Books at a conference

I’ve been attending the biennial conference of the International Network for Economic Method (in San Sebastian, such hardship…). It’s always interesting to see what books get cited. This time they’ve been:

Against Democracy by Jason Brennan

Price: £16.99
Was: £24.00


Why Democracies Need Science by Harry Collins and Robert Evans

(both discussed critically)

Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (ditto, although in a friendly way)

Valeria Mosini’s Reassessing the Paradigm of Economics

Nancy Cartwright Evidence Based Policy

Dani Rodrik One Economics, Many Recipes

There were no doubt others I missed because I wasn’t familiar with them. But always interesting to see what other groups of scholars are referring to.




Women in economics

There has been a big response to a column I wrote for the FT about the male domination of economics, following up Justin Wolfers’ recent one. My conclusion was:

The reputation of economics is already tarnished, even a decade on from the financial crisis, and this new evidence of entrenched discrimination will not improve matters. This is not a women problem, it is an economics problem. It is deeply embedded in the discipline’s culture and norms, and the profession’s senior men need to take it seriously.

Some senior men emailed to ask for suggestions. Here are some.

These come from a Twitter thread compiled by Jan Zilinsky (@janzilinsky):

1/ Some thoughts on gender biases in academia, following up on @JustinWolfers’ article / Alice Wu’s findings on sexist expressions on EJMR

2/ Causal evidence shows that even when full info about candidates’ past performance is provided bias against female candidates persists

3/ The experiment (How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science) is by @ErnestoReuben Paolo Sapienza @zingales…

4/ Plenty of issues to dissect (low representation, disrespect online & offline…)

For the thread I want to focus on *unequal treatment*

5/ One thing that bothers me a lot is the co-authorship penalty. Heather Sarsons @saskatchewin shows men who coauthor more are not penalized

6/ but women are less likely to receive tenure if they coauthor more papers:…

7/ That paper is about outcomes in economics. On evidence that women benefit less from co-authorship in polisci see…

8/ The leaky educational pipelines signal more problems…… and @DianeCoyle1859’s…

9/ And when the path leads to professorship, imagine you are discouraged with comments such as ↡…

10/ Want to end the thread w/ some “what can be done” links. But many steps are tiny, as @cheng_christine said…:

11/ Let me try anyway. First, we can learn pay attention to other disciplines; see this @BetseyStevenson talk…

12/ Second, at a minimum, as @Noahpinion wrote workplaces must be professional (why does it need to be said?!)

13/ Third, evaluation nudges could help. Not anonymizing papers/CVs, but moving toward more joint rather than separate assessments…

14/ Promising research shows people rely less on group stereotypes when making joint (not case-by-case) evaluations…

15/ Tools like the gender bias calculator seem fine, as long as there are users motivated to write fair letters…

16/ And it’d be great to eliminate some behaviors that range from baffling to outrageous. Copious examples were shared in the last 1.5 weeks

17/ Things like first-naming female faculty members; title-forgetting; off-color remarks about parenthood; etc…

18/ We could try valuing things other than prestige, as @cjwich pointed out: “As a field, we fetishize hierarchy. ‘Top 5 journals,’ ‘top 10 programs,’ who is/isn’t in the “club” 19/”

19/ Sometimes I lash out at the fashion police b/c the (gendered) focus on some economists’ wardrobe is ridiculous.

A number of people have suggested ending the anonymity of referees’ reports as this conceals biases – there is deep scepticism about the fairness of the process, which is seen as perpetuating privileged networks, mainly male.

Along with many of the female economists who have emailed me, I have observed a range of patronising behaviours – calling women by their first name, men not, is a common one as Jan notes. Offering ‘advice’ to lower one’s ambitions, in research, or submissions and so on. Asking women dispropotionately to do admin tasks, meetings, ‘service’ in the department.

I’d add:

  • senior men are the only people who can address the aggressive culture of economics seminars, which is unique as far as I know. Stop male colleagues from interrupting presenters frequently, rather than giving them space to present. Call people out on hostile, disparaging comments.
  • the ‘publish or perish’ culture for young academics makes it impossible for the primary carer of young children to achieve the expected publication targets; this is usually the woman even in apparently egalitarian couples. As Justin Wolfers has noted, the way policies operate may help men even more. The extension periods for new mothers are laughable, as everyone who has had children really ought to know.
  • I hope male economists would reflect on the recent discussion, acknowledge that the discipline has a problem, and think really carefully about their judgements about people. When you say ‘X is not very good’ and X is female, are you holding her to a different standard than you would a male colleague? The answer is almost certainly yes.
  • I agree about the comment in Jan’s thread about the hierarchy obsession. It is bananas to have only a Top 5 matter….

I hope these provide food for thought. I’ll be happy to update this post with other suggestions.


Rational ignorance, redux

I’m preparing for the start of the new semester & picked up Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, his follow up to The Logic of Collective Action. It has a wonderful clarity of explanation. For instance, explaining why it can be that tax systems are usually progressive, while their loopholes are usually regressive:

“Since the probability that a typical voter will change the outcome of an election is vanishingly small, the typical citizen is usually ‘rationally ignorant’ about public affairs. … Just as lobbies provide collective goods to special interest groups, so their effectiveness is explained by the imperfect knowledge of citizens, and this in turn is mainly due to the fact that information and calculation about effective goods is also a collective good.”

People know they pay income tax and so the headline figures need to be progressive, but few pay attention to the detail, and special interest groups (such as the well off and their professional advisers) can craft the details to suit themselves.

The book has chapters on trade, development and macro policies. Less relevant to me but equally enjoyable to read. For instance, he was on to the role of institutions in development some time before it became so prominent (and indeed helped make it prominent): “In the many countries that have failed to grow as far or as fast as the leaders, there are quite enough stupidities, rigidities and instabilities to explain the lack of success.”

