Karthik Muralidharan, Abhijeet Singh, and Alejandro J. Ganimian: Disrupting Education? Experimental Evidence on Technology-Aided Instruction in India

  Karthik Muralidharan

Karthik Muralidharan

Last Friday, Karthik Muralidharan came to give a seminar at the University of Colorado Boulder on a very interesting experiment Karthik, Abhijeet Singh and Alejandro Ganimian had done in Delhi. Their paper "Disrupting Education? Experimental Evidence on Technology-Aided Instruction in India," has an appendix that surveys many experiments with using computers for education. In the talk, he summarized the message there as follows:

  1. Hardware by itself contributes very little to learning. The slogan "one laptop per child" is a slogan that may work well politically, but "one laptop per child" by itself doesn't do much to advance education. 
  2. Teaching software designed to complement regular classroom instruction contributes little to learning. The likely reason is that most kids in India are far below grade level in their understanding. So both the regular classroom instruction and computerized instruction at that same level go over their heads. 
  3. Teaching software designed to find what level a child is at and instruct them at that level has large effects. This is the implication of their experiment, which randomly gave vouchers to some kids to attend an existing after-school center in Delhi that had this kind of computerized instruction. (Other kids, the control group, didn't get this instruction, but took some tests and answered surveys with the promise of getting a voucher later on.)

An important methodological point was that the progress made by the students in the computerized instruction wouldn't have shown up in a test that focused on their understanding of grade-level material. They made great progress on material that was in the curriculum for lower grades, but grade-level material was by and large still above their heads even after three months of the computerized instruction. It would have been truly miraculous if the computerized instruction could have jumped them up several grades worth of competence in only three months. It wasn't that good! But the students made a lot of progress from where they were.

I find this research very exciting. It both backs up what I claimed in my column "The Coming Transformation of Education: Degrees Won’t Matter Anymore, Skills Will," and points to some of the pitfalls that can lead to false starts on the road to computer-driven learning. 

The other lesson I draw from this research is that computer-driven learning has plenty of paths in which to progress. Even if all progress in computer-driven learning stopped in the US, it would progress in other parts of the world. Indeed, computer-driven learning is likely to look much better in comparison to substandard instruction by humans than top-notch instruction by humans. So there are many niches in which computer-driven learning can flourish even before the day it becomes competitive with top-notch instruction by humans. In the Delhi context, adapting to the level of each child would have been a virtually impossibility for the human teacher of a large class of kids spanning many grade-levels of competence. 

Besides having the capability to adapt to the level of each child, computer-driven learning has some other key advantages. First, the computer may show up more often than a human teacher will. Second, a computer program can push a child to constantly exercise herhis brain, in a way that sitting in a regular classroom may not. Even doing homework may typically involve a much greater fraction of time in dilly-dallying unproductive for learning than the fraction of time spent dilly-dallying when doing a computer learning program (assuming a low-skill human babysitter present in both cases to discourage flagrant shirking).

These days I am constantly amazed to realize how far we are inside the possibility frontier of what we can eventually accomplish with better social-science knowledge. Even if all progress in hardcore engineering, physical science and biological science (so that we had to make do with minor tweaks on current technology in those areas), progress in social science alone has the potential to generate massive improvements in human well-being. And the marginal contribution of social science is likely to be even greater if it leverages improvements in engineering, physical science and biological science. That is one reason "Economics Needs to Tackle All of the Big Questions in the Social Sciences." Karthik, Abhijeet and Alejandro are doing a praiseworthy job as part of that effort. 






John Locke: People Must Not Be Judges in Their Own Cases

A while back, one of my colleagues at the University of Michigan complained about not having much power. I countered that he had plenty of power: in particular, he had the power to mint A's, a power that would be quite impressive to his students. What he was complaining about was a feature of any well-run society: he did not have the power to be judge in his own case. He did not have authority to grant himself a promotion, determine his own salary, or give himself a grant—power at least a part of himself sorely wanted. Instead he had the burdensome power and responsibility to be the judge in his students' cases.  

The principle that no one should be judge in their own case was well enunciated more than 2050 years ago in Publilius Syrus's Latin maxim above. The principle that no one should be judge in their own case is then emphasized by John Locke in section 13 of his 2d Treatise on Government: On Civil Government:

To this strange doctrine, viz. That in the state of nature every one has the executive power of the law of nature, I doubt not but it will be objected, that it is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases, that self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends: and on the other side, that ill-nature, passion and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others; and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow; and that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men. I easily grant, that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature, which must certainly be great, where men may be judges in their own case, since it is easy to be imagined, that he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury, will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it; but I shall desire those who make this objection, to remember, that absolute monarchs are but men; and if government is to be the remedy of those evils, which necessarily follow from men’s being judges in their own cases, and the state of nature is therefore not to be endured, I desire to know what kind of government that is, and how much better it is than the state of nature, where one man, commanding a multitude, has the liberty to be judge in his own case, and may do to all his subjects whatever he pleases, without the least liberty to any one to question or control those who execute his pleasure? and in whatsoever he doth, whether led by reason, mistake or passion, must be submitted to? much better it is in the state of nature, wherein men are not bound to submit to the unjust will of another: and if he that judges, judges amiss in his own, or any other case, he is answerable for it to the rest of mankind.

In other words, with a bit of hyperbole, John Locke says that if we are going to let anyone be judge in his or her own case, we might as well go back to the state of nature. 

