Category: Education

Are You More Strategic than a Fifth Grader?

Isabelle Brocas and Juan Carrillo have a new paper in the JPE testing when children develop strategic (k-level) reasoning. A clever game outlined below illustrates the basic idea. Players 1,2 and 3 are asked to make (simultaneous) choices to earn prizes (money for the adults and older kids, points for toys for the younger kids). The sophisticated, rational choice becomes successively more difficult as we from from player 3 to player 1. Player 3 is simply asked to match a shape. In the case shown, for example, player 3 earns the most by choosing the red square labelled C since it matches the shape of the blue square labelled A. Player 2 earns the most by choosing the color chosen by Player 3. Of course, Player 2 doesn’t know what color Player 3 will choose and so has to reason about Player 3’s actions. What color do you choose? Player 1 earns the most by choosing the same letter as Player 2 but now must reason about Player 2 which involves reasoning about how Player 2 will reason about Player 3. What letter do you choose?What do the authors find? First, for both adults and kids either they get it or they don’t. The ones who don’t make the right choice as Player 3 but then randomly choose when playing either Player 2 or Player 1. The ones who get it, play correctly at all three levels. In other words, almost everyone who reasons correct as Player 2 (1-level reasoning) also reasons correctly as Player 1 (2-level reasoning).

Second, there is a marked increase in the ability to perform k-level thinking between ages 8 and 12 but after age 12 (fifth grade) there is shockingly little growth. Together the first and second points suggest that k-level thinking is more of a quantum leap than an evolution in reasoning ability.

Third, most adults reason correctly in this simple game but a significant fraction do not. As the authors put it “some very young players display an innate ability to play always at equilibrium while some young adults are unable to perform two steps of dominance.”

Demographic factors are mostly as expected, children interested in STEM fields perform better (n.b. this implies that contrary to some opinions the STEM set are better at social interaction), kids from better socio-economic backgrounds perform better and slightly unexpected females perform better than males, perhaps because they are more disciplined.

As the authors conclude:

Adolescents are particularly exposed to situations in which strategic sophistication is crucial to avoid wrong decisions. Examples include engaging in risky activities, such as accepting drugs from peers or engaging in unprotected sex. Also, with the development of the internet, naive users are often preyed upon, asked to provide personal information, or tricked into making harmful decisions. Information deliberately intended to deceive young minds also circulates through social media. Making correct decisions in such environments requires understanding the intentions of others and anticipating the consequences of following their advice or opinions. More generally, children and adolescents are gradually discovering the dangers hiding behind social interactions and need to come equipped to detect them, assess them, and navigate around them. We conjecture that failures in these abilities are closely related to underdeveloped logical abilities, and we predict that the level of sophistication of an individual detected through a simple task matches their behavior in social settings.

What should I ask Claudia Goldin?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, so what should I ask?

Here is part of her Wikipedia page, which perhaps ought to have emphasized economic history more?:

Claudia Goldin…is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University and director of the Development of the American Economy program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Goldin was the president of the American Economic Association in the 2013–14 academic year. In 1990, she became the first woman to be tenured at the Harvard economics department. Her research includes topics such as female labor force, income inequality, education, and the economic gender gap.

Here are her pieces on scholar.google.com.  And I will take this chance to plug her new, forthcoming book Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity.

*Home in the World: A Memoir*

That is the new Amartya Sen autobiography, and it is well…a biography.  You learn that he loves Sichuan duck and “hilsha fish” (if done properly with the mustard), his thoughts of enduring military service, Sen’s study of Sanskrit, his self-description as a hypochondriac, his bout with mouth cancer at a young age, and that Calcutta (!) is a great walking city, at least when Sen lived there in the 1950s, among other matters.  The readers definitely gets his or her “biography money’s worth.”

But should you care?

The name “Tagore” appears so many times in the text that it takes up 3/4 of a page in the index.  This is very much a Bengali memoir.

I learned that Sen’s family lived for a few years with him in Burma, he is sympathetic to Buddhism, he was ten at the time of the Great Famine and it had a major impact on his thinking, and that Sen was greatly influenced by Maurice Dobb and thought Marx was unjustly excluded from the economics curriculum.  Piero Sraffa was his Director of Studies at Cambridge, and introduced Sen to the wonders of ristretto.  Sen also stresses the import of Sraffa for converting the early Wittgenstein into the later Wittgenstein.  He has great praise for P.T. Bauer, both as a thinker and as an instructor.  He describes Buchanan as a “…very agreeable but rather conservative economist” who got him thinking about whether the notion of collective preference made sense at all.