I always find myself heading down rabbit holes at this stage of preparation: so much interesting stuff, old and new, to read.


Property is – theft?

One of the fundamental assumptions in economics is the existence of clearly assigned property rights with legal recourse if these are breached. It is rarely written down in the lists of assumptions taught to students but it was a central part of the brilliance of Ronald Coase that he highlighted the important role of property. In fact, there are norms as well as rights, the things one takes for granted in making a purchase or sale about what’s included and excluded in the transaction. For instance, when you buy a meal in a restaurant, the assumption on both sides is that you’re buying the food but will not be entitled to take the plate and glass away with you. Some hotels clarify one area of ambiguity by posting notices announcing that if you like the bathrobe so much you can purchase one in reception to take home; but many of assume we’re allowed to take the little bottles of shampoo.

The transformation of so many physical items into digitised ones is making old assumptions about property rights contentious. One fascinating example is the case John Deere tractors have taken to US copyright courts claiming farmers can no longer fix their tractors but have to take them to an approved agent and pay the company – because the company has not transferred the digital rights to the software now operating hi-tech tractors.

The End Of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz (both law professors) has lots of examples (including the John Deere one) of the shifting notion of ownership, and the terrain this opens up for contests. The book is in the spirit of Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture and other authors who have worried about the massively expanded scope of DRM. Although less in campaigning mode, the authors of this book argue that personal property rights over digital items need far greater clarity, and should have due legal protection. If you own something, you should be able to transfer it, for example. They write:

“The label ‘property’ carries a great deal of rhetorical force. That’s why patent and copyright holders have adopted the language of property, and why they have seen such success in the courts and Congress in their efforts to strengthen, expand and extend those rights. But … what counts as property, the rules and exceptions, and the way we resolve conflicts between property owners, are things that cange over time.”

They are not against non-ownership, but argue the terms of this – rental in effect – must be clear and not buried in terms of use documents. No company should be able to repeat Amazo’s surprise move in 2009 of deleting copies of George Orwell’s 1984 that readers thought they had purchased to own. The authors make some specific suggestions – for instance, they suggest courts should stop seeing licensing agreements as contracts, and regulators should consider banning ‘buy now’ buttons for digital goods that the provider intends to retain ownership of. DRM should be reformed with an update of the DCMA (“a major policy misstep”). Above all, they argue for reform of copyright law, to restore the economic balance between ensuring there are adequate incentives to innovate and create and spreading as widely as possible the consumer benefits of innovation.

The End of Ownership also mentions in passing the latest manifestation of a temporary access world, the ‘sharing economy’. Digital platforms are making it a bit less necessary or desirable to won a car, or a holiday home. But these are physical assets so actually do not seem all that relevant to the main themes of the book.

It’s a bit lawyerly, and American (although US law in this area has had global effects). Nevertheless a very thought provoking read. Not that I see US lawmakers leaping to respond to its proposals just at present.


How diversity pays off

Scott Page’s new book The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off In The Knowledge Economy looked timely, arriving as it did on my desk just before the Google memo furore. It’s a continuation of his previous book The Difference, putting logical detail and empirical evidence on the claim that when problems are hard and multidimensional, they are better addressed by cognitively diverse groups of people. This is a generalisation in a way of Philip Tetlock’s work described in Superforecasting, as his super-forecasters were people applying a range of models to their forecasting problems. Predicting is one kind of problem; Page considers the whole gamut – problem solving, truth seeking, creating – of non-routine cognitive tasks.

He emphasises that he is making a pragmatic case, although this does not mean the normative case for diversity is unimportant. He also stresses that random diversity will not do the trick. The character of the problem shapes the types of diversity required. But without it, the outcome is the madness, not the wisdom, of crowds.

Page categorises people’ cognitive repertoires in terms of five tools: information (data, facts); knowledge (expertise in a domain); heuristics (rules of them, techniques); representations (perspectives on the situation); and mental models (simplified, systematic descriptions). The group’s repertoire will be the union of the individual members’ repertoires. Diversity is emphatically not like portfolio diversification. Spreading risks, diversification, gives an average outcome. Diversity gives the outer envelope of the team’s combined various abilities.

Putting these together helps think about the link between cognitive and identity diversity, and there is a link. Some problems are more multi-dimensional than others, and have aspects that speak to group identities. Some parts of the cognitive reperoire depend more closely on group identity because they will be determined in part by individual experience. Take representations: there is a lovely example of how different the range of possibilities will seem – given that we start from where we are – to someone trained in the grid of Cartesian geometry and someone trained with a polar perspective: square versus wedge-shaped ‘adjacent possibilities’. Combining the square and the pie slice gives a bigger space of possibility.

As for the Google memo issue, Page notes that where organisations and societies are now is only partially informative about the value of diversity. Repeated acts of discrimination will inhibit people’s interest in pursuing certain paths they would do well in, so there will have been ample prior self-selection that sheds no light at all on how much better challenges could be met with more diverse teams. “The evidence we have of diversity bonuses understates the potential contribution of diversity because the evidence comes from the world as it is, not the world as it could be. A more inclusive world would produce larger bonuses.”

And the evidence is pretty compelling, although I was pre-disposed to believe it. As the book concludes, modern knowledge economies are complex. Team work is almost universal. Any organisation wanting to do better – in any of the ways listed above – will be committed to diversity. This very clear and compelling book will help people consider specifically what shape their challenges and problems take and what kind of diversity will help address them. So the moral is not that HR departments should seek to hire identity diverse people for the sake of it, but that they understand the needs of their organisations and the mapping from identities to cognitive repertoires. But in any case, the outcome will be more diverse in every sense than it is currently.