Saturday, January 28, 2017

The wrong way to oppose a populist: Lessons from Venezuela

In Venezuela, the urban middle class I come from was cast as the enemy in the political struggle that followed Chávez’s arrival in 1998. For years, I watched in frustration as the opposition failed to do anything about the catastrophe overtaking our nation. Only later did I realize that this failure was self-inflicted. So now, to my American friends, here is some advice on how to avoid Venezuela’s mistakes.

Populism can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. “But facts!” you’ll say, missing the point entirely. ...

Don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind.

That includes rebukes such as the one the “Hamilton” cast gave Vice President-elect Mike Pence shortly after the election. While sincere, it only antagonized Trump; it surely did not convince a single Trump supporter to change his or her mind. Shaming has never been an effective method of persuasion.

The Venezuelan opposition struggled for years to get this. We wouldn’t stop pontificating about how stupid Chavismo was, not only to international friends but also to Chávez’s electoral base. “Really, this guy? Are you nuts? You must be nuts,” we’d say. ...

By looking down on Trump’s supporters, you’ve lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it.

The worst you can do is bundle moderates and extremists together and think that America is divided between racists and liberals. That’s the textbook definition of polarization. We thought our country was split between treacherous oligarchs and Chávez’s uneducated, gullible base. The only one who benefited was Chávez.

Our opposition tried every single trick in the book. Coup d’etat? Check. Ruinous oil strike? Check. Boycotting elections in hopes that international observers would intervene? You guessed it. ...

The people on the other side — and crucially, independents — will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind. You will have proved yourself to be the very thing you’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And all the while you’re giving the populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to rightly call you a saboteur, an unpatriotic schemer, for years to come. ...

In Venezuela, the opposition focused on trying to reject the dictator by any means possible — when we should have just kept pointing out how badly Chávez’s rule was hurting the very people he claimed to be serving. ...

The problem, remember, is not the message but the messenger. It’s not that Trump supporters are too stupid to see right from wrong, it’s that you’re more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot. Your challenge is to prove that you belong in the same tribe as them — that you are American in exactly the same way they are.

In Venezuela, we fell into this trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about separation of powers, civil liberties, the role of the military in politics, corruption and economic policy. But it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa — to show they were Venezuelans, too, that they weren’t just dour scolds and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real.
--Andrés Miguel Rondón, Washington Post, on e pluribus unum

Friday, January 27, 2017

LaTeX reduces writing productivity

To assist the research community, we report a software usability study in which 40 researchers across different disciplines prepared scholarly texts with either Microsoft Word or LaTeX. The probe texts included simple continuous text, text with tables and subheadings, and complex text with several mathematical equations. We show that LaTeX users were slower than Word users, wrote less text in the same amount of time, and produced more typesetting, orthographical, grammatical, and formatting errors. On most measures, expert LaTeX users performed even worse than novice Word users. LaTeX users, however, more often report enjoying using their respective software.
--Markus Knauff and Jelica Nejasmic, PLOS ONE, on reasons not to be a word processing snob. HT: OM

Bill Belichick the alpha negotiator

The MMQB spoke with seven agents who have negotiated multiple player contracts with the Patriots since Bill Belichick took the head-coaching job in 2000. ... These frustrated agents recall a go-to refrain from the 64-year-old coach/executive who delivered four Super Bowl titles to a once-moribund franchise.

“It’s simple,” Belichick says in his curt monotone, according to men who have been on the other end of the phone. “Does your guy want to win a Super Bowl, or doesn’t he?” ...

There is another essential piece to the puzzle, a person without whom Belichick might lack the necessary influence: Tom Brady. The three-time Super Bowl MVP’s 2017 cap hit of $13.7 million ranks No. 27 in the NFL, according to That’s about $200,000 less than Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.

“They use Tom Brady’s deal in every negotiation they do in the sense that Tom has never demanded to be the highest-paid quarterback,” one agent says. “So because of that, they never want to make someone the highest-paid at their position.” ...

When Brady’s contract influences players such as Julian Edelman to agree to below-market deals—another of Yee’s clients, he earns $4.25 million per year—it has a chilling effect on the rest of the roster. ...

