Friday, 28 December 2012


Computer nerds analyse the UK economy.
Goethe was an early user of the Becker-De Groot-Marshak method for eliciting true valuations. (Hat tip: Alexia Gaudeul. For non-specialists, the BDM method works as follows. You state your bid to receive some object, e.g. a bar of chocolate. The computer then randomly determines a price. If the price is lower than your bid, you pay the price and get the chocolate; otherwise you pay nothing and don't get the chocolate. In these circumstances, the best strategy is to state your true value for the chocolate.)

Monday, 24 December 2012

Books I read this year.

Robert Parker - On Greek Religion
The best sort of humanities: well-written, deeply immersed in its subject, drawing on ideas from anthropology and comparative religion.

John Keegan – The Face Of Battle
From the 1970s, a reconstruction of the experience of three famous battles – Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. This is a great book, full of insights into how and why men fight rather than run, and even using the lived experience to explain the course of the battle.

Chetan Bhagat – Revolution 2020
This guy is super popular in India. He writes in simple English that you can understand if it’s not your first language. I learnt more from this about the workings of contemporary India than I would have from many weightier tomes, and it was also a sweet love story with a very human (anti)hero.

Dan Ariely – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty
Very good, discussed here.

Christopher Clark – Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downall of Prussia, 1600-1947
Started but haven’t yet finished. I’ve been reading a lot of European history just to reach the level of education I should have got by eighteen – the basics of who did what. This book is rather standard modern history: written neither really well nor really badly, very comprehensive but a bit too long, with the prejudices and ideas of the early 21st century.

Robert H. Davies - The Golden Century of Spain
Now this, published in 1937, is really good history from 75 years ago. It’s beautifully written, has a strong narrative pulse, covers the economy though it probably lacks the techniques of a serious modern economic historian.... Above all, good narrative helps the facts stick in my mind, which I need. I don’t really care about the historian’s interpretation as there is no possible way I can judge! But it is interesting to read Davies because he is strongly pro-Catholic and for example considers William the Silent as a dangerous and dishonest political chancer – about as far as you could be from Motley’s interpretation. (Which is another stunningly good piece of narrative history.)

Cecil Jenkins – A Brief History of France
Ridiculously simplistic. Don’t bother. Where is the good history of France in English?

Charles Ingrao – The Habsburg Monarchym 1618-1815
Workaday and uninspiring history. Gave up halfway and have not yet returned.

Ortega – Revolt of The Masses
The liberal-elitist classic which I mentioned briefly here.

Yang Jisheng – Tombstone
I’ve just started this history of Mao’s famine. It has a beautiful and moving opening paragraph. The history is as grim as you would expect; what is interesting is how those in power managed their own guilt.

Jonathan Spence – In Search of Modern China
Fabulous book covering China from about the 1600s until the 1970s. Very well written by the West’s greatest historian of China. It gave me two really cool quotes; one about honesty and one about multiple equilibria. The British, said Feng Guifen in the 19th century, had a great advantage: “the necessary accord of word and deed”. And on multiple equilibria, by Lu Xun at the start of the twentieth: “hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.”

Cao Xueqin  Dream of the Red Chamber
Started but gave up when my Kindle broke. A very, very long novel and China’s most famous, but lots of it seemed pretty dull. One thing is cool – the novel is narrated by a stone, which sometimes uses a strange authorial voice, in a postmodern/Lawrence Sterne vein. There are some hot sex scenes.

John Iliffe – Africans: The History of a Continent
Bits of this reminded me of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s jibe about the gyrations of savage tribes (can’t source, sorry) – lots of kingdoms were mentioned which have left no mark on history because they were illiterate. Bits were really interesting, though, including the history of West Africa, the way in which Africans, like pioneers in the US West, fought to conquer the wilderness.

E. H. Carr – The Romantic Exiles
A classic. One of those books that explains the age it covers not by the sweep of grand events but by the revealing details of little ones – like that European revolutionaries had their own “revolutionary tribunals” to provide justice without an appeal to existing states. Or that George Sand was a hugely popular prophet of sexual liberation.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala – The Origins of Sex
A book of cultural history about sex, which would normally make me suspicious, because I greatly doubt that the realities of human biology are all culturally constructed. But actually really good – it makes a strong case that the eighteenth century saw the first sexual revolution. This may be a bit too strong; but, for example, who'da thought that Bentham wrote a great deal of unpublished work in defence of homosexual equality?

G Grant – The World We Created at Hamilton High
Super book from the 1980s, about a high school before, during and after racial integration. But really you could say it’s a microcosm of all of society moving from the segregated but highly acculturated 1950s, through the chaos of the 1970s, to a rebirth of a fairer but harsher order.

