Category: Education

Who wants to take UFO sightings more seriously?

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

Among my friends and acquaintances, the best predictor of how seriously they take the matter is whether they read science fiction in their youth. As you might expect, the science-fiction readers are willing to entertain the more outlandish possibilities. Even if these are not “little green men,” the idea that the Chinese or Russians have a craft that can track and outmaneuver the U.S. military is newsworthy in and of itself. So would be a secret U.S. craft, especially one unknown to military pilots.

The cynical view is that the science-fiction readers are a bit crazy and are trying to recapture the excitement of their youth by speculating about UFOs. Under this theory, they shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than Tolkien fans who wonder if orcs are hiding under the next stone.

The more positive view is that science-fiction readers are more willing to consider new ideas and practices. This kind of openness presumably is a good thing, at least in general, so why aren’t the opinions of more “open” observers accorded more respect? Science-fiction readers have long experience thinking about worlds that are very different from the current one, and perhaps that makes them more perceptive when something truly unusual does come along.

Some of the individuals who were early to see and point out Covid-19 risk, such as tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan, also have taken the UFO reports seriously, perhaps due to the same flexibility of mind.

Do read the whole thing, the column does not excerpt easily.

My Conversation with Glen Weyl

I found it interesting throughout, the first half was on Covid-19 testing, and the second half on everything else.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the summary:

Tyler invited Glen to discuss the plan, including how it’d overcome obstacles to scaling up testing and tracing, what other countries got right and wrong in their responses, the unusual reason why he’s bothered by price gouging on PPE supplies, where his plan differs with Paul Romer’s, and more. They also discuss academia’s responsibility to inform public discourse, how he’d apply his ideas on mechanism design to reform tenure and admissions, his unique intellectual journey from socialism to libertarianism and beyond, the common element that attracts him to both the movie Memento and Don McLean’s “American Pie,” what talent he looks for in young economists, the struggle to straddle the divide between academia and politics, the benefits and drawbacks of rollerblading to class, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

And:

And:

For me the most instructive part was this:

COWEN: What do you view yourself as rebelling against? At the foundational level.

But you will have to read or listen to hear Glen’s very good answer.

Definitely recommended.

Melissa Dell, economic historian, wins John Bates Clark award

Very well-deserved, here is the full account, including a summary of her research.  Excerpt:

Historians (e.g., Engerman and Sokolov) have long argued for the persistence of institutions and the “long shadow” of historical events on developing countries. For example, cross-national studies have noted that Latin America and North America organized labor differently during colonial periods and used cross-country historical data to support the idea that these differences have had long-run impacts. More generally, Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson compare the experience of countries with different institutions set in place during colonial time for largely accidental reasons, showing that these early differences continue to matter today.

In her work, Dell goes beyond the cross-country evidence, using historical accidents or peculiarities to shed light on persistent effects of institutional differences, including different in the organization of the state. She exploits historical settings in which she is able to very convincingly establish the persistent impacts of specific institutions as well as explore specific channels through which these impacts occur.

Do read the whole thing.  Here are some previous MR posts on Melissa Dell.

China fact of the day

The U.S. higher education sector will also be hard hit, with U.S. universities increasingly dependent on tuition from Chinese students. According to the Institute of International Education, China has remained the largest source of international students for ten years running,44 with 369,548 Chinese students enrolled in U.S. higher education programs in 2018 and contributing $15 billion in tuition payments.45 The postponement or cancellation of U.S. college entrance examinations in China, indefinite travel restrictions, and continued uncertainty surrounding when U.S. college campuses will reopen are expected to reduce Chinese demand for U.S. higher education in the 2020-2021 academic year.46 University administrators report that cancelled recruitment events in China and inability to work with local recruitment agencies could further depress Chinese student enrollment in U.S. university programs.

Here is the full document, on cascading economic impacts from China more generally.  For the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.

My Conversation with Philip Tetlock

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss whether the world as a whole is becoming harder to predict, whether Goldman Sachs traders can beat forecasters, what inferences we can draw from analyzing the speech of politicians, the importance of interdisciplinary teams, the qualities he looks for in leaders, the reasons he’s skeptical machine learning will outcompete his research team, the year he thinks the ascent of the West became inevitable, how research on counterfactuals can be applied to modern debates, why people with second cultures tend to make better forecasters, how to become more fox-like, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you could take just a bit of time away from your research and play in your own tournaments, are you as good as your own best superforecasters?

TETLOCK: I don’t think so. I don’t think I have the patience or the temperament for doing it. I did give it a try in the second year of the first set of forecasting tournaments back in 2012, and I monitored the aggregates. We had an aggregation algorithm that was performing very well at the time, and it was outperforming 99.8 percent of the forecasters from whom the composite was derived.

