➔ Phenomenal World

December 2nd, 2017

➔ Phenomenal World



The gray box of XAI

A recent longform piece in the New York Times identifies the problem of explaining artificial intelligence. The stakes are high because of the European Union’s controversial and unclear “right-to-explanation” law, which will become active in May 2018.

“Instead of certainty and cause, A.I. works off probability and correlation. And yet A.I. must nonetheless conform to the society we’ve built — one in which decisions require explanations, whether in a court of law, in the way a business is run or in the advice our doctors give us. The disconnect between how we make decisions and how machines make them, and the fact that machines are making more and more decisions for us, has birthed a new push for transparency and a field of research called explainable A.I., or X.A.I. Its goal is to make machines able to account for the things they learn, in ways that we can understand. But that goal, of course, raises the fundamental question of whether the world a machine sees can be made to match our own.”

Full article by CLIFF KUANG here. This page provides a short overview of DARPA's XAI (Explainable Artificial Intelligence) program.

An interdisciplinary group addresses the problem:

"Contrary to popular wisdom of AI systems as indecipherable black boxes, we find that this level of explanation should often be technically feasible but may sometimes be practically onerous—there are certain aspects of explanation that may be simple for humans to provide but challenging for AI systems, and vice versa. As an interdisciplinary team of legal scholars, computer scientists, and cognitive scientists, we recommend that for the present, AI systems can and should be held to a similar standard of explanation as humans currently are; in the future we may wish to hold an AI to a different standard."

Full article by FINALE DOSHI-VELEZ et al. here. ht Margarita For the layperson, the most interesting part of the article may be its general overview of societal norms around explanation and explanation in the law.

Michael comments: Human cognitive systems have generated similar questions in vastly different contexts. The problem of chick-sexing (see Part 3) gave rise to a mini-literature within epistemology.

From Michael S. Moore’s book Law and Society: Rethinking the Relationship: “A full explanation in terms of reasons for action requires two premises: the major premise, specifying the agent’s desires (goals, objectives, moral beliefs, purposes, aims, wants, etc.), and the minor premise, specifying the agent’s factual beliefs about the situation he is in and his ability to achieve, through some particular action, the object of his desires.” Link. ht Margarita

  • A Medium post with an illustrated summary of some XAI techniques. Link.
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November 18th, 2017

Duchamp Wanted


How to build justice into algorithmic actuarial tools

Key notions of fairness contradict each other—something of an Arrow’s Theorem for criminal justice applications of machine learning.

"Recent discussion in the public sphere about algorithmic classification has involved tension between competing notions of what it means for a probabilistic classification to be fair to different groups. We formalize three fairness conditions that lie at the heart of these debates, and we prove that except in highly constrained special cases, there is no method that can satisfy these three conditions simultaneously. Moreover, even satisfying all three conditions approximately requires that the data lie in an approximate version of one of the constrained special cases identified by our theorem. These results suggest some of the ways in which key notions of fairness are incompatible with each other, and hence provide a framework for thinking about the trade-offs between them."

Full paper from JON KLEINBERG, SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN and MANISH RAGHAVAN here. h/t research fellow Sara, who recently presented on bias in humans, courts, and machine learning algorithms, and who was the source for all the papers in this section.

In a Twitter thread, ARVIND NARAYANAN describes the issue in more casual terms.

"Today in Fairness in Machine Learning class: a comparison of 21 (!) definitions of bias and fairness [...] In CS we're used to the idea that to make progress on a research problem as a community, we should first all agree on a definition. So 21 definitions feels like a sign of failure. Perhaps most of them are trivial variants? Surely there/s one that's 'better' than the rest? The answer is no! Each defn (stat. parity, FPR balance, contextual fairness in RL...) captures something about our fairness intuitions."

Link to Narayanan’s thread.

Jay comments: Kleinberg et al. describe their result as choosing between conceptions of fairness. It’s not obvious, though, that this is the correct description. The criteria (calibration and balance) discussed aren’t really conceptions of fairness; rather, they’re (putative) tests of fairness. Particular questions about these tests aside, we might have a broader worry: if fairness is not an extensional property that depends upon, and only upon, the eventual judgments rendered by a predictive process, exclusive of the procedures that led to those judgments, then no extensional test will capture fairness, even if this notion is entirely unambiguous and determinate. It’s worth consideringNozick’s objection to “pattern theories” of justice for comparison, and (procedural) due process requirements in US law.

