If no-one can hear us…

Last week was the annual research conference of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. For those who do not frequent academic conferences, this is a get-together of people like me and several of yr. obdt. bloggers, where we break up into “sessions” of about an hour and a half, in each of which three or four people present recent research.  A program committee of really noble souls puts these together out of proposals so they have some internal coherence: four papers about urban crime, or three about state pension accounting, and like that. Hour after hour of smart people saying more interesting things than you can possibly absorb.
The outgoing APPAM  president gives an address, on a topic of his or her choice, that is well-attended and subsequently published in the organization’s Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.  This year we heard from one of my  very favorite colleagues, Angela Evans, formerly of the Congressional Research Service and now at UT Austin scarfing up every teaching award in sight.
I thought it was an excellent talk about stuff on which Angela and I almost entirely agree, but at about 49:00 she has one of those moments professors anticipate with, um, qualified enthusiasm: in front of her whole tribe, and the world on YouTube, one of her own students asks an excellent question (heart leaps) to which she has only half of a good answer (heart palpitates): how is all this excellent policy analysis and research supposed to get to the public? Angela has always been all over the need for pointy-heads to explain their stuff in languages people can understand, and not browbeat them with regression coefficients and the kind of technical stuff we play catch among ourselves with.  But she didn’t say a word about  the most important current challenge to good governance in a democracy (and othercracies), namely the technology-driven collapse of the business model for diffusion and creation of content.

Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Barry Lyndon

Now that the wintry November weekends make staying indoors for whole afternoons acceptable, you might need a long film to wile away the day. It’s a perfect opportunity to go back and watch Stanley Kubrick’s period masterpiece Barry Lyndon (1975), based on the Thackeray novel of a similar name.

The story unfolds in two acts. Act I sees a young Redmond Barry, played by a chisel-jawed Ryan O’Neal, being deceived by the noble English suitor to his beloved cousin. In disgrace and determined not to be outdone again by a fellow of superior birth, he departs from his life of poverty in rural mid-eighteenth century Ireland. Upon having his every penny stolen by Irish highwaymen, Redmond enlists in the British Army, and is shipped off to the continent to fight in the Seven Years’ War.

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But ennoblement is hard to come by for young Redmond, so he deserts for want of a life elsewhere where he may enjoy gentlemanly recognition. His desertion is unsuccessful, however, and he is soon enlisted yet again, albeit this time in the Prussian forces. Barry’s captain assigns him the task of keeping an eye on a suspected spy by the name of the Chevalier de Balibari (played by Patrick Magee), a notorious libertine who swiftly teaches young Redmond the art of inveiglement. Barry takes to the pretense rather fondly. Continue Reading…

Corporate Egg Freezing as a Research Opportunity

Apple made news recently by announcing that it will pay the costs of egg freezing for employees, thereby potentially extending fertility later in life. Brigid Schulte sees the policy as a corporate tactic to justify 90-hour work weeks, whereas Katie Benner sees value in giving workers more flexibility in their family-building options (although as Megan McArdle points out, spending your 40s and 50s chasing toddlers around is challenging, frozen eggs or no). Now that the ethics and impacts have been debated by subtler minds than my own, I step in as a bloodless behavioral scientist to say that this is a terrific opportunity to research how human beings make important decisions.

Up until now, there was no good way to study the effect of freezing eggs on child-bearing decisions because of self-selection, i.e., the women who chose to pay for the procedure were fundamentally different from those who didn’t in ways that independently affected their likelihood of becoming mothers (e.g., education, income, planfulness). But now we have an excellent instrumental variable to exploit in quasi-experimental analysis (nice explanation by Austin Frakt here): Was a woman working at Apple when the egg-freezing policy was announced or was she working at a tech company that didn’t have the same policy?

The logic here is that whether those female Apple employees freeze their eggs or not will now be determined not only by the usual self-selection factors, but also by something exogenous, namely the company’s new policy. Presuming (reasonably) that they did not know that the policy was going to be implemented before they chose to work at Apple versus a different tech company, the instrument should exert no effect on the outcome except through the policy in question.

