The Phenomenal World

November 9th, 2018

The Phenomenal World

Banking with Imprecision

​In 1596, Spanish troops under the leadership of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia set fire to their own ships in the waters near Cadiz. The sinking of these thirty-two vessels was a tactical necessity: a joint Anglo-Dutch navy had annihilated the slapdash defenses of the city, driving the Spanish ships off to nearby Puerto Real. The Spanish had preferred to see their ships sunk rather than captured by the enemy. Cadiz itself was occupied and sacked, and its most prominent civilians were held for ransom. War, as the Spanish were acutely aware, was very costly. Later that very year, Philip II, King of Spain, would declare bankruptcy. 1

Though he was one of the most powerful monarchs of the era, it is difficult to sympathize with the sheer magnitude of the work with which King Philip II of Spain had to contend. Not only did he have to protect his Iberian possessions, but he also had to prosecute a war against the recalcitrant Dutch in the Low Countries, outmaneuver the Protestants in France, and maintain a bulwark against the Turks in the Mediterranean. 2

In their book, Lending to the Borrower from Hell, Drelichman and Voth have done a remarkable job of illuminating Spanish finance in the 16th century.Notably, the fiscal machinery underpinning imperial operations was managed mostly by a tight-knit cartel of Genoese bankers. Sovereign lending, astonishingly, allowed for a plethora of state actions in a time before instant communication. The foundations of empire rested on a relatively simple model: control certain streams of income and then borrow against them. The institutional origins of our modern sovereign lending come from this tradition. Dealing with uncertainty is an inherent part of this model – now as it was then. What is of use to modern scholars is how the same problem was conceived of and partly surmounted by our institutional forebears.

⤷ Full Article

November 3rd, 2018

Absorbs The Shape



How do we meaningfully compare regime change?

In last week’s newsletter, we spotlighted work by Elliott Ash, Daniel Chen, and Suresh Naidu that provided quantitative analysis of the judicial effects of the law and economics movement. More generally, the paper examined how small-scale intellectual projects—like a series of economic seminars by the Manne Economics Institute—carry significant judicial and ideological outcomes. This week, we examine ideological diffusion on the macroscale and explore the role of external and international influences on democratic uprisings throughout history.

Democratic uprisings (beginning with the American Revolution and culminating in the Arab Spring) mark the last two hundred years of global democratization. The specific regional, historical, and economic circumstances surrounding these turbulent and diverse democratic revolutions make meaningful and effective comparisons hard to achieve.

In a recent paper, SEVA GUNITSKY offers a conceptual framework for better comparing democratic regime shifts over time and identifies the recurring mechanisms that catalyze and shape democratic uprisings. The work approaches regime changes as clusterings or cascades and so organizes thirteen democratic 'waves' into four typologies along two central dimensions: the origins of external influences (horizontal or vertical) and the role of those influences in timing the democratic wave (contagion or emulation). With this framework, Gunitsky claims that global interactions spark democratic changes:

"The looming presence of waves suggests that studies of democratization cannot focus only on the local drivers of revolts from below or elite concessions from above. Episodes of mass political contention were often embedded in broader transnational processes that involved regional cross-border ties and global hegemonic rivalries. More generally, examining the causes of democratic waves is a reminder that global democratization is more than the sum of its parts. The spread of democracy embodies multiple facets of a systemic phenomenon, driven by cross-border linkages that cannot be reduced to their individual components. Examining how democracy spreads can offer fundamental insight into the nature of democracy itself."

Gunitsky delves further into democratic regime changes—and those that resulted in fascism and communism—offering prescient insight into the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil:

"Sudden shifts in the structure of hegemonic power have produced some of the most consequential regime cascades in modern history. In some ways, the twentieth century can be imagined as a series of hegemonic shocks and institutional waves. Yet the links between systemic shifts and institutional waves were not limited to democracy: German economic recovery in the 1930s led to the diffusion of fascist ideas and institutions, and the Soviet victory in World War II prompted a global communist wave that spread through both force and admiration. Future hegemonic transitions, including the decline of American dominance, are likely to produce similar anti-democratic cascades, particularly in case of a sudden U.S. decline."

Link to the paper, and link to Gunitsky's book on the same topic.

