Tag Archives: Academia

Old Prof Vices, Virtues

Tyler on “How bad is age discrimination in academia?”:

I believe it is very bad, although I do not have data.

I started my Ph.D. at the age of 34, and Tyler hired me here at GMU at the age of 40. So by my lights Tyler deserves credit for overcoming the age bias. Tyler doesn’t discuss why this bias might exist, but a Stanford history prof explained his theory to me when I was in my early 30s talking to him about a possible PhD. He said that older students are known for working harder and better, but also for being less pliable: they have more of their own ideas about what is interesting and important.

I think that fits with what I’ve heard from others, and have seen for myself, including in myself. People complain that academia builds too little on “real world” experience, and that disciplines are too insular. And older students help with that. But in fact the incentive for each prof in picking students isn’t to solve the wider problems with academia. It is instead to expand an empire by creating intellectual clones of him or herself. And for that selfish goal, older students are worse. My mentors likely feel this way about me, that I worked hard and did interesting stuff, but I was not a good investment for expanding their legacy.

Interestingly this explanation is somewhat the opposite of the usual excuses for age bias in Silicon Valley. There the usual story is that older people won’t take as many risks, and that they aren’t as creative. But the complaint about older Ph.D.s is exactly that they take too many risks, and that they are too creative. If only they would just do what they are told, and copy their mentors, then their hard work and experience could be more valued.

I find it hard to believe that older workers change their nature this much between tech and academia. Something doesn’t add up here. And for what its worth, I’ve been personally far more impressed by the tech startups I’ve known that are staffed by older folks.

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Thank You GMU Econ!

Ten years ago today the GMU economics department voted to award me tenure. With that vote, I won my academic gamble. I can’t be sure what my odds reasonably were, so I can’t be sure it was a gamble worth taking. And I’m not sure tenure is overall good for the world. But I am sure that I’m very glad that I achieved tenure.

Many spend part of their tenure dividend on leisure. Many spend part on continuing to gain academic prestige as they did before. Many switch to more senior roles in the academic prestige game. And some spend tenure on riskier research agendas, agendas that are foolish for folks seeing tenure.

Though some may disagree, I see myself as primarily in this last category.  And since that would not be possible without tenure, I bow in sincere supplication, and thank my colleagues for this treasured honor. THANK YOU for my tenure.

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Hanson Loves Moose Caca

Warning: this post touches on sensitive topics.

In the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” when Toula was a little girl, she sat alone in the school cafeteria, frizzy haired, big nosed, and unpopular. The blonde girls at the next table asked her what she was eating, and Toula quietly said “moussaka.” The popular girls laughed cruelly, saying “Ewwww, ”moose caca!”” (more)

Imagine that those cruel girls had gone on to tell other kids “Toula says she loves to eat moose caca!” That is how I feel when Noah Smith says:

Why is it that the sciences look like a feminist nirvana compared with the economics profession, which seems to have a built-in bias that prevents women from advancing?

Consider this 2011 blog post by George Mason University economist Robin Hanson. Hanson writes that “gentle, silent rape” of a woman by a man causes less harm than a wife cuckolding her husband:

I [am puzzled] over why our law punishes rape far more than cuckoldry…[M]ost men would rather be raped than cuckolded…Imagine a woman was drugged into unconsciousness and then gently raped, so that she suffered no noticeable physical harm nor any memory of the event, and the rapist tried to keep the event secret…Now compare the two cases, cuckoldry and gentle silent rape.

There was no outcry whatsoever over these remarks, nor any retraction that I could find. (more)

Now I’ve admitted as far back as 2006 that academia, economics included, is biased against women. (Having been in both physics and computer science before, I doubt the situation is much worse in econ.) This one post of mine that Smith points to did induce many negative responses in comments and elsewhere, and of my thousands of blog posts I’d be surprised if much more than a dozen had induced any blog responses by economists whatsoever. And I suggested that we consider that the harms of rape and cuckoldry might be similar; I didn’t claim I knew one to be definitely larger.

