Sunday, September 30, 2012

Fire and Sagebrush

Last week's Science Friday had a great segment about the changing landscape of the American West caused by invasive species and brushfire. All the interview questions and expert guests were fantastic, but the discussion failed to clearly define the ecosystem management goals--are we opposed to certain invasive species because we want to preserve the historic makeup of the ecosystem? Is ecosystem health and resilience more important? How much economic damage are we willing to tolerate before we intervene to stop a brushfire? Over what timeframe?

Lots of commentary on environmental issues is similarly vague, often framing debates using concepts like "naturalness". These focusing ideas may serve a social role by signalling to others an environmentalist identity affiliation, but hinder progress by muddling the debate and limiting coalition possibilities to pretty much just liberals. Certainly there are benefits to having a huge environmentalist coalition, but by decomposing environmental and natural resource issues into more specific terms, we open up the possibility of forming novel coalitions that cut through the zero-sum partisan logic of our current policy process.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

"All causal paths lead to institutions" is the mantra for Why Nations Fail, one of the newest books looking at the roots of growth and development among nations through the ages. In a field that's been trending towards ever-more theoretical complexity and epistemic humility since Jared Diamond's path-breaking Guns, Germs, and Steel, Acemoglu and Robinson develop a theory with a notably retro feel. That's because of its shocking simplicity: according to Acemoglu and Robinson, the fate of nations (or states, they don't specify) both past and present can be explained by the types of institutions that structure incentives and activity over a given area or population. There exists a continuum between "extractive" institutions (ones that favor a small group of elites by channeling resources from the masses) and "inclusive" institutions (ones that spread resources more evenly across all groups). Successful nations are those that have developed inclusive political, social, and economic institutions, and unsuccessful nations are those stuck with extractive political, social, and economic institutions. Micro-level feedback loops, such as the social aversion to Schumpeterian creative destruction, resist institutional change. The development and drift of these institutions is not predictable, and is determined by idiosyncratic historical context, contingencies, and black swan events (called "critical junctures").

The book is filled with good historical narratives, but Acemoglu and Robinson's theory is at once overly simplistic and fails to establish a satisfying causal mechanism. The main driver of the book--the inclusive/extractive distinction--is so broad and ill-defined that it's basically tautological. Replace "inclusive" with "good" and "extractive" with "bad" and the book reads very much the same. That's because there's little detail about the specifics, dynamics, and boundaries of these institutions. Are institutional changes in the direction of inclusivity always conducive to more growth and development? Is there some point at which institutional inclusiveness reaches pareto efficiency? Does the causal weight of institutional quality stay constant throughout history and technological development? Acemoglu and Robinson's theory contains only two actors, the elites and the masses, implying a zero-sum relationship. This ignores the wealth of comparative politics literature concerning coalition-building between leaders, elites, and the masses and its consequences for political development. Additionally, Acemoglu and Robinson completely miss the whole "strong versus weak" institutional dimension. It's entirely possible that an extractive yet institutionally strong state (i.e. China, or Iraq under Saddam) is preferable to an inclusive yet institutionally weak state (i.e. Native American tribes, or Iraq after Saddam).

On a methodological note, the historical examples that comprise the bulk of the book don't appear to be organized in any systemic way, opening up the possibility of cherry-picked examples that only support the theory. Indeed, certain challenging cases are ignored or brushed aside: the long global history of slavery, India's caste system, and the treatment of immigrants, animals, children, and the disabled in state institutions.

Lastly, the conceptual foundation of Acemoglu and Robinson's theory is somewhat misleading. While the entirety of the book is rhetorically focused on the extractive-versus-inclusive-institution frame, the core message about causality--why some nations develop inclusive institutions while others don't--is not emphasized. Essentially Acemoglu and Robinson claim that there exists a positive correlation between inclusive institutions and success. Though they state that this relationship is causal, Acemoglu and Robinson make a stronger claim prior to this relationship, which undercuts it. They state that the inclusiveness of a nation's institutions is determined by...luck. Or, more specifically, idiosyncratic historical context combined with rare, high-impact events. Neither of which can be predicted or analyzed for patterns. For this topic of research, among political scientists, this position is radical and amounts to a strong critique of pretty much every previous model.

Long story short, Why Nations Fail isn't really a social science theory at all: it has no causal mechanism, it proceeds neither deductively nor inductively, and its terms and concepts are exceptionally vague. Best to view it as some sort of interpretive lens with which to view a certain genre of history.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Quote of the Week

"Today, New Urbanism finds itself in unexpectedly strong competition with "old urbanism," that is, with existing center-city neighborhoods in the process of renovation that are already well served by transit lines, close to lively downtowns with well-paying jobs, and enjoying rapidly improving schools, public safety, and other services. Not surprisingly, these neighborhoods have attracted many of the young people who might have fueled the demand for greenfield New Urbanist projects. Meanwhile, the American suburb has proved to be highly resistant to extensive reconfiguration along New Urbanist lines."
--Robert Fishman writing in Planning Ideas That Matter edited by Bishwapriya Sanyal, Lawrence Vale, and Christina Rosan

