Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!


Thursday, September 27, 2007

 
Research help

does anyone know the source of the following (almost certainly mangled) quotation:

"I used to think that there was no place on earth like Angola. Now, I seem to see a bit of Angola in every place I go".

I thought it was Fred Bridgland, but it isn't.
4 comments this item posted by the management 9/27/2007 05:13:00 PM
 
from the desk of Daniel "Day-veez"

Jamie (correctly) notes in passing that Mahmoud Ahamdinejad's name is fucking difficult to spell. It's also difficult to pronounce. This forms the basis for my latest raft of pronouncements on international affairs.

It is based on the Davies BBC Pronunciation Department Theory Of Geopolitics, which basically states that the importance of any foreigner to the politics of the UK can be reasonably assessed by looking at how much trouble the newsreaders take to get his name right. In general, the BBC appears to believe that all foreigners are pissy little no-marks and you pronounce their names phonetically as if they were English words. Viz, the pronunciation of Ahmadinejad's name (which is actually much easier to spell than Khruschev's if you remember that it is actually a double-barrelled name - Ahmadi-Nejad - the Guardian actually used to spell it this way for a short while but seems to have given up). This is basically pronounced as "I'm a dinner jacket".

More important people, however, get flagged up for special treatment. In olden days, this used to be a formal process; the BBC actually had a special unit to teach newsreaders how to get important foreign words right. That unit has long been disbanded (I think; or at least had its budget radically trimmed) and so these days the newsreaders just seem to adopt an exaggerated stage version of the relevant accent, the degree of comic exaggeration being proportionate to the importance of the foreigner.

I actually developed this theory while watching the rise and fall of perestroika in the development from "Mik-ail Gorbachev" to "Mikhail GorbaCHOV" to "Mik-khi-yeel GorrrbaCHOV" and then back to "Mikail Gorbachov", as Boris/Buriss Yeltsin/YeltZEEN rose and fell - I suspect if they showed up again today it would be Mickle Gobbychev and Boris Yeltsen once more. It was confirmed to me by a French mate who added that he realised that Vladimir Putin was here to stay when the French newscasters started remembering not to call him Vladimir Prostitute.

Anyway, here's my current rankings:

Ahmadinejad - still nowhere. Not even a token attempt at Ahmadi-Nejad. Going backwards if anything, as Jeremy Paxman was experimenting last year with a "cch" in the middle of "Mahmoud" and appears to have given up.

Putin - still on top of his game. Invariably "Poot-EEN", lots of newsreaders having a go at putting a bit of slur on the "l" and "r" in "Vladimir"

Nicolas Sarkozy - on the up, with lots to play for. "NicoLA" is a won game for him, and the ubiquity of "SarkoZEE" ought to be seen as respectful even though it's wrong. Nobody is having a go at a French "r" in the middle of "Sarkozy", and I would imagine that at his apotheosis there will be all sorts of funny noises substituted for the "i" in Nicolas - I can certainly see "NeecoLA SaaggghhhhkoZEEE" as a possibility.

The general state of the Middle East - basically been downhill for Israel since Netanyahu, who enjoyed a few more or less random shuffles of the stressed syllables in his surname, plus a few adventurous souls having a go at "Binyamin" (Ariel Sharon made the transition from "Ariel" to "Aerial" a few times). Ehud Olmert ought to be considering that one benefit of a normalisation of the Gaza situation might be his regaining the regional supply of "cccch" noises for the h in "Ehud", from its current location at the front of "Hamas". "Hezbollah" is almost impossible to pronounce with a Hebrew h, otherwise I am pretty sure they'd have a go; the new found status of "HizbaLLLLLAH" can be seen in the fact that it's the only name in the region where anyone even attempts an Arabic double L.

Hugo Chavez - treading water. It was a big breakthrough for him when the H on Hugo went silent, but I think everyone was expecting him to continue the momentum and get the stress on the first syllable of Chavez. It never happened. I therefore conclude that his publicity drive with Ken Livingstone didn't take.

Check back on this post for updates throughout the day, as I have Radio 4 on in the background and might catch a few new ones.

Update: The Pronunciation Unit still exists and has a blog (thanks Jasper in the comments). To be honest, I don't think they're all that hot - they are wildly wrong on the pronunciation of "Clydach" in Wales. Note of course that the geopolitical theory is driven not so much by what the pronunciation unit says as whether the newsreaders care.

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22 comments this item posted by the management 9/27/2007 02:08:00 AM

Thursday, September 20, 2007

 
Davros: history's worst industrial designer

I don't know why, but this particular bee chose today to start flying round my bonnet once more. I think I posted it in Nick Barlow's comments once but it has disappeared. Anyway. Daleks. How crap are they?

