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Gapminder Rules!

Gapminder is awesome. I'm only 15 minutes into the video of their talk at Google, but I love it. They don't seem to have a particular political agenda aside from representing the facts accurately so that people can understand the world and make good decisions. I mean, they want people to be aware of poverty, but they want them to be *accurately* aware, not emotionally aware. Read more »

Liveblogging: Kahnemann talk

One of the great things about working at Google is the continuous flow of cool speakers, just like at a University. Today, we are graced by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, speaking on The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuition. Naturally, what with Google being one of the largest technical companies in the world, we began with technical problems. (The difficulties of making mics, A/V, and remote teleconferencing go smoothly are clearly severe, given the importance of the problem and the quality of people who fail at it).

Amusingly, someone at a remote site just held up a sign which said "We can't hear you - Seattle". Ok, after 15 min, it starts, with Prof K commenting "This is what happens when someone from the ivory tower comes to the temple of technology". He is talking about intuitive thinking - his original line was criticizing intuition, but now there are people defending and exploring the advantages of intuition. There are two ways that thoughts come to mind. One is 17 * 24 - 408, a sequential computation governed by rules. For the second, he shows a picture of an angry woman. The knowledge that she is angry comes quickly, and we don't necessarily know why we think it. Read more »

{Repost} The Fourth Of July Is For Burning Things

(a post from last year that is, unfortunately, still apropos)

US flag burningIt's gonna be awful tempting to burn a few American flags this year, while I still can. You can get them so cheap...and they burn so good!

On the other hand, maybe it will be more fun once its illegal - hell, most things are. Read more »

Why IUCs?

Several people have indicated their boredom with interpersonal utility comparison. First, let me give the standard blogger response: If you don't like it, don't read it!

Second, I'll answer the (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) question: "Why discuss all this?" by quoting Scott:

In order of decreasing confidence on my part:

Cardinal Schmardinal, Ordinal Schmordinal

The most common objection made to interpersonal utility comparison in this debate (Glen's roundup post) has been that utility is ordinal, not cardinal, and somehow this makes IUC's impossible. I will attempt to disprove that assertion, and demonstrate that the key is whether or not you can do specific comparisons to find equality points, not whether utility is cardinal or ordinal.

First, let us assume that utility is cardinal, and that (as many of the IUC opponents have admitted), you can approximately measure someone else's utility function. Now in order to do IUC, you still need a zero point. That is, if an apple gives me 2 more utils than an orange, and a bagel gives you 3 more utils than a donut, I still don't know whether an apple gives me more utils than a bagel gives you unless I have some kind of basis. A nice property of cardinal utility is that I only need a single basis in order to make any IUC. That is, if I know that in this situation, an orange would give me the same utility as a donut would give you, I can deduce that my apple will give me one less util than your bagel, and so on for any other comparison.

My claim is that while ordinal utility makes weaker statements, it can still make statements based on the same data. Suppose that I only know that for Apples, Bananas, Carrots, Durians, and Elderberries, my preference goes A > B > C > D > E, and that for Figs, Gooseberries, Honeydew, Iodine, and Jicama, your preference goes F > G > H > I > J. Let's start with a single basis, as we needed with cardinal utility - suppose that I will enjoy a Carrot as much as you enjoy a Honeydew. Unlike with cardinal utility, this does not let me do full IUC's, but it does let me make definite statements about interpersonal comparisons, like "I will enjoy a Banana more than you will enjoy some Jicama". That is, tying two ordinal points together limits the possible orderings of the combined list. This is an indisputable mathematical fact. Read more »

No Soul Suggests IUCs

Glen Whitman has responded to our interpersonal utility comparison debate in a way that I found unconvincing but illuminating. Early on, he said:

Making interpersonal utility comparisons is a kind of category error, akin to trying to add degrees and pounds. I don’t have a logical proof of this point; it just seems intuitively right to me. You can’t add my utility to yours, because my utility and your utility are just different sorts of thing. And appealing to objective measures, like dopamine levels or endorphins in the brain, seems to me to miss the point. We’ve got different brains, and an endorphin in my brain just ain’t the same as an endorphin in yours.


People make IUCs, but they make lots of other mistakes, too. They say things like, “Mary is fatter than John is tall,” a statement that makes less and less sense the more your scrutinize it.

I take issue with "Mary is fatter than John is tall" and "trying to add degrees and pounds" as analogies for IUC. Remember that the thing we are trying to measure in IUC's is the same concept (utility), just applied to two different people. To assert that this makes it two separate concepts is to assume an answer to the question under debate.

