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.

Progressive is as progressive does: A quiz.

Consider the generics of the following US political debate I read about in the New York Times in the recent past: Group A wants to change something about US law to affect something we’ve been doing for a long time. Group B wants to keep things exactly as they have been, and suggests those who wish to make the change are “Un-American” and that the change is ill-advised. Group A is hoping to increase the scope of federal government, and Group B is, of course, claiming that this oversteps the constitutional bounds of lawmakers.

Obviously, this sound like a classic fight between progressives and conservatives. For 100 points, what was the specific change and who desires it?

(a) the abolishment of the death penalty by progressives
(b) the increase of the debt ceiling by Republicans under Bush
(c) the increase of the debt ceiling by Democrats under Obama
(d) the abolishment of birthright citizenship by conservatives
(e) all of the above

If you answered (e), you are correct.

The Democrats are stupid like foxes: A libertarian argues for single-payer health insurance

By now you’ve probably read somewhere that the new healthcare bill will eventually mandate everybody to own insurance, and that for most middle class folks, the punishment for not doing so will be about 2.5% of your income. You may have also read that given that health insurance premiums will increase (they already have for many people just due to the legislation passing) that a health insurance contract will probably cost about $10,000 a year for a family. So, unless you’re making over $500k a year, it’s in your rational best interests to not purchase insurance, and simply wait until you get cancer, at which point you buy insurance. (Perhaps you keep cheap catastrophic coverage to handle the transition.) Under the new law, the insurance companies can’t deny you coverage, so this is undeniably the smartest thing to do. It’s not a moral issue; the government isn’t criminalizing not purchasing insurance, they are simply saying you are going to pay into the pool one way or another, either by buying insurance or paying the government. The only problem is that the fine hasn’t been set remotely intelligently; given the mandate to cover those with prior conditions, the true cost to society of somebody leaving the insurance pool is probably very close to the actual insurance premiums (minus a little bit to account for the fact that this person will not be using routine services while they are waiting for their catostrophic illness).

There is absolutely no flaw in this strategy, and I’m probably the millionth person to write about it. Therefore, the average consumer is likely to hear about it from somewhere, by the time the bill takes effect, and Americans aren’t a bunch that tend to miss a chance at free buffet. I’m pretty sure people will adopt this approach in significant enough numbers to cause a problem for the insurance companies. So, how the heck did such seemingly poorly designed legislation come to pass?

There are three plausible hypotheses out there, as far as I can tell: (a) The Democrats are fools, too enamored with their own savior complexes to bother to understand even the most simple manifestation of unintended consequences, (b) The Democrats are stupid like foxes, and know this will bankrupt our health insurance industry, and when that happens we will be forced to have the government step in with single-payer insurance, (c) The Democrats know the bill will be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional (you can’t force private parties into contracts) well before the provisions set in, thereby paving the way for a single-payer system.

I think the first is, by far, the least likely of the three scenarios, and yet it is the assumption that seems to be made by the Republicans and everybody I know who is conservative or libertarian. I think it’s very dangerous to assume your opponents are fools, and while Pelosi may make that very tempting at times, I think the way she got the bill passed shows that she’s a lot more shrewd than most people give her credit for. I think the Democrats know exactly what they are doing, and I’m not entirely convinced they aren’t right for doing it.

The free market, for all the worship thrown at its feet, simply finds equilibrium points, nothing more, and sometimes less. Whether or not those points are places any of us really want to be is entirely a function of the constraints we put on the market in question. And in the case of health care our current system has some really unintelligent constraints that lead to us being forced to pay for a health care system where the market is too regulated to limit the introduction of new and expensive technology, and yet too free to cover everybody. I’m fairly libertarian, but I have to admit that if you’re going to operate with the notion that unlimited access to a million dollar PET scan machine is a basic human right (and while I think it’s ridiculous to honestly consider it a right, it is certainly a worthy goal to have) then you really need to have a single-payer insurance system and rationed care, or else we’re going to bankrupt ourselves. Will quality of care suffer? Inevitably. But the system we have now may very well destroy the republic, so that’s wouldn’t be so good for quality of care, either.

