Category Archives: Politics

Are women more honest than men?

The journal Science recently published a fascinating article from Alain Cohn et al, which looked at cultural proclivities for civic honesty around the globe. They employed a rather ingenious method: they “lost” wallets all over the world and recorded when the receiver of the lost wallet attempted to return the wallet to its rightful owner. The wallets were fake and included a false ID of a person who appeared to be local to the country in which the wallet was lost, including fake contact info that actually belonged to the researchers. The ingenious element of the research was that instead of leaving the wallet out in the open, the research assistants actually pretended to have found the wallets in our nearby local businesses and turned in the wallet to somebody working in that business, thus enabling them to record interesting ancillary data on the “subject,” such as their age, if they had a computer on their desk, and whether or not the person was local to the country. Clearly, the researchers were hoping to engage in a little bit of data mining to ensure their not insignificant efforts returned some publishable results regardless of the main outcome.

As it turns out, they needn’t have been concerned. The level of civic honesty, as measured by wallet return rates, varied significantly between cultures. In addition, there is an interesting effect where the likelihood of the wallet being returned increased if there was more money in it, an effect that persists across regions and which was evidently not predicted by most economists. I encourage you to read the original article, which is fascinating. On the top end of the civic honesty scale are the Scandinavian and Northern European countries, with rates at around 75%. On the bottom end of the curve is China, with about 14%. In the case of China, all the study did was confirm what anybody who does business there knows, and something that has been well covered by journalists and completely ignored by our politicians: to the Chinese, not cheating is a sign you’re not trying hard enough.

Here’s where things get interesting: in keeping with modern scientific publishing standards, the researchers made their entire dataset available in an online data repository so that others could reproduce their work. There are a lot of interesting conclusions one can make beyond what the authors were willing to point out in their paper, perhaps due to the political implications and the difficulty of doing a proper accounting for all the possible biases. However, unburdened by the constraints of an academic career in the social sciences, I was more than happy to dig into the data to see what it could turn up…

Perhaps the most interesting thing I found is that women appear to be more honest than men. Over the entire world-wide dataset, women returned the wallets about 51% of the time, versus 42% for men. It is tempting to look at individual countries, but the male versus female difference is not statistically significant enough when looking at individual countries, so I chose to only look at the aggregate data. The data is not weighted by country population, so one should take the absolute magnitude of the difference with a bit of skepticism. However, looking at the individual country data it appears a proper accounting for population bias would likely maintain or increase the difference. (Some of the most populous countries had the largest difference between women and men.)

Worldwide, women appear to be statistically significantly more honest than men. Standard error was less than 1% for both cases.

Here is the full dataset of men versus women broken down by country. You can see that the most populous countries are those where women appear to be more honest than men, so fixing the chart above to account for sample bias would likely still find a significant difference.

Women appear to be more honest than men in most cultures, though the individual country results are not usually statistically significant.

Another interesting question to ask of the data is whether or not there is a generational difference in honesty. Surprisingly, the answer turns out to be that there’s not a statistically significant difference:

Age doesn’t appear to be a statistically significant predictor of honesty. Standard error was roughly 1%, so the difference shown is not meaningful.

Looking at the breakdown by country, we see that there are no big differences between the generations, with one exception that I’m not even going to try to explain:

It’s possible that the young are more honest than the old, but it doesn’t appear to be statistically significant except in one country.

One interesting set of issues that always comes up with population studies like this is what, if anything, should we do with this information? It is true that a Swedish woman is about eight times more civically honest, on average, than a Chinese man. That’s interesting, but also pretty dangerous information. Should this inform our immigration policy, where population statistics might actually be valid? Is it better to not even ask these questions given the abuse of the information that might result? Or, is it good to have this information, especially when it flies in the face of our image of ourselves and others? I suspect in the case of the US, most would be surprised to find out that the average US citizen is as honest as the average Russian. We may be surprised by both halves of that statement, and both might be good to think about.

Can we afford public transportation unions?

Photo of Green Line crash in Newton, MA.

This post was written in 2008, never posted, and subsequently forgotten. But it seems pretty relevant still given the recent spate of safety issues on the T, so I might as well publish it.

A few years ago there was a horrible crash on our commuter rail in Boston. One train drove into another that was stopped at a control light before a station. (Below is a map of the rough crash site.) Both were westbound trains, and the crash happened on a straightaway above ground. In other words, it’s hard to find an excuse for it to have happened. These aren’t freight trains. I ride the Green Line all the time, and they can stop very quickly.
Reports show that the driver ran straight through a red light, going four times the proper speed. Eye witnesses on the train have the driver talking on a cell phone at the time of the crash.

