Signals v Causes: Poverty

From the Introduction of the William Easterly’s book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor:
:

The technical problems of the poor (and the absence of technical solutions for those problems) are a symptom of poverty, not a cause of poverty. This book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find the technical solutions to the poor’s problems. The dictator whom the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to the technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.

Think of technical problems as problems like not having medicine, food or the internet and technical solutions as providing medicine, food and the internet.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I heard about it from this EconTalk episode with William Easterly and that discussion is worth a listen.

The Great Participation Trophy Debate

The participation trophy debate was briefly mentioned in the EconTalk podcast linked to in the previous post.

Those for participation trophies think it’s good for self-esteem. Those against say it doesn’t prepare kids to deal with failure.

I have a third view to consider: We put too much emphasis on youth sports.

Why do we care so much about the life lessons of youth sports and not so much about life lessons learned from other childhood endeavors, like playing video games?

Has anyone ever argued that the high trial-and-error failure rate in video games hurts a child’s self-esteem? No. Has anyone argued that winning or losing a video game helps kids deal with failure? No.

Yet, we all instinctively know a simple truth about video games: The more a kid plays them, the better he will get.

Play your kid in her favorite video game and she’ll wipe the floor with you. That’s because she has more trial-and-error experience at it than you.

That experience came with no pressure and no stakes. She didn’t have coaches and parents calling out their every mistake from a sideline. If she lost a game, she just started over, tried a different approach and eventually learned what works.

Yet, we don’t translate that instinct to youth sports. Parents and coaches hope for mastery, without recognizing how little time the child has had to master it, especially in unstructured, low pressure, low stakes ways.

Youth sports in the U.S. use to be viewed by parents more like video games are now. In some countries, they still are. Guys I play soccer with, who came to the U.S. from South America and Europe, tell me they spent a great deal of time playing soccer in their home countries and their parents nagged them to do something more productive, just like how U.S. parents nag their kids to put down the video games.

When I was a kid, the way we learned sports was different than today. It was a lot more like how kids these days learn to play video games — lots of low pressure, low stakes play. Why? Because parents didn’t care as much about sports then.

We had much more unstructured play where we played with family and friends. We played more often with older and younger kids, the older ones taught us the tricks of the trade, then we passed those on to younger kids.

We got creative and made up our own games and rules, a lot of times to help compensate for imbalances of playing with different ages and abilities.

The ratio of time spent in low pressure, low stakes unstructured play to the high pressure, organized play was much higher than today.

I played a lot of driveway basketball, mainly because I got bored watching I Love Lucy reruns. I won no basketball scholarships, nor was I scouted by the NBA and I’m usually the last picked at just about any pickup game.

But, if I went to a country where they don’t grow up playing driveway basketball, the locals may be as amazed with my unconscious fade-away jumpers as I am with the soccer skills my friends from Europe and South America display.

Even when we played organized teams as kids, it wasn’t a major event. Every parent didn’t go to every game. Often, parents took turns carting the kids to the game. We often didn’t have large crowds to witness our losses and we didn’t get ear fulls on the ride home for the mistakes we made in the game. Nor do I remember getting snacks.

And, that was okay. Playing was more for us kids and less about pleasing parents and grandparents. They just wanted us to stay in school and out of trouble. We weren’t worried about college scholarships, going pro or being sports prodigies.

I think that’s the major thing that has changed. Now, sports is more about the parents. You know who I am talking about. Raise your hand if you or someone you know has mentioned to fellow adults that your kid plays a sport for a “competitive club”.

If you have a strong stance on the participation trophy debate, it may be a sign that you care about youth sports more than is healthy. Think about why you care more about that than you do your child’s video game or Lego building achievements.

Update: Mike M requested that I add the link to a previous discussion about what college athletes said their parents said to them. Here it is: Signals v causes in youth sports.

Post Note: Zemanta suggested the related article below about i9 Sports. I love this quote from the article:

Youth sports have become adult sports played by kids. Adults have sucked the fun out of youth sports, and our goal is to put fun back to the center.

 

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Emergent Order in The Lego Movie

Mild spoiler alert.

I loved the Lego Movie. I was floored with its treatment of emergent order. At one point the hero encouraged fellow Lego people to try things, no matter how stupid it sounds, no matter how much others ridicule it, because you never know, it just may work.

Made me wonder if Russ Roberts, John Papola or Nassim Taleb consulted on the screenplay.

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Party Planning vs. Raising Kids

Lant Pritchett uses a starfish/spider analogy to illustrate differences between bottom-up/top-down systems.

Steve Landsburg explained that people mistake central planning as being something like planning a birthday party. Based on this vision, they think it can work well. You just need good planners. Landsburg says that folks who make such mistakes simply can’t imagine the complexities involved when hundreds of millions of people are added to the mix, so even good planners won’t do well.

Russ Roberts recently distinguished between engineering and economics problems in a post on Cafe Hayek, building off the following Soviet joke:

Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone.  ‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says.  ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock.  But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’

Of course, her Mom may be an avid shopper. But, the joke was meant to convey that centrally planning something as mundane as producing products that people want, at reasonable prices and making them available in nearby stores is a much more vexing problem than sending man into orbit. Prices do a better job of coordinating that effort.