Since I am neither a stand-up comedian nor a guest on one of those "I Love The 80s" nostalgia TV shows ("eeeeee, them Daleks were right scary weren't they? And wasn't the Texan bar difficult to eat? Hey, do you remember the Euston Manifesto?"), I am not even going to bother with "the stairs thing". It was obviously the biggest Dalek-related issue, but the scriptwriters were eventually embarrassed into doing something about it[1], and have presumably chucked into the memory hole all the earlier episodes where important plot points turned on Daleks not being able to climb stairs. Whatever the heck, I say.

But even if we spot them the absurdly low skirt clearance and use of castors instead of, say, tank tracks, there are still a number of bizarre design decisions made at key stages during the development of the Dalek. Viz:

The eyestalk. Point one, the Dalek has a single eye and therefore cannot judge distance. Point two, that single eye is more or less unprotected and located on a great big eyestalk protruding three feet from its armoured body. This makes it trivially easy to render a Dalek blind and helpless by something as simple as hanging a hat off its eyestalk.

The exterminator. The exterminator is actually a pretty fine weapon, but it is mounted on a tiny little stub on the front of the Dalek, reducing its field of fire to a pretty small cone in the direction that the Dalek is facing. If you look at most tanks (and a Dalek is basically a fighting vehicle so I'd suggest the same design principles apply), then you'll see that the big sticky-out thing which rotates 360 degree is the gun and the little thing practically recessed within the body is the window. I don't understand why Davros thought it would be a good idea to reverse these principles.

The plunger. Quite the stupidest of the stupid. The only tool a Dalek has for manipulating objects is a single plumber's plunger sticking out from the body. Davros himself has two hands and uses them, so why did he not realise that a similar capability would be useful for Daleks? The complete inability of Daleks to manipulate small objects, or to hold two things at the same time, had massive practical consequences as it meant that they were always totally dependent on unreliable slave-races for any industrial or mining projects they carried out, with numerous galaxy-conquest plans falling apart for precisely this reason. And they never did anything about it! By the end of the last Doctor Who series the Daleks had genetically engineered themselves, were masters of interplanetary travel, and could fucking travel through time, but they still couldn't eat with a knife and fork. Unbelievable.


[1] As far as I can see, the writer who bit the bullet on this one was Ben Aaronovitch, brother of David. The episode in which it is explained that the Daleks intended to bring peace and democracy to the rest of the universe and that they were the true inheritors of the tradition of George Orwell is still forthcoming. Update: sorry, done that one

Update: and furthermore, despite all the pious words about Frodo "not being corrupted", I maintain that Lord of the Rings describes one of the worst-planned military expeditions possible. And given the total absence of post-invasion planning, I am pretty sure that there is an Elvish garrison still hanging around in Mordor a zillion years later, with Gandalf explaining that a premature exit would lead to civil war and we need to stay the course, while Galadriel mumbles some bullshit about Pottery Barn.
12 comments this item posted by the management 9/20/2007 02:01:00 AM

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

 
Frank Dobson, a man for our times

Frank Dobson, my local MP, has replied to me about the Iraqi employees. His letter is mainly concerned with administrative arrangements for the speaker meeting on the 9th - I had asked him to book a room for us, but Dan had already sorted one out. He is, however, in firm sympathy with the campaign and is utterly sound on the issue. If any D^2D readers have received replies from their MPs, then do please say so in the comments here (or if you have a blog, and I know you do Matthew and Chris, post them there). We’re trying to keep the list of MP replies up to date. Thanks for your co-operation. This post will probably appear on CT some time today too, perhaps with a bit of semi-related comment about the way things are going in Iraq.
8 comments this item posted by the management 9/18/2007 04:49:00 AM

Monday, September 17, 2007

 
From the department of "Well Yes"

From Stephen Levitt's latest paper on the Ku Klux Klan:

"Perhaps the most limiting feature of our data is that we were unable to obtain any records on Klan members or activities in the Deep South.

Indeed. Perhaps more on this later, particularly if a non-gated version turns up. As it is, I've looked at it and it epitomises all that's good and bad about Levitt's research. The "unique dataset" that they've put together (basically a fuzzy-match of Klan membership lists to census data) is quite cool. The uses they've put it to are crazy - in particular, it looks to me as if a lot of the regressions they've run on Klan membership versus lynchings, Republican vote share, net migration etc, are structurally very similar to the "more guns less crime" model, and reproduce all of that model's problems with endogeneity, reverse causation etc.