One key place where the United States of America violates the principle that no one should be judge in their own case is having many administrative agency decisions (a) decided by agency officials, (b) sometimes reviewed by judges chosen by and paid by that agency and then (c) being reviewed by outside, more independent judges under what has come to be called the "Chevron doctrine," which insists that judges defer to an agency decision if there is any conceivable construction of the law that could justify that agency decision. (See "Jonathan Adler on Neil Gorsuch and Reconsidering the Degree of Judicial Deference to Government Agency Decisions" and the Wikipedia article "Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc." These two references are connected in an intriguing way: Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who has eloquently questioned the Chevron doctrine, is the son of Anne McGill Gorsuch (Burford), who was the head of the EPA when its decided to focus on the amount of pollution from an entire industrial plant, rather than from each separate piece of equipment within a plant—the decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court back then.)

To the extent that the Chevron doctrine means in practice that almost all agency decisions are unreviewable, the doctrine effectively allows these agencies to be judges in their own cases. In such a situation, there not be quite as much of a self-interest bias as if one were deciding one's own salary, but enough decisions are made out of power-hunger, anger and extreme ideological interest that some mechanism of review is essential. 

One of the practical difficulties with judicial review of agency decisions is that the agencies tend to have much greater expertise in the relevant areas than a judge typically does. If the Chevron doctrine is modified to allow more judicial review, it is crucial to give judges the intellectual resources they need to understand the issues involved in an agency decision. One approach that many countries follow to a greater or lesser degree is to have judges specialize in certain kinds of cases. That can help. But in the really important cases, more is needed.

I would like to see legislation passed that allows a judge reviewing an important agency decision to convene an expert panel. With the judge as moderator and the one to lead the final decision, the experts on the panel would freely discuss all of the relevant issues surrounding the agency decision. The expert panel, led by the judge, would function as a jury, conducting some parts of the proceedings with the litigants present and some parts of the proceedings without the litigants present.

There are several possible ways to work out the details of how expert panels would work. The basic principle is ensuring that review of the agency's decision is conducted with enough intellectual firepower that there is no presumption that the expert panel's decision is any less informed than the agency's original decision. With a system like this that allows judges of important agency decisions to convene expert panels, there would be no excuse for letting agencies be judges in their own cases to the extent that the current Chevron doctrine allows. 

The Swiss National Bank May Need to Cut Its Target Rate Further Now That It Could Get In Trouble with the US If It Keeps Buying So Many Foreign Assets

The Swiss National Bank has been using two tools to keep the Swiss franc from rising more than they want: negative interest rates to discourage foreigners from purchasing Swiss assets and direct purchases of foreign assets by the Swiss National Bank itself. Within Switzerland, the purchase of foreign assets has been politically controversial because it exposes the Swiss National Bank to foreign exchange risk. (This controversy led to a referendum on whether the Swiss National Bank should be forced to hold more gold, that leaders of the Swiss National Bank went out on the hustings to defeat.) But negative interest rates are also quite controversial in Switzerland. 

Now the balance between negative interest rates and foreign assets may shift because the direct purchase of foreign assets by a government is (appropriately) part of the US's formal definition of a "currency manipulator." The Wall Street Journal article linked above explains: 

Mr. Trump vowed on the campaign trail to revive American manufacturing, in part by taking a hard line on Chinese trade practices and labeling the country a currency manipulator. ...

All three countries, which rank among the U.S.’s top five trading partners, have brushed off the Trump administration’s claims. ...

Still, some smaller economies appear to be taking notice, notably Taiwan and Switzerland. The U.S. Treasury in October found both had engaged in persistent, one-way currency intervention, essentially by buying foreign currencies such as the U.S. dollar and selling their own to maintain weak exchange rates.

Analysts say the central banks of Switzerland and Taiwan are now stepping back from those activities, perhaps to avoid closer scrutiny from the Trump administration. The upshot: The Swiss franc has advanced 1.6% against the U.S. dollar this year, while the new Taiwan dollar has surged 5%. 

In my view, the direct purchase of foreign assets by an arm of a government should be considered the defining characteristic of currency manipulation. There can be sound reasons for governments to purchase foreign assets, but such purchases are a fit subject for international negotiation. For example, it makes a lot of sense for countries that have sovereign wealth funds to have their sovereign wealth funds internationally diversified. But then it is reasonable for the governments of all nations (or strictly speaking, currency blocs) thus invested in to be allowed to directly invest amounts of equal value in the country with that sovereign wealth. Such countervailing two-way investments would neutralize the effects on the exchange rate between those countries.

One reason the direct purchase of foreign assets by an arm of a government should be considered potential currency manipulation is that as an aggregate demand management method, the purchase of foreign assets can be a zero-sum game. If I sell my T-bills to buy your T-bills and you sell your T-bills to buy my T-bills, then we can both wind up back where we started. 

By contrast, if you cut your interest rate, and I cut mine, we are not back where we started. Our two countries combined now have a more expansionary monetary policy. So a rule that allows interest rate cuts, despite their effect on exchange rates, but is suspicious of direct purchases of foreign assets by an arm of the government threads the needle of giving nations the tools they need for aggregate demand management without allowing zero-sum-game currency manipulation. 

(Note that well-done aggregate demand management through interest rate policy, by stabilizing output at the natural level, gracefully keeps capital flows induced by market forces to a manageable level. For example, unless the production capacity of the economy has increased, a capital inflow that reduces aggregate demand will then be matched by an amount of extra investment, consumption or government purchases that uses that raises aggregate demand and uses the local resources released by that extra capital inflow. As long as the extra investment, consumption or government purchases is of high-priority items, as a well-regulated free market would tend to insure, that shouldn't be a big problem.)

Presidential Q&A: Is a Strong Dollar or a Weak Dollar Good for the Economy?

  Link to Angelo Young's February 14, 2017 Salon explainer "  Should the U.S. dollar be weak or strong? President Trump allegedly wants to know." 

Link to Angelo Young's February 14, 2017 Salon explainer "Should the U.S. dollar be weak or strong? President Trump allegedly wants to know." 

