Thursday, February 23, 2017

Why do governments tolerate leaks?

Leaks are supposed to be super-dangerous, or so we are told, yet actual leakers, until recently, were not prosecuted very often.

To make sense of this puzzle, I read a variety of interesting histories. The most interesting source was “The Leaky Leviathan,” by David E. Pozen of Columbia Law School.

Pozen stresses that leaks serve the purpose of the federal government more often than not. A survey from the mid-1980s found that 42 percent of surveyed senior government officials felt that it was sometimes appropriate to leak information to the press -- hardly a sign this is intrinsically treasonous behavior. ...

Sometimes governments trade leaked information to reporters, to curry favor. Other times leaks are used to hurt rivals within the public sphere, or a leak can serve as a trial balloon to test the popularity of an idea. Leaks also may help a president’s Cabinet members build up their own internal empires, which can boost a president’s agenda.

Or the American government may want to inform its people about, say, drone operations in Yemen, but without having to answer questions about the details. In this regard, leaks may substitute for more direct congressional oversight, to the benefit of the executive.

In other words, leaks are part of how the government manages the press and maintains its own popularity. ...

Leaks are also a way of threatening other governments, yet without the president putting all of his credibility on the line. For instance, it can be leaked that the national security establishment would be especially unhappy with a further expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements. That sends a message, yet without committing the American government to any particular response if the settlements proceed. Or leaks can signal to foreign terrorists or governments that we know what they are up to.

Of course, many leaks are unwelcome, such as when national security confidences are disclosed. Given that reality, why haven’t American governments worked harder to prosecute unwelcome leaks and leakers?

Well, if that policy were pursued successfully, the only leaks that would occur would be “approved” or government-intended leaks, and everyone would figure this out. The government could no longer use leaks as a way of providing information or making threats in a distanced manner with plausible deniability.
--Tyler Cowen, BloombergView, on solving for the equilibrium

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ken Arrow knew something about everything

Professor Arrow was widely hailed as a polymath, possessing prodigious knowledge of subjects far removed from economics. Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit.

When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor.

Well, not so fast.

Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work.”
--Michael Weinstein, NYT, on an insatiable love of knowledge

Monday, February 20, 2017

Fitbit causes you to lose LESS weight

The trial took place at the University of Pittsburgh between 2010 and 2012, and it involved more than 470 adults between the ages of 18 and 35. All of them were put on a low-calorie diet, had group counseling sessions and were advised to increase their physical activity. Six months into the intervention, all were given telephone counseling sessions, text-message prompts and study materials online.

At that time, though, half were also given wearable tech devices that monitored their activity and connected to a website to help provide feedback. All participants were followed for 18 more months.

At the end of the two years, which is pretty long for a weight loss study, those without access to the wearable technology lost an average of 13 pounds. Those with the wearable tech lost an average of 7.7 pounds.

It’s hard for many to accept, so I’m going to state the results again: Those people who used the wearable tech for 18 months lost significantly less weight than those who didn’t.

You may rightfully point out that the primary reason to wear the devices isn’t to lose weight — it’s to be more active. But even in this respect, it didn’t work nearly as well as we might hope. In the IDEA trial, those who employed the technology were no more physically active than those who didn’t. They also weren’t more fit.
--Aaron Carroll, NYT, on the dubious health benefits of wearable fitness devices

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Baby carrots are not really baby carrots

Most baby carrots — those smooth, irresistible tricksters — are actually, 100 percent made of: That’s right: Normal carrots.

Despite their adorable name, baby carrots are actually whole, imperfect, craggy-looking carrots that are sliced into smaller pieces, sculpted into rounded sticks, washed and packaged for our snacking convenience. (Watch how they’re made here.)

In fact, baby carrots were originally one farmer’s ploy to sell more carrots. The late Mike Yurosek, a California carrot farmer, invented baby carrots in 1986 because most full-grown carrots were too ugly to sell.

Back in the ‘80s, supermarkets would only purchase the prettiest looking carrots, forcing farmers to turn the imperfect ones into carrot juice or animal feed. Due to the lack of demand, most of them were simply thrown away, according to the Carrot Museum.

In an attempt to find a second life for the ugly ones, Yurosek threw a few batches into an industrial green bean cutter that sliced them into uniform 2-inch pieces, then he ran them through a potato peeler to smooth them out.

He sent the polished sticks to grocery stores in California — and they were an instant hit.
--Carla Herreria, Huffington Post, on vegetables unnaturally born

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Prizes for innovation might not be so effective after all

Some economists have cited the experience of the prestigious Royal Society of Arts (RSA), which offered honorary and cash awards, as proof of the efficacy of innovation prizes. The Society initially was averse to patents and prohibited the award of prizes for patented inventions. This study examines data on several thousand of these inducement prizes, matched with patent records and biographical information about the applicants. The empirical analysis shows that inventors of items that were valuable in the marketplace typically chose to obtain patents and to bypass the prize system. Owing to such adverse selection, prizes were negatively related to subsequent areas of important technological discovery. The RSA ultimately became disillusioned with the prize system, which they recognized had done little to promote technological progress and industrialization. The Society acknowledged that its efforts had been “futile” because of its hostility to patents, and switched from offering inducement prizes towards lobbying for reforms to strengthen the patent system.
--Zorina Khan, NBER Working Paper 23042, on the strength of the second-best

Why are second-born boys more likely to be delinquents?

