Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Footballing (Soccer) Institutions

The Spanish sports newspaper Marca has an interesting blog post on the penalty kick and the evolution of football (soccer). It’s in Spanish, so my own post will mostly be a paraphrasing of it. But, it reminded me of institutions and their constraints, and how which institutions are optimal can change in accordance with changes in constraints. Written in response to the defeats of Manchester City and Arsenal, to Barcelona and Bayern Munich, respectively, Marcos López argues that the penalty kick no longer accomplishes the same task it did 20+ years ago.

Originally, football was a very defense-oriented sport. Consider, for example, catenaccio, which was a defensive tactical formation employed during the 1960s. In the 1970s, Dutch “total football” was developed to respond to these heavy defensive tactics, but evolution in the latter ultimately nullified these new attacking tactics. Besides, attacking tactics like “total football,” and “tiki-taka” today, require a considerable accumulation of attacking talent, something most teams simply can’t afford. So, most teams practiced something close to parking the bus, and then launching counter-attacks — think of Mourihno’s tactics, or Atlético de Madrid’s current tactical set up.

When two teams are playing with highly defensive tactics, launching counter-attacks against each other, the penalty kick — awarded for a bad tackle inside the box — makes a lot of sense. Defensive games are low scoring, and the penalty kick provides an opportunity for emotion. One team has a good chance to get ahead, and the now trailing squad has to open up and attack, allowing for a much more fluid and entertaining game.

But, attacking tactics have developed quite a bit since “total football.” We now have teams like Barcelona (which is an extreme case), Manchester City, Bayern Munich, et. al., who are very good at maintaining possession and launching attacks. When they get ahead, their ability to maintain possession also minimizes the opportunities the opposing team has to launch attacks, which essentially means that the spectator is left to see one team passing the ball between each other, waiting to see how much time is left on the clock. This is even more true if a penalty leads to an expulsion of one of the rival’s players, since then the one team who can maintain possession can play a passing game between 11 players (including the goalie), against their nine outfield opponents. The penalty simply leads to an unfair advantage, and it kills the game.

López proposes doing away with the consequent game of suspension, and suggests limiting the penalty to either an expulsion or a penalty kick. I wonder why football doesn’t adopt a time with possession rule, allowing one team a certain number of minutes during each possession spell. One could say that maybe other teams should simply innovate, but huge differences in budgets makes this very difficult. Besides, football is an industry that ultimately serves the consumer, and the consumer wants entertainment. The sport needs new institutions — rules of the game — that constrain teams’ actions, to the benefit of the consumer.

Invoking Kahneman: Collaborative Research in Economics

Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias, and probably others, want you to believe that minimum wage research is unquestionably on their side. Others argue that ideologies are so dominating, that the evidence is, in a sense, superfluous, because nobody will be swayed by it anyways. The first claim, based on my own reading of the evidence, is simply not true. There is still a lot of disagreement in the academic literature, not just over the results, but also over the techniques used in the research. The second claim is probably more true than the first, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the empirical evidence. What both arguments show, though, is that economists are susceptible to confirmation bias, and that a debate organized between sides is going to remain long, arduous, and probably inconclusive. My question: why don’t researchers take some advice from Daniel Kahneman?

From Thinking, Fast and Slow,

Professional controversies bring out the worst in academics. Scientific journals occasionally publish exchanges, often beginning with someone’s critique of another’s research, followed by a reply and a rejoinder. I have always thought that these exchanges are a waste of time… In search of another way to deal with disagreements, I have engaged in a few “adversarial collaborations,” in which scholars who disagree on the science agree to write a jointly authored paper on their differences, and sometimes conduct research together. In especially tense situations, the research is moderated by an arbiter.

— p. 234.

Has this been done in the context of the minimum wage? Since I often don’t know the authors very well, I don’t know their ideology, so I really don’t know. But, a quick Google search turns up nothing. If it has been done, my guess is that adversarial collaboration in this field is a very rare exception. So, why isn’t it done more often?

There are significant gains from collaboration. First, the design of testable models goes through a period of scrutiny that research otherwise might not benefit from. All economists tend to be careful when setting up models, deciding on their specifications, and thinking about the right data to use. But, authors who agree with each other are likely to be less self-critical than authors who disagree with each other. Second, once the paper is published, — unless the authors end up agreeing with each other — there is an inherit dialogue in the research, and the reader is more likely to get two sides of interpretation, rather than one. Third, it forces researchers to move beyond criticizing each other, to using that criticism to help build a better alternative. More generally, instead of promoting only disagreement, adversarial collaboration forces diverging co-authors to force themselves towards a “consensus,” if you will.

Even if Kahneman’s applied advice is unlikely to sway researchers, why don’t bloggers follow it? (They can, for example, do collaborate reviews of the literature.) Bloggers are a principal intermediary between academic researchers and the public. They should be interested in providing the public the best quality information. And, bloggers, like academics, should ultimately be interested in knowing that the ideas they are advocating are actually right — the type of confirmation bias displayed by bloggers such as Krugman and Yglesias (and, most likely, others, including bloggers on the right) is not conducive towards this end, and can be very misleading. If bloggers want to claim an important role in the marketplace for ideas, including a role in helping evaluate new ideas, then they should lead the way in introducing adversarial collaboration to the study of highly controversial economic problems.

