A paradox

You know those little floaters on the surface of your eyes? They drift into view, catch your attention, then when you try to focus directly on one it disappears from view. They’re only really there if you don’t look straight at them.

Goodhart’s Law tells us that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The same basic logic applies to two of my favorite things: the Internet and college.

The Internet is still a magical thing, but we’ve killed some of the magic by trying to take the Internet seriously. The Internet ceases to provide output worth taking seriously when people actually take the Internet seriously. When you only keep it in your periphery, it’s actually worth taking seriously

Ditto for college. The basic problem with the current system is that we’re all taking it too seriously. That leads to all sorts of specific bad behavior. But it all comes from this root problem. College is only worth taking seriously if we don’t. When college is back in the ivory tower, separated from the “real” world, it’s a place where people can be creative and make non-obvious connections. But once we recognize “hey, that’s a pretty neat thing, let’s make it a one-size-fits-all solution to all of our problems” we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

My advice for getting the most out of the Internet: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do weird stuff.

My advice for getting the most out of college: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do the sort of stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t have time for.

Nightcap

Slate Star Codex has been deleted.

Obviously the inarguably best post was this. Of course I don’t mean that literally; my favorite post was his review of Seeing Like a State.

Fortunately, the posts archived in the Wayback machine behave nicely with Pocket. I’m going to go save a few to read later.

Worth a read: Reality has a surprising amount of detail

Reality has a surprising amount of detail

Here’s the tl;dr:

At a high level, most things are fairly simple. But understanding the high level (e.g. of carpentry, programming, economics, gardening etc.) only gets you so far. This relates to something I’ve been gradually realizing about wood working: it’s straightforward, but it’s not easy.

Details matter. So what? Those details affect our ability to get things done–from mundane straightforward things like installing a flight of stairs, to fuzzier things like connecting with each other. More importantly, figuring out those details is not automatic, the details I perceive are not the same as those you do, and once I figure out some set of details, they fade into the background…

This means it’s really easy to get stuck. Stuck in your current way of seeing and thinking about things. Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.


As big a fan as I am of the big picture, we can’t get away from the fact that it’s made out of many smaller pictures. Figuring out the world, and figuring out how to be excellent to each other are straightforward, but they aren’t easy.

From the comments: follow on effects of liability rules?

Far be it from me to to tell anyone how to think, or what a word belonging to everyone really means. But I’m going to quickly indulge in a No True Scotsman-ism. Libertarianism means being skeptical of power. (I recently saw a great line on libertarians that needs sharing: “…every libertarian agrees on two things: that there’s only one libertarian and it’s them.”)

So I’m optimistic to see reductions in the amount of power government agents can exercise. I’m particularly optimistic to see changes that don’t take the form of “we’re going to manage that bit of power over there with a new bit of power over here” (i.e. regulation). A very short term version of such a change happened when Buffalo’s police union announced they wouldn’t cover the legal fees of their riot squad.

My enthusiasm was followed by the right question in the comments: “If this obtains, what is the likely effect upon the lives and property of Buffalo dwellers?”

In principle, we could dig into this question empirically, but not until we’ve got decent data with variation in the liability rules governing police behaviors. In the mean time…

Let’s break the question down: What are the average effects and how will those effects differ between different parts of Buffalo? What will be the effects on violent crime? What will be the effects on property crime? And how will those effects affect property values?

The most obvious and immediate change will be a reduction in police use of force. As we’ve seen, at least some of that force is used criminally. This change in the rules means reducing the likelihood of another Gugino incident. Which means a reduced likelihood of pulling resources away from productive uses to cover all the various costs involved in such incidents–the medical care and suffering, the resources surrounding arresting the perpetrators and keeping them safe should they end up incarcerated, the legal fees, etc. All else equal (i.e. ignoring secondary effects), this is equivalent to raising the cost of breaking windows–bad for the glazier, but more than offset to window owners.

Of course, the real question is about the impact of reducing the non-criminal use of force by police. The Buffalo experiment looks to be short-term and restricted to the riot squad, so we won’t be able to draw any conclusions from this (except, of course, that it confirms my priors and you’re looking at things the wrong way if you disagree with me. </s>)

The more interesting question is how extending this liability issue–i.e. curtailing qualified immunity–would affect the long run equilibrium? That outcome would eventually be capitalized into the prices of real estate. Safer neighborhoods will have higher property values.

