Thursday, September 30, 2010


This story takes the cake for most bizarre mixed with most tragic story of the month.

A college freshmen jumped off a bridge after his roommate taped him having sex with a guy in their room and put the video online.

Some thoughts: From what I know about psychology our intuitions might lead us astray thinking about this problem. Our first assumption is that he died because people hate fags. That is true--sort of. But a lot of gay people are treated poorly every day and don't jump off a bridge. Instead of talking about anti-gay prejudice it's worth talking about bullying in general and about teaching kids healthy ways to respond to bullying (and adversity).

It's probably easier to teach gay people to cope with discrimination, esp. when kids, than it is to eliminate anti-gay bigotry, which will take decades to stamp down into the low single-digits.

I'd still give those two fags 5 years each for hiding the webcam and voyeurism.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Patriot Defense

From commentary on ESPN:
but as we get deeper into October, it'll lighten up, including a Week 6 game at New England
How did New England's defense fall so far so fast?

A few years ago the Patriots had the most feared, punishing defense in the league. Defense (and spying)  won the Patriots their three Super Bowls,. Their pass defense--led by Ty Law and Rodney Harrison--was stifling in the mid-2000s. The game that defined that dynasty was the 20-3 victory over the high-powered passing Colts in the 2004 playoffs.

And this post wouldn't be complete without some numbers so here they are: Rank of points allowed over the past decade (lower is better): 6th, 17th, 1st, 2nd, 17th, 2nd, 4th, 8th, 5th.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


I haven't read anything by Gladwell in a few months. He's my favorite author, along with Jonah Lehrer, and I stumbled on four new articles he's posted in his archive since the last time I check. All of them are good as always but I liked "Drinking Games" in particular.

Jonah Lehrer also wrote a good article on stress last month. I'm not sure if I linked to it.

Complexity in Games

Yesterday I was talking with some friends and I mentioned in passing that video games like Age of Mythology (and RTS games in general) are more complicated than old games like chess. That seems pretty obvious on inspection but a lot of people resist it. Chess is a game for smart people while little kids play video games, right?

But consider how in chess you never have more than a couple hundred (or less?) moves to consider. You have 16 pieces. Some of them can't move. The pawns only have (at most) 2 options, the rooks only have 16 each, same for the bishops, and the king only has 4 options--all maximums unlikely to be achieved. The entire "space" of the board in chess can be represented with an 8x8 grits.

In contrast, even a very basic model of an RTS would require choosing several functions from an infinite dimensional vector space. Consider a simple model that says the winner is whoever the person who achieves a certain ratio of "active military score" where "active military score" is a function of your "aggressiveness" (a function you choose) and your "military score" which is a function of what units you have. The unit you have, of course, is a function of your economy and your economy (with say, three resources) is modeled as being a function of three "investment functions" you choose, one for each resource. Each of these functions you choose--the three investment ones, the military spending one, and the aggressiveness one are chosen from the space of all functions. Look at how much longer it takes to write even a very basic description of the game! And to teach someone chess might take 30 minutes, but to learn all the basics in Age of Mythology would take at least an hour.

Still, there is some truth to the fact that chess seems just as strategic. Even though the choices are much simpler in chess and the perfect strategy (one where you can't lose or would always win), if it exists, would be much easier to compute--chess has crossed a threshold where that perfect strategy still is impossible to compute. And thousands of books and billions of books haven't gotten the world particularly close to one. This, I think, illustrates a principle Stephen Wolfram talks about in his book A New Kind of Science. What he found was that even very simple computer simulations can exhibit very, very complex outputs. In fact, in technical terms, even very, very basic models can emulate ANY output of even the most advanced computer. (It's hard to put into words without using technical terms. Read more here.)

Chess is very simple. But it's complicated enough where it has crossed that threshold of complexity where its hard to tell complex systems apart.

The other factor is how both games are strategic. And in any strategic game, where its hard to predict what the other person is going to do, things get chaotic fast. This is the one sense RTSs might be simpler than chess. Chess, as far as I know, doesn't have that strictly defined of a meta-game. People can approach it with a lot of different strategies that can be hard to tell apart after just a few moves. In contrast, Age of Mythology has converged over the years toward one major meta-game, as far as I know, of rushing early and fighting it out by the end of the third age.

But even very, very simple games can become "complicated" because of their lack of a meta-game. Consider Texas hold 'em. If you don't bet on poker and just play the hands the game is completely deterministic--no one makes any choices. The strategic element comes from the choice that comes up a few times a game where you have four options: raise, check, fold, see. The sample space of choices is tiny. But because its so difficult to predict what others are going to do the game is "complicated."

Still, I don't think anyone who plays both games would argue that RTSs in general are harder to play. People make a lot more mistakes in RTSs. One mistake in chess can cost you the game--it's a big deal. In contrast, if you don't make a bad decision a minute in an RTS you need to get out more. It's more mentally exhausting to play Age of Mythology at any level than chess.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Are "tolerant" people bigger bigots?

I grew up in middle America, but I've lived in Cambridge, MA for the past 3 years.

And I'd venture a guess that the typical person in Cambridge is more prejudiced than the typical American. But I hadn't seen an experiment demonstrating an overt prejudice in "tolerant" people until today.

Read about the study here.