Conspiracy Theories are Socialist, Man!

An invisible-hand explanation explains what looks to be the product of someone’s intentional design, as not being brought about by anyone’s hidden intentions. We might call the opposite sort of explanation a “hidden-hand explanation.” A hidden-hand explanation explains what looks to be merely a disconnected set of facts that (certainly) is not the product of intentional design, as the product of an individual’s or group’s intentional design, as the product of an individual’s or group’s intentional design(s). Some persons also find such explanations satisfying, as is evidenced by the popularity of conspiracy theories.

— Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), p. 19.

Should Employers Stop Drug Testing?

My first article for The Daily Confidential,

When the cost of illicit drug consumption is very high, the only people who are likely to pay that price are addicts — people who are hooked, so they must consume at any price. Think of cigarettes. Why do tax increases on cigarettes have only a marginal impact on cigarette use? Because tobacco, and the other chemicals they put into that product crap, are addicting, and addicts are willing to pay higher prices. When the price falls, a broader class of people is likely to join the market. These are non-addicts who do not have an acquired impulse to consume at whatever cost, but who use recreationally. Thus, the more the cost of drug use falls, the more the average illicit consumer approaches the average person.

Don’t be a Bully

I apologize for the sparse activity. My professional life has been taking up more time than what’s typical. Hopefully, I will be able to return to my normal reading and blogging habits shortly.

I do, however, want to comment on something that builds on Daniel Kuehn’s recent sarcasm. He notes that a recent blog post on the minimum wage associates the movement to raise the minimum wage with Marxism. I think Thomas Salamanca’s piece is a little more nuanced than that, but it is true that it falls back on blaming support of the minimum wage on a misunderstanding of markets and general liberalism — the leftist kind of liberalism, that is. This is not the kind of approach I would take if I were to write a post on why the minimum wage is bad policy.

Salamanca’s article reminds me a little bit of the recent New York Times piece on Rand Paul. The authors clearly opted to attack the weakest parts of the libertarian movement (although, the content was accurate), especially the radicalism that some of its exponents radiate. They received a good deal of criticism for their writing strategy, and I think rightly so. In my comment on the piece, I considered the strategy “cowardly.”

Writers who attack the weakest version of an argument are akin to bullies. Bullies prey on the weakest, because it makes them feel powerful. The writer version of bullies are similar, because they attack the weak to make their argument as persuasive as possible. If the reader thinks that the ideas being criticized are absolutely ludicrous, then the writer bolsters his own argument by making the alternative too ridiculous to agree with. It is a disservice to the reader, and it is disingenuous on part of the author (and I apologize if I have ever done it).

Attacking the anti-market ideas associated with some of those who support the minimum wage is attacking the weakest exponents of the problem being tackled. The strongest arguments in favor of the minimum wage are the theoretical ideas that show that, if the conditions are right, a minimum wage can bring about a net welfare increase. The strongest arguments in favor of the minimum wage are those empirical studies that show, at worst, a neutral effect on employment. Salamanca offers one paragraph in reference to this literature, but quotes only from one (critical) study and dismisses the evidence by claiming that studies that do not show disemployment effects “are significantly outnumbered by studies demonstrating the opposite” — a claim I don’t think is necessarily true. And, a claim that ultimately doesn’t address what side of the literature offers the best arguments and the best evidence.

There are many learned people who support both the minimum wage and markets. They know what voluntary association and free trade have done for society. They understand that more radical departures from capitalism, such as communism, are for the worse. These are the people who drive policy, and these are the people who will not be persuaded by articles like Salamanca’s. Neither should a skeptical reader be persuaded. The skeptical reader should always want the strongest argument in favor or against a position.

I feel that I’m being too hard on Salamanca. Honestly, he’s not my target, and I don’t think his piece is necessarily bad. He’s just unfortunate that I’m using his article as my example. I’m addressing a broad audience. My point is: when you write on an issue, don’t be a bully. Seek the strongest arguments against your position and attack those. Arguments that attack weak positions are typically weak themselves, because they don’t address the stronger ideas. If you are being a bully, be aware that you are publishing a weak argument yourself.

The Skeptical Reader

Put yourself in the shoes of a student — someone who wants to learn — and imagine the perfect world. In this reality, writers and scientists take care to sum up alternative theories accurately, so when you compare and contrast the alternatives you are guaranteed their faithful representation. One of the great benefits of such a world is the time saved, because students wouldn’t feel the need to read various sources, to judge the veracity of each of them individually. Unfortunately, such a world doesn’t exist; in our reality, most people know the positions of their opponents much less well than their own, and we cannot guarantee a faithful representation of alternative theories — if we aren’t skeptical, we fall into the trap of rejecting one or more theories, because their inaccurate representation misleads us when judging between alternatives.

