Wednesday, 29 April 2015

R tip: caret error

If you get the following error when using the caret package:
Error in tab[1:m, 1:m] : subscript out of bounds
then ensure that your dependent variable is a factor and not anything else (e.g. a logical TRUE/FALSE vector).

Dishonesty in the US military

This paper is a great sourcebook:

Every contact with the enemy required a storyboard. People did not report enemy contact because they knew the storyboard was useless and they didn’t want to go through the hassle.
It’s odd that in situations that I’ve been in, it’s never been blatant self-interest. It’s never been, “I’m going to get this money so I can buy myself two couches for my office while I’m in Afghanistan.” [Instead], it’s always like—for us, it was hard as hell to get water heaters.... [W]e had to say we’re using this for this, when in fact it was so our guys could have hot showers when they get back off patrol.
I falsified the [traumatic brain injury] report that changed a distance from the IED strike [to where] one person was standing. So that way someone didn’t come back down and stick a finger in my CO’s chest and say, “You need to evac that lieutenant right now!” Because in the middle of [a] RIP, that’s not going to happen. If I do that, I’m going to put my boys in bags because they don’t have any leadership. That ain’t happening. I owe the parents of this country more than that.

R tip: quick functions using dplyr

How to e.g. find the proportion of NAs in your data by column.

The old way is:

sapply(mydata, function (x) mean(, na.rm = TRUE))

This wastes a lot of time typing out function(x) etc., and is hard to read.

Here's a better way, using the wonderful dplyr:

sapply(mydata, . %>% %>% mean(na.rm = TRUE))

The magic is that the dot . before the pipe operator %>% creates a function.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015


Tyler Cowen defends the TPP, and reviews Samuel Johnson as a modern blogger.

Football predicts election results. Octopuses predict football. Draw your own conclusions.

Engineering thinking versus ordinary thinking. This is also about big, visible events versus chronic conditions – a contrast which pops up in political economy all the time, see this paper by Sharun Mukand for instance.

Monday, 27 April 2015

A field experiment at LHR

At Heathrow Terminal 2, there is an escalator and a lift to take you from the Underground up to departures. The authorities have put a sign up:


Why has this happened?
  1. Standard economics: the sign was a mistake. People already choose the optimal route. (Public choice theory: the sign was not a mistake but a deliberate conspiracy by the elevator company to wear out the lift and make money from replacements.)
  2. Social preferences: the sign is a nudge to counter travellers' "lift aversion".
  3. Social norms: there is a norm of taking the escalator. People really want to take the lift, but they are afraid what others will think of them.
  4. Social heuristics: people mistakenly assume the escalator is faster, as it usually is in their experience. The sign corrects this.
This is a biased choice of example. In other situations, the first three explanations might be more plausible. Still, many lab experiments might be cases of 4, mistaken for cases of 2 or 3.

I first read the term "social heuristics" in this paper.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

An experiment on overconfidence

A nice experiment was presented at NIBS last week – Zahra Murad, "Confidence Snowballing in Tournaments". (No paper available yet.)

The talk started from a psychological idea: people are sometimes overconfident about their own performance, and get more overconfident after a few successes. This might explain, say, the overweening confidence of CEOs and "Masters of the Universe" bankers.

In the experiment, subjects competed, in pairs, on a task which could be either easy or difficult. Then winners were matched with other winners and played again – like a football tournament. (Losers were matched with other losers.) The winners of the second round played each other again, and so on.

Before each round, subjects had to bet on their own performance. Fro this, we can learn what chance they gave themselves of winning the round.

The beauty of this design is that having won a round tells you nothing about your chance of winning the next one, because you will be playing someone else who has also just won! So, a reasonable person would not get more confident after winning a round.*

In fact, on easy tasks, winners did get more confident. On difficult tasks, losers got less confident, also wrongly and for much the same reason.

What's good about this experiment?
  • It is real "behavioural economics"
It puts an insight from psychology, the hard-easy effect, into a social setting. So, it is not just psychology. But it is theory-driven: it is not trying to draw inferences about a real social situation directly from behaviour in a feeble laboratory pastiche of that setting.
  • It uses the lab to create an elegant simplification
In the real world, it's hard to judge how much somebody's confidence ought to increase after, say, making millions off a deal. In the experiment's stripped-down paradigm, there's a natural baseline: every time you win, you are rematched against other winners, so you should not get more confident.

In experiments, just as in formal models, "it's realistic" is a terrible reason to add a feature. These guys put in only what was needed.
  • It makes a nice parable...
Among the many things lab experiments can do – test theory, estimate psychological characteristics, explore institutions – is to serve as "parables" or "existence proofs".

