Fri, 16 March 2018
Today's guest is Jeremy Horpedahl of the University of Central Arkansas. Jeremy's work builds on a famous theory from Bruce Yandle's 1983 article " Bootleggers and Baptists-The Education of a Regulatory Economist." The article explored the idea that laws are often passed or defended by coalitions of economic interests (bootleggers) and moral crusaders (Baptists). Though these two groups may be quite different, as in the canonical example, policies are unlikely to succeed without support from both groups.
Jeremy's work focuses on a particular example of bootleggers and Baptists in the modern world; specifically in Arkansas. Arkansas has many dry counties, where alcohol may not be sold. Many of these dry counties are adjacent to wet counties, where liquor stores just across the county line can sell to the residents of the dry county. When there are ballot initiatives to make dry counties wet, these liquor stores have the most to lose, so they often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent the prohibition laws from going to a vote.
Sat, 3 March 2018
My guest for this episode is Bryan Caplan of George Mason University. We discuss his latest book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, in which he argues that the social value of education is negative.
This may seem paradoxical, given that more educated individuals tend to earn more than less educated individuals. This can be explained in two ways: First, people who get more education were likely more skilled in the first place; in other words, there is a selection effect. Second, people who are already skilled can use education to demonstrate their skill to employers; economists call this signalling.
Signalling plays an important role in Bryan's understanding of the education system. He sees the causal effect of education on income as being 80 percent signalling and 20 percent learning. Most signalling models view signalling as negative sum: signals are costly, and to the extent that they help educated workers by pushing their resumes to the top of the pile, they harm uneducated workers by relegating their resumes to the trash bin. If everyone gets educated, then no one has a better chance of finding a job, but they bear the costs of many years and thousands of dollars of education.
Bryan draws on evidence from many different research areas to support his case, from economic research on the Sheepskin effect and comparisons between individual and national effects of education, to educational psychology research on "learning how to learn." We had an excellent conversation and I hope you will enjoy listening to it.
Fri, 23 February 2018
Today's guest is Russ Roberts, host of the quintessential economics podcast EconTalk. (If you haven't heard EconTalk, go subscribe to it right now, because it is excellent!)
We discuss EconTalk's role in the economics profession, the things Russ has learned in the course of making it, the importance of intellectual honesty, and the enduring insights of Adam Smith.
Here's the EconTalk interview with Bryan Caplan that I mentioned in the episode. Stay tuned for my own interview with Bryan!
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself---and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman
Fri, 9 February 2018
Algorithms, Algorithmic Discrimination, and Autonomous Vehicles with Caleb Watney
Today's guest is Caleb Watney of the R Street Institute. In our conversation, we discuss algorithms, particularly with respect to their role in judicial decision making. Later in the conversation, we discuss the algorithms that will one day replace ape brains as the primary controllers of our cars.
Caleb wrote a Cato Unbound essay in response to an article by Cathy O'Neil. O'Neil, a mathematician, argues that algorithms could potentially lead us astray. Her book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy has sounded the alarm about the potential harms of an over-reliance on algorithms.
In Caleb's view, O'Neil has pushed too far in the anti-algorithm direction. He points out that private companies have used algorithms to generate amazing innovations. Government is a different story:
"The most compelling concerns about the improper use of AI and algorithms stem primarily from government use of these technologies. Indeed, all the tangible examples of harm O’Neil cites in her essay are the result of poor incentives and structures designed by government. Namely, hiring models at a public teaching hospital, teacher value-added models, recidivism risk models, and Centrelink’s tax-fraud detection model. The poor results of these kinds of interactions, in which governments purchase algorithms from private developers, could be viewed primarily as a failure of the government procurement process. Government contracting creates opportunities for rent-seeking, and the process doesn’t benefit from the same kinds of feedback loops that are ubiquitous in private markets. So it should be no surprise that governments end up with inferior technology."
We discuss the merits and demerits of algorithms, how different private and public incentives interact with algorithms, and the difficulties in creating algorithms that can be fair and transparent. Caleb's ultimate solution for many of the problems associated with algorithms used by the government is for those algorithms to be open source in order to foster public scrutiny of their processes and outcomes.
During the conversation, Caleb alludes to this paper by Kleinberg, Mullainathan, and Raghavan, which shows that there are three competing definitions of algorithmic fairness that cannot all be achieved simultaneously.
Fri, 2 February 2018
Sam Hammond returns to the podcast today to discuss the free market welfare state. He and Will Wilkinson have both written articles in this area recently, and we discuss some of the concepts they bring up.
People tend to think of government functions on a one-dimensional spectrum with "big government" on one end and "small government" at the other. Sam points out that the welfare state is separable from the other functions of government (regulation, command and control, protectionism, etc.). Not only is this true in theory, but it is played out in practice, with Nordic countries having very large welfare states as well as high economic freedom.
We discuss some of the problems with current welfare states and some ways to improve them.
"Food Stamp Entrepreneurs," a study that shows that access to food stamps makes people more likely to start businesses.