Akerlof and Kranton – Identity Economics
Hmm, a bit meh. Not so much original content here – it’s really the Everyman version of Akerlof and Kranton’s papers about identity – although lots of ideas from interesting places. Best for me because it mentioned Hamilton High. My 2c: human groups are hugely important, but social identity is actually just a secondary part of group psychology.

Barbara Tuchman - The Proud Tower
A classic about the world before World War I. Just brilliantly good prose. Each chapter is on a theme and each theme illustrates a different aspect of an overwrought society as it approached a century-sized calamity.

John Felstiner – Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew
The only biography in English of my favourite poet. Not great in general, rather full of earnest lit-crit-isms, and much more focused on the poetry than on the human being – perhaps because little is known – but with occasional sharp insights and useful background, and obviously written out of a deep connection with the work.

Acemoglu and Robinson – Why Nations Fail
Reviewed much too prolixly, starting here.

James Hansen – Storms of My Grandchildren
Pretty extremely frightening, by a serious climate scientist. He is not entirely mainstream, but so distinguished that he seems worth listening to. Not mainstream because he believes empirics more than models. (Social scientists are currently in an era where they do the same, but remember that the models are supposedly based on physics, which is perhaps a better founded science than anything we have got.)

Ed Glaeser – Triumph of the City
Great, discussed here.

Taine – Notes on England
A counterpart to Democracy in America, another Frenchman taking an outsider’s view on a successor to French greatness. Light of touch and full of the atmosphere of nineteenth-century England. I like reading contemporary accounts, it cuts through layers of interpretation. Taine is a very good writer.

Turgenev – A Sportsman’s Sketches
Brilliant short stories. The only question is whether he is better than Chekhov. His stories are more diffuse but perhaps shine with a steadier light.

Kipling – Plain Tales from the Hills
This is the young Kipling and his stories already show more human insight than I will ever have. I think the Edwardians were right: Kipling is a great writer. Yes, he’s an imperialist, but he who was interested in people of all kinds and colours, and gave respect where he saw it earned (disrespect also).

Le Bon – The Crowd
Another surprise. Not actually about crowds at all but about mass psychology and the society we now fully inhabit. Incredibly witty and rude. Great to read if you are sick of democratic pieties. If not, at least it will be beneficially inflammatory.

Golding – Lord of the Flies
Never read it as a schoolboy. Mmmyeah. Not really top rate. Interesting and psychedelic. Also imperialist in a very late way. What is savagery? It’s not behaving like Englishmen.

Thomas Nagel – Mind and Cosmos
Hmm. Tyler Cowen loved it. It is very food-for-thoughty. What has stuck with me is the question of what justifies our faith in our experience as a guide to reality. I thought Hegel had an answer to this one, that “reality” was just the name for the principles that structure our experience, but I know nothing about philosophy.

Bardsley et al. – Experimental Economics: Rethinking the Rules
This is almost what I’ve wanted to say all along. Do they realise – or do other people realise – how seriously they are criticizing very large bodies of existing work in experimental economics? For example, I am now not sure how to interpret the huge literature on public goods games, because it may just be based on a faulty paradigm. The only thing I am not sure about is their interpretation of “model” in economics. For them a model is like an architect’s scale model. I always thought of models as arguments, dressed up in mathematical language. Anyway, all experimentalists should read this book.

Rilke – Duineser Elegien
Great and sorrowful and deep. I have no idea what most of these mean, but I don’t mind trying to find out for the rest of my life. Also lovely for me because of the echoes (well, pre-echoes) of Celan.

Arnold - Culture and Anarchy
I ought to love this but I really feel it has not stood the test of time. Culture seems a sloppily defined substitute for religion, and I am not surprised that an Arnoldian clerisy has failed to exercise cultural leadership in Britain over past century, instead disappearing up its own state-subsidized behind.

McCluskey – The Bourgeois Virtues
McCluskey is great when she’s punchy but I couldn’t even manage one volume of this, let alone the four that are planned. Too much prose per idea.

Kevin Clarke and David Primo  A Model Discipline
Interesting. Reviewed here.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Ethics committees