Now here's the rub. Suppose you live in Cambridge with the kind of people they found in the study. Do you point this out to them and hope that being conscious of their prejudice will make them a little more tolerant or is the truth not good enough? I'm not sure. I'm inclined to think the later. (Edited: 3/9/12)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Parity in the NFL

One thing everyone likes about NFL football is the parity in the league and the fact that the playoffs are one-and-done (one loss and you can't win the championship).

Look at how things have played out recently in the AFC. In week 1 the Ravens beat the Jets and the Patriots beat the Bengals. Then the Bengals beat the Ravens and the Jets beat the Patriots. In other words, you'd we have Ravens > Jets and Patriots > Bengals, and Jets > Patriots and Bengals > Ravens thus Jets > Patriots > Bengals > Ravens = Jets > Ravens and so on. The fact that a team won in week 1 doesn't say much about who will win in week 2.

A lot is at stake on any given Sunday.

Habit 2 of Bad Thinking

I have to give a presentation on the "Seven Sins of Bad Thinking" and I mostly just talking about one on this blog: ignoring either costs or benefits. I'm going to add a second to the list today and it starts with a story.

Say you have 10 employees and you're adding an 11th. You have a couple different products that you produce and you need to put the 11th employee on one of those product teams. One of your VPs say to put them on product A because you'll get the biggest increase in production (in units) if you put the new guy on team A--and it's all about productivity. Another VP says to put the new guy on product B because product B brings in the biggest profit per unit--that's where the big money is. What do you do?

You say they both are only telling half the story. Your goal is to maximize profit and to do that you need to think about both how many units you make and how much you profit from each. The value of the employee is (marginal units)*(profit per unit) and you can't just think about one aspect or the other.

That might seem obvious but how often do we focus solely on what is possible or solely on what is certain when we should probably be thinking about what is more likely?

(There was an example to go with this from a discussion I had with a friend. But when I wrote it down it was a mess so I'll just post the short version.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why economics is hard

This post is motivated as a response to a comment Justin Kraus left on my post titled "Trade" from a few days ago. He's not an economist so I think his confusion is a product of thinking economics is a simpler (and more scientific) subject than it is.

Economics is hard because, while we like to think of it as a science, it's very difficult to get good experimental data. And without experiments you can't falsify bad hypotheses. So in economics, more than in other sciences, stories or theories that make a lot of sense but, as it turns out, are wrong can hang around for a long time.

Experiments, however, are not the only way to know something fishy is going on. Sometimes economists tell multiple stories, each specific to explaining one aspect of the economy. When you put them together, though, there is something inconsistent about them. For instance an economist might have a theory that international trade (1) benefits the United States and (2) doesn't create net unemployment because (1) if people choose to trade and are rational they're benefiting and (2) if people lose their jobs because their products are now imported, the economy will find a new use for their labor.

But then that same economist might say that when, say, Kenya imports t-shirts it puts the local producers out business. This is a net negative for the local economy because, presumably, the local t-shirt manufacturers can't find anything else to do with their labor and go idle. Trade causes unemployment and a long-term decline in GDP.

The problem with these stories is that you're left to wonder why Kenya can't reallocate resources but the United States can. What are the frictions in the Kenyan economy that don't exist in the United States? And while in the U.S. trade necessarily lowers some prices and thus benefits Americans, in Kenya the economist glosses over the fact that those imported shirts have lowered the cost of t-shirts which should increase utility.

That is more or less what happened when Bill Easterly, who usually touts the efficiency free markets and the general rationality of consumers, praised importing cars from Japan on those grounds but, in the past, has seemed to agree with arguments condemning cheap (free) imports to Africa on the ground that they harm local industry. At the same time he's also attacked Dani Rodrik for making pro-industrial policy arguments that rely on the assumption he (as far as I can see) will need to explain the frictions that exist in Kenya and make imports bad but don't exist in the United States.

How bad is it to drink milk and eat eggs?

How many dairy cows are forced to live a miserable existence if you drink milk?

We can estimate that using a simple formula that uses a few numbers we can research on line:

Cows/Year = (Cups of Milk per day * 365 days) / Cups of Milk produced by one Cow in a Year

The average dairy cow produces 2,320 gallons per year according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service or about 37,120 cups. The average person drinks probably no more than 5 cups of milk per day. So plugging in those numbers we have:

Cows / Year = (5*365) / 37,120 = 0.049 cows

So going from being a vegetarian who drinks milk to a vegan who doesn't will save about 0.049 cows.

But that estimate is too high because it's not obvious that farmers are going to see a demand shock of 5 cups of milk and attribute it to a decrease in demand. They might understand the decline as an unexplained shock and not let it influence their production decision. In that case not drinking milk has no impact on the cows.

A similar calculation on eating eggs yields:

Hens / Year = (5 eggs/week * 52 weeks/year) / 300 eggs per chicken/year = 0.86 chickens

Note: that is probably a high estimate on egg consumption.

Now here is an interesting twist. Let's say we think cows are worth 1/100th of a human. How many people would we have to save to cancel out the damage we've done by drinking milk?

It'd be the 0.049 cows divided by 100, or 0.00049 people. We can save people by donating anti-malarial bed nets which have been shown to reduce the mortality from malaria by about 44% in children under 5. We could donate them to children under 5 in Sierra Leone where the under-5 mortality rate is 193.6 per 1000 and where about 33% is attributed to malaria. When we multiply that out we have 193.6/1000*.33*.44 = 0.028 people saved per net. So we have to donate 0.00049/0.028 = 0.0175 nets to cancel out the impact on cows. Since nets cost $10 we have to donate 18 cents.