Fri, 26 January 2018
My guest for this episode is Scott Cunningham of Baylor University. We discuss his work on the decriminalization of indoor sex work and on the impact of Craigslist's erotic services page on violence against women.
The working paper on Craigslist generated a lot of media attention, with articles at Huffington Post and ThinkProgress. The most quoted statistic is that "Craigslist erotic services reduced the female homicide rate by 17.4 percent." We discuss this statistic, its possible causes, and whether or not it is implausibly large.
Scott mentions John Snow, the scientist who first discovered that cholera was spread by contaminated water sources. Here's the first video in a series on him.
Thu, 18 January 2018
My guest today is Lyman Stone. He is an agriculture economist for the USDA, but our topic for this episode is his popular writing about migration. He blogs at In a State of Migration on Medium and co-hosts the podcast Migration Nation.
We discuss the history of migration restrictions in the United States, the economic impact of migration between and within nations, and the relationship between falling fertility and immigration.
"Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?" by Michael A. Clemens (2011)
"Does Mass Immigration Destroy Institutions? 1990s Israel as a Natural Experiment" by Benjamin Powell, J.R. Clark, and Alex Nowrasteh (2017)
Fri, 12 January 2018
This episode of the podcast features two guests, Zach and Kelly Weinersmith. Zach is the author of SMBC Comics, a popular webcomic that sometimes deals with advanced concepts in science, philosophy, economics, and other fields. Kelly is a professor in the Biosciences department of Rice University. Together they co-authored Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything.
To quote the book's description,
In this smart and funny book, celebrated cartoonist Zach Weinersmith and noted researcher Dr. Kelly Weinersmith give us a snapshot of what's coming next--from robot swarms to nuclear fusion powered-toasters. By weaving their own research, interviews with the scientists who are making these advances happen, and Zach's trademark comics, the Weinersmiths investigate why these technologies are needed, how they would work, and what is standing in their way.
In this fun and lively conversation, we discuss some of the technologies discussed in the book: space elevators, asteroid mining, augmented reality, and programmable matter. We also discuss the tragic life of Gerald Bull, Canadian space cannon enthusiast.
Fri, 5 January 2018
My guest on this episode is Shruti Rajagopalan of the State University of New York's Purchase College.
We discuss Shruti's work on constitutional political economy as it relates to India. We start by talking about the Indian constitution. India got its independence in 1947 and ratified a constitution shortly after in 1949. Interestingly, it is the most amended constitution in the world. Shruti argues "that the formal institutions of socialist planning were fundamentally incompatible with the constraints imposed by the Indian Constitution."
We go on to discuss Shruti's work on the Bhopal gas tragedy, which demonstrates some of the failings of India's institutions. The Bhopal gas tragedy was a man-made disaster in 1984 where mishandling of dangerous chemicals by the company Union Carbide resulted in thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of non-fatal injuries among the public. The Indian government mismanaged the legal cases against Union Carbide, resulting in no payout to the people affected by the disaster.
Fri, 29 December 2017
Robin Hanson returns to the podcast to discuss his new book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, co-authored with Kevin Simler. As the subtitle suggests, the book looks at humans' hidden motives. Robin argues that these hidden motives are much more prevalent than our conscious minds assume.
We are not conscious of the vast majority of the functions of our brains. This extends beyond the most basic things our brains do (such as commanding our hearts to beat every second or so) to many things we think of as higher-level cognitive tasks. Hanson and Simler argue that, if the brain were a corporation, the conscious mind wouldn't be the CEO but the press secretary. Most of the reasons our conscious brains give for our actions are actually ex-post rationalizations for decisions that have been made unconsciously and for reasons that aren't immediately obvious to us. As a press secretary, the conscious mind is better off not knowing if we are doing things for selfish reasons since that would make it more difficult to justify our actions to others.
Some very compelling evidence for this thesis comes from studies of people with split brains. People with severe epilepsy have sometimes been treated by severing the connections between the two halves of their brains. Researchers noticed that when one side of the brain was fed information that led to a particular action (e.g. an instruction from the researcher to "stand up") the other side would construct a reason for the action (e.g. "I was thirsty and I got up to get a drink"). If the brain were truthfully answering these questions, it would say "I don't know." However, the split-brain patients confidently gave false answers apparently without realizing they were false. Hanson argues that neurotypical minds are doing the same thing: constructing justifications for our actions even if we aren't really aware of our true underlying motives.
From the book's online description,
"The aim of this book is to confront our hidden motives directly---to track down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights. Then, once our minds are more clearly visible, we can work to better understand human nature: Why do people laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do we brag about travel? Why do we prefer to speak rather than listen?"
We discuss this theory of the brain and how it applies to many areas of everyday life from medicine to body language.
The Amazon links on this page are affiliate links. If this podcast convinced you to buy a copy of The Elephant in the Brain, doing so through one of these links will provide revenue to the podcast at no additional cost to yourself.