Belichick, according to several agents, has been known to let his No. 2 man, Nick Caserio, nail down free-agent deals or contract extensions and then interject himself into the negotiations at the 11th hour, offering less money and little explanation. He and Caserio will also call up the representatives of mid-tier free agents who are sure starters elsewhere and offer contracts for part-time roles and half the compensation that other teams are willing to spend, unconcerned with whom they might offend.

“They’re not as active as other teams; they usually get the castoffs,” an agent says. “They know—not feel—know they’re going to win regardless of who they have. It’s not arrogance because it’s a fact. You can’t go down their roster and say it’s a more talented roster than half the teams in the NFL.”

Belichick, exercising his abundance of leverage, will often go on vacation in the heat of free agency and make his take-it-or-leave-it offers from faraway beaches while other coaches are flying around the country on private jets to court players. When prospective players visit Foxborough, they express to their agents a sense of fear but often leave feeling as if they have just met the lone coach who understands their true purpose on a football field.
--Robert Klemko, MMQB, on the Matthew effect in Foxborough

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why are the Trump administration's lies so obvious?

One of the most striking features of the early Trump administration has been its political uses of lying. The big weekend story was the obviously false claim of Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Trump pulled in the largest inauguration crowds in American history. This raises the question of why a leader might find it advantageous to promote such lies from his subordinates.

First and most obviously, the leader wishes to mislead the public, and wants to have subordinates doing so, in part because many citizens won’t pursue fact-checking. But that’s the obvious explanation, and the truth runs much deeper.

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. ...

Trump’s supporters are indeed correct to point out that previous administrations also told many lies, albeit of a different sort. Imagine, for instance, that mistruths come in different forms: higher-status mistruths and lower-status mistruths. The high-status mistruths are like those we associate with ambassadors and diplomats. ...

Trump specializes in lower-status lies, typically more of the bald-faced sort, namely stating “x” when obviously “not x” is the case. They are proclamations of power, and signals that the opinions of mainstream media and political opponents will be disregarded. The lie needs to be understood as more than just the lie. For one thing, a lot of Americans, especially many Trump supporters, are more comfortable with that style than with the “fancier” lies they believe they are hearing from the establishment. For another, joining the Trump coalition has been made costlier for marginal outsiders and ignoring the Trump coalition is now less likely for committed opponents. In other words, the Trump administration is itself sending loyalty signals to its supporters by burning its bridges with other groups.
--Tyler Cowen, BloombergView, on the signals in the falsehoods

Monday, January 23, 2017

Betting odds on Trump's impeachment

U.K. bookmaker Ladbrokes puts even odds of an early exit for Mr. Trump through impeachment or resignation, while Paddy Power Betfair was offering 4-to-1 odds that he would be impeached within the first six months of his presidency. The Irish betting firm has 7-to-4 odds on the president leaving office early.
--Jonathan Berr, CBS MoneyWatch, on optimism/pessmism

Friday, January 13, 2017

Does screaming at NFL referees work?

But as it turns out, a sideline bias in the NFL is real, and it’s spectacular. To prove it, we looked at the rates at which refs call the NFL’s most severe penalties, including defensive pass interference, aggressive infractions like personal fouls and unnecessary roughness, and offensive holding calls, based on where the offensive team ran its play.

For three common penalties, the direction of the play — that is, whether it’s run toward the offensive or defensive team’s sideline — makes a significant difference. In other words, refs make more defensive pass interference calls on the offensive team’s sideline but more offensive holding calls on the defensive team’s sideline. What’s more, these differences aren’t uniform across the field — the effect only shows up on plays run, roughly, between the 32-yard lines, the same space where coaches and players are allowed to stand during play. ...

The most common cue in sports is crowd noise, and because crowd noise almost always supports the home team, the way the fans sway the referees is the No. 1 driver of home-field advantage in sports. And one notable experiment suggests that how loud a crowd is helps refs decide whether an interaction should be penalized. A pair of German researchers showed actual referees old video clips of possible soccer infractions, with crowd noise played at high or low volume. Refs looking at the exact same interactions were more likely to hand out a yellow card when they heard a lot of crowd noise than when the volume was low.

