Dollar Bills and US State Borders

A number of proposals (not all serious) have been floating around lately to redraw the borders of the US. According to this list nearly every US state has groups wanting to partition it somehow. One idea was fifty states with equal population. Another is to redraw borders based on the actual communities that exist–in this case measured by how dollar bills travel:


Dirk Brockmann, a physicist, used information about dollar bill travel patterns from to track the movement of currency. He then used that information to re-allocate the US into states based on “effective communities.” Specifically, he drew borders where dollar bills are least likely to cross.

There are a few interesting borders that jump out. Both Pennsylvania and Missouri are divided into eastern and western chunks. Major metropolitan areas that currently cross several state borders (eg Chicago) have their own state in Brockmann’s map. Notice also that the northernmost part of California is lumped together with Oregon and Washington–not unlike the proposed State of Jefferson. Dollar bills do not appear to cross the Red River from Texas to Oklahoma very often.

One component that would be interesting to add to this is how dollar bills travel internationally. US currency is frequently used in other (especially developing) countries so it would be neat to see how a dollar bill moves around once it’s outside of the US. Does it stay in the first non-US country it reaches, or move around more from there? This data could also be incorporated into a project like Brockmann’s: some communities near international borders might trade with neighboring countries more than they do other parts of their own.

The Aesthetic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

On episode 18 of the Loopcast, Sina and his guest discuss fashion and national security. Around 23:00 comes the money quote: “There’s a lot of black hair dye involved being a dictator.” Here’s the logic:

[I]n a democracy, your hair turns grey very quickly in a four year term…. But in a dictatorship, the hair gets oddly darker: it just turns to an eerie shade of black…. [Dictators] want to remain relevant. They didn’t want to get old…. They didn’t want it to seem like they had been getting old and getting crushed by the responsibility of their job.

While a random sample of hair shades and a thorough hypothesis test is beyond the scope of this post, I’ll let the readers judge for themselves based on the photos below. Note that one source of bias may be that US presidents try to look young and vital for the election but let their hair go after that.

Democratic Leaders:

Bill Clinton, 1993 and 1999

Bill Clinton, 1993 and 1999


George W. Bush, 2001 and 2008


Barack Obama, 2009 and 2011

(More US president before/after photos here.)


Hosni Mubarak in 2012: Imprisoned and hospitalized but not grey

Hosni Mubarak in 2012: Imprisoned and hospitalized but not grey

Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years

Muammar Qaddafi ruled Libya for 42 years

Hugo Chavez not letting grey get the best of him

Hugo Chavez kept grey at bay until the very end

The Political Economy of *Killing Them Softly*

killing-them-softlyOver the weekend I rented Killing them Softly expecting a relatively mindless movie featuring Brad Pitt as a hitman. I was only half right. During several key scenes George W. Bush and his administration officials can be heard giving statements to the press about the financial crisis; Barack Obama is elected near the end. The man hiring Pitt refers to the “corporate mentality” of his bosses and tries to pay him less than he is owed. The plot centers around a gambling racket in New Orleans. Do you get the metaphor yet?

Yes, the movie is a cautionary tale about greed and risk in light of the 2008 financial crisis. The following quotes from an interview with writer and director Andrew Dominik make the connection clear:

[A]s I started adapting it, it was the story of an economic crisis, and it was an economic crisis in an economy that was funded by gambling — and the crisis occurred due to a failure in regulation….

I always feel that crime films are about capitalism, because it’s the one genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for all the characters to be motivated by desire for money only. I always think in some ways the crime film is the most honest American film, because it portrays Americans as I experience them. Particularly in Hollywood, people are very concerned with money….

The film’s not about Obama, it’s about a crisis in the economy, and the people who have to clean it up.

Don’t worry–the movie doesn’t come off as hokey or the metaphor as forced. (The use of politicians as background audio is mostly in the first half.) It’s a satisfying film whether you want the shoot-em-up I expected or something a bit deeper.

For more YSPR fun at the movies see these posts on Public Enemies and Moneyball.

