Category: Data Source

American competitive democracy survives

Most elections in the United States are not close, which has raised concerns among social scientists and reform advocates about the vibrancy of American democracy. In this paper, we demonstrate that while individual elections are often uncompetitive, hierarchicaltemporal, and geographic variation in the locus of competition results in most of the country regularly experiencing close elections. In the four-cycle period between 2006 and 2012, 89% of Americans were in a highly competitive jurisdiction for at least one office. Since 1914, about half the states have never gone more than four election cycles without a close statewide contest. More Americans witness competition than citizens of Canada or the UK, other nations with SMSP-based systems. The dispersed competition we find also results in nearly all Americans being represented by both political parties for different offices.

That is from Bernard L. Fraga, and Eitan D. Hersh, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Does the “extractive institutions” hypothesis fail the empirical test?

The title of this paper is “Colonial Revenue Extraction and Modern Day Government Quality in the British Empire,” and it is by Rasmus Broms.  Here goes:

The relationship between the extent of government revenue a government collects, primarily in the form of taxation, and its overall quality has increasingly been identified as a key factor for successful state building, good institutions, and—by extension—general development. Initially deriving from historical research on Western Europe, this process is expected to unfold slowly over time. This study tests the claim that more extensive revenue collection has long-lasting and positive consequences for government quality in a developmental setting. Using fiscal records from British colonies, results from cross-colony/country regression analyses reveal that higher colonial income-adjusted revenue levels during the early twentieth century can be linked to higher government quality today. This relationship is substantial and robust to several specifications of both colonial revenue and modern day government quality, and remains significant under control for a range of rivaling explanations. The results support the notion that the current institutional success of former colonies can be traced back to the extent of historical revenue extraction.

For the pointer I thank an MR reader.

The rise of the Swedish Democrats

There is a new research paper on this topic, from Ernesto Dal Bo, Frederico Finan, Olle Folke, Torsten Persson, and Johanna Rickne:

We study the rise of the Sweden Democrats, a radical-right party that rose from negligible size in 2002 to Sweden’s third largest party in 2014…We take a starting point in two key economic events: (i) a series of policy reforms in 2006-2011 that significantly widened the disposable-income gap between “insiders” and “outsiders” in the labor market, and (ii) the financial-crisis recession that doubled the job-loss risk for “vulnerable” vs “secure” insiders. On the supply side, the Sweden Democrats over-represent both losing groups relative to the population, whereas all other parties under-represent them, results which also hold when we disaggregate across time, subgroups, and municipalities. On the demand side, the local increase in the insider-outsider income gap, as well as the share of vulnerable insiders, are systematically associated with larger electoral gains for the Sweden Democrats. These findings can be given a citizen-candidate interpretation: economic losers (as we demonstrate) decrease their trust in established parties and institutions.

Is it being an economic loser that makes you support the Sweden Democrats, or simply observing a lot of economic losers around you, the latter having been the case for Donald Trump’s support?  This Twitter thread gives some key pictures from the paper and summary of results.

Death, Trauma and God: The Effect of Military Deployments on Religiosity

Learning to cope with man’s mortality is central to the teachings of the world’s major religions. However, very little is known about the impact of life-and-death trauma on religiosity. This study exploits a natural experiment in military deployments to estimate the causal effect of traumatic shocks on religiosity. We find that combat assignment is associated with a substantial increase in the probability that a serviceman subsequently attends religious services regularly and engages in private prayer. Combat-induced increases in religiosity are largest for enlisted servicemen, those under age 25, and servicemen wounded in combat. The physical and psychological burdens of war, as well as the presence of military chaplains in combat zones, emerge as possible mechanisms.

That is from Resul Cesur, Travis Freidman, and Joseph J. Sabia.

The Economic Effects of Social Networks: Evidence from the Housing Market

That is by Michael Bailey, Ruiqing Cao, Theresa Kuchler, and Johannes Stroebel¶, there is a demonstration effect in consumption, namely you are more likely to buy a house if your friends did well buying homes.  Here is from the working paper version:

We show how data from online social networking services can help researchers better understand the effects of social interactions on economic decision making. We use anonymized data from Facebook, the world’s largest online social network, to first explore heterogeneity in the structure of individuals’ social networks. We then exploit the rich variation in the data to analyze the effects of social interactions on housing market investments. To do this, we combine the social network information with housing transaction data. Variation in the geographic dispersion of social networks, combined with time-varying regional house price changes, induces heterogeneity in the house price experiences of different individuals’ friends. We show that individuals whose geographically distant friends experienced larger recent house price increases are more likely to transition from renting to owning. They also buy larger houses and pay more for a given house. Similarly, when homeowners’ friends experience less positive house price changes, these homeowners are more likely to become renters, and more likely to sell their property at a lower price. We find that these relationships are driven by the effects of social interactions on individuals’ housing market expectations. Survey data show that individuals whose geographically distant friends experienced larger recent house price increases consider local property a more attractive investment, with bigger effects for individuals who regularly discuss such investments with their friends.

