Monthly Archives: June 2009

Kid Care Need Only Be Fun

Bryan Caplan gives a postcard summary of a 1997 review of kid care quality:

Within a broad range of safe environments, quality variations in child care have only small and temporary effects on most children’s development.  With a few exceptions that can be explained by correlations between family and child-care characteristics, studies both in the United States and elsewhere fail to find any long-term effects.

The review author, however, can’t seem to accept its obvious implication:

The results are not a license to ignore children’s interests in spending their days in emotionally supportive and intellectually stimulating programs.  Just as adults suffer in socially unsupportive, boring work environments, even though their family lives may be satisfying, children with devoted parents are probably less happy in poor preschool programs.  As a society, we can afford to provide interesting, good-quality care for all of our children.

Bryan retorts:

Adults accept “socially unsupportive, boring work environments” all the time.  Why?  Because there’s a trade-off between fun and money.  Why should parents ignore this trade-off when they choose their children’s day care? … Once we accept that the point of child care is entertainment, we can probably find much cheaper ways to supply it.

To me the amazing thing is how long it takes for this sort of info to get out.  Parents spend an awful lot on child care; why doesn’t the news media or Consumer Reports tell them not to waste money on more than fun care?  My guess is that parents would be embarassed to be seen reading such an article; they’d rather signal how much they care about kids by believing that kid care matters.

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Remember The HMO Revolution

Obama and the Democrats will soon propose big changes to US Medicine.  The two key issues are expanding insurance to the now uninsured, and controlling rising medical costs.

On coverage expansion, the debate now is mainly on how much a “public plan” available to all would displace private insurance.  If it displaced most private insurance via better access to government subsidies or preferred treatment, that seems just a backdoor way to get a “single payer” fully government system.   We’ll have to see what advantages the public plan is to get.

On cost control, there seems to be some faint hope of cutting medicine’s current tax exemption.   Arnold Kling suggested making the public plan a high-deductible catastrophic plan, and I suggested making medicine municipal.  But Obama’s main hope is apparently none of these; it instead seems to be to have a Medicare advisory commission suggest cuts, and

Require Congress to give an up or down vote on [its] proposals similar to how the defense base-closing commissions have worked in the past.  This kind of solution could help to insulate highly technical MedPAC recommendations from undue political influence.


When it comes to cost, they actually are starting with Medicare. They hope that the efficiencies work and are voluntarily adopted by private insurance.

To see what this plan is up against, wonks need to recall the failed HMO revolution of the 1990s.  The U.S. government and major U.S. businesses tried to push employees into HMOs, who held down costs by sometimes saying no to doctor-recommended treatment.   This worked spectacularly well for a few years, and then failed just as spectacularly as furious patients abandoned HMOs en mass, and forced the rest to stop saying no.  Costs then shot up to catch up with prior trends:


% US GDP to Medicine

Whatever Obama does to limit medical cost growth, I won’t call it a success until it works for longer than did the HMO revlution.  Does anyone know the politics of the end of the HMO revolution – was any US political faction pushing for that end?  And how was cost growth held down in the mid ’80 or ’00s?

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Reply to Clarke

When Conor Clarke said:

I have a strong moral intuition — even though I know it’s one I can’t justify — that height is something I deserve. But proving that my moral intuitions are an inconsistent smorgasbord doesn’t mean I’m going to give them up!

I snarked:

To me, Yglesias and Clarke seem here to exemplify unprincipled courtiers, who talk sagely of important considerations, and can find sage reasons for any opinion, and so need never allow analysis to move them from the dictates of inertia or fashion.

Today Clarke responded:

The disagreement, if there is one, is in [Hanson’s] statement that reflective equilibrium “will require [us] to reject some raw intuitions, and embrace some unfashionable conclusions.” My sense is that you can move toward reflective equilibrium and remain fashionable. … I would tinker with the principle of fair equality of opportunity until it included a ban on taxing biology in the name of fairness….  I’m not sure Hanson should be so quick to reject the impulse to cling to a deeply held moral intuition in the face of radical social planning. … This is a fundamentally conservative impulse — standing athwart history yelling stop and all that.

My problem is that I find it hard to believe this intuition really is “deeply held.”  As I said when I first blogged on this: Continue reading "Reply to Clarke" »

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Satisfied with Status Affiliation

I suspect:

  • Students are more satisfied hearing the same lecture from a professor than a grad student.
  • Diners are more satisfied with their restaurant food if a celebrity sits at the table next to them.
  • An exercise video done by a famous actress is more satisfying than one by a professional trainer.
  • Journal article referees like the same article more if it is written by a famous researcher.