If you’re liberal, you’re probably already in agreement with me. You can go back to reading The New Yorker now. If you’re libertarian or conservative, you’re probably saying “Well, isn’t the solution to having a health care market perverted by government regulation to just completely deregulate the market?” The problem is, the free market mechanisms that we normally happily exploit to give us things like cheap computers can yield some pretty unsavory things in the case of health care. For one, the free market would let poor people die on the side of the road. Same with old people, and anybody else who’s future economic output is less than the statistically expected cost of keeping them alive. That’s just the economically rational thing to do. That is only the case, however, because we’re very good at putting a positive price on things involving an exchange of goods, but we haven’t developed a way to price intangible things, like the cost most of us would implicitly ascribe to the outcome of having our fellow Americans dying in ditches. Were there a way to accurately impute a real monetary cost to the intangible (psychological?) cost of that happening, perhaps going with the free market would be a good idea. I’m not sure that’s advisable or even possible, but at any rate, we don’t currently do it. It is thus a simplistic and short-sighted adherance to half-baked economic theory that compels somebody to say we should let our health care be handled by the free market. We may find the market’s equilibrium point is optimizing a cost function we’re not proud of.

Economic theory, as it currently stands, is  the last discipline we should entrust our lives to. In the future, we will look back on our current economic theories and realize that they were just the first steps in a thousand mile journey towards understanding how the world operates. Right now, microeconomics says a few vague things about equilibrium prices provided humans are rational and a million variables are rendered constant. It is more notable for what it doesn’t tell you than what it does. For example, it talks vaguely about the restoritive forces which tend to push down the price of a a good produced with surpluses. But does it say anything about how long that process will take? Does it take into account the “friction” of people avoiding the risk of switching production? The effects of human irrationality? People are just beginning the work of answering these questions with new disciplines like behavioral economics. But we’re a long, long way off from having economic theories on which one can auto-pilot policies affecting matters of life and death.

As things stand, we’ll just have to use the same method engineers use when they don’t have a complete theory of the underlying problem: intuition and trial-and-error. And what’s wrong with that? Our country started out as a big experiment? Since when did we stop seeing the US as a laboratory for good government? Why are people so freaked out by a single-payer system? Give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, we can go back to our current fantastic system, tweak it, or try another idea. And we probably won’t have wasted any more money than we do right now rebuilding Iraq for a month. Personally, I would try a single-payer system where people pay co-pays for each procedure determined as a fraction of their gross income. This would form a progressive tax to fund the system (the equanimity the Left wants and the Right wants but just not if the government does it), as well as motivation to not abuse the system (the efficiency the Right wants but the Left seems to think will happen automatically because bureaucrats always do such a good job). Hospitals should be given bonuses for good performance relative to expenditures. Adoption of medical advances should be subject to a hard limit on medical expenditures as a function of GDP, and decided by ranking effectiveness per unit of cost. Is there a perfect way to quantify results when ranking hospitals and technologies? Of course not, but the beauty of our current system is that it’s so bloody godawful that having a monkey spin a casino-style Health Care Policy Fruit Wheel could not possibly fail to improve things. Let not the perfect be the enemy of the slightly less shitty.

Whether or not you agree with my solution, I think it’s fair to say that trusting our health care industry to the precepts of current free market economic thinking is like building an airplane based on a 19th century understanding of aerodynamics and expecting it to fly. I think there’s archival footage of how well that worked out. Economic principles may be elegant, but that doesn’t mean they work in the real world. And here’s some bad news: if we ever do get economic theory to the point where we can let it dictate health care policy, that theory is probably going to be as ugly as the subject of that theory (i.e. us). In the meanwhile, there’s nothing libertarian about letting people croak so that we can adhere to some imagined Platonic form of government.

What could possibly go wrong?

A friend of mine forwarded me the following two e-mails. While the first is bit glib (and was clearly meant to be) it nonetheless makes a few good points. I thought I’d pass them along, since I think both make valid points anybody of any political persuasion can appreciate. They are the kinds of things I’d forward to an e-mail list if I had an e-mail list, so I thought I’d post them here. (When you have as few friends as I do, you don’t take chances forwarding chain e-mails.) For the record, I’m for healthcare reform, and think our current system manages to be both socialized and capitalistic in a way that makes a mockery of both.

