want to expand their practices, lobby for more physicians and an end to the absurd residency bottleneck, and support greater hospital competition. Physician heal thyself.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Explaining NFTs

Writing at the Harvard Business Review, Steve Kaczynski and Scott Duke Kominers have en excellent explanation of how NFTs create value–the best I have read.

NFTs don’t just provide a kind of digital “deed.” Because blockchains are programmable, it’s possible to endow NFTs with features that enable them to expand their purpose over time, or even to provide direct utility to their holders. In other words, NFTs can do things — or let their owners do things — in both digital spaces and the physical world.

In this sense, NFTs can function like membership cards or tickets, providing access to events, exclusive merchandise, and special discounts — as well as serving as digital keys to online spaces where holders can engage with each other. Moreover, because the blockchain is public, it’s even possible to send additional products directly to anyone who owns a given token. All of this gives NFT holders value over and above simple ownership — and provides creators with a vector to build a highly engaged community around their brands.

It’s not uncommon to see creators organize in-person meetups for their NFT holders, as many did at the recent NFT NYC conference. In other cases, having a specific NFT in your online wallet might be necessary in order to gain access to an online game, chat room, or merchandise store. And creator teams sometimes grant additional tokens to their NFT holders in ways that expand the product ecosystem: owners of a particular goat NFT, for example, were recently able to claim a free baby goat NFT that gives benefits beyond the original token; holders of a particular bear NFT, meanwhile, just received honey.

Thus owning an NFT effectively makes you an investor, a member of a club, a brand shareholder, and a participant in a loyalty program all at once. At the same time, NFTs’ programmability supports new business and profit models — for example, NFTs have enabled a new type of royalty contract, whereby each time a work is resold, a share of the transaction goes back to the original creator.

This all means that NFT-based markets can emerge and gain traction quickly, especially relative to other crypto products. This is both because the NFTs themselves have standalone value — you might buy an art NFT simply because you like it — and because NFTs just need to establish value among a community of potential owners (which can be relatively small), whereas cryptocurrencies need wide acceptance in order to become useful as a store of value and/or medium of exchange.

Read the whole thing. Kaczynski and Kominers also offer good advice to firms and organizations interested in creating NFTs. It remains true, of course, that there is a lot of foolish and wasted spending in the space–that’s typical of most new asset classes where the rush to get into the space throws up a lot of noise making the signal more difficult to detect.

Addendum: Don’t forget you can buy the Marginal Revolution NFT! You will be purchasing from the new owner (we sold it) but I believe we get a royalty which also illustrates an advantage of the NFT model.

Image: SupDucks6484.

Yglesias on CRT

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on schooling and politics emphasizing three points. First, there is a lot of diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) nonsense which the schools are using to train teachers and administrators. Second, at the same time the school administrators/teacher’s unions are generally ignoring the very real cost to children and parents of the school closures, including the costs of a widening racial gap. Third, the schools are stigmatizing testing under the guise of promoting equity but in reality because the teacher’s unions know that when you test children you learn that not all teachers are equally capable.

[The DC Public Schools] also recommend that people read a bunch of Robin DiAngelo books and brag that “more than 2,000 DCPS staff have participated in Courageous Conversation training.” But is Courageous Conversation training a good idea? This NYT Magazine profile of the company and its founder made it sound pretty bad:

Singleton, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and who did stints in advertising and college admissions before founding what’s now known as Courageous Conversation in 1992, talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization.

I don’t think Frankfurt School Marxists are going to take over society by injecting these ideas into K-12 schools or anything like that. What I so think is that time and money is being wasted on initiatives that are run by people who are somewhere between stupid and fraudulent.

And it’s important to take that seriously, not just because someone somewhere may take these goofy ideas seriously (see prior commentary about Tema Okun), but because fiscal tradeoffs are real. Dollars spent on DEI trainings that come with zero proof of efficacy are dollars that can’t be invested in things like D.C.’s successful teacher bonus pay program, updating school air conditioning, improving school lunches, reducing kids’ exposure to air pollution and lead poisoning, or any of the other various interventions that have decent evidence behind them.

Of course when I say that investing in higher quality school lunches is good for kids’ learning, what I mean is that it’s good as measured on standardized tests.

Standardized testing has become a weird discourse flashpoint, but I think everyone agrees that you can, in principle, assess someone’s competence in a given subject area with a test. And if you want to compare different people, you need to give them the same test. It’s only by making comparisons across classrooms and across time that we are able to persuasively demonstrate that particulates are bad for school performance, healthy meals are good for school performance, and air conditioning improves school performance in the summer.

All this would be uncontroversial, I think, except teachers’ unions don’t like the idea of assessing teachers based on their job performance.

Read the whole thing and subscribe to Slow Boring.

How to Increase Effective Altruism

Caviola, Schubert and Greene have a good review of the reasons why effective and ineffective altruism attract donations. First, they note the large gains from making altruism more effective.

A US$100 donation can save a person in the developing world from trachoma, a disease that causes blindness [1]. By contrast, it costs US$50 000 to train a guide dog to help a blind person in the developed world. This large difference in impact per dollar is not unusual. According to expert estimates, the most effective charities are often 100 times more effective than typical charities [2].

…Most research on charitable giving focuses on the amounts that donors give [4]. However, if the societal goal of charitable giving is to improve human (or animal) well-being, it is probably more important to focus on the effectiveness of giving….you can double your impact by doubling the amount that you give to typical charities, but you can multiply your impact by a factor of ten, 100, or even 1000 by choosing to support more effective charities [2].

The authors then consider a number of cognitive factors or biases that allow or encourage ineffective altruism. For example, people tend to give to charities that they are emotionally connected with regardless of effectiveness and they also like to split donations across multiple charities in part because they have scope neglect (“a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” to quote Stalin who correctly identified the principle even though he was more concerned about how to get away with killing millions than saving millions).

One particular feature of the paper that I like is that instead of simply advocating overcoming these biases they think about ways to use them. For example, you can’t stop people giving to ineffective but emotionally attractive charities but because people like to split and don’t pay attention to scope you can get them to split their donation with an effective charity.

…people tend to support charities that are emotionally appealing, paying little attention to effectiveness. However, there is evidence that many people do care about effectiveness and that information about effectiveness can make giving more effective [2,21]. Combining these insights suggests a new strategy to increase the effectiveness of charitable giving: many donors may be amenable to splitting their donations between an emotionally appealing charity and a highly effective charity, especially if provided with effectiveness information.

This strategy can work especially well if you combine it with matching funds or funds to “cover overhead” which are given by a relatively small number of rich people who can be swayed by philosophical arguments in favor of effective altruism.

Hat tip: Steve Stewart-Williams.