In his Salon article shown above, "Should the U.S. dollar be weak or strong? President Trump allegedly wants to know," Angelo Young reports: 

According to two anonymous White House insiders, Trump recently called National Security Adviser retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn at around 3 a.m. to ask whether a strong or weak dollar is good for the economy.

Angelo invited me to answer the President's question. Here is the answer I gave in full, an answer you can see reflected in several ways in Angelo's article:

It is not right to say in an unqualified way that a "strong" dollar is good or to say that a "weak" dollar is good. It depends on why the dollar is strong or weak. The dollar tends to be stronger

a. if opportunities for investing in the US are good

b. if demand for US products is high

c. if US saving is low

d. if trade barriers make it hard to import things into the US

Simplifying a bit, the first two (a & b) are good. The last two (c & d) are bad. 

The best way to "improve" the US trade balance (that is, to reduce the trade deficit) is to encourage additional saving. (This will lead to a weaker dollar in a good way.) Encouraging more saving is surprisingly easy to do. And the extra saving has an especially big effect on the trade balance if people are encouraged to be diversified by including international mutual funds among their investments. I explain all of that in my Quartz column "How Increasing Retirement Saving Could Give America More Balanced Trade." (This column gives my recommendation to the President. I am explicit about that in my more recent post "Border Adjustment vs. Dollar Depreciation.")

By the way, one of the reasons a strong dollar caused by trade barriers against imports is bad is that it defeats the intended benefit of improving the trade balance, but leaves the harms of the trade barriers. (There are other effects of trade barriers that create some winners among American citizens and some losers. Making some Americans lose to benefit other Americans may sometimes be part of the purpose of trade barriers. Trade barriers can rob Peter to pay Paul in this way despite the strengthening of the dollar.)

On who benefits and who is hurt, again it depends on why. The strengthening of the dollar defeats most of the effect of trade barriers and border adjustment on the dollar. By contrast, increasing the saving rate works through the fundamental forces affecting the value of the dollar, and so succeeds. Such a policy would benefit most Americans--some by enhancing retirement security, others by increasing net exports and therefore the number of attractive jobs, others by the increase in the dollar value of their foreign investments. However, imports would become somewhat more expensive, hurting those who import foreign goods for a living and those who consume a lot of foreign goods. 

(Trade barriers, unlike border adjustment, significantly hurts exporters and helps those who compete with imports.) 


Jordan Andrew Kimball on Edward Lawrence Kimball


My brother Jordan Andrew Kimball is three years younger than I am. (My wife and I named our son Jordan after my brother.) Together with my sister Mary, Jordan and I made up the amiable middle trio of the seven children in my family growing up. Jordan appeared in this blog before in "Tyler Cowen on My Little Brother Jordan's Wisdom." Below is Jordan's tribute for my Dad, which completes the set of seven tributes that my siblings and I gave at the Memorial Service for my Dad on December 3, 2016. You can see my own tribute here tribute and in other posts those of my brothers Chris and Joseph and of my sisters Paula, Mary and Sarah. My Dad's colleague Jack Welch also gave a tribute that you can see here.

Here are Jordan's words:

Growing up I thought my father was a righteous man, but not a pious one.
I remember, as a boy, working with my father in his workroom, building a pinewood derby car together. He hit his thumb with a hammer and exclaimed "Damn!!" After sucking his thumb for a moment, he looked me in the eye and said, "You know, "Damn" is a perfectly good swear word.”

I grew up admiring my father and wanting to be just like him. But when I was 13 I started to fear I would never measure up. I remember reading an essay in a Junior High class which described "the platinum professions" as medicine and the law and I took it as a binary choice, so I become a doctor. But this was my own anxiety, because I don't ever remember my father placing any burden of expectation on me, other than to simply be good.

When I was 15, I tried my father's patience. A few days after my father's Aunt Mary died, the family was getting ready to attend her funeral. I was standing at the top of the stairs, in shorts, and my father, in a towel, having just showered, asked if I was getting ready. I told him "No", and added that I didn't want to waste my time driving to a funeral in Salt Lake. My father said we were going as a family and that attending funerals matters to those close to us. He asked me to get ready even if I didn't feel like it. Then I said something with teenage indignation that I've regretted, "Well, she won't care, she's dead!” In response to this outburst my father, only sounding a little exasperated, said, "We don't attend funerals for those who have died. We attend funerals for those who are still living.” The 15 year old me continued resisting, not seeing how my attendance made any difference.

Then my dad calmly said, "Son, it would make a difference to me. Would you please get dressed, and go for me?" I looked at his face and saw love in his intelligent eyes, and I quietly went down to my room and got ready. When I took my seat in the car, he said simply, "Thank you." I have marveled at his patience and gentle persuasion.

My father was an enthusiastic sports fan, especially when his own kids participated. I ended up playing several sports and it seemed to me that my dad was always there when we competed. He could be counted on to be reading, and underlining a law journal in the between times. He could also be counted on to cheer unreservedly from the stands, "Go, Kimball!!", "Atta boy!

Jordan!". Although my father’s polio had limited him athletically, the father I grew up with had an awesomely powerful upper body he always said was from miking cows. We still all marvel at the size of the metal bracelet he wore as a teen. It may have been one of the reasons he seemed to particularly enjoy that his sons wrestled in high school.

I remember exploring the items in the top desk drawer of my dad's home office. One item in particular, a bunch of pencil stubs in a rubber band, is memorable. When I told him they looked useless and asked why he didn't just throw them away, he said that they were not his, they belonged to the law school. Occasionally he took a bundle of them back to school. It always makes me smile to think of this quiet gesture of frugality and honesty.