That doesn't sound too bad.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Do critics or viewers better predict how good a movie is?

One of my friends said he likes to look up the Rotten Tomatoes rating for a movie to decide whether to see it. I suggested he look at the Flixster ratings instead because they'll tend to better predict whether he'll like the movie.

This is something we can test empirically, as long as there is a standard for what "like the movie" means. A sensible definition is that people like a movie in proportion of the average rating of the movie on Netflix.*

So I gathered data on the ten or eleven most popular movies over the past three years and regressed the Netflix ratings on both the Rottan Tomatoes ratings and the Flixster ratings. The results (in technical terms):

(1) Netflix = 0.006*RT + 3.47
R^2 = 0.3436

(2) Netflix = 0.0191*Flixster + 2.39
R^2 = 0.6893

Both predict the Netflix ratings decently, but the Flixster rating is easily the better predictor. It can explain about 69% of the spread (variance) in the Netflix scores compared with less than 35% for the RT ratings.

Here's a nice graph:

The conclusion is that you should never use RT when deciding whether to watch an old movie. You can just use Flixster or Netflix. On the other hand, when new movies are released the Flixster ratings are probably biased because only the bigger fans see movies on opening weekend. You'll have to wait a few weeks before you can get an accurate judgment from Flixster. So maybe Rotten Tomatoes has a use for very new releases.

* - Technical appendix: There are some biases to the Netflix ratings--Netflix customers aren't the "typical American" because they're more likely to be younger and more educated. But it's the only good available data, and with millions of ratings shouldn't be too biased. The other problem is that movies with a small number of ratings have a selection bias: only people who expect to like the movie will watch it so all the ratings are probably slightly inflated compared to what they would be if a random sample of people were forced to watch and rate the movies. But that isn't such a big problem since, if you're considering watching the movie, you're implicitly in the set (or close to being in the set) of people who would watch the given movie.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Affirmative Action at CUNY

Italians are making CUNY an offer they can't refuse.

They claim the university discriminates against them. The evidence: A judge ruled that there was discrimination in the past and the lack of progress has been "unconscionable." The university acknowledged a "need" to recruit more Italian-Americans. And the Equal Opportunity Employment Comission of New York ruled their case has merit and yet . . .

the New York Times thinks it's a farce because Italians are white.

My thoughts: I don't know what definition of white they are using but those wops and guineas are pretty much half-way to being "the blackest specimen of the wilds."

I'd know. I'm pretty much a full-blooded Italian.

And don't Italian's comprise more than 8% of the city population? So why are "Italian-Americans represented [by] about 7 percent of the full-time instructional staff[?]"

Probably the same reason white people make up about 65% of the U.S. population and no more than 50% of the MIT undergraduate study body.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Best Patriots Team

I don't know think I posted this picture. It's been on my desktop since 7/5.

You have to win the Super Bowl to be the best--except when you don't.

The 2007 Patriots were one of the best teams of all-time, no doubt about it, and easily the best of the Pats teams. I watched every game hoping they'd lose and they just kept winning, until it all paid off with 35 seconds left in the 4th.

One last thought: I think part of the reason the Pats decimated teams at the start of the season, but that they are mere mortals in the later part of the season (Expected Win-Loss in first 8 games: 6.97, Expected Win-Loss in last 8 games: 6.03) was that coaches caught on to their spread offense. So maybe they weren't that great, they just benefited from change in strategy that it took time to adjust to. When you regress the Pats points-scored on the number of the game, there is a significant downward trend of about 1 pt per game (t = -2.600.


Bill Easterly writes about trade. The story is one of my favorites in economics.

But it's incomplete. Some people think that if a country uses trade, e.g. grows food and ships it to Japan, then (some of) the people who make the goods that are now imported will be unemployed. In other words, the economy loses some of it's capacity because resources go unused. Most economists don't believe that story, or if they do think that it's just a temporary phenomenon and doesn't affect that many people (see Paul Krugman's old Slate columns).

Still, people have used this argument about idle resources to berate those who donate goods in-kind. I made a comment on Bill's blog saying this (in a snarky way with fewer words), wondering if he buys it since in the past he seemed to accept it.


Abstract: Inception is not a smart movie because as far as I can tell the director intended it to "blow people's minds" with a focus on the metaphysical themes. But that debate is old hat. Fortunately, with art you get out what you put in--in garbled form. For me, it is a movie about ideas and purpose. It's a morality play about not living in the past and about choosing what to make of your future.

Inception ends on an intentionally puzzling note. Is Cobb in the real world or not? If it's a dream (almost) anything can happen, so the hypothesis (effectively) can't be falsified. The one piece of evidence that could possibly lead us to reject the theory is the top falling down, but we don't know if it does. If he's not dreaming it is strange that the kids are close to the same age and wearing very similar clothes, that he wakes up without cords attached, that he somehow woke up at all, and that everyone nods at him but no one talks to him, etc. All of this seems left intentionally to draw into question the reality of what we see.

Nolan is drawing our attention to the reality, but he should be hoping that we're mindful enough to draw our attention away, to acknowledge we'll never know if it was real of not--we can't--and that we shouldn't care. We shouldn't care because we don't want to live a life that's "real," we want to experience a certain kind of life: one filled with love, compassion, family, sacrifice, and pleasure. That is the life Cobb finds (we believe) at the end of the movie and the life we should leave the theater intent on creating (not having).