  • In a 2013 paper, Nathan Nunn and Paola Giuliano examine the importance of local-level democracy—a tradition of electing a local leader through consensus rather than appointment—and its relationship to state and national level democratic institutions. Link.
  • James Kloppenberg's Toward Democracy probes the Atlantic Democratic Wave and provides a major synthesis of Western intellectual thought. Link.
⤷ Full Article

October 27th, 2018

The Seasons



Applying quantitative methods to examine the spread of ideology in judicial opinion

In a recent paper, co-authors ELLIOTT ASH, DANIEL L. CHEN, and SURESH NAIDU provide a quantitative analysis of the judicial effects of the law and economics movement. Comparing attendance at seminars run by the Manne Economics Institute for Federal Judges from 1976 to 1999 against 380,000 circuit court cases and one million criminal sentencing decisions in district courts, the authors identify both the effects on judicial decision-making and the dispersion of economic language and reasoning throughout the federal judiciary.

“Economics-trained judges significantly impact U.S. judicial outcomes. They render conservative votes and verdicts, are against regulation and criminal appeals, and mete harsher criminal sentences and deterrence reasoning. When ideas move from economics into law, ideas have consequences. Economics likely changed how judges perceived the consequences of their decisions. If you teach judges that markets work, they deregulate government. If you teach judges that deterrence works, they become harsher to criminal defendants. Economics training focusing on efficiency may have crowded out other constitutional theories of interpretation. Economics training accounts for a substantial portion of the conservative shift in the federal judiciary since 1976.”

Link to the paper.

  • Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber picks out some additional highlights. Link.
  • A Washington Post article from January 1980 provides some contemporaneous context on the Manne seminars. Link.
  • In a relevant 2015 paper, Pedro Bordalo, Nicola Gennaioli, and Andrei Shleifer apply salience theory to model judicial decision-making: "The context of the judicial decision, which is comparative by nature, shapes which aspects of the case stand out and draw the judge’s attention. By focusing judicial attention on such salient aspects of the case, legally irrelevant information can affect judicial decisions." Link.
⤷ Full Article

October 22nd, 2018

About the Phenomenal World

The Phenomenal World is a new publication that publishes research, analysis, and commentary on applied social science. We chose this name for our blog because we hope to publish work that addresses the social world in all its apparent complexity.

Our contributors are economists, philosophers, social scientists, data scientists, and policy researchers. You’ll find posts on metaresearch; basic income, welfare and the commonwealth; digital ethics; education; economic history; and evolving institutions. We also post our weekly newsletter, a roundup of recommended reading from across the social sciences. Posts are wide-ranging in subject matter, length, and style.

The Phenomenal World is managed by staff of the Jain Family Institute, an applied research organization that works to bring just research and policy from theoretical conception to actual implementation in society. We welcome submissions. Please see our About page for more information on submitting, and for the sign-up form for our newsletter.

Thank you for reading.

⤷ Full Article

October 20th, 2018

Action Plan



Competing definitons of the term have vast policy implications

The formal definition of family is “blood, marriage, or adoption,” but that leaves out many possible arrangements, including families of unmarried people, foster children, co-ops, and, until 2015, gay partnerships. In the 1970s, family law became more open to “functional families” outside the formal definition, while zoning law kept to the strictly formal. Legal historian KATE REDBURN writes, “These contradictions leave critical family law doctrines unstable in thirty-two states.”

In a recent working paper, Redburn examines how these changes came to be, and looks more generally at how legal regimes exist within connected networks and influence each other despite traditional boundaries of scale (local, state, etc.) and subject (family law, zoning law):

“Viewed through a broader lens, this story might suggest lessons for law and social movements. While progressives oriented their campaigns at the state level, homeowners imbued local governance with conservative social politics in defense of their prejudices and property values. Neither movement, nor the judges adjudicating their case, nor the legislators revising state and local statutes, paid adequate attention to the interlocking nature of legal doctrines, rendering their movements less successful than they have previously appeared. Though we tend to think of legal fields as distinct regimes, ignoring the multifaceted ways that doctrines overlap, connect, and contradict each other can have perilous consequences. Their blind spot has has grown to encompass millions of Americans.”