The father I knew didn't like travel, but my mother loved to travel. Early in his career, my father became involved in writing multi-state bar exam questions. The diverse group of lawyers and professors had to meet someplace, and this became the vehicle for a twice yearly, paid trip, allowing my parents to travel all over the country together, big cities, vacation spots, working and socializing, and as their kids got older, they would extend the trips a few days and drive all over the local countryside, just the two of them. It is one of the most romantic memories I have of my parents, together, being able to find a way to combine their interests and enjoy each others company.

You may have noticed my bow tie, and others. Bow ties became my father's preference. My last interaction with my father was shortly after he died at home last week. I helped dress his body.
I sat him up, and leaned his back against my chest and tied on his white bow tie. I am not used to tieing a bow tie on someone else and I fumbled a number of times before even getting close to getting it right, eventually tugging and pulling it gently into an acceptable shape. This may be a metaphor. Even in death I could feel my father's love and patience. 

Eric Schwitzgebel: A Theory of Jerks

Here are two tidbits from this excellent essay: 


1. I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers.

2. To discover one’s degree of jerkitude, the best approach might be neither (first-person) direct reflection upon yourself nor (second-person) conversation with intimate critics, but rather something more third-person: looking in general at other people. Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found?

How Strong is the Economics Guild?

I had two contrasting experiences this week. First, I had a student come to office hours saying it was hard to figure which of all the cacophony of economy ideas put forward in the news to take seriously. I pointed out that unlike climate science, where good journalists usually feel that for a quotation meant to be taken seriously (as plausibly true) they need to quote people who are PhD's in appropriate disciplines and are also usually professors or government employees, they will quote as plausibly true the economic opinion of a much wider set of people, including at least business people and politicians in addition to PhD economists. The picture one gets from the news about the economy and economic policy is much different if one focuses primarily on what the PhD economists are saying.

On Twitter as well, I notice the large number of people who are not pedigreed members of the economics guild who are happy to disagree vigorously with me and with other economics professors there. So my experience has not been one of the economics guild having a monopoly on public discourse about economics.  

The second experience was reading Cameron Murray's blog post about the book Econocracy linked above. Here is Cameron's summary of the books main points: 

  1. Economics is now the default method of analysis in serious social and political debate, undermining the legitimacy of other modes of analysis, making anyone who doesn’t understand economics and its jargon unable to participate in the major political debates of our time.
  2. Despite the great power granted to economists, the discipline has become nothing more than a narrow ideology, with that last defining theoretical battles happening back in the 1970s, and little openness to criticism or new ideas since.
  3. Changes in how economists and their discipline function could benefit democracy. These changes are a) economists training their next generation in a more pluralist way, giving them exposure to many methods of analysis to avoid the ideological indoctrination that is economics education and b) economists being less insular by reaching out to the public to promote a culture of “citizen economists”, who have sufficient understanding and confidence to bring their groups to the table and participate effectively in policy debate.

To take point 3b first, I see a thriving economics blogosphere and Twittersphere effectively reaching out to the public in exactly this way. (I especially admire how George Mason University has supported and encouraged its economists in this kind of public outreach.) And the economics blogosphere/Twittersphere includes quite a few strong heterodox voices, both inside and outside the guild. Let me give as examples my Twitter friends TakingHayekSeriously inside the guild and John L. Davidson outside the guild. 

On point 3a, economic training can often be so narrow that even someone like me—who doesn't think of himself as heterodox at all, but makes some effort to be broad-minded—can count as "training [the] next generation in a more pluralist way." The narrowness I see and lament in subfields of economics can be quite severe: often a limitation to a tiny slice of all possible ways of working in that subfield. But at least the narrowness within subfields of economics periodically shifts from narrowness in one direction to narrowness in another direction. There are often very detailed rules about what one is allowed to do and what one is not allowed to do that shift only when someone with enough prestige within the guild decides to break those rules. (For a particular broadening of the rules, see my post and paper "Cognitive Economics.")

On point 2, it is worth noting that while economics tends to pull people trained in it in what is conventionally thought of as a "conservative direction," the median economist working in the US remains left of center politically relative to the average US citizen. This is evidenced by the deep bench of top guild economists that Democratic administrations have to choose from, and the relatively limited bench of top guild economists that Republican administrations have to choose from. The combination of the bulk of economists being left of center nationally and the important minority of economists who are much more right-wing gives the lie to the idea that economics is a "narrow ideology," unless one considers 90% of the US political spectrum a "narrow ideology." 

On point 1, I for one hunger for new modes of analysis. But I want the other modes of analysis to have clearly articulated, fairly general theories and careful statistical analysis. But clearly articulated general theories and careful statistical analysis are hard to do without the kind of hard-core training that economists get. (One group of scientists who get similar training are the evolutionary theorists. If you ever get the chance to hang out with evolutionary theorists as I have been luck to be able to do, you will notice that they think remarkably like economists.) This is why I wrote that "Economics Needs to Tackle All of the Big Questions in the Social Sciences." Trying to answer a wider range of questions will inevitably lead to an economics that is not just richer in the topics it covers, but methodologically richer. Even Gary Becker, whom I think of as trying to approach a wide range of topics in a relatively traditional, neoclassical way, stretched economic methodology a great deal.

Cameron makes one other key point, less closely connected to his summary of the book. He writes:

Making policy in order to nurture a thing called an economy is bizarre, bordering on meaningless. The slightest scrutiny reveals that the economy is whatever economists assume it to be.

When we think of Gross Domestic Product, probably the main measure of the ethereal thing we call the economy, we are actually thinking of a measure whose definition has changed dozens of times.

I agree that one of the things that sometimes makes economics seem illiberal is our failure so far to develop and establish official (and therefore prestigious) measures of a broader social objective function than GDP. Dan Benjamin, Kristen Cooper, Ori Heffetz and I write about what I believe to be surmountable challenges in creating such a measure in  "Challenges in Constructing a Survey-Based Well-Being Index" (ungated pdf), that should be coming out in the American Economic Review "Papers and Proceedings" issue this year. It matters what we measure and treat as our objective function for policy. (By the way, Gary Becker had an important role in the economics of happiness this effort is based upon. See "My Experiences with Gary Becker.")

