Fox News and CNN have been in knots recently about how to allocate scarce debate slots to the many Republican pretenders to the oval office. Should Poll numbers be the criteria? What about gender, race, state office etc. etc. There is a simple and transparent way to allocate the slots: an auction. Neither CNN or Fox are charities. If the debates are a public good, there is no reason why Fox and CNN alone should forgo profits to host them. They should, instead auction off the rights to participate in the debates.

What design questions would have to be answered? First, how much time to allocate to the debate, i.e., what is the supply of the resource to be allocated? Second, should one auction slots or time. For example, should it be 10 slots of equal time lengths in a 2 hour time period? Or, should one allow the bidders to bid on the actual amount of time they would get in the 2 hour period? Are candidates the only ones allowed to bid, or can anyone submit bids on their behalf? Can one bid to deny time to the candidates? Actually, as these are not debates at all, but parallel news conference, perhaps one should auction off the right to answer questions. In real time. That would be entertainment!

In England, a number of students who took the GCSE  mathematics test have been complaining about a question involving Hannah and her sweets. Here is the question:

There are $n$ sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow. Hannah takes a random sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that $n^2-n-90=0$.

Not a difficult question. I would lengthen the last sentence to read: Use this information to show that $n$ must satisfy the following equation. But a pointless one. It gives the study of mathematics a bad name. How is it we know there are only two colors of sweets in the bag without knowing $n$? How is it we know that there are only 6 orange sweets without knowing how many yellow ones there are? Why can’t I work out $n$ by emptying the bag and counting its contents? In short, students are asked to accept an implausible premise to compute something that can be done simply by other means.

Is it the business of the US Government, indeed any government to police FIFA? Lets start with the legality of bribing of FIFA officials? Under a variety of laws related to commercial bribery, bribing them is indeed illegal. Were I to bribe the CEO of a public company to sell me, below cost, the wares of her company, it is right and proper for the shareholders to have the ability to punish the CEO. However, is it the obligation of the Government to police the CEO for the shareholders? When a FIFA spokesperson announces that it is the damaged party in this, why aren’t they mounting the investigation and bringing charges against those accused of accepting bribes?

When someone burgles my house, the state, upon being informed will mount an investigation. In the event they should identify the burglar the State will, on my behalf, prefer charges and prosecute. The State does not charge me a `user fee’ that is directly tied to the efforts it has made on my behalf. The expenses of the State are covered through my taxes. Were each individual to bear the full costs of investigation, prosecution and punishment, few would elect to do so unless the private gains exceeded the costs. This in a nutshell is the public goods argument for why the Government should police FIFA.

Government resources, however, are limited. Not every crime reported is investigated with equal fervor. Not every suspect is pursued with equal vigor. We give the Government the discretion to decide how best to provide the `public good’. What is the argument for prioritizing the prosecution of FIFA officials for accepting bribes? A New Republic  article by John Affleck suggests it is to preserve the `integrity’ of the game. I suppose the Bravo network is next in line for attention to preserve the `integrity’ of reality TV. Affleck goes on to quote Transparency International:

“Sport is a multi-billion dollar business engaging billions of people. It is also a global symbol of fair play and a source of great joy for many people on this planet, whether participating, attending or watching events,” the group’s introductory statement says. “With so much public involvement, political influence and money at stake, corruption remains a constant and real risk. Mounting scandals around match-fixing, major events and elections, and systemic deficiencies in sports governance are now so undermining public trust that it is reaching a tipping point.”

Billions of people can vote with their eyeballs. Read a book, watch Real Housewives of Atlanta, have sex, see a play. There are many ways in which we can spend our time while hanging around waiting to die. Soccer is just one. If Soccer is in danger of losing its audience surely this is a powerful incentive for FIFA `clean up’. The private benefits probably exceed the private costs of enforcement.

What if FIFA itself suffers from a collective action problem? Each official by themselves would prefer not to take bribes, but given everyone else is doing so, what is one to do? This is easily solved. Allow FIFA officials to be bribed. Instead of running beauty contests to decide where to hold FIFA events, auction off the right to the highest bidder. This can be done in two ways. Allow each FIFA official with a vote to auction off their vote to the highest bidder. Or, do away with the officials altogether and have countries bid directly for the right to hold FIFA events. Full transparency, no bribery and FIFA may be richer than before!

G. H. Hardy leading his cricket team out onto the pitch.

A word that Paul Romer used in a recent piece in the Papers and Proceedings of the AER. Its inspired, no doubt, by Stephen Colbert’s notion of `truthiness’. Romer defines it as

Like mathematical theory, mathiness uses a mixture of words and symbols, but instead of making tight links, it leaves ample room for slippage between statements in natural versus formal language and between statements with theoretical as opposed to empirical content.

Romer is not the first to coin the term. Credit goes, I think, to Jordan Ellenberg. Ellenberg defined it as

…..a series of fervent gestures that gives the impression that mathematical ideas are being expressed, but doesn’t actually deliver the goods.

The recent turmoil in Baltimore and the news of Ray Fisman’s impending move to Boston University reminded me that he (along with Tim Sullivan) had penned a column for Slate on Jan 7, 2013 entitled:

In hindsight, the title seems ironic. The article itself is an excerpt from the author’s book on Organizations (in the genre pioneered by Freakanomics) and can be interpreted as illustration of Goodhart’s law. The article itself does not align perfectly with the title. Apparently, what the Baltimore PD has to teach us is what not to do as the following quote suggests:

To illustrate the double-edged sword of arrest incentives, Moskos recounts the example of a fellow officer who decided to set a record for monthly arrests. His plan: lock people up for violating bicycle regulations. At night, all bikes need a light. The officer would stop cyclists in breach of the bike light rule (which was most of them), ask for ID, and pull out his pad to write a citation. Most riders, though, were biking without ID, and since all offenses become arrestable without identification, the officer’s little scheme netted 26 arrests in a single month. A record. His sergeant was thrilled, telling Moskos, “Look, I don’t know what his motivations are. But I think it’s good. He’s locking people up, which is more than half the people in this squad.”

