On the point of quantifying in general and quantifying for policy purposes

Recently, I stumbled on this piece in Chronicle by Jerry Muller. It made my blood boil. In the piece, the author basically argues that, in the world of education, we are fixated with quantitative indicators of performance. This fixation has led to miss (or forget) some important truths about education and the transmission of knowledge. I wholeheartedly disagree because the author of the piece is confounding two things.

We need to measure things! Measurements are crucial to our understandings of causal relations and outcomes.  Like Diane Coyle, I am a big fan of the “dashboard” of indicators to get an idea of what is broadly happening.  However, I agree with the authors that very often the statistics lose their entire meaning. And that’s when we start targeting them!

Once we know that this variable becomes the object of target, we act in ways that increase this variable. As soon as it is selected, we modify our behavior to achieve fixed targets and the variable loses some of its meaning. This is also known as Goodhart’s law whereby “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” (note: it also looks a lot like the Lucas critique).

Although Goodhart made this point in the context of monetary policy, it applies to any sphere of policy – including education. When an education department decides that this is the metric they care about (e.g. completion rates, minority admission, average grade point, completion times, balanced curriculum, ratio of professors to pupils, etc.), they are inducing a change in behavior which alters the significance carried by this variable.  This is not an original point. Just go to google scholar and type “Goodhart’s law and education” and you end up with papers such as these two (here and here) that make exactly the point I am making here.

In his Chronicle piece, Muller actually makes note of this without realizing how important it is. He notes that “what the advocates of greater accountability metrics overlook is how the increasing cost of college is due in part to the expanding cadres of administrators, many of whom are required to comply with government mandates(emphasis mine).

The problem he is complaining about is not metrics per se, but rather the effects of having policy-makers decide a metric of relevance. This is a problem about selection bias, not measurement. If statistics are collected without an intent to be a benchmark for the attribution of funds or special privileges (i.e. that there are no incentives to change behavior that affects the reporting of a particular statistics), then there is no problem.

I understand that complaining about a “tyranny of metrics” is fashionable, but in that case the fashion looks like crocs (and I really hate crocs) with white socks.

Castro: Coercing Cubans into Health

On Black Friday, one of the few remaining tyrants in the world passed away (see the great spread of democracy in the world since 1988). Fidel Castro is a man that I will not mourn nor will I celebrate his passing. What I mourn are the lives he destroyed, the men and women he impoverished, the dreams he crushed and the suffering he inflicted on the innocents. When I state this feeling to others, I am told that he improved life expectancy in Cuba and reduced infant mortality.

To which I reply: why are you proving my point?

The reality that few people understand is that even poor countries can easily reduce mortality with the use of coercive measures available to a centralized dictatorship. There are many diseases (like smallpox) that spread because individuals have a hard time coordinating their actions and cannot prevent free riders (if 90% of people get vaccinated, the 10% remaining gets the protection without having to endure the cost). This type of disease is very easy to fight for a state: force people to get vaccinated.

However, there is a tradeoff to this. The type of institutions that can use violence so cheaply and so efficiently is also the type of institutions that has a hard time creating economic growth and development. Countries with “unfree” institutions are generally poor and grow slowly. Thus, these countries can fight some diseases efficiently (like smallpox and yellow fever), but not other diseases that are related to individual well-being (i.e. poverty diseases). This implies that you get unfree institutions and low rates of epidemics but high levels of poverty and high rates of mortality from tuberculosis, diarrhea, typhoid fever, heart diseases, nephritis.

This argument is basically the argument of Werner Troesken in his great book, The Pox of LibertyHow does it apply to Cuba?

First of all, by 1959, Cuba was already in the top of development indexes for the Americas – a very rich and healthy place by Latin American standards. A large part of the high levels of health indicators were actually the result of coercion. Cuba actually got its very low levels of mortality as a result of the Spanish-American war when the island was occupied by American invaders. They fought yellow fever and other diseases with impressive levels of violence. As Troesken mentions, the rate of mortality fell dramatically in Cuba as a result of this coercion.

Upon taking power in 1959, Castro did exactly the same thing as the Americans. From a public choice perspective, he needed something to shore up support.  His policies were not geared towards wealth creation, but they were geared towards the efficient use of violence. As Linda Whiteford and Laurence Branch point out, personal choices are heavily controlled in Cuba in order to achieve these outcomes. Heavy restrictions exist on what Cubans can eat, drink and do. When pregnancies are deemed risky, doctors have to coerce women to undergo abortion in spite of their wishes. Some women are incarcerated in the Casas de Maternidad in spite of their wishes. On top of this, forced sterilization in some cases are an actually documented policy tool.   These restrictions do reduce mortality, but they feel like a heavy price for the people. On the other hand, the Castrist regime did get something to brag about and it got international support.

However, when you look at the other side of the tradeoff, you see that death rates from “poverty diseases” don’t seem to have dropped (while they did elsewhere in Latin America).  In fact, there are signs that the aggregate infant mortality rates of many other Latin Americans countries collapsed toward the low-levels seen in Cuba when Castro took over in 1959  (here too). Moreover, the crude mortality rate is increasing while infant mortality is decreasing (which is a strong indictment about how much shorter adult lives are in Cuba).

So, yes, Cuba has been very good at reducing mortality from communicable diseases and choice-based outcomes (like how to give birth) that can be reduced by the extreme use of violence. The cost of that use of violence is a low level of development that allows preventable diseases and poverty diseases to remain rampant. Hardly something to celebrate!

