best book

Marriage Mathematics and Political Change

John Gottman has spent decades studying how married couples interact. His most striking finding is the tendency of couples at risk of divorce to have markedly different interaction styles. His recent book, The Mathematics of Marriage, summarizes his observations of married couples and presents a parsimonious model of marriage (see here for Slate’s review). The highlight of the research is that couples where the dominant mode of interaction includes criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are very, very likely to divorce. Successful marriages involve a great deal of mending and reworking of the relationship. The mathematics links some theories about emotions and interaction to this observed pattern.

What I find interesting is the implication for thinking about politics. Let’s assume that political order is a sort of “marriage” between state and citizen. At least from the perspective of the citizen, it’s a relationship that can be broken, if warranted. This is a premise of many normative theories of revolution – the citizens have a right to a new government if they feel the written and unwritten rules have been violated. Unfortunately, what we know about exactly how this happens – moving to abandon the social contract – is sketchy at best, although political scientists and sociologists have a hunch that it involves some combination of repression of the population and a de-legitimizing of the government, which itself might have multiple causes.

Gottman’s approach to studying relationships offers a useful way to think about these issues. Gottman’s point is that there may be varying sources of the emotions that destroy marriages, but the road to divorce usually starts in the same place – once spouses have learned certain interaction strategies, they create hard to change feedback loops. Similarly, governments and populations that learn certain strategies for interacting with each other probably set up hard to break cycles leading to long term stability or perpetual crisis. The nice thing about Gottman’s analysis of marriage is that the math predicts stability or decline, and not much in between – a non-trivial prediction. The same prediction for states is that states tend to be on a tough to change road to constant crisis (like in Africa and the Middle East) or stability (like in the US). Switches from one path to the other should be infrequent and difficult, which seems to describe the world pretty well.

Is it better to be a small nation?

Of the ten richest countries in the world in terms of GDP per head, only two have more than 5m people: the United States…and Switzerland, with 7m. A further two have populations over 1m: Norway, with 4m and Singapore, with 3m. The remaining half-dozen have fewer than 1m people.

The Size of Nations, a new book by Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, addresses why some small countries have done so well. Here is a related working paper by Alesina, here are some related working papers by Spolaore. As some of the larger empires of the past break up, questions of national size increase in importance. More than half the world’s countries have fewer than six million people, roughly the population of the state of Massachusetts.

The Economist offers the following summary:

The book argues that the best size for countries is the result of a trade-off between the benefits of scale and the costs of heterogeneity; and that openness to trade alters this trade-off. The gains from being big are considerable. Large countries can afford proportionately smaller government (although they often don’t). Essential running costs can be spread over many taxpayers. Embassies, armies and road networks are all likely to cost less per head in populous countries. Defence in particular is cheaper for giants. “It is only safe to be small in a peaceful world,” say the authors (who, unusually for economists, offer two stimulating chapters on conflict, war and the size of nations).

Large countries are able not only to spend more efficiently; they can also raise taxes in more cost-effective ways. Income taxes are more efficient than customs duties, but require a bigger initial bureaucracy. Large countries have bigger internal markets, allowing more specialisation and returns to scale. And they can redistribute resources geographically, providing insurance when one part of the country is hit by disaster or recession and shifting income from rich regions to poor ones.

So why don’t all countries merge into one large superstate? Well, smallness has its benefits too:

…large countries are also likely to have a diverse population whose varying preferences and demands a government may find hard to meet: America, Brazil and India are cases in point. A study of local government in the United States suggests that Americans are willing to put up with the higher running costs of small municipalities and school districts in exchange for living in communities with little variation in income, race or ethnicity. This could imply that people also prefer to live in more homogeneous countries. With the main exception of America, successful big countries (such as Japan) have relatively homogeneous populations.

The authors argue that a worldwide regime of free trade will make the optimal size of nations smaller. If you can trade with other nations, there is no need to be large to ensure an open internal marketplace. So rising globalization should make secession easier to endure, which indeed seems to be the case.