Here is the (gated) “forthcoming in the JPE” version.

Hysteria Was Not Treated With Vibrators

You know the story about the male Victorian physicians who unwittingly produced orgasms in their female clients by treating them for “hysteria” with newly-invented, labor-saving, mechanical vibrators? It’s little more than an urban legend albeit one transmitted through academic books and articles. Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, the authors of a shocking new paper, A Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm, don’t quite use the word fraud but they come close.

Since its publication in 1999, The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines has become one of the most widely cited works on the history of sex and technology (Maines, 1999). This slim book covers a lot of ground, but Maines’ core argument is quite simple. She argues that Victorian physicians routinely treated female hysteria patients by stimulating them to orgasm using electromechanical vibrators. The vibrator was, according to Maines, a labor-saving technology that replaced the well-established medical practice of clitoral massage for hysteria. She states that physicians did not perceive either the vibrator or manual massage as sexual, because neither method involved vaginal penetration.

This argument has been repeated in dozens of scholarly works and cited with approval in many more. A few scholars have challenged various parts of the book. Yet no scholars have contested her central argument, at least not in the peer-reviewed literature. Her argument even spread to popular culture, appearing in a Broadway play, a feature-length film, several documentaries, and many mainstream books and articles. This once controversial idea has now become an accepted fact.

But there’s only one problem with Maines’ argument: we could find no evidence that physicians ever used electromechanical vibrators to induce orgasms in female patients as a medical treatment. We examined every source that Maines cites in support of her core claim. None of these sources actually do so. We also discuss other evidence from this era that contradicts key aspects of Maines’ argument. This evidence shows that vibrators were indeed used penetratively, and that manual massage of female genitals was never a routine medical treatment for hysteria.

… the 19-year success of Technology of Orgasm points to a fundamental failure of academic quality control. This failure occurred at every stage, starting with the assessment of the work at the Johns Hopkins University Press. But most glaring is the fact that not a single scholarly publication has pointed out the empirical flaws in the book’s core claims in the 19 years since its release.

Wow. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Chris Martin on twitter.

Star firms are really about intangible capital

Once we re-compute the ROIC [return on invested capital] calculations to factor in estimates of intangible capital from the finance literature…we find that both the run-up by top decile of firms and the much higher mean returns in the cognitively skilled industries disappear.  Thus, the differences that we found earlier in firm differentiation between industries are likely attributable, in great part, to not accounting for intangible capital consistently.  Industries that rely heavily on complex cognitive skills are likely to have higher amounts of intellectual and organizational capital, which is not measured by ROIC prepared according to generally accepted accounting principles.

That is from Meghana Ayyagari, Asli Demirgüç-Kunt, and Vojislav Maksimovic.

The authors do not that some of the largest tech firms, such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google, are exceptions, but even for those companies the mark-ups are not especially connected to monopolizing behavior.

Government Medical Research Spending Favors Women

It is commonly believed that medical research spending is biased against women. Here are some representative headlines: Why Medical Research Often Ignores Women (Boston University Today), Gender Equality in Medical Research Long Overdue, Study Finds (Fortune), A Male Bias Reigns in Medical Research (IFL Science). Largely on the basis of claims like this the NIH set up a committee to collect data on medical research funding and gender and they discovered there was a disparity. Government funded medical research favors women.

The Report on the Advisory Committee on Research on Women’s Health used the following criteria to allocate funding by gender:

All funding for projects that focus primarily on women, such as the Nurses’ Health Study, the Mammography Quality Standards Act, and the Women’s Health Initiative, should be attributed to women. For research, studies, services, or projects that include both men and women, recommended methods to calculate the proportion of funds spent on women’s health are as follow:

a. If target or accrual enrollment data are available, multiply the expenditure by the proportion of female subjects included in the program. For example, if 50 percent of the subjects enrolled in a trial, study, service, or treatment program are women, then 50 percent of the funds spent for that program should be counted as for women’s health. On the other hand, for diseases, disorders, or conditions without enrollment data, expenditures can be calculated based on the relative prevalence of that condition in women.

b. Where both males and females are included, as may be the case for many basic science research projects, multiply the expenditure by 50 percent.