Greek parables, like that of Icarus flying too close to the sun, have survived the centuries because they tell us about recurring patterns, helping us to recognize them in life and history. The Icarus myth's pattern is: hubris, insane arrogance, leads to nemesis, divine revenge.  Hubris and nemesis are still all around us (hullo neo-cons! hullo Eurozone!) You would not expect them always to happen – imagine a foolish political scientist estimating the per cent prevalence of hubris in international relations – but it is useful to know that they can.

Experiments can be modern parables.  Zimbardo's prison guards and Milgram's torturers have entered the folklore. They don't always apply, but they are things that can happen. (Hence "existence proof": an experiment shows, irrespective of external validity, that something has happened at least once.)
  • ... and fleshes it out
Parables are fine and underrated, but social science must investigate phenomena, not just exhibit them. The experiment shows social interactions can cause overconfidence, and also explores when it happens (easy tasks) and when other things such as underconfidence can happen. This opens up some avenues for real world study. (If only easy tasks make people overconfident, then what explains the presumed overconfidence of very successful people whose work seems quite difficult, like investment bankers?)

I see a lot of experiments and think either "this was obvious", or "I don't know what behaviour here tells us about the real world". This work passes these hurdles.

* Nerd note: there could be some set of priors for which a Bayesian updater would get more confident. So, increasing confidence is not necessarily irrational in the technical sense, just "unreasonable" in a common-sense way.

Saturday, 25 April 2015


Grimsby is voting UKIP because of Europe, not immigration.

Ted Jeory goes behind the headlines of the Lutfur Rahman case. (Non-UK readers: Lutfur Rahman was Mayor of a London borough and has recently been found guilty of corrupt practices. Ted Jeory was a  journalist who bravely investigated him.)
And lastly…I started my spare time blog in 2010 when I realised my former paper, the East London Advertiser, was no longer able or willing to keep an eye on the detail of the council administration. I kept plugging away where it should have been. For that, I received numerous legal threats from the town hall. None succeeded. But the retreat of so many local papers across the UK is deeply worrying. How many other Lutfur Rahmans are there out there?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

What nations think of each other: honesty

100 people from each of 8 countries were asked to flip a coin and report the result. They got a cash reward (either $3 or $5) if they reported heads.

If a group reports completely honestly, we'd expect 50 heads and 50 tails on average. If you get tails, there's an incentive to lie, and if the group is completely dishonest we'd expect 100 heads.

People were then asked to guess how many people (out of 100) from each nation would report heads. This graph shows average guesses, split by the nationality of the guesser, and the nation they were guessing about. Higher numbers and lighter colours mean that the country was expected to be more dishonest.

BR = Brazil
CH = Switzerland
CN = China
GR = Greece
JP = Japan
RU = Russia
TR = Turkey
US = United States

Some highlights:
  • The Greeks had a poor reputation, especially among other Greeks.
  • Everyone thought that Japanese people would be very honest.
  • Chinese people expected almost every nation to be honest, except the Greeks – and themselves.
  • People tended to expect their compatriots to be more dishonest than average (74% vs 66%)

Monday, 20 April 2015

Behavioural should not be behaviourist

What differentiates behavioural economics from psychology? A common answer is "we are interested in behaviour".

For example, psychologists studying group identity might use a questionnaire measure, asking subjects "how proud are you to be in your group"? Economists, instead, would test whether they gave more money to their in-group. "Real choices have costs," goes the slogan.

Costly choices are a great experimental tool. But I had an epiphany recently, when a psychologist remarked that economists are using a theory psychologists gave up fifty years ago – behaviourism, the idea that you could ignore the mind and just study how stimuli affected behaviour.

Only studying behaviour makes sense as long as the mind has no "state". If stimulus X always causes behaviour Y, then we only need study Y.  But of course the mind has state: for example, our choices depend on our moods.

We need to study these states directly, so as to improve our theories by clarifying the links in their causal chains. Why are subjects more selfish if the game they are playing is labelled the "Wall Street game" rather than the "community game"? Maybe the market-oriented phrase puts subjects into a materially self-interested mindset. OK, so when does that happen in the real world? For an answer, we will need to measure this mindset directly and learn how it is induced.

This is doable. Yes, people may lie, or misinterpret their own behaviour; but psychologists have been devising valid, reliable questionnaire measures for decades. (FMRI data seems more easily accepted by economists than questionnaires, perhaps because it seems more like "hard" science – or because it is impressively expensive?) We can use these measures, or create similar ones of our own.

Without good theory, experimental economics risks becoming a pile of unorganized, uninterpretable results. For good theory, we need to open and study the black box of the mind.

Sunday, 19 April 2015


Chimps make spears in the wild. Unnervingly like this (Onion), or Planet of the Apes.