The reality, no pun intended, is that the entire movie is an inception on us. It's a "dream" that helps us to discover the importance of living as opposed to obsessing over trivialities. Much of the movie doesn't make sense (why is Cobb being chased by corporations? where did it start? why do the rules change all the time? and why is the ending ambiguous aside from one hard-to-spot clue?) and we're meant to learn that doesn't matter. We learn movies don't have to be realistic to be thrilling. (They just need copious amounts of violence and explosives. Inception would be a bad movie without them.) We learn that your life might be a computer simulation or a dream, but that doesn't imply it can't be meaningful.

Things matter because we make them matter. The movie is a movie--it isn't real. But we argue about how it "really" ended because we choose to make that important, to make it "real." Inception isn't about metaphysics, it's about ethics. It should be about seeing the world is new ways. It's should be about the power of ideas (our mind) to shape our reality, about how our choices determine what is important and what feels real. We understand on a visceral level that the ending is a happy ending whether it's "real" or not.

Despite the comparisons to The Matrix, Inception is really a counterpoint. The Matrix, like Nozick's experience machine, is about how we live for more than just pleasure (or happiness), and about making the right choices to become the kind of person you want (are meant?) to be. In contrast, Inception shows how what is "real" isn't important. We don't want to be in the "real" world so we can see our "real" kids and have "real" accomplishments. We want to live in the "real" world because the people we care about are there. The real Mal is dead because her projection lacks her vitality, Cobb learns. Limbo (like the experience machine) becomes hell for Mal and Cobb because we need social connections--friends and family--to be happy. We don't need them because they are "real" but because that is how we want to experience life. That's why Cobb needs to be with his kids and why, though the camera draws us to the totem and our frontal lobe draws us to hackneyed metaphysics, we are really being guided toward the inception of a novel idea of why and how to live.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Paths to Development

I'll write more about this in the future. Below is my taxonomy for approaches to development. Each includes an example of an effective practitioner who takes (primarily) that approach. There are plenty of hybrids, so I'll list some of my favorite examples of those.

All the names are a little mocking and irreverent because I think setting a tone of being both unserious and critical is important. Too many people are critical (which is important), but dead serious and rigidly ideological, when talking about different approaches to doing a project.

1. The Beggar (Lobbyist)

The beggar lobbies governments for money and legislation. For example, the Live8 concerts, organized by Bob Geldof, lobbied the G8 countries to commit to doubling funding for foreign aid. The NGO ONE in the United States, and its celebrity spokesman Bono, lobby for legislation on debt relief (Jubilee Act), cutting farm subsidies (FRESH amendment), trade reform (GROWTH Act), and providing funding for the treatment of AIDS (PEPFAR).

Examples: Bono and Bob Geldof, ONE Campaign

The appeal of the beggar is plain enough: governments have a lot of money and can use it to solve social problems. We spend a lot of time campaigning for our political parties in the US because we believe their approach to health care or education will improve our systems here. Since many problems in the developing world are likewise problems of education and health care, doesn't the same approach makes sense?

The main criticism of the beggar is that he or she usually doesn't understand the complexity of the issues. Lobbying for bad policy can hurt on a massive scale the same way lobbying for good policy can help on on a huge scale. Also, many intellectuals in the countries receiving the aid the beggar lobbies for think that the aid is paternalistic and encouraging laziness and outright corruption in the receiving country.

2. The Policy Entrepreneur (Academic)

The policy entrepreneur is usually a professor or other academic working for a think tank. They argue for policy reforms based on their research. Esther Duflo, co-founder of the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, is a prime example of an effective policy entrepreneur. Her and her colleague's research has shown which interventions in education, water infrastructure, health and microfinance have the biggest impact. Based on that evidence they have worked to reform policy in both the developed world (foreign aid policy) and the developing world (domestic policy).

Examples: Esther Duflo and co., Santiago Levy and Jose Gomez de Leon, Michael Clemens

The appeal of the policy entrepreneur is straight forward: policy decisions have a much bigger impact than small projects, so making good policy decisions should do more good than doing good small projects. The problem is this can work in reverse. Some policy entrepreneurs turn out to be wrong about issues in the long run and thus each runs the risk of making policy worse, not better. Also, many policy entrepreneurs never have much impact on policy.

Hybrid: Jeff Sachs is both a grade A beggar and policy entrepeneur

3. The Mad Scientist (Inventor)

The mad scientist is focused on technology. There are a lot of mad scientists at engineering colleges such as MIT and in universities with Engineers without Borders chapters. The mad scientist thinks primarily on a small scale, hoping to invent neat new technologies that solve basic problems at low cost. Many of these technologies are directed at income generation, but some are also useful for improving health (e.g. delivering vaccines more effectively).

Examples: Amy Smith

The biggest problem for the mad scientist is that their technologies rarely reach the field after endless prototyping. Economists also often question the utility of this approach by noting that all the technology needed for development already exists and arguing that the problem is how the resources are utilized and distributed.

4. The Dentist (Behavior Change)

The dentist focuses on behavior change. In many cases people in the developing world have poor health or education outcomes because they don't make much effort in school or practice basic sanitation practices. The work of the dentist is difficult--like pulling teeth--hence the name. Particular examples of dentistry are total community-led sanitation, which encourages villagers in rural Asia, to take responsibility for their community's sanitation; hand-washing programs world-wide which encourage people to wash their hands; similar problems encourage the use of condoms and boiling water before drinking it.