But the big two problems they have are 1) the dataset is dominated by Pennsylvania and Ohio, and it clearly doesn't pass the laugh test to be doing a "rigorous" assessment of the effectiveness and aggressiveness of the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist organisation based on what happened in non-Confederate states, and 2) they just totally ignore the literature. There is no mention, for example, of any secret societies other than the KKK (they claim that the Know-Nothings were the only precedent, which is just not true). This is quite an ommission in the context of Indiana - recall that the Supreme Tribe of Ben-Hur were big in Indiana too. And they act like they have made a massive discovery that the Klan acted like a pyramid-selling scheme generating money for those at the top, whereas this is like an utter commonplace of the history of secret societies in the USA - the business was so institutionalised that there were plenty of professional insurance lodge salesmen hanging about (and indeed the revival Klan was partly founded by one).

So, dodgy use of interesting data in order to partially reinvent the wheel, hyped to the sky as definitive and rigorous. Freakofreakinomics.

Update: Aha, here ye go, via the Marginal Revolution comments. Note that the stereotype of KKK members as ill-educated hicks is really a hell of a straw man; the demographics of the Klan (that they skewed lower-middle class, like the Poujadists, Blackshirts and basically every other fascist movement ever) have been known for a long time by all serious historians, who have dug through the registers and names, although not on this sort of systematic basis. To be honest, the pure and simple cost of the KKK as a hobby more or less ensured that it was mainly a well-off man's pleasure.

Update Update: (via Cian in the comments) - look at this. There surely is no excuse for that? At some point, the constant drip drip of this rubbish surely has to have some sort of effect on Levitt's academic credibility? Either he thinks that the NYT article linked is good enough research to be published under his name, which would be really worrying, or he knows it's crap and is publishing it anyway for the cash, which is also not hugely edifying.

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3 comments this item posted by the management 9/17/2007 01:06:00 AM

Thursday, September 13, 2007

 
Bore's Bore of the Year, 2006

But what about the real issues that real people care about, on the doorstep, and such like? The average blog reader doesn't care about Freakonomics, or Philip Glass or any of this arty farty political crap. They want to hear about the real issues that matter to them in their real life, in the workplace, about our public services, on the doorstep. They want to know about … secondary education administration in Peterborough!

Well, term started yesterday so by the time you read this, no fewer than two playtimes will have been missed. Looking at the news coverage, it is fairly positive - I was tempted to discount this article in the Observer as it is so absurdly, Pravdaistically boosterish, but the Peterborough Evening Telegraph also appears to be starstruck.

I am guessing that the shock of the new will be enough to forestall protests for the time being, so maybe we should look at this again in a month's time when the novelty has worn off and the tiredness is beginning to set in; that's when complaints about the school day might start to rear up. McMurdo continues to claim that the no-playtimes policy is under constant review, although one shouldn't take him at his word as administrators often say this when it isn't true.

Local protests - still nada, as far as I can find. TDA parents are pissed off at the cost of the uniform, but otherwise nish. The online petition topped out at 445 signatures, including a lot of duplicates and fakes, and I haven't managed to dig up any mention of the offline one at all, which suggests to me that it hasn't reached the threshold of 1500 signatures which I thought would be the benchmark of significant local opposition. The Skibbereen Eagle has its eye on this one …

In related "like a dog returns to its vomit" news, there is still precious little sign of the "European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism". When it was set up, Pollard said that "will have a website to highlight existing research, but we will also commission our own work". As far as I can tell, it doesn't have a website, it hasn't published anything and the only references to it online are in the biographies of Pollard and Douglas Murray, who is on its advisory board. Pollard himself only appears to have mentioned it twice in the last year, once to add a touch of gravitas to an article about how the prosecution of Lord Levy wasn't anti-Semitic, and once to add emphasis to his supporting England when they were playing against Israel. He almost always refers to himself at the end of Telegraph pieces by his affiliation with the "Centre for the New Europe", despite the fact that he is only a "Senior Fellow" there (a title which frankly is given out like lollipops at most thinktanks - I have not yet seen an advert for "Senior Fellow Vacancy - must have experience in repairing all kinds of vending machines and photocopiers" but it can't be far off). He is Chairman! Of the whole thing!!1! at the EISCA-S but doesn't mention it half as much as a more lowly post at a proper thinktank. Frankly I am beginning to believe that the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism is somewhere between a brass plate office and a sinecure. Its name is also confusingly similar to that of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, and if I was them I think I might consider asking Pollard to knock it off, particularly as his funding pitch for the EISCA-S was that nobody was doing serious research into contemporary anti-Semitism in the UK.