Every piece of university research involving humans has to go through an ethical approval process, typically handled by a committee.
History shows plenty of examples of horrendous research on humans. So surely ethics committees must be good things? Mmm... I am not convinced.
Ethics committees check every piece of research for problems before it starts. This is not the only approach to prevention. Some transactions on your local high street may be deceptive, but trading standards bodies do not check every transaction before allowing it. Closer to home, there is a danger of fraudulent research, but we do not check every piece of research for fraudulence. Instead we deal with problems by after-the-event sanctions and trust them to have incentive effects.
Scholars studying political oversight of bureaucracies talk about “police patrols” versus “fire alarms”. Police patrols check things ex ante; fire alarms go off only when there is a problem – for example, when a constituent or lobbyist raises a complaint. Police patrols have their advantages, but they can be massively expensive and cumbersome. Ethics committees are police patrols.
As well as imposing transaction costs, there is a danger that ethics committees go beyond their remit and try to control what research gets done. Ought their terms of reference not stop this? Perhaps in theory. In practice, often the ethical risks of a particular experiment must be weighed against the benefit of the research. But this is a backdoor, which allows committees to consider what is good and bad research.
The (nice and helpful) people on my last panel assured me that many researchers found that discussions with them improved their research design. Undoubtedly that was indeed true, but it is just the problem. If you are having that kind of discussion with a body which can allow or ban your research, then you have lost the ability to judge for yourself what research is worth doing. The benefits accruing to perhaps to 99% of researchers will be outweighed by the loss from the 1% with an innovative idea that, like many such ideas, meets resistance from the status quo.
In Germany, there are essentially no ethical review requirements, at least for social science research. I strongly suspect that a sample of German research and UK or US research would find no statistically significant difference in the level of ethics violations. Ironically, I can find  no evidence base for the positive effect of ethical review on the ethical quality of social science (though there seems to be plenty on its effects on speed of research etc.)
As I have brought up the German case, you may now wish to mention Nazi medical “research” and Josef Mengele, perhaps the wickedest pseudo-scientist in history. Be careful with that argument. Do you really think that the problem with Mengele was insufficient oversight by an ethics committee? The Nazis would have controlled the committee too, because they had taken over German universities. One reason they were able to do so, I suspect, was that German academia were highly centralized and authoritarian. So, if you want to protect academia against the effects of tyranny, make sure it is decentralized and free. Ethical review processes may risk doing the reverse.
(PS: the new Essex Social Science Experimental Laboratory will scrupulously follow the University’s ethical guidelines, and all research conducted in it will have passed ethical review, as well as the Lab’s own strict rules banning deception. These are just my personal opinions.)

Monday, 10 December 2012

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Triumph of the City

.... one of my favourite books this year. Packed with good history and deep insight.

Ed Glaeser thinks that innovation comes when smart people bump into each other, for which the city is the perfect venue. Of course that must be true, but perhaps there is another side. If you are too connected, you may end up having the same ideas that everyone else has. The folk wisdom of academia says that great ideas come either out of the great centres like Harvard or Cambridge; or from little departments in the middle of nowhere, which are free to explore their own avenues. And the truly deep ideas of history have come from outside the city. Moses went up a mountain; Jesus was 40 days in the wilderness; Mohammed meditated in a cave.

Saturday, 1 December 2012


Recent human evolution. Here's the Nature paper.
The World Bank talks about improving delivery of public services in poor countries. Along the way, it dismisses the principal-agent theory of governance as "unrealistic". Interesting!


Kind of sad that in reading about the Leveson report, I don't feel able to trust any of the newspapers. This is not just a truism: for example, in general, I would trust the BBC to report attacks on itself somewhat openly and impartially. Maybe the Guardian will have decent coverage? Anyway, here is the executive summary so you can get it direct. I liked this Thomas Jefferson quote in a footnote: "I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it."

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?)

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Tony Benn quote

"The case for a European constitution and currency is also presented as a move beyond nationalism, which has brought such anguish to Europe. But I fear that it will stimulate nationalism when angry people discover that they are forced to do things they do not want to do and are tempted to blame other nations, when the fault actually lies with the system itself."
Dare to be a Daniel, 2004.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


Someone else likes Michael Young and thinks he is prophetic. I didn't realise how little known the book was.
If Nathan Barley did agent-based modelling: “I want to bring in… Dinosaurs.... And then the dinosaurs shit bankers.”

Monday, 22 October 2012

Primaries and plebgate

How Andrew Mitchell lost power. The interesting part:
"His authority was shot. He had no authority with backbenchers. They have not come through the party system. They look to their constituency much more than the central party and the whips. A lot of them have got good careers that they could easily go back to if they chose to. They will not be coerced."
Strong centralized parties are good for democracy, because they encourage coherent national programmes. The US's weak party system leads to porkbarrel spending in Congress. Localism in politics is overrated. In this context, the Tories' plans for more open primaries are a bad idea, so we should be glad they appear to be on the back burner.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

"Net migration"

Inside the migration statistics sausage machine.

If you are concerned about pressure on housing and public services, then it is sensible to focus on net migration. On the other hand, if you care about "integration" -- whatever that means -- then a reduction in net migration may imply a greater overall churn rate; you might want to reduce immigration plus, not minus, emigration. You might also care about who enters and who leaves.

All the immigration anecdotes I have heard suggest that in the attempt to reduce net migration, pressure is being put on the softest targets -- e.g. students. Typically, these are also the most desirable migrants. That is what you would expect if you think that migration policy follows a pattern where the rhetoric aims at the median voter, but policy is really driven by employer demands.


