Halloween is kind of a weird holiday.

Oct 28 JDN 2458420

I suppose most holidays are weird if you look at them from an outside perspective; but I think Halloween especially so, because we don’t even seem to be clear about what we’re celebrating at this point.

Christmas is ostensibly about the anniversary of the birth of Jesus; New Year’s is about the completion of the year; Thanksgiving is about the founding of the United States and being thankful for what we have; Independence Day is about declaring independence from Great Britain.

But what’s Halloween about, again? Why do we have our children dress up in costumes and go beg candy from our neighbors?

The name comes originally from “All Hallow’s Eve”, the beginning of the three-day Christian holiday Allhallowtide of rememberance for the dead, which has merged in most Latin American countries with the traditional holiday Dia de los Muertos. But most Americans don’t actually celebrate the rest of Allhallowtide; we just do the candy and costume thing on Halloween.

The parts involving costumes and pumpkins actually seem to be drawn from Celtic folk traditions celebrating the ending of harvest season and the coming of the winter months. It’s celebrated so early because, well, in Ireland and Scotland it gets dark and cold pretty early in the year.

One tradition I sort of wish we’d kept from the Celtic festival is that of pouring molten lead into water to watch it rapidly solidify. Those guys really knew how to have a good time. It may have originated as a form of molybdomancy, which I officially declare the word of the day. Fortunately by the power of YouTube, we too can enjoy the excitement of molten lead without the usual fear of third-degree burns. The only divination ritual that we kept as a Halloween activity is the far tamer apple-bobbing.

The trick-or-treating part and especially the costume part originated in the Medieval performance art of mumming, which is also related to the modern concept of mime. Basically, these were traveling performance troupes who went around dressed up as mythological figures, did battle silently, and then bowed and passed their hats around for money. It’s like busking, basically.

The costumes were originally religious or mythological figures, then became supernatural creatures more generally, and nowadays the most popular costumes tend to be superheroes. And since apparently we didn’t want people giving out money to our children, we went for candy instead. Yet I’m sure you could right a really convincing economics paper about why candy is way less efficient, making both the parents giving, the child receiving, and the parents of the child receiving less happy than the same amount of money would (and unlike the similar argument against Christmas presents, I’m actually sort of inclined to agree; it’s not a personal gesture, and what in the world do you need with all that candy?).

So apparently we’re celebrating the end of the harvest, and also mourning the dead, and also being mimes, and also emulating pagan divination rituals, but mainly we’re dressed up like superheroes and begging for candy? Like I said, it’s kind of a weird holiday.

But maybe none of that ultimately matters. The joy of holidays isn’t really in following some ancient ritual whose religious significance is now lost on us; it’s in the togetherness we feel when we manage to all coordinate our activities and do something joyful and out of the ordinary that we don’t have to do by ourselves. I think deep down we all sort of wish we could dress up as superheroes more of the time, but society frowns upon that sort of behavior most of the year; this is our one chance to do it, so we’ll take the chance when we get it.

How to respond to dog whistles

Oct 21 JDN 2458413

Political messaging has grown extremely sophisticated. The dog whistle technique is particularly powerful one: it allows you to say the same thing to two different groups and have them each hear what they wanted to hear. The term comes from the gadget used in training canines, which emits sounds at a frequency which humans can’t hear but dogs can. Similar concepts have been around for a long time, but the word wasn’t used for this specific meaning until the 1990s.

There was once a time when politicians could literally say different things to different groups, but mass media has made that effectively impossible. When Mitt Romney tried to do this, it destroyed his (already weak) campaign. So instead they find ways to convey two different meanings, while saying the same words.

Classic examples of this include “law and order” and “states’ rights”, which have always carried hidden racist connotations, yet on their face sound perfectly reasonable. “Family values” is another one.

Trump is particularly inelegant at this; his dog whistles often seem to drop into the audible frequency range, as when he called undocumented immigrants (or possibly gang members?) “animals” and tweeted about “caravans” of immigrants, and above all when he said “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”. (Frankly, does that even count as a dog whistle?) He’s a little less obvious in his deployment of “globalist” as a probable anti-Semitic slur.

How should we respond to this kind of coded language?