So, what would you hypothesize? Will more egg-freezing lead to more or fewer women becoming mothers? On the one hand, one could argue that knowing that the eggs are frozen would lead more women to delay childbirth for longer, perhaps to the point where it was no longer possible. This would mean that the egg freezing option lowers the likelihood of giving birth.

But I expect the opposite, because of two countervailing forces, sunk costs and public commitment. Egg freezing involves a significant amount of work, which will be experienced as a loss if the woman never has kids. Of course, the work has been done regardless, but there is good evidence that that is not how we think about sunk costs. Rather, we want to justify them by following through. Public commitment would also work in favor of more births. We are generally more likely to make major behavioral changes when we make others aware of our plans. If you tell yourself you are dieting and leave it at that, you are less likely to lose weight than if you decline a dessert and say loudly to everyone at the table “No thanks, I am trying to lose 10 pounds”. Egg-freezing involves some public commitment to a future behavior; you don’t have to announce it to your co-workers but you will obviously tell the health care staff and perhaps people close to you as well. That in itself makes it more likely that you will follow through, even beyond the sunk costs effect.

So that’s my bet, to be evaluated empirically with an instrumental variables study: This policy will lead more, not fewer, women to become mothers.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Alien

Closing out the October fright-fest, this week’s movie recommendation is Ridley Scott’s wildly successful maiden voyage of one of the best haunted house franchises in movie history. It’s Alien (1979).

The opening shot lingers on a wide open expanse of space. Instead of being a place of tranquil comfort, though, Scott’s outer space is an empty and soulless oblivion. Piercing that massive expanse is the clunky Nostromo, a cargo ship staffed by seven weary crew-members on a return trip home. During their journey, they are roused from ‘hyper-sleep’ to respond to a distress signal emitted from a mysterious source along their route. Exhausted by travel and labor, the crew struggles to see why the distress call should be their responsibility. Over the objections of the engineers Brett and Parker (played by Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, respectively), Dallas the captain (played by Tom Skerritt) insists on the Nostromo responding to the call.

Upon reaching the source of the signal, the crew finds a strange, possibly alien spaceship. The exploration party brings back to the Nostromo an unexpected package with unknown properties. In one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, the nature of that package becomes clear while the crew sits down to eat together. Unbeknownst to the crew-members, in bringing the package aboard they also set loose a hostile alien with acid for blood, an appetite for humans, and a mean, mean temper. From that scene onward, the eponymous alien hides in the ventilation pipes and steam-filled corridors of the Nostromo, growing in form at each appearance while it hunts the crew-members – the most resilient of which is the impressive Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in her career-making role.

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When the characters wake from their groggy slumber at the start of the film, unenthused about either the job they currently have or the one to which they’ve been newly assigned, there’s a prevailing sense of gloom and diffidence permeating the mood. The pacing is deliberate, slow, and unnerving. Then, after the initial set-up is out of the way and the battle against the alien begins, it’s a long haul of tension, anxiety, and fear from about 45 minutes in right through to the very end. Unlike many horror films of similar ilk, Alien doesn’t bother with wacky offbeat comic relief to control the film’s pacing. Instead, Scott is merciless in giving the audience no reprieve whatsoever from the suspense.

Although the budget in Alien was ultimately sizeable, the project certainly did not begin life that way. Much of the film was shot on a shoestring, and it shows in the final product: the tricks Scott uses to elicit a gasp and build tension are basic and require little more than a well-placed shadow and camera. The performances are air-tight, as well. But the suspense of the film is not so much attributable to the action of the film as its concept: one of the defining features of the Alien franchise is the fear and uncertainty about who’s on the good guys’ team.