If I simply had predicted what the composite said at each point in time in that tournament, I would have been a super superforecaster. I would have been better than 99.8 percent of the superforecasters. So, even though I knew that it was unlikely that I could outperform the composite, I did research some questions where I thought the composite was excessively aggressive, and I tried to second guess it.

The net result of my efforts — instead of finishing in the top 0.02 percent or whatever, I think I finished in the middle of the superforecaster pack. That doesn’t mean I’m a superforecaster. It just means that when I tried to make a forecast better than the composite, I degraded the accuracy significantly.

COWEN: But what do you think is the kind of patience you’re lacking? Because if I look at your career, you’ve been working on these databases on this topic for what? Over 30 years. That’s incredible patience, right? More patience than most of your superforecasters have shown. Is there some dis-aggregated notion of patience where they have it and you don’t?

TETLOCK: [laughs] Yeah, they have a skill set. In the most recent tournaments, we’ve been working on with them, this becomes even more evident — their willingness to delve into the details of really pretty obscure problems for very minimal compensation is quite extraordinary. They are intrinsically cognitively motivated in a way that is quite remarkable. How am I different from that?

I guess I have a little bit of attention deficit disorder, and my attention tends to roam. I’ve not just worked on forecasting tournaments. I’ve been fairly persistent in pursuing this topic since the mid 1980s. Even before Gorbachev became general party secretary, I was doing a little bit of this. But I’ve been doing a lot of other things as well on the side. My attention tends to roam. I’m interested in taboo tradeoffs. I’m interested in accountability. There’re various things I’ve studied that don’t quite fall in this rubric.

COWEN: Doesn’t that make you more of a though? You know something about many different areas. I could ask you about antebellum American discourse before the Civil War, and you would know who had the smart arguments and who didn’t. Right?

And another:

TETLOCK:

…I had a very interesting correspondence with in the 1980s about forecasting tournaments. We could talk a little about it later. The upshot of this is that young people who are upwardly mobile see forecasting tournaments as an opportunity to rise. Old people like me and aging baby-boomer types who occupy relatively high status inside organizations see forecasting tournaments as a way to lose.

If I’m a senior analyst inside an intelligence agency, and say I’m on the National Intelligence Council, and I’m an expert on China and the go-to guy for the president on China, and some upstart R&D operation called IARPA says, “Hey, we’re going to run these forecasting tournaments in which we assess how well the analytic community can put probabilities on what Xi Jinping is going to do next.”

And I’ll be on a level playing field, competing against 25-year-olds, and I’m a 65-year-old, how am I likely to react to this proposal, to this new method of doing business? It doesn’t take a lot of empathy or bureaucratic imagination to suppose I’m going to try to nix this thing.

COWEN: Which nation’s government in the world do you think listens to you the most? You may not know, right?

Definitely recommended.

Zoom Bombing a High School Class

I “zoom bombed” a high school class that is using Modern Principles of Economics. I thought that it would be useful to relate some virus economics to some regular economics. Here’s what I said:

Why has the response to coronavirus been so poor? Exponential growth, rare events, and the necessity of using theory instead of experience.

Coronavirus infections, when unchecked, double approximately every three days. If we start out with 1000 infections that means in 10 doublings, just 30 days, there will be one million infections (1,2,4,8,16,32,64,256,512,1024). If you act early and stop just one doubling, you prevent 500,000 people from being infected. Speed is of the essence. But you need to act when the problem appears small. You need to use theory rather than observation which isn’t natural or easy.

People get good at something when they have repeated attempts and rapid feedback. People can get pretty good at putting a basketball through a hoop. But for other decisions we only get one shot. One reason South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been much better at handling coronavirus is that within recent memory they had the SARS and H1N1 flu pandemics to build experience. The US and Europe were less hit by these earlier pandemics and responded less well. We don’t get many attempts to respond to once-in-a-lifetime events.

Even as coronavirus swept through China and Italy, many people dismissed the threat by thinking that we were somehow different. We weren’t. Even within the United States some people think that New York is different. It’s not. Most people learn, if they learn at all, from their own experiences, not from the experiences of others–even others like them. Learning from your own mistakes and experiences is a good skill. Many people make the same mistakes over and over again. But learning from other people’s mistakes or experiences is a great skill of immense power. It’s rare. Cultivate it.

