Catching up with the FITs, no. 4
Emily Oster looks at a paper claiming that the pandemic has lowered infant IQ.
these results are worrisome. However — and I cannot stress this enough — they are completely implausible. There is absolutely no way that there was a reduction in IQ of 82 points as a result of being born during the pandemic. In fact, there is also no way there was a reduction of 27 IQ points. Even 15 seems impossible. IQ is just not malleable in this way. Extremely low birth weight is among the most significant reducers of IQ, and even that is a fraction of the size of these effects.
As usual, she digs into the methods of research, not just the results.
Speaking of digging into research methods, Scott Alexander wades into the new controversy over behavioral economics, prompted by Dan Ariely getting metaphorically caught with his pants down. Scott thinks that Jason Hreha’s article on The Death Of Behavioral Economics is overstated.
Like Scott, I tend to give more credence to findings in behavioral econ/psychology when they seem to apply to my own behavior.
Also, I never bought into the view that behavioral economics shows that mainstream economics is fundamentally flawed. I think that the much deeper flaw in mainstream economics is “representative agent” thinking. If you want to explain asset price behavior, for example, I think it is better to start with the realization that different market participants bring different skills and background knowledge to the market than to assume that everyone has an identical set of biases.
Robert Wright describes parallels between failure in Afghanistan and failure in Viet Nam.
The other big Vietnam book that came out in 1972 was The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam. One point Halberstam made is that, though the military brass can be counted on to emphasize the pitfalls and perils of a proposed intervention, once the intervention has happened, Pentagon assessments turn from negative to positive; no commanding general wants to report that he’s failing, so he gathers evidence of progress and downplays evidence of failure—and his preference for good news tends to become known, and indulged, at lower levels of the chain of command.
Among other things, Halberstam’s book is probably the best treatise on organizational behavior you could ever read. Principal-agent problems are everywhere. The problem of whether you can trust an expert is a principal-agent problem, and it is central to many problems that we face today. I think of the game of acquiring status in principal-agent terms, and The Best and the Brightest presents a powerful case study of people who acquired status in the foreign policy world on the basis of connections and adherence to groupthink.
Bari Weiss offers a characteristically much more visceral and emotional look at the fiasco in Afghanistan. She prints an essay by Melissa Chen, who writes,
On August 17, I was part of a group that was given access to a list of 500 names of Afghan aid workers, human rights activists, and religious and ethnic minorities. When it became clear that the American government wasn’t doing enough, such lists started circulating among various volunteers. My heart sank when the person in charge of flight manifests asked us to split the list into “high priority” and just “priority.”
Dan Senor was on my April FITS team. Unlucky for me, he took most of the month off, so he did not make much of an impact. But I highly recommend his recent podcast discussing Afghanistan with Fred Kagan