A couple years ago NPR's Planet Money podcast had an episode about Somali pirates. (The pirate part starts at 9:35). There was all sorts of interesting stuff about division of labor, allocation of shares, pirate venture capital, etc. Some of this paralleled early modern piracy (as given a scholarly analysis in Peter Leeson's work and a romantic perspective in innumerable books and movies since Treasure Island) but in other respects it's very different. In particular, whereas early modern piracy was mostly about seizing cargo and the crews were left alone if they surrendered promptly, Somali piracy is more similar to piracy in antiquity in that it's basically maritime kidnapping. The typical instance of Somali piracy isn't that different from what a young Julius Caesar experienced when he was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom on his way home from political exile in Asia Minor. One interesting detail in Plutarch's report is that, "When these men at first demanded of him twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not understanding the value of their prisoner, and voluntarily engaged to give them fifty."
It's not entirely clear if we should take Plutarch's report at face value (he also tells us that Caesar constantly insulted his captors as being, for instance, too uncivilized to appreciate his poetry) but for the sake of argument let's accept that Caesar rather brashly gave away too much information in the game of price discovery. According to a hostage negotiator quoted by This American Life, giving away this information is apparently typical of hostages and is counter-productive to their release as it narrows the bid-ask spread. Economists would describe hostage negotiation as a bilateral monopoly price negotiation that is structurally just a special case of chicken. That is, unlike a barrel of oil or a freight car full of soybeans which can trade on an extremely liquid market with innumerable buyers and sellers, a hostage has exactly one seller (the kidnappers) and exactly one buyer (the employer and/or family of the hostage). When there is only one buyer, the opportunity cost for ransoming the hostage is zero. Likewise, the employer and/or family has no realistic alternative means to recover the hostage. In order for everybody to walk away happy, we need a cooperate-cooperate outcome: the kidnapper has to give up the hostage and the employer/family has to give up a ransom. This structure also characterizes art theft, which in practice is not a matter of fencing art on the black market but ransoming art to a museum's insurance company.
If we model a bilateral monopoly negotiation only two things should matter. The first is, as always in a game of chicken, the willingness to accept failure. The more willing you appear to walk away, the more bargaining power you have. In a more protracted game this can cash out as willingness to delay which we can treat as a defect-defect outcome on the installment plan. In fact in the Planet Money episode on Somali piracy, the hostage's party did balk and break off negotiations for weeks at a time until the pirates were willing to come down on price.
The other thing that should matter is the capacity to pay. If the pirate knows for an absolute fact that the hostage's people simply can't raise more than a million dollars then it would be pointless for them to demand two million dollars. Of course there is an issue of information asymmetry in that the hostage's party has much better information on its assets than do the pirates and so the pirates may be skeptical of the hostage's party pleading poverty (especially if the hostage has foolishly told them how much money they can get). We see this at work in the TAL story's point that kidnapping insurance holds the condition that you can't tell anyone you have kidnapping insurance.
Here's something that the econ model tells us shouldn't matter: the going rate. In normal markets the going rate matters, but only because it provides the opportunities for substitutes and this creates the "law of one price." For instance, when I go to a grocery store and see a loaf of bread for $4 I won't buy it. An economist would say I forgo this purchase because I know perfectly well that the going rate for a loaf of bread is about $2.25 and so I can go elsewhere and get bread cheaper. Similarly if I go to the Honda dealer to buy a Honda Accord, it is relevant for me to mention price quotes offered by other Honda dealers for an Accord or even how much Toyota dealers ask for a Camry because it is entirely credible that I'll walk off the lot and go to rival car dealers offering very close substitutes for this dealer's cars. However if my sister is locked in a basement in Ciudad Juarez and the kidnappers can credibly commit to not letting her go unless I raise $x, it is completely irrelevant that in the past kidnappers accepted ransoms of $x/2 since I don't have the relatively good fortune of dealing with a kidnapper who demands $x/2 but am stuck with one who demands $x. There are no other places where I can buy the freedom of my sister and so the only price that matters is the one being demanded by her particular kidnappers. (Note to any cartels reading this: I don't have a sister).
And nonetheless, much like how most people who haven't studied statistics balk at the idea that the ratio of sample size to population size is irrelevant to statistical inference, people seem to have a strong intuition that the "market price" is relevant to a bilateral monopoly even though the whole idea of a bilateral monopoly is that there is not really a market but only a series of discrete one-off transactions. In the absence of substitutability, "comparable" transactions are irrelevant as they don't imply opportunity cost. This is the main thing I found so fascinating about the Planet Money episode, over and over again the hostage's party balked at the pirates demands as unreasonable in being out of line with the "market price." We only get the pirates' story second hand, but apparently at no point did they explain to the hostage's party that "market price" doesn't really exist in a bilateral monopoly. (Maybe Mogadishu University needs a better econ department).