⤷ Full Article

January 13th, 2020

Theater of Masks


Policy feedback loops and US old-age policy

Researchers of policy history have long deliberated over explanatory frameworks: institutionalist accounts tend to focus on inherited conditions and path dependency in political development, while others stress the importance of social movements in shaping policy. Among the more dynamic analytical frameworks for the study of welfare politics is that of "policy feedbacks," which looks at the evolution of policy as an iterative process in which new policies change the conditions for further political engagement.

In a 2019 article, EDWIN AMENTA and THOMAS ALAN ELLIOTT look at the utility of these frameworks for explaining the character of old-age pensions in the US from the mid-1930s to 1950s.

From the article:

"In 1935, Congress created Old Age Assistance (OAA), a federal-state matching program which immediately provided benefits to the elderly. All states adopted old-age assistance legislation by 1937, and many states passed generous pensions. These reforms occurred in the context of extensive activity by the old-age pension movement, which called for $200 monthly pensions to almost all nonemployed citizens over 60 years. This proposal was rejected, and the Social Security Act was enacted in August 1935. For the formative years of U.S. social policy, the elderly had to rely almost entirely on old age assistance programs, and these varied dramatically in generosity from state to state. We seek to explain why some states became generous and why some of them remained so during the formative years of U.S. old-age policy.

The results provide some support for each of the models. Initial generosity was prompted in some states by way of insider institutional political processes. In others, the politically mediated influence of a social movement, including mediation through favorable public opinion, brought about generous pensions. In the second period, initial generosity was a key determinant of later generosity, but it also required group mobilization, as expected by the positive policy feedback model. Yet there was still a route for states that were not generous to become so, one that worked through the politically mediated effects of a social movement. This is good news for U.S. proponents of policy reform. Political institutional obstacles to democracy, including an underdemocratized polity and patronage-based parties, stood as major hindrances to progressive old-age policy in its formative years. These obstacles were reduced by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and various reforms of political parties and nomination systems that work mainly through primaries."

Link to the paper.

  • "Drawing on the example of conservative cross-state advocacy against public sector unions, I describe the strategy of policy feedback as political weapon. I document that the passage of conservative network-backed legislation led to large and enduring declines in public sector union density and revenue. I further show that by curbing the power of public unions, the passage of conservative network-backed bills dampened the political participation of public sector employees." Alexander Hertel-Fernandez on "Policy Feedback as Political Weapon." Link. (See also our recommended readings post from Hertel-Fernandez, and a related newsletter on RTW and policy feedbacks from back in 2018.)
  • A 2003 book by Andrea Louise Campbell considers how the passage of Social Security galvanized political participation among low-income seniors. Link. And, from 2014, Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver examine how the criminal justice system does just the opposite for the formerly incarcerated. Link.
  • "I suggest that laws and administrative rules operate on voluntary organizations to structure the resources, capacities, strategies, and ideals of individuals." Kristin Goss develops a multi-level theory of feedback loops. Link.
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November 11th, 2017

The Hülsenbeck Children


Recommender systems power YouTube's controversial kids' videos

Familiar cartoon characters are placed in bizarre scenarios, sometimes by human content creators, sometimes by automated systems, for the purpose of attracting views and ad money. First, from the New York Times:

“But the app [YouTube Kids] contains dark corners, too, as videos that are disturbing for children slip past its filters, either by mistake or because bad actors have found ways to fool the YouTube Kids algorithms.

“In recent months, parents like Ms. Burns have complained that their children have been shown videos with well-known characters in violent or lewd situations and other clips with disturbing imagery, sometimes set to nursery rhymes. Many have taken to Facebook to warn others, and share video screenshots showing moments ranging from a Claymation Spider-Man urinating on Elsa of ‘Frozen’ to Nick Jr. characters in a strip club.”

Full piece by SAPNA MAHESHWARI in the Times here.