Examples: TCLS, Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap

The main complaints about dentistry are that the dentists are trying to tell people what to do with their lives and that their projects tend to be very slow moving, with only incremental successes. The later tends to be valid while the former is not necessarily a fair representation of dentistry, see TCLS.

Hybrid: Paul Polack of IDE is a Dentist mixed with a Mad Scientist. His organization develops technologies for use by rural farmers, but spends at least as much time convincing farmers to take a risk and buy them.

5. The Santa Claus (Charity)

The Santa Claus has the most basic approach: hand out gifts. This approach is almost too simple to comment on, so I'll just throw in that it's my favorite. The Measles Initiative, which vaccinated millions of kids against measles (and other diseases); Partners in Health, which provides free medical care; and Nothing But Nets, which hands out bed-nets, are three of my favorite development projects.

Examples: Paul Farmer

The Santa Claus, while often the most effective development practitioner, and in rare cases the most celebrated (Paul Farmer), is far and away the most criticized. The Santa Claus is accused to eliminating intrinsic motivation, creating learned helplessness and a culture of dependency, and in general being ineffective as resources are (according to one theory) better allocated using the price system. For people who see development as capacity-building the Santa Claus is repulsive for ideological reasons, whereas pragmatists focused on improving health and quality of life, tend to appreciate some aspects of the Santa Claus approach.

Hybrid: Nearly every development practitioner plays the Santa Claus from time to time, often without noticing it.

6. The Petty Bourgeois (Small Business)

The petty bourgeois are businesspeople who espouse the virtues of microfinance and other private sector (but small scale) interventions. They tend to like projects that start restaurants, small service businesses or cottage industry manufacturing.

Examples: Jacqueline Novogratz, Iqbal Quadir

The main criticisms leveled at the petty bourgeois is that they aim too low. If you help someone making $500 a year to make $550 how much good does that do? What does that person spend the money on? Booze, parties or education? Economists have pointed out that because the poor tend to have little human capital and can only acquire small amounts of physical capital with small loans, they will never be able to earn large profits. Economists have also noted that many people who extend microcredit to the poor have enabled the poor to get deep into debt without necessarily raising their income, which might be a bad thing.

Opportunity Costs

I've reluctant to write this because I think the way of thinking I'm going to argue for here is depressing. It will make you think that you're having less impact on people's lives--which gets distorted into feeling that you are less important. That is most people's visceral reaction. But the upside is that when you use this method to count costs and benefits you (should) be able to better limit costs and create benefits.

Let me start with a story. Angela held a fundraiser at her high school. She and her friends sold 500 cookies for $1 each after school and then sent the money to an NGO that used it to buy 50 children anti-malaria bed nets. Bill wanted to do more. Fundraisers at his school were never going to generate more than a few hundred dollars. But he noticed that there was a competition for high school students to propose a way to "Do Good" and the winner would get $5,000. Bill wrote a proposal to use the $5,000 to buy 300 nets and use the rest to pay to fly to Ghana and distribute them. He won the grant in a close vote over a proposal to spend the money deworming children in Ghana.

Who did more good?

Bill got 300 people nets. Angela only got 50 people nets. Isn't it obvious? No.

If it seems like the statement about the number of nets is the end of the story then you've fallen for one of the most pervasive problems in debate. That statement just listed the benefits--and completely ignored the costs.

And in this case that makes all the difference. The real cost of something is the value of what would have happened otherwise. If Angela didn't organize the bake sale she might have spent the extra time playing volleyball. She also might have prevented the Girl Scouts from selling cookies that today. Compared with the value of saving a (many?) lives, those costs are negligible so maybe it's safe to ignore them.

Bill, though, caused the proposal for deworming not to get funded. The deworming plan was probably of comparable value (perhaps more, perhaps less) meaning that while Bill "saved" perhaps 2 lives he also caused 2 lives not to be saved. The benefit was 2 lives, the cost was 2 lives, and the net benefit (benefit - cost) was nothing. Bill's plan may have done nothing make the world a better place, while Angela's almost certainly did.

Angela, by construction, did more good.

That story is just meant to be an example. Of course it's fictional. And of course the assumptions matter. But it's illustrative. Whenever you apply for a grant you're causing someone else not to get it. The net benefit is only the good from your proposal minus the good of the one that would have been funded. If you open a Fair Trade store right next to another store, and you decrease the business of your neighbor by $5,000 a month while only doing $7,000 yourself, then you've only netted $2,000 in Fair Trade sales for the world. (Of course the distribution of the money could be important too--maybe your suppliers are more desperate and benefit more.)

Too much of the time we don't think at the margin.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Do we really believe all people have the same rights?

Jay Mathews posted two good essays from teenage illegal immigrants on why they have a right to federal financial aid money for college.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that the first essay uses "undocumented people" and "Latinos" interchangeably. I'm glad she is Latino or that would be racist. (I also wonder if she thinks illegal immigrants from Haiti deserve the same rights.)

My intuition is that I'd vote to give these kids financial aid. I have serious reservations endorsing financial aid in general and I think there is a small risk Latino students may well be crowding out other students (either for spots in college or for aid money). But on the whole that is probably tax money better spent than the marginal dollar would be, esp. because there might be positive externalities to education.