My take: I am less convinced of the benefits of smallness. Think of small countries as having greater scope for experimentation, and thus a higher variance of outcomes. They also pop in and out of existence at a higher rate. Brazil will always be Brazil, but the fortunes of Croatia have varied over the years. If we look at the small countries that continue to exist, there is positive selection bias. We should expect them to do better than average, as the failures disappear, unlike with the less politically fluid larger countries. The observed superior performance of small countries does not mean that ex ante you should prefer to live in San Marino. In a small country, you face some very real chance that your system will fail, and that you will cease to exist, possibly under unfavorable terms. Especially if you are risk-averse, there is much to be said for the security of living in a larger nation.

Who buys fiction?

“More than 60 percent of fiction is bought by women and most of that by women aged between 35 and 55”, according to John Baker of Publishers Weekly, here is the link. Men don’t read fiction that much. Please write me if you have a good explanation for this fact in terms of evolutionary biology.

If you are curious, here are bestseller lists for the century, here is a New York Times bestseller list for right now, The Da Vinci Code remains number one, number five is Shepherds Abiding, described by Amazon in the following manner:

Karon [the author] works more homespun magic with this latest uplifting story set in sleepy Mitford, N.C. Father Timothy Kavanagh, stalwart of the Mitford series, is approaching 70 when he comes across pieces of an old English nativity scene at his friend Andrew Gregory’s antique shop. The set has definitely seen better days, and Andrew is hoping that someone will volunteer to restore it. Who better than Father Tim, who seems to have reached a turning point in his life and needs a project to distract him? Inspired by memories of a manger from his childhood that was destroyed in a rainstorm, Father Tim, after much deliberation, takes up the cause, planning to surprise his artist wife, Cynthia…The author’s warm spirituality and vibrant holiday spirit make this heartwarming eighth series entry a welcome one.

No, men are not buying this book in large numbers.

I am always amazed how strongly demographics predict our patterns of cultural consumption. People typically think that their cultural choices reflect their free will and their determination to construct their own identity. But when push comes to shove, it is young people who buy (or download) most of the music, see most of the movies, and middle-aged women who read most of the fiction. If you have a smart 19-year-old girl, who goes to Brown, I bet she doesn’t like heavy metal, but will have sympathies for Tori Amos and REM. And education and “social class” predict cultural taste better than does income.

The first linked piece also details just how hard it is to make a living writing fiction. You can have a few hit books, with reasonably large advances, but unless they are huge you might net no more than $20,000 a year. Yet overall incomes are rising. I predict that having an upper-middle class spouse, or richer, will prove the key to making it as a writer in the future.

Thanks to the ever-excellent www.2blowhards.com for the pointer to the first link.

Glenn Hubbard’s consistency test

Glenn Hubbard (registration required), in a Financial Times review of Robert Rubin’s new book, throws down the gauntlet. You might recall that Hubbard was one of the architects of Bush’s dividend tax cut plan.

Hubbard argues that deficit-cutting is motivated by the view that lower real interest rates will stimulate private investment. But then private investment must be sensitive to price incentives, and a tax cut on investment returns should stimulate investment as well. He describes Rubin (and others) as believing in an asymmetric response, whereby investment is interest-sensitive but not tax-sensitive. Either investment is price-sensitive or it is not, and we should hold a consistent attitude for either lower interest rates and lower tax rates.

My take: Hubbard is right. We should not hastily conclude, however, that a tax cut on dividends was the best way to go. Dividends transfer money from one pot to another, and this is distinct from constituting a real net rate of return. I would sooner have cut and reformed the corporate income tax. In the meantime, however, let us all apply this consistency test to ourselves, are you listening deficit hawks?

Christmas gifts

OK, the end of the year is approaching, here are my “best of” lists:

1. Classical music CD: Bach, St. Matthew’s Passion, conducted by Paul McCreesh. As good a recording as you will find, and this is arguably the best piece of music ever. One voice to a part, as they did it in Bach’s day, but never stale or musty.

2. Popular music CD: Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Starts at hip-hop but spans the entire musical map, from an immensely talented duo.

3. Book, fiction: J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. The finest novel yet by this year’s Nobel Laureate in literature, deep and philosophical, but also a great read.

4. Book, non-fiction: Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Games. Baseball puts me to sleep, this book is actually about human irrationality and performance. Everyone should read it.

