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December 2015 posts

Experiments and Complexity

By Jonathan B. Wight

What is desirable for science and what is desirable for the humans who carry out scientific research can diverge. Humans, according to Adam Smith, have an instinct for perfect order, which we conflate with beauty.
Hence, we buy fancy and expensive watches, even though we don’t get any extra utility from information on time. What counts is the attainment of the perfection of a device for keeping time.

The same thing may be happening in the area of field experiments in economic development. Scientists love the supposed beauty of intricacy and perfection. The result, according to Chris Blattman, is that experiments are becoming increasingly (and unnecessarily) more complex:

“Every year the technical bar gets raised. Some days my field feels like an arms race to make each experiment more thorough and technically impressive, with more and more attention to formal theories, structural models, pre-analysis plans, and (most recently) multiple hypothesis testing. The list goes on. In part we push because want to do better work. Plus, how else to get published in the best places and earn the respect of your peers?

“It seems to me that all of this is pushing social scientists to produce better quality experiments and more accurate answers. But it’s also raising the size and cost and time of any one experiment.

“This should lead to fewer, better experiments. Good, right? I’m not sure. Fewer studies is a problem if you think that the generalizabilty of any one experiment is very small. What you want is many experiments in many places and people, which help triangulate an answer.”

I agree. Taking things to their logic extremes satisfies some part of the intellect and emotion for perfection, but closes off lots of avenues of exploration. Let a thousand flowers bloom!*

[* Misquotation of Mao, who encouraged open dialogue by saying “Let a hundred flowers blossom.” When dissidents came forward, many were executed. I draw on Mao’s quote, but not the stifling of opinion.]

Who Is Muslim?

By Jonathan B. Wight

I’ve been wondering about this question, and Hussein Ibish has just answered it in the New York Times. Aside from the ideological repugnance to Trump’s plan to bar Muslim immigrants, it is not even possible to imagine how it could be implemented. Ibish notes:

“Would the definition of a Muslim be based on family heritage, personal beliefs or both? How would that be codified in practice? On what basis could the government categorize people as Muslims? We have no legal definition or database of religious beliefs, and the First Amendment would almost certainly render any such enforced categorization unconstitutional.”

He goes on:

“While my father was a devout Sunni Muslim, my mother remains a devout Anglican Christian. So, despite my name and place of birth being clear indicators of a ‘Muslim origin,’ the reality is more complex.

“Moreover, I never embraced either religion, and had agnostic tendencies even as a child. Yet I identify with the Muslim-American community for social, cultural and political reasons. I am part of, and from, the Muslim community, but in terms of belief I am not and never have been a Muslim. So, how would I be categorized?”....

“The word ‘Muslim,’ without any further qualification, and the word ‘person,’ are, for practical purposes, synonymous.”

To understand more such complexities, Ibish recommends that we read, What Is Islam? by the late Harvard professor Shahab Ahmed

Everything said here about Muslims could easily also be said about Christians.


By Jonathan B. Wight

Resources are scarce, and it is easy to see why many law enforcement agencies would devote more resources to targeting specific groups that in the past have been found to commit lots of crimes. Young males commit virtually all the mass homicides in the United States.

But it is easy to also see why these enforcement policies run afoul of basic fairness and rights. I’ve been stopped my share of times by police, but never did I feel under physical threat simply because of my race, economic standing, or national origin. The psychological trauma experienced by someone frightened by the imminent threat of bodily harm is something that lasts a very long time (and no doubt police officers feel this injury as well). 

ProfileTake a look at these photos of some of the terrorists responsible for 9/11. Would you have profiled these guys out of the crowd at a busy airport?

If you said “yes” consider that the photo in the top left is that of the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, sporting a 3-day growth that looks deeply subversive.

Lies -- Tell Me More Lies!

By Jonathan B. Wight

We all love to be lied to. I admit it, people can flatter me and I’ll smile and play along. Perhaps it’s simply in our genes to want to be the object of attention and have someone tell us what we want to hear. Gullibility must have some value in evolution, as yet unrecognized.

In politics, though, it creates a moral hazard. Politicians have an incentive to twist the truth. Here’s a New York Times report of a PolitiFact summary about what has been revealed about all the candidates, going back to 2007: “All Politicians Lie. Some More than Others.”

What I did then was compare the data on making false statements with the candidates’ rankings in an ABC/Washington Post poll for November 16-19, 2016. Yes, I cherry-picked this date because it was before Carson’s recent slide, and makes for a more interesting picture: Polls
I do not think the America people are stupid and vote for people who they know make things up. I think the American people want to be told lies that make them feel better about themselves—say, by making them feel morally superior to others. The whiff of injustice done to me and mine can rile up a mob pretty fast.