But once we have a reasonably comprehensive measure of national well-being, or of the well-being of various groups, the kind of theoretical and empirical analysis needed to advance the objective of increased national well-being will be the kind of excellent theoretical and empirical work that economists already admire. Indeed, my standard joke about the weak point in the overall program of evidence-based government is that we need to "assume the existence of an abundance of brilliant econometricians." If all goes well with our part of the effort, we will be able to provide those hoped-for brilliant econometricians the data they want, or at least all they can reasonably ask for.  

Marriage 102

For Valentine's Day, 2014, I wrote "Marriage 101." This is the sequel. In "Marriage 101" I recommended books by John Gottman and coauthors:

John Gottman and his research team are famous for using observations in their "Love Lab" to predict long in advance which marriages are more likely to succeed and which are more likely to fail.

Recently, I read another book by John Gottman and coauthors with an embarrassing pop-psychology title, but excellent content:

Upon reading, I kicked myself for things I had been stupidly doing or not doing, even after almost a third of a century of marriage to my wife Gail. And for many of the insights, I had to remind myself of my standing resolution to face the truth, even if to get myself to face the truth I have to promise myself I don't have to do anything about it. But it was worth it, despite those feelings of distress.

Except where I note otherwise, all quotations below are from this book by John, Julie, Doug and Rachel. There is some good advice in the book that I don't feel comfortable talking about here. But below are some insights and bits of advice I do feel comfortable writing about.


The first insight is about attunement. Here is the lead-in: 

In our Love Lab, we found that women have two major complaints about men. The first complaint is: “He is never there for me.” The second complaint is: “There isn’t enough intimacy and connection.” These women feel alone even when they are in a relationship. In many ways, these are related complaints. These women cannot trust their men to be there for them when they need them. Most of the time, this is about being there for them emotionally: listening to them, caring for them, and safeguarding their hearts.

In contrast, men have two major complaints about women: “There’s too much fighting, and there’s not enough sex.” Sound familiar? These men are also lonely even when they are in a relationship. We found that men actually want intimacy just as much as women, but they feel that intimacy when there’s less fighting and more sex.

These separate complaints from men and women are, in fact, causally related and can be addressed through a simple skill we like to call attunement. When men “attune” to their women, there is less fighting, more frequent (and better) sex, and both men and women no longer feel so alone. It is also the skill that leads to genuine emotional connection, which in turn leads to trust, which in turn leads to you giving women the number one thing they need and want. In other words, this is a big deal.

How does one attune?

ATTEND. Give your undivided attention when it’s needed. ...

TURN TOWARD. This is not a metaphor or a new age expression. Physically. Turn. Toward. Your. Partner. ...

UNDERSTAND. No matter what she is saying, the goal is understanding. And how you get to understanding is by asking questions. If the woman in your life is complaining about her best friend, don’t offer a solution, don’t try to distract her, don’t think of how you can “fix” the problem, don’t make jokes, and don’t minimize the problem. Ask questions about what she is feeling and what it all means to her. This part of attuning is not about saying “I understand”; it’s about showing genuine interest and attempting to understand why this is important to her. Whether she is complaining about her mother, frustrated with her boss, or pissed off at you—let understanding be your goal.

NONDEFENSIVELY LISTEN. If you are paying attention, turning toward her, and seeking understanding, you are well on your way down the path of nondefensive listening. This is especially important if what a woman is talking about or is upset about is you. Don’t react. No one likes to be criticized or feel like they are under attack. But the tricky thing is, if you counterattack, make excuses, justify, or argue, you are only going to be criticized more. Don’t interrupt and don’t forget that any feeling is fact to the person feeling it. Whether or not you agree with her reactions or how she sees reality, her feelings are real to her in that moment. You only need to listen to her express them. ... The men who were able to “downregulate” their anger (in other words, calm themselves down and not overreact), were the men with great relationships.

EMPATHIZE. For you Trekkies out there, think of empathy as a Vulcan mind meld. For those of you thinking you’ve already covered this with the whole “understanding” thing, think again. Understanding is an intellectual pursuit, while empathy is an emotional pursuit. ... Clue in to the emotions she’s expressing. How do you do this? You can ask her how she feels (genius). You can also read her body language. ...

If some part of you is screaming, “If I do this, she will roll right over me—she’ll win!” remember that attuning with how she feels doesn’t mean that you agree with everything that she says, just that you hear her—that you “get it.”


The second insight is how real physical fear is for most women. Here is the story from the book illustrating that:

Both Lynn and Mike were frustrated by a marriage that seemed to have turned more into a weird form of competitive living than a partnership. In desperation, Lynn grabbed Mike and brought him to a workshop about understanding women. ...

The woman who was leading the workshop began by asking one question: “This is for the men, first. How many of you have ever feared for your life or your physical well-being?” After a long pause, a few of the 50 men in the room raised a hand. “When was the last time you feared for your life or your physical well-being?” There was an awkward silence for a bit, but eventually the men started raising their hands to answer.

“Well, there was this one time way back in high school when I got into a fist fight,” one man explained.

Another said, “Once, about 10 years ago, when I had too much to drink and ended up in a really bad neighborhood in Los Angeles. It was just for a moment.”

“In Vietnam,” said a third, who was a veteran.

As each of the men answered, it became clear that the awkward silence wasn’t about feeling uncomfortable answering the question, it was because they were struggling to remember a time when they felt fear for their safety. All of the examples the men gave were from 10, 20, 30, or more years in the past.