Here’s my prediction: property values will increase in poor and non-white neighborhoods relative to wealthier and whiter neighborhoods.

Some caveats are in order:

  • I suspect that in most American cities poor neighborhoods are under-served by the police, so reduced legitimate police force will have minimal impact.
  • I also suspect (hopefully someone will share some helpful resources in the comments) that illegitimate police force is mostly concentrated in poor neighborhoods.
  • Wealthy neighborhoods might see some increased crime from reduced legitimate police force, but I’m doubtful. I think more likely the impact will be more like the effects of price discrimination–why pay more if the alternative isn’t terrible? To the extent poor neighborhoods get less terrible, the relative draw of rich neighborhoods will decreases.
  • There are any number of other changes coming down the pipeline that will make it difficult to disentangle the effects of qualified immunity holding all else equal.
  • To the extent we see a general improvement in the quality of policing (more ‘serve & protect’ and less cracking skulls) we should see an increase in property values across the board.
  • White flight is likely to happen which will bias results towards my conclusions. I want my hypothesis to be interpreted holding white flight constant.
  • The effects will go beyond just real estate price. I would expect something like this: for every $1 price reduction in rich neighborhoods, there will be <$1 price increase in poor neighborhoods, but the gap will be made up in other quality-of-life changes such as reduced chance of incarceration for victimless crimes, fewer hours of work missed, fewer injuries at the hands of police, etc.
  • I hope that these quality of life changes will make empirical analysis even more difficult as other follow on effects extend the time horizon of people in poor neighborhoods–e.g. if fewer people are sent to jail, that could lead to fewer young men getting involved in crime leading to entrepreneurs being more willing to invest in their communities.

My predictions are absolutely shaded by my ideological biases. And there’s no getting around how complicated these changes are (hopefully) going to be. But I feel confident predicting an implicit shift of wealth from the paranoid wealthy to the disenfranchised.

Is there anyone here who disagrees enough to help me clarify my thinking by putting money on it?

Liability Rules!

“The union representing Buffalo police officers told its rank and file
members Friday that the union would no longer pay for legal fees to
defend police officers related to the protests…”

From Buffalo News.

This could be excellent news (at least in Buffalo). The threat of lawsuits means police will either be on their best behavior or won’t show up to work.

Cyclical History

An interesting result from behavioral/experimental economics is that bubbles can happen even with smart people who should know better. But once those people go through a bubble, they do a better job of avoiding bubbles in the future.

I think this result has major implications for society more broadly and I think we’re seeing it play out in the news. In the ’70s people learned a lot of hard lessons about things like stagflation (and racism–but ask a sociologist about that) that made the following decades easier. But those people gradually retired and were replaced with people who weren’t inoculated to certain ideas (like the idea of inflating your way out of a supply-side recession).

We’re now living in a world where the median voter and her elected representatives have unlearned those hard lessons. And so we’re going to live through the 1970’s again. Hopefully. If we’re not so lucky we might live through the 1930’s again.

Skin in the Game or Senility?

This morning I learned that Trump has been taking Hydroxycloroquine for the last week.

Good for him for actually (apparently) taking on the risk he’s so enthusiastic to encourage others to take. I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t picked this up as a chance to build up some good press. Still, as a devoted never-Trumper, I hope this turns into evidence that Trump is not legally competent to hold office.

No word yet if he’s been huffing bleach fumes.

Evolution in Everything: Handwriting

There’s a whole set of simple but profound lessons that, if I were being lazy, I might call “the economic way of thinking.” We move through a hand-me-down world, solving some problems and creating new problems, adjusting and adapting, and shaping the world that we pass on to the next generation.

I just stumbled on a lovely example in an article about ballpoint pens and the end of cursive. A technological change changed the nature of handwriting, but the structure of human capital lagged behind. Specifically, the widespread adoption of ballpoint pens meant the old way of writing–how to hold the pen, how to form the letters, etc.–was poorly suited to the tool being used. This should have been an opportunity to test unchecked assumptions (e.g. about what the “correct” way to write is) but instead an inefficient practice (cursive writing with a bic pen) persisted in the face of increasing obsolescence.

I particularly like the idea of trying something new (fountain pens) can lead to a realization that some old method has a lot more going for it than was obvious to the non-alert.