When will telephone polls have their “Literary Digest” moment?

literary-digestMention the name Literary Digest to a pollster and they will instantly know what you are talking about. Literary Digest is well-known for their famously wrong prediction that Kansas Republican Alfred Landon would beat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidential election of 1936. Part of the problem was that, despite a sample size of 2.4 million and a response rate of nearly 25 percent, the groups that Literary Digest surveyed were not representative of voters. Respondents tended to be wealthier than average, since they were drawn from the Digest‘s subscribers as well as automobile registries and telephone books. Using a sample of “only” 50,000, George Gallup was able to predict the outcome correctly and the Digest soon went out of business.

What people forget is that 1936 was not the first time that Literary Digest had conducted a presidential poll or made a prediction. In the previous four elections–dating back to 1920–the Digest had always been correct. The 1936 election was a “falling off the cliff” moment for their polling methodology.

On Friday David Rothschild of Microsoft Research came and gave a series of talks for the Duke political methodology group. He covered a number of interesting topics, including prediction markets and online experiments. There was also a presentation about his work-in-progress analyzing 2012 polling data collected via XBox Live. One takeaway from that presentation is that, correcting for demographics of likely voters (as you might expect, XBox respondents were overwhelmingly male and young) the Xbox Poll tends to track the Pollster polling average.

An important issue that came up during the presentation was non-response bias. Telephone surveys now have vanishingly small response rates. They are further complicated by the shift to cell phones. Pollsters cannot use a computer to randomly dial (RDD) cell phones: the numbers have to be dialed by hand, which raises the time required and thus the costs of the poll. People are not “randomly” switching to cell phones either, so this biases the poll.

The demise of telephone polls will not be gradual. Organizations like Gallup will have their own Literary Digest moment in which their methodology–which has been highly accurate for years–will fall off a cliff. It is only a matter of time.

Blogging, Two Years On

Tuesday marked the second anniversary of YSPR. I wrote the first post while at a political science conference, so it seems fitting that I spent the last couple of weeks travelling to ISA and MPSA. From those two conferences it is clear that blogging and social media are playing an increasingly prominent role in the field. At ISA there was a strong turnout for the blogging reception. While in Chicago for MPSA I had the pleasure of joining a dinner for conflict scholars hosted by Will Moore and Christian Davenport. One notable aspect of that dinner was that in the invitation email everyone had a personal website or blog.

I sincerely appreciate everyone who has visited this blog over the past two years and expressed their support either online or in person. For others who may be starting a blog or thinking about doing so, here are a few lessons I have learned over the past year:

1. Schedule your writing. Making time to write is an important habit to get into. Whether it’s daily or weekly, set aside some time that you can avoid distractions and just write. I usually like first thing in the morning, but you may prefer late evening or another time of day.

2. Schedule your posts. I used to hit “publish” as soon as I wrote something, but that changed this year. Instead, I like to line up about a week’s worth of posts at a time. This allows me to arrange some continuity between posts. It also gives time for my ideas to gel and to ruminate over new post ideas without feeling rushed (and sometimes catch typos).

3. Get involved in a community of writers. Blogging can feel like a solitary task, but it doesn’t have to be. A year ago I got in touch with Duke professor Marc Bellemare since I enjoy his blog. We now get lunch or coffee occasionally and chat about all manner of interesting topics. There are also a few scholar-bloggers I know primarily through blogs and Twitter (Jay Ulfelder, Trey Causey).  Creating friendships with people who will respond to your writing and offer critique when you need it is invaluable.

Thanks for being part of the conversation!

Five Lessons on Strategic Thinking from Jane Austen

austen-game-theoristOn Monday I mentioned Michael Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. In this post we take a deeper look at Chwe’s argument: that Jane Austen was teaching lessons about strategic thinking through her novels in what he calls “folk game theory.” We will do that by going through chapters nine and ten in which Chwe examines five lessons on strategic thinking found in Austen’s six novels. I will focus here on examples from Pride and Prejudice as a way of narrowing the field and because it is probably the most popular of the six; page numbers refer to Chwe’s book.

1. Strategic thinking can lead to strong partnerships

One of Chwe’s goals in his book is to help dispel the notion that game theory is strictly atomistic. Austen does a good job of this because some of the strongest couples in her novels result from two characters jointly strategizing. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are first in conflict because they are strategizing differently (Mr. Darcy cannot imagine Elizabeth turning down his proposal of marriage; p. 146). Austen is shows the importance of choice and in particular the choice of a woman to accept to reject a proposal. As they encounter other strategic situations throughout the novel, though, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy gradually establish a pattern of working together. By learning how the other thinks, they engage in what for Austen is the height of intimacy. This type of joint strategizing can also strengthen female friendships (for Austen females are the more strategic of the two genders; p. 151).