There are two ways, which are only partially incompatible, to look at why people insist that there is a market price. The simple model is to see us as making Bayesian inferences about the price the other party is willing to accept. If a pirate asks me for $10 million when I know that previous ransoms for similar hostages from similar pirates were about $1 million, I face two possibilities. It may be that I'm facing an usually greedy or unreasonable pirate and $10 million really is the price from which he will not budge. However it seems more likely that I'm dealing with a regular pirate, who like most pirates in the past will ultimately settle for about $1 million but who is just floating a high initial figure in case I'm especially bad at this. In this sense the distribution of prices for similar transactions may not be directly relevant in the sense of providing opportunities for substitution (or the credible threat to avail myself of them) but it is still relevant as information about the zone of possible agreement. This is consistent with the Planet Money story in that Filipinos are cheaper to ransom than Europeans by an order of magnitude. Presumably this reflects Bayesian inference on the part of the pirates from the hostage's nationality as to how much the hostage's party should be able to raise. Alternately we could imagine that pirates always start with the same bargaining position but the Filipinos are less able to pay and so the pirates eventually reach this through ad hoc price discovery on a case-by-case basis. This strikes me as implausible though and I think pirates probably learned pretty quickly what they can reasonably expect for each nationality.
This is a nice explanation and it has the appeal of bending but not breaking the economic model of the actor, but it's not clear how seriously we want to take it and even if it's ultimately true it may not reflect the subjective experience. For instance, one of the main explanations for racial discrimination is that it reflects Bayesian inference about aspects of human capital that aren't readily observable. This model was devastated by Devah Pager's audit study showing that employers prefer to hire white men with a criminal record rather than black men without a criminal record, whereas the "statistical discrimination" model predicts that ascriptive discrimination should be weaker than and diminish greatly in the presence of information about relevant traits at the individual level. In the wake of the Pager study the best case you can make for the statistical discrimination model is that our intuitions are Bayesian in the aggregate but are too low level for us to override with directly relevant information (or, for that matter, with the conscious desire to avoid stereotyping on legal or ethical grounds). It's not unlike the argument that evolution made sex feel good so that we will propagate our genes, but it still feels good when you use birth control. So we might prefer a model that is ultimately consistent with people using prevailing price as information in bilateral monopoly negotiations, but is proximately and subjectively more about meaning.
Although the discipline of economics has many valuable things to teach us about how markets work, especially in the long-run, the subjective experience of someone bargaining does not necessarily reflect thinking through how a rational actor would apply price theory (competitive markets) or game theory (monopolistic markets) to the situation. Rather people take moralized approaches to exchange and seem to apply various relational models to exchange, which includes not only market exchange but also gift exchange, patron-client ties, and primitive communism. Moreover, even when people accept that a situation is one of market exchange it does not come naturally to think of price like modern economists think of it, as "market clearing." Rather much as people intuitively expect physical objects to behave by Buridan's impetus rather than Newton's inertia, people's intuitive notions about price can have less to do with how economics thinks of it than how Aristotle, Aquinas, and Marx thought of it, as "just price" or "fair price." We see the Aristotelian/scholastic/Marxist understanding of price institutionalized in price controls and laws against gouging. The intuition many people seem to feel is that the long-run prevailing price has moral weight and deviations from this price (as for instance in a supply or demand shock leading to "gouging") are immoral. Hence historical bread riots often involve not exactly stealing food but rather mobs enacting vigilante price controls. Most recently we saw this is in a class action lawsuit against concession prices in movie theaters. As an American and someone who studies exchange professionally, economics comes naturally enough to me that my immediate reflex to this story is to think this guy needs to understand two-part tariffs and tell him if he doesn't like the theater's prices nobody is forcing him to go there or to eat once he arrives. However the fact that somebody felt sufficiently indignant to sue over being offered the opportunity to buy a bucket of popcorn for $6 shows us that the perspective assumed by academic economics doesn't necessarily come naturally to people. Similarly, when the hostage's party is negotiating a ransom with pirates both the pirates and hostages may be behaving in ways that are ultimately consistent with a game of chicken under conditions of bounded rationality and Bayesian inference about asymmetric information, but in the immediate subjective sense they may simply be feeling that the recent run of ransoms sets an expectation of what it is fair to pay for this particular hostage.
Oh, and one more thing about Caesar. Plutarch tells us that after he was ransomed he got some ships, raided the pirates, and had them all crucified.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
For decades, some psychologists have claimed that bilinguals have better mental control. Their work is now being called into question.