This thoughtful NYT piece includes an adult discussion of moral hazard in health insurance.
Hooray! Proper feminism is back.

Friday, 12 October 2012

A Model Discipline book review

Got round to this last week. It's refreshingly short, and timely, because right now applied game theorists like me are kind of hunting for justifications for our lives.

The key ideas are, first, that models do many things beyond making predictions, such as organize data, or work out the logic of a particular world view. This is not new, but worth reiterating. Second, we are testing things wrong. Nowadays most articles with formal models test their implications (for example, a comparative static). This is a simple logical error: if model X implies prediction Y, and  prediction Y is true, it does not follow that model X is true. Using probabilistic logic does not help, either. If model X implies Y with high probability, and Y is true, it does not follow that model X has high probability of being true. It does not even follow that I should put higher probability on model X than before I observed Y.

Example. There is a large animal in this box. It could be a dog, a horse, or a unicorn. The ears are sticking out of the box, and they are brown and equine. The unicorn theory scores well for this, because unicorn ears are equine. But the horse theory scores even more highly, because unicorns are white. (Right?) Formal proof at bottom.

The book's claim is that many political science articles are deducing unicorns from horse ears, without considering horses.

This would not be such a problem if we knew all the alternative theories. We could just apply Bayes' rule. Unfortunately, in the complex world of politics, the set of potential theories is unimaginably vast, and we cannot possibly think of them all. (Thinking of new theories is our prime job, after all.)

I am not sure what the solution is. My instinct is that testing many different implications of the theory is a good idea, including specific causal mechanisms.  Political economics is especially bad at this: there is a tendency  to test complex, highly specific theories with a single macro-economic implication (e.g., "spending on public goods is higher under proportional representation").

So this idea was new to me and inspired some thought. My one quibble with the book is that the current emphasis on model testing does not come just from an abstract philosophical debate (e.g. Green and Shapiro's book); it is also a reaction to an overemphasis on formal theorizing a few years back. The pendulum naturally swings between theory and empirics; at the moment, looking at the social sciences broadly, we have probably gone too far the other way and have too many empirical results and not enough theory connecting them. Whether the next wave of theories will be formal is an interesting question.

[Proof about the unicorn:

By Bayes' rule:

Prob(unicorn given ears) = Prob(unicorn) × Prob(ears given unicorn) / Prob(ears)

so my posterior is only higher than my prior, Prob(unicorn), if

Prob(ears given unicorn) > Prob(ears) 

and we can parse out the right hand side as

Prob(ears)= Prob(unicorn) × Prob(ears given unicorn) +
             Prob(horse) × Prob(ears given horse) +
             Prob(dog) × Prob(ears given dog)

which can very easily be greater than Prob(ears given unicorn), if Prob(ears given horse) is high enough.]

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Within and between variation

Here is a very interesting post about violent crime and climate change. (There is a paper behind it. Hat tip to Andrew Gelman.)

I think we should be skeptical, for the following reason: within-variation is not between-variation. A helpful analogy is with income. It is widely reported that within a country, richer people are happier, but that above a certain level richer countries are not happier countries. (Which may well be false, but leave that to one side.) The putative explanation is that happiness comes from being richer than others around you, not from just being richer.

In the climate context, it may be that there is a fixed amount of crime in a society, of which more happens on the relatively hotter days. You can tell a physical story to fit this - maybe people get used to the mean annual temperature and react physiologically to deviations. The paper, surprisingly, does not discuss this issue, and indeed touts its array of county-month and county-year fixed effects as a virtue.

Unfortunately, a lot of cross-country regressions in the social sciences involve hoping that variation within a dataset of country-years from maybe the 1950s onwards (why are some countries now richer/more democratic?) will explain variation in a much larger universe of data (why did some countries get rich/democratic in the first place?) Since history is not much like a repeated set of experimental trials, this is just not a very plausible strategy.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


El Reg discusses the media on climate science. El Reg is way too denialist, IMHO, but quite open-minded underneath. Here is a Nature editorial about a new trend: statistical methods for attributing particular extreme events to climate change, rather than just shrugging one's shoulders and saying "climate ≠ weather, you can't blame global warming for specific events".

Saw Thermae Romae on the flight over. It's quite cute and very, very, very silly.