This doesn’t have enough coherence to be a great book, but there is enough in here of interest to satisfy anyone curious about Sen.

You can pre-order here, I got my copy from the UK.

My excellent Conversation with Niall Ferguson

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And again, here is Niall’s new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

What should I ask Amia Srinivasan?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, her forthcoming book The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century is already making a big splash.  Here is an excerpt from her Wikipedia page:

Amia Srinivasan (born 1984) is an American philosopher, specialising in political philosophy, epistemology and metaphilosophy. Since January 2020, she has been Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford.

Srinivasan was born…in Bahrain to Indian parents and later lived in New York. She studied for an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Yale University. This was followed by postgraduate Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) and Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford. She completed her DPhil in 2014 with a thesis titled The Fragile Estate: Essays on Luminosity, Normativity and Metaphilosophy.

…She is an associate editor of the philosophy journal Mind and a contributing editor of the London Review of Books.

You can access some of her works here.  So what should I ask?

Do looks matter for an academic career in economics?

It seems they do:

We document appearance effects in the economics profession. Using unique data on PhD graduates from ten of the top economics departments in the United States we test whether more attractive individuals are more likely to succeed. We find robust evidence that appearance has predictive power for job outcomes and research productivity. Attractive individuals are more likely to study at higher ranked PhD institutions and are more likely to be placed at higher-ranking academic institutions not only for their first job, but also for jobs as many as 15 years after their graduation, even when we control for the ranking of PhD institution and first job. Appearance also predicts the success of research output: while it does not predict the number of papers an individual writes, it predicts the number of citations for a given number of papers, again even when we control for the ranking of the PhD institution and first job. All these effects are robust, statistically significant, and substantial in magnitude.

That is from a recent paper by Galina Hale, Tali Regev, and Yona Rubinstein.  Via John Chilton.

The 1991 Project

In 1991 on the verge of bankruptcy, India abandoned the License-Raj and freed its economy from many socialist shackles. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced to the nation:

We believe that a bulk of government regulations and controls on economic activity have outlived their utility. They are stifling the creativity and innovativeness of our people. Excessive controls have also bred corruption. Indeed, they have come in the way of achieving our objectives of expanding employment opportunities, reducing rural-urban disparities and ensuring greater social justice.

And he was serious–in the plan, tariffs and controls were lifted, thousands of licenses eliminated, entire departments undone. A No Confidence motion was mounted in parliament but the opponents made a tactical error and walked out, leaving just enough votes for Rao’s government to survive and the plan to pass. The result was an economic revolution. Economic growth increased and millions were lifted out of poverty. Yet, the 1991 Project was incomplete and many young Indian’s today have little appreciation of the gains that have been made or why they happened.

The 1991 Project is about understanding the history of economic liberalization in order to better chart the future. It begins with a superb essay by Shruti Rajagopalan on living under India’s socialist system. Did you know that under the License-Raj you needed a government permit to own a bicycle in some parts of the country?

Bicycles saw increasing demand as urban populations increased. Steel was government controlled and, given the heavy demand from the construction industry, only limited allotments were made to bicycle manufacturers. To increase their allotment of steel and meet the increasing demand for bicycles, they needed an expansion permit, which was rarely approved by the government given the shortage of steel.

The license and permit system for steel also created a shortage in bicycles, which was followed by the inevitable price controls. To ensure that demand was legitimate and all available bicycles were used, owning and riding a bicycle required a government-issued token in some parts of the country. Inspectors thrived on the bribes paid when they caught anyone riding without the requisite permit.

The middle class didn’t escape the problem, either. Through a collaboration with Vespa, Bajaj manufactured scooters in India, and they became popular with the middle-class. Denied permission to expand to meet the rising demand, the waitlist for a Bajaj scooter was ten years by the late 1970s.

Even though dowry is not just illegal but is a crime in India, the entrenched dowry culture in the arranged marriage system enables grooms to make outrageous demands of the bride’s family. A Bajaj scooter became a top dowry ask. Given the decade-long waiting period, parents took to purchasing them on the black market, and by the late 1970s the price of a secondhand/used Bajaj scooter available immediately was much higher than that of a brand-new vehicle with a 5- to 10-year waiting period.

It got so bad that when a girl child was born, well-wishers would – only half in jest – suggest to the parents that they should immediately book a scooter so it would arrive in time for the wedding. This was reminiscent of the old Soviet Union joke about a man paying for an automobile. The clerk tells him it will be delivered in ten years. The man asks, “Morning or afternoon?” “What difference does it make?” responds the clerk. “Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.”

Check out The 1991 Project and Rajagopalan’s essay.