If you share my suspicions, then you shouldn’t be surprised to hear:

Hekman and his colleagues evaluated 12,091 patient reports about 113 doctors working at a large HMO in the Pacific Northwest. They also studied objective data about the doctors. The regularity with which doctors place heart patients on certain drugs, for example, is a good measure of the quality of their care. The number of e-mails doctors send patients is a measure of their accessibility. And the number of questions doctors ask patients during checkups is a measure of their diligence.

In all these domains, however, Hekman found that these objective measures of performance correlated with patient satisfaction reports only when the doctors were white men. For women and minorities, extra quality, accessibility and diligence not only did not result in better evaluations by patients — they produced worse evaluations. … Continue reading "Satisfied with Status Affiliation" »

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Defending Mankiw

Via Will Wilkinson, I learn Ezra Klein heartily endorsed Matt Yglesias‘s complaint on “the habit of distinguished economists using prestige acquired within their field to pass off sloppy work in other fields.”  He gives only two examples; one is Greg Mankiw’s “pretty half-assed moral philosophy.” Mankiw had argued:

The moral and political philosophy used to justify such income redistribution is most often a form of Utilitarianism. For example, the work on optimal tax theory by Emmanuel Saez … is essentially Utilitarian in its approach. … If you are going to take that philosophy seriously, you have to take all of the implications seriously. And one of those implications is the optimality of taxing height. … A moral and political philosophy is not like a smorgasbord, where you get to pick and choose the offerings you like and leave the others behind without explanation.

Matt Yglesias was outraged:

I think there are a ton of mistakes being made here. … How dangerous it is that the public discourse is so dominated by low-quality freelance philosophy done by people with PhDs in economics. I’m fairly certain that if Mankiw were to walk over to Emerson Hall he could find some folks (possibly T.M. Scanlon who I know sometimes reads this blog) who could explain to him that there’s little grounds for the belief that a commitment to utilitarianism is the main justification for redistributive taxation.

Gee Matt, given such strong language, don’t you feel some obligation to offer supporting evidence?  Mankiw cited an example, and you even cite your classmate Neil Sinhababu supporting redistribution on utilitarian grounds. Where is the contrary evidence?   And even if Mankiw happens to be wrong here, he doesn’t seem crazy or sloppy wrong – an awful large fraction of ethical analyzes justifying redistribution are utilitarian, even if they aren’t strictly the most common.

Note that it isn’t obvious that a Rawlsian analysis won’t similarly support a height tax.  Also note that many professional philosophers blog, and none have yet voiced support for your condemnation of Mankiw’s unexcusably sloppy philosophy.

Yglesias continued: Continue reading "Defending Mankiw" »

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Pro “Slavery” OpEd

Imagine my surprise to read a pro-“slavery” Post oped:

Imagine a kid from rural Montana who, after scoring high on the SAT, has investors clamoring to finance his college education. … 17 percent … That’s the astronomical potential return on investment of educational intervention on young children, according to the Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. …

Consider … A mother works two jobs, dropping her toddler off at a friend’s house early each morning and picking her up late at night. The mother can’t afford high-quality child care and, because of that, statistics show, years from now that child will be more likely to repeat grades, become pregnant while a teenager, commit crime, visit the emergency room and depend on welfare. …

If [the toddler] could sell a percentage of her future income in exchange for a coupon to receive child care and if the government offered tax credits to investors to compensate them for the decreased social cost that they finance, investors might compete to pay for her education. …

Of course, daunting logistical and moral questions would have to be answered. But before we rule out this proposal on logistical or moral grounds, let us also consider the millions of Americans who will suffer inequity and injustice as a result of our inaction.

If we allowed this, observers would happily laud the initial influx of money to these kids and their families.  But a few decades later, many would complain loudly about the “exploitative” and even “racist” extra “tax” these kids must pay as adults.  Media coverage would focus on those who sold the largest fraction of their future income and made the worst educational investments, becoming a new “slave underclass” of “company town” parents who feel they can’t afford to raise kids without selling off most of those kids’ future. Continue reading "Pro “Slavery” OpEd" »

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Slow Potatos

The Spanish transplanted the spud to Europe in the 16th century, by way of the Canary Islands. Growing underground — bulbous, white, and strange — potatoes had image problems on the Continent at first. … The subterranean bizarreness of tuberous growth compared unfavorably to the airy, sunlit, wholesomeness of the familiar cereal grains — barley, rye, oats and wheat — that had sustained Europe for centuries.

The spud did not become a staple food in Europe until the 17th and 18th centuries, when warfare was widespread and frequent. Reader argues that this was no coincidence: Disruptions and upheavals inflicted by marauding armies changed the diet and tastes of the Continent, with massive demographic and economic consequences. When grain fields weren’t being torched or requisitioned, armies were camping on them or marching through them. It wasn’t a matter of choice but a lack of options that really dropped the potato onto Europe’s plate around 1700. While cereal grains were exposed to the ravages of war, potatoes were safely hidden in the ground and, when the tides of war receded, could be harvested and stored. This was when Europe discovered that the potato may be monotonous, but it is also extraordinarily nutritious, yielding four times more calories per acre than grain.

