Does Economics Have an Egalitarian Core?

Tyler Cowen, who appears in these parts pretty regularly, writes in a Times column about the egalitarian core of the economics profession:

Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality. Many economic models, of course, assume that all individuals are motivated by rational self-interest or some variant thereof; even the so-called behavioral theories tweak only the fringes of a basically common, rational understanding of people. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently.

Cowen concludes by exploring a modern-day application of this putatively egalitarian core:

A distressingly large portion of the debate in many countries analyzes the effects of higher immigration on domestic citizens alone and seeks to restrict immigration to protect a national culture or existing economic interests. The obvious but too-often-underemphasized reality is that immigration is a significant gain for most people who move to a new country.

Parents and Their Preschoolers

A working paper (abstract; PDF) from economists Michael Baker and Kevin Milligan advances another possible explanation for the lagging academic performance of boys -- preschool boys, at least.  Here's the abstract:

We study differences in the time parents spend with boys and girls at preschool ages in Canada, the UK and the US. We refine previous evidence that fathers commit more time to boys, showing this greater commitment emerges with age and is not present for very young children. We next examine differences in specific parental teaching activities such as reading and the use of number and letters. We find the parents commit more of this time to girls, starting at ages as young as 9 months. We explore possible explanations of this greater commitment to girls including explicit parental preference and boy-girl differences in costs of these time inputs. Finally, we offer evidence that these differences in time inputs are important: in each country the boy-girl difference in inputs can account for a non-trivial proportion of the boy-girl difference in preschool reading and math scores.

The authors' results also indicate that the time differences are not due to parents' gender preferences, but may be related to the opportunity cost of the mother's time.  "Given that time spent reading with children (primarily boys) increases after the introduction of a new child care subsidy, the parental time inputs we study may not be easily substituted by non-parental care," they write. "Instead, this finding is consistent with a story in which boys are less rewarding to teach, and parents are more willing to persevere with boys once they are not responsible for their care throughout the day."

Are Predictions Getting Better?

If you're the kind of person who cares about "The Folly of Prediction" and The Signal and the Noise, you may want to read Amy Zegart's Foreign Policy piece about predictions. Making predictions within the intelligence community, for example, is a different game than betting on basketball:

In March Madness, everyone has access to the same information, at least theoretically. Expertise depends mostly on how geeky you choose to be, and how much time you spend watching ESPN and digging up past stats. In intelligence, however, information is tightly compartmented by classification restrictions, leaving analysts with different pieces of data and serious barriers to sharing it. Imagine scattering NCAA bracket information across 1,000 people, many of whom do not know each other, some of whom have no idea what a bracket is or the value of the information they possess. They're all told if they share anything with the wrong person, they could be disciplined, fired, even prosecuted. But somehow they have to collectively pick the winner to succeed.

In other spheres, however, predictions just keep getting better. "Smart people are finding clever new ways of generating better data, identifying and unpacking biases, and sharing information unimaginable 20 or even 10 years ago," writes Zegart.

Making a Living Through Pay-as-You-Wish

A TED talk by musician Amanda Palmer explores the concept of pay-as-you-wish funding for artists and performers:  

Right at this same time, I'm signing and hugging after a gig, and a guy comes up to me and hands me a $10 bill, and he says, "I'm sorry, I burned your CD from a friend." "But I read your blog, I know you hate your label. I just want you to have this money."

And this starts happening all the time. I become the hat after my own gigs, but I have to physically stand there and take the help from people, and unlike the guy in the opening band, I've actually had a lot of practice standing there. Thank you.

And this is the moment I decide I'm just going to give away my music for free online whenever possible, so it's like Metallica over here, Napster, bad; Amanda Palmer over here, and I'm going to encourage torrenting, downloading, sharing, but I'm going to ask for help, because I saw it work on the street. So I fought my way off my label and for my next project with my new band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, I turned to crowdfunding, and I fell into those thousands of connections that I'd made, and I asked my crowd to catch me. And the goal was 100,000 dollars. My fans backed me at nearly 1.2 million, which was the biggest music crowdfunding project to date.

And here's a rundown on other performers who've explored the pay-as-you-wish strategy.  