...we find that second-born boys are substantially more likely to exhibit delinquency problems compared to their older sibling. In particular, involvement with the juvenile justice system is found to be on the order of 40 percent higher than the mean for first-born boys in both Denmark and Florida. Incarceration by age 21 is also found to be 40 percent higher in Denmark. These effects are particularly strong among more severe violent crimes (36 percent). In Florida, similarly large effects are found for suspensions in school (29 percent) but effects on truancy are much more moderate and heterogeneous. We find corroborative evidence when we consider a sample of young adolescents in Denmark where we can measure behavioral problems directly in the form of hyperactivity and measures of conduct problems by age 12.

In terms of mechanisms, we can rule out large classes of explanations. These include worse health at birth (second-born children appear healthier) or in childhood (second-born children have fewer disabilities), schooling decisions including the age of entry and the quality of schools chosen (second-born children attend no worse schools and are more likely to attend pre-kindergarten and daycare) as well as maternal employment (measured by maternity leave) in the first year of life. We do find that maternal employment and the use of daycare is higher for second-borns in years 2-4 compared to older siblings. While it is well known that first-borns have undivided attention until the arrival of the second-born, these results show that the arrival of the second-born child has the potential to extend the early-childhood parental investment in the first-born child and a concomitant bifurcation of parental attention between first- and second-born children.
--Sanni Breining, Joseph Doyle, David Figlio, Krzysztof Karbownik, and Jeffrey Roth, NBER Working Paper 23038, on the importance of parental investment

Single female MBA students act unambitious to attract a husband

Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions could signal personality traits, like ambition, that are undesirable in the marriage market? We answer this question through two field experiments in an elite U.S. MBA program. Newly-admitted MBA students filled out a questionnaire on job preferences and personality traits to be used by the career center in internship placement; randomly-selected students thought their answers would be shared with classmates. When they believed their classmates would not see their responses, single and nonsingle women answered similarly. However, single women reported desired yearly compensation $18,000 lower and being willing to travel seven fewer days per month and work four fewer hours per week when they expected their classmates would see their answers. They also reported less professional ambition and tendency for leadership. Neither men nor non-single women changed their answers in response to peer observability. A supplementary experiment asked students to make choices over hypothetical jobs before discussing their choices in their career class small groups; we randomly varied the groups' gender composition. Single women were much less likely to select career-focused jobs when their answers would be shared with male peers, especially single ones.
--Leonardo Bursztyn, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais, NBER Working Paper 23043, on acting wife

Friday, February 10, 2017

Why pro-immigration arguments are losing

Even despite the chaos, Trump's [immigration] ban is polling at about a 50-50 proposition. ...

Eventually, Trump will get to more comfortable political ground: the question of whether immigration to the US is in the interest of American citizens. He has a theory of why restrictive policies are good for Americans, one that was the centerpiece of his successful presidential campaign.

Democrats are much less clear about what they see as the purpose of immigration and how they believe their policies would serve the interests of existing American citizens. Often, their arguments for immigration focus on the opportunities it affords to potential immigrants — that is, people who cannot vote. ...

...what is the compelling illustration of upsides, to make the case that Americans should permit large amounts of immigration, despite their perception that immigration creates certain problems?

There are broad appeals to the economic and cultural benefits of immigration.

But the economic case is undermined by the arbitrary nature of the way the consensus reform position would admit immigrants: guest-worker programs at both the high and the low ends of the skill spectrum, as well as millions of admissions allocated to existing unauthorized immigrants primarily on the basis of when they arrived in the US rather than their ability to contribute economically.

As for the cultural case, the desirability of "taco trucks on every corner" is a matter of opinion. ...

I think the true reason that immigration advocates fail to make strong national-interest arguments for immigration is that the pro-immigration impulse is not really about the national interest.

Potential immigrants are human beings with moral worth. Especially in the case of refugees, they have been disadvantaged by the place of their birth. The human condition is improved by their admission to the US. This — a global, humanistic concern — is a driving factor behind support for immigration.

Plus, elites in government, media, and business tend to be in positions where they stand to derive disproportionate benefits from immigration to the US and bear relatively few costs related to it. Thus immigration is a relatively easy area to favor policy altruism.

But what if about half the electorate disagrees? What's in it for them? ...

Immigration advocates do not need to abandon the idea that resettling refugees is a morally necessary act of altruism by a rich country, nor do they need to concede the idea that public policy should be made solely in the interest of American citizens, forsaking the concerns of all other people.