Ifthekar, a young man from Britain, goes on jihad in Syria:
His major complaint — which echoed the complaints of many of the foreigners who had come to these battlefields — was that of boredom. Weeks turned into months, and he and many of his fellow fighters had yet to wage jihad. Many manned roadblocks or checkpoints; others performed menial tasks...
Compare Timothy Corsellis, who joined the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War, aged 19:
I was ready for death
Ready to give my all in an expansive gesture
For a cause that was worthy of death....
But I never expected
The weary hours of waiting while the sun rose and set...
We sat together as we sat at peace
Bound by no ideal of service
But by a common interest in pornography
And a pride to outdrink one another.
Both Ifthekar and Corsellis were killed a little later.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Francis Drake on inequality

Sir Francis Drake, off the coast of America, addresses questions of socioeconomic inequality and integration.

Not new points about multiple hypothesis testing

Say your paper has four independent tests of your hypotheses. Suppose that in fact all your hypotheses are false. Then, under the null, your p-values are uniformly distributed between 0 and 1. What's the chance of getting at least one result at 5% significance?

We can answer this with a one-liner in R:

table(replicate(100000, all(runif(4)>0.05)))

18462 81538

You'll get a significance star about 18% of the time.

What about if you have eight hypotheses?

> table(replicate(100000, all(runif(8)>0.05)))

33663 66337

About one third of the time.

Multiple hypotheses really affect your p values even if you just test a few hypotheses. This is not just a problem for people using genetic data and running millions of tests! But you almost never see a paper which corrects p values for multiple hypotheses. Perhaps this should change.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

External validity in experimental economics

Lab experimenters worry a lot about external validity. OK, we say, it happened in the lab, but would we see it in the real world? Answering this question, by connecting the lab and the field, is a good way to get published.

Most of these papers look at individual-level external validity. For example, were the same people who were trustworthy in a "trust game" lab experiment,  also more likely to (e.g.) repay microfinance loans? Were people who cheated in an "honesty game" (throwing a die and reporting the result where you got paid more for some results) also more likely to cheat by riding without a fare on public transport? *

Policy-makers, though, are probably more interested in external validity of treatments. For example, in the lab, people may be more cooperative if others can observe their behaviour. Will the same thing happen if we (e.g.) gave people badges when they made a charitable donation?

Individual-level and treatment-level validity need not be related. Perhaps the same people are generous in the lab and in real life; but a particular treatment only works in the special atmosphere of the laboratory. Conversely, even if lab behaviour does not reflect a stable underlying trait of individuals, a policy intervention may still affect it. Both questions are interesting but it is important to distinguish them. The real test of external validity is probably: does your policy intervention work?

* Marie Claire Villeval's paper, not online yet.

Update: Ro'i Zultan points me at Vernon Smith's 1981 paper:
What parallelism hypothesizes in micro-economy is that if institutions make a difference, it is because the rules make a difference, and if the rules make a difference, it is because incentives make a difference.


The ecomodernist manifesto.

Interesting. Their basic story is: technological progress is good for the environment - it makes us less dependent on it. The idea seems similar to the environmental Kuznets curve.

Here is a more gloomy point of view. Suppose that we have become less dependent on all ecosystems except one (fossil fuel extraction). Then, society has stopped damaging the environment in many ways, like deforestation, killing large mammals, nitrogen fertilizer; but it is doing more damage in one or two big, planet-sized ways – global warming and maybe ocean acidification.

It's like the Pinker/Taleb argument about violence: there are less murders than 500 years ago; but the chance of nuclear holocaust has increased. Or like financial products: they may help decrease individual risk exposure, but simultaneously increase the risk of big systemic crashes.

In other words, some social processes have the feature that they put all our risks into one basket. This looks like a reduction in risk – until the "big one" hits. Technological progress might be like that.

Just a possibility to consider! By the way, the manifesto does specifically address global warming, and argues that nuclear power is the only currently viable solution.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


Günter Grass has died.

Jacques Rancière on Charlie Hebdo. Some of his argument is odd:
The great universalist values – laïcité, common rules for everyone, equality among men and women – have become the instrument of a distinction between ‘us’ (we who adhere to these values) and ‘them’, who do not.  
The distinction between those who support these values and those who don't is real, not invented by wicked people, and pretending otherwise is silly. Of course there are many liberal Muslims (and many illiberal non-Muslims) but there are also substantial minorities who, for example, sympathize with the Charlie Hebdo attackers; the Muslim Council of Britain opposed the repeal of Section 28; et cetera. Still, worth reading for his thoughts on the FN. He seems to be a kind of postmodern populist, for whom  all knowledge claims are illusionary and the peuple can do no wrong.

Monday, 13 April 2015

I Hate Your Stupid Paper: Gilens & Page

(An occasional series in which I hate on a paper and explain why.)