It follows, then, that screaming and hat-throwing football personnel may also have an effect on referee choices. In football, this sideline bias even seems to supersede refs’ tendency to support the home team: The differences in the penalty rates from sideline to sideline are several times larger than the differences in penalty rates between the home and away teams.
--Noah Davis and Michael Lopez, FiveThirtyEight, on the power of lobbying

Conservative politicians are better-looking than liberal politicians

Conservative politicians are better looking than liberal politicians on average in the United States, Europe, and Australia—and that might create an overall advantage for conservative parties, according to a study published in the February issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Economics.

The study goes on to suggest that the more attractive a politician is, the more likely voters across the political spectrum are to assume he or she is conservative, while the less attractive a politician is, the more likely voters are to assume he or she is liberal. ...

The study, titled The right look: Conservative politicians look better and voters reward it, goes on to argue that conservative politicians are not only considered more attractive on average, but also derive more benefit from that perception than liberal politicians who are similarly attractive. Specifically, the study found that attractive conservative politicians won more votes than attractive liberal politicians in elections when voters didn’t know much about the candidates.

It proposes that one potential explanation for why attractive conservative candidates win more votes is because conservative and liberal voters alike assume that more attractive candidates lean conservative. ...

They found that conservative politicians who were correctly guessed to be conservative were on average more attractive than conservative politicians that respondents did not correctly identify as conservative. ...

So why would conservative politicians be more attractive on average in the United States, Europe and Australia? The study offers a possible explanation, arguing that as a result of the monetary advantages and general privilege conferred by good looks, attractive people may be more likely to end up identifying as conservatives. According to the researchers:
A simple economic explanation of the appearance gap in favor of the right is that beautiful people earn more money, and the more people earn, the more they are inclined to oppose redistribution and, arguably, to support, get active in, and represent parties to the right. A more general psychological explanation could be that good-looking people are more likely to perceive the world as a just place, since they are treated better than others, and are happier, and a frequent reason for people to sympathize with the left is a perception of the world as unfair.
...the notion that attractive people gravitate towards conservatism seems to run counter to the liberal streak running through Hollywood.
--Clare Foran, The Atlantic, on Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Implicit association tests aren't great tests of racism

Perhaps no new concept from the world of academic psychology has taken hold of the public imagination more quickly and profoundly in the 21st century than implicit bias — that is, forms of bias which operate beyond the conscious awareness of individuals. That’s in large part due to the blockbuster success of the so-called implicit association test, which purports to offer a quick, easy way to measure how implicitly biased individual people are. ...

Since the IAT was first introduced almost 20 years ago, its architects, as well as the countless researchers and commentators who have enthusiastically embraced it, have offered it as a way to reveal to test-takers what amounts to a deep, dark secret about who they are: They may not feel racist, but in fact, the test shows that in a variety of intergroup settings, they will act racist. ...

A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such. ...

Take the concept of test-retest reliability, which measures the extent to which a given instrument will produce similar results if you take it, wait a bit, and then take it again. ... test-retest reliability is often one of the first things a psychologist will look for when deciding whether to use a given tool.

Test-retest reliability is expressed with a variable known as r, which ranges from 0 to 1. To gloss over some of the gory statistical details, r = 1 means that if a given test is administered multiple times to the same group of people, it will rank them in exactly the same order every time. Hypothetically, if the IAT had a test-retest reliability of r = 1, and you administered the test to ten people over and over and over, they’d be placed in the same order, least to most implicitly biased, every time. At the other end of the spectrum, when r = 0, that means the ranking shifts every time the test is administered, completely at random. ...

What constitutes an acceptable level of test-retest reliability? It depends a lot on context, but, generally speaking, researchers are comfortable if a given instrument hits r = .8 or so. ...

In a 2007 chapter on the IAT, for example, Kristin Lane, Banaji, Nosek, and Greenwald included a table (Table 3.2) running down the test-retest reliabilities for the race IAT that had been published to that point: r = .32 in a study consisting of four race IAT sessions conducted with two weeks between each; r = .65 in a study in which two tests were conducted 24 hours apart; and r = .39 in a study in which the two tests were conducted during the same session (but in which one used names and the other used pictures)...