On Medium, JAMES BRIDLE expands on the topic, and criticizes the structure of YouTube itself for incentivizing these kinds of videos, many of which have millions of views.

“These videos, wherever they are made, however they come to be made, and whatever their conscious intention (i.e. to accumulate ad revenue) are feeding upon a system which was consciously intended to show videos to children for profit. The unconsciously-generated, emergent outcomes of that are all over the place.

“While it is tempting to dismiss the wilder examples as trolling, of which a significant number certainly are, that fails to account for the sheer volume of content weighted in a particularly grotesque direction. It presents many and complexly entangled dangers, including that, just as with the increasing focus on alleged Russian interference in social media, such events will be used as justification for increased control over the internet, increasing censorship, and so on.”

Link to Bridle’s piece here.

⤷ Full Article

November 4th, 2017



Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci engages with Adam Mosseri, who runs the Facebook News Feed

Tufekci: “…Facebook does not ask people what they want, in the moment or any other way. It sets up structures, incentives, metrics & runs with it.”

Mosseri: “We actually ask 10s of thousands of people a day how much they want to see specific stories in the News Feed, in addition to other things.”

Tufekci: “That’s not asking your users, that’s research on your product. Imagine a Facebook whose customers are users—you’d do so much differently. I mean asking all people, in deliberate fashion, with sensible defaults—there are always defaults—even giving them choices they can change…Think of the targeting offered to advertisers—with support to make them more effective—and flip the possibilities, with users as customers. The users are offered very little in comparison. The metrics are mostly momentary and implicit. That’s a recipe to play to impulse.”

The tweets are originally from Zeynep Tufekci in response to Benedict Evans (link), but the conversation is much easier to read in Hamza Shaban’s screenshots here.

See the end of this newsletter for an extended comment from Jay.

  • On looping effects (paywall): “This chapter argues that today's understanding of causal processes in human affairs relies crucially on concepts of ‘human kinds’ which are a product of the modern social sciences, with their concern for classification, quantification, and intervention. Child abuse, homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, and multiple personality are examples of such recently established human kinds. What distinguishes human kinds from ‘natural kinds’, is that they have specific ‘looping effects’. By coming into existence through social scientists' classifications, human kinds change the people thus classified.” Link. ht Jay


Mechanisms and causes between micro and macro

Daniel Little, the philosopher of social science behind Understanding Society, haswritten numerous posts on the topic. Begin with this one from 2014:

“It is fairly well accepted that there are social mechanisms underlying various patterns of the social world — free-rider problems, communications networks, etc. But the examples that come readily to mind are generally specified at the level of individuals. The new institutionalists, for example, describe numerous social mechanisms that explain social outcomes; but these mechanisms typically have to do with the actions that purposive individuals take within a given set of rules and incentives.

“The question here is whether we can also make sense of the notion of a mechanism that takes place at the social level. Are there meso-level social mechanisms? (As always, it is acknowledged that social stuff depends on the actions of the actors.)”

In the post, Little defines a causal mechanism and a meso-level mechanism, then offers example research.

“…It is possible to identify a raft of social explanations in sociology that represent causal assertions of social mechanisms linking one meso-level condition to another. Here are a few examples:

  • Al Young: decreasing social isolation causes rising inter-group hostility (link)
  • Michael Mann: the presence of paramilitary organizations makes fascist mobilization more likely (link)
  • Robert Sampson: features of neighborhoods influence crime rates (link)
  • Chuck Tilly: the availability of trust networks makes political mobilization more likely (link)
  • Robert Brenner: the divided sovereignty system of French feudalism impeded agricultural modernization (link)
  • Charles Perrow: legislative control of regulatory agencies causes poor enforcement performance (link)

More of Little’s posts on the topic are here. ht Steve Randy Waldman

⤷ Full Article

January 6th, 2020

Illegitimate I


Realism & idealism, WWI, and the history of IR

Foundational to the discipline of international relations, historian E. H. Carr's path-breaking book Twenty Years' Crisis was the first to systematically assess the (then-emerging) field as consisting of 'realist' and 'idealist' approaches. Published in 1939, the book carefully outlines the economic, military, and legal underpinnings of the outbreak of World War I, and the failure of the utopianism that preceded it.