Gilens and Page, 'Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens'

Who really governs in American politics? Is it the ordinary citizen, Joe Schmo? Or his wealthy cousin, Joseph Schmo III? Or maybe interest groups have the power, or perhaps only business-related interest groups.

To answer this question, Gilens and Page collect information about the preferences of each of these possible influencers, and use multiple regression to find which groups' preferences correlate significantly with actual policy outcomes. The results look bad for US democracy: only elite citizens and business interests matter. This garnered some publicity in the press, giving succour to student radicals everywhere: "meet the new boss, same as the old boss".

This paper is about an important topic - who really decides what happens in democracy? The data collection effort was huge. The empirical results are worth thinking about. I personally find the conclusions quite plausible. So what's the problem?

Short answer: the conclusions may be plausible, but they don't follow from the results.

Problem I: exogeneity

This is such an old chestnut/cheap shot that I feel bad bringing it up, but correlation ≠ causality. And here it really matters: the paper is news because of the interpretation that the policy system responds to elite citizens' preferences, but not to normal citizens' preferences. That is clearly a claim about causality.

But we don't know whether any of these groups' preferences are actually causing policy changes, because they might be correlated with something else that is doing the real work.

Here's a story: policy is actually made by enlightened civil servants, working hard to find what is best for the US. Citizens also form opinions. The elite citizens are better informed. As a result, their opinions and policy preferences are like those of the hard-working civil servants. Joe Schmo, by contrast, gets his opinions from Fox News. Result: policy outputs correlate with elite preferences.

Implausible, perhaps, but the story is wholly compatible with the evidence in the paper. If you don't like it, try this one. Policy is made by the Bilderberg Group, who have Obama's head on a stick and they move his mouth using puppet strings. The Illuminati own the media and shape people's opinions. But the rich are more easily influenced, because they don't get THE REAL DOPE from Fox News. So, rich citizens' opinions conform more with the policy of their Bilderberg/Illuminati masters.

You can play this game all day, and it is not hard to make these stories more realistic. Conclusion: the paper cannot show either that elite preferences do affect policy, or that ordinary people's preferences do not.

Getting real causality would require observing some exogenous change in citizen preferences - a change independent of anything else that could affect policy - and seeing how political outputs responded. This is hard if not impossible. You cannot experiment on US political opinion at any useful scale, and there are probably no "natural experiments" that change public opinion without also changing something other relevant factor.* So it is easy to excuse these limitations.

What is harder to excuse is that those limitations barely get a mention. I read through this paper waiting for the jump scare - thinking "soon they're going to show the amazing way they aim for causality! Or, at least, they will have a responsible adult discussion about this limitation of their results."

Jump scare never came. In one sentence, the authors admit: "... it is also possible that there may exist important explanatory factors outside the three theoretical traditions addressed in this analysis." Everywhere else, the language of causality is pervasive: wealthy citizen preferences have "impact" and "influence" on politics. That language is incompatible with the sentence I just quoted.

The authors ask an interesting question. But their research design cannot answer it.

* It's not even obvious that politics ought to respond to exogenous changes in citizen preferences - changes unrelated to, e.g., political reality. Suppose evil Commies put an opinion drug in the water supply, and everyone woke up wanting higher taxes: should policy change accordingly?

Problem II: bad political philosophy

Here's one concept of democracy: democracy means doing the people's will. If the majority wants nuclear disarmament, a democracy disarms. If it wants lower/higher taxes, taxes go down/up.

This "populist" interpretation of democracy is appealingly simple, but it has a serious problem.** It requires that people actually have political preferences. Unfortunately, public opinion theorists long ago noticed that most people's "opinions" about politics are like their opinions about Venusian geology: if you question them, they will obligingly give an answer, but it is likely to be ill-informed, unrelated to other ideas in their heads, and to change when you ask the same question next week.

Note that this also could explain the paper's result. If elite citizens have opinions that relate at least somewhat to reality, and ordinary citizens' opinions are just noise, then elite citizens' preferences will probably be closer to policy outcomes.

In any case, basing democracy on "opinions" like that seems foolish. Who should decide the level of healthcare spending in the US? The average voter, who has no clue about the future demand for healthcare? Or should we, the people, hire an expert? We'd better make sure we can fire the guy if he doesn't do his job; that will also give him an incentive not to screw up too badly. We could call these people... politicians.

