Monthly Archives: May 2015

Lobbying for free insurance

In many countries, farmers have managed to obtain free insurance from the government – if there is a bad harvest (due to drought, flood or anything else), the government compensates the farmers using tax revenue. On the other hand, if the harvest is unusually bountiful, the farmers do not pay a windfall tax to the government (which would reduce the tax bill of other people or provide more public services). There is thus no premium for the insurance that the rest of society provides to agribusiness.
A thought experiment: the insurance for the agricultural industry is bought from some insurance company who has to pay the farmers if the harvest is bad.  The premiums paid to the insurer are taken from the general tax revenues each year. If the insurance company just breaks even (perhaps due to enough competition between insurers, profits are driven to zero), then the movement of money is the same as in the case of “free” insurance by the government.
Agribusiness has managed to pump some money out of other taxpayers with the free insurance. Their success is explained by the classic lobbying theory: if the benefits of lobbying go to a small group, each member of which gets a large sum, then each member of that group has an incentive to put in the effort and money for influencing politicians. If the cost of lobbying is borne by a large group (say the taxpayers), each member of which only pays a small amount, then members of the paying group do not find it worthwhile to make the effort to counterlobby. The savings are too small to be worth the time and money.
If some politician tries to reduce the subsidy to farmers, they are targeted with intense negative publicity. The agricultural industry claims itself to be necessary for “food security” or “feeding the people”. Nevermind that large amounts of food are currently shipped worldwide. Only the import barriers to foreign-produced food are keeping it out of the domestic market. And food security – who takes a country by blockading it into submission these days? A force large enough to surround the country and cut off food import is large enough to take it by storm, which is considerably quicker. Food security really means preventing the rise of food prices. But this is a financial problem and has a financial solution – insurance against a price rise.
If reducing the farming subsidy does not work, a similar effect can be achieved by providing the same subsidy to everyone and raising taxes. Only the administrative costs are higher than in the case of reducing the subsidy. Other industries could argue that they are affected by the weather or other “national emergencies” and deserve compensation from the government. For example, rainy weather reduces ice cream sales and tourism revenues, so the ice cream sellers and the tourism industry could lobby for the same free insurance as the farmers get. If the world price of some natural resource falls, the miners of that could claim an event beyond their control is threatening them with bankruptcy and ask the government for help. If the tastes of the public change so that some form of entertainment is no longer profitable (theatre, opera, classical music), the providers of that can claim to be important for preserving the national culture and the very civilization itself and ask for taxpayer support… wait, that already happens. It is described in the Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister books.
Of course in reality, the subsidies differ across industries, depending on their lobbying prowess. But if the subsidies were proportional to the tax payments of their receivers, they would neatly cancel with the extra taxes levied to finance them. So the government could abolish subsidies by enlarging the set of receivers to include everyone.
By providing free or subsidized insurance, the government is crowding out private insurance – why insure and pay premiums if the government compensates the loss without premiums? This is especially a problem for risks that are common to many voters. For example, a flood is likely to affect the whole neighbourhood, not just one house. In case of flood damage, the people in the neighbourhood can jointly lobby for the declaration of a disaster zone and a public subsidy for rebuilding. So no need to buy flood insurance. With very few buyers, insurance companies stop offering the product.