The dangers of a mob are something Adam Smith worried about. It is at times like this that we should not give in to our passions, which are easily inflamed, but rather follow our rules for treating others as worthy of respect and basic rights.

Get a Grip!

By Jonathan B. Wight

GetaGripChris Hebert is a British soldier who lost his leg in combat, and below rejects using stereotypes against Muslims:

He notes:

 *A British soldier who is Muslim lost his arm that same day.

*A Muslim medic helped him in the evacuation helicopter.

*A Muslim surgeon saved his life.

*His life has been blessed by other Muslims since his return home.

Enough said?

[Thanks to Bob Patterson for the link.]

The Asthma Crisis and Mental Health

By Jonathan B. Wight

PBS NewsHour ran a story last night on the discovery that stress—particularly induced by childhood trauma—is behind some or much of the meteoric rise in asthma cases in youth in America.

“Why Stress May Be Fueling the Childhood Asthma Epidemic”
looks at the astounding increase in asthma rates in Detroit, Michigan, which far exceeds neighboring regions that presumably are subject to the same natural environment conditions. What distinguishes Detroit?—its violent crime and murder rates, leaving young kids bereft and feeling under attack.

This is a reminder of a finding that Fiedler and Wight made way back in 1989, that treating mental illness provides a cost-effective way of reducing physical health treatments (The Medical Offset Effect and Public Health Policy, New York: Praeger, 1989). In their pathbreaking (okay, a little self-hype here) analysis, Fiedler and Wight demonstrate in case studies of several hundred thousand patients in two states that there was an important payback for mental health prevention.

The “offset effect” is the lowering of physical health expenditures induced by a patient receiving timely and appropriate mental health interventions. If anyone is looking for it, this is another bit of evidence that a national health care system that covers everyone makes more sense financially than the hodgepodge of coverage we have today. We always end up paying, but not in ways that are efficient or desirable.

My First Full-Time Paycheck

By Jonathan B. Wight

I worked lots of part time jobs as a youth, as a newspaper recycler, dishwasher, cashier, waiter, babysitter, lawn cutter, door-to-door salesman, window blinds washer, and even a month’s stint in a factory (yes, it was illegal, but that wasn't a big deal in Brazil in the summer of 1968; I was a few months shy of 16, and yes, factory work can be grueling and damaging to health). Later I toiled as a ranch hand, tried to sell life insurance (a disaster), was an intern for a congressman on Capitol Hill (a success), and after that a trial assistant and investigator for a public defender.

[Advice to kids: work as many different jobs as you can and vow always to have fun.]

In my dishwasher’s job in a department store in Milwaukee, I had gotten accustomed to whistling while I worked. That irked the cook who snarled at me, “Whaddidyou eat fer breakfast, bird seed? Shut the ___ up!”

[Advice to kids: grown-ups might not appreciate your having fun at work.]

IMG_2240Recently I was throwing out boxes and a slip of paper fluttered out. It was a contract for my first full-time job as a lab assistant at Columbia Hospital for Women, Washington, D.C., June 8, 1972. I had just graduated high school, heading to college the next fall. My starting salary was $2.60/hour and my main task was drawing blood, and occasionally running urine or blood tests. I worked every weekend, no time-and-a-half.

In today’s wages that comes to $14.83, which seems pretty good for a pimply teenager who needed training. I did become adept at blood drawing as my instructor had been a medic on the battlefield, and as they say, he could get blood from a turnip.

The most significant thing I remember about that pay experience was working my 40 hours –twice, since I was paid bi-weekly – and anxiously awaiting my first check. I eagerly calculated: 80 hours x $2.60/hr. comes to about $200 for two weeks’ work. But lo and behold, I had no idea about withholding for taxes and Social Security, and all the other myriad of hands that slip in and lighten a wage earner’s pay. It was a painful lesson, and for that reason it always hurt to look at my pay stub.

[Advice to kids: Behavioral economists explain this as loss aversion. Get your paycheck automatically deposited into your savings account. Then take only a portion of that (e.g., 70%) to spend. Forget about all the rest.]

Those who complain about the ethics of a higher minimum wage point out that it hurts kids who, like me, need training and experience and are perhaps not worth a lot to employers. That is a good point, but the minimum wage in 1972 was $1.60/hr., in today’s terms about $9.13/hr.— 25% higher in real terms than today.

It’s hard to fathom why in a country where real per capita income has doubled over the past 40 years, the pay to our poorest workers has fallen by more than 20%. Does that pass the ethical smell test?

Adam Smith would be concerned. He noted: “It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.”