Monday, 8 October 2012


This pretty much sums up Badiou for me, but is still too generous:
More compelling than any economic or political argument he makes is his aesthetic exclamation, apropos of May 1968: “Now that is a great image! You have to have seen what this country looked like with all the factories flying red flags. No one who saw it will ever forget it.”
Compelling, how? Grown-ups don't judge politics by aesthetics.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Evaluating Thatcherism II: pseudomarkets

In Vancouver for a wedding. An old friend who teaches in Chicago waxes bitter about the charter school system. He has terrifying anecdotes about the school management: hiring their own relatives at inflated salaries, wasting vast sums on school construction. "There's no oversight, no accountability," he says. I am embarrassed. This is not what the Economist says! (Ah, but -- side note -- the Economist is part-owned by Pearson Plc, which makes a lot of money from standardized testing and "learning services", and wants to make more.) My friend has interests too, he is now a union rep., but his stories are convincing, and he transparently cares about his pupils.

My friend is on weaker ground with school choice. "But why should parents be able to choose their kid's school?" he asks. That line is pretty much an argument-loser.

This all brings me back to the vicissitudes of the Thatcher agenda. As the neolibs moved from things you could privatize to things that, politically, you could not -- from telephones to trains to education -- they cast around for new ways to bring in choice. Their solution was to introduce incentives and competition, but with the government as centralized buyer: what this blog calls pseudomarkets. Schools could be evaluated by standardized tests for pupils; privatized services would have Ofcom and Ofwat to measure their performance -- these are not Norse gods, but official regulators; policemen could get promoted based on the number of crimes they cleared up.

And lo, the performance measurements increased and the government saw the statistics and was well pleased, so pleased that the Blairites took over this part of the agenda and pushed it further still.

And yet the people who actually experienced the public services were not as happy as the performance measurements suggested. And they started to mutter about "teaching to the test" and "valuing what you measure instead of measuring what you value". (And nerds among them pointed to a famous paper by Holmstrom; and the others retorted, "yeah, that's what we said" and took a headache pill for the maths.)

But the agenda was still very popular with politicians: perhaps because politicians do not have many ideas, and keep doing what seemed to work before; perhaps because they were inside the whale, and truly believed the statistics that their civil servants read out; perhaps because "choice and competition" enabled accounting shenanigans which made debts vanish from the government's books, but the debts would still come back in the end.

Which brings us more or less up to the present day. So what do we do now?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


Frightening questions about Spanish politics.
I parse this like a game theorist: multiple equilibria and incomplete information make the world unpredictable, because we do not know what is inside people's heads, and reactions to new information can be self-fulfilling.
Jeffrey Frankel does a funny take-down of Romney's claims about the 47%, but has he never heard of the ecological fallacy? This is especially relevant because red-state Republicans are the rich, not the poor in their pickup trucks.

Why AA is so bad

American Airlines is terrible and so is Heathrow, perhaps you knew that. Here is some analysis of why. Here is a paper by yours truly, explaining what goes wrong when employees are afraid of losing their jobs. The context is different but the ideas seem to transfer across fairly simply.

Monkey power!


Sunday, 30 September 2012


The politics underlying Spain's mess.
Children get literally under their mother's skin.
Is Ian Jack just being sentimental here? Don't India's urban masses and poor farmers desperately need a smaller price wedge between them caused by the food chain? And yet... and yet....
Relatedly, this. The Economist wants more Swindon, Peterborough and Milton Keynes for England. I disagree.

TV and ethnicity: contrasting fates of two of Putnam's theses

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam hunts for the causes of declining American social capital and civic engagement. He fingers two suspects: TV and ethnic diversity. Television is supposed to keep us away from our neighbours and ethnic diversity is supposed to make us trust them less.

Both of these supposed links have been scrutinized, but ethnic diversity seems to have spawned a much bigger literature. Here are some rough numbers to back that up:

Search              Google scholar hits   Cites to top hit
Television + 
  "social capital"               43,300                403
Ethnicity +
  "social capital"               88,500              6,714
Ethnic +
  "social capital"              101,000              6,714 

  [within BA cites]               5,750                190
  [within BA cites]               6,310                491   
  [within BA cites]               9,260                150   

Television + trust              555,000                194
Ethnicity + trust               312,000                 72
Ethnic + trust                  887,000                 59

Apart from the "trust" searches, television seems to have fewer articles. I also tried using "TV" or "race", with similar results. More qualitative data - with more insight but maybe more bias - is that I can name many well-known articles in economics on ethnicity, trust and participation, but far fewer on TV and the same. Plus, there is unmistakably much, much more public controversy about ethnicity and multiculturalism than there is about TV. (Just read the comments pages of any UK news website... though not if you want to keep your faith in humankind.)

If this is true, why is it? I suspect that ethnicity is just naturally more controversial. The topic raises our primal hackles against "the other"*; and then, at least for some people, brings out the better angels of our nature to defend diversity and tolerance. 

Perhaps this is a shame. After all, ethnic diversity impinges on most of our lives rather little. It is something we observe while walking down city streets. TV is inside our homes, for four hours a day on average. Has the controversial topic obscured the truly important one?