But more fundamentally, Noah Smith is plenty smart enough to understand that I was not at all minimizing the harm of rape when I used rape as a reference to ask if other harms might be even bigger. Just as people who accuse others of being like Hitler do not usually intend to praise Hitler, people who compare other harms to rape usually intend to emphasize how big are those other harms, not how small is rape.

But I’m pretty sure Smith knows that. Yet, like the girls who taunted Toula, Smith finds it suits him better to pretend to misunderstand.

Added noon: Steve Sailer weighs in.

Added 2p: Noah Smith and I have been having a twitter conversation on this.

Added 4p: My topic was the relative harm of cuckoldry & rape. Noah Smith says that this topic itself is innately offensive to most women, who think cuckoldry to be of such low harm that comparing it with rape suggests rape to be low harm. He is further offended that I would talk on a topic if I knew it might offend in this way. I said his presuming cuckoldry is of very low harm offends the many men who think it very high harm. He disagrees that there are many such men, and would bet on a poll on the subject, but thinks it offensive to make such a poll, and won’t help with that.

Added 10a Sunday: Heartiste has a poll with over 3700 respondents so far on preferring rape or cuckoldry. Express your opinion there, or start a new poll somewhere.

Added Tuesday: Now Noah Smith wonders out loud if I’m a fake nerd, who pretends not to understand political correctness so I can have an excuse to offend people. Cause people so admire nerds that of course everyone wants to look like one …

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Imagine Libertopia

In this post I’ll talk primarily to people who, like me, lean libertarian. The rest of you can take a break.

Libertarians want to move more products and services from being provided directly by government, to being provided privately. And for those that are provided privately, libertarians want to weaken regulations. These changes would increase liberty.

Libertarians tend to offer arguments that are relatively abstract and theory-based. That is, they focus more on why more liberty is more moral, or why it should in theory give better outcomes. They focus less on showing that liberty has in practice worked out better. When libertarians do focus on data, they tend to be very broad, or randomly specific. That is, they talk about how West Germany is better than East Germany, or South Korea better than North Korea. Or they pick on very specific examples, like regulations limiting eyeglass ads, and leave audiences wondering how cherry-picked are such examples.

It seems to me that libertarians focus too much on trying to argue abstractly that liberty would be better, and not enough on just concretely describing how liberty would be different. Yes for you the abstract arguments seem best; they persuade you plenty, and they bring the most prestige in your circle. But typical libertarians today are a distinct personality type; most people are not like you. Most people just cannot be comfortable with a proposal for change if they cannot imagine it in some detail, and imagine that they’d like that detail. Such people don’t need more abstract arguments and examples; they instead credible concrete descriptions.

True, people have sometimes written fiction set in libertarian settings. But such fiction doesn’t usually come with a careful analysis of why one should believe in its many details. Yes, part of the attraction of liberty is that it frees up people to innovate in ways that one can’t anticipate in advance. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t go a long way to better describe a world of more liberty.

On reflection, I realize that when I try to imagine more liberty, I mostly draw on a limited set of iconic comparisons, such as comparing airlines, trucks, and phones before and after US deregulation, or comparing public to private schools and mail in the US. Alas, we and our audiences should worry that we cherry-pick such examples to support conclusions we like.

We should be able to do much better than this. By now there are vast literatures discussing many industries in many places before and after regulation or deregulation, and describing specific times and places where certain products and services provided directly by governments, or provided privately. From this vast literature we should be able to identify many concrete patterns and “stylized facts” about how government-provision and heavy-regulation tends to change products and services.

I recall these suggestions for typical features of industries with more liberty:

  1. Less “gold-plating” in materials and methods
  2. More product variety, including more low quality versions
  3. Faster innovation and product cycles
  4. Fewer guarantees to workers or customers
  5. Price, features vary more with customer features
  6. Workers have less school and seniority
  7. Less overhead spend on paperwork
  8. more?