Next she asked the women. “How many of you have ever been afraid for your life?” Every female hand in the room went into the air. “How many of you have been afraid in the last 6 months?” Again, every hand went in the air. “How about in the last month?” “The last week?” Every hand was raised. Finally she asked the question, “How many of you were nervous or fearful walking through the hotel parking garage to come to this workshop?” Again, every hand was raised, including Lynn’s.

One day recently, I forgot to close the garage door and it was open all night. Because I think of us as living in a relatively safe neighborhood, this didn't seem like a big deal to me. But reading the passage above helped me understand how it was a bigger deal to my wife. 

It's Hard to Like One's Own Body

In a good relationship, the two partners are attracted to one another's bodies. So it can be hard to understand how they don't always feel this way about their own bodies. Here was an interesting story to back up the authors' claim that "most women have a painful relationship with the image they see in the mirror," and not just women: 

When John was a young assistant professor at Indiana University, he wanted to take a summer workshop offered by the Kinsey Institute. They agreed to let him in for free if he would run one group session consisting of six men and six women. Most of them were sex therapists. The group discussion was to be stimulated by an initial exercise the Kinsey Institute designed. Each person had to describe how he or she felt about his or her body overall, and then they each had to choose a specific body part and tell the group how they felt about it.

Now John thought this would be a pretty easy group to run, but as he looked at the 12 participants it struck him that this was an unusually attractive group of people. The women were quite beautiful and the men all very handsome. Apparently sex therapists are an attractive bunch. John thought the exercise would end up being a dud, since he imagined each of these attractive people would say, “Look at me, look at how sexy I am, how great I look. I need to pick some part of my body? Well, I love every part of my body. What’s not to love?”

It turned out John was wrong—really, really wrong. Every one of these men and women hated their bodies. A woman would say, “I don’t like my body. I’m too fat. These are my breasts. I hate them the most. They’re too small and they droop too much.” The men were just as bad. It seems men are not immune to having painful relationships with their bodies, too.

I have always been grateful that economics is a discipline in which it is OK to be ugly. Indeed, to my eye, many Nobel prize winners in economics are well below the population average in good looks. This is as one would predict as talented people who are also good looking are preferentially drawn into other fields where the payoff for good looks is greater, leaving an enriched group of talented but ugly people within economics. But while basking in the relative lack of need for good looks in economics, empathy requires remembering that there are many other contexts where good looks matter more, and people can reasonably get anxious about their looks. 

Differences in Approaching Sex

Although men and women are alike in many ways, their attitudes towards when to have sex are on average quite different. One of the clearest evidences of this is the much higher frequency of sex among gay men than among lesbian women. I appreciated the careful way the authors described this difference:

The difference between men and women is often expressed this way: Women need to feel emotionally connected to have sex, and men need to have sex to feel emotionally connected. But we think the statement that men have fewer prerequisites than women fits the data better. ...

The prerequisites women have aren’t always about emotional closeness. Sometimes they are about being exhausted, or distracted, or not feeling well, or a host of other considerations. The evidence is pretty clear that despite all of these confounding factors, men are usually willing to overlook them and have sex anyway. Sexual desire for women is a barometer. If she’s not happy, or rested, or healthy, or feeling supported and loved, she’s not going to feel a whole lot of sexual desire.

Assuming the prerequisites are in order, the authors give an important secret for more frequent sex if that is what you desire:

Interestingly, women agree to sex at the same rate that men do. Psychologists Sandra Byers, PhD, and Larry Heinlein, PhD, conducted a study in which 22 men and 55 women were asked to keep records of their sexual encounters. The research found that males initiated and considered initiating sex more often than women, with cohabiting men initiating more than married. However, there were no differences between men and women in their responses to initiations. Both men and women responded positively to initiations or bids for sex about 75 percent of the time. Mostly these initiations were nonverbal. They started with emotional connection, romance, then affection, kissing, caressing, and, if the signals were right, moved on to erotic touch. The bottom line of this research is, ask her for sex. You have a 75 percent chance that she’ll say yes, assuming all else is going well—she is rested, connected, unstressed, and feeling safe.

Most importantly, don’t take it personally if she says no. 

Of course, this success rate of 75 percent is in an endogenous equilibrium; asking more often may cause the success rate to decline somewhat. But even a little bit lower success rate can make an attempt well worth it. 

Handling Arguments

Every couple will have arguments; or at least any couple that doesn't is so abnormal, I would worry about them. In my post "Marriage 101," I made this point: 

In an argument, if each partner comes back with 101% of the irate heat the other just gave, things will explode. But if each partner ratchets down the intensity to 99% of the intensity of the last remark, things will eventually calm down.* So a small difference in reaction pattern can be the difference between an explosion and something that simmers down.

Let's pursue the details of how to damp down one's reaction. First, what kinds of anger is one likely to face?

Sandra Thomas from the University of Tennessee led the Women’s Anger Study, the first “large-scale, comprehensive, empirical study of the everyday anger of ordinary women.” Her research found that the causes of women’s anger could be rooted in one or more of three categories: powerlessness, injustice, and the irresponsibility of other people.

Second, what are the ways of responding most likely to cause trouble, and where does the temptation to respond that way come from?

We’re going to let you in on two secrets we discovered in the Love Lab. First, men get more emotionally flooded and overwhelmed than women do in a conflict situation. And second, once flooded, only men who are able to reduce their heart rates are able to decrease the amount of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling they contribute to the conflict. These four things are what we call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in a relationship. ...

Does any of this sound familiar? These are all ways of escalating conflict. If your goal is to have less conflict with the woman [or man] in your life, avoid responding to her with stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, or contempt. It’s self-defeating and a recipe for disaster. Yet this is what men do naturally when they get emotionally flooded.