2. You can strategically manipulate yourself

Another matter of choice–again, a primary theme in Austen’s work–is the decision to engage in “self-management” (156). An individual can have multiple “selves,” some of which are more in line with her long-term goals than others. Temperament alone is not sufficient to maintain commitment to your long-term interests, so you must allow your more rational self to override your short-term interests. This strategy can also be used to work against your own biases if you are aware of them (157-8). Mr. Darcy argues in a letter to Elizabeth that he was aware of his bias and was able to avoid letting it influence him: “That I was desirous of believing her indifferent is certain,–but I will venture to say that my investigations and decisions are not usually influence by my hopes or fears.–I did not believe her indifferent because I wished it.”

3. Preferences can be changed

Most social science models take preferences as given, but Austen is interested in how they can be shaped. One mechanism for changing preferences is gratitude (158-9). When Elizabeth learns that Mr. Darcy helped support the marriage between her sister Lydia and Wickham she becomes much more open to the idea of a relationship with him  (telling him that “her sentiments had undergone so material a change… as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances”). Love in Austen’s novels is a coordination problem, and being in love can also affect individuals’ preferences (160). A third factor that influences preferences is reference dependence: to what baseline are you comparing your current options (161-2).

4. Commitment requires strategic thinking

As discussed above, understanding how someone makes decisions–their preferences and strategies–is for Austen the basis of intimacy. By understanding another, you can view subsequent choices that might otherwise seem inconsistent as flowing from the same strategic point of view. This allows you to understand their goals and recognize their commitments (169). It also helps you to predict how they will react in changing circumstances, allowing you to assess whether and how committed they are to you.

5. Strategic thinking has its disadvantages

This final lesson is truly an innovation on Austen’s part, since contemporary game theory does not often consider downsides to rational thinking. Several complications may arise if you are known to be a strategic thinker. First, others might rely on you too heavily to make decisions for them (172). It may also lead to moral complications if others ask you to engage in strategic actions on their behalf, such as deception. Others might be less willing to help you if they know you are thinking strategically (173). If they view you as always looking for your own most preferred outcome, they may also become less trusting (175-6).

Through these lessons we can see that the manner in which an individual engages in strategic thinking can either strengthen or weaken her social interactions. Austen’s “folk game theory” helped to teach a disadvantaged social class how to outthink their counterparts and end up in more desirable circumstances. She also showed that game theory need not be individualistic, and how strategic thinking can be used to help others. If you enjoyed this post, there is much more to learn from Austen and Chwe does a great job of drawing out those lessons from all six of her novels. One of the biggest lessons in Austen’s novels–that others think differently from you–is still valuable today.

What Can Novels Teach Us?

Is it worthwhile for a social scientist to read fiction? What can novels teach us about human behavior? This post summarizes the work of several authors who would answer the first question with a resounding “yes,” and describes their arguments about how novels help us understand social behavior.

Most recently I had the pleasure of reading Michal Suk-Young Chwe‘s new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Austen herself likely would have preferred the term “imaginist,” which is how the title character in Emma describes herself, referring to her strategic thinking abilities. Chwe’s argument in the book is that Austen is systematically analyzing strategic thinking through her novels. Austen certainly understood that novels could help teach social behavior: she writes in Northanger Abbey that novels contain “the most thorough knowledge of human nature [and] the happiest delineation of its varieties.” On Wednesday we will take a more detailed look at Chwe’s argument. In the meantime you can find a presentation summarizing the book here.

Austen would be in good company with Ariel Rubinstein. The central thesis of his recent book, Economic Fables, is straightforward: “Economic models are not more, but also not less, than stories–fables.” (You can read the book for free here, or see Ariel explain the motivation behind the book in this video.) Rubinstein’s view is actually the converse of Austen’s: he is not arguing that works of fiction are illustrative of human behavior, but that many social science models are themselves useful fictions. (Ed Leamer has advanced a similar view with a more practical twist in his book, Macroeconomic Patterns and Stories.)