Redburn’s case study provides ample evidence that micro-level legal conflicts can uphold and alter legal understandings:

“Motivated constituencies of voters and their elected representatives can produce legal change quite out of sync with social trends. Such was the case in the zoning definition of family in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Despite social change resulting in more functional families, protective homeowners and the conservative movement successfully shifted zoning law away from the functional family approach.”

⤷ Full Article

October 18th, 2018

Machine Ethics, Part One: An Introduction and a Case Study

The past few years have made abundantly clear that the artificially intelligent systems that organizations increasingly rely on to make important decisions can exhibit morally problematic behavior if not properly designed. Facebook, for instance, uses artificial intelligence to screen targeted advertisements for violations of applicable laws or its community standards. While offloading the sales process to automated systems allows Facebook to cut costs dramatically, design flaws in these systems have facilitated the spread of political misinformation, malware, hate speech, and discriminatory housing and employment ads. How can the designers of artificially intelligent systems ensure that they behave in ways that are morally acceptable--ways that show appropriate respect for the rights and interests of the humans they interact with?

The nascent field of machine ethics seeks to answer this question by conducting interdisciplinary research at the intersection of ethics and artificial intelligence. This series of posts will provide a gentle introduction to this new field, beginning with an illustrative case study taken from research I conducted last year at the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society (CAIS). CAIS is a joint effort between the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California, and is devoted to “conducting research in Artificial Intelligence to help solve the most difficult social problems facing our world.” This makes the center’s efforts part of a broader movement in applied artificial intelligence commonly known as “AI for Social Good,” the goal of which is to address pressing and hitherto intractable social problems through the application of cutting-edge techniques from the field of artificial intelligence.

⤷ Full Article

October 13th, 2018

Answer to the Question



What policy lessons can we derive from UBI experiments?

Political philosopher KARL WIDERQUIST of Georgetown has published a 92-page book examining historical and current basic income pilots, the difficulties of extrapolating from policy research to policy, and “the practical impossibility of testing UBI.”

In his introduction, Widerquist mentions that the challenges for translating research into policy stem not only from the science, but also from the audience’s moral preferences and judgments, which are particularly heightened in the basic income discourse:

“Except in the rare case where research definitively proves a policy fails to achieve its supporters’ goals, reasonable people can disagree whether the evidence indicates the policy works and should be introduced or whether that same evidence indicates the policy does not work and should be rejected. This problem greatly affects the UBI discussion because supporters and opponents tend to take very different moral positions. Many people, including many specialists, are less than fully aware of the extent to which their beliefs on policy issues are driven by empirical evidence about a policy’s effects or by controversial moral evaluation of those effects. For example, mainstream economic methodology incorporates a money-based version of utilitarianism. Non-money-based utilitarianism was the prevailing ethical framework when basic mainstream economic techniques were developed but it lost prominence decades ago.”

Widerquist also writes lucidly on considerations for how to communicate scientific caveats and takeaways. The full book is available here. ht Lauren who comments: "It’s incredibly difficult to test every aspect of many, many policies (including most that are currently at full national scale). Testing a given welfare policy arguably only has to get decision makers to a point where it can be determined that the policy substantially helps those who need it and doesn’t hurt anyone as a result."

  • Activist Stanislas Jourdan spoke at the European Parliament in September about a basic income for Europe. Video of the presentation is here; slides are here. On the financing question, Jourdan proposes VAT ("already the most harmonized tax at EU level, large and reliable tax base"), as well as a European Corporation Tax, carbon taxes, and "quantitative easing for the people."
 ubi metrics


Federal student aid pays for itself

⤷ Full Article

October 10th, 2018

Who cares about stopping rules?

Can you bias a coin?

Challenge: Take a coin out of your pocket. Unless you own some exotic currency, your coin is fair: it's equally likely to land heads as tails when flipped. Your challenge is to modify the coin somehow—by sticking putty on one side, say, or bending it—so that the coin becomes biased, one way or the other. Try it!