I made a similar point in a follow-up to the Landsburg post, because I’ve heard too many people use the “If we can send a man to the moon, then we can do anything” fallacy.

Though, I didn’t distinguish it then as an engineering problem. That is an important observation. It’s also a good question to keep in mind when people start using the man on the moon fallacy, are we solving an engineering or economics problem?

But, I still think some folks may have a difficult time understanding exactly how an economics problem differs from an engineering problem. For many, both fall into one category: complicated. So, if we can solve one complicated problem, why not another?

I think it might help to go back to Landsburg’s party planning analogy. An engineering problem is like planning your kid’s birthday party. It’s straightforward (place, invites, plates, cake, fun, done) and it’s a relatively short time commitment. The short time commitment is important. Any longer and it might be harder to get grandparents to help clean up or for guests to come.

An economics problem is more (though still not quite) like raising kids. That’s much more complex than planning a two-hour party. It doesn’t end. It’s not easy.

Just when you think you figure it out, it changes. Why? Because kids are human and they go through phase. They have preferences. They respond to rewards and punishments — differently to different ones. They make decisions. They like what they like. They change. They will fight you. They won’t always do what you tell them. You need to let them make mistakes and learn for themselves, even though it is painful to do so.

Now, I say it’s not quite like an economics problem because people can do a good job of raising kids. Though, there aren’t many truth-telling parents who will say that it’s easy.

So, an economics problem is much more like being tasked with raising all of the kids in your town, or maybe your state, or more.

Multiply the frustrations, the reactions, the support, attention and love required by a thousand or a million kids.

We’re all smart enough to know that’s impossible. We would never sign up for it because we know we’d do those kids a major disservice. Hmmm…..

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The spider and the starfish

starfish

starfish = bottoms-up (Photo credit: kevinzim)

I enjoyed listening to this EconTalk podcast with guest Lant Pritchett about education, specifically in poorer countries. I recommend it.

He begins with a nice discussion about bottom-up and top-down systems using metaphors (emphasis added):

…the basic distinction is between a top down organization where the metaphor of a spider is, all of the resources of the spider web, however spread out they are, merely serve to transmit information to one spider, who synthesizes that information and responds with the resources of the system. So, if there is a bug, the spider crawls out and gets it. But kind of all the web is kind of an ancillary to the brains of the top. The starfish is a creature that actually has no brain. It’s neurally connected, but a starfish moves because the individual units of the starfish sense something and if they sense more food they try and pull that way. And if the other side isn’t pulling as hard, the starfish moves. So it’s really a metaphor of a decentralized system, where individual units responding to local conditions create the properties of the system. And the beauty of a starfish is if you cut a starfish up into 5 bits, you get 5 starfish. The danger of a spider is that when the spider dies, it’s dead. The whole system therefore falls into dysfunction [single point of failure].

Later, he proposes why bad school systems may persist:

…one of the conjectures I put in the book is that it persists partly by camouflage. It pretends to be something it’s not and then can project enough of the camouflage that it maintains its legitimacy. So, sociologists of organization have a term called ‘isomorphic mimicry’, which is adapted from evolution where some species of snakes look poisonous but aren’t, but get the survival value of looking poisonous. So, one of the things that’s happened is by this pressure to expand schooling and by the governments’ desire to control that socialization process, they have created all the appearances of schools that provide education but without actually doing it. But have at the same time not produced the information that would make it clear that they weren’t doing it. So they produce enrollment statistics, numbers of buildings, numbers of toilets, numbers of textbooks, numbers of everything. But have, you know, all of which can project the image that there’s a functional system and providing real learning there. But they don’tprovide metrics of learning or incentives for learning or feedback on learning or accountability for learning at all.

There’s much more good discussion throughout, but I’m fond of something Pritchett said near the end:

You know, the United States has always been much more of a starfish system. And the starfish system has enormous strengths, and I think those enormous strengths have led America to be a leader in education in many ways. And one of the examples I use in my book is, if there’s a scaled example of a starfish education system, it’s American universities. And it’s just unbelievable from the data the extent to which America dominates quality universities. It’s just unbelievable compared to Europe, which always took the same approach to universities that other countries want to take to their basic education. And you see the consequences of it. America’s universities–in the book I have numbers of the top 200 universities in the world, what fraction of them are in Anglo countries, and it’s just way disproportional to the population size. And even wealth. Because Europe, which is equally sized and equally wealthy, continental Europe, just has nowhere near. And it’s the result of a starfish system, in my view.

I’ve made the same point several times on this blog. Here and here are a couple of examples.

I do appreciate the spider and starfish metaphors. Those roll-off the tongue better than top-down and bottom-up.

The road to hell is paved with…what again?

The Wall Street Journal gave us a timely reminder last week of Friedrich A. Hayek’s legendary Nobel acceptance speech.

An ungated version of the entire speech can be found here.

Here’s a portion of what the WSJ quoted:

To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm. In the physical sciences there may be little objection to trying to do the impossible; one might even feel that one ought not to discourage the overconfident because their experiments may after all produce some new insights.

But in the social field, the erroneous belief that the exercise of some power would have beneficial consequences is likely to lead to a new power to coerce other men being conferred on some authority.

Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous-ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims.

The whole thing is worth a read.