Tyler Cowen helps to identify the key differences and similarities between models and novels in his paper, “Is a Novel a Model?” Here is the abstract:

I defend the relevance of fiction for social science investigation. Novels can be useful for making some economic approaches — such as behavioral economics or signaling theory — more plausible. Novels are more like models than is commonly believed. Some novels present verbal models of reality. I interpret other novels as a kind of simulation, akin to how simulations are used in economics. Economics can, and has, profited from the insights contained in novels. Nonetheless, while novels and models lie along a common spectrum, they differ in many particulars. I attempt a partial account of why we
sometimes look to models for understanding, and other times look to novels.

This interview with Tyler contains a summary of his perspective on novels and much more.

Cowen’s former GMU Economics colleague Russ Roberts also agrees that novels are useful for understanding social behavior–so much so that he has written three of them. Each of the novels illustrates one main economic lesson, and all of them support the idea of free markets for solving problems. Roberts interviewed Rubinstein the Econtalk podcast, in which they discuss some of the ideas that led to Rubinstein’s new book.

Overall this attention to useful fictions is a positive development for social science. Novels can help reach a much wider audience than journal articles and many nonfiction books. One danger–which we are far from now but still exists–is that we value the elegance of the novel itself (the language it uses) rather than the lessons it teaches. Another downside is that it is difficult to convey the policy relevance of a novel. Nevertheless, teaching lessons about human behavior in an enjoyable and memorable form is a huge step forward from most contemporary social science.

Communication Technology and Politics

Cell phone coverage (black) and conflict locations (grey) in Africa (Pierskalla and Hollenbach, 2013: Fig. 1)

Cell phone coverage (black) and conflict locations (grey) in Africa (Pierskalla and Hollenbach, 2013: Fig. 1)

We have been on a technology kick this week, first talking about modern etiquette and then how technology improved traffic in LA. Today I want to point out two neat papers at the intersection of communication technology and politics.

The first article deals with “narrowcasting”-type technologies. Pierskalla and Hollenbach (2013) analyze the association between cell phone coverage and conflict in Africa.* They use 55×55 km grid cells rather than the more conventional country-year observational units for their analysis. Here’s the abstract:

The spread of cell phone technology across Africa has transforming effects on the economic and political sphere of the continent. In this paper, we investigate the impact of cell phone technology on violent collective action. We contend that the availability of cell phones as a communication technology allows political groups to overcome collective action problems more easily and improve in-group cooperation, and coordination. Utilizing novel, spatially disaggregated data on cell phone coverage and the location of organized violent events in Africa, we are able to show that the availability of cell phone coverage significantly and substantially increases the probability of violent conflict. Our findings hold across numerous different model specifications and robustness checks, including cross-sectional models, instrumental variable techniques, and panel data methods.

Another neat paper I came across recently deals more with broadcasting technologies. Adena et al (2013) explore the association between radio broadcasts in pre-war Germany and pro- or anti-Nazi sentiment. The identification strategy is rather simple: before the Nazi party took power, radio broadcasts were anti-Nazi. That changed in 1933 when the Nazis took over. According to their paper it took a very short time for sentiments to change:

How far can media undermine democratic institutions and how persuasive can it be in assuring public support for dictator policies? We study this question in the context of Germany between 1929 and 1939. Using quasi-random geographical variation in radio availability, we show that radio had a significant negative effect on the Nazi vote share between 1930 and 1933, when political news had an anti-Nazi slant. This negative effect was fully undone in just one month after Nazis got control over the radio in 1933 and initiated heavy radio propaganda. Radio also helped the Nazis to enroll new party members and encouraged denunciations of Jews and other open expressions of anti-Semitism after Nazis fully consolidated power. Nazi radio propaganda was most effective when combined with other propaganda tools, such as Hitler’s speeches, and when the message was more aligned with listeners’ prior as measured by historical anti-Semitism.

There are several nice features that these papers have in common. The first is spatially disaggregated data, allowing for more fine-grain analysis of variation over space. (Although as a commenter at one ISA panel pointed out, this is not necessarily useful for all research questions.) Another feature I like is that both go to great lengths to test the robustness of their findings–this is a positive development for the field and I hope the trend continues.

See also: Thomas Zeitzoff sends along two more papers on the topic: “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes” (Kern and Hainmueller, 2009) and “Propaganda and Conflict: Theory and Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide” (Yanagizawa-Drott, 2012).


*Note: Jan got his PhD at Duke and Florian is currently in the program. Both are friends of mine.