But they need to acknowledge that admitting outsiders to the US is a policy choice — and demonstrate that they have carefully considered the national interest in making the choice. Voters will be more inclined to let politicians be altruistic on their behalf if they do not believe their own interests have been lost in the calculations. ...

Most important, immigration advocates can demonstrate their focus on the national interest by being willing to support enforcement of laws against immigration that is neither legal nor in the national interest — by showing that the willingness to say "yes" to immigration is paired with a willingness to say "no."

For the last 20 years or more, the federal government has pursued a policy of benign neglect. Trump presents this as a problem of "weak borders," but the main issue is a failure of interior enforcement — particularly a failure to aggressively enforce laws against working in the US without authorization. ...

This neglect is a major reason for the failure of comprehensive immigration reform.

Immigration reform is supposed to be a trade: amnesty for unauthorized immigrants and high future levels of legal immigration, in exchange for stringent enforcement of immigration laws in the future.

But why would anyone believe that Democrats or pre-Trump Republicans would follow through on a promise to enforce immigration law effectively?
--Josh Barro, Business Insider, on remembering that the voter is boss in a democracy

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The most interesting man in baseball

On Sunday [in October 2016] in Sapporo, Japan, in front of 41,000-plus fans, Shohei Otani, the best starting pitcher in Japanese baseball, did something that would have broken the baseball internet had it happened here. He got a save.

It was Otani’s first career save, but that undersells its significance. This save, which sealed the semifinals of the “Climax Series” — Japan’s perfect term for the playoffs — sent Otani’s team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, to the Japan Series, a seven-game showdown between the winners of the Central League and the winners of the Pacific League. In his one inning of work, Otani retired three consecutive hitters from the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, the two-time defending Japan Series champions. In the process, he threw two fastballs 165 kilometers per hour — 103 miles per hour, to those of us still spurning the metric system. That broke the NPB record of 164 he’d set in September, which broke the previous record of 163 he’d set in June.

In the same outing, he also threw 89 mph sliders and a 94 mph forkball...

Please hold your applause: It gets much more impressive than that. Four days earlier, Otani had started the first game of the series and thrown seven scoreless innings, allowing only one hit and two walks to the team with the Pacific League’s highest on-base percentage. Not bad, but we’ve seen MLB aces masquerading as closers as recently as last week. What sets Otani apart even more than his arm is his hitting.

Before he came in to close, Otani had already made four trips to the plate as Hokkaido’s designated hitter. He also started at DH in the three games he didn’t pitch. And he took his turns at bat in Game 1, as he often did on days he pitched during the regular season, even though the Fighters have to surrender their DH for him to pitch and hit. ...

Otani’s 2016 performance produced the most climax-worthy stats page since late-career Barry Bonds. In 140 innings, he struck out 174 and allowed only four home runs, finishing with a 1.86 ERA — an improvement on his 2015 performance, when he’d been one of the top three contenders for the Sawamura Award, Japan’s equivalent of the Cy Young. While he was at it, he hit .322/.416/.588 in 382 plate appearances, launching 22 home runs. And to top things off, he won the Home Run Derby.

Essentially, this season Otani boasted Noah Syndergaard’s stuff, Clayton Kershaw’s ERA and strikeout rate, and David Ortiz’s OPS. And just to show that there was no hole in his game, he stole seven bases in nine attempts.
--Ben Lindergh, The Ringer, on a sports fantasy come to life

Sunday, February 5, 2017

By quitting social media, you could read 200 books a year

Somebody once asked Warren Buffett about his secret to success. Buffett pointed to a stack of books and said,
Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will…

In January of 2015, I found Buffett’s quote. I decided to read. I was going to read and read and read and never stop until I got some damn answers.

I didn’t quite make 500 pages a day, but, in these last two years, I’ve read over 400 books cover to cover. That decision to start reading was one of the most important decisions in my life. ...

Two years ago, I stopped to do the simple math. Here’s what I found: Reading 200 books a year isn’t hard at all. ...

How much time does it take to read 200 books a year?

First, let’s look at two quick statistics:
  • The average American reads 200–400 words per minute (Since you’re on Medium, I’m going to assume you read 400 wpm like me)
  • Typical non-fiction books have ~50,000 words

Now, all we need are some quick calculations…
  • 200 books * 50,000 words/book = 10 million words
  • 10 million words/400 wpm = 25,000 minutes
  • 25,000 minutes/60 = 417 hours

That’s all there is to it. To read 200 books, simply spend 417 hours a year reading. ...

Here’s how much time a single American spends on social media and TV in a year:
  • 608 hours on social media
  • 1642 hours on TV
Wow. That’s 2250 hours a year spent on TRASH. If those hours were spent reading instead, you could be reading over 1,000 books a year!
--Charles Chu, Better Humans, on time you really do have. HT: ML