Archive | Other social science

Eric Cantor Renews the Call to End Federal Funding of Political and Social Science

Eric Cantor today:

There is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research. Doing all we can to facilitate medical breakthroughs for people … should be a priority. We can and must do better.

This includes cutting unnecessary red tape in order to speed up the availability of life saving drugs and treatments and reprioritizing existing federal research spending. Funds currently spent by the government on social science – including on politics of all things – would be better spent helping find cures to diseases.

Quoted here.  Good thing that disease, mortality, etc. bear no relationship to political institutions.  Good thing that there is no politics in whether and how drugs and medical treatments are developed.

To be less sarcastic and more constructive, here is Evan Lieberman’s book on how ethnic politics shaped national responses to AIDS.  Here is Dan Carpenter’s work on the Food and Drug Administration.  That’s just off the top of my head.

The broader point is that Cantor’s goal, curing disease and saving lives, can be better accomplished by including social and political science alongside the “hard” sciences and medicine.

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Does Medicaid matter? If only we could arbitrarily deny coverage to some poor people…

Since health care coverage is likely to be a hot topic this week, I thought I would share a podcast highlight from my weekend:  Planet Money’s “Does Medicaid Actually Help People?” There is (apparently) a debate on whether needy people would be better off relying on emergency rooms and charity than Medicaid. One could try to test the effect of Medicaid by comparing the health & wealth of people enrolled in Medicaid with similar people who are not enrolled, but this is complicated by selection effects. Scholars could try to resolve this with an experiment, but this runs afoul of human subjects regulations and, well, basic morality:

You can’t do a big study where you take a big group of poor people, give half of them access to health care and half of them you don’t. That is not seen as ethical.*

Luckily, in 2008, Oregon offered just such an experiment. It could only afford to offer coverage to 10,000 of the 90,000 eligible applicants for its Medicaid program, and chose to allocate the slots by lottery. A team of health policy & economics scholars is tracing the effects of this natural experiment, as Dan Hopkins recently mentioned.

The first article from this project came out last year and found that Medicaid substantially increased the recipients’ economic security and self-evaluations of their health:

We found that Medicaid improves financial security. Medicaid reduces by 40% the probability that people report having to borrow money or skip payment on other bills because of medical expenses. Although it does not appear to reduce their risk of bankruptcy (at least in the first year), it decreases by 25% the probability that they will have unpaid medical bills that are sent to a collection agency. This effect benefits not only the insured but, since the vast majority of bills sent to a collection agency are never paid, also those who may ultimately help to finance this unpaid care, including health care providers and the public sector.

We also found that being covered by Medicaid improves self-reported health as compared with being uninsured. Medicaid enrollees are 25% more likely to indicate that they’re in good, very good, or excellent health (vs. fair or poor health). They are 25% less likely to screen positive for depression. They are even 30% more likely to report that they are pretty happy or very happy (vs. not too happy).

Now, unless the SCOTUS strikes down the entire health care law, the expansion of Medicaid coverage in the law will presumably stand. Nonetheless, this is good reading if one if evaluating the argument that we should have the right to go without health insurance.

*(Damn you, IRB!)

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Chris Hayes echoes James Flynn: Meritocracy won’t happen: the problem’s with the “ocracy”

Chris Hayes rediscovers a point made several years ago by James Flynn.


The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility.


The case against meritocracy can be put psychologically: (a) The abolition of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for the abolition of inequality and privilege; (b) the persistence of materialist-elitist values is a prerequisite for class stratification based on wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.

I guess it’s true that journalists can write more directly than academics!

Flynn also points out that the promotion and celebration of the concept of “meritocracy” is also, by the way, a promotion and celebration of wealth and status–these are the goodies that the people with more merit get. That is, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s an “ocracy”. As Flynn puts it:

People must care about that hierarchy for it to be socially significant or even for it to exist. . . . The case against meritocracy can also be put sociologically: (a) Allocating rewards irrespective of merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise environments cannot be equalized; (b) allocating rewards according to merit is a prerequisite for meritocracy, otherwise people cannot be stratified by wealth and status; (c) therefore, a class-stratified meritocracy is impossible.

Just to be clear: I’m not accusing Hayes of ripping off Flynn; it’s a basic enough idea that various people could think of it. I just thought that people interested in Hayes’s book might also like to see some of Flynn’s work on the topic.