Photo Credit: Manmohan Singh with PM Narasimha Rao in 1994. Photo: Sanjay Sharma/Hindustan Times

Why has the Indian diaspora been so successful?

Dwarkesh writes to me:

Why do you think the Indian diaspora has been so successful? Just selection of the best immigrants from a large pool of candidates or something else too?

Yes, there are plenty of Indians, and surely that matters, but I see several others factors at work:

1. The Indian diaspora itself is large, estimated at 18 million and the single largest diaspora in the world.

2. A significant portion of the better-educated Indians are hooked into English-language networks early on, including through the internet.  The value of this connection has been rising due to the rising value of the internet itself.  That is a big reason to be bullish on the Indian diaspora.

3. India has been growing rapidly enough so that people understand the nature and value of progress, yet the country remains poor enough that further progress seems urgent.

4. Many Indian parents seem intent on expecting a great deal from their children.  The value of this cannot be overemphasized.  This effect seems to be stronger in India than in say Indonesia.

5. There is especially positive selection for Indians coming to America.  You can’t just run across a border, instead many of the ways of getting here involve some specialization in education and also technical abilities.  Virtually all migrated in legal manners, and here is some interesting data on how the various cohorts of Indians arriving in America differed by wave.

6. More speculatively, I see a kind of conceptual emphasis and also a mental flexibility resulting from India’s past as a mixing ground for many cultures.  Perhaps some of this comes from the nature of Hinduism as well, even for non-Hindu Indians (just as American Jews are somewhat “Protestant”).  Indians who move into leadership roles in U.S. companies seem to do quite well making a very significant cultural leap.  I cannot think of any other emerging economy where the same is true to a comparable extent.  In any case, the intellectual capital embedded in Indian culture is immense.

7. Those Indians who leave seem to retain strong ties to the home country, which in turn helps others with their subsequent upward mobility, whether in India or abroad.  In contrast, Russians who leave Russia seem to cut their ties to a higher degree.

8. I feel one of the hypotheses should involve caste, but I don’t have a ready claim at hand.

Here is the take of Stephen Manallack.  Here is Times of India.  (And by the way, here is Shruti’s piece on India’s 1991 reforms, not irrelevant to the diaspora.)

What else?

Do honorifics pass a market test?

Following on my discussion from the other day, it is worth thinking about whether new institutions or sectors work very hard to set up a lot of honorific titles.  So many of our standard honorifics come from quite old sectors, such as the military or religion or the nobility.  Are the new sectors seeking to copy those practices?

The world of gaming is quite new, and I do not think it does much to award generalized honorific titles per se, noting that naming competition winners as victors is a fundamentally different practice.

The world of tech is (mostly) pretty new, and it too does not rely much on titles.  Stock options are more important!  Of course you might call someone “employee #37,” but do they go around referring to “Programmer Smith”?  Yes Smith deserves “respect,” but somehow they don’t take it in that direction.

If honorific titles are so wonderful, why do most new institutions seem to be honorific-shy?  Surely a lot of the benefit from such honorific titles ought to be internal to the organization.

(As an aside, I think of women as being treated much better in think tanks and research centers than in academia, and in relative terms having superior opportunities.  And yet there are no formal honorific titles such as “Professor” in the former institutions.  I am not suggesting causality here, but still it seems that the more informal systems are hardly a train wreck for women as a whole.)

Clearly, titles do benefit particular individuals, such as those who are currently not receiving enough respect in their jobs.  But for larger groups as a whole, does it make sense to double down on the honorifics strategy?  In a world where say YouTube stars have more and more influence each year?  Where actual performance in most sectors is easy to measure than ever before?  Is it really so great to so validate the notion of “having done all your homework”?  Honorifics impose lots of costs on the broader group by formalizing hierarchies and making them based on the achievement of arbitrary credentialized plateaus, such as receiving a Ph.D.  Would you really want to invest in the group that wanted to move in the honorifics direction?  Or would you instead think of them as fighting yesterday’s war of ideas?

Can you think of significant new sectors that are investing in honorific titles?  If not, what should you infer from that?  You might claim that titles in the military are tried, true, and tested, and you would be right.  But at the margin should we have greater or less emphasis on titled honorifics as the world changes moving forward?  What are the market data telling us right now?

You already know what I think.

Why should they call us “professors”?

I’ve long wondered about this, and explore that question in my latest Bloomberg column.  I’ve discouraged this for a long time:

…I have insisted that my graduate students call me “Tyler.” My goal has been to encourage them to think of themselves as peer researchers who might someday prove me wrong, rather than viewing me as an authority figure who is handing down truth.