Some people should work to extract patterns like these from our vast related literatures – I’ve looked, and there just aren’t many such summaries today. With such patterns in hand, we would be in a much better position to credibly describe how familiar products and services would concretely change if we were to provide them privately, or to regulate them less. And such credible concrete descriptions might allow many more people to become comfortable with endorsing such expansions of liberty.

This sort of project seems well within the abilities of the median grad student. It doesn’t require great creativity or technical skills. Instead, it just requires methodically surveying and summarizing related literatures. Perhaps some libertarian students should shy away from it in hopes of impressing via more difficult methods. But surely there must be other students for which this sort of project is a good match.

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Why We Believe

Long ago, I first believed in religion as a young kid because I believed what I was told. Then I also believed because religious claims seemed to explain the strong emotions that religious contexts induced. This is how religion works – you feel strong emotions due to candles, buildings, clothes, music, well crafted and button-pushing words, charismatic empathetic leaders, social support and status. And if respected leaders and supporters around you then claim that your emotions are caused by God, well that makes sense. Even though many religious claims are transparently crazy, at least to people who well understand the world, they are easy for the young or inexpert to accept.

Recently while watching an emotional movie with political and moral overtones, I was reminded that the same is true for art. Art can make us feel strong emotions via all the same mechanisms. When high status artists and art supporters around us tell us these emotions are caused by our recognizing the emotional truth of art’s moral, political, and legal claims, that can make sense to us. Yet most of the channels by which art makes us feel emotions are irrelevant to the truth of its key claims. When we come to see this, we usually make excuses and tell ourselves that we aren’t fooled by all that other stuff; we really are just evaluating only the key moral/political/legal arguments. But the many correlations we see between features of art and who is persuaded when make it hard to believe this applies to most people most of the time.

The same likely also holds for essays like this one, or academic papers. While such writings may contain logical arguments, they also transmit writing styles, author charisma, status, and impressiveness, and clues about who supports or opposes them. You might think that you correct for all those influences when you read such writings and evaluate their claims, but the patterns above in religion and art suggest this is unlikely. The fact that people aren’t very interested in the accuracy of their pundits suggests we usually give a high priority to presentation style.

Could we do better? On subjects that have implications for future observations we could use prediction markets. But what about other subjects? Well, we might try to control for presentation variation by having a group of neutral writers rewrite common arguments in a standard style. That is, a single neutral writer could present all the different arguments on some subject, all using the same writing style. Readers of such presentations would have a better chance of drawing conclusions on each subject based on the logic of arguments, instead of writing styles. The fact that we aren’t very interested in these sort of presentations suggests that we aren’t very interested in reducing the influence of other writing style related factors.

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Tarot Counselors

[Tarot card] readers claim to be able to describe a person’s life, his problems, hopes and fears, his personality and even his future. (more)

I recently watched a demonstration of Tarot card reading. The reader threw out various interpretations of the cards she placed, in terms of the subjects personality and life, and watched the subject carefully for reactions, moving the interpretation closer to options where the subject seemed more engaged. Though the subject was a skeptic, she admitted to finding the experience quite compelling.

Contrast such life readings to school career counselors. Economists have long been puzzled by the lack of student interest in career info. Career counselors usually refer to statistics about the income or graduation rates of broad categories of people given certain types of careers, colleges, or majors. Such advice may be evidence-based but it seems far less compelling to students. It is not connected to salient recent personal experiences of the subjects, or to outcomes in which subjects are very emotionally engaged. The advice is clear but uncertain, in contrast to the certainty and ambiguity of Tarot readings.

It seems obvious to me that many students would be more engaged by more Tarot-like career counseling. It also seems obvious that many parents and other citizens would loudly object, as this would be seen as unscientific and lower the status of this school, at least among elites. Even if the process just took on the appearance of Tarot readings but mainly had the usual career counseling content.

The high status of science seems to push many people to have less compelling and engaging stories of their lives, even if such stories are more accurate.

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Do Economists Care?