This alternative idea still links democracy to what people want - but making their real needs count, not their political pseudo-opinions. Gilens and Page mention it but dismiss it as follows:
The “electoral reward and punishment” version of democratic control through elections—in which voters retrospectively judge how well the results of government policy have satisfied their basic interests and values... might be thought to offer a different prediction: that policy will tend to satisfy citizens’ underlying needs and values, rather than corresponding with their current policy preferences. We cannot test this prediction because we do not have—and cannot easily imagine how to obtain—good data on individuals’ deep, underlying interests or values, as opposed to their expressed policy preferences.
Notice that now, we are basing our political philosophy on data availability: "Some people say real interests matter, but that's too hard to measure! We'll use populism as our benchmark instead."*** Also, why can we not find out about individuals' deep interests? I guess most people value wealth, health, happiness and security. Does a system provide that for the elite? For the majority? If there's a conflict, what happens? These questions are as easy or easier to answer than the one the paper addresses.

So, Gilens and Page. You threw out a useful concept of democracy in favour of a populist chimera, so as to do empirics that do not work. Your paper has garnered press attention! It is influential and cited! Some say it has proved American democracy is dead! I hate your stupid paper.

** Actually, two problems. The other is that even if people have clear preferences, there may be no coherent way to aggregate them to decide "what the majority want". This is the topic of Arrow's Theorem; William Riker used it to attack the "populist concept of democracy" in Liberalism against Populism

*** I am being a bit unfair here. G & P consciously discuss and defend the importance of this populist conception of democracy. Read the paper and make up your own mind (a good idea in general; even "stupid" papers are usually more informative than their media coverage).


The moral bucket list. David Brooks is a better journalist and writer than his online reputation suggests.

The button. (I really want to see the first game theory paper on this.)

Friday, 10 April 2015

Free the nipple

Like houses, belief systems have dark corners: patches of wallpaper where reality is showing through; awkward conceptual joins which leave gaps for mice; mouldering old ideas. Mostly we ignore them. Sometimes they get too obtrusive and make us very uncomfortable. This state of discomfort is called thinking.

So, great piece in the Guardian. The body is beautiful, fight repressive, image-policing patriarchy: #freethenipple! Pornography is sexist and demeaning: #boobsarentnews! I can't resolve this dilemma, but it is fun to watch.

Cafe conversation

(Lightly fictionalized.)

Mmm, these pakoras are good.... Honey, I have some news for you. I am going to become a citizen of your country!

Really! Why?

Well, I owe my love of gardening to being here. And I am a big fan of the Today programme. And I want to vote and to play my role in elections.

You didn't garden before you came here?

No, I started when I was in Colchester... 

I'm.... Aww. I'm quite touched....

And I know two nice English people. By the way, we must call Debbie.
You'll have to take the citizenship test! What do you have to learn? How many MPs there are.


That is enforced to ensure that we can tell you apart from anyone actually born in England. And you have to learn about fighting people if you spill their pint.


Well, that is great news! Let's get coffee outside.

I hate your stupid paper: Al Roth

[This is a new occasional series in which I tell you that your paper is stupid, you are stupid, and I hate you and your stupid paper. My inaugural paper is by... Judd Kessler and Nobel Prize winner and father of experimental economics, Al Roth!!!! Warning: lengthy, for specialists, contains swearing and rhetorical exaggeration.]

Came across this gem while I was doing the prediction market experiment for replications - a cool idea by the way.
Organ allocation policy and the decision to donate

Organ donations from deceased donors provide the majority of transplanted organs in the United States, and one deceased donor can save numerous lives by providing multiple organs.... We study in the laboratory an experimental game modeled on the decision to register as an organ donor and investigate how changes in the management of organ waiting lists might impact donations. 
From the paper:

This paper investigates incentives to donate by means of an experimental game that models the decision to register as an organ donor. The main manipulation is the introduction of a priority rule, inspired by the Singapore and Israeli legislation, that assigns available organs first to those who had also registered to be organ donors. ...

Results from our laboratory study suggest that providing priority on waiting lists for registered donors has a significant positive impact on donation. ...
The instructions to subjects were stated in abstract terms, not in terms of organs. Subjects started each round with one “A unit” (which can be thought of as a brain) and two “B units” (representing kidneys). ...
Whenever a subject’s A unit failed, he lost $1 and the round ended for him (representing brain death)...
At this point, I wished fervently for my A unit to fail, representing brain death.

For any non-specialists out there who don't see the problem... fuck it: for the tiny proportion of non-specialists who aren't already laughing at us like baboons.

Organ donation is a complex and unique decision. It involves the choice to have part of your own body cut out, when you die, in the hope of saving someone else's life.

Now it is perfectly reasonable, though counter-intuitive, to model this as just another cost-benefit decision (perhaps including some "altruistic utility"). The sainted Gary Becker did this for crime and the family - both areas not previously thought of as amenable to cost-benefit analysis - and spawned two whole new fields.

And it is also perfectly reasonable to say "No! Organ donation is different. Cost-benefit analysis just won't apply. I don't trust this economic model."