Finally, it is also worth pointing two other facts. First of all, economic growth in Cuba has taken place since the 1990s (after decades of stagnation in absolute terms and decline in relative terms). This is the result of the very modest forms of liberalization that were adopted by the Cuban dictatorship as a result of the end of Soviet subsidies. Thus, what little improvements we can see can be largely attributed to those. Secondly, the level of living standards prior to 1990 was largely boosted by the Soviet subsidies but we can doubt how much of it actually went into the hands of the population given that Fidel Castro is worth 900$ million according to Forbes. Thus, yes, Cubans did remain dirt poor during Castro’s reign up to 1990. Thirdly, doctors are penalized for “not meeting quotas” and thus they do lie about the statistics. One thing that is done by the regime is to categorize “infant deaths” as “late fetal deaths” – its basically extending the definition in order to conceal a poorer performance.

Overall, there is nothing to celebrate about Castro’s dictatorship. What some do celebrate is something that was a deliberate political action on the part of Castro to gain support and it came at the cost of personal freedom and higher deaths from preventable diseases and poverty diseases.

H/T : The great (and French-speaking – which is a plus in my eyes because there is so much unexploited content in French) Pseudoerasmus gave me many ideas – see his great discussion here.

Cool PDF on the Dishonesty of Debate

From one of the concluding paragraphs:

We have therefore hypothesized that most disagreement is due to most people not being meta-rational, i.e., honest truth-seekers who understand disagreement theory and abide by the rationality standards that most people uphold. We have suggested that this is at root  due to people fundamentally not being truth-seeking. This in turn suggests that most disagreement is dishonest.

This reminds me, mostly, of debates about the illogicality of more federal gun control laws or using American military power to intervene in a foreign conflict that has nothing to do with national security (see, on this last point, my recent post “Imperialism: The Illogical Nature of Humanitarian Wars“).

Why, just the other day I was deleted by a female FB acquaintance for pointing out to her that her facts were wrong on gun control and that the numerous, hastily Googled  studies that she threw at my feet contained either errors in statistical reasoning (“saying that ‘more guns equals more crime’ is like saying ‘the black cat is a cat because it is black'”) or simply wanted to inflame passions rather than discern truth from tall tale.

On this second point, I even went so far as to suggest that since the piece did not contain any quantitative reasoning whatsoever, it would be safe to agree with me that it was merely an attempt to inflame passions rather than educate. The female (a UC Santa Cruz alumni, in her defense) did just the opposite: after acknowledging that the piece contained no intellectual argument whatsoever, she stated – matter-of-factly – that the piece was an attempt to document all 62 mass shootings over a 30 year period with visuals (posting the killers’ faces to a timeline) and explain that most of the guns used were obtained legally. Therefore, it was quantifying the evidence and proving that mass murders were on the rise, federal gun control is proven to work, and that bans on certain types of guns have been proven to work.

Indeed. This is the face of the enemy of freedom, and it’s not Satan. It’s the bimbo next door.

Read the whole PDF. Grab a cup of coffee or hot tea first.

A couple of tips for figuring out if you are on the right side of the facts or not:

  1. If you are defending somebody else’s words – especially the words of a politician, a religious leader or even an intellectual, there is a good chance you are on the wrong side of truth.
  2. If you attempt to justify the horrible crimes committed in the past by looking at the virtuous deeds that were accomplished because of the crimes, then you are most likely on the wrong side of the facts. For example Franklin Roosevelt’s policies did absolutely nothing to get the US out of the Great Depression. All economists are in agreement on this. Where they disagree is on whether or not his policies exacerbated the Great Depression – as most libertarian economists argue – or simply that the New Deal did absolutely nothing (Left-wing economists generally see World War 2 as the economy’s savior). Yet many people give Roosevelt credit where credit is not due. They even go so far as to overlook his ruthless campaign to rid the West Coast of citizens with Japanese and German ancestry (locking them up in concentration camps), copying Hitler’s policies of cartelizing the economy, banning Jewish refugees from entering our shores, and raising taxes to unjustified levels in order to carry out his worthless policies. Fidel Castro is another good example of this.
  3. If you take the argument personally, then you are on the wrong side of the facts. If you have a tendency to delete people on social media sites because they failed to acknowledge your genius, then you are on the wrong side of the facts.

Hope this helps!

Guns and Truth

I have stayed away from this blog too long. I wasn’t cruising the South Pacific on my McGregor 26, as you might expect. I was just editing my memoirs; I was trying to be thorough. (It’s called: “I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography.” There are excerpts of it on this blog.)

On my last radio show, I made the subject of gun control come up. I did it because I had heard one of my colleagues, a liberal talk-show host on the same station make a statement that sounded bogus to me. (The station is KSCO A.M. In Santa Cruz; it’s available on-line. My show is called “Facts Matter.” It’s every Sunday 11a.m. – 1p.m.)

The statement that caught my attention was this:

For every time a gun is used in legitimate self-defense, a gun is used nineteen times for illegitimate or illegal purposes.

The figure was just too pat. It was calculated to be remembered by regular folks who are assumed by the Left to have no head for numbers. It sounded like pure propaganda. I thought it might also be trivially true, correct but without any meaning.

I called the liberal host during his show and challenged him to produce a source. He could not. We had eleven email exchanges. The other guy says he gave me the references. I say he did not.

If you insist on you shoring up your argument with figures – a good thing- you had better be prepared to explain where they come from. I think the Left is forever quoting imaginary numbers and numbers they misinterpret. Some just cheat and make up facts. Others are just conveniently loose with numbers, making mistakes always in the same direction.  Continue reading