A more appropriate analogy is that it's like asking whether Mary is as funny as John is funny. Funniness is not externally measurable, and different people see it differently. Actually, this analogy isn't quite fair, because we can get around the subjectivity by asking lots of people to compare M & J's funniness intrapersonally. So let's say instead that it's like asking whether Mary is as funny to Brian as she is to Susan. Read more »

Milton Friedman on Google Video

Google Video is starting to accumulate a fair amount of interesting old content. For example, here is: Milton Friedman on Limited Government. And of course, the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger Introduces Free To Choose - especially amusing now that Arnold is the Governator. Read more »

Don\'t judge us by our extremists

The viewpoint is sometimes expressed, usually by non-Americans, that the USA has been taken over by religious fanatics. Through their mouthpiece, George W. Bush, these crazies control the country. Read more »

Love and Intrapersonal Utility Comparison

I come down firmly on Jonathan's side of the IUC debate, but (in addition to my comments on Brian's post), I have a different example to give. Read more »

Inflation question

I don't know much about macro, but I have been confused by Bernanke saying that we have high inflation because of high energy prices, and so the fed needs to tighten.

There is a difference between "inflation" - meaning a decrease in purchasing power of the dollar due to printing more dollars, and a "price shock", where prices are going up because things are actually more expensive". In the first place, only nominal prices have increased, but in the second case, real prices have as well. Read more »

Happy Parents Open Thread

Jacqueline says:

I genuinely do not understand why anyone would want to do that [put through pregnancy/motherhood] to someone they love.

A genuine question deserves a genuine answer, but since my son is only 5 months old, I don't feel fully qualified to give one. Or rather, I could answer why we made the decision, but not whether it turned out to be correct. So hopefully, y'all can help me out. Read more »

Point proved

I have to say, I am sad that my assertion about Jacqueline's blind spot is so true, and that her rationality and knowledge of economics goes out the window on this subject. Let's look at part of her response: Read more »

Have kids, and make your world richer!

All bloggers seem to have their pet peeves, subjects on which their posts border on the irrational. For example, Candid fisks a pro-immigration op-ed of Tyler Cowen's in Burrito Colored Glasses, and argues that this is Tyler's blind spot. Y'all can probably tell me what mine are (I know some people think it's my belief in evolutionary biology, or race/gender differences in ability).

For Jacqueline Passey, it is clearly childbearing and reproduction. On this issue, rather than making reasonable statements like "I don't want to have kids", or "I think some women who have kids made the wrong choice", she goes off the deep end with posts like this one, whose errors I pointed out in the comments section. More recently, she responded to a series of posts Shannon (my wife) made about the trials and travails of motherhood by saying:

Why would you want to do this to a woman you claim to love?

It's stuff like this that makes me wonder... are men just clueless about how awful motherhood is for women... or are they selfish assholes that want to replicate their genes no matter how much it wrecks the woman's life?

The more I hear/read from new mothers about what pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care is really like the more I want to get my tubes tied.

Here are all the things I could find wrong with this post in half an hour while watching the baby:

First, it bears little relation to biological truth. The main pressure to have children in a relationship comes from women much more often than men. This is no surprise, because women have a much shorter reproductive window, hence feel more time pressure, hence are genetically programmed to push harder for reproduction.

But even if we set aside the misandristic bias, the identification of a person as the "selfish asshole" is from the pre-1859 world, and has no place at all in the post-1976 world we inhabit. Because the selfish asshole in question here is the gene, not the person. The argument that the genes are selfish assholes who want to replicate no matter how much it wrecks their robot host's life has some truth. But that just means that we have to be careful to identify costs and benefits to the host when trying to figure out if reproduction is worthwhile for an individual, not that reproduction must be wrong.

In a comment on her post, Jacqueline calls the desire to have kids "hormonal-induced insanity", and in the first post linked, she makes the erroneous argument that realizing that it is a biological imperative means we can discount it. But this is clearly wrong. After all, as Jacqueline agrees, sex is fun. Yet sex is only fun because our genes have made it fun. If you dismiss biological imperatives as being relevant to cost/benefit analysis, you must then conclude that the pleasure of sex has no place in the decision about whether to have it. Furthermore, Jacqueline must also give up desserts, since the reason sugar tastes sweet and delicious is biological manipulation to get us to eat it.

The pleasure one gets from having children, and the unhappiness that many, especially women, experience when they forebear to bear, are exactly the same. Yes, they are there to manipulate us. So are many of our pleasures and pains. Until you can make them go away, they still matter. Read more »

Prediction market error bars

I just started reading this fascinating paper about the U. of Iowa prediction markets. Here is their approach to determining market accuracy:

1) Observe: an efficient market w/ a risk-free rate of 0 moves as a random walk w/ mean 0

2) Demonstrate empirically that the Iowa prediction market indeed moves as a random walk

3) Analyze the microstructure of the walk, ie what is the distribution of returns? Read more »

When are sociological studies going to learn about this modern \"genetics\" stuff?

June, 2006

Parental Use of Sunscreen and Child Skin Color In First Grade
Friedman, Patri

OBJECTIVE: The goal was to determine the relationship between the parental use of sunscreen products and the skin color of children in first grade.

METHODS: Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth were analyzed. Families with complete data on parental sunscreen use and child skin color were included in the analysis. Sunscreen use was categorized into "High, Medium, Low, None" by quartiles. Skin color was a continuous variable assessed by computer analysis of skin images. Multivariate logistic regression analysis was used to evaluate the relationship between parental use of sunscreen products and child skin color in first grade, controlling for gender, race, maternal education, income/needs ratio, marital status, parental income, and child behavioral problems. Read more »