Monthly Archives: November 2006

structured procrastination

A couple of articles in Slate caught my eye this last few days. Tim Harford, whose Slate output I prefer to the agony uncle column he does for the FT, discusses the behavioural economics of temptation. Ho hum (I speak as a boring macro guy), except for the tidbit that Ned Phelps discovered hyperbolic discounting back in the 60s.

Second is a piece on various ways to shed the pounds, from gastric balloons to intestinal condoms. What struck me here was the very absence of any ‘behavioural economics’ solution, and the dependence on technological fixes.

I imagine that one day soon there’ll be a technological fix for the brain. Not a mere appetite supressant, but a more general solution to willpower-related problems. Take a pill, turn into a steely-eyed Lance Armstrong: dedicated, impervious to distraction and with a low discount rate. Would this be a good thing?

I suppose it depends upon whether, as things stand, good guys are more or less likely to have weak wills than bad guys. If Yeats is right and the ‘best’ currently lack all conviction, then bring on the willpower drug. But what if we instead end up with a populace of highly-driven, goal-oriented miscreants? Answer me that, Batman.

[The title for this post comes fom here. This guy seems to have (re-)discovered behavioural economics before the recent boomlet, and has a novel solution to hyperbolic discounting: play off against it another character flaw, namely the propensity for self-deception. Ingenious. I encourage you to buy the t-shirt. Tomorrow.]


Fun story about Martin Weitzman, Harvard economist, and his recent contretemps involving a local farmer here (scroll down past the Shleifer scandal).

I once had Weitzman as a guest lecturer. Quite an acerbic character. He really didn’t take any shit.

on goats and chinese whispers

Just happened upon this, a year or two old: a ‘Critical Look at Britain’s Spy Machinery’, in particular the circumstances that led to the production of the infamous September Dossier. The author identifies gradual, structural changes at the SIS as responsible, specifically the gradual diminution of the role of the ‘Requirements’ side of the organisation, responsible for evaluating intelligence provided by the ‘Production’ side.

It’s a quick read, touching upon the Butler Report and the history of the SIS. The author, Philip Davies, differs from Lord Butler in his assessment of the structural causes behind the cock-up:

This failure has to be seen not as a short-term breakdown in the SIS validation machinery resulting from cutbacks in the 1990s, as Butler contends, but as the culmination of a steady weakening of the Requirements mechanism for handling tasking, dissemination, and validation, since 1974.

Davies agrees with Butler on the main weakness of SIS intelligence: the reliance on second-hand information relayed by their principal Iraqi souces.

Thus, all four of SIS’s main sources prior to the war proved to be reliable overall; the problem with this stable of agents was not wholesale inaccuracy, but rather hearsay reporting by one and reporting on behalf of an unre, liable subagent on the part of another.

This is interesting, and echoes much post-Butler reporting. I am no Jack Ryan, but it is not clear to me why second-hand reports are necessarily worthless. Put another way, they probably contain some information. Given that, how many such reports does one need in order to be convinced?

One suspects the intelligence officer is more artist than scientist, and as such is more difficult to criticise ex post. The same might be said for the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee.

P.S. That said, here‘s a call for the US intelligence services to go all Moneyball. This book has a similar message, but is mostly of interest thanks to the single, unintentionally poignant review from the author’s dad.

an aside

A commenter over at Bergh points out an interesting feature of Nick Bostrom’s cv: he lists financial support from CSN under ‘honours and grants.’ CSN is the Swedish national student aid authority. Generally, students are supported with a combination of loans and grants. These grants are means tested, not based on merit; if you get a loan, you get a grant. In other words, it’s not exactly a feather in one’s cap to be supported by CSN.

OK, so he has this on his cv. No real harm done. But it is fascinating that someone who also has three seven-figure grants, publications in places like Nature, Ethics and the Journal of Philosophy, books at OUP, not to mention being the director of an Oxford Institute, feels compelled to pad his cv such. Still, at least he probably knows the difference between a letter to the editor, an op-ed and an article. Unlike some prominent Swedish ‘producers of ideas.’

Update: the link is now fixed.

mind the gap… in sensibilities

How much is explained by IQ? I suppose making arguments about the importance of IQ in explanations of economic growth, longevity and so on is about as controversial as research gets. Anyone brave enough to tread into this minefield is sure to be hit from all sides. Bryan Caplan is of the opinion that IQ matters for all kinds of things and that to ignore it in, say, a model of the effect of education on earnings will mean overestimating the effect of schooling.

Thus, IQ is highly policy-relevant after all. The left-wing ideologues who damn anyone who even thinks the letters “IQ” are actually on to something: IQ research does turn out to be a rationale for “right-wing” laissez-faire policies. The more IQ matters, the more likely it becomes that existing government policies are a waste of money – and that you would get a bigger payoff by doing less – or maybe nothing at all.

This is controversial enough for many people. Now add race (implicitly, if not explicitly) to the mix. Speaking of mix, another one who has partaken of the mixed grill, Satoshi Kanazawa, has a paper in the current issue of the British Journal of Health Psychology that is sure to stir the pot. Here’s the abstract:

Wilkinson contends that economic inequality reduces the health and life expectancy of the whole population but his argument does not make sense within its own evolutionary framework. Recent evolutionary psychological theory suggests that the human brain, adapted to the ancestral environment, has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment and that general intelligence evolved as a domain-specific adaptation to solve evolutionarily novel problems. Since most dangers to health in the contemporary society are evolutionarily novel, it follows that more intelligent individuals are better able to recognize and deal with such dangers and live longer. Consistent with the theory, the macro-level analyses show that income inequality and economic development have no effect on life expectancy at birth, infant mortality and age-specific mortality net of average intelligence quotient (IQ) in 126 countries. They also show that an average IQ has a very large and significant effect on population health but not in the evolutionarily familiar sub-Saharan Africa. At the micro level, the General Social Survey data show that, while both income and intelligence have independent positive effects on self-reported health, intelligence has a stronger effect than income. The data collectively suggest that individuals in wealthier and more egalitarian societies live longer and stay healthier, not because they are wealthier or more egalitarian but because they are more intelligent.

I haven’t read the paper so I can’t really comment on the data or analysis. No one can accuse him of studying boring stuff though.