Let me get this straight… We’re trying to pass a health care plan written by a committee whose chairman says he doesn’t understand it, passed by a Congress that hasn’t read it but exempts themselves from it, to be signed by a president that also hasn’t read it and who smokes, with funding administered by a treasury chief who didn’t pay his taxes, all to be overseen by a surgeon general who is obese, and financed by a country that’s broke. What the hell could possibly go wrong?!?

The second e-mail:

28th Amendment proposal

For too long we have been too complacent about the workings of Congress.  Many citizens had no idea that Congress members could retire with the same pay after only one term, that they didn’t pay into Social Security, that they specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed (such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment) while ordinary citizens must live under those laws.  The latest is to exempt themselves from the Healthcare Reform that is being considered…in all of its forms.  Somehow, that doesn’t seem logical.  We do not have an elite that is above the law.  I truly don’t care if they are Democrat, Republican, Independent or whatever.  The self-serving must stop. This is a good way to do that. It is an idea whose time has come.

Proposed 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law that applies to the citizens of the United States that does not apply equally to the Senators and Representatives; and, Congress shall make no law that applies  to the Senators and Representatives that does not apply equally to the citizens of the United States.”

Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

Cynical thought of the week…

I wonder if the ludicrous amount of media hype dedicated to the Oh-my-god-it’s-the-swine-flu-come-to-kill-us-all! has anything to do with trying to scare people into accepting healthcare reform. For the record, I’m all for healthcare reform, but I don’t appreciate fear tactics towards any end. The regular old flu is projected to kill more people this flu season than swine flu. Why are we still hearing about swine flu?

A clunker of a bill

Do I have this straight? Democrats just passed a bill that will take $2B of money we don’t have from future ordinary taxpayers, and we will give that money as a reward to people who selfishly bought gas guzzling cars, most of whom are relatively wealthy SUV owners, so that our automotive industry can stay out of their second bankruptcy for a few more months? And the cars that are traded in must all be destroyed, instead of reused? Did I suffer a head injury and forget which party is supposed to screw the little guy and the environment to benefit the rich, or are they both just doing that now?

So, to summarize with an example: there is a shoe salesman in Mississippi whose grandchildren will be paying taxes so that some rich guy in Boston can be rewarded for trading in his Cadillac Escalade. I take this back. As Ken points out, rich people probably don’t keep these cars until their value drops below $4500. And take note, my voting friends, that a measure introduced to limit the cash payouts to only those below a certain income level was voted down by “The Party of the People” by a margin of about 2 to 1.

The crassness of this bill is only exceeded by the utter lack of efficacy. It takes some sort of talent to waste money so quickly and yet do so so impotently. At the end of the day, all of this will only be a drop in the red ink-filled bucket that is our automotive industry. This is the problem with spending government money on bribing consumers to spend on things they don’t need, instead of investing in capital projects. Either it works once or not at all, and in the long run both are about the same.

I just have one request of the small number of you who read this. Next election cycle, I don’t mind if you continue voting for Democrats. The Republicans have become such a joke that I can’t blame you. But please do me favor and quit being so damn smug about being a member of a party that has become nothing but the very slight lesser of two very big, stinking, corrupt evils. This Democratic-controlled congress is nothing which anybody with an ounce of integrity or intelligence should be proud to have elected.

Going John Galt

A while back I wrote about how the present financial crisis may be the “rock bottom” that precedes better days ahead for the country. A return to our better natures, I hope, and not just a prelude to a collapse. My hope on that front was given a boost when I recently discovered that the forth most searched for phrase on Google was “Going John Galt.”

(For the record, I’m pleased that people are looking into objectivism, not that I think anybody actually should literally “go John Galt” in the sense of quitting their jobs. And I also don’t think objectivism is 100% of the answer, but I think it is a way of thinking we could use a little more of right now.)