That is from a Post review of the book Potato.  Now my historian colleague John Nye tells me that since the potato took a lot more labor, it wasn’t really four times more productive.  And he’s pretty skeptical of the above story.  But still, I find it interesting that in what was basically a farming economy, a free more productive farm tech took so long to catch on, and even then perhaps only because of something largely incidental to its productivity.   The fact that such a thing is so hard to imagine today shows just how dramatically the industrial revolution has changed how we innovate.

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What Voting Signals

From Arthur B. at The Distributed Republic:

This paper should be familiar. It was featured by Levitt in the New York Times and has been discussed at length in these circles. It describes what happened when a Swiss Canton allowed mailing ballots in an election. Participation fell dramatically. The article concludes that most people vote because showing up at the poll booth signals you are participating in the election.

I was recently reminded of this paper by an article on Slashdot telling a similar story:

Voting fell 83% in an all digital election

Why should we care? … A low turn out indicates that people do not really care about the election. … Better, it attacks the myth that democracy is representative. … A democracy with a lot of eager participation is a recipe for collectivist arguments about the “will of the people”. Low turnout allows the state to be viewed as a separate parasite.

That NYT article elaborated:

The motivation could be hope for social esteem, benefits from being perceived as a cooperator or just the avoidance of informal sanctions. … The Swiss study suggests that we may be driven to vote less by a financial incentive than a social one. It may be that the most valuable payoff of voting is simply being seen at the polling place by your friends or co-workers.

One is reminded of the Soviet Union bragging about its 100% voter participation rate with only one candidate for each office.   So why are folks so eager to increase voter participation, when it lowers the quality of decisions and doesn’t obviously mean people accept the government?

I’d guess self-deception is key.  People enticed to the polls by signaling incentives would rather not admit such motives; they’d rather believe in their own power and altruism, and in the virtues of their polity.  So encouraging more signaling via votes encourages people to believe that the little guy has influence, and that voters really care about each other.  So induced voters end up believing more that their democracy works.  Even in the Soviet Union.

Added: OK, uncle, the NYT did severely misrepresent the paper, as several comments have mentioned.  This does not offer much support for the signaling theory, though it doesn’t go much against it either.  Let me vow to never again blog an academic paper I haven’t perused.

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What Chance a “Real” Possibility?

Yesterday ABC aired a two hour special “Earth 2100,” a “worst case scenario” of global warning disaster:

The scenarios in Earth 2100 are not a prediction of what will happen but rather a warning about what might happen. They are based on the work of some of the world’s top scientists and experts. …  Though there is some disagreement about the specifics, there is widespread agreement among the 50-plus experts we spoke to in the course of our 18 months working on this show that if we do not change course in the near future, the collapse of our civilization is a real possibility.

Elsewhere they call it a “very real possibility.”  But after all that work, they can’t bring themselves to say just how likely this disaster would be, if we do not change course.  A median of the 50 experts’ probability estimates (of a scenario this bad or worse) would have been fine.  Many of us are willing to chance a one in a billion possibility, but not a one in ten possibility; so what exactly is a “real” or “very real” possibility? Continue reading "What Chance a “Real” Possibility?" »

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Gullible Mimics

A standard way to make someone like you is to mimic their face and body motions.  Smile, cross your legs, etc. when they do.  Why does this work?  Some say it helps you empathize with them, to feel as they feel.  Which is almost right. But more precisely mimicry helps you to see them as they want to be seen, rather than as they really are.  From a recent Psychological Science:

Mimicry facilitates the ability to understand what other people are feeling. The present research investigated whether this is also true when the expressions that are being mimicked do not reflect the other person’s true emotions. In interactions, targets either lied or told the truth [about donating to a charity], while observers mimicked or did not mimic the targets’ facial and behavioral movements. Detection of deception was measured directly by observers’ judgments of the extent to which they thought the targets were telling the truth and indirectly by observers’ assessment of targets’ emotions. The results demonstrated that nonmimickers were more accurate than mimickers in their estimations of targets’ truthfulness and of targets’ experienced emotions. The results contradict the view that mimicry facilitates the understanding of people’s felt emotions. In the case of deceptive messages, mimicry hinders this emotional understanding.

You are attracted to those who mimic you in part because such people show you that they will try to believe your lies.  You like people who will uncritically accept your story.  Do you want to reconsider if you should mimic others, or like those who mimic you?

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