Protected by randomness

tdh2

From fusion.net:

The Random Darknet Shopper, an automated online shopping bot with a budget of $100 a week in Bitcoin, is programmed to do a very specific task: go to one particular marketplace on the Deep Web and make one random purchase a week with the provided allowance. The purchases have all been compiled for an art show in Zurich, Switzerland titled The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland, which runs through January 11.
The concept would be all gravy if not for one thing: the programmers came home one day to find a shipment of 10 ecstasy pills, followed by an apparently very legit falsified Hungarian passport– developments which have left some observers of the bot’s blog a little uneasy.

The title of the piece (Robots are starting to break the law and nobody knows what to do about it) elicits worries of AIs gone amok, but the basic conundrum of this piece and others about the Random Darknet Shopper is more complex: if I design an AI which takes a random, blind action in a space which is largely – but not uniformly – illicit, am I legally culpable?

Take this thought experiment: imagine going around your office with a ten dollar bill, offering to buy whatever your colleagues would be willing to sell to you at that price, but under the condition that you do not see the item until the transaction has taken place. If one of your colleagues slipped you some cocaine, who would be at fault? What if you chose to repeat the experiment in an area of town infamous for drug-deals, are you suddenly more culpable?

When I was young, I used to order what they called “Grab Bag” comic packs, where I would pay a set amount of money for an unknown, random assortment of comic books. If someone had slipped a pornographic comic into my grab bag, it’s hard to see how I would be at fault. But where I choose to make my blind transactions seems to augment how we perceive culpability.

Several years ago I wrote a piece about how randomness can complicate our standard notions of guilt. The intersection of randomness, culpability and the law sounds like an area that – if someone hasn’t written about it a lot already – is ripe for further work.

Branko Milanović and the Spam King of Development

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A few weeks ago, I received a bizarre e-mail addressed indirectly to former World Bank economist and inequality/wealth guru Branko Milanovic. An excerpt:

Marry me, CUNY Prof. Branko Milanovic. Become part of our family of Expert Dreamers. Join the Serbia Strategic Team and help us design, create, imagine a Wonderful future for Serbia, for the World and for the Sollar System.

Yes I am positive. I want to become President of the Sollar System before 2050 with you in our team. Yes I am positive. I want to contribute my best efforts, to devote my lifetime to this wonderful challenge. And I want you, CUNY Prof. Branko Milanovic, I want you to come with me, to come with us.

Following this e-mail, a slew of my colleagues and I began to receive e-mails requesting that we receive chapters for a book known as “The Monfort Plan,” a sort of grand scheme to end global poverty by assembling a team of “Expert Dreamers” to essentially act as the world’s largest peer review body. A bit like The Avengers but without all the charisma and one-liners.

The source of these e-mails was a man named  Jaime Pozuelo-Monfort – or `JP Monfort’ as he likes to call him self. JP Monfort is a professional development spammer. As described on his bio for the Huffington Post (further proof that the only binding prerequisites for bloggers at HufPo are a hindbrain and access to a keyboard), Monfort has six or seven masters degrees in a variety of economics or finance-related subjects, although he apparently has yet to learn of the concept of diminishing returns.

Monfort is infamous for his frequent spamming of university departments and research institutes, either to recruit scholars to join his team of Expert Dreamers or to rope people into reviewing his inane book chapters. This incessant behaviour has actually resulted in not one, but four entire threads dedicated to him at econjobmarketrumors.com, a website which itself will likely confirm any suspicions you might have that economics comprises a disconcertingly-large number of self-obsessed sexist, racist, socially-inept douchebags. If you’re in the mood for a little more entertainment, JP Monfort has a slew of videos online in which he mumbles through various aspects of his master plan – awkward, amateurish productions set in bizarre locations such as the side of a road or what appears to be a swimming pool shower. He also has an online site dedicated to “The Clinton Letters”, chronicling correspondence between him and Bill Clinton, which appears to amount to standard brush-off replies from the latter’s office, including a thank you for the Monfort Plan t-shirt that was sent his way.

