Sunday, 25 November 2012


The blogosphere debates the rationality of voting. (As usual I am behind the curve here.) Andrew Gelman:
In swing states (or for close non-presidential elections), though, it’s a different story Aaron, Nate, and I have estimated the probability of your vote being decisive in a swing state as being in the range 1 in a million to 1 in 10 million. Low, but not zero, and Aaron, Noah, and I argue that it can be make sense to vote because of the social benefits that a voter might feel arise from his or her preferred candidate winning.
Phil Arena:
First, being pivotal to the outcome of your state is not the same as being pivotal to the outcome of a presidential election.
Kindred Winecoff:
Even still Arena is giving Gelman's argument more credit than it deserves. In fact, Gelman doesn't have an argument. He simply pretends as if there was a utility function out there such that it would make sense for people to vote at 1/10,000,000 odds (those are only the swing state voters, not the median or modal or otherwise typical voter). So far as I know no such utility function has ever been modeled or tested against peoples' actual subjective utilities, and Arena points out numerous analogous situations in which folks generally behave differently -- getting in a car crash, getting shot while on campus, etc. -- despite similar or better (worse?) odds.
Actually, David Myatt has a paper showing that, in a plausible model of voting, one's probability of pivotality is 1/N, where N is the number of voters, and that for some standard utility-based models of altruism, that should be enough to get you to vote (because you are providing a benefit to N people). Warning: the paper is not as easy to read as a blog post. As I understand it, David is not arguing that this kind of instrumental rationality does explain why people vote; he is arguing that it could explain it, and that therefore two critics of rational choice theory from the 1990s are mistaken.

I remember the 90s!

Relatedly, at ESA Tucson I saw Ulrike Malmendier present a field experiment - not currently available online - on why people vote, arguing that it is related to (1) social pressure and (2) the cost of lying. This seems a more hopeful approach than constructing game-theoretic arguments alone - though, NB, the paper combined data with theory to estimate parameters of a model, rather than just directly estimating vote probabilities.


The Oatmeal on creativity and self-motivation. Academics have to be creative too. I think?
James Robinson (of Acemoglu and Robinson) describes himself as "a recovering economist", and A&R discuss the obsession with corruption - which Chris Blattman has also blogged about:
"Taking the long view, corruption may even be part of the glue that keeps societies from falling apart in the midst of transformative economic change–like it or not, elites need something to compensate them for losing their influence, or the’re unlikely to let go without a fight."
Also, A&R admit they are becoming sad, old fuddy-duddy conservatives who defend the House of Lords....

Monday, 12 November 2012


The Economist gives short shrift to rational choice explanations of voting:
More recent theorists have suggested that voting confers the “psychic benefits” (also known as a feeling of well-being) of performing a civic duty. But the argument that people do something because they like it is hardly an illuminating insight. Some academics reckon that voters are simply bad at calculating probabilities. Others produce reams of equations to back up complicated theories involving the social benefits of group membership.

Oh, this looks cool. Hands up who wants to use R to run interactive online experiments? (Puts both hands up.)

Friday, 9 November 2012

Cornford on multiple equilibria

"The number of rogues is about equal to the number of men  who always act honestly; and it is very small. The great majority would sooner behave honestly than not. The reason why they do not give in to this natural preference is that they are afraid that others will not; and the others do not because they are afraid that they will not."
F.M. Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


Is this article claiming that news reporting doesn't deserve to exist in its current form?
It is collectively rational to organize yourselves to vote. Also, claims this article more more controversially, it is individually irrational to point out the individual irrationality of voting. By the way, if we took seriously the point about collective rationality, then might we want to study public opinion and voting behaviour in a less individualistic way?
Do and should social norms apply to firms, as they do to individuals?
They come over here and they steal our immigrants! Wait, what?

Sunday, 4 November 2012


Rocking Dad's umbrella. Dad was vintage before you kids were born.

Which great reconstruction?

Suppose we accept Francis Fukuyama's story that starting in the 1960s, the developed world has seen a "great disruption" - a collapse in traditional norms and informal institutions. The second part of that story is the "great reconstruction" - that society will find ways to reconstruct norms, institutions and moral authority, perhaps on a more democratic or rational basis. The argument here is basically functionalist: we're going to do it because we have to. Question, then: would you expect this great reconstruction to happen on a national basis?
So, behind every norm there is a group that backs it - enforces it, gives it moral sanction, teaches it, and/or whatever. In the West, our existing, slightly dilapidated moral norms mainly are backed at national level. But if normative order will be reconstituted, is that going to happen at national level? By a kind of "revivalism", like a more earnest version of the vintage movement? Another possibility is that norms start in small, intense groups, then spread. Of course, not all of the norms promoted by small, intense groups are very morally attractive.... (Indeed, the top headline on Hizb Ut Tahrir's website is currently: "The Jimmy Savile Scandal: Time to take an honest look at the values that underpin society", an open letter to non-Muslims. Let me give you a flavour:

"Since the 1960s society has seen values that encourage marriage, fidelity and self-restraint abolished – in favour of values that encourage ‘free love’ (aka promiscuity). These latter values are usually celebrated as the result of a social revolution that empowered women in respect of their bodies.
But the only revolution that really occurred was that women became economic commodities on an industrial scale used in marketing, ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’. Eventually this led to ‘lads mags’, ‘Page-3’ and lap-dance clubs becoming ‘normal’ in society rather than an immoral aberration.... ")


A common knowledge puzzle (via Boingboing). Related to the old chestnut about the cheating wives/husbands.
Marginal revolution on putting your money where your mouth is. Social scientists should make bets more often. (Or pontificate less?)