From the book:

"We can accept neither the Darwinian doctrine, which identifies the good of the whole with the good of the fittest and contemplates without repugnance the elimination of the unfit, nor the doctrine of a natural harmony of interests which has lost such foundation in reality as it once had, and which inevitably becomes a cloak for the vested interests of the privileged.

This then is the basic reason for the overwhelming importance of international politics after 1919. The conflict between privileged and unprivileged, between the champions of an existing order and the revolutionaries, which was fought out in the nineteenth century within the national communities of Western Europe, was transferred by the twentieth century to the international community. The nation became, more than ever before, the supreme unit round which centre human demands for equality and human ambitions for predominance. Everywhere in Europe, national governments and one-party states made their appearance; and where party issues survived, they were thought of as something outmoded and deplorable—a blot on national unity which cried out to be erased. The inequality which threatened a world upheaval was not inequality between individuals, nor inequality between classes, but inequality between nations."

Link to the book.

  • Jack Levy & William Thompson's 2010 book provides a comprehensive analysis of the determinants of interstate and civil wars, encompassing a wide range of historical cases and theoretical frameworks. Link. And Dale Copeland's 2015 book Economic Interdependence and War asks, contra the typical debates, "When and under what conditions will the trade and investment ties between nations lead to peace or military conflict?" Link.
  • A 2005 paper by Oona Hathaway develops "an integrated theory of international law," in order to "explain why countries would commit to treaties that potentially constrain their behavior and how treaties influence or fail to influence state behavior." Link.
  • Carr's other most famous work is his 1961 book What Is History?, a classic work of historiography that poses challenging questions about the facts of history. Link. A 2010 paper by George Lawson examines discipline of IR's relationship to history and historical research. Link.
  • Historian Susan Pederson reviews a 2015 book by Robert Vitalis on the origins of the discipline of International Relations in the US. Link. (Link to Vitalis's book, link also to Pederson's book The Guardians, on the League of Nations.)
  • Tangentially related, an economic history paper by Cong Liu looks at the effects of WWI on Chinese textile industry. Link.
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December 23rd, 2019

The Road in the Forest

Thank you for reading the JFI letter this year. As we prepare for another year of research and link sharing, here's some of what we sent in 2019.
We'll see you in 2020.


Highlights from a year of JFI Letters

+ In our first newsletter of 2019, we looked at a report by Yale School of Management's Evidence in Practice project, which considered the relationship between research and policymaking: "The most successful examples of evidence integration lessen the distinction between evidence generation and application, and focus on designing approaches that simultaneously generate (different types of) rigorous evidence and develop an iterative process for integrating evidence into practice." Link to the archived letter. + A July letter features work by Jonas Hjort et. al on how research evidence shaped the decisions of policymakers in Brazil. Link to the archived letter.

+ Recurring debates on the future of work: Brishen Rogers argues that labor precarity is the result of politics, not the outcome of any force of automation outside of our control: "Hotel work, food services, janitorial work, and retail work have become precarious over the past twenty years because companies in those sectors forcibly de-unionized and/or 'fissured' away their workers to subcontractors or franchisors, thereby denying them effective access to many legal rights." Link to the April letter. + In the first of a two-part series, Aaron Benanav historicizes automation debates in order to shed light on their significance for the present. Link to the October letter.

+ On education and the labor market: Alicia Sasser Modestino et. al criticize the "skills gap" theory, which suggests that labor standards are declining because American workers lack the training to enter high paid industries. They argue instead that it's due to an abundance of skilled workers that employers have raised the credentials required for entry level jobs. And Marshall Steinbaum and Julie Morgan show the "skills gap" theory to be inconsistent with the student debt crisis. Link. + In March, we looked at the proliferation of certificate programs, an understudied development in the higher education landscape. Link to the archived letter.

+ On the nuts and bolts policy history and implementation: A recent letter discussed Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan's book, Administrative Burden, which argues that, "ultimately, burdens are the fine print in the social contract between citizens and their government." Link to the archived letter. + A look into the history of the EITC, from May. Link.