Third, the origins and nature of the physiological state of being "flooded" follow a recognizable pattern: 

Flooding is the real enemy of constructive dialogue and productive conflict. While flooding has been described before, we now understand it much better because of recent research from the Love Lab. Flooding has three major components: (1) the shock of attack and the need to defend, (2) emotional shutdown, and (3) the inability to self-soothe. We also now know that flooding is the key variable in low-level domestic violence (fights that get out of control and turn into physical aggression). ...

Fourth, there are three tools to counteract flooding: 

... three simple strategies ... have been scientifically proven to reduce their heart rate. The first is to breathe and the second is to count to 10. Breathing and counting to 10 are ways of downregulating or self-soothing. When you take a deep breath you stimulate the vagus nerve, which in turn reduces your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure. If you still feel no noticeable decrease in your desire to attack your woman verbally (or even physically), then the third strategy is to take a break. There is a difference, however, between taking a break and taking flight. You can’t just abandon your [partner] in the middle of a heated conversation. You have to say something to the effect of, “You know what, I’m having a hard time listening to you right now, and I will come back in 30 minutes so we can continue to talk.” ...

The third strategy of taking a break only works if it’s a break where you are not thinking about getting even or thinking about being an innocent victim of the alleged spear throwing. If you take a break but spend it thinking about either of these things, you are going to stay physically aroused and emotionally flooded. You need to totally distract yourself. The break needs to be at least 20 minutes long because it takes that long to diffuse the flooding hormones. If after 20 minutes you are still not calm, then come back to your partner and tell her you need a little more time before responding. In our research, we showed that after conflict a man’s heart rate did not lower when he thought about his wife’s negative qualities. Surprisingly, it also didn’t lower when he spent 20 minutes thinking about his wife’s positive qualities. Guess what lowered the heart rate of our participants: reading a magazine. What you need when you’re emotionally flooded is a distraction.

Finally, a productive approach to an attack is to always treat the action as being over there in the desires of your partner, instead of feeling it as a wound where you are. So information-gathering about one's partner's desires is what is called for:

It may feel like a personal attack, but the men who are great at being in relationships will try and find out what is going on underneath the complaint, or the issue, or the criticism. A Hero tries to find out where it hurts, and he does so by asking one or more of the following three important questions:

1. What do you need?

2. What are you concerned about?

3. What are you feeling?

Final Advice

Good authors make the final words of a book pack a punch. The authors give this warning:

What makes a relationship most vulnerable to betrayal is avoiding conflict and hiding parts of yourself so you don’t “rock the boat.” You may think it’s just easier to not say anything when either one of you is upset, but research shows that when there is a gradual pattern of conflict avoidance, there is increased emotional distance in the relationship.

And here are some of the final recommendations:

  • The 6-second kiss
  • Keep making time for dates
  • Keep getting to know your partner
  • Appreciate your partner
  • Honor your partner's dreams

It Matters

I have no doubt that as our measurement tools improve that the value for social welfare of strong, happy marriages and other romantic relationships will be shown to be immense. Valued by how much money it would take to compensate someone for a bad marriage, say—or even how much money one would have to lose to be as painful as a bad marriage—the cost of bad relationships around the world would be equal to many trillions of dollars every year.  As I wrote in "Economics Needs to Tackle All of the Big Questions in the Social Sciences," 

... economics should encompass every important social science question that those with training in economics are well suited to study. If economists have a comparative advantage in investigating an issue, that issue should be part of economics.

I wouldn't be surprised if there are some aspects of the question of improving marriages and other romantic relationships that economists are well-suited to address with the tools they are used to using in research. If so, that is well worth doing. And in the meanwhile, for both economists and non-economists, it is well worth applying in one's own life what sound scientific knowledge is available about making relationships better.  






John Locke: Law Is Only Legitimate When It Is Founded on the Law of Nature

Link to the video above on YouTube of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado singing about making the punishment fit the crime

In section 12 of his 2d Treatise on Government: On Civil Government," John Locke makes two key points. The first is that a punishment should be just severe enough "as will suffice to make it an ill bargain to the offender, give him cause to repent, and terrify others from doing the like":

By the same reason may a man in the state of nature punish the lesser breaches of that law. It will perhaps be demanded, with death? I answer, each transgression may be punished to that degree, and with so much severity, as will suffice to make it an ill bargain to the offender, give him cause to repent, and terrify others from doing the like.

I wrote about how this principle of a punishment just severe enough to deter applies could apply to civil law in "Reparation and Deterrence."

The second key point is that to be legitimate, laws must be founded on the underlying morality of the law of nature.

Every offence, that can be committed in the state of nature, may in the state of nature be also punished equally, and as far forth as it may, in a commonwealth: for though it would be besides my present purpose, to enter here into the particulars of the law of nature, or its measures of punishment; yet, it is certain there is such a law, and that too, as intelligible and plain to a rational creature, and a studier of that law, as the positive laws of commonwealths; nay, possibly plainer; as much as reason is easier to be understood, than the fancies and intricate contrivances of men, following contrary and hidden interests put into words; for so truly are a great part of the municipal laws of countries, which are only so far right, as they are founded on the law of nature, by which they are to be regulated and interpreted.

I marvel at the number of people I run across who think there is some magic in democracy that makes everything that 51% of people vote for good and right—or in any case legitimate to impose on everyone else. Some people are more circumspect and argue that the large supermajorities needed to pass a constitutional amendment are necessary to make something good and right—or at least legitimate to impose on everyone else. But it is not so. Something can be wrong to impose on people even if a large supermajority wants to.

I do not mean to claim that it is always clear what the law of nature allows and what it doesn't. Where some freedom is compromised to raise overall social welfare or where overall social welfare is compromised for the sake of freedom, I don't always know what is legitimate and what isn't, let alone what is the right thing to do. But there is one case where I know something is illegitimate and contrary to Locke's law of nature: when it both compromises freedom and lowers overall social welfare in order to benefit some at the expense of others. 