On the basis of these criteria the report finds that in almost every category there is more female-focused NIH funding than male-focused NIH spending with the totals more than two to one in favor of females ($4.5 billion to $1.5 billion). Now personally I don’t regard this as a terrible “bias” as most spending ($25.7 billion) is for human beings and I don’t see any special reason why spending on women and men should be equal. It does show, however, that the common wisdom is incorrect. The Boston University Today piece I linked to earlier, for example, motivated its claim of bias in funding with the story of a female doctor who died of lung cancer. The NIH data, however, show a large difference in favor of women–$180 million of NIH lung cancer funding was focused on women while just $318 thousand was focused on men ($135 million wasn’t gender focused).

What about clinical trials? Well for NIH-funded clinical trials the results favor women:

Enrollment of women in all NIH-funded clinical  research in FY 15 and FY 16 was 50 percent or greater. Enrollment of women in clinical  research was highest in the intramural research program at 68 percent for both FY 15 and FY 16.

In the most clinically-relevant phase III trials:

NIH-defined Phase III Clinical Trials are a subset of NIH Clinical Research studies. The proportion of female participants enrolled in NIH-defined Phase III Clinical Trial was 67 percent in in FY 15 and 66 percent in FY 2016.

Historically, one of the reasons that men have often been more prevalent in early stage clinical trials (trials which are not always meant to treat a disease) is that after the thalidomide disaster the FDA issued a guidance document which stated that women of child-bearing age should be excluded from Phase 1 and early Phase 2 research, unless the studies were testing a drug for a life-threatening illness. That guidance is no longer in effect but the point is that interpreting these results requires some subtlety.

The NIH funds more clinical trials than any other entity but overall more clinical trials are conducted by industry. FDA data indicate that in the United States overall (the country where by far the most people are enrolled in clinical trials) the ratios are close to equal, 49% female to 51% male, although across the world there are fewer women than men in clinical trials, 43% women to 57% men for the world as whole with bigger biases outside the United States.

It would be surprising if industry research was biased against women because women are bigger consumers of health care than men. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, find, for example, that:

Per capita health spending for females was $8,315 in 2012, approximately 23 percent more than for males, $6,788


Research indicates that women visit the doctor more frequently, especially as they have children, and tend to seek out more preventive care. The National Center for Health Statistics found that women made 30% more visits to physicians’ offices than men between 1995 and 2011.

Nor is it the case that physicians ignore women. In one study of time use of family physicians and thousands of patients:

After controlling for visit and patients characteristics, visits by women had a higher percent of time spent on physical examination, structuring the intervention, patient questions, screening, and emotional counseling.

Of course, you can always find some differences by gender. The study I just cited, for example, found that “More eligible men than women received exercise, diet, and substance abuse counseling.” One often quoted 2008 study found that women in an ER waited 65 minutes to men’s average of 49 minutes to receive a pain killer. Citing that study in 2013 the New York Times decried that:

women were still 13 to 25 percent less likely than men to receive high-strength “opioid” pain medication.

Today, of course, that same study might be cited as a bias against men as twice as many men as women are dying of opioid abuse. I don’t know what the “correct” numbers are which is why I am reluctant to describe differences in the treatment of something as complex as pain to bias.

Overall, spending on medical research and medical care looks to be favorable to women especially so given that men die younger than women.

Hat tip: Discussants on twitter.

Addendum: I expect lots of pushback and motte and baileying on this post. Andrew Kadar wrote an excellent piece on The Sex-Bias Myth in Medicine in The Atlantic in 1994 but great memes resist data. Also, school summer vacation is not a remnant from when America was rural and children were needed on the farm.

Most Reported School Shootings Never Happened

The headline sounds like something from a right-wing whack job but this is coming from NPR!

This spring the U.S. Education Department reported that in the 2015-2016 school year, “nearly 240 schools … reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.” The number is far higher than most other estimates.

But NPR reached out to every one of those schools repeatedly over the course of three months and found that more than two-thirds of these reported incidents never happened. Child Trends, a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, assisted NPR in analyzing data from the government’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

We were able to confirm just 11 reported incidents, either directly with schools or through media reports.