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Cognitive Democracy

Over the last couple of years, Cosma Shalizi and I have been working together on various things, including, inter alia, the relationship between complex systems, democracy and the Internet. These are big unwieldy topics, and trying to think about them systematically is hard. Even so, we’ve gotten to the point where we at least feel ready to start throwing stuff at a wider audience, to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a paper we’re working on, which argues that we should (for some purposes at least), think of markets, hierarchy and democracy in terms of their capacity to solve complex collective problems, makes the case that democracy will on average do the job a lot better than the other two ways, and then looks at different forms of collective information processing on the Internet as experiments that democracies can learn from. A html version is under the fold; the PDF version is here. Your feedback would very much be appreciated – we would like to build other structures on top of this foundation, and hence, really, really want criticisms and argument from diverse points of view (especially because such argument is exactly what we see as the strength of democratic arrangements).

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Two Lessons for Improving Forecasts

For each of four weeks, participants made probabilistic forecasts in four domains relating to domestic and international politics and economics: the Dow Jones Industrial Average stock index, the national unemployment rate, Obama’s presidential job approval ratings, and the price of crude oil. I randomly assigned 308 participants to one of three groups. The base rate group received information about how frequently changes of various magnitude in these variables occurred in the previous year; the performance feedback group received information about how far off their predictions were the previous week; the control group received no extra information. I also recruited an “expert” subgroup of people with backgrounds in finance and economics in order to look at the effects of expertise on accuracy of Dow predictions, and I distributed these 72 experts evenly among the three groups.
The results are very encouraging.  Both strategies significantly improved forecasting accuracy. On average, participants who received base rate or performance feedback information were 10 or 15 percent more accurate than those who did not.

From research by Dartmouth undergraduate Kelsey Woerner.  See more at Jay Ulfelder’s place.

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More on genes and political preferences

Continuing Erik’s series on this, here’s a new article by Daniel Benjamin et al. from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

We study four fundamental economic preferences—risk aversion, patience, trust, and fair-mindedness—and five dimensions of political preferences, derived from a factor analysis of a comprehensive battery of attitudinal items. The five attitudinal dimensions are immigration/crime, economic policy, environmentalism, feminism/equality, and foreign policy. … Under the key assumption of no environmental confounding, an estimator for heritability can be obtained by examining how the correlation in phenotype between pairs of individuals relates to the realized genetic distance between those individuals … . Our GREML-based heritability estimates, although noisy, are on average about half the size of the twin-based heritability estimates. This gap may imply that genotyped SNPs tag about half of the genetic variation in these traits or that twin-based estimates of narrow heritability are biased upward … Our results paint a picture of economic and political preferences as highly polygenic traits for which individual SNPs explain only a small fraction of variance … These findings fit well with an emerging consensus in medical genetics that genetic variants that individually explain a substantial share of the variation in complex traits are unlikely to exist. If anything, the problem is likely to pose an even greater challenge in the social sciences because the phenotypes are usually several degrees removed from genes in the chain of biological causation. Our results suggest that much of the “missing heritability” — the gulf between the cumulative explanatory power of common variants identified to date and the heritability estimated in behavior genetic studies — for social science traits reflects the fact that these traits have a complicated genetic architecture, with most causal variants explaining only a small fraction of the phenotypic variation. If so, then large samples will be needed to detect those variants.
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An unexpected critique of the Coase Theorem

The Coase Theorem is of course famous and influential in both economics and political science. This critique, which suggests that it exemplifies the problems of economics, is rather less famous, despite its interesting source:

I think the success of the Coase Theorem — because it’s discussed all over the place — is an interesting illustration of what’s wrong with economics … I think it’s useful because you can show, using it, the type of contracts that would have to be made in order to have an efficient economic system. But then you have to introduce, having done that, the obstacles to doing it. Then you see how the system actually works. … The article has been very successful for the wrong reasons. To people who like success that’s all right, but to people who are concerned with the development of the subject it’s not a very good thing.
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Correcting the Record on College Graduates and Job Prospects

The following guest post is from Nathaniel Beck, a political scientist at New York University.

We are obviously in the midst of the most serious recession since the Great Depression, one marked by the persistence of high unemployment. Young college graduates are particularly scared about the job situation they will face, and they should be. But parts of the media are painting a story of the world coming to an end for young college graduates entering the job market, a picture much bleaker than the numbers used to support these stories. A recent example is Frank Bruni’s New York Times column (Sunday Review) of April 29, 2012. After stating that college graduates, in general, have an unemployment rate half that of those with only a high school degree, he goes on to argue that this:

doesn’t capture the grim reality for recent college graduates, whose leg up on their less educated counterparts isn’t such a sturdy, comely leg at the moment. According to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary. Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

Bruni makes two claims: half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and that those who fail to major in business, engineering or the sciences will end up only asking if a customer will like fries with that. Bruni is not alone in citing the 53.6% number and the plight of the poor humanities major. The statistics was the “Stat of the Day” on the Atlantic’s web page of April 23, 2012. The source of this data is an analysis done for the Associated Press as reported in various newspapers under Hope Yen’s byline for the Associated Press (e.g. see here). The analysis on which the AP story was written is based on research by Neeta Fogg and Paul Harrington of Drexel University in “Rising Mal-Employment and the Great Recession: The Growing Disconnection between Recent College Graduates and the College Labor Market” which appeared in Continuing Higher Education Review (2011, v. 75, pps. 51-65).