Eliminating for-profit academic publishing

Much has been written about the high profits academic publishers get from the volunteer labour of their referees and editors, and how high subscription costs reduce funds available for actual research. The opinion pieces and blog posts I have seen do not suggest a concrete way to change the system. They only express hope that with more researchers putting their work on the web, the for-profit publishing industry will eventually disappear. I think this disappearance can and should be hastened. The obvious way is to boycott for-profit journals as an author, referee, editor and librarian.
The obvious objection is that one’s career depends on publishing in certain journals that often happen to be for-profit, and that “service to the profession” (refereeing and editing) is one’s duty and also helps the career a bit. A moral counterargument is that while boycotting may impose some personal costs, it benefits other researchers and the increase in research benefits everyone, so as a favour to the rest of humanity, boycott is the right thing. After all, why do people become academic researchers when the private sector pays more?
Game theoretically, the academic system (including publishing) is a coordination game, like many social norms. As long as everyone else conforms to the system, it is costly to depart from it. Thus self-interested people choose to conform to the system. This keeps the system stable. Individual deviations are costly, but a collective (coalitional) deviation may be costless or at least cheaper. An example is the whole editorial board of a for-profit journal deciding to resign and start a nonprofit copy of this journal. They announce publicly that all articles that researchers were planning to submit to the for-profit journal should now be submitted to the nonprofit copy. The refereeing and editing process goes on as before, only the library subscriptions to the new journal are cheaper. There should be no loss of prestige for the editors or loss of publishing opportunity for the authors.
A journal is not complicated – it only requires an online system to let authors upload relatively small text files, let the editors forward these files (with author identity removed) to referees, referees to upload their text files and the editors to forward these (deidentified) files to authors. Such programs surely exist, free and open-source as well.
Perhaps a proofreader could be hired for the journal and paid out of subscription fees. But the total cost of running a journal (with volunteer labour like now) is very low.

Of beauty

What is beauty in human beings? Poets have written a lot about it. I will take a different approach. Beauty is the traits that humans have evolved consider attractive. The characteristics of a good mate, in other words. A good mate is someone with whom one would expect to have numerous fit offspring. A healthy and fertile person. Beauty consists of the outward signs of health and fertility.
Health signals are similar for men and women – good posture, energetic movement, strength and speed, neither excessive fat nor skeletal thinness, smooth skin without patches of different colour, clear voice, bright eyes, no strange smells, thick lustrous hair etc. Posture, movement and strength signal that there is no internal disease that causes weakness or fatigue. Excessive fat or thinness suggest metabolic problems or malnutrition. Skin diseases manifest as roughness and redness. Clear voice signals absence of throat or lung diseases, bright eyes show no eye infection etc.
Fertility signals differ somewhat across genders. Youth and health are associated with fertility in both genders, but a masculine or feminine figure is a fertility signal only for the appropriate gender. Broad shoulders, big muscles, wide angular face and hairyness are all caused by high testosterone levels. These suggest a fertile male, but if observed in a female, are signs of some endocrine disease. Smooth curves, large breasts, narrow waist and wide hips are signs of high oestrogen levels and a fertile female. The narrow waist further suggests the woman is not pregnant already (pregnancy means current sex is unlikely to lead to offspring, which can be interpreted as temporary infertility as far as the current partner is concerned).

