Do Politicians Respond to Emails?

Writing at the Monkey Cage, political scientist Cristian Vaccari describes his research about how  political candidates, who often rely heavily on email lists, actually respond to emails:

As part of a broader study of the online presence of parties, party leaders, and Presidential candidates in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S., I tested whether and how rapidly their staffs responded to two types of emails (sent from separate fictitious accounts in the official language of each country): one asking for their positions on taxes (a cross-cutting issue that should not strongly differentiate between different types of parties), the other pledging to be willing to volunteer for them and asking for directions on how to do so. Emails were sent in the two weeks prior to national elections between 2007 and 2010 to a total of 142 parties and candidates. The results speak volumes to the lack of responsiveness among political actors: excluding automated responses, only one in five emails received a reply within one business day.

Americans Inconsistent on Financial Risk

A new paper in the American Economic Review (abstract; PDF), summarized here, finds that Americans aren't very consistent when thinking about financial risk. Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, Iuliana Pascu, and Mark R. Cullen, analyzing how people choose health insurance and 401(k) plans, found that "at most 30 percent of us make consistent decisions about financial risk across a variety of areas."  Their data set includes 13,000 Alcoa employees:

Because employees were making decisions in both the health-care and retirement domains, the researchers had the opportunity to see how the same individuals handled different types of choices. Or, as Finkelstein puts it, the economists could ask: “Does someone who’s willing to pay extra money to get comprehensive health insurance, who doesn’t seem willing to bear much financial exposure in a medical domain, also tend to be the one who, relative to their peers, invests more of their 401(k) in [safer] bonds rather than stocks?”

The Hidden Upside of Crowdfunding?

Reader Noah Dentzel claims that crowdfunding has overlooked virtues, and that it is giving rise to products that may never have happened via the traditional business model:

Most companies either a) raise money through traditional financing avenues or b) build a business slowly and invest first and then bring a new product to market. Crowdfunding allowed us to do everything backwards: by pre-selling a product before the tooling for it even exists, we get a good feeling for market demand and we then gain a clear picture of whether or not to move forward.

Meanwhile, because companies like us are financed through consumers (pre-selling), it's essentially consumer driven business growth and innovation. We don't have to wait around for angels or VCs, we can allow anyone from around the world (and a good third of our orders are from overseas) to invest in new ideas, new businesses and whatever will be crowdfunded next. What's also pretty cool is that we're making this product right here in California which isn't too typical for a consumer electronic device these days. People ask why we're not doing it in China and I just tell them that both in terms of quality and cost, we couldn't afford it if we wanted to--these are some of the twists and turns that you see in the Crowdfunding consumer product long tail of manufacturing.

Check out Noah's project here. Crowdfunding can, of course, also give rise to products like this.

Are Independents More Immune to Bias Than Liberals or Conservatives?

Dan Kahan's research at the Cultural Cognition Project has found that even very smart people fit their knowledge to their ideology. (He has appeared on this blog a few times, and in our podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?”) Kahan has a new working paper (abstractPDF) on political affiliations and bias, which argues that independents seem to show immunity to the bias that afflicts both conservatives and liberals:

Social psychologists have identified various plausible sources of ideological polarization over climate change, gun violence, national security, and like societal risks. This paper reports a study of three of them: the predominance of heuristic-driven information processing by members of the public; ideologically motivated cognition; and personality-trait correlates of political conservativism. The results of the study suggest reason to doubt two common surmises about how these dynamics interact. First, the study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions.

How a Microfinance Program Encouraged School Dropouts

A new working paper (abstractPDF) by Britta Augsburg, Ralph De Haas, Heike Harmgart, and Costas Meghir uses a randomized trial to assess a microcredit program in Bosnia:

[W]e randomly allocated loans to a subset of applicants considered too risky and “unreliable” to be offered loans as regular borrowers of a well established MFI [micro-finance institution] in Bosnia. Our group is poorer and generally more disadvantaged than regular borrowers. What is particularly interesting is that they have applied for the loan and thus believe they have a profitable investment opportunity; however, they were turned down. This is exactly the group we need to analyze if we are to understand whether alleviating liquidity constraints in this way can be an effective anti-poverty tool.

A Small Nudge For College Enrollment?

A new working paper by George Bulman, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate and former Teach for America teacher, looks at whether having an in-school SAT or ACT testing center affects test-taking and college enrollment: Because the additional cost of taking the exam at a neighboring high school is very small, standard economic models suggest that there […]

The Benefits of the Safety Net

A new working paper (abstractPDF) by Hilary W. Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Douglas Almond examines the effects of in utero and childhood access to the social safety net, specifically food stamps:

A growing economics literature establishes a causal link between in utero shocks and health and human capital in adulthood. Most studies rely on extreme negative shocks such as famine and pandemics. We are the first to examine the impact of a positive and policy-driven change in economic resources available in utero and during childhood. In particular, we focus on the introduction of a key element of the U.S. safety net, the Food Stamp Program, which was rolled out across counties in the U.S. between 1961 and 1975. We use the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to assemble unique data linking family background and county of residence in early childhood to adult health and economic outcomes.

What's That Database Worth?

Laura Meckler of the Wall Street Journal investigates the value and possible future uses of President Obama's massive "data trove."  Here's a quick rundown of the data at stake:

Mr. Obama's campaign collected 13.5 million email addresses in the 2008 election, according to people who worked on the effort. Officials say the list has grown since then, but officials won't say by how much.

The campaign also has lists of volunteers, including the names of neighborhood team leaders who were the most active supporters. A donor database has names of millions of people who made small campaign contributions. Campaigns aren't legally required to report the names of people who give less than $200 total, and these donors haven't been made public.

Meckler reports that Obama's staff plans to enlist supporters' help in getting the President's agenda passed, but is still debating what to do with the data over the long-term.

FREAK-est Links

1. Did an "academic dream team" help Obama win the election?
2. Bond economics: which Bond villain plans are economically viable? (HT: V. Brenner)
3. Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde figures out how to create clouds indoors for an exhibition.

4. Candy for quietness: police in Durham gave drunk students candy to quiet them. (HT: V. Brenner)

5. The world's "poorest president": Uruguay's Jose Mujica lives on a farm.

How Vulnerable Is Our Power Grid?

A newly declassified report from the National Research Council analyzes the vulnerabilities of America's electric-power system. Douglas Birch of Foreign Policy explains:

[T]he formerly secret report to the Department of Homeland Security focuses more on the U.S. electric power system's older technology and lack of spare capacity, saying the "physical capabilities of much of the transmission network have not kept pace with the increasing burden that is being placed on it." As a result, it found, sophisticated physical assaults against key facilities could damage difficult-to-replace hardware and cause multiple cascading failures with catastrophic results.

Hurricane Sandy wasn't a "sophisticated physical assault," but it still did the job.