5. DVD: Jean-Luc Godard, Band of Outsiders. OK, so he was (is?) a commie. Still, he understands the power of cinema in a way that few other directors do. The screen sparkles in every frame, the release is of course by Criterion.

And if you really want to go on a shopping spree, here is an article about notable art masterpieces still in private hands. I would recommend the Pollock at $50 million, except that the owner is not selling at that price.

Roosevelt and the Great Depression

I was amused to see Conrad Black writing with shock:

Jim Powell of the Cato Institute (cited approvingly in a recent column by Robert L. Bartley) argues in a new book that FDR actually prolonged the Depression!

Of course, Powell is correct. Imagine, increasing the power of unions to strike and raise wages during a time of mass strikes and mass unemployment. Imagine thinking that cartelizing whole industries thereby raising prices and reducing output could improve the economy. Not everything Roosevelt did was counterproductive – he did end prohibition (although in order to raise taxes) – but plenty was and worst of all was the uncertainty created by Roosevelt’s vicious attacks on business. (See, for example, the work of Bob Higgs especially this important paper and historian Gary Dean Best’s overlooked classic Pride, Prejudice and Politics.) Business investment failed to recover because business people legitimately feared a regime change like that which had occured in Germany and Italy. Sound extreme? Roosevelt himself threatened/promised this in his first inaugural:

…if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good… I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems….in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for… the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

Has Google peaked?

The economic theory of adverse selection suggests that we should be suspicious when companies go public. Here is a summary of some research on the topic. If your big idea has such a stunning future, why let other people in on the action?

Google.com will be going public, and John Gapper at The Financial Times has his doubts. Are they trying to cash out at their peak? Here is part of his critique:

The more pertinent question is whether its business model will retain the lead. To start with, it can no longer rely on others failing to grasp the importance of search. Algorithmic search engines are tough to design and maintain but others such as Teoma, owned by Ask Jeeves, and Yahoo’s Inktomi are catching up.

So is Microsoft, which is developing an algorithmic search engine that may be launched by spring next year – the likely time of Google’s IPO. By 2006, it will be bundled into the next generation of Windows – Microsoft’s usual tactic when faced with superior technology owned by others.

The biggest uncertainty is whether its focus on internet searches to the exclusion of anything else will remain the best strategy. Although it has clearly been popular so far – Google performs 200m searches a day and is responsible for an estimated 75 per cent of all referrals to websites – it could become an Achilles’ heel. It means that Google has no unique content, and no long-term customer relationship with the individuals who use its technology; it is only as good as its last search. That contrasts with sites that have their own databases and customer networks, such as Yahoo, with its 100m registered users, or Amazon, which holds a mass of data about the products that it sells.

The difficulty for Google will come as rivals combine search with other resources in ways that it will find hard to match. The launch of Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book”, which allows customers to search pages on its database for references and information, is one example of how search technology can be applied to data within internet sites.

Yahoo is augmenting internet search with its own information. Its Yahoo Shopping service not only allows users to search for the cheapest outlet for different models of digital cameras but also combines the results with its own guide to buying cameras, and with user reviews. Google’s own shopping service, known as Froogle, also displays the cheapest prices but looks flat by comparison.

My take: I’m not buying any shares. My understanding of the technical issues is weak. But I understand the theory of adverse selection pretty well.

More on placebos

Alex, in his blog post from earlier today, makes a good point about placebos. Sometimes the patient is getting better anyway, and we should not attribute this effect to a placebo.

Note, however, that the best-known “anti-placebo” study is not as strong as is commonly believed. It relies heavily on a meta-analysis of other studies. Placebos appear to be effective in relieving the sufferer of pain, if nothing else. And placebos appear more effective when the ailment is continuous rather than discrete. Furthermore it is unclear how many people in the so-called no-treatment groups in fact received no treatment at all.

Here is a defense of the placebo effect. Placebos also have measurable effects in the brain, comparable to those of drugs, though weaker or less persistent.

Robert Ehrlich’s Eight Preposterous Propositions offers a very good survey of the placebo debates. His conclusion:

In summary, the [critical] study may have shown that the placebo is not as powerful as some observers would believe, but it certainly is far from powerless.