In one of his sketches, comedian Eddie Izzard talks about how English speakers see bilingualism: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed! Good lord, man. You’re asking the impossible,” he says. This satirical view used to be a serious one. People believed that if children grew up with two languages rattling around their heads, they would become so confused that their “intellectual and spiritual growth would not thereby be doubled, but halved,” wrote one professor in 1890. “The use of a foreign language in the home is one of the chief factors in producing mental retardation,” said another in 1926.
A century on, things are very different. Since the 1960s, several studies have shown that bilingualism leads to many advantages, beyond the obvious social benefits of being able to speak to more people. It also supposedly improves executive function—a catch-all term for advanced mental abilities that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, such as focusing on a goal, ignoring distractions, switching attention, and planning for the future.
The ancient civilization may have tracked Jupiter using sophisticated methods, but their reasons for stargazing were very different than ours.
We’ve never escaped the influence of the Babylonians. That there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a full circle, are all echoes of the Babylonian preference for counting in base 60. An affinity for base 12 (inches in a foot, pence in an old British shilling) is also an offshoot, 12 being a factor of 60.
All this suggests that the Babylonians had a mathematics worth copying, which was why the Greeks did copy it and thereby rooted these number systems in Western tradition. The latest indication of Babylonian mathematical sophistication is the discovery that their astronomers knew that, in effect, the distance traveled by a moving object is equal to the area under the graph of velocity plotted against time. Previously it had been thought that this relationship wasn’t recognized until the fourteenth century in Europe. But since historian Mathieu Ossendrijver of the Humboldt University in Berlin found the calculation described in a series of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing in Babylonia during the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E., where it was used to figure out the distance traveled across the sky by the planet Jupiter.
After a pair of poor showings in New Hampshire, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina drop out of the race.
The Republican race is headed to South Carolina with two fewer candidates. The day after finishing sixth and seventh in the New Hampshire primaries, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced on Wednesday that they were suspending their campaigns.
Fiorina was always a long shot—she was practically a political newcomer, having only run one unsuccessful Senate campaign. And while her record at HP was vulnerable to attack, Republican figures saw in her both private-sector experience and a woman who could counter Hillary Clinton’s monopoly on a “historic” woman’s candidacy. While many political professionals sniffed at Fiorina’s candidacy, remembering that 2010 Senate race, she broke out after a commanding performance in the undercard to the first Republican debate. That earned her a promotion to the main stage at the next debate, where she scored another victory. But it was all downhill from there. Dogged by questions of honesty and unable to earn media attention, her campaign faded quickly.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Issued last summer, the rules are the centerpiece of the White House’s climate-change-fighting agenda, and they play a big part in the recent, tepid optimism about global warming. Without the proposal of the plan, the United States couldn’t have secured the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, last December. And without the adoption of the plan, the United States almost certainly won’t be able to comply with that document. If the world were to lose the Paris Agreement—which was not a total solution to the climate crisis, but meant to be a first, provisional step—years could be lost in the diplomatic fight to reduce climate-change’s dangers.
The Warriors star is the embodiment of basketball’s analytics revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are now some 15 months in to their turn as one of the best teams in basketball history. Last season, they won 67 games, the most in the NBA in eight years, and secured a championship in June against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This season’s Warriors make last season’s Warriors look like a team that hadn’t yet gotten loose. They started the year winning their first 24 games in a row, a record opening, and as of now have won 46 of 50.
Golden State’s brilliance is more than just statistical. The Warriors are a basketball idyll, a paradise of skill and collaboration. Their offense runs on nifty ballhandling, willing passing, and sublime shooting, with their point guard and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player acting as ringleader. A slim 6’3” and 185 pounds, with a bouncy jog and a barely post-pubescent tuft of beard at his chin, Stephen Curry dribbles with the intentional abandon of a card hustler, flings one-handed passes to all sectors of the court, and shoots better than anyone ever has.
This morning I went on Democracy Now to discuss my critique of “class-first” policy as a way of ameliorating the effects of racism. In the midst of that discussion I made the point that one can maintain a critique of a candidate—in this case Bernie Sanders—and still feel that that candidate is deserving of your vote. Amy Goodman, being an excellent journalist, did exactly what she should have done—she asked if I were going to vote for Senator Sanders.
I, with some trepidation, answered in the affirmative. I did so because I’ve spent my career trying to get people to answer uncomfortable questions. Indeed, the entire reason I was on the show was to try to push liberals into directly addressing an uncomfortable issue that threatens their coalition. It seemed wrong, somehow, to ask others to step into their uncomfortable space and not do so myself. So I answered.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.