But what I think is more interesting here is how Patricia structures her argument. The basic idea is that education is a right that Americans have--Americans have a right to a Pell grant if they qualify and to enroll in community college, etc. And since Patricia lives in the United States she deserves a Pell grant and a chance to enroll too. But, interestingly, if Patricia grew up in Mexico, we wouldn't have a problem with the fact that she might not have money to go to high school, much less college. We might not even have a problem if she were malnourished as a kid. Or maybe we'd have a problem, but we wouldn't think it's the U.S. governments' responsibility to pay for it.

Why is that? Why do we implicitly allow where people are born determine what we think they have a right to?

Local Eating

I liked this op-ed in the New York Times on "locovores."

Stephen Landsburg comments on his blog. (I highly recommend both the blog as two of his books: The Big Questions and The Armchair Economist.)

Landsburg's point is very valid and to often ignored. The Soivet Union collapsed because planners can't get enough information to decide who should get what, where and when. Prices, miraculously, do the work of the planner fantastically. They are signals that tell let everyone make individuals choices and when those choices get added up in the market, everyone gets what they want--with a few exceptions.

Exception one is that if people don't make smart choices then they aren't going to get what they want. That sounds stupid to say but its the basis for a ton of experiments in behavioral economics exploring why and when people make bad choices.

Exception two is when the prices don't reflect the real cost of something. For example, the price of gasoline doesn't reflect the cost (externality) of pollution to everyone who likes clean air.

So I disagree with Landsburg that prices are good signals in this case. The price of food doesn't capture the externalities from energy use because there is no carbon tax, so in a way it makes sense to try to "correct" the prices for energy use. That said, my guess is that Landsburg and I would agree locovores (and the op-ed author) don't approach that calculation properly because they don't even attempt to weight the costs of global warming against the happiness from consumption.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dangers of Obscuring the Point

Sometimes people make arguments in what I call "shotgun" fashion. Instead of listing the key benefits of some policy or project they list all possible benefits in the hope that they'll appeal to a host of different interest and make the project sound like it makes a big difference--by killing two--or five--birds with one stone. I did this when I had to make a presentation about a project I did teaching West Africans to build cheap peanut shellers and I regret it.

I'll use a different example though because it's more illustrative. Take this pitch: "this new energy project lowers costs for individuals, creates jobs, and cuts down on deforestation. Oh, and kids benefit from the fact that the fuel is cleaning burning too!"

When I hear presentations like that is that it makes me wonder if any of those benefits are large. Are they listing many benefits because none of them alone is impressive? And doesn't having a long list obscure the original point of the project?

In the case of the energy project, limiting deforestation probably isn't important in the long run. The impact will be minimal and the environmental consequences are (to my knowledge) paltry compared to the consequences of poverty. The "lower cost" could be (probably is) as little as $10 a year for people, not exactly a kick out of poverty. And it might "create" jobs, but how many? And how many people are displaced in the competing industry? In some ways this is just another argument for trying to be quantitative when talking about benefits and for remembering to be honest about costs.

What I think is particularly interesting in this case is, though, that the added side-benefit, the one that was thrown in at the end, may well be the most important. Indoor air pollution kills millions of kids each year. If they don't die from air pollution they might live to be, say, 50. That's 45 years-of-life added, which we value at $25,000 a piece in the U.S. (roughly). So saving one kid from reducing air pollution is worth (something like) the savings from lowering costs for 11,250 people.

The example that motivated this post was Cash for Clunkers. The program was a total disaster, but many people liked it because of it's laundry list of beneficiaries. It would be progressive (help people driving older cars), environmentally friendly (get dirty cars off the roads), provide a needed stimulus and help the ail car industry. But in reality none of those objectives were achieved efficiently. If we were honest about which were important from the start we could have just designed specific policies for each--at less cost.

Post-code lotteries: should you play?

Tim Harford writes two great columns and I can't recommend them enough. I also recommend his book, The Undercover Economist, because (I think) it's one of the best introductions to be big ideas in neoclassical economics.

But in this advice column I think he skips over an important point. Normal lottery tickets are a waste of money because (1) they tend not to make winners happy and (2) you expect to lose money on them. Post-code lotteries are different, though. They work by giving everyone in a given ZIP code a prize (tens of thousands of dollars). This point is important because research suggests not buying a lottery ticket could make you sad becuase you'll feel poor compared to your neighbors if you don't win. Ben Bernanke summarized the research:
If I live in a country in which most people have only one cow, and I have three cows, then I will have lots of social status and self-esteem and will thus feel happy. But if everyone around me has a luxury car, and I am hung up on status, I won't feel very special unless I have both a luxury car and an SUV. This relative-wealth hypothesis can explain why rich people are happier than poor people in the same country, but also why people in richer countries are not on average much happier than people in poorer countries. It's the big fish in a little pond phenomenon.
So you can think of the ticket as insurance again feeling worse if your ZIP code wins. I still don't know if it's worth it, but postal-code lotteries might be a worthwhile form of insurance.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Does money suck the fun out of life?

Maybe. The research is discussed on Jonah Leher's highly recommended blog.

Related musing: I suggested to friend that likes to penny pinch that it makes her unhappy. By spending cognitive resources and time trying to spend more effectively she has money on the brain more--which just means more worry and less time for fun things. This research also suggests that it makes it harder for her to savor things because of the priming effects. And what for gain? Having a little extra money to spend on . . .  I think living simply can help people enjoy the pleasure of life more, but being thrifty (ironically) makes it more difficult.