It’s not as simple as you might think. It’s not always easy to tell what is a dog whistle. Someone talking about crime could be trying to insinuate something about minorities… or, they could just be talking about crime. Someone complaining about immigration could be trying to dehumanize immigrants… or, they could just want a change in our border policy. Accusations of “globalism” could be coded anti-Semitism… or they could just be nationalism.
It’s also easy to accuse someone of using dog whistles even if they probably aren’t: It is now commonplace for the right wing to argue that “common-sense gun control” means confiscating all handguns (when it in fact means universal background checks, mandatory safety classes, and perhaps assault weapon bans and magazine limits, all of which are quite popular even among gun owners), or to argue that “safe, legal, and rare” is just a Trojan horse for unrestricted free abortion (when in fact “safe, legal, and rare” is the overwhelming majority view among Americans). Indeed, it’s quite probable that many of the things that the left wing has taken as dog whistles by Trump were actually overreactions—Trump is bigoted, but not especially so by the standards of old White Republican men. The best reasons to want Trump out of office involve his authoritarianism, his corruption, and his incompetence, not his bigotry. Foreign policy and climate change should be issues that overwhelm basically everything else—these are millions of lives on the line—and they are the two issues that Trump gets most decisively wrong.

The fact that it can be difficult to tell which statements are dog-whistles is not a bug but a feature: It provides plausible deniability.

If you can structure your speech so that it will be heard by your base as supporting a strong ideological platform, but when the words are analyzed they will be innocuous enough that no one can directly prove your extremism, you can have your cake and eat it too. Even if journalists go on to point out the dog whistles in your speech, moderates on your side of the fence might not hear the same dog whistles, and then just become convinced that the journalists are overreacting. And they might even be overreacting.

Instead, I think there are two things we need to do, which are distinct but complementary.’

1. Ask for clarification.

Whether you are in a personal conversation with a friend who is spouting talking points, or a journalist interviewing a politician running for office, there will come opportunities where you can directly respond to a potential dog whistle.
Do not accuse them of using a dog whistle—even if you are confident that they are. That will only make them defensive, and make you appear to be the aggressor. Instead, ask them firmly, but calmly:

What exactly do you mean by that statement?”

If they ignore the question or try to evade it, ask again, a little more firmly. If they evade again, ask again. Keep asking until they answer you or literally force you to shut up. Be confident, but calm and poised. Now they look like the aggressor—and above all, they sound like they have something to hide.

Note also that if it turns out not to be a dog whistle, they will likely not be offended by your request and will have a perfectly reasonable clarification. For example:

“What did you mean when you said you’re worried about Muslim immigrants?”

“Well, I mean that Muslim societies often have very regressive norms surrounding gender and LGBT rights, and many Muslim immigrants have difficulty assimilating into our liberal values. I think we need to spend more effort finding ways to integrate Muslims into our community and disabuse them of harmful cultural norms.”

“What did you mean when you said you are worried about law and order?”

“I mean that gang violence in several of our inner cities is really out of control, and we need to be working on both investing more in policing and finding better methods of crime prevention in order to keep these communities safe.”

“What ‘states’ rights’ are you particularly concerned about, Senator?”

“I don’t like that the federal government thinks it can impose laws against marijuana based on an absurdly broad reading of the Interstate Commerce Clause. I don’t think it’s right that legitimate businesses in California and Colorado have to operate entirely in cash because federal regulations won’t let them put their money into banks without fear of having it confiscated.”

You may even find that you still disagree with the clarified statement, but hopefully it can be a reasonable disagreement, rather than a direct conflict over fundamental values.

2. State your own positive case.

This is one you can probably do even if you don’t actually get the opportunity to engage directly with people on the other side.

I was actually surprised to learn this, but apparently the empirical data shows that including messages of social justice in your political platform makes it more popular, even among moderates.
This means that we don’t have to respond to innuendo with innuendo—we can come out and say that we think a given policy is bad because it will hurt women or Black people. Economic populism is good too, but we don’t need to rely entirely upon that.

To be clear, we should not say that the policy is designed to hurt women or Black people—even if we think that is likely to be true—for at least two reasons: First, we can’t actually prove that, except in very rare cases, so it makes our argument inherently more tendentious; and second, it makes our whole mode of argumentation more aggressive and less charitable. We should always at least consider the possibility that our opponent’s intentions are noble, and unless the facts utterly force us to abandon that view it should probably be our working assumption.

This means that we don’t even necessarily have to come out and challenge dog whistles. We just need to make a better positive case ourselves. While they are making vague, ambiguous claims about “cleaning up our cities” and “making America great”, we can lay out explicit policy plans for reducing unemployment, poverty, and carbon emissions.

Hillary Clinton almost did this—but she didn’t do it well enough. She relied too heavily on constituents being willing to read detailed plans on her website, instead of summarizing them in concise, pithy talking points to put in headlines. Her line Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?” was indeed taken out of contextbut she should have pushed harder by making an actual slogan, like “End coal burning—save coal communities.” (I literally came up with that in five minutes. She had hundreds of professional campaign staff working for her and they couldn’t do better?) The media did butcher her statements—but she didn’t correct them by putting slogans on yard signs or giving stump speeches in Appalachia.