His book is currently available on Amazon, although plagued by one-star reviews from irate academics targeted by his e-mails. One reviewer notes:

 While I can’t comment on the content of the book, if it’s anything like the vague, grandiose drivel I receive weekly in my inbox, I doubt it has anything practical to say about modern economic, social, and political problems…

Indeed, from reading the book chapters he has sent my way, it is difficult to discern whether Monfort is deluded, a scam artist, or some sort of weird meta-troll. His prose is circular and vague, nonsensical but coherent enough to pass for an NGO report. Some sections are devoted to describing – essentially paraphrasing – the of work other mainstream development experts, including Milanovic himself, Daren Acemoglu and our own Nancy Birdsall, rather than contributing anything new to the development debate.  Chapter 29 of the seemingly-never-ending, rambling book describes the role of the “Chief Dreamer” (inevitably Monfort himself) who would be in charge with leading the way in the fight against world poverty:

“The Chief Dreamer must remain awake while others sleep, must work in the interest of the developing world and propose forward-looking ideas that are realistic so that the reader find sufficient matter to employ his or her speculations for the rest of her life. The Chief Dreamer must be a twenty-first century Jules Verne who conquers through persuasion and not imposition. The Chief Dreamer must combine the qualities of George Kennan and Jean Monnet and be determined to defend the priorities of the vulnerable. The Chief Dreamer must be multilingual to address a variety of audiences in different geographies and must be multidisciplinary to understand the complex roots that drive today’s increasing inequality gap and inequality.”

The only novelty in the book is born out data generated by the sheer number of people Monfort has managed to piss off. You see, so many people have requested to be removed from the ever-growing list of Expert Dreamert that Monfort dedicates an entire segment of his book to analysing the breakdown of which academic disciplines are most likely to click unsubscribe:

I soon realized academics were overwhelmingly requesting to be removed from The Decem List. The trend was so notorious that I decided to create this subsection to express a concern. There is a subset of academia who may be reluctant to embrace a new economic paradigm, as it relies on new ideas not supported by the orthodox theories that for decades have been feeding the intellect of university professors from the world’s best universities.

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I’m curious as to what it is about Mr. Monfort’s incoherent ramblings that appeals more to anthropologists and agricultural engineers than to economists, psychologists and sociologists. Alas, it will remain one of life’s great mysteries.

Oh, by the way, Mr. Monfort could you please drop me from your mailing list?

Make love, not development goals

"Son, we need to talk about your development indicators."

“Son, we need to talk about your development indicators.”

I was pleasantly  surprised to see this post by Chloe Safier on Duncan Green’s excellent blog. From her final paragraph:

Ignoring that people have – and enjoy – sex diminishes the full reality of people’s experiences and relationships. If the development and donor communities, could shift their conversations around sexual and reproductive health and rights, empowerment, and gender to include the people’s whole sexual lives, we’d all be better off.

Safier is basically making the case that a focus on reproductive rights is not enough, that the development industry also needs to start discussing how to improve people’s sex lives – not so much in a broad sense (e.g. maximizing per capita orgasms) but more of a Sen-style capabilities approach to ensure everyone has the potential for a decent sex life.

I’m not sure I can fully embrace Safier’s recommendations – that the ever-growing list of NGO/donor priorities should include sexual enjoyment, but this is more due to a general unease about NGO mission creep than about a focus on sex.That said – I am astonished by infrequently developmentistas talk about how important sex is for human welfare. At risk of sounding ageist, I suspect this because the field is still dominated by the middle-aged and older crowds, cohorts who have a pretty solid history of looking down on talking openly about sex. I don’t know whether this is purely generational, or just a fact about getting older – I’ll report back in 10 or 20 years or so.

Economists, in turn, see almost incapable about talking sensibly about sex. Last year, at a seminar in Oxford – I witnessed a group of academic economists argue over why birth rates went up in regions of Spain after outbursts of Basque separatist violence. The consensus was that violence forces people indoors, which in turn lowers the opportunity cost to sex. That is, now we are unable to go to the park, we’re more likely to stay at home and, well, get it on. Upon reaching this conclusion, the room of mainly-male academics erupted in a bout of giggling.

This may well be true – but it’s emblematic of the way that we (economists) tend to bulldoze over sex with standard Econ 101 explanations. We can, in part, thank the late Gary Becker for taking all the fun out of sex.

Or the emotion – there’s a lot of reasons we jump into each other’s arms. To take the Spanish example: extreme stress tends to drive us to do things which mitigate stress, sex being at top of that particular list.