* I find this phrase pretentious, vague and overused, but it does seem hard to avoid here.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Evaluating Thatcherism

At the start I should say I am sympathetic to Thatcherism. I think the state spends too much, regulates too much, and ought to be smaller and less intrusive. I also agree with her infamous "no such thing as society" quote, which is still taken out of context so often that it deserves reproduction in context here:
... They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society.There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.
In the end, however, Thatcherism appears to have been a failure. The central goal was to roll back the state, but this did not happen.
Public spending fell as a percentage of GDP during the Thatcher and Major governments. In real terms, since GDP increased during this time, it increased. (For some purposes the % GDP figures are what matters, and for others -- like measuring the absolute power of the state, for good or ill -- the absolute amount matters.) But the fall was not sustained, and under Labour we returned to almost the heights of the 1970s. You could just blame Labour for this, but that is politically naive. In a democracy, changes that require one party to remain permanently in power cannot be called sustainable!

Taxes also did not sustainably fall under Thatcher. In fact, taxes grew at first, then fell back, and grew again under Major.
Tax receipts % GDP
At least, unlike Reagan, Thatcher did not increase government debt tp pay for tax cuts -- a policy which ought no longer to be respectable in Conservative circles, but sadly remains tempting to US pseudocons.

Perhaps if Thatcher had not been elected, the state would have got even bigger. But Thatcherism did not make it smaller. I also doubt that the state regulated less in 1997 than it did in 1979, although surely that was true in some areas. In that sense the fundamental goal was not achieved.

Some key state companies were privatised. Few sensible people would reverse that decision. However, that agenda has little room to go further. Although choice and competition may be introduced into health and education, they will not be privatised, for probably sound reasons.

All of which means that the Thatcherite agenda must have been mistaken in some way. (Many, many people think it was mistaken in its goals; I mean that it was mistaken in the means it chose.) Conservatives who still support the basic libertarian goals must now find new ways to achieve them.

(By the way, here is Deirdre McCloskey on fine form explaining why you might want to support those basic goals. There is even more of this in her book The Bourgeois Virtues.)

Not very serious linkage

The Scot running one of Germany's largest regions.
Autotune the Nick Clegg apology. It has a nice Pet Shop Boys vibe.
A map of 1000 years of war. Warning: serious selection bias, surely?

Thursday, 20 September 2012


Epigenetics. You heard it here first.

Evidence on how the music industry works, reviewed at Fabio Rojas comments: "We are clearly living in a golden age of sociology of culture." I'd go beyond that: we are living in a golden age of the social sciences. When I was growing up, social science was the target of mockery either for proving the obvious, or for pretentious verbiage. Now we have data and methods to analyse it. There are tons of things that social scientists know -- know, or are reasonably sure of -- which would interest the general public. I will try to blog about a few of them in the coming months.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

At Birmingham University

Apocalypse not yet


Matt Ridley attacks apocalyptic predictions in August's issue of Wired Magazine.

What is the correct empirical model here?
  • Either the world will end in an apocalypse, or it won't. 
  • In both of these scenarios, the first N - 1 apocalyptic predictions will be false. 
Therefore, it is not a good idea to judge the latest apocalyptic prediction by its predecessors. Each has to be evaluated on its own merits. Mayan calendar 2012: not a big worry. Methane emissions from beneath the permafrost: worth freaking out about.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

No, Amazon. No, I did not.

Education Research NNNGGG MY BRAIN HURTS

For reasons of my own I was looking at the state of educational research in the UK and found the British Educational Research Association conference website. Here are some of the titles:

AARE Symposium Cultural Studies in Education: New Approaches to Research
Learning Critical Literacies Outside the White Man's Classroom
Dr Anna Hickey-Moody
Gender and Cultural Studies SOPHI, The University of Sydney

Place Pedagogy and Decolonisation in Cultural Studies Education
Professor Baden Offord 
School of Arts and Social Sciences and Southern Cross University 
Disturbing Thinking about Sexuality and Gender in Educational Research
Dr Mary Lou Rasmussen 
Faculty of Education, Monash University

Growing Queer: Theorising Television, Pedagogy and Homosexuality
Dr Daniel Marshall
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

Now, I am absolutely not one of those little twerps who go around asking you to report your Left wing professor. (Most academics are Left, most businessmen are Right, get over it.) And I am sure that research about gender, race and sexuality in education is important and necessary.

But: really? This is what our education research apparatus is still producing? Good quality, rigorous research on how to teach things to children is desperately needed, and we get this? I read these titles and I feel like getting out my Global Hypercolour T-shirt and listening to , because the nineties have obviously never gone away. I honestly thought that modern education research would have got beyond this stuff.

Here, for a quick contrast, are some items from the American Educational Research Association.

