Putting the cart before the horse: a ‘signal or cause’ saying

Have you ever heard someone say, “I need to buy a treadmill so I can get in shape.”

After a few months, these treadmills go unused and collect dust.

“But, I know people who stay fit and they have treadmills.”

Those people stay in shape because they have made exercise a priority. The treadmill is a signal of their priority, not the cause of it.

If you want to get in shape, you first have to make exercise a priority. That can be done without a treadmill.

Buying the treadmill first is putting the cart before the horse.

The consistently fit buy the treadmill as a supplement to their exercise routine — not as the centerpiece of it. It’s used on rainy or busy days to keep their priority.

I saw a tweet recently calling for building 600,000 futsal courts in the U.S. to give kids more places to play pickup soccer.

I agree that lack of pickup soccer is a key problem with soccer in the U.S., but building the courts before soccer is being widely played, informally, is putting the cart before horse.

The tweeter sees futsal courts in soccer-playing countries and thinks that’s the key to getting more kids playing.

Those futsal courts are a signal of a soccer-playing culture, not the cause of it.

My town has two street hockey courts that haven’t seen action since the 90s when that fad faded away. Simply having the courts doesn’t motivate anyone to play street hockey.

They sit there unused like the treadmill collecting dust.

More futsal courts will come when parks and rec directors see kids all over their town playing soccer in driveways, backyards and parks.

In fact, two areas in my metro area have futsal courts where a lot of pickup soccer is played. Those areas are rich in soccer-playing cultures from soccer-playing countries.

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Signal or cause?

I heard about this study about how attaining the American Dream may be influenced by your neighborhood in the news.

This part caught my attention:

Chetty found, according to NPR’s Morning Edition, that if a person moves out of a neighborhood with worse prospects into to a neighborhood with better outlooks, that move increases lifetime earnings for low-income children by an average of $200,000. But moving a lot of people is impractical, so researchers instead are trying to help low-performing areas improve, according to Morning Edition.

I find it surprising that the suggestion to move a lot of people is discounted for being impractical.

It should be discounted for confusing a signal with a cause.

I heard a good analogy on an episode of EconTalk podcast once (I believe) that illustrates the slip up:

Since wealthy people vacation in Monaco, you should vacation in Monaco if you want to become wealthy.

Vacationing is Monaco is the signal of being wealthy, not the cause, vacationing there isn’t likely to make you wealthy.

Likewise, parents moving to neighborhoods with better outlooks may be a signal of what produces those better outlooks, not the cause.

A hypothesis to consider is that the values parents instill in their children is the biggest contributor to producing better outlooks.

That may show up at the neighborhood level because parents tend to move to neighborhoods where other parents share their values.

If true, then moving folks to better outlook neighborhoods or recreating other signals of those neighborhoods in worse prospect neighborhoods may not be effective ways to produce better outlooks.

Signals v Causes: The American Nightmare?

An effective political and election strategy has been to identify the signal of the American dream (e.g. home ownership, college education, preschool) as a cause of the American dream — or the American dream itself, and then promise to make it easier for people to achieve it.

Hopefully, we are learning that this actually undermines the incentives and feedbacks that made those things signals of the American dream in the first place, turning them into nightmares.

It turns out that getting a college degree doesn’t cause the American dream. Rather, all the hard work and gumption that use to go into getting the relatively more scarce and useful college degrees of the past was truly what set those kids apart and put them on the path to prosperity and independence.

Change the college degree from a sorting out mechanism to an easy path and the college degree no longer is a reliable signal of those hard workers to employers. Then the nightmare ensues.

As this Wall Street Journal editorial describes:

A lot of these borrowers can’t generate the income to service this debt, especially when so many of them can’t get decent jobs. The left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research recently noted that among recent college graduates age 22-27, a full 45% were underemployed in 2013, meaning they were either unemployed or doing jobs that typically don’t require a four-year college degree.

Of course, it doesn’t help that politicians have also mucked with the incentives of the innovation economy, reducing its capacity to create job opportunities for these folks.