Boomerang Ideas

Sometimes a policy debate starts when people find out about something intuitively revolting. They clamor for government intervention to show it down. Academics and others who have been studying the issue for years then come out of the shadows and explain why, as bad as the picture looks, it's better than the alternative. But a few years down the road some young grad students do a study and the whole picture gets a little fuzzy--and puts the evidence half-way back on the side of the initial critics.

Sweat-shop labor is a great example of that kind of "Boomerang debate."

Most people who haven't thought much about it hate sweat shops (here defined as factories that pay, say, less than $4,000 a year to workers). Isn't it some kind of human rights abuse to ask people to work 12 hours a day for less than (the U.S.) minimum wage?

But the thing is, the people who choose to work in a factory are often choosing to because they don't want to work 12 hours a day on a farm like their parents. And they can make 5x (or 10x) as much in the factory as they could on the farm. The point is that if people are freely choosing those jobs then they've got to be better (on average) than the other horrible options they have. Benjamin Powell, guest blogging at Aid Watch, gets the debate this far--and then claims that's the end of the story.

But it's not. Not all sweat shops are created equally. Wages vary considerably, as does safety. Working in a plant making CRT monitors is extremely dangerous while working in a textile mill is comparatively safe. Some sweat shops employ children who should be in school, others only adults. And some pay their workers wages their parents couldn't have imagined--while others more or less enslave their workers, violating every labor law on the books.

Taking that to heart that while it's very, very clear sweat shops are good on the whole--and we're probably better off (in the words of Jeff Sachs) worrying why we don't have enough sweat shops as opposed to why we have too many--labor activists targeting the worst abuses are probably part of the solution, not the problem. This, indeed, is what recent research has revealed: "anti-sweatshop campaigns led to large real wages increases . . . but [no] significant effects on employment."

In so many words: anti-sweatshop activism would be bad if it reduced the number of sweatshops, but since it doesn't it's great--improving labor laws (or enforcement) without harming labor.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Quote of the Day

Candidates who can commit to summer 2012 are strongly preferred.
I read that and thought "I can't risk being out of the country--I need to see Batman 3 opening night."

Then I pitied myself.

Quote of the Day

[D]o we have a greater chance at improving welfare by importing poverty, or exporting assistance? I’m not sure.
from Aid Thoughts.

If you could invent one vaccine it'd be for . . .

AIDS? Carcer (pretend it's possible)? Heart attacks?

I was talking to friends yesterday and I said that the next frontier in human welfare is dealing with the problems that are all in people's heads. We've eliminated most communicable diseases in the United States and met our basic needs. Not a lot of people die young, and those that do often die in accidents that are hard to prevent. As the rest of the world develops (China and India will both be like the U.S. in 50 years or less, it appears) this will come to be true worldwide.

At that point we can continue to worry about marginal gains to life expectancy from inventing cancer drugs and treating heart disease. And we can worry about priming the engines of growth with education so that 50 years hence our grandchildren can each have $150,000 in income instead of $100,000. Or we could worry about ensuring that 10,000 people don't die prematurely from lack of health insurance.

Or we could look at what the next frontier. Here are projections for 2030 and statistics for today, restricted to the high income countries that most of the world will resemble in 50 years:

Note: I don't know how these numbers are calculated in details. I don't put a lot of stock in exact predictions like these, nor do I like the methology here in particular (I suspect). But I think the general pattern should ring true for anyone living in the United States or Europe and paying close attention. Also, I'd like to emphasize that, while the study thinks of "unipolar depressive disorders" are something that either affect or don't affect people, I think (esp. in the future) it's better to think of them as something to affect everyone to a greater or lesser extent. Some bridges are "unstable" but every bridge has a breaking point. Some roads are bumpy, but every road could be smoother. Some people are a wreak, but everyone gets down when they probably shouldn't.

Also, this doesn't fit anywhere but I know that just because something is a big problem doesn't mean it's the most important problem to work on. The best problems to work on are both big and tractable--is immunizing kids with coping strategies and a healthy outlook tractable? I think so. We immunized most kids against smoking and that alone probably accounts for 90% of the DALY drop we've caused in the past 40 years (in the U.S.)

Normative and Descriptive: Update

I don't put myself high above others. Now, by personal experience, I mean I'm a musician. By knowledge, I mean I'm a musician who knows how music works. I know quite a bit of music theory to tell you the simplicity of the song, but I wouldn't be able to put it in lament terms. Also, you can listen to her, but to act as if she's some kind of musical genius is idiotic. [She] isn't creative. [This song] is hardly even intelligent or charming.
That's a direct quote from a (judging from tone) very reasonable person writing about Lady Gaga.

But being reasonable and knowing the obvious--that tastes are subjective--doesn't stop this person from, at least appearing, to make statements about what music is objectively good. The progressive use of the terms "simplicity," "creative," "intelligent," and "charming" show a drift some adjectives that could reasonably have an objective meaning (if you put a song on paper in some encoding scheme, some would be easy to compress due to repetition etc. thus simple) to code words for good and bad (people are charming, songs aren't).

Maybe he or she did intend all those adjectives to be seen as objective descriptions. Maybe he likes Lady Gaga, but thinks she lacks charm, intelligence and creativity. But I wouldn't put money on it. Those things, like beauty, are largely in the eye of the beholder.