Reducing the Hidden Costs of Urban Living

USC graduate student Jeremy Fuller put it eloquently when he said, “Traffic really just defines your possibilities at any given time.” When traveling from one side of a large metro area to another in the US, a single individual has very little control over her travel time. You can try to pick a less congested time of day or select from a few alternate routes but if the city is gridlocked you are out of luck.

According to the most recent Annual Urban Mobility Report, annual hours wasted in traffic in the largest metro areas of the US increased by 33 hours per year between 1982 and 2012 (from 19 to 52). That means every year Americans in the largest cities are wasting one more hour of their life in traffic. There are 15 of these areas with over 3 million residents each, so even small differences in time wasted add up. The worst offender is the DC area at 67 wasted hours per driver per year.

The Los Angeles area is notorious for its traffic, but the situation is improving. Although the 2011 figure of 61 hours per driver-year is still high, it is down from 78 hours in 2005.  Part of the improvement comes from synchronizing the city’s 4,500 traffic signals over the 469 square-mile metro area:

The system uses magnetic sensors in the road that measure the flow of traffic, hundreds of cameras and a centralized computer system that makes constant adjustments to keep cars moving as smoothly as possible. The city’s Transportation Department says the average speed of traffic across the city is 16 percent faster under the system, with delays at major intersections down 12 percent.

Without synchronization, it takes an average of 20 minutes to drive five miles on Los Angeles streets; with synchronization, it has fallen to 17.2 minutes, the city says. And the average speed on the city’s streets is now 17.3 miles per hour, up from 15 m.p.h. without synchronized lights.

The natural question to ask is, “but then what?” There could be second-order effects: as traffic time is reduced, more commuters could switch to driving. And as the city continues to grow there will be more cars on the road. For now, though, this represents a major improvement that cuts down on one of the main hidden costs in urban life.

Read more about how other major cities are fighting traffic problems here. You may also be interested in traffic signals as a metaphor for property rights or the safety of traffic circles.

Etiquette in the Digital Age

writing_stylesIt happens whenever new communication technology comes into widespread use. Standard forms of behavior that worked well in the past are less suitable for the new medium. When the telephone was invented, people were unsure how to greet the caller. Thankfully Alexander Graham Bell’s proposed “Ahoy!” was not adopted. Similarly, recent technologies such as text messaging and smartphone internet access are challenging existing norms and creating new ones. This post describes some of those changes, but should not be interpreted as taking a position on which are appropriate.

One taboo is asking someone a question when the information is readily available on the internet. If you want to chide the questioner you might use, which stands for Let Me Google That for You.

Voicemails–a relatively new technology themselves–are on the way out, replaced by a follow-up text message if necessary. Caity Weaver has a list of when she considers voicemails OK and when they are unwarranted.

Personally I use e-mail sign-offs as if I was writing a short letter, but Matthew Malady wants to kill this bit of formality:

[E]veryone has a breaking point. For me, it was the ridiculous variations on “Regards” that I received over the past holiday season. My transition from signoff submissive to signoff subversive began when a former colleague ended an email to me with “Warmest regards.”

Were these scalding hot regards superior to the ordinary “Regards” I had been receiving on a near-daily basis? Obviously they were better than the merely “Warm Regards” I got from a co-worker the following week. Then I received “Best Regards” in a solicitation email from the New Republic. Apparently when urging me to attend a panel discussion, the good people at the New Republic were regarding me in a way that simply could not be topped.

After 10 or 15 more “Regards” of varying magnitudes, I could take no more. I finally realized the ridiculousness of spending even one second thinking about the totally unnecessary words that we tack on to the end of emails. And I came to the following conclusion: It’s time to eliminate email signoffs completely. Henceforth, I do not want—nay, I will not accept—any manner of regards. Nor will I offer any. And I urge you to do the same.

The difficulty with these emerging norms is the disparity in how different people use the technologies. My siblings and I text more than we talk on the phone and are OK with short informal messages, but when our grandmother texts us it is more like an email. Some workers use e-mail for regular communication in their office and may send and receive 100 or more messages a day, while for others it is a much less commonly used tool. It seems likely that different norms could emerge in these various settings, but this will require attention when you are talking/writing to someone outside your usual network. As these norms emerge it will give us a chance to observe the development of micro-institutions in real time.