Rough location of May 28th crash of Green Line commuter trains

This will not be surprising to any regular rider of the MBTA. By and large, the people employed by the T are militantly lazy, uniformly belligerent, and often surprisingly incompetent. I’ve seen operators of the Red Line, supposedly the highest level job in the T, forget which stop they were at and open up the wrong doors at a stop, the ones on the inside of the tunnel where the dreaded third rail is. That could kill a person. As we were watching the Green Line wreckage unfold on local news at a downtown bar (near a Green Line stop, as it happened) the bartender remarked “Given how often those guys come in to get drunk, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened sooner.”

The MBTA is a terribly run organization, expensive and inexcusably unreliable given the fact that Boston is a tiny city with very little distance to cover. We probably have a tenth of the mileage of New York’s transit system (if that), and yet a ride on our little four line subway system costs the same as New York’s massive network. Take a look at Manhattan’s subway and bus system map and then look at ours. It’s hard to believe they cost the same to ride. But the cost could probably be forgiven were it not for the poor management. The T has been around for 52,000 rush hours, and yet they still seem completely taken by surprise by each one. It’s not uncommon for 3-5 trains to go by in rapid succession in one direction while you wait 30 minutes for one to go by in yours, and it’s often too packed to get on. Maybe in another 100 years they’ll figure out how to anticipate demand for their services so the trains don’t all get bunched up during rush hour.

Why is the T so bad? I think one big reason is the corrupt Boston version of union labor. Only in a public union do you get 60k a year to make change and the promise of a fat pension when the company you work for is $14 Billion in the red. And being overpaid is just one benefit. The one that hurts the public even more is the fact that in a really “good” union, doing your job badly isn’t an acceptable basis for termination.

I’m not inherently anti-union. It’s all fine when we’re talking about guys screwing interior panels into Fords. In principle, I think it’s ludicrous they get paid more than college professors, but the fact that we can choose to buy Japanese cars puts a little accountability into the system. (Which the autoworkers unions are finding out as they get laid off by the hundreds of thousands because their cupidity priced the American automotive industry out of existence.) But some situations are ripe for union abuse, and public transportation monopolies are a union organizers dream come true: a captive customer base who have to buy the product, no matter how expensive, for an essential service that renders the threat of a strike hugely effective.

Poor working class folks in Boston who aren’t members of extortionist unions have no alternative to the T. And so when union abuse renders a system so unreliable and yet so expensive that it charges people $2 to ride a Disneyland version of a real subway, ironically it is the working poor who disproportionately suffer the consequences of this experiment in “fair labor.” Are they not just as much deserving of protection as the guys sitting in air conditioned boxes doing nothing because their union contract precludes them from being fired? Who is representing their collective interests from having to pay too much to get to work?

When a union becomes just as much problem for the underclass as anything corporations are doing, let’s just call it what it is: another concentration of power that’s being abused. While unions have historically been forces for fairness, they have now largely grown into legal organized crime, a protection racket run under the threat of strike. How bad will the T have to get before we point the finger at the unions and call them out on their abuses? How bad will public schools have to get before we force accountability on teacher’s unions? How many American industries will have to be priced out of existence? An honest society has to object to any unfair abuse of power, whether it comes from a guy wearing a tie or a blue shirt.

If you are inclined to object, the next time you are sitting on an airplane waiting to take off, think about the fact that the person in charge of your life was promoted to that position for possessing no merit whatsoever other than having stuck around long enough.*

*This doesn’t apply to JetBlue, Southwest, or SkyWest, which are among the few non-union airlines in existence and are also, not coincidentally, just about the only airlines not in bankruptcy or just coming out of it.

Did Bill Clinton throw the game for Hillary in 2016?

Let’s start with the indisputable facts. Bill Clinton, like him or not, possesses a preternatural gift for public relations. He handles the press brilliantly, and if we ever create a National Bullshit Hall of Fame (it would only be right that it be located in DC using pork barrel money) he should be the charter inductee. I envision a wax statue of him welcoming visitors at the entrance to the museum, holding a blue dress behind his back, winking and giving the bitten-lip thumbs up. The statue’s eyes would follow you around the room, like a renaissance painting, except you’d get the distinct impression it was checking out your junk.

Bill Clinton in his element

Given his facility with the public, it’s puzzling how he campaigned for his wife so badly. He came across as anything but the smooth operator who brought the most fun to the White House since Truman installed the bowling alley.

What’s going on? Has Bill gone crazy? Crazy like a fox, perhaps. People are too polite to admit it, but deep inside we all know that Bill doesn’t like Hillary any more than we do,* and he’s got even more reasons. (Notwithstanding that they are his fault.) And do you think Bill Clinton, man’s man around country matters, serial womanizer, the guy who used state cops to shuttle chicks to and fro the gubernatorial love bunker in Arkansas, really wants to be remembered as America’s inaugural male First Lady? That’s a hard role to swallow for a dude like Bill. He doesn’t want to give up riding shotgun on Marine One. He wants to be hitting on Sarkozy’s hot wife, not throwing her tea parties in the West Wing. Sure, he’s supposed to be Mr. I-feel-your-pain, but you don’t get to be the most powerful man in the free world without having an ego, and my guess is that his can’t handle the idea of being number two on Air Force One.