Finally got around to reading the PCES report on economics education at Manchester. The Francis Urquhart  half of my dual selves was duty bound to dislike it. My Urquhart self, would urge the authors to switch subjects and find  fulfilling careers in one of the caring professions, like, personal incontinence counselor. My milquetoast self prevailed and I buckled down to read it.

The report raises two issues and its writers have made the mistake of conflating them or at least not separating them clearly enough. The first is the effectiveness with which economics is taught. The second is what is to be taught.

On the first, the report makes for depressing reading. It summarizes an economics education as dull as ice fishing. For those unfamiliar with ice fishing, it is a sport (and thats being charitable) practiced by the inhabitants of Minnesota and the remoter parts of Wisconsin. In dead of winter, one drives a large vehicle over a frozen lake. If that were insufficient to tempt fate, one then cuts a hole in the ice for the ostensible purpose of catching fish. In practice one sits around the hole drinking prodigously while trying not to fall in. Beans, flatulance and an absence of sanitation figure prominently.

On the second, the report’s authors write

Our economics education has raised one paradigm, often referred to as neoclassical economics, to the sole object of study. Alternative perspectives have been marginalised. This stifles innovation, damages creativity and suppresses constructive criticisms that are so vital for economic understanding. Furthermore, the study of ethics, politics and history are almost completely absent from the syllabus. We propose that economics cannot be understood with all these aspects excluded; the discipline must be redefined.

Exposure to history, psychology and politics? Of course, yes. Within the US system this happens naturally as a function of breadth requirements. Students are not shy about trying to reconcile what they have learnt in Psychology and what they are mastering in Economics. It makes for a lively classroom.

What about these alternative perspectives? In for a penny in for a pound, so I decided to read a paper  by Steven Keen. Keen, as far as I can gather is one of the leading lights of these alternative perspectives. The paper I read (co-authored with Russell Standish) appeared in Physica A and can be found here. If you’ve not heard of it, there is a good reason for that. Continue to ignore it. Pauli might have described it thus:

Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!

Reading it lowered my IQ, something I can scarce afford to do. If this is representative of what passes for alternative perspectives, the writers of the PCES should leave economics and find fulfilling careers as incontinence counselors. Finally, for those who think my description of Keen and Standish uncharitable, I refer them to the following by Chris Auld.  Stamping out ignorance is a thankless task and one is cheered to see there are some who take it on.

The urge to promote these alternative perspectives is to be found  across the Channel as well. There, a sub group of scholars and  nescafe society currently wished to form a separate group so that they may be evaluated by different norms.  Jean Tirole, in a letter to  the State secretary in charge of Higher education and Research in France, argued against this. A response can be found here.

This is not a post about academia, economics, or game theory. It is a post about life.

Today I am going to meet my French teacher for our weekly session, and I wanted to prepare an interesting topic for discussion. I pondered what can be an appropriate subject, and the words “the most gifted woman in the world” popped into my mind. Who is that woman and what did she do?
I typed “The most” in Google search bar. Auto-complete had few suggestions:
The most violent year
The most expensive car
The most expensive watch
The most dangerous game
The most beautiful woman

I went on. “The most gifted”. Auto-complete tried to read my mind:

The most gifted child in the world
The most gifted man who ever lived

The tenth option was

The most gifted rapper in Nigeria

yet no mention of women.

Let’s continue. “The most gifted wo”. In how many ways can you complete this search? Two.

The most gifted child in the world
The most gifted person in the world

Nothing. Not a single auto-completion. I beat Google. Probably everyone else know the answer and therefore nobody looked for it before me.

I am a stubborn guy. “The most gifted woman in the world”. Google is even more stubborn than me. They figured out that I mistyped my search phrase, and made few suggestions, in which the word “woman” was replaced by another boldfaced word: “child” and “person”. In fact, they thought that it is more probable that I search for “The most gifted psychics review” than for a gifted woman. Does this say something about me, about Google, or about the phrases that we search on the internet?

I did not give up and pressed “Enter”. The list that I got involved only (female) singers. Only? Almost. The tenth link was to “Support for Gifted Mothers: America Is Not a World Leader”.

I suspected that my misunderstanding with Google is due to language issues, and that the word “gifted” might refer to people’s vocal abilities, so I searched for “The most gifted man in the world”. Unfortunately I did not get any male singer. The first three pages referred me to the TV series “A Gifted Man”, number 30 pointed to King Solomon on a christian site, yet the title of number 32 was more promising: “Ten People with Unbelievable Talents”. Yes, I told myself, I finally got a proof that our world is full of chauvinism. I clicked on the link and found out that the most talented person in the list succeeded in pulling a truck with his XXXX. I did not bother to check the achievements of the other nine.

If this is the most significant accomplishment of men, no wonder auto-completion failed.

Stanford University, based in California, has once again anticipated the future. In addition to providing subsidized housing to attract and retain faculty, faculty can now choose to be paid in water. The University has quietly been buying up farms to acquire ownership of water rights and has even signed futures contracts with the Great Lakes Regional Water authority for the delivery of water 15 years from now. In addition they have a joint venture with Elon Musk, to harvest water from comets. Google meanwhile, is behind the curve. They’ve only gone as far as allowing their employees to take long showers on site.