The Retraction Epidemic

In the Washington Post, Peter Whoriskey writes about the rising incidence of fraud in research labs:

It may be impossible for anyone from outside to know the extent of the problems in the Nature paper. But the incident comes amid a phenomenon that some call a “retraction epidemic.”

Last year, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud had increased tenfold since 1975.

The same analysis reviewed more than 2,000 retracted biomedical papers and found that 67 percent of the retractions were attributable to misconduct, mainly fraud or suspected fraud.

One of the less-obvious downsides of academic fraud:

The trouble is that a delayed response — or none at all — leaves other scientists to build upon shaky work. [Ferric] Fang said he has talked to researchers who have lost months by relying on results that proved impossible to reproduce.

Moreover, as [Adam] Marcus and [Ivan] Oransky have noted, much of the research is funded by taxpayers. Yet when retractions are done, they are done quietly and “live in obscurity,” meaning taxpayers are unlikely to find out that their money may have been wasted.

FREAK-est Links

1. Al Gore is sued over sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera. (HT: Romenesko)

2. Economic reasons to become a vegetarian, graphs included.

3. The scientists and psychologists of the junk-food business reveal their secrets.

4. Columbia students can't resist stealing Nutella. (HT: AL)

5. How prevalent was famine cannibalism? (HT: JH)

6. First, traffic mimes in Bogota; now Lucha Libre in Mexico City doing the same.

Are All Research Participants Outliers?

A Pacific Standard profile of noted social psychologist Joe Henrich has some staggering information about how social scientists conduct their research:

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

How Good Groupon Leads to Bad Yelp

A paper by Georgios Zervas, John Byers, and Michael Mitzenmacher explores the relationship between a Groupon surge (like when a small bakery has to make 100,000 cupcakes) and a drop in Yelp ratings. Tim Worstall at Forbes explains:

Imagine that you are an enthusiastic and regular consumer of the finest chimichangas that you can find. You’ll likely have scoped out your neighbourhood, tested the chimichangas on offer and zeroed in on those places that make excellent ones. You might even provide reviews on Yelp pointing other enthusiasts for the comestible so as to guide them to the good places.

Investing in a Warmer Future

Bloomberg Businessweek explores how firms are adapting to a future climate:

Investing in climate change used to mean putting money into efforts to stop global warming. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and other firms took stakes in wind farms and tidal-energy projects, and set up carbon-trading desks. The appeal of cleantech has dimmed as efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions have faltered: Venture capital and private equity investments fell 34 percent last year, to $5.8 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Now some investors are taking another approach. Working under the assumption that climate change is inevitable, they’re investing in businesses that will profit as the planet gets hotter. (The World Bank says the earth could warm by 4C by the end of the century.) Their strategies include buying water treatment companies, brokering deals for Australian farmland, and backing a startup that has engineered a mosquito to fight dengue, a disease that’s spreading as the mercury climbs.

Piet Dircke of the Dutch engineering and flood-prevention firm Arcadis says he was besieged with calls after Hurricane Sandy: “The climate is changing. Sea level is rising. That’s quite obvious. At the same time, the cities that are close to the waterline continue to grow and have more money and need for protection. It’s almost a natural growth market.”

One University That Isn't Cutting Costs

A Washington Post profile of Liberty University, founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell, says that Liberty has doubled its enrollment in the last six years:

The surging enrollment for a bastion of Christian conservatism in the central Virginia foothills highlights the school as a market leader at the crossroads of religion and higher education. Liberty figured out how to recruit masses of students via the Internet years before elite universities began ballyhooed experiments with free online courses.

Turbocharged growth inevitably raises questions about quality, and Liberty’s academic reputation has not risen as fast as its enrollment. About 47 percent of its first-time, full-time students graduate within six years, federal data show, below the national average of 58 percent. Liberty officials say such statistics reflect an admissions policy geared more toward opportunity than exclusivity.

And Liberty is doing well on the finance front too: "The university ended 2012 with more than $1 billion in net assets for the first time, counting cash, property, investments and other holdings. That is 10 times what the school had in 2006."

(HT: Marginal Revolution)