Archives for efficiency



Charity “Shoppers” vs. Charity Investors

I like Indian food more than sushi. And I like sushi more than Italian food. When going out for dinner and choosing which to eat, does this mean I always choose Indian? Of course not. I’d tire of Indian food.

On my savings account, I like earning 3% interest more than 2%. And I like earning 2% more than 1%. Suppose three banks offer accounts identical except for the interest rate: would I always choose the 3% account? Or might I say, “Hey, 3% is boring, I think I’ll try 2%?” Of course not. I’d stick with the bigger payoff.

Yet when it comes to charitable giving, most people spread their money around. Why is this? And is it an effective strategy for helping people, or just a way to make ourselves feel good?  

I look at this three ways:

First, we might think that even the best charity can absorb and wisely spend only so much money — that the impact of our next dollar is lower than the impact of the first. So we give to several worthy causes. And this may be the prudent approach for huge givers like Bill & Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffett — but most of us don’t have to worry about that. Read More »



A Model of Government Efficiency (Not a Typo)

Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan use the example of New York City’s surprisingly efficient passport office to explore an interesting question: “Why do some government offices perform well and others poorly, even when they’re providing the same services and working with comparable resources?” Fisman and Sullivan think it’s all about the management:

There’s an emerging body of research that chalks up these productivity gaps to the all-too-human ways that different companies (and divisions within a single organization) are managed. The fact that management matters—a lot—shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has ever worked under a good manager and also a bad one: Good managers coach, listen, support, and make their employees feel like they’re making progress. Bad ones don’t—often in uniquely horrible ways. And if this is true at for-profit companies, why wouldn’t it be true for branches of the government?

At the Hudson Street New York Passport Office, the management is Michael Hoffman: Read More »



Return to Sender: What Can Postal Behavior Tell Us About a Nation?

I am not sure this is as meaningful as the authors think, but still it is an interesting experiment. From a new working paper called “Letter Grading Government Efficiency” by Alberto Chong, Rafael La Porta, Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes, and Andrei Shleifer:

We mailed letters to non-existent business addresses in 159 countries (10 per country), and measured whether they come back to the return address in the U.S. and how long it takes.  About 60% of the letters were returned, taking over 6 months, on average.  The results provide new objective indicators of government efficiency across countries, based on a simple and universal service, and allow us to shed light on its determinants.  The evidence suggests that both technology and management quality influence the quality of government.

I am happy to read that final sentence but surprised it needed to be said. This paper may tickle your memory with thoughts of Stanley Milgram‘s “small-world experiment” (better known as “six degrees of separation“) and Judith Kleinfeld‘s reassessment of that experiment as told in Duncan Watts‘s excellent book Six Degrees. Read More »



Ball Hogs and Long Meetings

Listen to an NBA coach during a game and you will often hear him scream something like the following:

  • “You have to share the ball.”
  • “Start looking for your teammates.”
  • “Quit taking the first damn shot you see.”
  • “Come on, pass the damn ball.”

Why do coaches have to keep screaming this message?  The answer seems easy.  Basketball players love to shoot.  In other words, many players have trouble resisting their inner ball hog.  Consequently, coaches have to scream a lot.

Academic meetings typically involve less screaming.  But the behavior we see in these meetings is surprisingly similar to what we see on a basketball court.  For example, recently I attended a meeting at Southern Utah University.  The meeting began at 4 pm, and 25 minutes later we still hadn’t started on the items that were the actual subject of this gathering.  Instead, numerous people had chimed in on items we supposedly had finished in our previous meeting (and other issues not related to the subject at hand).  Read More »



All Hail the Stand-Up Meeting!

I’m so pleased to see that stand-up meetings are gaining ground (or at least exposure, in the Wall Street Journal). I am on the record as someone who dislikes meetings in general; I also work much of the day standing up (at a great adjustable desk that Ikea unfortunately no longer makes).

As Rachel Silverman writes:

Stand-up meetings are part of a fast-moving tech culture in which sitting has become synonymous with sloth. The object is to eliminate long-winded confabs where participants pontificate, play Angry Birds on their cellphones or tune out. …

Read More »



A Pareto-Efficient Donut

In line at the Star$$ on campus, I got to chatting with Professor C just in front of me. She ordered a latte and bought the last of the delicious Star$$ cake donuts, which I had had my eye on. When I got to the order desk, I asked the barista (actually a male, so I guess a barister!) if he had any more in back. Professor C offered to split the donut with me, and I said OK, but I insisted on giving her $1, my share of its cost. She then said she prefers one-half donut to a whole donut anyway, and so do I. She gave the barister a $1 tip. Everyone was better off—a clear Pareto improvement compared to the situation where she got the donut, and the barister and I got nothing.



Taking Risks to Improve Government: Kenya and Georgia

McKinsey is out with a new report on government innovation in Kenya and the Republic of Georgia. It’s basically the story of how developing countries can harness technology to circumvent entrenched bureaucracy and make government both cheaper and more efficient.

Here are both cases in a nutshell, with a couple snippets from each:

Kenya:

Challenge: Nearly 40% of Kenyans live on less than $2 a day, and corruption is still cited as an ongoing challenge for citizens and businesses. The World Bank has reported, however, that if Kenya can sustain its recent growth rate, it’s on track to become a lower-middle-income country in the next decade. And a new constitution establishes the citizen’s right to access government information—a right that must now be implemented.

Read More »



Dutch Subway Slide: An Exercise in Efficiency

Leave it to the Dutch to turn a playground feature into public-transit innovation. Next time you’re tripping down a set of dirty, crowded subway stairs in your city, just remember that there’s a better way. The Dutch are calling it a “transit accelerator.” Read More »