That ‘evil within’ theme runs throughout the film and operates at multiple levels: there’s the obvious fact that the alien is inhabiting the very ship that’s supposed to protect the passengers from the danger outside; there’s the suspicion surrounding one of the crew members, who isn’t letting on all he knows; there’s the more visceral nature of the alien’s gestation inside the chest cavities of its victims; and finally, in a story arc that is elaborated upon in much greater detail in later films, there’s the duplicitous motives of the corporation for which the characters work. At every turn, Alien raises suspicions about precisely that which ought to be providing a sense of security. Surely the spaceship is safe? If not that, then surely the crew is all on the same page? If not that, then maybe we can expect to be secure in our own bodies? If not that, then at least we can hope the nefariousness extends no further than the ship? On all counts, we’re wrong.

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As haunted house films go, Alien is about as good as it gets. Notwithstanding some dated monitor displays and odd noises emanating from the computers, you barely notice that it’s already a quarter century old. Some of the scare tactics are just timeless, it seems.

International Cost-Shifting and Political Strategy

UK Bill

The British taxpayer just got an unpleasant surprise. The EU obligates member states with stronger economies to pay more of the EU’s budget than do members who have weaker economies. Having crunched a bunch of revised current and past economic figures, the green eyeshade wearers in Brussels have announced that some countries are due money back and others must pony up more. As the above chart shows, many countries are affected, but most of the action can be summed up simply: The Brits are being touched for over 2 billion Euros, which will fund hefty rebates for the French and Germans.

Whether the revised economic figures are more accurate than the early versions (which would mean Britain is simply being asked to make up for a getting an overly sweet deal in prior years) or whether they are less accurate (which would mean Britain is being mulcted) is beyond my ken. What I find more interesting is how European policy making might change if those who want the EU to be more centralized and powerful succeed in their wish to make equalization payments like these much larger and more frequent.

Politicians are always tempted to give voters more in services than they charge them in taxes, while sticking non-voters with the resulting debt (e.g., children and generations yet unborn). This can clearly work politically, but there is always a risk that voters will eventually notice how much their grandchildren are struggling and begin to hold the political class accountable. The perfect solution for this problem for integrity-free pols is to create international agreements such that the debt burden caused by undertaxation (or if you prefer, overspending) is shifted to people who will never be able to kick them out of office: Voters in other countries.

Imagine a EU centralizer’s dream world in which the equalization payments in question were 50 times what they are today. If you were running a country where the work week is capped at 35 hours, the retirement age is 60 and employees are only expected to come to work 26 weeks a year (the rest of the time, they would be on holiday or on strike), you would eventually be punished by the electorate for delivering little or no economic growth. But if you are in international equalization payment agreements with other countries in which cultural norms and labor rules are such that people work much harder and produce more economic growth, you might be more inclined to lower your own country’s retirement age or the number of allowed hours of work per week. Your own citizens would be happier, and your treasury would get a big check each year from other countries. And if the countries who are paying your bills are historical rivals of yours, so much the sweeter — perhaps even a vote winner if handled properly.

Chart courtesy of The Daily Mail

Shorter Ross Douthat

All Popes are infallible, but reactionary Popes are more infallible than others.

Note especially two extraordinary claims:

* That what Douthat admits is a traditionalist minority deserves deference because of its energy. Apparently Douthat wants his faction to dominate the Church the way the Tea Party dominates the GOP.

* That it would be outrageous for Pope Francis to use the power of appointment to move the Church into the future in precisely the way his two predecessors used it to move the Church into the past.

Brad DeLong notes the historical falsity of the claim that the early modern church was prepared to lose England rather than compromise on the indissolubility of marriage. But it is worse than false: it is absurd. The granting of annulments to royal persons when politically convenient was no more controversial at the time than was granting dispensations from what otherwise would have been impediments to marriage (e.g., on grounds of consanguinity) for the same political reasons. When Louis VII of France decided he could no longer put up with Eleanor of Aquitaine – after 15 years of marriage, with two children – he had no problem getting their marriage annulled, to his own relief and to the delight of Eleanor and her lover Henry Plantagenet, soon to be King of England.

By Douthat’s announced standard – the Gospel teaching that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery –  the marriage of Eleanor and Henry was adulterous, and their children therefore bastards. But of course no one would have suggested that at the time. Nor does anyone suggest that about the tens of thousands of Catholic couples each year who suddenly decide that their long-standing marriages were invalid from their inception and get a church tribunal to go along with that assertion. (In some cases, that decision is mutual, but in others it’s at the instance of one party or the other, sometimes against vigorous resistance of the other party.)