I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility. It’s not news to anyone that students used to write with fountain pens, but knowing this isn’t the same as the tactile experience of writing with one. Without that experience, it’s easy to continue past practice without stopping to notice that the action no longer fits the tool. Perhaps “saving handwriting” is less a matter of invoking blind nostalgia and more a process of examining the historical use of ordinary technologies as a way to understand contemporary ones. Otherwise we may not realize which habits are worth passing on, and which are vestiges of circumstances long since past.

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

Learning takes time. So in a dynamic society, it’s natural that there will always be some sort of practice outliving its utility. The only other way I see is stagnation: no new methods, no new problems, and we eventually setting into a “making the best of it” equilibrium.

The discovery of each of these inefficiencies creates some pocket of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it’s a massive, market oriented bit of entrepreneurship–like Bic industrializing the process of making cheap, reliable pens. Sometimes it’s a niche community of hobbyists (who might be incubating the next big thing). But that entrepreneurial reaction to inefficiency is pretty exciting. Realizing how my bad handwriting is the outcome of a technical problem makes me want to try fountain pens.

All News is Biased

I generally avoid the news because those things are outside my control. But then the pandemic happened and I picked up this bad habit.

I generally get my news from NPR because I trust that they’ll observe the rules of good journalism and it’s easy to adjust for the inevitable leftward bias. Just to be safe, I’ll occasionally check Fox News to mix up the sorts of spin I’m seeing. (Aside: a recent Wisecrack video on biased news has me feeling more optimistic about the existence of a wide range of biased news, even if I’m still pessimistic about most people’s ability to take advantage.)

At first I didn’t see a huge difference. When something happened, both sources report what happens. Both sources do the same basic task of reporting the news. The editorials are certainly different, but I’m not that interested in most opinions. When they’re reporting, the spin is fairly subtle because it’s hard to spin a mostly raw fact.

But after a few weeks, I’ve been finding that the news worsens my mood and offers me little useful information. My time is scarce and my old methods (getting news indirectly from friends, family, and the local paper) worked better. I’m updating my information diet. Besides cutting back on Fox News and NPR, I’m taking a cue from Trump and shifting to a new, prior-confirming, and basically made up news source: OPR. Their stories aren’t literally true, but the act of interpreting them is similar to de-biasing actual news. And for all the effort, I feel as informed as I did last week.

Paid Sick Leave and Schelling Focal Points

Paid sick leave is something I want more people to have. Of course it’s a good thing. Sick leave is valuable, but it’s not free so we have to ask it it’s worth it.

Right around the 11:30 mark is a tragic and hilarious line: “Dildos are not essential items. Books for kids, yes, but dildos? … No!” Good for John Oliver noting that deciding what is essential isn’t straight forward–apparently frivolous things might keep people inside and so serve the public health.

This is a classic Austrian point: prices (are supposed to) communicate information about how urgently people want a product. We run into trouble trying to prevent prices from reflecting the underlying economic crappiness of a crisis. Price gouging should be allowed for toilet paper and especially for grocery/Amazon workers. And the price of grocery workers should be passed on to consumers.

What we’ve got now requires each of us to not only ask “am I willing to pay this price?” but also engage in a moral calculus that is hard. I have to ask (as a person striving to be moral) if it’s really worth ordering X, Y, and Z from Amazon. But as a person who has to strive to be moral, it’s entirely too easy to fall for bad rationalizations.

So how do we help these essential-yet-replaceable* workers? Paid sick leave sure sounds good. And given the externalities involved in a pandemic, there’s a strong argument for mandating it.

But it’s worth remembering (particularly as a long run policy) that if we push on one part of a compensation bundle, something’s going to give. If we require employers to provide a company car (or simply encourage company cars through preferential tax laws), we shouldn’t be surprised to see monetary compensation fall. The same logic applies to paid sick leave.

But I’m my own devil’s advocate, so let me make a counter argument. I rarely use my sick days. I think I’ve taken 2 or 3 in the last 6 years. (I’m absolutely reevaluating that position now!) There’s this idea floating around in the back of my head that tells me to just tough it out and keep working. This isn’t because I carefully weighed pros and cons, it’s just received “wisdom” picked up by osmosis from the broader culture.

American culture values work over value. There’s no shortage of bullshit work because we’re in a work-too-hard equilibrium. This is not to say that hard work doesn’t have benefits. I’m happy when ambitious entrepreneurs work “too” hard to provide greater value. But there are a lot of cases where we create work for its own sake (especially in the higher ed racket, but apparently we’re not alone).