Immigration, smiling, and laughter

Do not infer causality, but here is what the data yield:

Recent findings demonstrate that heterogeneity of long-history migration predicts present-day emotion behaviors and norms. Residents of countries characterized by high ancestral diversity display emotion expressions that are easier to decode by observers, endorse norms of higher emotion expressivity, and smile more in response to certain stimuli than residents of countries that lack ancestral diversity. We build on the extant findings and investigate historical heterogeneity as a predictor of daily smiling, laughter, and positive emotion across the world’s countries and the states of the United States. Study 1 finds that historical heterogeneity is positively associated with self-reports of smiling, laughter, and positive emotions in the Gallup World Poll when controlling for GDP and present-day population diversity. Study 2 extends the findings to effects of long-history migration within the United States. We estimated the average percentage of foreign-born citizens in each state between 1850 and 2010 based on US Census information as an indicator of historical heterogeneity. Consistent with the world findings of Study 1, historical heterogeneity predicted smiling, laughter, and positive, but not negative, emotion. The relationships remained significant when controlling for per capita income and present-day population diversity of each state. Together, the findings further demonstrate the important role of long-history migration in shaping emotion cultures of countries and states, which persist beyond the original socio-ecological conditions, and open promising avenues for cross-cultural research.

That is from Paula N Niedenthal, et. al., via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Are Americans learning to love free trade?

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has completed its 2018 survey on American attitudes toward trade (full disclosure: I serve on board of advisers for the Chicago Council survey), and a funny thing happened to U.S. opinions on the subject. As Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura write in their latest policy brief, Americans love trade way more than they love Trump…

The survey itself reports:

The highest percentages ever registered in this survey (since 2004) say that trade is good for the US economy (82%), good for consumers like you (85%), and good for creating jobs in the US (67%).

That is from Daniel Drezner.  I would raise the cautionary note that perhaps these newfound positions will not survive the removal of Trump from office, most of all among Democrats.

Religion matters for Senators

Does a senator’s personal religion influence their legislative behavior in the Senate? To date, empirical research has answered this question only using senators’ religious traditions, while more concurrent work implies that religion should be measured as a multifaceted phenomenon. This study tests this proposition by compiling a unique data set of senators’ religion, conceptualized and measured by three different elements—belonging, beliefs, and behavior. The study estimates the association between these three religious facets and senators’ legislative behavior on economic, social, and foreign policy issues, while controlling for their constituencies’ political and religious preferences. It finds that religious beliefs are a strong predictor of senators’ legislative behavior, while religious tradition and behavior are mostly not. Furthermore, it finds that religious beliefs are associated with legislative behavior across a wide array of policy areas and are not confined to sociocultural issues.

That is from Daniel Arnon, via Matt Grossman.

What should I ask Michele Gelfand?

I am doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, here is her home page.  She is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland and has a new book coming out: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Out World.  Here is part of the Amazon summary:

Why are clocks in Germany so accurate while those in Brazil are frequently wrong? Why do New Zealand’s women have the highest number of sexual partners? Why are “Red” and “Blue” States really so divided? Why was the Daimler-Chrysler merger ill-fated from the start? Why is the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? Why does one spouse prize running a “tight ship” while the other refuses to “sweat the small stuff?”

In search of a common answer, Gelfand has spent two decades conducting research in more than fifty countries. Across all age groups, family variations, social classes, businesses, states and nationalities, she’s identified a primal pattern that can trigger cooperation or conflict. Her fascinating conclusion: behavior is highly influenced by the perception of threat.

She also is well-known for her analyses of how negotiations vary across organizations and cultures. Here is Gelfand on  Here is her Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask?

Is Facebook causing anti-refugee attacks in Germany?

Here is the key result, as summarized by the NYT:

Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

Here is the underlying Müller and Schwarz paper.  They consider 3,335 attacks over a two-year period in Germany.  But I say no, their conclusion has not been demonstrated.  Where to start?

Here is one picture showing a key correlation:

It is difficult to see if there is causation in the correlationThat looks pretty strong, doesn’t it?  Nein!  That is not how propaganda works, as an extensive literature in sociology and political psychology will indicate.  That is how it looks when you measure what is essentially the same variable — or its effects — two different ways.  For instance, that very big spike in the middle of the distribution?  As Ben Thompson has pointed out, it represents the New Year’s harassment attacks in Cologne.  Maybe that caused both Facebook activity and other attacks to spike at the same time?  Will you mock me if I resort to the “blog comment cliche” that correlation does not show causation?

To continue with the excellent Ben Thompson (he is worth paying for!), the identification method used in the paper is suspect, and he focuses on this quotation from the authors:

In our setting, the share of a municipality’s population that use the AfD Facebook page is an intuitive proxy for right-wing social media use; however, it is also correlated with differences in a host of observable municipality characteristics — most importantly the prevalence of right-wing ideology. We thus attempt to isolate the local component of social media usage that is uncorrelated with right-wing ideology by drawing on the number of users on the “Nutella Germany” page. With over 32 million likes, Nutella has one of the most popular Facebook pages in Germany and therefore provides a measure of general Facebook media use at the municipality level. While municipalities with high Nutella usage are more exposed to social media, they are not more likely to harbor right-wing attitudes.