Time for a global sexual satisfaction index? Maybe not – but it’s still refreshing to see this being discussed openly.

Come work for me (in London)

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CGD is hiring a research assistant to work full time here at in the London office with Vijaya Ramachandran and me. The work would primarily be on Illicit Financial Flows, but also to support other research which Vij and I work on, which include humanitarian assistance/firm growth in Africa as well as land tenure work.

You can read the full ad and apply here.

This is a great opportunity to get involved with a really important and exciting line of research. Let me also take this moment to say: CGD is a fantastic organization to work for. My 10 months in the London office have been some of my happiest to date – it is one of the rare places where I actually feel excited on a Sunday evening knowing that I’ll see my colleagues the next morning. Even though many of us all work on different things, we act like a big family, one which I would encourage anyone to join.

We wish to become your friends if we may

“Kikuchiyo, a fake birth certificate and stolen armour does not make you a samurai.”

I recently received an e-mail from the renowned “Journal of Economics World” whose tagline is “From knowledge to wisdom!”

Dear Matthew Collin ,

This is Economics World (ISSN 2328-7144), a professional journal published across the United States by David Publishing Company, New York, NY, USA.

We have learnt your paper “ Persistence in the effect of  birth order on child  development: evidence from the Philippines ” in the 2014 CSAE Conference on Economic Development in Africa, March 23-25, 2014, St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, UK.

We are very interested in your research and also would like to publish your other unpublished papers in Economics World (ISSN 2328-7144). If you have the idea of making our journal a vehicle for your research interests, please feel free to send electronic version of your papers or books to us through email attachment in MS word format.

Currently, we are trying to invite some scholars who are willing to join our editorial board or be our reviewers. If you are interested in our journal, please send your CV to us. Hope to keep in touch by email and can publish some papers or books from you and your friends. As an American academic publishing group, we wish to become your friends if we may.

Economics World is, as best I can tell, a `paper mill’ – a place where the truly desperate send their work (paying roughly $60 a page!) to show that it can be published.

Not today EW, not today.

Rule of Law, Goma edition

Jessica Hatcher over at Vice News has an amazing piece about a Peace One Day-sponsored concert in Goma, hosted by none-other than R&B/hip-hop star Akon and…… Jude Law?

Well worth a read. My favourite passage:

Akon, in black PVC trousers, diamond studs, and a black hooded cardigan, burst onto the stage. The people of Goma responded. Police strained to hear on their walkie-talkies. “Ladies say yeah!”, he shouted, communicating in neither Kiswahili nor French. The crowd, who couldn’t understand, echoed distorted versions of his chants. “I wanna make love now now now now,” he sang, to an almost all-male crowd.

The music was intoxicating, the stage-craft ambitious. At one point, Akon stepped into a giant clear plastic ball and surfed the crowd — though the audience of five or six thousand wasn’t quite dense enough so he fell three times, and at one point a team of robo-cop style United Nations police went to the rescue. The speakers pumped out gunshot sounds for a few seconds, but that was quickly cut off. Foreign aid workers cringed at the song, Smack That, which glorifies domestic violence. Much of the audience looked bemused, but those at the front kept up the arm-waving and screaming. “It’s amazing!” said one British aid worker as he drifted past aglow.

Don’t damn the man, migrate away from him

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“Sorry Luke, it would frankly be immoral for me to suggest you leave your aunt and uncle’s farm to fight the Empire. Keep your head down and consider moving somewhere a little less Empiresque.”

In a recent blog post, Bryan Caplan goes after the argument that poor people who wish to migrate away from dysfunctional states should stay there and fix their political system.

When I point out that would-be immigrants are trying to save themselves and their families from hellish Third World conditions, my critics often respond, “They ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems!”

For many of the world’s poor, the chances for successful change are slim to none. When compared with the gains from migration, the decision is a bit of a no brainer. Furthermore,  a persons’ decision to migration (flee) should already contain some information about their ability or will to influence their own political system, so these are often the last people who should be sticking around. Given that most of us living in rich countries go out of our way to protect ourselves and our families from unnecessary risks, the suggestion that poor migrants should put themselves on the line is a little unfair.*

Yet Caplan takes what should be a straightforward counter-argument based on the expected returns to political activism and instead tries to moralize it by hatin’ on political activists.