Of rankings

Many universities advertise themselves as being among the top n in the world (or region, country etc). Many more than n in fact, for any n small enough (1000, 500, 100 etc). How can this be? There are many different rankings of universities, each university picks the ranking in which it is the highest and advertises that. So if there are 10 rankings, each with a different university as number one, then there are at least 10 universities claiming to be number one.
There are many reasonable ways to rank a scientist, a journal, a university or a department. For a scientist, one can count all research articles published, or only those in the last 10 or 5 years, or only those in the top 100 journals in the field, or any of the previous weighted by some measure of quality, etc. Quality can be the number of citations, or citations in the last 5 years or from papers in the top 50 journals or quality-weighted citations (for some measure of quality)…
What are the characteristics of a good ranking? Partly depends on what one cares about. If a fresh PhD student is looking for an advisor, it is good to have an influential person who can pull strings to get the student a job. Influence is positively related to total citations or quality-weighted publications, and older publications may be better known than newer. If a department is looking to hire a professor, they would like someone who is active in research, not resting on past glory. So the department looks at recent publications, not total lifetime ones. Or at least divides the number of publications by the number of years the author has been a researcher.
Partly the characteristics of a good ranking are objective. It is the quality-weighted publications that matter, not just total publications. Similarly for citations. Coauthored publications should matter less than solo-authored. The ranking should not be manipulable by splitting one’s paper into two or more, or merging several papers into one. It should not increase if two authors with solo papers agree to add each other as the author, or if two coauthors having two papers together agree to make both papers single-authored, one under each of their names. Therefore credit for coauthored papers should be split between authors so that the shares sum to one.
How to measure the quality of a publication? One never knows the true impact that a discovery will have over the infinite future. Only noisy signals about this can be observed. There currently is no better measure than the opinion of other scientists, but how to transform vague opinions into numerical rankings?  The process seems to start with peer review.
Peer review is not a zero-one thing that a journal either has or not. There are a continuum of quality levels of it, from the top journals with very stringent requirements to middle ones where the referees only partly read or understand the paper, to fake journals that claim to have peer review but really don’t. There have been plenty of experiments where someone has submitted a clearly wrong or joke article to (ostensibly peer-reviewed) journals and got it accepted. Even top journals are not perfect, as evidenced by corrigenda published by authors and critical comments on published articles by other researchers. Even fake journals are unlikely to accept a paper where every word is “blah” – it would make their lack of review obvious and reduce revenue from other authors.
The rankings (of journals, researchers, universities) I have seen distinguish peer-reviewed journals from other publications in a zero-one way, not acknowledging the shades of grey between lack of review and competent review.
How to measure the quality of peer-review in a journal? One could look at the ranking of the researchers who are the reviewers and editors, but then how to rank the researchers? One could look at the quality-weighted citations per year to papers in the journal, but then what is the q    uality of a citation?
Explicit measurement of the quality of peer-review is possible: each author submitting a paper is asked to introduce a hard-to-notice mistake into the paper deliberately, report that mistake to an independent database and the referees are asked to report all mistakes they find to the same database. The author can dispute claimed mistakes and some editor has to have final judgement. It is then easy to compare the quality of review across journals and reviewers by the fraction of introduced mistakes they find. This is the who-watches-the-watchmen situation studied in Rahman (2010) “But who will monitor the monitor?” (
One could disregard the journal altogether and focus on quality-weighted citations of the papers, but there is useful information contained in the reputation of a journal. The question is measuring that reputation explicitly.
If there is no objective measure of paper quality (does the chemical process described in it work, the algorithm give a correct solution, the material have the claimed properties etc), then a ranking of papers must be based on people’s opinions. This is like voting. Each alternative to be voted on is a ranking of papers, or there may simply be voting for the best paper. Arrow’s impossibility theorem applies – it is not possible to establish an overall ranking of papers (that is Pareto efficient, independent of irrelevant alternatives, non-dictatorial) using people’s individual rankings.
Theorists have weakened independence of irrelevant alternatives (ranking of A and B does not depend on preferences about other options). If preferences are cardinal (utility values have meaning beyond their ordering), then some reformulations of Arrow’s criteria can be simultaneously satisfied and a cardinal ordering of papers may be derivable from individual orderings.
If the weight of a person’s vote on the ranking of papers or researchers depends on the rank this person or their papers get, then the preference aggregation becomes a fixed point problem even with truthful (nonstrategic) voting. (This is the website relevance ranking problem, addressed by Google’s PageRank and similar algorithms.) There may be multiple fixed points, i.e. multiple different rankings that weight the votes of individuals by their rank and derive their rank from everyone’s votes.
For example, A, B and C are voting on their ranking. Whoever is top-ranked by voting gets to be the dictator and determines everyone’s ranking. A, B, C would most prefer the ranking of themselves to be ABC, BCA and CAB respectively. Each of these rankings is a fixed point, because each person votes themselves as the dictator if they should become the dictator, and the dictator’s vote determines who becomes the dictator.
A fixed point may not exist: with voters A and B, if A thinks B should be the dictator and B thinks A should, and the dictator’s vote determines who becomes the dictator, then a contradiction results no matter whether A or B is the dictator.
If voting is strategic and more votes for you gives a greater weight to your vote, then the situation is the one studied in Acemoglu, Egorov, Sonin (2012) “Dynamics and stability of constitutions, coalitions, and clubs.” ( Again, multiple fixed points are possible, depending on the starting state.
Suppose now that the weights of votes are fixed in advance (they are not a fixed point of the voting process). An objective signal that ranks some alternatives, but not all, does not change the problem coming from Arrow’s impossibility theorem. An objective signal that gives some noisy information about the rank or quality of each alternative can be used to prevent strategic manipulation in voting, but does not change the outcome under truthful voting much (outcome is probably continuous in the amount of noise).