Now let’s apply these issues to another one close to your life. Savings and retirement. Savings also follow an exponential process, albeit one neither as rapid nor as certain as those involving viruses. The same principles apply, however. But in this case instead of wanting to avoid the gains at the end you want to start saving early in order to capture the big gains in your 50s and 60s as you approach retirement. You don’t get many attempts at retirement so you need to use theory rather than experience. And because you don’t get many attempts you need to learn from other people, including other people’s mistakes, to guide your savings decisions today.

The students asked good questions and we also talked about aggregate demand and supply and how to think about the economic crisis.

Hat tip: Joel Cohen and Dr. Brian Dille.

P.S. I didn’t actually zoom bomb the class. I was invited but it was a surprise to the students.

Fast Grants against Covid-19, an extension of Emergent Ventures

Emergent Ventures, a project of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, is leading a new “Fast Grants” program to support research to fight Covid-19.  Here is the bottom line:

Science funding mechanisms are too slow in normal times and may be much too slow during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fast Grants are an effort to correct this.

If you are a scientist at an academic institution currently working on a COVID-19 related project and in need of funding, we invite you to apply for a Fast Grant. Fast grants are $10k to $500k and decisions are made in under 48 hours. If we approve the grant, you’ll receive payment as quickly as your university can receive it.

More than $10 million in support is available in total, and that is in addition to earlier funds raised to support prizes.  The application site has further detail and explains the process and motivation.

I very much wish to thank John Collison, Patrick Collison, Paul Graham, Reid Hoffman, Fiona McKean and Tobias Lütke, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Chris and Crystal Sacca for their generous support of this initiative, and I am honored to be a part of it.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world (FT):

The president of the European Research Council — the EU’s top scientist — has resigned after failing to persuade Brussels to set up a large-scale scientific programme to fight Covid-19.

In contrast:

During World War II, the NDRC accomplished a lot of research very quickly. In his memoir, Vannevar Bush recounts: “Within a week NDRC could review the project. The next day the director could authorize, the business office could send out a letter of intent, and the actual work could start.” Fast Grants are an effort to unlock progress at a cadence similar to that which served us well then.

We are not able at this time to process small donations for this project, but if If you are an interested donor please reach out to fund@fastgrants.org.

*Markets, Minds, and Money: Why America Leads the World in University Research*

One of the best books on the history of American higher education, author Miguel Urquiola of Columbia argues for the importance of market competition in the rise and dominance of the American system.  Strongly argued and full of good evidence and stories, here is one excerpt I found of interest:

That Columbia would be among the first successful American research universities would have surprised many observers around 1850, as the school had seen real oscillations in its fortunes.  For the first decades after its creation in 1754, Columbia was a wealthy but small school.  In 1774 it had the highest collegiate endowment, but only 36 students, while Harvard and Yale had four or five times as many…in 1797 the college had eight faculty members, during most of the 1800s it had four.  In 1809, an inquiry warned that Columbia College “was fast becoming, if it has not become already, a mere Grammar School”; between 1800 and 1850, even as New York City grew, the school’s enrollment stagnated, and even in 1850 the average entering age was 15.

And this:

Among wealthy countries, the United States is unusual in letting its university sector operate as a free market.  Self-rule, free entry, and free scope are much less prevalent in Europe.

Recommended, you can pre-order here.

Emergent Ventures winners, eighth cohort

Eibhlin Lim, Penang and University of Chicago.

“I interview founders from different industries and around the globe and share their origin stories to inspire the next generation of founders to reach for their own dreams. I previously shared these stories in Phoenix Newsletters, an online newsletter that organically grew to serve more than 7000 high school and university student subscribers primarily from Malaysia. In July 2018, I decided to self-publish and distribute a book, ‘The Phoenix Perspective’, which contains some of the most loved stories from Phoenix Newsletters, after learning that some of our biggest fans did not have constant access to the Internet and went through great lengths to read the stories. With the help of founders and organizations, I managed to bring this book to these youths and also 1000+ other youths from 20+ countries around the globe. I hope to be able to continue interviewing founders and share their origin stories, on a new website, to reach even more future founders from around the world.”

Carole Treston/Association of Nurses in AIDS Care

To jump-start a Covid-19 program to produce cheap informational videos and distribute them to their nurse network for better information and greater safety, including for patients.

Kyle Redelinghuys

“Right now, the main sources of data for Coronavirus are CSV files and websites which make the data fairly inaccessible to work with for developers. By giving easy access to this data more products can be built and more information can be shared. The API I built is an easily accessible, single source of Coronavirus data to enable developers to build new products based on COVID19 data. These products could be mobile applications, web applications and graphed data…The API exposes this data in JSON which is the easiest data format to work with for web and mobile developers. This in turn allows for quick integration in to any products. The API is also completely free to users.”