So, he’s throwing the game, shaving points. Except he’s Bill Clinton, so he’s good at it, and manages to come off as rabidly supportive of his wife at the same time that he torpedoes her bid for presidency. Sure, it’s the worst kind of wrong. But he’s just a person, and he wouldn’t be the first unemployed guy to resent his wife getting a job. Plus, if you cheated on your wife with hundreds of women, humiliating her in front of millions, wouldn’t you be a little nervous about her becoming the most powerful person in the world? Hell hath no fury like a commander-in-chief scorned.

Obama’s speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church

Here is a transcript of the speech given by Obama at Dr. King’s church in Georgia. This is taken from their website, where it is a bit buried, and I figure they won’t mind any extra exposure this can get. These days it’s pretty safe—trendy, even—to speak truth to power, but Obama is the first Democratic candidate I’ve ever seen who has the guts to speak truth to the people.

The Scripture tells us that when Joshua and the Israelites arrived at the gates of Jericho, they could not enter. The walls of the city were too steep for any one person to climb; too strong to be taken down with brute force. And so they sat for days, unable to pass on through.

But God had a plan for his people. He told them to stand together and march together around the city, and on the seventh day he told them that when they heard the sound of the ram’s horn, they should speak with one voice. And at the chosen hour, when the horn sounded and a chorus of voices cried out together, the mighty walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

There are many lessons to take from this passage, just as there are many lessons to take from this day, just as there are many memories that fill the space of this church. As I was thinking about which ones we need to remember at this hour, my mind went back to the very beginning of the modern Civil Rights Era.

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Army Strong*

I’m no peacenik, and my best guess at the truth is that war is sometimes a neccesary evil forced upon a nation by outside circumstance. If North Korea, for example, ever got ICBMs, I’d probably support the idea that maybe we should do something about it besides worry. Having said that, I’m a bit skeptical of the current set of ads running for the Army.

The target of the current ads are the clearly the parents of young men, a tell that the Army is running into problems recruiting young turks to fight over the objections of their parents. The central idea of the ads is that the Army will give them discipline, a sense of honor, and an inner strength, all things a parent wants to see in their children–the tagline is “You made them strong, we’ll make them Army Strong.” And I have no doubt that Army training makes one a better person. The problem is, sometimes Army Strong is led into battle by Yale Stupid, and then you get Army Dead, all for a reason nobody really understands.

How the hell is it that we can’t advertise erectile dysfunction pills on the TV without fifteen seconds of disclaimers about the possibility of sore eyelids, but the Army can advertise for a job that involves getting shot at, and they’re not required to put a single line of 8 point Helvetica at the bottom of the screen pointing out that your results may vary? I’d like to see the announcer have to rattle off something at the end like “Army Strong is not to be taken while pregnent or nursing. It may affect your ability to operate a motor vehicle, or anything else for that matter. Army Strong may get you killed in the event a demagogue fools congress into a poorly conceived war. Please consult a physician before joining, or if an election lasts longer than four weeks.

I have a lot of gratitude to the men who volunteer to fight for us, people who are made of tougher stuff than I, so I mean no disrespect to them by saying this. In fact, I say this because I don’t think we show them much respect by using glib Madison Avenue tactics to entice them to serve, or by calling upon their service so cheaply.

Sarkozy’s brilliant game with the unions


Following up on my last posting about the brinksmanship of digital camera manufacturers, I think it only makes sense that we move on to discussing French politics. As the French transportation strike lumbers on into a second week, Sarkozy still has done nothing about it, leading to questions as to exactly what he’s up to. Given that he’s not known to take a low profile with regard to anything, let alone running the government, the only thing people are certain of is that he is up to something. One theory, as reported in Time, is that he’s simply letting the two sides soften each other up, watching how the negotiations play out before he steps in and saves the day with a compromise. Too boring to be a plausible explanation for politics in France, if you ask me.

While acknowledging that speculating about French labor policy is about the last thing I’m qualified to do, I think I have a good guess as to what he’s up to, and I hope I’m right. He’s not waiting for a compromise to present itself, he’s waiting so that the government doesn’t have to compromise. By letting the strike drag on, he’s letting the frustration of the people fester while they bike and walk and beg rides into work for weeks. Sarkozy knows that even the most hardened leftists get blisters. He is not going to act until he has the support of the people of France to hold a hard line against the strikers, and I doubt it will take much time for that to occur given the political climate for change and the shaky state of the financial system in Europe. Solidarity with the workers will soon start to soften, eventually giving way to outright resentment for bus drivers who are willing to compromise the livelihood of their fellow workers so that they can enjoy retirement perks not even well educated French white collar workers have. Égalité has its limits, even in France.

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