Update!: Pollard is now the President of the CNE!!11!!ONE! Not a mere Senior Fellow! Yay Stevie P! I was wrongfooted because the Times and Telegraph seem to have stopped including the institutional affiliation in the straplines. Wow. To think that I once helped Chris Brooke googlebomb that guy with the words "ignorant git", without ever realising that I was talking about a future President of the Centre for the New Europe. His new responsibilities as President, plus the ongoing commitment of the Spectator blog, will surely eat into the time he has available to be Chairman of the EISCA-S, won't they? I worry that he may be spreading himself a bit too thin.

Further update Digging around at the Jewish Chronicle turns up a few other details. Apparently one of Pollard's other advisory board members at the EISCA (apparently they don't use the hyphen-s) is "Dr Winston Pickett", who is presumably tired of people asking him to sing a few bars of "Midnight Hour" or "Land of 1000 Dances". Pollard's Institute is set up with support from the Jewish Leadership Council, which also appears from this JC article to be something that nobody's quite sure what it's for. It also has a director on the board representing the Community Security Trust, which is a proper organisation with staff and everything, but they don't really appear to be that committed to it - it doesn't get a mention on the relevant page of their website, or anywhere else for that matter.

I am still not seeing much evidence that the EISCA is a 4-real institution. It seems to have a number of solid and reputable individuals associated with its board (as in, it is not a two man Steve 'n' Doug show as I'd suspected), but it is absolutely nowhere near having achieved what it claimed was going to be "up and running in a few weeks" back in January, and I can't actually see any evidence that it's done anything at all. Presumably this hasn't cost anyone any money, but I can't help having a slightly queasy feeling about it all - a kind of sense that there's some small net disbenefit to the state of public affairs from the small amount of spurious gravitas added to someone's arguments because of their sponsorship of a Potemkin thinktank. What really troubles me is that I only bothered to look into this as part of a general program of teasing Pollard. How many of the other sonorous sounding Directors of Institutes who clag up our morning newspapers are playing the same game?

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3 comments this item posted by the management 9/13/2007 09:44:00 AM
 
A small insight into the Welsh national psychology

just in passing. The chorus of the Welsh national anthem contains the line:

"Tra môr yn fur i'r bur hoff bau"

which translates roughly as "For as long as the sea is a wall for the pure and beloved country..."

A more or less unobjectionable sentiment, as an example of the sort of guff that is found in nearly every national anthem (apart from the Spanish one[1]). However, it would probably do better as part of the national anthem of an island nation, for whom the sea did indeed stand as an impregnable wall round the pure and beloved homeland. For a country which has a long land frontier with a bigger and militarily stronger neighbour, which neighbour did in fact conquer it five hundred years ago and has ruled it ever since, it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense. It's rather as if Vichy France had a national anthem with a verse in praise of the Maginot Line.

[1] The situation with the Spanish national anthem is quite hilarious, in case anyone doesn't know. "La Marcha Real" didn't have any words in the days when countries didn't really need them. Then Franco commissioned a set of lyrics for it to drag Spain into the modern age. They scrapped those lyrics after he died, and presumably anticipated writing some new ones. However, ever since 1975 Spain has steadily been on its way to becoming one of the most federal countries in Europe, and these days it is more or less impossible to write a Spanish national anthem that doesn't end up pissing off the Catalans, Basques, Galicians, etc etc. So patriotic drunk Spanish people have the choice of humming, whistling or learning an instrument. Nobody seems to care very much except the Olympic committee.

Update! According to Wikipedia, there are two more verses I hadn't heard of! And the final one basically admits that we're not actually an independent country and tries to weasel out of this rather damning revelation by changing the subject quickly to the Welsh language. And thus was the basis of Plaid Cymru politics born.
7 comments this item posted by the management 9/13/2007 07:47:00 AM

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

 
Celebrations

I see from the Barbican's mailing list that they are having a retrospective season for Philip Glass, because it is his 70th birthday.

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you

... for he is a minimalist composer, you see? see? bloody hell. pearls before swine, that's what this blog is, I tell you.

In related news, while arranging the study in my new house I made a discovery, which is that from a librarianship point of view, it obviously makes sense to have all of your books about the Nazis on one shelf together, from an interior design point of view it doesn't, because the red, black and white covers stand out a bit, and if you put more than say a dozen books about the Nazis together, it makes you look like a bit of a weirdo.

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15 comments this item posted by the management 9/11/2007 01:35:00 PM

Friday, September 07, 2007

 
Little Green Soccer Balls is getting its mojo back!