Here's what is not reasonable: to distrust the economic model; and to try to learn what will really happen, by running a laboratory experiment ... which implements the economic model.

Analogy: suppose I have a simple billiard-ball theory of planetary motion. To predict how planets interact, I build a big billiards table with a lot of billiard balls on strings representing the sun, the earth, Mars and so on. I spin the balls, take measurements and write down my predictions. Now you decide my theory is all wrong. In fact, it doesn't even work for the billiard table! You whack the red ball round on its string: it ends up totally not where my theory predicts! Falsification! Karl Popper's ghost applauds.

"Yes," you tell me, "and now just measure the position of that red ball. I want to know where Mars will be next week."

You see the problem? My billiard-ball theory is wrong. But that theory gave the only reason to think that the billiard table could predict the planets. Without the theory, what are we left with? That's right, Perky: balls. A load of useless balls.

Now there are many lab experiments on decision-making that would be relevant to organ donation. We can test theoretical models of, say, altruism and upstream reciprocity. Then, if we reckoned that the theory had captured all the relevant aspects of behaviour, we could apply it to organ donation; make some predictions; maybe try out a policy experiment. The social science lab is useful for this, because you can get "altruism" and "reprocity" into the lab in a meaningful way. But there is no meaningful way to get "organ donation" into the lab, short of a supply of Romanian orphans and a surprisingly relaxed ethics committee. Just having options with analogous payoffs does not cut it.

The authors of course know this. From the conclusion:
Care must always be taken in extrapolating experimental results to complex envi- ronments outside the lab, and caution is particularly called for when the lab setting abstracts away from important but intangible issues, as we do here.
And perhaps the paper's results can in fact tell us something deep about how institutions can tap upstream reciprocity - but that's not what they talk about. Nor do they deal with this head on. (For example, by adding: "It follows that this very interesting experiment tells us nothing about actual organ donation. We were kidding about the title!")  Instead, the introduction uses that weasel word, "suggest".

Roll up folks, for the new experimental methodology! Finally, unbiased causal identification in the social sciences! Drumroll. Spotlight. "Results suggest..." Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.* If I want suggestiveness, I'll read ethnography.

Here is why this gets my goat. A graduate student once proposed an experiment on global warming. The next century would be a game with 100 rounds. In each round there was a small chance of a "climate catastrophe" if the players didn't implement "mitigation". Mitigation cost a few cents,  climate catastrophe cost about twenty Euros. From this experiment it was hoped to make behavioural predictions about, uuuuh, the future of the planet. Under different policy regimes.

(And - quickly, in one breath - because it was in the lab, the policy regimes were randomly and exogenously assigned. Yeah, thank God there's no endogeneity! That was such a problem with STUDYING THE REAL WORLD.**)

So I stuck my hand up and said that this was nuts. But now, some other young researcher, planning such an absurdity, can say: "Well, Al Roth did it for brain transplants!"
[S]ubjects started each round with one “A unit” (which can be thought of as a brain) ...
 Seriously, how the fuck can people write this shit with a straight face?

* Translated from the Latin, this means "Fuck you and Google it yourself."

** As our authors put it:
The difficulty of performing comparable experiments or comparisons outside of the lab, however, makes it sensible to look to simple experiments to generate hypotheses about organ donation policies.

Myth of the "wasted vote"

With minor parties doing so well, the election will be dominated by questions of tactical voting.

Every five years, leaflets come through our doors: "Labour/Lib Dems/Tories can't win here! Don't waste your vote!" Only the party labels change, depending on the constituency.

Here is one of the best-kept secrets of politics: this is utter bollocks.

Unless your constituency election is decided by a single vote (unlikely), your vote is always "wasted", whether you voted Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP or the Petting Pony Pyjama Party. Somebody won; if you had stayed in bed, or voted any other way, the same person would still have won. Your vote wasn't pivotal.

So, you might as well vote for the party you like best, no matter what size it is in your constituency. In fact, if everybody did that, FPTP would probably work much better. It would still be hugely distorting. But at least it would be a distorted reflection of what people actually wanted.

Strange but true: the notorious bias of first-past-the-post in favour of the top two parties, and/or small highly localized parties, comes not only from electoral maths, but also from a quirk of voter psychology. If the party we voted for wins, we think that "we helped them win", even though nothing we could have said or done would have changed the outcome.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Why I am a conservative III: family values

III. Family values matter

By family values, I mean the Tony Blair interpretation - the idea that the two-parent family is quite a good way to bring up children, and should be supported. I do not mean - hopefully, by 2015, this will cause little surprise - that I hate gays, want to ban abortion or stem-cell research, or point at single mothers in the street.