If you can read this explanation by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops without laughing out loud, your facial muscles are stronger than mine:

“Annulment” is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic “declaration of nullity.” Actually, nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.

The document goes on to explain why the children of two people who were never married are nonetheless considered legitimate. It’s true: “With God, all things are possible.”

Footnotes

1. If you consider the practice of assigning children nasty labels based on the conduct of their parents outrageous, I’m with you all the way. But the Church has never repudiated the disgusting concept of bastardy, which unfortunately occurs in the Torah. It merely invents a way around it.

2. Having a somewhat game-theoretic way of looking at the world, I’m more sympathetic than most of my friends to the idea that marriage ought to be somewhat more difficult to escape from than it is, for example, in California under “no-fault divorce.” An easy out can easily lead to great injustice, usually against the woman.  And there are clear advantages to both parties in being able to plan as if the marriage would outlast at least any temporary and unilateral inclination to end it.

But that analysis doesn’t answer the question how much suffering it is desirable or justified to inflict on people who made a marital mistake and on their subsequent spouses and children. Douthat’s failure to mention the human costs of the current rigid policy suggests a certain hardness of heart. Perhaps he needs to meditate on the Sermon on the Mount.

 

 

Tipping

I despise the institution of tipping for service.  There’s no practical way to escape it (obviously no decent person will stiff a waiter in the service of a principle), it’s degrading to people who are no more “servants” to me in a restaurant than I am to my students, the “expected” tip has been increasing as a percentage of the tab for no reason (because its a percentage, inflation is automatically covered already), and in some contexts (like New York garages and apartment houses) it’s only slightly above extortion, with a soupçon of positional arms race.  Furthermore, it’s an invitation to tax evasion.

Here’s the beginning of a worthy trend: some high-end restaurants here are just putting a stop to it, and apparently to everyone’s approval.  Now we just need to increase the menu prices 20% and have done with the whole mess.  I like charging extra for checked bags on an airplane; why should people without bags pay to schlep mine across the country?  But having dinner put on your table is not an optional part of dining in a sit-down restaurant.  Roll it all up together and have done with it; let management manage things like salaries, training, and working hours.

[rev 24/X] from the linked (paywall) article:

Citing both pragmatic and philosophical reasons, a small collection of Bay Area restaurateurs are eliminating tipping. Instead of expecting diners to leave a tip, the restaurants will automatically add a 20 percent service charge to all bills — and not accept any additional gratuity beyond the service charge….Rather than relying on tips, the restaurants will compensate staff on merit-based hourly wages and revenue-sharing. It’s a system common abroad….So far, the restaurants’ respective staffs have been largely supportive, according to owners. Camino’s Hopelain estimates that cooks stand to receive an hourly increase of 50 cents to $1, while servers’ pay will remain steady, or perhaps decrease 50 to 75 cents an hour….One major shift will be in reporting tips for tax purposes. Generally speaking, cash tips have a tendency to go unreported among restaurant servers. Once the service charge becomes an official line item on a receipt, people will be accountable. Hoffman [co-owner] said employees at Comal will not see a change in their income if they have been declaring all of their tips.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Suspiria

suspiria-Technicolor Halloween is almost here, so I will keep the chills coming again this week by recommending Dario Argento’s ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody and ultra nerve-jangling 1977 movie Suspiria. If it’s possible to make a slasher film for the art house set, this is it.

The plot: American dancer Suzy Bannion (An intrepid and likeable Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Everything at the bizarrely designed and decorated school is wrong from the very first, with students disappearing, teachers engaging in strange behavior and an atmosphere of menace suffusing every room. As Suzy begins to investigate her mysterious surroundings, she comes to suspect that some supernatural evil is at the heart of the school and that it will not rest until she is destroyed.