We know that we don’t live in a perfect world, because there are constant complaints of misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Consider, for instance, the recent controversy over Paul Krugman’s post on unemployment insurance and demand-side recessions. Suppose that you, the student, never reads The Conscious of a Liberal, because you sympathize with the Austrians (or whoever) and you find reading Krugman a waste of time (your time is better spent reading other blogs). Instead, you read Bob Murphy, Russ Roberts, and David Henderson. Do they give you a good representation of Krugman’s argument? Not according to Scott Sumner, Daniel Kuehn, and Chris Dillow. My intention isn’t to weigh in on who’s right. Rather, I just want to point out that there are diverging interpretations of Krugman’s post; and, if the student were to read only one blog (that’s not Krugman’s), they run the risk (in this example, 50 percent probability, right?) of misinforming themselves on Krugman’s argument.

These considerations (in general, not the example above) are what prompted Bryan Caplan to propose an ideological Turing test (ITT). Presumably, failing an ITT leads to a loss in reputation. The ITT is a screening device, to help weed out economists who do not do their due diligence when researching and representing their intellectual opponents. The problems with the ITT are: (a) they can be easy to pass, if those being tested can deliver canned responses; and (b) an objective panel of judges can be difficult to construct.

Another problem is that it may not be rational to want to pass an ideological Turing test. Assume that the ultimate end of research is to showcase a persuasive explanation of x phenomenon; in other words, the benefits of your research are only a function of how persuasive your theory is. Suppose there are two cost curves, that look something like this (excuse my [lack of] drawing skills),

Two Cost Curves of Research (2)

The more time you spend on other economists’ research, especially those you disagree with, the more accurate your representation of their argument, and the lesser the costs associated with misrepresentation. This is because, if your readers catch you misrepresenting the opposition, this will give them reason to doubt your conclusions in general. However, it’s also true that the more time you spend on others’ research the less time you spend on your own, and the weaker your argument will be. The combined cost curve looks something like this (warning, this graph is even more poorly drawn than the last two), Combined Cost CurveBecause the researcher has to balance costs, it’s reasonable to expect that she will not necessarily take the time requires to master another person’s theory. Instead, she will find a point where the benefit, on the margin, of focusing on her own research is just equal to the cost associated with misinterpreting the other argument. In terms of the combined cost curve illustrated above, the researcher will choose a distribution of time where costs are minimized (roughly, where the dotted line is). Any other distribution of time will lead to sub-optimal research, and that is definitely not good for the student. In other words, students/readers shouldn’t expect scientists to pass an ideological Turing test.

But, the costs of being misled can still be very high for the student, and there is an interest in reducing this cost. But, if we can’t expect to keep researchers/economists/scientists/bloggers “honest” (if we expect them to be rationally ignorant), we have to develop alternative means of monitoring the quality of their critiques.

The best method, in my opinion, is to be a skeptical reader. Knowing that the amount of time people spend on knowing the other side’s argument will probably be inadequate, we should always assume that the accuracy of the representation will be less than one. We can take a Bayesian approach and assign each blogger/scientist/researcher a probability of accuracy (all of this is in the context of getting the other side right). Based on this probability, we make a choice to corroborate their representation by actually reading the other side’s description of their argument. If we find that the argument was misrepresented or misinterpreted, we adjust that assigned probability downwards; if we find that the argument was well represented, we adjust that assigned probability upwards. Time is scarce, so the higher the probability of accuracy, the less impulse to corroborate you will have (although, initially — when you’ve looked at zero evidence —, you should probably corroborate, no matter what your gut tells you [e.g. even if you really, really like Paul Krugman’s stuff]).

What I’m saying amounts to this: the reader should invest in precaution when reading what’s out there. If it doesn’t make sense to expect the people we’re reading to invest the necessary amount of time to study their arguments they’re criticizing (or trying to replace), because that would amount to a decrease in the quality of their output, the reader should take responsibility. The reader should be the judge in the intellectual Turing test. There are ways to make it easier on the reader to do this — blogs that specialize in “smackdowns,” for example —, but their value stems directly from the reader’s interest in corroborating what they read. And, the various means of keeping others’ honest are subject to their own biases and misinterpretations. The reader must know to be a skeptic.

Instead of spending time arguing about how much effort bloggers should put into being “honest,” we could spend the same amount of time persuading readers to be skeptical (and open their minds). It should always be assumed that the accuracy of an argument is less than one. That means there is some probability greater than zero that the argument being read is wrong. It behooves the reader to check this possibility out. We are all interested in finding “the truth,” but “the truth” is largely something we have to find for ourselves. We don’t necessarily need to do the research ourselves, but we do have to compare and contrast different arguments, evidence, and conclusions — not being skeptical, and not seeking to corroborate what you read, will undermine your progress as a student (as someone looking to learn about something). Of course, sellers in the market for ideas should always be honest, but honesty doesn’t always cut it; there are other sources of ignorance and misinterpretation, and it doesn’t pay to eliminate them. The reader should always make precautionary investments, which means being a skeptic.