Seyone Chithrananda

17 year old from Ontario, wishes to work in San Francisco, he does computational biology with possible application to Covid-19 as well, Twitter here.  His Project De Novo uses molecular machine learning methods for novel small molecule discovery, and the grant will be used to scale up the cloud computing infrastructure and purchase chemical modelling software.

Joshua Broggi, Woolf University

To build an on-line university to bring learning programs to the entire world, including to businesses but by no means only.  His background is in philosophy and German thought, and now he is seeking to change the world.

Congratulations!

There is also another winner, but the nature of that person’s job means that reporting must be postponed.

Here are previous Emergent Ventures winners, here is an early post on the philosophy of Emergent Ventures.  You will note that the Covid-19-related work here is simply winning regular EV grants, these are not the prizes I outlined a short while ago.  I expect more prize winners to be announced fairly soon.

The world is running a disturbing psychometric test

Put aside the people with small (and not so small) children at home, and observe whether the pandemic has boosted or destroyed their productivity.  That is one measure for how they handle stress, and whether you might wish to trust them with a start-up or some other major project requiring quick adaptation and performance under duress.  It may or may not be a measure for their ordinary performance on the job.

Consider the now-cancelled Candidates’ chess tournament in Russia.  Ding Liren was one of the two clear favorites (with Caruana), and he lost three games in the first half of the tournament.  That is evidence he does not play well under an extreme degree of stress.  Yet he still is rated #3 in the world, from a career playing under conditions of “not a pandemic level of stress but still world-class levels of competitive stress.”

Grischuk had been saying the tournament should be called off, even in midstream.  Probably he was right, but if play had continued would you have predicted him to come in first?  Caruana, the American, was worried he may not be able to get home after the tournament.  His play was OK but subpar, at least for a world-ranked number two.  The non-favored but sturdy Nepomniachtchi was up three games, before unwisely playing a Winawer defense with the black pieces, but still he was the clear leader.  How should we now revise our opinions of him?

A friend of mine writes to me:

I have submitted 4 papers in 2 weeks. Two R and Rs [revise and resubmits] done and sent back and two new papers sent out. Very close on 2 more. Then I guess I’ll start freaking out or something. Working is keeping me less stressed and more sane.  You can really see the divide on Twitter between people getting shit done and people spending all their time hyperventilating.

David Brooks (NYT) considers how you have been living your life.

The psychometric stress test is being run, including on our institutions, regions, and nations.  We’ll see how it goes.

Joshua Angrist has written a tribute to Alan Krueger

Alan Krueger died a year ago this week. I think of him often, and would like to mark the anniversary of his death by sharing a story of my time with Alan. Alan and I had a lot in common. First, we were both born in the third quarter; that is, we’re QOB3s. In fact, Alan was only one day older than me. We used to joke that this explains his relative success: it’s an age effect!

There is much more at the link, moving throughout.  And here is the Joshua Angrist introduction to econometrics course on Marginal Revolution University.

Arguments Against International Trade in Modern Principles of Economics

In our textbook, Modern Principles of Economics, Tyler and I explain the benefits of free trade and show why some common arguments against free trade are mistaken. Our goal, however, is to teach students how to think like economists and so we also explain the costs of free trade. In particular, we indicate the strongest arguments against free trade and explore when those arguments best apply. Here’s one of the better arguments against free trade, straight from the book:

If a good is vital for national security but domestic producers have higher costs than foreign producers, it can make sense for the government to tax imports or subsidize the production of the domestic industry. It may make sense, for example, to support a domestic vaccine industry. In 1918, more than a quarter of the U.S. population got sick with the flu and more than 500,000 died, sometimes within hours of being infected. The young were especially hard-hit and, as a result, life expectancy in the United States dropped by 10 years. No place in the world was safe, as between 2.5% and 5% of the entire world population died from the flu between 1918 and 1920. Producing flu vaccine requires an elaborate process in which robots inject hundreds of millions of eggs with flu viruses. In an ordinary year, there are few problems with buying vaccine produced in another country, but if something like the 1918 flu swept the world again, it would be wise to have significant vaccine production capacity in the United States.

If I may be permitted to advertise a bit (more). In Modern Principles, we explain the concept of externalities using flu shots. In macroeconomics, we deal with both real shocks and demand shocks and we list pandemics as one example of a real shock. We also explain how shocks are amplified and can create dis-coordination. These relevant, real world examples in Modern Principles are not an accident. There are different styles of textbooks. Some are written in a vanilla style so they don’t need to be updated or revised very often. In contrast, we wanted Modern Principles to have modern examples and to be relevant to the times. Sometimes, however, we’d like it to be a little less relevant.