By the way, did you know that people can become addicted to placebos, or suffer from harmful “side effects”? I’ll try to write more on “nocebos,” or negative placebos, soon, at least provided that my mental attitude holds up.

Organ trafficking

I learned the following today:

1. Most sales of body organs involve kidneys.

2. Patients who receive a kidney from a living donor have a much better chance of surviving.

3. In the developing world the going rate for a kidney is between $1000 and $2000.

4. In the Philippines there is essentially a free market in bodily organs. The “grey market” is growing rapidly in many countries.

5. Two different studies suggest that kidney sellers do not benefit in the long run. Most sellers pay off debts with the money, and end up back in debt, their acts of desperation do not succeed. Many end up with long-run health problems, or can no longer perform heavy labor.

From this week’s New York Review of Books (electronic subscription required), “The Organ Market,” by Sheila and David Rothman. The authors are involved with an “organ watch” movement, which seeks to stop organ sales abuses.

My take: I can believe the “behavioral irrationality” argument that most kidney sellers do not benefit very much, if at all. But the Rothman piece never tries to estimate how many lives are saved by the practice. Furthermore, many of the selling “victims” might have performed some other desperate act instead. So the organ selling idea, although repugnant to many people, in my mind remains in the running as a serious policy proposal.

There is a moral hazard problem, namely hospitals and doctors may take kidneys from people when they shouldn’t. Or a hospital or doctor may let a patient die, to harvest the kidneys. Are more lives lost through the moral hazard problem than are saved through the kidney sales? I doubt it. Do the kidney buyers benefit more than the kidney sellers lose? Probably.

Utilitarian calculations are not the only value at stake here, but so far they point toward allowing organ sales. The best argument against is to cite the likelihood of accompanying rights violations, which are real, and claim that such a factor outweighs the utilitarian benefits of the practice.

Addendum: On point number two, the authors write: “patients who receive an organ from a living donor have far better prospects than those who receive an organ from a cadaver.” Co-blogger Alex sends me the following link, which shows a correlation of about ten percentage points more of survival, if you receive an organ from a living donor, the causal relationship may be weaker, given the differing ages of various recipients. Alex wonders if allowing kidney demanders to “buy from the dead” would reduce the problems of sale from the living. This is a good point, but I am not sure it eliminates the basic problem. First, sales from the dead may not displace sales from the living; I cannot determine whether the Philippines (not to mention other locales) restricts sales from the dead but it is not obvious that such differential restrictions exist. Second, many of the buyers are relatively wealthy. If a “live kidney” raises the chance of survival by only a single percentage point, they may still pay for that, which would continue to prop up the market in kidneys from the living. Kidney middlemen may find it easier, and more profitable, to buy from the living for a thousand or two, rather than pursue cadavers, where the quality of the kidney is presumably harder to determine.

Self-deception conference

Tomorrow I am attending a conference on self-deception, directed by Robin Hanson and me. We will have numerous luminaries, including Robert Trivers and Thomas Schelling, in attendance. By the way, blogging will continue.

Here are a few self-deception pointers for the day:

However much I examine my vanity, I can’t see in it the same disagreeable tone of the vanity of other people, all of which is just a further stage of vanity.

by the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

Or, did you know that Stalin, when revising his official biography for publication, ordered that this sentence be inserted:

Stalin never let his work be affected by the least shadow of vanity, presumption or idolatry.

Thomas More once wrote:

Most men like their own writing best of all.

All of these bits are from Lies We Live By: The Art of Self-Deception, by a very underrated Brazilian economist named Eduardo Giannetti. Few economists are so well-read in the humanities, so ironic at the right moment, and so on the mark in their understanding of human psychology. If anyone out there knows Eduardo’s email address, please forward it to me, I would like to write him.

The Eric Rasmusen controversy

Eric Rasmusen of Indiana University has long been well-known as an excellent microeconomist. I taught from his Games and Information for many years, I still have his article “Stock Banks and Mutual Banks” on my Industrial Organization reading list.

Lately Rasmusen has been the center of much controversy. Usually I like to summarize the links I use, however briefly. But in this case I am not sure how to explain events without offending anybody, I know Rasmusen a bit plus I have numerous gay friends. So just read here on the episode. Here is Rasmusen’s frequently interesting blog. Here are Rasmusen’s views on religion. Thanks to Eugene Volokh for the Chicago Tribune link.