And:

Some of the strongest norms are around the title “Doctor.” Just about everyone calls their physician “Doctor,” though the esteemed profession of lawyer does not receive similar treatment. As a Ph.D.-toting academic, I’ve even had people say to me — correctly — “You’re not a real doctor.”

I fear that by ceding this unique authority status to doctors we are making it easier for them to oversell us medical care, a major problem in the U.S. If your doctor suggests that you need a procedure done, it can be hard to say no, especially if you have been deferring to that person for years through the use of an honorific title. On the upside, perhaps all that deference has encouraged many people to get their vaccinations.

There are some arguments for titles:

Sometimes a title can be used to suggest a subordinate position, such as the use of Nurse. It can be an honorific, but it also places the person below the Doctor. The advantage, however, is one of greater anonymity and remove. A woman in particular might prefer “Nurse Washington” over the use of her real full name, given the potential risk of harassment.

Title issues and gender issues intersect in tricky ways. A title such as doctor or professor can give a woman newfound respect, but perhaps the practice hurts respect for women as a whole, since they are titled at lower rates than men.

What I expect we will see is that “established” women and minorities will insist on title usage all the more, to command respect, and under the guise of societal feminization we will evolve a new set of non-egalitarian hierarchies, presented and marketed to us under egalitarian pretenses.  On related ideas, see my earlier post on the first date book walk out meme.

My Conversation with Alexander the Grate

Here is the audio and transcript, recorded outside in SW Washington, D.C.  And no, that is not a typo, he does call himself “Alexander the Grate,” his real name shall remain a secret.  Here is the event summary:

Alexander the Grate has spent 40 years — more than half of his life — living on the streets (and heating grates) of Washington, DC. He prefers the label NFA (No Fixed Address) rather than “homeless,” since in his view we’re all a little bit homeless: even millionaires are just one catastrophe away from losing their mansions. It’s a life that certainly comes with many challenges, but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the immense cultural riches of the capital: he and his friends have probably attended more lectures, foreign films, concerts, talks, and tours at local museums than many of its wealthiest denizens. The result is a perspective as unique as the city itself.

Alexander joined Tyler to discuss the little-recognized issue of “toilet insecurity,” how COVID-19 affected his lifestyle, the hierarchy of local shelters, the origins of the cootie game, the difference between being NFA in DC versus other cities, how networking helped him navigate life as a new NFA, how the Capitol Hill Freebie Finders Fellowship got started, why he loves school field trip season, his most memorable freebie food experience, the reason he isn’t enthusiastic about a Universal Basic Income, the economic sword of Damocles he sees hanging over America, how local development is changing DC, his design for a better community shelter, and more.

And:

And:

Recommended, you won’t find many podcast episodes like this one.  It is noteworthy that Alexander has a better and bigger vocabulary than the median CWT guest.  Also, this is one episode where listening and reading are especially different, due to the ambient sounds, Alexander’s comments on the passing trains, and so on — parts are Beckettesque!

What should be taught more in the first-year graduate sequence in economics?

Or maybe just taught more period?  For microeconomics, I have two very definite picks:

1. Price discrimination.  They do it to you more and more!  Or perhaps you are striving to do it to others.  This is typically covered in a first-year sequence, but how many second-year students really have mastered when it is welfare-improving or not?  How it relates to product tying?  When it is sustainable against entry or not?

This seems like a highly relevant real world topic covered only in passing, noting that at the Principles level Cowen and Tabarrok give it full attention.

2. Tax incidence.  Covered thoroughly in public finance sequences, but usually only in passing in first-year sequences.  But just about everything is a problem in tax incidence!  Any change in relative prices gives rise to tax incidence issues, and aren’t relative price changes central to economics?

How can you analyze minimum wage economics, for instance, without a strong background in tax incidence theory (and empirics)?  What if someone says “that minimum wage hike — the associated gains are just captured by the landlords!”  Right or wrong?  Under what conditions?  Good luck!

Grad students these days aren’t learning enough micro theory.

And for macroeconomics?  I have a definite nomination:

3. Say’s Law.  Yes I have read Keynes, and furthermore John Stuart Mill understood as early as 1829 that Say’s Law doesn’t hold if there is a big increase in money hoardings.  But often there isn’t a big increase in money hoardings!  And then what people call “increases in aggregate demand” very often are more fundamentally “increases in aggregate supply.”  Long-, medium- and short-term considerations to be tossed in as further complexities.  Ngdp boosts can come through either nominal or real variables, etc.

There are still lots and lots of people — at all levels — who don’t have a firm handle on these matters.  And Twitter has made this worse.

Which topics do you think should be given additional coverage?