More Than a Variable: Race, Research, and Critical Race Theory in Education
Mixed Data Analysis Techniques: A Comprehensive Step-by-Step Approach
Examining the Impact of Teacher Inquiry as a Professional Development Tool
See the difference? It's not that there's no qualitative research, far from it; but there is a basic engagement with ideas like "impact", "data", "variable"; you know: finding out about stuff.


Troubling questions

If the Nazi murder of six million Jews and millions of other people in death camps was an act of monstrous, wicked depravity, so that the Nazi regime will  forever be condemned and abhorred, by all decent people, as nothing but a gang of murderers; then what ought to be our moral reaction to the British and American killing in aerial bombing campaigns of about four hundred thousand German civilians and about five hundred thousand Japanese civilians, and to the regimes that ordered them? Is this it, or part of it?

From the Bomber Command Memorial website:
Only those who have lived through similar times could understand or pass judgement.
Is the first claim in that sentence true? If so, does the second claim follow? What would be your reaction to the same comment, made by a German about the Eastern Front?

Air Marshal Harris, quoted in the Wikipedia article:
the aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive...should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany.... the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.
Also from the article, about the bombings of Japan:
Leaflets were dropped over cities before they were bombed, warning the people and urging them to escape the city. Though many, even within the Air Force, viewed this as a form of psychological warfare, a significant element in the decision to produce and drop them was the desire to assuage American anxieties about the extent of the destruction created by this new war tactic. Warning leaflets were also dropped on cities not in fact targeted, to create uncertainty and absenteeism. [My italics]
Questions troubling me, as they have troubled many others before.


Possible rights violations of varying severity.
Something I learned today: the Romans had companies, which issued traded, limited-liability shares.
At the New Statesman, Steven Poole massively disses popular neuroscience.
Dinosaur fights set to house music, of course.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

In which Michael Young is prophetic

From his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, first published in 1958:

On promotion by seniority:

“Our grandfathers... did not fully understand that when castes were abolished... there was still another category of people to circumvent – the class of old men.... In an open society the few who are chosen out of the many who are called should be chosen on merit; age is as much an irrelevant criterion as birth.... The story of the third and most recent phase is the story of the way in which the principle of seniority has gradually yielded to the principle of merit.... In any rapidly changing society the young are more at home than the old....”

“... eventually every forward-looking company had its teams of talent scouts combing the universities.... college magazines grew larger and larger on the proceeds of advertisements.”

“... when the retiring age was raised to seventy, the political consequences were so grave that we had to wait twenty years for the age to be raised further to eighty....”

On inequality:

“As for the lower classes.... They are tested again and again.... If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend...”

“... few contemporary observers were aware that economic progress threatened to produce a new kind of selective unemployment.... They knew that the prime purpose of machinery was to save labour, but did not ask – what kind of labour?... More and more was demanded of the skilled men, less and less of the unskilled, until finally there was no need for unskilled men at all.... What was to be done with them? There was only one possible answer... personal service. For instance, most of them could... serve in public restaurants and places of entertainment.... Domestic service could be restored once it was again accepted that some men were superior to others.... The trouble has been the men... no really adequate modern counterpart has been found for the butler and the footman of old. Male unemployment has been higher than female for forty years or more.”

More in a bit.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The North Towers

Just visible on the horizon from Wivenhoe. I am back at Essex as a lecturer.

Monday, 10 September 2012


US job numbers are out. The headline figures are weak and beneath the headlines it's even worse. It turns out that the private sector is creating plenty of jobs; job losses are coming from government.
Matt Yglesias demands US pop music autarky to prevent a dangerous dependence on British imports.
France debates whether we should teach morality in schools. In the past two generations, the idea of schools teaching children about right and wrong has become deeply controversial. I find this interesting.
Barry Eichengreen argues, in a brilliantly lucid essay, that a return to the Gold Standard would not be a sensible idea.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Social science: the virtues of fact collecting

Donald Horowitz has written two big and deservedly famous books about ethnic conflict: Ethnic Groups in Conflict and The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Each of them collects a mass of facts from around the world, and organizes them loosely into themes, like intergroup comparison and party politics.

James Fearon wrote a tough critique of the latter book. He praised it as a source of facts, but criticized its hypotheses as unclearly stated and not properly tested. His arguments are typical of the modern political scientist’s cast of mind: we are supposed to develop clear, precise hypotheses and test them with statistical rigour. In short, to be scientists.

And yet. Some years back an article in Political Science and Politics made a big impression on me. It was from a US army officer serving in Iraq. History, he said, seemed more practically useful to him than political science.

I have a similar intuition. If I were asked to recommend a book on ethnic conflict for somebody practically involved in peacebuilding or peacekeeping, I would choose Horowitz, in preference to other work that is more careful about forming and testing hypotheses. (In preference, for example, to either Varshney’s or Wilkinson’s excellent work on India.)