God, it's a long time since Harry's Place managed to raise a proper lynch mob, (sample post: "What a piece of shit! String 'im up, give 'im what he wants, a one way trip to Allah!") but it's good to know they're back in business - for the longest time, it seemed like they were going the way of the Eustonauts, gradually subsiding into "ahhh Palestine, ggghrgh Iranian bus drivers, will this do". I make the point that what they actually seem to want is precisely the "Incitement to Religious Hatred" law that they were up in arms against two years ago, when they thought that this was a useful cost-free way to have a go at the Muslims and shore up the old liberal credentials, with predictably incendiary results. heh.

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13 comments this item posted by the management 9/07/2007 08:08:00 AM

Thursday, September 06, 2007

 
Iraqi employees speaker meeting - invite your MPs

latest news ... see below cut 'n' pasted from Dan's site as I am in a hurry. Basically the deal is that if you can get your MP to come along, you can come along yourself.

The letters are working. Twelve days ago I met with my MP: 'Ah, the letters' was almost the first thing she said. 'We've all been having a lot of them, and we've all been on to the Home Office to get the policy changed. What are you hearing? They haven't changed it?' Policy is going to change, but slowly. There's a distinct lack of speed.

What I'm hearing from soldiers who have hired Iraqi employees, and who are now in contact with these people as they flee to Syria and Jordan, or hide out in Basra, is: lack of speed is killing. One ex-Royal Engineer told me on the phone last night about a man he recruited in 2003 who hoped to build a new Iraq, then fled the country, and then was murdered at some point in the last few weeks.

What can you do?

If you've already written to your MP, write or email him or her again: and this time, invite them to a speaker meeting at Parliament on the second day of the new session, Tuesday 9th October.

If you haven't already written to your MP, please do so. You can find out about your MP here. utline what's happening and why we should be concerned, ask them to contact the relevant Ministries (particularly the Home Office but also the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and also invite them to the meeting. Talking points for both letters are below. Any blogger who has participated in this campaign is invited, and so is any blogreader who successfully invites their MP: just email me at danhardie.blog@gmail.com and an invitation will be heading your way. Stress to MPs that mainstream print and TV journalists will be present: that is the kind of thing that tends, for some reason, to attract them. And stress that this is the first blog-based campaign in the UK: this is how politics is going, and they need to see what it looks like.

Talking points for an invitation letter- if you've already corresonded with your MP on this subject:
  • The Government has not yet altered policy, despite calling an inter-departmental review, and in the meantime Iraqis who worked for the British are successfully being hunted down by death squads.
  • There will be a cross-party meeting, organised by the online campaign for Asylum rights for Iraqi employees. It will take place in Parliament in Committee Room 14 (St Stephen's Entrance) from 7-9pm on Tuesday 9th October. Please arrive early to avoid hideous disappointment, etc.
  • The main speaker will be a British soldier who hired a number of Iraqis and is in contact with many of them now, including many who have fled Iraq ahead of the death squads: he will give an up-to-date, detailed picture of events on the ground.
  • There will also be speeches by Ed Vaizey (Conservative MP for Wantage, Spokesman for Culture, Media and Sport) and Lynne Featherstone (Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, Spokeswoman for International Development), and by at least one senior Labour backbencher.
  • Stress this: It will be reported by Channel Four News and probably other TV news organisations, BBC Radio Four and Radio Five Live, and by reporters and columnists from The Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Evening Standard, The New Statesman, The Observer and The Evening Standard.
  • The event is supported by Amnesty International, The Refugee Council and Human Rights Watch, who will all have people present.

To write a first letter on this subject to your MP:
Use these talking points, then give them the location and timing of the meeting, and don't forget to tell them about the TV crews.

Thank you.

DD adds: If you have received a reply from your MP, remember to post it on your blog. I will be doing so this evening.
1 comments this item posted by the management 9/06/2007 03:37:00 AM

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

 
Freakiology

yes folks it's part 4 of the "Freakonomics" review, now entering into its third glorious year!

Welcome people who came here via direct links! If you are British, would you mind reading this post too? Thanks awfully. If you aren't British, as you were.

Part Four of this review is meant to deal with the odd and slightly patronising relationship that Freakonomics has with normal sociology. I've kind of pussyfooted around this subject so far (although there is a bit about it in the crime gangs section), and include by citation Henry and Kieran (yer actual sociologists) from their contributions to the CT book seminar. I think Henry and Kieran were both wildly too generous in their assessment of the book - you can see that they made a number of caveats and criticisms, but basically welcomed it as being both healthy economics and an interesting contribution to sociology. I take a much more cynical view of both these possibilities - note however that a lot of Henry and Kieran's comments are about Levitt's more general research program and this review is of the specific book "Freakonomics". Let's start off by asking an interesting question - how did the book itself come to be written?