Indeed, the news media didn’t do her any favors—they spent literally more time talking about her emails than every actual policy issued combined, and not by a small margin. But we can’t rely on the news media—and we don’t have to, in the age of blogs and social media. Instead of assuming that everyone already agrees with us and we will win because we deserve to, we need to be doing what actually works at conveying our message and making sure that we win by the largest margin possible.

If you really want grad students to have better mental health, remove all the high-stakes checkpoints

Post 260: Oct 14 JDN 2458406

A study was recently published in Nature Biotechnology showing clear evidence of a mental health crisis among graduate students (no, I don’t know why they picked the biotechnology imprint—I guess it wasn’t good enough for Nature proper?). This is only the most recent of several studies showing exceptionally high rates of mental health issues among graduate students.

I’ve seen universities do a lot of public hand-wringing and lip service about this issue—but I haven’t seen any that were seriously willing to do what it takes to actually solve the problem.

I think this fact became clearest to me when I was required to fill out an official “Individual Development Plan” form as a prerequisite for my advancement to candidacy, which included one question about “What are you doing to support your own mental health and work/life balance?”

The irony here is absolutely excruciating, because advancement to candidacy has been overwhelmingly my leading source of mental health stress for at least the last six months. And it is only one of several different high-stakes checkpoints that grad students are expected to complete, always threatened with defunding or outright expulsion from the graduate program if the checkpoint is not met by a certain arbitrary deadline.

The first of these was the qualifying exams. Then comes advancement to candidacy. Then I have to complete and defend a second-year paper, then a third-year paper. Finally I have to complete and defend a dissertation, and then go onto the job market and go through a gauntlet of applications and interviews. I can’t think of any other time in my life when I was under this much academic and career pressure this consistently—even finishing high school and applying to college wasn’t like this.

If universities really wanted to improve my mental health, they would find a way to get rid of all that.

Granted, a single university does not have total control over all this: There are coordination problems between universities regarding qualifying exams, advancement, and dissertation requirements. One university that unilaterally tried to remove all these would rapidly lose prestige, as it would not be regarded as “rigorous” to reduce the pressure on your grad students. But that itself is precisely the problem—we have equated “rigor” with pressuring grad students until they are on the verge of emotional collapse. Universities don’t seem to know how to make graduate school difficult in the ways that would actually encourage excellence in research and teaching; they simply know how to make it difficult in ways that destroy their students psychologically.

The job market is even more complicated; in the current funding environment, it would be prohibitively expensive to open up enough faculty positions to actually accept even half of all graduating PhDs to tenure-track jobs. Probably the best answer here is to refocus graduate programs on supporting employment outside academia, recognizing both that PhD-level skills are valuable in many workplaces and that not every grad student really wants to become a professor.

But there are clearly ways that universities could mitigate these effects, and they don’t seem genuinely interested in doing so. They could remove the advancement exam, for example; you could simply advance to candidacy as a formality when your advisor decides you are ready, never needing to actually perform a high-stakes presentation before a committee—because what the hell does that accomplish anyway? Speaking of advisors, they could have a formalized matching process that starts with interviewing several different professors and being matched to the one that best fits your goals and interests, instead of expecting you to reach out on your own and hope for the best. They could have you write a dissertation, but not perform a “dissertation defense”—because, again, what can they possibly learn from forcing you to present in a high-stakes environment that they couldn’t have learned from reading your paper and talking with you about it over several months?

They could adjust or even remove funding deadlines—especially for international students. Here at UCI at least, once you are accepted to the program, you are ostensibly guaranteed funding for as long as you maintain reasonable academic progress—but then they define “reasonable progress” in such a way that you have to form an advancement committee, fill out forms, write a paper, and present before a committee all by a certain date or your funding is in jeopardy. Residents of California (which includes all US students who successfully established residency after a full year) are given more time if we need it—but international students aren’t. How is that fair?

The unwillingness of universities to take such actions clearly shows that their commitment to improving students’ mental health is paper-thin. They are only willing to help their students improve their work-life balance as long as it doesn’t require changing anything about the graduate program. They will provide us with counseling services and free yoga classes, but they won’t seriously reduce the pressure they put on us at every step of the way.
I understand that universities are concerned about protecting their prestige, but I ask them this: Does this really improve the quality of your research or teaching output? Do you actually graduate better students by selecting only the ones who can survive being emotionally crushed? Do all these arbitrary high-stakes performances actually result in greater advancement of human knowledge?