It does mean that some things I hear make me angry. Take the phrase "single-parent family", which replaced the earlier "broken home". "Broken home" is judgmental, yes. That judgment has an immediate emotional resonance for me. I spent some of my childhood in a broken home. The description fits really well. I don't say it would for everybody.

Now "single-parent family" is less judgmental, but for me it is a lie. I wasn't in a "single parent family": I had two parents, one of them had custody, one had access. A majority of "single parent families" are, like mine, not single-parent families at all but two-parent families of whom one parent is not in the house, either having left or never having arrived.

Beyond vocabulary, the point is that there is no useful judgment-free definition of a family. A family is a set of people who have obligations to each other. It is a good idea for a society to have public expectations about what those obligations are and who has them.

Again, I do not long for the days when single mothers were shamed and their children put in orphanages. But this seems like a red herring. Why would I be blaming the mothers? A while back, I was talking to someone in my home town. He was a small-time criminal and drug dealer, and did not seem very nice. He told me he had a kid, but he'd moved out of the mother's home. Why? "She was doing my head in," basta.

On the face of it - and of course superficial judgments can be mistaken - I did not really think that was OK. Is it?

So, then, after making all allowances for the huge complexity of human relationships, would we not, quite likely, want to blame somebody who behaved like that?

And if you don't like the idea of blaming people who heaven knows are facing difficult enough lives, with tight enough material constraints and few enough spiritual resources, might you not at least blame the society that has created the message that thinking that way, acting that way, is OK?

I don't especially see why this would make anyone vote Conservative in 2015. Tony Blair practically cared much more about this kind of family values than David Cameron seems to. But it matters. Most thinking people in America, Left or Right, seem to have understood this. Few in Europe do.

Why I am a conservative II: socialism

II. Socialism doesn't work

Come on, you are thinking, even Labour admit that Soviet socialism failed. The debate's moved on. Well, actually there are still loons out there like the Green party. But do you really think that socialism doesn't work? Specifically, that command-and-control systems, where goods are allocated by a central planner according to need rather than being demanded via a price mechanism, are doomed to failure?

If you do think so, then you should draw the conclusions that follow. For instance, the NHS won't work: it is just this kind of system. Nor will state education, for the same reason. You must expect these systems to fail. I do. (I see the failures of state education at first hand.)

This does not mean that the market will provide a utopia. There are excellent reasons to think it won't - health and education are not like packets of cornflakes, whose buyers know what they need. I do not know any perfect solution; but our current systems are doomed to failure by design.

Socialism doesn't work. Consider taking this truism seriously.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Why I am a conservative I: state spending

(The next few posts are going to give some views of mine which few other people seem to share. That might make them interesting to think about. They are the reasons why I am a conservative, and they also help explain why I will be voting Conservative in May.)

I. State spending does not need to be more than 35% of our extremely large GDP.

To me this seems obvious. A third of everything this country makes is not enough? Really? Of course, economists have thought of many reasons why state spending should carry on getting higher forever: I think they're bonkers.

For the record, I think that Krugman and the Keynesians have won the economic debate about austerity. I do not think the big cuts in 2010 were a good idea.

However. First, at some point stimulus has to stop being an argument and we have to assume normality is returning. As I understand it, intellectually respectable Keynesian policy works like this: you spend more than you save during recessions caused by inadequate demand, and, to fund this, you save more than you spend in normal times. Western democracies have been failing to do this for some time. Austerity has harmed many in the past few years. Unsustainable public debt, however, has destroyed many regimes. If this happens to us, the harm to us and democracy will last for generations. So, the long run matters more.

Second, politics has its topsy-turvy logic that makes it hardest to cut spending when the economy seems to be going well, to "take the punch-bowl away". If the choice were between cutting during good years or during bad years, I would choose the former like a good Keynesian. But I fear the choice may be cutting during bad years, or not at all. Neither of the Labour and Conservative platforms offers much grounds for optimism about this, since both parties are irresponsibly promising tax cuts to their core supporters.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015


The Rolling Stone retracts its story about rape on a US campus.

What strikes me, honestly, is that this story of failure shows higher journalistic standards than you would find in most of the British press. The journalist realises her story has holes in; tells her editor; and they call in a third party to investigate. Contrast with the Daily Mail's methodology. The irony is that the Mail's plagiarism production line allows it to fund some good investigative journalism, while Rolling Stone's business model is threatened because it strives to keep its integrity.

The jholawala syndrome. Including terrible puns.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Education linkage

Peter Thiel on higher education:
All the hard work at Harvard is done by the admissions officers who anoint an already-proven hypercompetitive elite. If that weren’t true — if superior instruction could explain the value of college — then why not franchise the Ivy League? Why not let more students benefit? It will never happen because the top U.S. colleges draw their mystique from zero-sum competition.
The Economist on the same.