Well I think it happened this way. A publisher found a hole in their autumn schedule where a "big ideas" pop academic book ought to be. They thought that with the right amount of publicity, they could replicate the wildly successful Malcolm Gladwell phenomenon. Normally, the New Yorker is where you'd go to for someone with the right combination of Big Ideas and easy-readin' prose, but they were out of luck. James Surowiecki would have obviously filled this gap just perfectly, but he'd just signed to a different publisher, so they started casting the net a bit wider. Someone had told them that there was this wacky economist guy in Chicago generating Gladwell-style ideas at a rate of knots, but nobody liked the idea of putting a big publicity budget behind an untried writer. So they brought in a safe pair of hands in the form of Steven Dubner, a workmanlike journalist on New York magazine (Edit: Felix reminds me that "New York" magazine is not the same thing as the New York Times magazine, which Dubner actually wrote for, thanks) who was unlikely to set the world on fire on his own, but who could be trusted to translate Levitt's prose into readable English and add enough gee-willikers analogies and anecdotes to convince the airport crowd that they were understanding what they were reading. And thus was a popademic sensation born!

No, hang on, that makes it sound like the whole thing was churned out like a sausage factory. Let's try again.

Well, I think it happened this way. Dubner was a magazine journalist who was doing all right on New York the NYT magazine, but was well below the exalted level of a Malcolm Gladwell or a James Surowiecki. Realising that he was basically nowhere near as talented or intelligent as those guys, and therefore had no chance of coming up with enough ideas himself to write a "The Tipping Point" or a "The Wisdom Of Crowds", but nevertheless wanted to make a load of money off a potboiler book, he decided that half of sumthin' beat all of nuthin and started looking around for someone with a load of ideas. He got commissioned to write the magazine profile of Levitt and bingo, a cash-in popademic sensation was born!

No, no, hang on, that's much too cynical and unpleasant. Let me start again …

Levitt is a Beckerite, a particularly virulent subspecies of economist prevalent at the University of Chicago and specialising in applying economic analysis to other areas of human behaviour. Most other Beckerites haven't made much of an impression on the field, mainly because they are in general really quite nasty people. Levitt had one unusual property, which was that despite being a Beckerite, he wasn't an asshole and was therefore able to create a career by coauthoring Beckerite papers with people who had important skills that he didn't, therefore lifting them far above the run of the mill of Beckerites. For example, he managed to get Ian Ayres to do his calculus for him, John Donohue to do his statistics for him, Suhdir Venkatesh to do his primary research for him and so on. This got him a degree of academic fame, but John Bates Clark medals ain't going to buy the Jacuzzi. One day, however, he met this magazine journalist called Steve Dubner, and realised that he could pull the same trick of coauthoring. Dubner did his job of hyping Levitt's research to a parodic degree, and a popademic sensation was born!

No, no, hang on, that's really mean-spirited and nasty. Let's try one last time.

Dubner was a good writer who had an interest in social and policy issues, who found someone with really interesting ideas but no audience. Levitt was a personable economist who wanted to get a wider public audience for what he considered to be intrinsically interesting research. Together, they thought that an extended version of Dubner's magazine profile might make a really good book. The publisher, mindful of the Gladwell sensation, decided to publicise the hell out of it, and it took off and they both enjoyed a more or less deserved success.

The point here is that you can always tell any one of a dozen stories about anything, and all of them often have an element of truth to them. John Kay even goes further and says that for a lot of important stories, there ain't no single truth (the untruest thing you will ever hear at business school will come from one of your classmates, and it will be the great falsehood "I Was There And It Didn't Happen Like That"). In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner have a real habit of always picking a single story, and usually one which reflects really badly on the people involved.

So, for example, sumo wrestlers are "cheating" because wrestlers who need to win a bout to stay in the top league do statistically significantly better when fighting wrestlers for whom the match is a dead rubber. Not "taking sensible steps to minimise the risk of injury". Not "following unwritten social conventions of the sport". Not anything else, but "cheating", and most likely doing so because of bribery and corruption from betting syndicates. Perhaps one day Levitt and Dubner will look at the behaviour of Tour de France cycle riders, and it will just totally blow their minds.

Similarly when it turns out that estate agents' houses typically sell for about 10% more than comparable houses owned by non-estate agents, then this shows that those rascally agents are ripping you off!!1!. That's it! Personally, I don't think 10% is that much. If I went to Aubergine and got a meal 90% as good as Gordon Ramsay gets when he eats there, I'd be pretty damn pleased. Furthermore, estate agents selling their own houses don't have to deal with their horrible emotionally needy clients making all sorts of irrational decisions, and are more likely to be moved by financial considerations than by which buyer was nice to their dog and more likely to keep their gazebo. And so forth, and so on. It's a version of what George Orwell was talking about in bemoaning the habit of self-styled "sophisticated" Marxists to scout around for the lowest and meanest possible motivation for anything and then proclaim it the "real" one. I've often joked that neoclassical economics and evolutionary psychology are unusual among social science fields because they're the only areas where you can gravely insult someone by agreeing with their theory (by telling an economist that he's only saying what he's saying because he's well paid for doing so, or telling an EP type that his latest paper is simply an attempt to draw attention to himself and gain status). Freakonomics is fairly and squarely in that tradition.