The whole result rests on assumptions about Nutella?  What if you used likes for Zwetschgenkuchen?  Has a robustness test been done?  Was a simple correlation not good or not illustrative enough?  I’ll stick with the simple hypothesis that some municipalities have both more Facebook usage, due to high AfD membership, and also more attacks on refugees, and furthermore both of those variables rise in tense times.  AfD is the German party with the strongest presence on Facebook, I am sorry to say.

You will note by the way that within Germany the Nutella page has only verifiable 21,915 individual interactions, including likes (32 million is the global number of Nutella likes…die Deutschen are not that nutty), and that is distributed across 4,466 municipal areas.  (If you are confused, see p.12 in the paper, which I find difficult to follow and I suspect that represents the confusion of the authors.)  That should make you more worried yet about the Nutella identification strategy.  They never tell us what they would have without Nutella, a better tasting sandwich I would say.

I also would note the broader literature on propaganda once again.  Consider the research of Markus Prior: “…evidence for a causal link between more partisan messages and changing attitudes or behaviors is mixed at best.”  These Facebook results are simply far outside of what we normally suppose to be true about human responsiveness — so maybe the company is undercharging for its ads!

Ben adds:

I am bothered by the paper’s robustness section in two ways: first, every single robustness test confirmed the results. To me that does not suggest that the initial result must be correct; it suggests that the researchers didn’t push their data hard enough. There is always a test that fails, and that is a good thing: it shows the boundaries of what you have learned. Second, there were no robustness tests applied to one of the more compelling pieces of evidence, that Internet and Facebook outages were correlated with a reduction in violence against refugees. This is particularly unfortunate because in some ways this evidence works against the filter bubble narrative: after all, the idea is the filter bubbles change your reality over time, not that they suddenly inspire you to action out of the blue.

The authors do present natural experiments from Facebook and internet outages.  They find that “…for a given level of anti-refugee sentiment, there are fewer attacks in municipalities with high Facebook usage during an internet outage than in municipalities with low Facebook usage without an outage.” (p.28).  Again I find that confusing, but I note also that “internet outages themselves…do not have a consistent negative effect on the number of anti-refugee sentiments.”  That is the simple story, and it appears to exonerate Facebook.  pp.28-30 then present a number of interaction effects and variable multiplications, but I am not sure what to conclude from the whole mess.  I’m still expecting internet outages to lower the number of attacks, but they don’t.

Even if internet or Facebook outages do have a predictive effect on attacks in some manner, it likely shows that Facebook is a communications medium used to organize gatherings and attacks (as the telephone once might have been), not, as the authors repeatedly suggest, that Facebook is somehow generating and whipping up and controlling racist sentiment over time.  Again, compare such a possibility to the broader literature.  There is good evidence that anti-semitic violence across German regions is fairly persistent, with pogroms during the Black Death predicting synagogue attacks during the Nazi time.  And we are supposed to believe that racist feelings dwindle into passivity simply because the thugs cannot access Facebook for a few days or maybe a week?  By the way, in their approach if there is an internet outrage, mobile devices do not in Germany pick up the slack.

I’d also like to revisit the NYT sentence, cited above, and repeated many times on Twitter:

Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

That sounds horrible, but it is actually a claim about variation across municipalities, not a claim about the absolute importance of the internet.  The authors also reported a very different and perhaps more relevant claim to the Times:

…this effect drove one-tenth of all anti-refugee violence.

I would have started the paper with that sentence, and then tried to estimate its robustness, without relying on Nutella.

As it stands right now, you shouldn’t be latching on to the reported results from this paper.

Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?

That is a 2011 AFPS paper by Sarah F Anzia and Christopher R Berry, here is the abstract:

If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process. Furthermore, if women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates. We argue that when either or both forms of sex‐based selection are present, the women who are elected to office will perform better, on average, than their male counterparts. We test this central implication of our theory by studying the relative success of men and women in delivering federal spending to their districts and in sponsoring legislation. Analyzing changes within districts over time, we find that congresswomen secure roughly 9% more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen. Women also sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills than their male colleagues.

I also would consider the alternative hypothesis that the women legislators are simply more conscientious and less wrapped up in themselves.  Nonetheless this result is one possible equilibrium relevant to the recent MR discussions on statistical discrimination.

Here is a paper showing female mayors have higher political skills,  This paper shows that women do better in a minority party than in a polarized majority party setting.

For the pointer I thank Michelangelo L.