Reference inflation

by Henry Farrell on December 19, 2003

“Nasi Lemak”: (a pseudonymous UK political scientist) talks in his blog about a disturbing phenomenon. Students applying for a Ph.D. usually need good letters of reference from well-known academics to get into the better programs. One of Nasi Lemak’s former students recently asked a professor at a top US research university for a reference letter, and was told to write a draft of the letter himself, which the professor would then edit and sign. Nasi Lemak did some asking around, and found a surprising number of people who seem to believe that this is acceptable practice.

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Other-regarding preferences

by John Q on December 19, 2003

In a couple of recent posts, Matt Yglesias has raised the question of how consequentialists should handle “other-regarding” preferences. He gives two examples. The first is about the possible execution of Saddam Hussein

My own take on the punishment issue leads to a somewhat paradoxical result. … If Iraqis would feel better with him executed, then go for it…
I like to think of this as a wise and sophisticated point of view, but the trouble is that my preferences depend on other people’s preferences. As long as not very many people agree with me, that’s fine, but if some huge portion of the world were to decide I was right, then you’d wind up with an unfortunate self-reference paradox. Sadly, consequentialist attitudes tend to have these kind of results and I think that if I were smarter I would dedicate my life to resolving the problems.

The second is about the preferences of people who are repulsed by overtly gay behavior. Matt concludes that their preferencesmust be counted, although they should be argued against.

This is an issue of considerable practical interest to resource and environmental economists, because of the popularity of stated preference methods for evaluating public goods such as environmental preservation. I find these methods problematic and one big problem is the treatment of other-regarding preferences.

This is why I have an article on the topic in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, (PDF and algebra alert). Not, I imagine the kind of journal that philosophers like Matt read with any regularity

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Le Club De Paris

by Daniel on December 19, 2003

Via Brad, I notice that what appears to have happened is that Iraq’s debt, so far from being forgiven by the French and Germans (shame really, just when I was looking forward to chastising American rightwingers for not giving credit where it was due), has been chucked into the Paris Club process. The what? Time for a mug’s guide, I think.

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More on inequality …

by Daniel on December 19, 2003

Just “feeding the baby” with a couple of links really …

Stuff from Maxspeak, Paul Krugman and Calpundit relevant to our own discussion of “Equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity”. Read them all. (If you want to that is, I mean it’s not like I’m ordering you to read any of them or even suggesting that you’ll be materially less well-informed if you don’t. I’m just sort of suggesting that they might be a little bit more interesting than what’s in the newspaper today)

Personally, I’ve always had a hard time taking this debate seriously. Specifically, I’ve never received (not for want of asking) a satisfactory answer from anyone who talks about “equality of opportunity” to the following two questions (also inspired by my time at business school, which I am coming to believe may have been less wasted than it seemed to be at the time)

1. What’s the point of doing anything if you’re not going to check whether it worked or not?
2. How do you find out whether a course of action worked or not, other than by the results?

Roll the bones

by Ted on December 19, 2003

I’m so glad that John Q. brought up the terrorism futures markets, because I’ve been dying to talk about them. The proposal to open a market in “terrorism futures” only lasted a day before it was retracted, and captured the imagination of many libertarians and libertarian-sympathizers. It was sharply criticized by Congressional Democrats, who felt that it was abhorent that the government would open a market that would allow terrorists to earn a monetary profit off of their terrorist actions. But there’s an answer to that:

“Why wouldn’t terrorists just hop online and start betting if they couldn’t either mislead American authorities about their plans or make money to fund more al Qaeda operations?” Wyden asked. Why not indeed? If terrorists were trying to use PAM to make money that “would mean that they are giving up information to gain money,” says Hanson. “In other words, we’re bribing them to tell us what they are going to do. That’s kind of like normal intelligence gathering when we bribe agents for information.”

I agree that the idea is fascinating, and it was probably retracted too soon. Nonetheless, I don’t see any way that it could work.

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Terrorism futures, again

by John Q on December 19, 2003

The idea that speculative markets can be used to forecast political events hit the headlines a while ago with the furore over terrorism futures. This idea is still around and the general claim that political events can be forecast by futures or betting markets is still being pushed hard. The main source of data is at the Iowa Electronic Markets, but there’s plenty more. Reader Jack Strocchi sent me this report on a study of Australian betting markets and elections.

As it happens, I’d already looked at this and come fairly rapidly to the conclusion that the betting markets weren’t much good, so I was struck by the money quote from author Justin Wolfers

The data suggests the Australian betting market is extraordinarily efficient. And why not? There’s a huge incentive for participants to do their homework, collect reliable information and make sure the price is right.”

Looking at the report and also the Iowa studies, the evidence in support of this claim still seems very weak to me. In 2001, for example,

The night before the election, Howard [the incumbent Liberal PM] was ahead in two of three major polls ….[on Centrebet] Howard was the favorite with odds of $1.55, suggesting a 64 percent probability of his winning the election,”

That is, on the crudest possible use of the polls, two out of three suggested a Howard win, giving odds almost identical to Centrebet. In fact, I doubt that any serious analyst would have given the Labor Opposition even a 25 per cent chance by election night.

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The Beast with Two Robacks

by Kieran Healy on December 19, 2003

Jennifer Roback Morse’s views on sex and marriage are worth reading if you are interested in what happens when natural law theory, evolutionary psychology and conservative family values are stewed together and left to simmer in a base of visceral disgust toward homosexuals. I leave it to legal scholars to explain what’s wrong with arguments from “what nature intended.” Feminists can take Morse’s complaint that “we have already redefined the social context of marriage in the name of equality for women” and invite her to pine for the days before the Married Women’s Property Act. And the political theorists amongst us can discuss how Morse manages to get from the premise “Sexual activity and childrearing take place inside the private spaces of the home, far outside the reach of the public-enforcement power of the state,” to the conclusion that it’s “utterly reasonable” for the law to ban homosexual unions.

I confine myself to a sociological observation. Morse claims that a central feature of heterosexual sex within marriage is that it is “an engine of sociability that calls us out of our self-centeredness.” If anything, the opposite seems to be the case. A long-standing idea in sociology is that as you meet someone and later marry and have children, your social network will tend to get smaller. It’s called dyadic withdrawal. The married couple looks within itself for its sociability. Your spouse is usually around and you already have their phone number. Beyond that, kids keep you pretty busy. Recent research confirms the basic tendency. So, natural or not, I wouldn’t rely on the idea that sex within marriage “builds up community, starting with the spousal relationship and adding on from there.”