This debate hinges on two arcane issues of econometrics. First, what is the real return to education? You can't just compare the wages of those with and without degrees, because presumably the people with degrees were smarter on average anyway, and might get higher wages even without the degree.

Second, what is the social return to education? That is, suppose we can answer the first question, and know that a degree gets you, say, $10K more in salary. Is that because it makes you $10K more productive? Or does it just get you a higher paid job ahead of somebody else, without actually increasing social wealth at all? (As Peter Thiel says, maybe higher education is just "a tournament".)

Neither extreme is really plausible. It can't be that society would be completely unaffected if nobody got, say, engineering degrees. On the other hand, it is surely true that sometimes, education helps people queue-jump, rather than actually making us more productive. AFAICS we don't yet know where the truth lies and for what kinds of education.


The problems with peer review - Biomed Central retracts 43 articles after it was found they had been scammed to use fictitious peer reviewers.

"Imagine the pathology department in your local hospital gave prestige, job security, advancement, praise and more money to the individual pathologists who found the most cancer in the biopsy samples they are sent. Not to the ones who most accurately identify cancer: The ones to detect the most – and the rarer the better. This is how academics are incentivised and it is a disaster." -- an aside from this new blog, btw the article is also great and thoughtful. 

North Korean slogan or TED talk?

This should be subtitled Why The Internet is Not Making Journalism More Efficient

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Why do areas with few immigrants support UKIP?

Here's the map (thanks to Soylent Dave):

UKIP's key message is anti-immigration, but its support comes from areas with few immigrants. Why?
  • People who dislike immigration have moved to get away from it. 
This surely does happen but it is hard to believe it happens on such a large scale. After all, moving to Northumberland to avoid immigrants seems a bit extreme.
  • Fear of immigration is irrational, and is dispelled by getting to know some actual immigrants.
That could easily be true. Still, do people really base their vote on a fear of something they have never met?

(I recall a friend's father - a very intelligent guy, not a bigot - talking about immigration, in Shropshire in the 1990s. We feel as if we're being overrun! he said. I looked out of the cottage window. The immemorial hills stretched out above us. No human figure was to be seen. The green fields were dotted with grazing sheep....)
  • The marginal cost of the first migrant is the highest
This is my idea. Suppose that there are gains from living in a very stable community with little in- or out-migration - say because people who interact repeatedly over the long run are able to develop high trust and solve social dilemmas. (This is the standard Ostrom-Axelrod-Folk-Theorem way of thinking, in the social science literature - an idea I think has some serious defects, but it will do to stand an argument on.)

Now suppose that even a little immigration or population movement destroys that trust quite quickly. Then the places which still have these stable communities will be keen to stop migration. Other places will already have lost the stability, so it will weigh less against the countervailing gains from immigration, such as cheap or skilled labour. They will also perhaps have started to develop more multicultural forms of community, making it easier for them to integrate more new arrivals.
  • Poverty
The last explanation is the simplest: UKIP thrives where people are poor, and the countryside and North-East are poor places.

It would be fun to test these rival theories. Relatedly, it would be interesting to see whether the UKIP areas actually have big recent immigration flows (i.e. changes in the immigrant stock, it is the stock that is shown above) - in percentage terms, say.

Another point about these maps is that they do not seem compatible with anti-immigration sentiment being due to squeezed public services (the "Britain is full" argument). Those squeezes would surely be tighter in urbanized, highly populated areas, but UKIP support seems to come from the countryside.

Saturday, 4 April 2015


You could still have your life ruined for being gay in the 1980s.

Sorry, we still haven't found the aliens.

What's wrong with UKIP?

What's wrong with UKIP is not that they want less immigration. A large majority of the populace has wanted lower immigration for a long time. This government promised and failed to reduce immigration, so at present immigration levels can fairly be called uncontrolled.

This is not even a question of the majority view versus good policy. The cost-benefit analysis of immigration looks like this:

B = E + X

where B is the total benefit or cost, E is the economic effects and X is the political and social effects. To my mind, Jonathan Portes and others have persuasively shown that E is positive. But nobody has even tried to measure X. One example of X is that there are now about 600,000 people resident in Britain who "have some sympathy" for the Charlie Hebdo murderers. So these are not airy-fairy intangibles.

What's wrong with UKIP is that they want to leave the EU, and this would cripple the EU in its hour of need. But the point of view is defensible. Nation-states are ultimately incompatible with the EU, because free migration ultimately breaks the link between state and nation, and reduces government to administrators of the local populace. So, there is an existential choice between Europe and the nation-state. I favour Europe, since I want to be able to stand up to other bigger nations. But I cannot blame people for a different point of view - especially when Europe seems on the point of imploding because of economic stupidity, and unable to protect itself against a clear and present military danger.