The point is not that fact collection is an indispensable precursor to hypothesis formation. We can agree on that – Fearon and Varshney and Wilkinson have all put a lot of effort into collecting facts, and have created extremely useful resources for other researchers by doing so. The point is that, if my intuition is right, sometimes fact collection is a useful kind of knowledge in itself – useful for the practitioner, without further intervention from other scientists. How can that be? What kind of knowledge is transmitted by a big lump of semi-organized facts, that isn’t conveyed by those same facts pre-digested?

The answer may come from two facts about social science. First, it’s very hard. Biology is more complex than physics; biological laws are more probabilistic than physical ones and biology will never be reducible to four fundamental forces. Social sciences add another level of complexity: we deal with a very complex organism – the human – which forms even more varied and complex social patterns. Inference from one context to another is notoriously difficult in social science; two schools, towns or countries may work in very different ways.

The second fact about social science is that humans are good at it. Every human, even your worst undergraduate student, is a well-practiced, instinctive “folk” psychologist, organization theorist, game theorist and discourse analyst. (And rabbits are probably pretty good instinctive bunny sexologists, for the same reasons: they have to be.) We are good at spotting the patterns in unfamiliar situations.

What the undigested facts give the practitioner is context. When you are dealing with Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad, some unforeseen slice, taken through a bunch of anecdotes about ethnic conflict globally, may combine with your own local knowledge into a pattern that helps predict the future. The same anecdotes, prepackaged as a database and summarized in a hypothesis which fits them very well, may be irrelevant to your situation.

So, one thing differentiating us social scientists from the physical sciences is the kind of practical advice we can hope to give. We are not very expert, and our audience is quite expert. We therefore want to be humble and not to package our stories too neatly: practitioners will have their own stories to add to them.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Virgin vs. First Group e-petition - million monkey edition

Here's an e-petition asking the government to reconsider handing the West Coast franchise to FirstGroup. I've signed.

I did my PhD on direct democracy. It left me very skeptical of arguments about the wisdom of crowds. For FirstGroup I'll make an exception though. This is handing a franchise from one of the best train companies to one of the worst. I cannot help suspecting that the decision was made by either (1) a government desperate for a quick buck or (2) naive bureaucrats applying a set of Very Carefully Designed Criteria, and being gamed by clever lobbyists. That is my evidence-free suspicion, so:

~~~ Vote Now ~~~
~~~ A Million Monkeys Can't Be Wrong! ~~~


The alleged great US student loan scam. The writer complains about anecdotes being used to paint students as defaulters, but him/herself indulges in anecdotal evidence on a fairly grand scale.
Drezner on the APSA collapsa.
The NYR on the ideologization of Republicans. (NB: the obverse of this is the pragmatization of Democrats, and of the Left in general. I have a pet theory that the pragmatic Left is now the establishment, and the Right are the sometimes loony radicals. Some of my libertarian students strongly remind me of Tommy Judd in Another Country.)
Scott Sumner reviews Coase on China. Here's the book. (Expensive at the moment.)

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Coop-eration: chickens, baseball and the Research Excellence Framework

Back in the day, baseball teams would pay huge amounts for superstars with excellent performance statistics, such as batting averages. (Baseball involves batting, right? Bear with me, this will become a metaphor.) One now famous baseball coach started out as an econometrician. He analysed team performances, looking for players who were on successful teams even though their individual statistics were not that great. The logic was that teams, not individuals, win matches. Buying these relatively cheap players, he took them to the top of the Superbowl (or whatever - I think this book has the details).

Chicken farmers have discovered the same thing. If you only breed from the individuals who lay the most eggs within a coop, you end up selecting for highly aggressive hens who destroy each others’ eggs. It’s better to breed from individuals within highly productive coops. (Source.)

The UK's Research Excellence Framework is approaching. It ranks academic departments by aggregating each individual's productivity. This is fair enough. The problem starts when departments try to increase their ranking by trying to hire academic "superstars". If this were what made a great department, we could all just work from home. Departments should be places where ideas cross-fertilize. The person who contributes to a vibrant working environment, or frames someone else’s idea in an important new perspective, may be as important as the person with a Stakhanovite publication output.

So, in terms of incentive structures, academics are some way behind sports coaches and chicken farmers. I hope they will soon catch up with these more forward-thinking elements of society.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Pictures from an abandoned Russian army barracks

GSSD-Kaserne lies in the forest on the hills above Lichtenhain. Originally it was a location for Scud rockets. Parts of the base have become a nature reserve, with barracks buildings now housing bat colonies. Before that, it was visited by graffiti artists, newly liberated from the grip of the Red Army.