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Signals v Causes: Rome

This gave me a chuckle, from this week’s EconTalk with Charles Marhon about what makes a strong town:

I like to point out that Rome didn’t get the Colosseum and then build Rome. The Colosseum was the byproduct of centuries of success. And you know, you can look and say Rome was successful because they had a Colosseum. And go out and build a Colosseum and then say, why isn’t Rome appearing here?

I recommend the podcast. Marohn makes a lot points that I am sympathetic to.

He thinks we’ve gone overboard on infrastructure due to the belief that more is always better for growth.

Because of that thinking (similar to thinking on housing and education) and distorted incentives (we don’t directly pay for all that infrastructure) we’ve pushed into the diminishing returns part of the curve and cities that have built infrastructure to try to stimulate growth (rather than build to keep up with growth) are getting to the point where they may not be able to pay their bills.

Nature vs nurture, signals v causes

Criticism of Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. From it:

…a study published last May in the journal of Intelligence by Hambrick and colleagues suggested that practice explains only about a third of success among musician and chess masters.

No duh. I have a couple thoughts. First, these studies are usually based on backward-looking estimates of time spent in ‘deliberate’ practice, which may not be accurate.

Second, what’s ‘deliberate’ practice? Seems like that could mean a lot of things and one person’s ‘deliberate’ practice may look much different from someone else’s.

Of course, other factors come into play also. After reading about the 10,000 hour rule, I didn’t think I could become Bill Gates or Michael Jordan simply by putting in my 10,000 hours, but it certainly put a different perspective on their success.

A study linked in the above article claims that we should look at factors other than amount of deliberate practice to explain the difference between professional and non-professional soccer players, like the amount of good coaching they received at a young age.

No duh. For the signal vs. causes tag, it seems like the amount of good coaching they received at a young age could be function of the ability the players were showing at that age.

In my experience, even with players at young ages, coaches interested in winning records recruit the best players, so it’s no surprise that they received what appears to be good coaching at a young age, but I’m not convinced that’s the true difference maker.

Certainly, I think good coaches can have an effect, but when you are already a good player and you get on a team with good players, you’re going to have a lot more good deliberate practice and experience on your side.

Signals v causes in youth sports

A Facebook friend liked this article about youth sports and what parents should say to kids when they play. I found that article, the article it references and the discussion in the comments interesting — especially because I’ve been coaching a youth sports team for a few years.

I find the youth sports scene interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is that cause and effect of success and failure is hard to determine, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. The articles above are good examples.

They say college athletes said their parents just told them that they like watching them play. 

Is that a signal or a cause? The articles make it sound like a cause.

But, it’s likely that most college athletes were excelling in their sport from an early age due to natural physical advantages, above average interest in learning the sport, some competitive grit and/or environmental factors that may have provided them with multiple times more exposure to the sport than the average kid.

It’s easier to say “I just like to watch you play” to someone who is in the top 5% of their age group than to somebody who is in the middle or bottom.

Also, I’m sure many parents whose kids didn’t make a college or high school team said that, too. I’d guess that for every set of parents of a college athlete who said that, there are ten sets of parents of non-college athletes who said the same. Why didn’t it work for them?

My parents usually said something like that. They’d usually ask if I had fun and tried my best. I didn’t play high school or college athletics. And, I’m doing okay. As near as I can tell, I’m doing about as okay as many who did play high school and college sports.

Signals vs. Causes: Reynolds’ Law

I hadn’t realized that someone had dubbed confusing signals with causes, Reynolds’ Law. Glenn Reynolds does a nice job of summing up the disease:

The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.

Yes. And by undermine, I believe he means changes.

Home ownership, for example, was once a reward for making tough choices to live beneath your means, save for a down payment and protect the value of your equity stake in your home by keeping it up.

By bending the rules to make ‘home ownership’ a participation trophy that anybody could get by signing theirs’ (or their dog’s) name on the dotted line, it changed what home ownership meant. As someone (can’t remember who) correctly put it, someone with no equity in their home is a renter with a mortgage, not a home owner.