How should you check whether you managed to bias your coin? Well, it will surely involve flipping it repeatedly and observing the outcome, a sequence of h's and t's. That much is obvious. But what's not obvious is where to go from there. For one thing, any outcome whatsoever is consistent both with the coin's being fair and with its being biased. (After all, it's possible, even if not probable, for a fair coin to land heads every time you flip it, or a biased coin to land heads just as often as tails.) So no outcome is decisive. Worse than that, on the assumption that the coin is fair any two sequences of h's and t's (of the same length) are equally likely. So how could one sequence tell against the coin's being fair and another not?

We face problems like these whenever we need to evaluate a probabilistic hypothesis. Since probabilistic hypotheses come up everywhere—from polling to genetics, from climate change to drug testing, from sports analytics to statistical mechanics—the problems are pressing.

Enter significance testing, an extremely popular method of evaluating probabilistic hypotheses. Scientific journals are littered with reports of significance tests; almost any introductory statistics course will teach the method. It's so popular that the jargon of significance testing—null hypothesis, $p$-value, statistical significance—has entered common parlance.

⤷ Full Article

October 6th, 2018

Earth Men



Economic growth vs. natural resources

A recent Foreign Policy op-ed by JASON HICKEL examines “green growth,” a policy that calls for the absolute decoupling of GDP from the total use of natural resources. Hickel synthesizes three studies and explains that even in high-efficiency scenarios, economic growth makes it impossible to avoid unsustainably using up natural resources (including fossil fuels, minerals, livestock, forests, etc).

“Study after study shows the same thing. Scientists are beginning to realize that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Sure, we might be able to produce cars and iPhones and skyscrapers more efficiently, but we can’t produce them out of thin air. We might shift the economy to services such as education and yoga, but even universities and workout studios require material inputs. Once we reach the limits of efficiency, pursuing any degree of economic growth drives resource use back up.”

The op-ed sparked debate about the state of capitalism in the current climate crisis, most notably in an Bloomberg op-ed by NOAH SMITH, who claims that Hickel is a member of “a small but vocal group of environmentalists telling us that growth is no longer possible—that unless growth ends, climate change and other environmental impacts will destroy civilization.” Though Smith’s op-ed doesn’t directly engage with many of Hickel’s points, his general position prompted a clarifying (and heated)response from Hickel:

“Noah is concerned that if we were to stop global growth, poor countries would be ‘stuck’ at their present level of poverty. But I have never said that poor countries shouldn’t grow—nor has anyone in this field of study (which Noah would know had he read any of the relevant literature). I have simply said that we can’t continue with aggregate global growth.

While poor countries may need some GDP growth, that should never—for any nation, rich or poor—be the objective as such. The objective should be to improve human well-being: better health, better education, better housing, happiness, etc. The strategy should be to target these things directly. To the extent that achieving these goals entails some growth, so be it. But that’s quite different from saying that GDP needs to grow forever.”

  • From a study on the limits of green growth: “GDP cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible. GDP is increasingly seen as a poor proxy for societal wellbeing. Society can sustainably improve wellbeing, including the wellbeing of its natural assets, but only by discarding GDP growth as the goal in favor of more comprehensive measures of societal wellbeing.” Link.
  • In a recent article, Juan Moreno-Cruz, Katharine L. Ricke, and Gernot Wagner discuss ways to approach the climate crisis and argue that “mitigation (the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions at the source) is the only prudent response.” Link.
⤷ Full Article

October 2nd, 2018

The "Next Big Thing" is a Room

If you don’t look up, Dynamicland seems like a normal room on the second floor of an ordinary building in downtown Oakland. There are tables and chairs, couches and carpets, scattered office supplies, and pictures taped up on the walls. It’s a homey space that feels more like a lower school classroom than a coworking environment. But Dynamicland is not a normal room. Dynamicland was designed to be anything but normal.

Led by the famous interface designer Bret Victor, Dynamicland is the offshoot of HARC (Human Advancement Research Community), most recently part of YCombinator Research. Dynamicland seems like the unlikeliest vision for the future of computers anyone could have expected.

Let’s take a look. Grab one of the scattered pieces of paper in the space. Any will do as long as it has those big colorful dots in the corners. Don’t pay too much attention to those dots. You may recognize the writing on the paper as computer code. It’s a strange juxtaposition: virtual computer code on physical paper. But there it is, in your hands. Go ahead and put the paper down on one of the tables. Any surface will do.

⤷ Full Article