Friday, September 21, 2012

Algorithms Do It Better

One of the best things I've read all week was this great debate between Sam Harris and security expert Bruce Schneier over the merits of profiling in the context of TSA airport security checkpoints. I like Sam Harris, but his position justifiably gets destroyed by Schneier. A taste:
I’ve done my cost-benefit analysis of profiling based on looking Muslim, and it’s seriously lopsided.  On the benefit side, we have increased efficiency as screeners ignore some primary-screening anomalies for people who don’t meet the profile.  On the cost side, we have decreased security resulting from our imperfect profile of Muslims, decreased security resulting from our ignoring of non-Muslim terrorist threats, decreased security resulting in errors in implementing the system, increased cost due to replacing procedures with judgment, decreased efficiency (or possibly increased cost) because of the principal-agent problem, and decreased efficiency as screeners make their profiling judgments.  Additionally, your system is vulnerable to mistakes in your estimation of the proper profile.  If you’ve made any mistakes, or if the profile changes with time and you don’t realize it, your system becomes even worse.
It's worth reading the whole thing to better understand the many ways Harris is mistaken, but of particular interest to me is the general philosophical approach Harris takes in defending a profiling regime. He thinks it's merely common sense to profile because not doing so neglects statistical information based on demographics. In his view a security system confronted with a white European wheelchair-bound grandma should consider the probability she's a terrorist (tiny) and quickly update its screening procedure accordingly (by devoting less attention to her). Conversely, a young Semitic-looking man would attract more scrutiny because he's in a riskier demographic category. On the face of it this seems rational, just as employers operating with limited information might discriminate on the basis of race when hiring. But doing so is almost always not worth it, and here's why: the logic changes when you move from considering a single one-off interaction to a system involving repeated interactions. In a system like airport security, blind rules or algorithms become necessary because the costs of constantly updating your information quickly becomes exorbitant.

What Harris is really upset about is an unfortunate byproduct of adherence to blind maxims or algorithms: the perverse outcome. If our security system doesn't update based on demographic statistics, it's unavoidable that we'll have ridiculous situations like the grandma thing occur from time to time. But here's the rub: if we think we can be clever and have it both ways (say, by relaxing our adherence to our algorithm in obviously perverse cases) it results in a worse system overall. Why? Because the experts we put in charge of making the decision almost always opt to override the algorithm too often. This problem has been called the "case of the broken leg" by psychologist Paul Meehl, and is described in Ian Ayres' wonderful book Super Crunchers. Although it requires a more sophisticated understanding of how systems work, we must recognize that in the context of airport security algorithms work better, even though it means accepting a certain minimal amount of perversity.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Public Restrooms In Big U.S. Cities

That there exists an undersupply of easily accessible clean public restrooms in most big U.S. cities is not a novel revelation. What's interesting, however, is what this admittedly minor social annoyance can tell us about  how social goods are produced by the market. Most public restrooms in cities are not actually "public" in the sense that anybody can walk into a restaurant or shop and benefit from their use. Rather, informal norms limit access by allowing just the club of people who spend money--"customers only". This means that the few storefronts that truly allow anyone to use their restrooms at zero cost are going to be preferred by a lot of people. In big cities with large homeless populations, this can become a problem: the best public restrooms near homeless hangout spots get trashed. What occurs is something political scientists call a race to the bottom: locales supplying public restrooms compete to avoid the costs associated with overuse by restricting access. This could mean instituting customers- or employees-only policies, restricting access at peak demand times (just try finding a public restroom around Dupont Circle in DC early in the morning), or simply eliminating restrooms altogether. The result is that in big U.S. cities, largely the only consistently-available public restrooms are those supplied by locales that have made a non-rational commitment (in the economic sense) to provide this social good. The typical example is a public library, but Barnes & Noble and Starbucks have, for whatever reason, chosen to occupy this role as well.

To put the U.S. system in context, some major cities, such as Tokyo, have abundant public restrooms supplied and maintained by the government. Other cities have restrooms available for a price. In the U.S. we have a system composed of an insufficient public commitment via libraries and a tenuous supply by certain virtuous chains. This existing-yet-insufficient supply in the U.S. is just enough to undercut the ability of entrepreneurs to make money with pay restrooms.

Information Nexus

1. The Maker Movement Might Change Everything (Book)
2. Patent Policy Explained
3. Awesome New Documentary About Aerial Drones
4. Ten Huge Issues Being Ignored by the Presidential Campaign
5. Virtue Ethics and Sustainability

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Adherence to Identity Trumps Policy Coherence

We all know the ethical and political preferences of individuals and political parties are often not consistent or logically coherent. But how can we explain these deviations? The simplest answer is that parties, like individuals, are pluralistic entities with many competing impulses. Action is the result of complex bargaining processes among internal coalitions and is highly contingent on contextual factors and chance. But that doesn't get us very far when trying to explain specific instances of ridiculous ideological contradiction (like how Republicans oppose market efficiency-increasing pollution taxes). An interesting explanation that seems to be gaining currency is a general formulation of the idea of cultural cognition: basically that beliefs and preferences are driven largely by adherence identity and group.

Matt Yglesias has a great blog post about conservative opposition to zoning deregulation in Hollywood that perfectly illustrates the idea: the policy preference for regulation-free markets is trumped by the cultural allergy to urban density and its associations (bicycles, Democratic voting patterns, liberal new urbanist principles, young people, diversity, etc.). For more on this idea check out Jonathan Haidt's new book The Righteous Mind.