Before looking at the report itself, it is only fair to note that another post in The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann notes that in 2000 this figure was “at a low of 41 percent, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college graduates in the telecommunications and IT fields.” Obviously an increase from 41% to 54% of recent college graduates being unemployed or underemployed is hardly trivial, but only Weissmann seems to have provided the comparison which shows that even in boom times, 40% of recent college graduates have troubles in the job market. Note that the 2000 figure is from before the recession, when the overall unemployment rate was about 4%. Since the unemployment rate if 2011 was about 9%, 40% of the increase in the job market problems of recent college graduates is due to the overall bad state of the economy and has nothing to do with college or choice of major. This is not to say the current economy is great for first time job seekers, but that we have not gone from heaven to hell for first time job seekers in the space of 10 years.

Fogg and Harrington define underemployment (which they call mal-employment) as a college graduate not being employed in an occupation “which utilize[s] the skills and knowledge that are commonly thought to be acquired through a college education.” (p. 55-56). While that article does not specify what such occupations are, it does note that the occupations “generally include profession, technical, managerial and high-level sales occupations….” (p. 55). Of course many of these require an advanced degree, so recent college graduates under age 25 are unlikely to be eligible for such occupations.

Is the current recession a falling off of a cliff, even if a smaller cliff than headlines scream? Fogg and Harrington’s Table 1 shows a mal-employment rate for college graduates under 25 of 34% in 2000, 34% in 2007 and 39% in 2010. Unemployment was only 4.5% in 2007, so the increase in mal-employment from 2000 to 2010 is not simply a consequence of the current recession. Headlines make the United States look like Spain; the situation is not good, but we are far from Spain.

Are the mal-employed all art history and anthropology majors? Fogg and Harrington’s Chart 2 indicates the cost of being a humanities/liberal arts major may not be as high as Bruni claims. While the chart shows that about one third of humanities/liberal arts majors were mal-employed, about 30% of business/management majors were similarly mal-employed, and (is the glass half full or half empty here?) about 18% of engineering and math and computer science graduates were mal-employed. Here is the chart:

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Politics is a Matter of Life and Death (Times 23,000)

That’s the message I take from a recent book by James Gilligan, a psychiatrist at New York University. In Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous than Others, Gilligan documents a striking statistical connection between changing rates of violent death in the United States over the past century and the party of the president. He concludes that Republican administrations are “risk factors for lethal violence,” and that the only reason they have not produced “disastrously high epidemic levels” of suicides and homicides is that Democrats have repeatedly undone their damage. (I’ve added handsome hand-coloring to Gilligan’s key  figure in order to highlight the partisan pattern.)

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Annals of Interesting Peer Review Decisions

Tom Bartlett describes the efforts of two psychologists to publish replication results for an article, which had purported to show that people could use ESP to predict whether they would be shown erotic pictures in the future. The replication found no observable effect, but (according to the authors’ account of it)had a difficult time finding a publisher.

Here’s the story: we sent the paper to the journal that Bem published his paper in, and they said ‘no, we don’t ever accept straight replication attempts’. We then tried another couple of journals, who said the same thing. We then sent it to the British Journal of Psychology, who sent it out for review. For whatever reason (and they have apologised, to their credit), it was quite badly delayed in their review process, and they took many months to get back to us.
When they did get back to us, there were two reviews, one very positive, urging publication, and one quite negative. This latter review didn’t find any problems in our methodology or writeup itself, but suggested that, since the three of us (Richard Wiseman, Chris French and I) are all skeptical of ESP, we might have unconsciously influenced the results using our own psychic powers. … Anyway, the BJP editor agreed with the second reviewer, and said that he’d only accept our paper if we ran a fourth experiment where we got a believer to run all the participants, to control for these experimenter effects. We thought that was a bit silly, and said that to the editor, but he didn’t change his mind. We don’t think doing another replication with a believer at the helm is the right thing to do … [the] experimental paradigms were designed so that most of the work is done by a computer and the experimenter has very little to do (this was explicitly because of his concerns about possible experimenter effects).

Although the Bartlett piece doesn’t make this suggestion, I can’t help wondering whether the reviewer was one of the authors of the original piece. Myself, I’ve had a couple of interesting interactions with editors over the years, but nothing that even comes close to matching this.

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