I think a large part of the trouble here is that the whole project of attempting to apply the methodology of economics to the kind of behaviour studied by sociologists is that the "rigour" of classical economics comes from a reductionist approach, and for this reason it really doesn't handle "thick" concepts, with non-nugatory social meaning to them, at all well. For example, sumo wrestlers on the brink of relegation do well against superior wrestlers who are sure of staying in their own division. Certainly sounds like evidence of cheating.

On the other hand, as I've noted above, there are a lot of other potential explanations. First, of course somebody is going to fight harder in an important match than in a dead rubber. Second, there are all sorts of unwritten conventions in sports which can be analysed as repeated games, where people pass up potential short term gains to maintain an arrangement which suits the long term interest of all (in cricket, bowlers pass up a lot of Mankading opportunities, for example) and the wrestlers might be following one of these. I actually think that this is the more likely explanation for the pattern of behaviour seen in Levitt's work, as it doesn't make much sense to me for this pattern to be the result of match-fixing by gambling syndicates. If you're carrying out betting coups, you want a match with a clear favourite and with a lot of betting on it, and you do it as infrequently as possible[1]. Fixing nearly every single one of a large category of evenly matched battles between no-marks is about the opposite of economically sensible behaviour[2].

But third, and most importantly, what's "cheating", within the world of sumo? Fixing title fights certainly is (there is a lot of evidence that this happened, although it's tangential to the work in Freakonomics). But how about "not using your best moves on Joe-Bob who has had a bit of bad luck in the tournament, in return for which he will lie down for you on your next match en route to the title"? After all, carry out even a cursory analysis of mountain stage times in the Tour de France and you'll pick up evidence of the "charabanc" - the arrangement whereby the sprint specialists ensure that the gap between the leader and the back of the field does not get too large to disqualify the sprinters. This will certainly show that some riders go much slower on mountain stages than they otherwise would be capable of. But publish a paper demonstrating that you've found evidence of collusion between teams at the back of the pack on Alpe d'Huez and the team from L'Equipe will probably ask if you're someone's simple brother.

There are a hell of a lot of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" arrangements in the world. Some are illegal, some are disreputable, some are more-or-less standard and some are pretty much constitutive of what it is to behave honourably. I think you'd have to know a hell of a lot about the culture of sumo wrestling in order to be 100% sure that this mapped unambiguously onto the word "cheating". I even bet there would be a lot of disagreement between people within that world about the nature of the implicit contracts there. That's what sociologists exist to tell us about, and one is not doing a service to the world of knowledge by pretending that these thick categories can be flattened out. Economics' big claim to being a science is at least partly based on its formalism, but if you try to investigate a lot of social phenomena without paying sufficient attention to what your data points mean then … well, then you're going to end up concluding that a crime gang is more or less like a capitalist firm with an "up or out" promotion structure [3].

But hang on … surely the special status of the claims of Freakonomics is underwritten by the fact that they're driven by the data? After all, there are plenty of bits of research in Freakonomics that don't really fit into the economic paradigm at all - the childrens' names, or the cheating teachers. So maybe we should read through the verbiage about "incentives" this and "optimisation" that, as being sort of vestigial Beckerism that will fall away as we develop a brand new field of "data-driven social analysis" (to quote the CT seminar).

Well I think not. The problem is, which data are driving Freakonomics? The answer certainly appears to be "whatever data happened to pass across Levitt's desk". There is no guarantee that the Micawber approach to data-gathering is a valid one. Sociologists in general ask a hell of a lot more questions about the validity of their data, what exactly they are measuring, what implicit assumptions are made in the data gathering process, etc etc ad nauseam, than economists do. There's a reason for this.

The reason is that economists are in general used to working with standard data that is gathered by official bodies. Twas not always the case. Sorting out what Gross Domestic Product was meant to measure, how to measure it and all the related issues in the system of national accounts was carried out in the 1930s and there is a reason why the third Economics Nobel ever awarded was given to Kuznets for doing it. But for a period of time longer than a generation of economists, the basic material of economics has been hard numbers, collected in annual statistical abstracts, checked, collected and audited by Someone Else. Wasily Leontief was complaining about the atrophying of data-gathering skills in the profession back in the 1950s, and it's got worse since.