Thus, suppose Jacques the desperate Haitian father has an opportunity to escape to Miami, where he can shine shoes and send money home to feed his kids.  Instead, he chooses to let his kids go hungry so he stays in Port-au-Prince and fights tyranny with political leaflets and soapbox speeches.  Noble?  No more than John.  The righteous man knows that meeting his family responsibilities is more important than playing Don Quixote.

Then he goes after the very notion of activism itself and, in a one-man demonstration of Godwin’s law, manages to link activism with Hitler.

Indeed, triumphant activists routinely give new meaning to the word “tyranny.”  See Lenin, Hitler, and Mao for starters.

Yikes. It’s one thing to point out that staying in Haiti is not always the most cost effective way to improve your life, it’s quite another to condemn those who have what I would describe as “activist preferences.” The decision to stand up to the man isn’t an easy one, nor does it often make economic sense, therefore we should never condemn anyone for failing to stand up against the man when they have everything to lose and nothing to gain.

Yet judging whether or not political activism will be successful is pretty difficult stuff. Actually, I would argue that successful political activism is defined by its unpredictability, which makes it terribly hard to put a normative judgement on. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi which kicked off the Tunisian revolution and possibly the entire Arab Spring made very little rational sense – Caplan would label Bouazizi as irresponsible for the family he left behind when he killed himself.

I agree that it would have been wrong to condemn Bouazizi if he had instead taken a boat to continental Europe, and I would like to live in a world where other people can easily escape, but shouldn’t we also do our best to support those who have revealed a preference for `fighting tyranny?’ While the world would be immeasurably better off with more open borders, achieving that milestone does not permit us to ignore the injustices that remain around the globe, be they political or economic.

 

 *Although it should be noted that the migration decision, especially if done illegally, can itself be very risky.

Development as freedom from back pain

The Batman solution to back pain: repeated punches to the back, lots of push ups, gruelling climb out of a pit of despair. Sounds a lot like life during my PhD.

As if turning 30 wasn’t enough of an incentive to start feeling anxious about getting older, I recently started having back trouble. The other day, getting out of bed, I threw my back out, and so ended up on the floor with my iPad, as usual contemplating how I could turn this unfortunate turn of events into a blog post.

Lower back pain is particularly frustrating, because as far as the medical establishment is concerned it is an ailment without a clear treatment. Even the most standard type of treatment prescribed by the NHS (rest, painkillers and physio) only shows very moderate success.

This frustration pales in comparison to that of having everyone tell you what they think you should be doing. Physiotherapy,  Yoga, massage, chiropractor, better posture, swimming, acupuncture, eating rare herbs and lying down (this suggestion came from a Tanzanian friend), or the standard GP response of just deal with it.

Many people, often those who have suffered from pain themselves, will swear by their given treatment. I’ve always found this perplexing: surely if there was a obvious method for curing lower back pain, that method would quickly have spread and someone would have become very rich. There are of course reasons why this might not be the case. Let’s consider a few:

1. None of the treatments work, and people just randomly recover from back pain.

This is particularly disconcerting, but given that most of these treatments haven’t been proven with rigorous methods, it’s perfectly possible that people are just recovering at random. If you are trying out treatment X when you happen to get better, it’s likely that you’re going to start seeing a casual relationship where there isn’t one.

2. People have back pain for random reasons and some treatments only work for some types of lower back pain.

This is possibly even more disconcerting. There are a myriad number of potential causes for back pain, and not every treatment will work. So even if you run an RCT examining the impact of a given treatment on pain, if the proportion of people suffering from the exact ailment that the treatment will fix is small enough you might end up failing to reject the null hypothesis anyway. So no particular treatment wins because we don’t have a good sense of what causes back pain, nor which treatment is most appropriate for a given circumstance.

I feel that most of development is (unfortunately) a lot like back pain. There are a lot of people out there who think they know the answer, but if they are living in worlds 1) or 2) where development is random or counties exhibit heterogeneity in the underlying structural prerequisites, then we’re in for a tough time. This isn’t a call to start lamenting – we just need to be aware of the various biases which lead us to over-prescribe certain policies (situation (1)) and under-prescribe others (situation (2)).