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December 9th, 2019

Red Wave


Financialization in American higher ed

Like many systems of social provision—from housing to pensions—American education has become increasingly financialized. In a recent paper, Charlie Eaton, Jacob Habinek, Adam Goldstein, Cyrus Dioun, Daniela García Santibáñez Godoy, and Robert Osley-Thomas consider the scope and consequences of financialization in the market for higher education.

From the paper:

"Increasing dependence on financial markets may bias resources towards revenue-generating commercial projects and increased student loan origination. We document the growing role of finance across the heterogeneous subsectors of US higher education: traditional public and non-profit educational providers have come to rely more heavily on financially mediated flows of investment revenue and debt-funded capital. Meanwhile, equity capital fueled the growth of an explicitly financialized sub-sector of for-profit providers. Finally, educational consumers have been saddled with growing interest payments as debt balances grew. Interestingly, the state has been one of the main participants in the transformation we describe.

How does financialization affect educational outcomes and educational stratification? We show that students’ average student loan borrowing increased fastest and to the highest levels at for-profits. Yet for-profits and the poorest public institutions disproportionately enroll minorities and students from lower social class backgrounds. Together, these facts suggest that the financialization of higher education may play a significant direct role in exacerbating educational and economic stratification. We can also expect significant effects among public and non-profit institutions. Borrowed capital has disproportionately funded investments in non-instructional commercial activities, including amenities. In this way, bond markets promote organizational behaviors that may be at odds with the goals of cost-efficient social provision in areas like higher education."

Link to the full article.

  • Another Eaton paper, co-authored with Sabrina Howell and Constantine Yannelis, uses "novel data on 88 private equity deals involving 994 schools" to study the impact of private equity buyouts on higher education: "After buyouts, we observe lower education inputs, graduation rates, loan repayment rates, and earnings among graduates." Link. See also this detailed report on financialization and higher education from the Roosevelt Institute. Link.
  • "When public higher education cannot keep pace with growing public demand for access and programs, governments often allow for-profits to rush in and help fill the gap. The future tertiary market will not be the result of a well thought out policy at the national or state levels, but a quasi-free market result that will foster lower quality providers and fail to meet national goals for increasing the educational attainment level of Americans." A 2012 article by John Douglass analyzes the rise of for-profits in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Link.
  • "One generation of Americans owed $86 billion in student loan debt at last count. Its members are all 60 years old or more." At the WSJ, AnnaMaria Andriotis writes on the emergence of senior held student debt. Link.
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December 16th, 2019

Ship in a Squall


On contracts and 'intermediate' labor market institutions

The recent boom in
identifying and measuring monopsony in labor markets has brought the question of employers' wage-setting power to the fore of various academic and policy debates. (For an overview, see our blog post by Owen Davis from earlier this year.) Along with its more direct theoretical antecedents, this body of work joins a broader interdisciplinary tradition in examining the relationship between various forms of coercion and the labor contract.

In a 2011 paper, using historical data on contract breaches and game theoretical models, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman examine how Master and Servant law affected contracting and wages in 19th century Britain. The dynamics examined in the paper provide robust evidence of what the authors call “intermediate” labor market institutions—between the poles of free and forced labor.

"We document that criminal prosecutions were widely applied by employers in response to labor demand shocks: a high marginal revenue product of labor led to greater numbers of prosecutions. We address concerns about endogeneity by using exogenous industry-specific output price shocks for independent variation in labor demand, and examining the resulting prosecutions specifically in areas where affected industries were concentrated. We find that positive labor demand shocks in the coal mining, iron, and textile industries all produced increased prosecutions, precisely in counties where those industries were located. We find further evidence suggesting that employers used penal sanctions as a substitute for paying higher wages in response to positive labor demand shocks, which supported long-term contracting: average wages in high prosecution counties, and the responsiveness of wages to labor demand shocks, increased after the 1875 elimination of criminal prosecutions under Master and Servant law.

Historical labor markets have rarely looked like textbook, perfectly competitive markets. Attempts to manage labor mobility have generated a wide variety of legal institutions, ranging from slavery to employment at will. We believe that the study of intermediate cases, such as 19th century Britain, the American South after the Civil War, and the post-emancipation British Caribbean, illuminates the role of legal institutions in securing the supply of effective labor, and represents a rich area for future work."