If you judge horror films in the most elemental way, i.e., how scared will I be?, this is a classic of the horror genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. Much of this is accomplished through an invasive, eerie score, extensive use of anamorphic lenses and other camera trickery, madcap set design and a vivid color scheme (with the accent on red of course…). Even the second time through when I knew what was going to happen, I was still holding my breath and tensing my muscles as I rooted for Suzy to overcome the extraordinary dangers she confronts.

Argento made his bones in a subgenre of Italian film called giallo, and one can see those influences here. However, while giallo is often criticized for its typical sexist plot set-ups (e.g., violent powerful man terrorizes and kills hapless young females), in Suspiria the redoubtable characters — good and bad — are all women. And while there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore, suspense is created much more through mood than through a mere parade of on screen violence.

All that said, the script of the film is remarkably uneven. Certain scenes emerge from nowhere and plot points come and go. For example, a young man at the school shows interest in Suzy and the audience wonders whether a romance will develop. Will he help her survive the terrors she faces? But like other story threads in the film, this one vanishes with no explanation. Maybe the editor was in a slashy mood himself, but I suspect these discontinuities are simply the result of Argento being more interested in theatrics than the underlying story.

In that respect, Suspiria reminds me of no film more than John Stahl’s famous “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven. Both movies overcome numerous script problems with incredible sets, atmospheric music, intentionally overstated color schemes and a strong leading female performance. Though different in other ways, both prove that sometimes in cinema, style really can triumph over substance. That’s certainly the case for Suspiria, making it ideal Halloween viewing for those who are not faint of heart.

Catching a Catfish

In The Guardian, Kathleen Hale offers her riveting tale story of tracking down an Internet troll who turns out to be a catfish. At one point, she makes a powerful observation on the psychology of those who troll:

Why do hecklers heckle? Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers. The more I wondered about Blythe, the more I was reminded of something Sarah Silverman said in an article for Entertainment Weekly: “A guy once just yelled, ‘Me!’ in the middle of my set. It was amazing. This guy’s heckle directly equalled its heartbreaking subtext – ‘Me!’” Silverman, an avid fan of Howard Stern, went on to describe a poignant moment she remembers from listening to his radio show: one of the many callers who turns out to be an asshole is about to be hung up on when, just before the line goes dead, he blurts out, in a crazed, stuttering voice, “I exist!”.

It’s the best essay I’ve read in awhile, and is sparking debate about the ethics of the author and the troll. Check it out here.

Consider Staying in the Closet

Three phrases I am tired of hearing in the media: “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”. The first appears regularly on the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star is “breaking his silence” over the failure of his marriage to a 4th rate country and western singer. The implication is that the breaking of the blessed silence is a gift to the world and we should be grateful, but I wish these people would just shut up. Why should strewing intimate details of one’s life be laudable? And why should anyone care about these incontinent bores in the first place?

“The last taboo” and “coming out of the closet” have a parallel existence in journalism. When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable. Today, these phrases adorn stories about people — elderporn enthusiasts, those who admit to being beautiful, people who pay to increase traffic to their website, people who hang glide in their underwear — whose coming out is neither dangerous nor it has to be said particularly interesting. Calling them taboo-breakers is at one level media hype and at another, cultural self-congratulation, as if as a society we are only getting more mature as we let underwear-clad hang gliders tell their heretofore hidden story to the world, even though it will no doubt rattle the foundations of the establishment (or at least annoy our parents).

Most of human existence is simply not that interesting and certainly not newsworthy. And in an era where everyone is tweeting what they had for breakfast, being filmed by covert keyhole cameras, putting photos of their latest drinking binge on Facebook and having their naked selfies released from the iCloud, even the most modestly engaging stuff in our lives is being over-shared. We’ve wiped out even more “last taboos” than we have #2 men in Al Qaeda.

This makes me think that the true radicals today, the ones who are actually taking a risk, are those who refuse to dish out their personal details to the world. To those of you who keep something in your life — anything — out of public view, let me express my respect and thanks. May others follow your brave example of staying in the closet.

Now that I am done ranting, I am going to go do a bunch of things that I refuse to reveal here.