Art Carden:

Heavy traffic is a problem every economist in the world knows how to solve: price road access, and charge high prices during rush hour. With technologies like E-ZPass and mobile apps, it’s easier than ever. That we don’t pick this low-hanging fruit is a pretty serious indictment of public policy. If we can’t address what is literally a principles-level textbook example of a negative spillover with a fairly easy fix, what hope do we have for effective public policy on other margins? (more)

Yes! If economists actually cared about influencing real policy, they would:

  1. Identify a few strong candidate policies that are a) widely endorsed by economists, b) based on relatively simple clean analysis, c) not much adopted in the wider world, and d) should bring big gains.
  2. Try to engage other intellectuals in detail on one or a few of these, seeking to either gain their endorsement, or to understand better the barriers that block them. If possible, do this as a group, and using all our status levers to make them respond in detail. If we succeed in persuading intellectuals, then join with them to try to persuade policy-makers, again either succeeding or better understanding barriers.
  3. Once we better understand barriers, focus our economic research on doing what it takes to overcome them.

By not doing this, we basically say that while we think we know how to make a better world, we don’t much care if that happens; our priorities are elsewhere.

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Fundamentalists Are Not Traditionalists

In my last two years of college I rebelled against the system. I stopped doing homework and instead studied physics by playing with equations (and acing exams). In this I was a “school fundamentalist.” I wanted to cut out what I saw as irrelevant and insincere ritual, so that school could better serve what I saw as its fundamental purpose, which was to help curious people learn. I contrasted myself with “traditionalists” who just unthinkingly continued with previous habits and customs.

One of the big social trends over the last few centuries has been a move toward reforming previous rituals and institutions to become more “sincere,” i.e., to more closely align with stated purposes, especially purposes related to internal feelings. For example, the protestant revolution tried to reform religious rituals and institutions toward a stated purpose of improving personal relations with God. (Christian and Islamic “fundamentalists” continue in this vein today.) The romantic revolution in marriage was to move marriage toward a stated purpose of promoting loving romantic relations. And various revolutions in government have been justified as moving government toward stated purposes of legitimacy, representation, and accountability.

In all of these cases advocates for reform have complained about insincerity and hypocrisy in prior practices and institutions. Similar sincerity concerns can be raised about birthday presents, or dinner table manners. Kids sometimes ask why, if gifts are to show feelings, people shouldn’t wait to give gifts until they most feel the mood. Or wait for when the receiver would most like the gift. Kids also sometimes ask why they must lie and say “thank you” when that is not how they feel. Here kids are being fundamentalists, while parents are traditionalists who mostly just want the kids to do the usual thing, without too much reflection on exactly why.

We economists are deep into this sincerity trend, in that we often analyze institutions according to stated purposes, and propose institutional reforms that seem to better achieve stated purposes. For example, in law & economics, the class I’m teaching this semester, we analyze which legal rules best achieve the stated purpose of creating incentives to increase economic welfare.

I’ve been made aware of this basic sincerity vs. tradition conflict by the sociology book Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. While its sociology theory can make for hard reading at times, I was persuaded by its basic claim that modern intellectuals are too quick to favor the sincerity side of this conflict. For example, even if dinner manners and birthday presents rituals don’t most directly express the sincerest feeling of those involved, they can create an “as if” appearance of good feelings, and this appearance can make people nicer and feel better about each other. We’d get a lot fewer presents if people only gave them when in the mood.

Similarly, while for some kids it seems enough to just support their curiosity, most kids are probably better off in a school system that forces them to act as if they are curious, even when they are not. Also, my wife, who works in hospice, tells me that people today often reject traditional bereavement rituals which don’t seem to reflect their momentary sincere feelings. But such people often then feel adrift, not knowing what to do, and their bereavement process goes worse.

Of course I’m not saying we should always unthinkingly follow tradition. But I do think our efforts to reform often go badly because we focus on the most noble and flattering functions and situations, and neglect many other important ones.

