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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Taleb on education

I’m currently reading Nassim Taleb’s Antifragility: Things That Gain From Disorder. I’m enjoying it and recommend it. There is much to discuss.

I ran into this today:

Authors theorize about some ancestry of my ideas, as if people read books then developed ideas, not wondering whether perhaps it is the other way around; people look for books that support their mental program.

Agreed. That sets up a section about education that ties in with a recent discussion about education on this blog. He introduces what he calls epiphenomenom, which is

…mistaking the merely associative for the causal; that is, if rich countries are educated, immediately inferring that education makes a country rich, without even checking.

He refers to work from Lant Pritchett (recent EconTalk guest) and Alison Wolf that supports that education is a marker of a wealthy country, not necessarily a cause (wealthy countries can afford education). I liked this story:

I once ran into Alison Wolf at a party (parties are great for optionality). As I got her to explain to other people her evidence about the lack of effectiveness of funding formal education, one person got frustrated with our skepticism. Wolf’s answer to him was “real education is this,” pointing at the room full of people chatting.

Taleb is clear in that he is not saying that education and knowledge are not important to an individual, it’s just oversold as a cause of a nation’s wealth. I also agree with this (emphasis mine):

…note that I am not saying that universities do not generate knowledge at all or do not help growth (outside, of course, of most standard economics and other superstitions that set us back); all I am saying is that their role is overly hyped-up and that their members seem to exploit some of our gullibility in establishing wrong causal links, mostly superficial expressions.

That puts into words something I’ve often thought about credentials. In so many areas credentials play on our gullibility and the folks with the credentials seem okay with that, which is a reason I have an inherent distrust for someone who rests on their credentials. You don’t often hear people qualify their credential and caution you to not put that much weight into it. They usually appeal to it.

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.