Or is it perhaps that you yourselves were put through such hazing rituals years ago, and now your cognitive dissonance won’t let you admit that it was all for naught? “This must be worth doing, or else they wouldn’t have put me through so much suffering!” Are you trying to transfer your own psychological pain onto your students, lest you be forced to face it yourself?

MSRP is tacit collusion

Oct 7 JDN 2458399

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a really straightforward economic post. It feels good to get back to that.

You are no doubt familiar with the “Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price” or MSRP. It can be found on everything from books to dishwashers to video games.

The MSRP is a very simple concept: The manufacturer suggests that all retailers sell it (at least the initial run) at precisely this price.

Why would they want to do that? There is basically only one possible reason: They are trying to sustain tacit collusion.

The game theory of this is rather subtle: It requires that both manufacturers and retailers engage in long-term relationships with one another, and can pick and choose who to work with based on the history of past behavior. Both of these conditions hold in most real-world situations—indeed, the fact that they don’t hold very well in the agriculture industry is probably why we don’t see MSRP on produce.

If pricing were decided by random matching with no long-term relationships or past history, MSRP would be useless. Each firm would have little choice but to set their own optimal price, probably just slightly over their own marginal cost. Even if the manufacturer suggested an MSRP, retailers would promptly and thoroughly ignore it.

This is because the one-shot Bertrand pricing game has a unique Nash equilibrium, at pricing just above marginal cost. The basic argument is as follows: If I price cheaper than you, I can claim the whole market. As long as it’s profitable for me to do that, I will. The only time it’s not profitable for me to undercut you in this way is if we are both charging just slightly above marginal cost—so that is what we shall do, in Nash equilibrium. Human beings don’t always play according to the Nash equilibrium, but for-profit corporations do so quite consistently. Humans have limited attention and moral values; corporations have accounting departments and a fanatical devotion to the One True Profit.

But the iterated Bertrand pricing game is quite different. If instead of making only one pricing decision, we make many pricing decisions over time, always with a high probability of encountering the same buyers and sellers again in the future, then I may not want to undercut your price, for fear of triggering a price war that will hurt both of our firms.

Much like how the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma can sustain cooperation in Nash equilibrium while the one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma cannot, the iterated Bertrand game can sustain collusion as a Nash equilibrium.

There is in fact a vast number of possible equilibria in the iterated Bertrand game. If prices were infinitely divisible, there would be an infinite number of equilibria. In reality, there are hundreds or thousands of equilibria, depending on how finely divisible the price may be.

This makes the iterated Bertrand game a coordination gamethere are many possible equilibria, and our task is to figure out which one to coordinate on.

If we had perfect information, we could deduce what the monopoly price would be, and then all choose the monopoly price; this would be what we call “payoff dominant”, and it’s often what people actually try to choose in real-world coordination games.

But in reality, the monopoly price is a subtle and complicated thing, and might not even be the same between different retailers. So if we each try to compute a monopoly price, we may end up with different results, and then we could trigger a price war and end up driving all of our profits down. If only there were some way to communicate with one another, and say what price we all want to set?

Ah, but there is: The MSRP. Most other forms of price communication are illegal: We certainly couldn’t send each other emails and say “Let’s all charge $59.99, okay?” (When banks tried to do that with the LIBOR, it was the largest white-collar crime in history.) But for some reason economists (particularly, I note, the supposed “free market” believers of the University of Chicago) have convinced antitrust courts that MSRP is somehow different. Yet it’s obviously hardly different at all: You’ve just made the communication one-way from manufacturers to retailers, which makes it a little less reliable, but otherwise exactly the same thing.

There are all sorts of subtler arguments about how MSRP is justifiable, but as far as I can tell they all fall flat. If you’re worried about retailers not promoting your product enough, enter into a contract requiring them to promote. Proposing a suggested price is clearly nothing but an attempt to coordinate tacit—frankly not even that tacit—collusion.

MSRP also probably serves another, equally suspect, function, which is to manipulate consumers using the anchoring heuristic: If the MSRP is $59.99, then when it does go on sale for $49.99 you feel like you are getting a good deal; whereas, if it had just been priced at $49.99 to begin with, you might still have felt that it was too expensive. I see no reason why this sort of crass manipulation of consumers should be protected under the law either, especially when it would be so easy to avoid.

There are all sorts of ways for firms to tacitly collude with one another, and we may not be able to regulate them all. But the MSRP is literally printed on the box. It’s so utterly blatant that we could very easily make it illegal with hardly any effort at all. The fact that we allow such overt price communication makes a mockery of our antitrust law.