From Ritual and Its Consequences I also got some useful distinctions. In addition to sincerity vs. tradition, there is also play vs. ritual. This is the distinction among less-practical “as-if” behaviors between those (play) that spin out into higher variance and those (ritual) that spin in to high predictability. Ritual in this sense can help one to feel safe when threatened, while play can bring joy when one doesn’t feel threatened. One can also distinguish between kinds of play and ritual where people’s usual roles are preserved vs. reversed, and distinguish between kinds where people are in control vs. out of control of events.

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Conflicting Abstractions

My last post seems an example of an interesting general situation: when abstractions from different fields conflict on certain topics. In the case of my last post, the topic was the relative growth rate feasible for a small project hoping to create superintelligence, and the abstractions that seem to conflict are the ones I use, mostly from economics, and abstractions drawn from computer practice and elsewhere used by Bostrom, Yudkowsky, and many other futurists.

What typically happens when it seems that abstractions from field A suggests X, while abstraction from field B suggests not X? Well first, since both X and not X can’t be true, each field would likely see this as a threat to their good reputation. If they were forced to accept the existence of the conflict, then they’d likely try to denigrate the other field. If one field is higher status, the other field would expect to lose a reputation fight, and so they’d be especially eager to reject the claim that a conflict exists.

And in fact, it should usually be possible to reject a claim that a conflict exists. The judgement that a conflict exists would come from specific individuals studying the questions of if A suggests X and if B suggests not X. One could just suggest that some of those people were incompetent at analyzing the implications of the abstractions of particular fields. Or that they were talking past each other and misunderstanding what X and not X mean to the other. So one would need especially impeccable credentials to publicly make these claims and make them stick.

The ideal package of expertise for investigating such an issue would be expertise in both fields A and B. This would position one well to notice that a conflict exists, and to minimize the chance of problems arising from misunderstandings on what X means. Unfortunately, our institutions for crediting expertise don’t do well at encouraging combined expertise. For example, often patrons are interested in the intersection between fields A and B, and sponsor conferences, journal issues, etc. on this intersection. However, seeking maximal prestige they usually prefer people with the most prestige in each field, over people who actually know both fields simultaneously. Anticipating this, people usually choose to stay within each field.

Anticipating this whole scenario, people are likely to usually avoid seeking out or calling attention to such conflicts. To seek out or pursue a conflict, you’d have to be especially confident that your field would back you up in a fight, because your credentials are impeccable and the field thinks it could win a status conflict with the other field. And even then you’d have to waste some time studying a field that your field doesn’t respect. Even if you win the fight you might lose prestige in your field.

This is unfortunate, because such conflicts seem especially useful clues to help us refine our important abstractions. By definition, abstractions draw inferences from reduced descriptions, descriptions which ignore relevant details. Usually that is useful, but sometimes that leads to errors when the dropped details are especially relevant. Intellectual progress would probably be promoted if we could somehow induce more people to pursue apparent conflicts between the abstractions from different fields.

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Robot Econ in AER

In the May ‘014 American Economic Review, Fernald & Jones mention that having computers and robots replace human labor can dramatically increase growth rates:

Even more speculatively, artificial intelligence and machine learning could allow computers and robots to increasingly replace labor in the production function for goods. Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2012) discuss this possibility. In standard growth models, it is quite easy to show that this can lead to a rising capital share—which we intriguingly already see in many countries since around 1980 (Karabarbounis and Neiman 2013)—and to rising growth rates. In the limit, if capital can replace labor entirely, growth rates could explode, with incomes becoming infinite in finite time.

For example, drawing on Zeira (1998), assume the production function is

GrowthEquation

Suppose that over time, it becomes possible to replace more and more of the labor tasks with capital. In this case, the capital share will rise, and since the growth rate of income per person is 1/(1 − capital share ) × growth rate of A, the long-run growth rate will rise as well.6

GrowthFootnote

Of course the idea isn’t new; but apparently it is now more respectable.

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