Essentially, we’re all playing a coordination game where we choose between “[appear to] work to make things better” and “stay home instead of passing your illness to other people.” Given American work culture, the Schelling focal point is <work, work>.

On the compensation end of things employers have to decide between offering more sick leave or some other compensation (like money). In this end, there is some benefit to zigging where other employers zag. If I’m running the only business to offer paid paternity leave, I get my pick of the best family-oriented workers while my competitors have to outbid each other to get the best of the other workers. But any mid-level HR manager is more likely to play the risk-averse strategy of following “best practices.”

So we’re in an equilibrium that underrates sick leave. We want to be in an equilibrium where it’s just good business sense to offer sick leave during a global pandemic. But coming from our current equilibrium, offering sick leave is a costly decision to privately provide a public good; it’s unlikely to happen unless the culture already promotes it.

I think we can get that equilibrium. I think we’re already moving towards it (ask yourself: would the board of the East India Company be more likely to offer sick leave than Amazon?). But we’re not there yet.

Paid sick leave should be good business sense right now**. But it depends on a culture where such behavior is widespread. I’m not convinced we could flip a switch and get that culture over night. Given that, I’m at least somewhat okay with contradicting my libertarian priors and calling for emergency mandates for paid sick leave. 2020 America isn’t likely to coordinate on the “right” short-term solution and coercion is probably the most efficient*** way to deal with this common pool problem. But outside of a public health emergency we shouldn’t allow top down mandates about the mix of compensation offered in markets (certainly not with the sort of people we elect to be on top).


(A couple rhetorical points: First, John Oliver isn’t speaking the language of those on the right. They won’t even be convinced that the issues he’s talking about are important. I think that’s a shame. Second, this is a tough time to try to argue against paid sick leave. In 2020 America, mandatory paid sick leave is probably required because we’re at the wrong Schelling point. Again, I don’t think conservatives or right-libertarians will find Oliver’s motivations convincing, but I believe that they could be persuaded. But that’s another blog post.)

(Two important counterpoints to the above: first, price increases hurt the poor. The way to solve that is to give charity money to the poor, not to try to make markets communicate information about relative scarcity and act as charity–that’s half-assing twice and it’s bound to be more inefficient than the charity would be costly. Second many people categorized as “essential” aren’t in a position to demand higher wages*. I don’t have an easy solution to this issue. Let’s talk about it in the comments.)

*Which is to say, workers who are in the same position as water in the diamond-water paradox.
**Not to say it would be cheap or easy.
***There you go. Now my friends on the left can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for opposing paid sick leave in general, and my friends on the right can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for supporting

Everyone understands what your GPA this semester means

In my industry there’s been a ton of discussion about how to handle grading for this spring semester. Campuses shifted to online instruction mid-semester. Students are losing jobs, struggling with home responsibilities, and otherwise being utterly thrown into the deep end of an unfair situation.

Here’s the thing: we all get it. C+ this semester will be a mighty impressive accomplishment for a lot of students this year. Nobody looking at and subjectively interpreting a transcript will fail to appreciate that. If I’m looking at your transcript, I’m going to look at your GPA for before this and heavily discount this semester’s GPA if it’s anything different than it was in the fall.

For some students, this pandemic will be a minor hiccup, or even a chance to rise to the occasion and excel. Good for them. For other students, it will be such a significant disruption that they won’t be able to learn the material they’re ostensibly in school for. And if they can’t pass the class, that sucks. Pandemics suck, and their impact on people’s educational progress is part of that suckiness.

We absolutely should look for ways to reduce the impact on those students. We need to grant exceptions for things like scholarships requiring certain timelines and GPAs (like my favorite NY state program). But life happens, and a if grades are worth having at all (which we should debate), then we shouldn’t abandon them now. We should just abandon the stakes we’ve attached to them.

A Timely Agent Based Model

I’m going to play economic imperialist and declare that epidemiology is partly within the domain of economics. I’m not sure how big the overlap is, but certainly there are economic questions that bear epidemiological type modeling. The movement of ideas is, in the long run, as important as the movement of a virus is in the short run. In any event, economists should be using this sort of methodology more often.

Human Capital Diversification vs Pancake Mix

I went to the grocery store yesterday (late morning) expecting either business-as-usual or empty shelves. I was surprised to see both. I’m currently regretting not taking photos because it probably will be business-as-usual by the time I go back.