But anyway, the point is that "the data" by and large has a fixed referent in the context of economics - it's the same data which everyone else is using, collected by and large for a known purpose, by people without much axe to grind. And also, in economics, the question that the data has been collected to answer is the same as the question you're asking, because economics has intentionally restricted its subject matter to the organisation of production, consumption and exchange. There's no question about other aspects to the problem because economics isn't interested in the non-widget significance of Amalgamated Widgets (or for that matter, in widgets except in as much as they are bought or sold for the numeraire).

You just can't say that about "the data" when the referent is "this dataset that I've just come across", or you're going to make two categories of mistakes. First, you're going to make mistakes of data quality control unless you're very careful, because there's no equivalent of the BLS underwriting the quality of "the data" that you're using. This is a widespread problem in actual economics, by the way - it's genuinely frightening how many otherwise sensible economists use the Freedom House or similar "Indices of Democracy" as if they were useful numerical proxies for the state of social and political institutions, despite the horrendously tendentious way in which those scores are compiled. And even when the data aren't being compiled by someone putting their thumb on the scales, the greater degree of freedom that you have in picking up your "quirky" datasets means that there's much more due diligence required in making sure that you haven't picked up a lemon (and much more self discipline needed to make sure that you're not data-dredging, a subject covered in previous sections).

And second, there's a big danger of mistaking the map for the territory - assuming that you've got the answer, that "the data" tell you, rather than an answer which the combination of the data you happened to pick up and the model you happened to impose on it told you. I said in part one that Levitt & Dubner have a really bad habit of saying:

"Whichever way you look at the numbers, X"

when all they can really justify is:

"Whichever way I look at the numbers, X".

but in fact, I should have said that they could only really support:

"Whichever way I look at these numbers, X".

So there's a big danger of coming up with a partial, misleading explanation, and "the data" will not warn you when this is the case; there's a big danger that you'll end up chasing a lot of charabancs, in the sense of finding explanations of social phenomena as solutions to short-term optimisation problems while ignoring the long-term context in which they are placed. The best you can hope for is that a passing sociologist, or someone with specific institutional knowledge, will set you right (in which case the game theory textbook is certainly big enough for you to come up with a "just so" story fitting the new explanation into your theoretical framework as being "really" an iterated game; the Davies-Folk Theorem applies here). But even this best case is not really adding anything to the sum of human knowledge; it's just an example of one discipline trying to colonise another.

Which brings me back to my fundamental problem with this book - the attempt to simultaneously hunt with the quantitative hounds and run with the qualitative hare. The jacket of the book advertises a universal, general toolbox that gives definitive answers to important questions. It advertises this in a way that, say, the latest Gladwell, or "The Wisdom of Crowds" doesn't. Those books are meant to be loosely themed compilations of the ideas of clever journalists, showing you one way of thinking about some interesting questions, which sometimes works. The big selling point of Freakonomics was that this was meant to be science. This was meant to be the one in which you got the real answers, if you were only smart enough to follow the true path of incentives and data. And it doesn't, because it can't, because good economics is bad sociology.

Quite why this expedition to try and make economics do the work of sociology was first carried out, and what it means for the current state of economics, will be the subject of part Five.

[1] Or alternatively, there is the Malaysian method on cricket, where you fix the betting on something other than the actual result (overs bowled, wides, minutes of play, etc). But this would depend on the existence of a much wider and deeper betting market than the fairly nugatory underground one which exists on sumo.

[2] This is not the first time I've had cause to question the thoroughness with which the "thinking like an economist" model is being applied. Remember in part One of the review, where I was asking why it was that the sales force of that crack gang were, according to the accounts, being paid flat wages with no element of sales commission? More about this in part five, on the general theme of there really being no substitute at all for specific institutional knowledge.

[3[ I think that the crack gang chapter is the worst mistake in the book and the one which really proves that the "Freakonomics" methodology leads to serious errors. It is quite likely that the average sumo fan (although perhaps not the average wrestler) would regard tacit collusion on the final day of a tournament as being cheating. But a crack gang (even a really weird one in which all the members are paid salaries and don't take sales commission, sorry to bang on about this but I mean really) isn't like McDonalds, or like McKinsey, or like any other recognisable capitalist organisation. Proof; even really primitive cultures have groups recognisable as youth gangs, but they don't have groups recognisable as corporations. Again, social meaning. The purpose of a gang is not just making money. Fifty Cent should not be taken as a reliable witness on this issue.
31 comments this item posted by the management 9/05/2007 08:35:00 AM


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