Paul Krugman’s latest

If you read blogs, you probably already have made up your mind about Paul Krugman. When perusing his new The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century, I found myself continually reminded how smart he is, what a good writer he is, and how often he is right. He led the way in publicizing the fiscal irresponsibility of the current Bush administration. I disagree with his politics, but his points have enough force to make me squirm.

If you are wondering, the book is basically his New York Times columns.

I like him best when he stays away from his pet hobby horses. Krugman gets through his essays on Robert Mundell, and the Swedish economic boom — both tight and thought-provoking pieces — without once attacking George W. Bush or calling the Republicans evil.

But these days I can never forget the other Paul Krugman, the one who keeps free market and right-wing bloggers so busy. The Krugman of self-righteousness, sloppiness with the facts, and ad hominem attacks. The Krugman Truth Squad remains. There are many examples of this other Krugman, I was struck by one particular example, taken from Donald Luskin:

Paul Krugman, September 2, 2003:

“I admire the virtues of free markets as much as anyone.”

Now this could make a great party game. Let’s see, where do I begin…? How about, Paul Krugman, June 20, 1999:

“The question of how to keep demand adequate to make use of the capacity has become crucial. Depression economics is back. …in a world where there is often not enough demand to go around, the case for free markets is a hard case to make.”

My take: Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by “as anyone.”

Addendum: Perusing the book more, I find Krugman (p.27) also writes: “I like the theory of efficient financial markets as much as anyone.” Four pages later, he writes, from a different column: “The more I look at the amazing rise of the U.S. stock market, the more I become convinced that we are looking at a mammoth psychological problem.” He also writes of “Seven Habits of Highly Defective Investors” (p.27) and calls them “an extremely dangerous flock of financial sheep.” (p.30)

Induced innovation in prisons

This fascinating article from Wired illustrates how prisoners make the best of their environments by inventing new contraptions.

“Locked in a California prison, Angelo needs a cup of coffee. Bad. But electric heaters used to make instant joe are contraband in jail. So his cellmate combines the metal tabs from a notebook binder with a couple of melted toothbrushes and some rubber bands.

Soon, Angelo is sipping Folgers.

The jury-rigged heater is one of nearly 80 improvised items Angelo meticulously diagrams in a new book, Prisoners’ Inventions [check out this fascinating link, which offers diagrams of the inventions and further description]. Working with the Chicago-based art group Temporary Services, Angelo (not his real name) shows how inmates fashion dice from sugar water and toilet paper, dry bologna jerky on jail-house light fixtures, turn hot sauce bottles into shower heads and make grilled cheese sandwiches on prison desks.”

One individual from Temporary Services notes that in the movies, “prisoners only create things to escape, get high or kill each other.”

The whole thing reminds me of Soviet engineers.

When is word of mouth important?

I have found some data on the relative importance of word of mouth for various purchases and choices. The first number in each category is what percent of respondents say they rely on other people, as one of the three best sources of information in a given area. The second number is the percent relying primarily on advertising:

Restaurants: 83, 35 (word of mouth is huge, by the way check out my ethnic dining guide)

Places to visit: 71, 33

Prescription drugs to try: 71, 21 (the prevalence of word of mouth here surprised me, do men really boast to other men about the effectiveness of Viagra? Or do women spread the word?)

Movies to see: 61, 67 (this time I am surprised that advertising is so effective, I guess that is why they spend $30 million marketing the average Hollywood movie)

Videos to rent or buy: 59, 45

Retirement planning: 58, 9

Clothes to buy: 50, 59

Finding a new job: 47, 54 (I am surprised that ads are so potent here)

Computer equipment: 40, 18

Web sites to visit: 37, 12

From the new book The Influentials, by Ed Keller and Jon Berry. The book is about the ten percent of the American population that (supposedly) tells the other ninety percent what to do, I assume that bloggers fall into the former category. The material is a bit fluffy, still unlike many marketing books it does have useful facts and figures. By the way, we are told that word of mouth is important for books too, although there is no single simple figure to cite.