Some shelves were empty, and others were full. What I saw was a direct visualization of what my neighbors don’t know how to cook.

Going through my store I could see that my neighbors know how to put jarred sauce on pasta. But I saw the opportunity to blend some canned whole tomatoes and make my own sauce. “International” foods were largely untouched, but anything in the local culinary lexicon was sparse.

The whole Baking Needs aisle was basically fine, except for the pancake mix which was all gone. This is really the whole story. Who buys pancake mix? Culinary illiterates.

(Disclaimer: I’m a biased source when it comes to pancakes. I take pancakes as seriously as 75th percentile Bostonian takes the fact that the Yankees suck.)

It takes a modest amount of skill to make pancakes, but the ingredients are cheap and YouTube wants to help you. Now is a great time to up your pancake game. But even if you just follow the directions on any random pancake recipe you’re stirring together flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, eggs, oil, and milk.

The mix will either give you a crappy shelf-stable replacement for the eggs and/or milk (yuck!) or hold your hand as you stir together some powder with eggs, oil, and milk.

Thinking back to my career as an omnivore, I can recall a time when I’ve bought ingredients I really should have made. I’m not judging people who don’t know how to cook, because I’ve been there.

What I’m pointing out is that those people are always going to have the hardest time when it comes to food shortages. I’d be in the same boat if I was shopping at a store that didn’t sell the limited set of ingredients I know how to use.

There’s a tension in economics that we don’t pay enough attention to: gains from specialization vs. gains from diversification. At a system level (and in a Principles class) the two go together. But at the level of individual there is a lot to be said for diversification–you’re more robust to change, resilient in the face of problems, and perspectives gained in one domain may have lessons to apply to others.

I’m grateful I haven’t taken my own human capital specialization so far that I can’t make my own pancakes.

Prediction: Online Adjuncting is About to Boom

SUNY has been pushing for more online for some time. It means an increased ability to sell credentials to a broader market with lower real estate costs.

As far as I can tell, the primary constraint has red tape. I don’t know who put it there (unions? accreditors? governments?), but getting a class certified to go online on my campus has meant going through a steep enough up front cost that few people bother. Combine that with the fact that an online class is simply less fun and you’ve got a recipe for a mercifully slow expansion of online teaching.

That changed this week. Now almost all of SUNY is online, like it or not. The red tape might be there when we get back to normal, but the up front cost to getting a class online will fall enough that many adjuncts will get in on the action next fall.

About 15% of summer 2020 classes are slated to be led by adjuncts. I predict that by summer 2021 that will increase to 25% and that will just be the start of a much larger trend of adjunctification of online classes.

“There’s Nothing Morally Wrong With Not Wanting to Work Hard at School”

That’s a point I agree with in an opinion piece I recently stumbled across.

And it relates to a larger point that’s been brewing in my head the longer I hang around campus. Most of these kids simply shouldn’t be here. They don’t want it enough, and they really don’t need it. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that they don’t want to work hard enough to make school a valuable experience. College is a distraction for most kids who really should be getting work experience instead.

I’d love to live in a world where people valued education and pursued it for its own sake. I’d love to find out my garbage man is a lover of classic Russian literature. But I actually live in a world where people value schooling which they pursue for credentials. And any education they get along the way is an accidental byproduct. The one things students seem to learn is how to flatter their professors. Sure, they learn while they’re at school (how can you be 18 and not learn something?!), but I’m far from convinced that they learn because of school.

The trouble is that the one thing schools have been effective at teaching students is how important school is. Is it so important that nearly a quarter of “amusement and recreation attendants” should have bachelor’s degree or higher? I won’t argue that carnies should be high school drop-outs like in the good old days. But if I had the choice between one who passed my class (with a C+) and one who spent an extra couple years learning how to make sure a bolt is tightened properly, I know who I want operating my teacups.

As a society, we’re fooling ourselves. We’ve set up a system where we convince kids that they need a degree to live a good life, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as college graduates go on to uncritically hire college graduates. That leaves an unsustainable tension: most students (rightly) don’t want to work hard at school, but they want to go to school. “Society” wants them to work hard at school, but doesn’t want to deny anyone a degree. At best we end up wasting everyone’s time. At worst, we set kids up for failure then leave them with student loans. In either case we erode standards and diminish the signalling value of school along with the educational value. We need someone to go into high schools to tell kids that there’s nothing morally wrong with opting out of college entirely.