Monday, September 6, 2010

More on Inception

Written 7/23, but on delayed post avoid spoilers.

In a famous experiment subjects were asked for rank 5 jams. Their rankings were pretty consistent, most people preferred one of the two jams you'd expect since they were the most expensive and best-selling. Another set of subjects were asked to rank the same jams--and explain why they preferred their favorite. Same results? No. When people had to think about which jam they liked they couldn't pin down what was so great about the two the first subjects preferred. Instead they tended to pick one of the two jams that were particularly sweet as their favorite, despite the fact that these jams ranked 4th and 5th in the first experiment.

Sometimes it's easy to know the truth about how you feel--as long as you don't think. Your subconscious supercomputer just knows. But you can short that circuit and let your conscious brain take over. And when that happens your liable to "overthink."

I think that's what happened to nearly half the population that saw the end of Inception. You can intuit that the ending is a happy one--your brain knows Cobb is reunited with his kids. But it can't explain why. So some people let their rational brain take over and start spinning yarns. The result:

So with that said here are some thoughts (written after my second viewing) on points of contention in the blogosphere and with things I felt were muddled or confusing.

1. Cobb did get out of the dream at the end. The top was just about to fall. The audience's totem is Cobb's wedding ring. Watch closely and you can see that whenever it's a dream he's wearing it and whenever he's in reality he's not. Also apply Ockham's Razor.

2. Where does Ariadne get the dream machine in the hospital dream? Is it there just in case?

3. I don't think the hospital dream having gravity is a plot hole. There's no acceleration on Eames. The fact that the hospital collapses when it appears the character are accelerating in the elevator may be a plot hole. The throughout the movie the synching of the dream's time is a bit fuzzy. Lee "I'm the best editor of all time" Smith and co. needed some leeway.

4. Some people say that the top spins for an inordinately long period of time at the end. But it spins forever earlier in the film, when Cobb is in his hotel room.

5. When Ariadne and Cobb enter "limbo" they are really in a shared dream with Fischer. They don't lose their minds because they aren't in Limbo, and what happens to Fischer in the hospital affects their world because they are in his dream. That's why when they try to resuscitate him it starts lightening and why when he wakes up the dream collapses. Cobb dies and goes to the real limbo, where he does start to lose his mind, as Arthur(?) said he would earlier in the movie.

6. If you have doubts Nolan intended the ring to be our totem consider that he placed a long shot of Cobbs fingers at the beginning of the movie when he's eating rice. When he wakes up and has his hand resting on the arm rest we get another long shot of his fingers.

7. I don't understood why the dreamer can't just do whatever he wants as Ariande does in her dream. It risks turning Fischer's subconscious against them, but that happened already. Shouldn't Yusef be willing to take a risk and bend the dream rules to get security off his ass in the city? And in the snow fortress level Fischer knows he's dreaming so what is the risk? Then again, Eames does seem to have superpowers in that dream . . .

8. I don't think there is a clear explanation for why Saito is so much older than Cobb. He entered limbo a few seconds or minutes later in Hospital level-time. I think time is just meant to move super fast.

Has fast do immigrant assimilate?

A great post from Bill Easterly.

This is something I wonder about. The first big wave of immigrants to the U.S. were from the British Isles and didn't need to learn English. Many of the Irish who came in the next wave also spoke English, but the Germans didn't. It's obvious today though that their descendants learned English just fine. But how long did it take? How many generations?

My intuition is that concerns that Mexicans (and other Hispanic) immigrants today will never assimilate are overblown. But there are a two things that have changed that make me worry. It's possible that the pattern of Hispanic immigration in more concentrated than German migration. The more Spanish-speakers that cluster in one area the less there is an incentive to learn English and the greater the probability that such areas will turn into de facto two-language states. Similarly, the government is (as far as I know) much more accommodating of non-English speakers due to multiculturalism: state tests are in multiple languages,, translators are mandated in hospitals, and there is a general emphasis on teaching English-speakers Spanish in the hope that it will make life easier for native Spanish-speakers.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Richard III and the Joker

This is the post I mentioned in an earlier blog.

Richard III is one of Shakespeare's greatest villains. He's willy and Machiavellian and at the end of the play (this doesn't ruin anything) he gets this just desert. The Joker, in The Dark Knight in particularly, also has incredible intellect and a taste for chaos.

Both of them also try to seduce a former enemy to work with them, though inside they know that the person they are manipulating is just a pawn in their plan. Richard seduces Lady Anne, whose husband Edward was slain by Richard just days(?) before the play stars. The Joker seduces Harvey Dent, whose wife was killed by the Joker just days earlier.

Richard's seduction of Anne is poetic and ironic. The language is colorful and it plays out so well you almost believe it could have happen (and it sort of did, historically). The Joker's discussion (page 106) of chance and fate with Harvey, on the other hand, is cringe inducing. You can't believe that Harvey, who seemed so reasonable and still does, would decide on a whim to leave the Joker's fate to chance. He has a gun to the head of the man who killed his wife and he doesn't pull the trigger.

If I could change one thing about The Dark Knight, it would be that scene.

Ignorance is Bliss

story from The Onion.

They should poll people when they finish the story and ask if they felt more like "that's funny because some people are like that" or "it's funny but sometimes I'm like that!"

I wrote about the Muslim community center earlier.