There are many such laws that both compromise freedom and lower overall social welfare in order to benefit some people at the expense of others. I mention a few in 'Keep the Riffraff Out!'" but attentive readers will notice how this is a theme throughout this entire blog. 

On the underlying principle that democracy doesn't necessarily make things right, see "Democracy is Not Freedom" and "John Locke: The Right to Enforce the Law of Nature Does Not Depend on Any Social Contract." Also, I remember being inspired by the Milton Friedman video below on "The Proper Role of Government" to write the gloss "Legally formalizing ethical rules is different from other, more arbitrary legislation" in my post "Milton Friedman: Celebrating His 100th Birthday with Videos of Milton."

Economics Needs to Tackle All of the Big Questions in the Social Sciences

The Economist's Free Exchange column on January 14, 2017, reporting on the American Social Science Association meetings that month argues "To be relevant, economists need to take politics into account." For example:

Their theories had always shown that globalisation would produce losers as well as winners. But too many economists worried that emphasising these costs might undermine support for liberal policies. A “circle the wagons” approach to criticism of globalisation weakened the case for mitigating policies that might have protected it from a Trumpian backlash. Perhaps the greatest omissions were the questions not asked at all. Most dismal scientists exclude politics from their models altogether. As Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate, put it on one star-studded AEA panel, economists need to pay attention not just to what is theoretically feasible but also to “what is likely to happen given how the political system works”.

But I worry that people reading this will think a bandaid is enough. Indeed, the author advises halfway measures:

Political and social institutions are much harder to model and quantify than commodity or labour markets. But a qualitative approach might actually be far more scientific than equations offering little guide to how the future will unfold.

What is needed is a full-fledged research program that does the hard work of modeling and quantifying. In order for economics to influence policy in the way I believe it should, we need to take all of social science as our area of concern, not a limited slice of the social sciences.

What is economics? In my view, economics should encompass every important social science question that those with training in economics are well suited to study. If economists have a comparative advantage in investigating an issue, that issue should be part of economics. 

That doesn't mean the economists should ignore the work done by other social scientists, but neither should they be overly deferential to that work. Social scientists outside of economics have turned over many stones and know many things. Economists need to absorb the key bits of that knowledge. And the best scholars in any social science field are smarter than mediocre economists. But in many cases, economists who are not dogmatic can learn about social science questions outside their normal purview and see theoretical and statistical angles to studying those questions that others have not. 

Because of the great practical need for a deep understanding of the social sciences, I consider it a cardinal sin for any economist to discourage another economist from trying to tackle an important social science questions because it is "not economics." No! If it is an important social science question, and the economist who wants to study it can make a real contribution, it is economics.  

That is, for practical reasons of saving the world, social science understanding outside the traditional domain of economics is so desperately needed that we should not hold fellow economists back. In addition, concerns in the traditional domains of different social sciences interact with one another, so it makes sense for economists to go there.

Linguistics is the social science that seems the furthest from traditional economist to me. But even the border between Linguistics and the humanities is of great relevance to core economic questions, as the description in the column of Robert Shiller's talk indicates: 

In a keynote address, Robert Shiller—a Nobel prizewinner, habitual freethinker and outgoing AEA president—suggested that economists should think more broadly about the factors that affect human behaviour. Narratives matter, he argued. Powerful ideas, captured in memorable stories, can spread like epidemics, wreaking economic havoc as they go.

If we understood what makes narratives striking and memorable, and what makes people accept them as a basis for making decisions, we would understand both politics and movements in the stock market better.

George Lakoff in particular has done a good job of applying linguistics to understanding politics. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt is operating in similar territory in his book The Righteous Mind. Economists who want to be more politically relevant would do well to read their work. 

The model I am putting forward is one in which the different social science disciplines act as different schools of thought for addressing social science questions rather than any social science claiming a monopoly on a particular question. This goes both ways. On questions within the traditional domain of economics, the group that with a different perspective that must be taken quite seriously are business school professors and business practicioners. For example, economists should know the work of Clay Christensen. I have written these posts about his work:

  1. Clay Christensen, Jeffrey Flier and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan on How to Make Health Care More Cost Effective
  2. Saint Clay
  3. Clay Christensen, Jerome Grossman and Jason Hwang on the Agenda for the Transformation of Health Care
  4. Clay Christensen, Jerome Grossman and Jason Hwang on How the History of Other Industries Gives Hope for Health Care
  5. Clay Christensen, Jerome Grossman and Jason Hwang on Intuitive Medicine vs. Precision Medicine
  6. Clay Christensen, Jerome Grossman and Jason Hwang on the Personal Computer Revolution
  7. Clay Christensen, Jerome Grossman and Jason Hwang on the Three Basic Types of Business Models
  8. Clay Christensen, Jerome Grossman and Jason Hwang: How to Divide and Conquer Our Health Care Problems
  9. In Defense of Clay Christensen: Even the ‘Nicest Man Ever to Lecture’ at Harvard Can’t Innovate without Upsetting a Few People

Despite the efforts of all the human social scientists that have ever lived put together, we don't understand politics all that well. But we will. And free-range minds will ultimately bring us to a better understanding of many other social-science questions as well. 

Update: This New York Times essay by Neil Irwin (and flagged by Justin Wolfers) talks about some of the questions and concerns of sociologists that economists need to bring into their work:

What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?

Neil Irwin talks about sociologists becoming more influential. But it is much easier for economists to incorporate insights from sociology into their work than for sociologists to become as influential as economists. For one thing, there are probably about 10 times as many economists in the world as sociologists, judging from association membership and so on that I had to look up once for a Templeton Foundation grant proposal I did with three sociologists. (I have two unpublished papers coauthored with sociologists.) 

Don't miss the follow-up post "Defining Economics."