...the most IAT-friendly numbers, published in a 2009 meta-analysis lead-authored by Greenwald, which found fairly unimpressive correlations (race IAT scores accounted for about 5.5 percent of the variation in discriminatory behavior in lab settings, and other intergroup IAT scores accounted for about 4 percent of the variance in discriminatory behavior in lab settings), were based on some fairly questionable methodological decisions on the part of the authors. ... the Greenwald team took a questionable approach to handling so-called ironic IAT effects, or published findings in which high IAT scores correlated with better behavior toward out-group than in-group members, the theory being the implicitly biased individuals were overcompensating. Greenwald and his team counted both ironic and standard effects as evidence of a meaningful IAT–behavior correlation, which, in effect, allowed the IAT to double-dip at the validity bowl: Unless the story being told is extremely pretzel-like, it can’t be true that high IAT scores predict both better and worse behavior toward members of minority groups. ...

One important upcoming meta-analysis, which we’ll return to later in another context, found that such scores can explain less than one percent of the variance observed in discriminatory behavior. The researchers Rickard Carlsson and Jens Agerström, in a meta-analysis of their own published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology last year, pinned the figure at about 2 percent — but argued that the extant research is of such low statistical quality it’s impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions from it.
--Jesse Singal, New York, on reasons to stop assessing yourself with IAT tests. HT: NS

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

My response to student requests for a makeup exam: Sasha Obama

It was a question asked by many during President Obama’s farewell speech on Tuesday night: Where was Sasha?

Obama’s wife, Michelle, and eldest daughter, Malia, were in attendance at his address in Chicago. However, notably absent from the crowd was his 15-year-old daughter, Sasha.

After the speech ended, a White House official told reporters that the younger Obama daughter stayed back in Washington, D.C., because she has an exam at school in the morning. ...

Sasha, 15, attends Sidwell Friends, a highly selective school in the nation’s capital. On the school’s website, a schedule for the Upper School’s mid-academic year exams lists a science exam scheduled for 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

Listed on the same page, the exam protocols include guidelines that "students must adhere to the published examination schedule. Absence for travel is not an adequate reason to re-schedule an exam."
--Jaclyn Reiss, Boston Globe, on academic standards. The title of this post was stolen from Professor UM's Facebook post.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Maybe assortative mating hasn't increased over time

Some economists have argued that assortative mating between men and women has increased over the last several decades, thereby contributing to increased family income inequality. ... Sociologists have reached the similar but distinct conclusion that there has been an increase in educational homogamy, the tendency of men and women to find mates with the same level of education (Schwartz and Mare, 2005; Mare, 2008). ...

Conclusions about changes in homogamy are sensitive to how educational groups are defined. In essence, if all college graduates are grouped together, homogamy increased. If we separate college graduates from those with a more advanced degree as is common in the wage structure literature (Acemoglu and Autor, 2011), then, if anything, homogamy appears to have declined.

The ideal statistic for addressing the degree of assortative mating would be a rank-order correlation coefficient that works well when there are a large number of ties, as there are in the education distribution. Unfortunately, none exists. However, if we use either a standard Pearson correlation coefficient or standard rank-order statistics that correct for ties, we find no increase in the correlation between husband’s and wife’s education regardless of whether we use 5, 6 or 12 categories of education. Only if we use a rank-order correlation coefficient that does not correct for ties and five categories do we reach the conclusion that the correlation has increased.
--Rania Gihleb and Kevin Lang, NBER Working Paper 22927, on a potential statistical mirage

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Michael Lewis on luck and happiness

Michael [Lewis] once met a refugee whose entire life had been one tragedy after another. But because he made it through, he created a narrative for himself about how lucky he was. That made him preternaturally happy. Michael absorbed the key lesson: The happiest people are the ones who believe they are lucky, rather than entitled or owed their success. For that reason, Michael is one of the happiest people I know. “I get such pleasure out of knowing that I’m lucky,” he says. “It also allows me to assume that I will continue to be lucky. I am creating a narrative of my life, and it makes me braver and less fearful.”
--Walter Isaacson, Washington Post, on the joy of receiving grace. See also Michael Lewis on luck and entitlement.