Link to the full paper.

  • From 2005, Chiaki Moriguchi compares the development of labor law in the United States and Japan during the aftermath of the Great Depression. Link. In the International Review of Social History, Sidney Chalhoub examines the "legal and social ambiguities between slavery and freedom that prevailed in nineteenth-century Brazilian society." Link.
  • "Negotiated labor contracts make only minor modifications to a relationship whose normatively critical features have already been set by law independently of the will of both parties." A 2015 paper by Elizabeth Anderson on the role of government in ensuring free labor contracts. Link. See also: Anderson's 2017 book Private Government, which drew from her 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton. Link to the lecture manuscript.
  • Daron Acemoglu and Alexander Wolitzky on the "economics of labor coercion." Link.
  • "Suppose a worker were to refuse to yield to the coercion of any employer, but were to choose instead to remain under the legal duty to abstain from the use of any of the money which anyone owns. He must eat. While there is no law against eating in the abstract, there is a law which forbids him to eat any of the food which actually exists in the community—and that law is the law of property." From legal realist Robert Hale’s classic 1923 paper 'Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State.' Link.
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November 25th, 2019

Political Sun


The history of public housing provision

In recent decades, policy approaches to housing provision have focused on increasing the incomes of subsidy recipients and, due to declining federal investment, promoting tenant mobility both between subsidized housing units and out of the public housing system altogether. But the discourse on housing seems to be shifting. Rather than promoting ever increasing incomes, recent proposals aim instead to control housing costs—both through increasing public housing stock and pegging rent to inflation.

In a 2012 paper, Lawrence J. Vale and Yonah Freemark offer a history of public housing in the United States. Their narrative considers how changing approaches to housing provision reveal changes in the government's definition of “deserving” welfare recipients.

From the paper:

"Public housing is too often conceptualized as a single failed program that tragically concentrated deeply impoverished single-parent minority households in ill-designed and publicly mismanaged slums. Such a viewpoint does little justice to the evolution and contingencies that motivated the growth and directions of the multiphased and multifaceted history of federally supported public housing and public-private housing. Taking a longer view, the concentrated poverty welfare phase of public housing may actually be seen as an aberration, a relatively brief interlude between about 1960 and 1990. This phase, we argue, was out of step with the larger pattern of policy preferences for housing the poor, both before and since.

Seen this way, American public housing consists of a 25-year series of efforts to accommodate the upwardly mobile working class between 1935 and 1960, a 30-year consolidation of the poorest into welfare housing between 1960 and the mid 1980s, coupled by efforts to introduce direct private-sector involvement in public housing and other programs; and a series of programs and policies since the mid 1980s to return more of public housing to a less-poor constituency, while furthering growth in other kinds of both deep and shallow subsidy programs through mixed-finance projects and tax-code intervention. After 75 years of experimentation, much of the rest of public housing operations has become completely privatized. In many cities, housing authorities are regularly turning over their conventional housing stock to private managers and often own nothing more than the land beneath their redevelopment endeavors. In this context, even the basic definitional reason for calling some housing 'public housing' now comes into question."

Link to the article.

  • From November of last year, Jack Y. Favilukis, Pierre Mabille, and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh find that "Housing affordability policies create large net welfare gains." Link. See also J. W. Mason's recent public testimony on rent control, which offers an overview of empirical findings and concludes that "there is no evidence that rent regulations reduce the overall supply of housing." Link.
  • A report by Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper at 3P compares housing policy in US metropolitan areas with those of Vienna, Helsinki, and Stockholm. Link. At the Urban Institute, Emily Peiffer discusses the history of housing policy in New York City. Link.
  • "Housing Affordability in the U.S.: Trends by Geography, Tenure, and Household Income." By Andrew Dumont at the Federal Reserve. Link.
  • Data for Progress maps the diversity of America's public housing communities, accounting for rates of unemployment, poverty, and population density. Link. Another map looks at flood risk, police stops, and segregation in NYCHA buildings. Link.
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