Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Radio New Zealand featured Alan Gibbs on Sunday. It's worth a listen.

I love the story of Ralph Hotere installing an artwork at Gibbs's farm. Hotere was lauding communist Cuba, so Gibbs brought him to Cuba to show him what it was like. Travel to Yugoslavia and East Berlin had convinced a younger Gibbs that socialism didn't work; Hotere was a bit more immune to updating based on evidence.

His discussions of the import licensing regime under which NZ operated is also worth hearing - especially for the kids who hear all the critique of the reforms of the 80s but who are clueless about why they were needed. That's from around the 25 minute mark.

At the 35 minute mark, he describes how in the 1970s his trucking company had to get licences for each truck, with opportunities for his competitors to object. Fortunately there's nothing like that now.

When entrepreneurial energy goes into figuring out how to get import licences and local regulatory monopolies....

HT: Jenesa Jeram

Monday, 2 March 2015

Feeling Chuffed Again

I'm looking forward to doing my first lecture at Victoria University today, so I hope it is not disloyal to write a post celebrating the success of students from the University of Canterbury.

Last year, I wrote celebrating post-graduate successes of students from my Honours class of 2009, and lauding the diversity of the Canterbury programme that emphasised both analytical rigour and traditional liberal arts learning. This year, the cause for celebration is the recent graduate recruitment round by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. Three students who were in my intermediate-micro-with-calculus sequence in 2013, Amy Rice, Michael Callaghan, and Simon Greenwood, were successful in securing positions at the RBNZ for 2016 in the early-bird recruitment round for the RBNZ. My understanding is that they were the only three students in New Zealand to receive such offers. Two of them, Amy and Michael, also received Reserve Bank scholarships for their Honours year in 2015.

These successes continues the astonishing record Canterbury has had in placing students into the RBNZ over the past decade. Sadly, this might be one of the last cohorts from Canterbury to enjoy this success. As a result of the financial difficulties following the earthquake, management there has decided that the Department needs to focus on its broad-based B.Com. Accordingly, it no longer offers micro with calculus at the second year, has cancelled its Arts-style current-economic issues course, and has introduced a new Bachelor of Business Economics major targeted at a different group of students. In the current financial environment with a much smaller department, it was probably necessary for Canterbury to narrow its focus, but I hope they are able to return to offering its top students a strong maths-based, liberal-arts-consistent programme. The country needs rigorously trained economists with multi-disciplinary grounding. Fortunately, Otago, Vic and Auckland still offer calculus-based micro at the second year.

Impoverished journalists

Did you hear the story of the indebted journalist who, when on assignment hanging out as a beggar for a while to be able to write on life from the streets, found he made more money begging than he did as a journalist? So he quit his journalism job and became a professional beggar, earning enough to pay off the debts.

Times are tough for journalists when they can make more begging on the streets.

If you hadn't read the story, it's here. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Man with the Twisted Lip. 1919.

As I've already spoiled the conclusion for you, here's the excerpt.
"You are the first who have ever heard my story. My father was a school-master in Chesterfield, where I received an excellent education. I travelled in my youth, took to the stage, and finally became a reporter on an evening paper in London. One day my editor wished to have a series of articles upon begging in the metropolis, and I volunteered to supply them. There was the point from which all my adventures started. It was only by trying begging as an amateur that I could get the facts upon which to base my articles. When an actor I had, of course, learned all the secrets of making up, and had been famous in the greenroom for my skill. I took advantage now of my attainments. I painted my face, and to make myself as pitiable as possible I made a good scar and fixed one side of my lip in a twist by the aid of a small slip of flesh-colored plaster. Then with a red head of hair, and an appropriate dress, I took my station in the business part of the city, ostensibly as a match-seller but really as a beggar. For seven hours I plied my trade, and when I returned home in the evening I found to my surprise that I had received no less than 26s. 4d.
 "I wrote my articles and thought little more of the matter until, some time later, I backed a bill for a friend and had a writ served upon me for 25 pounds. I was at my wit's end where to get the money, but a sudden idea came to me. I begged a fortnight's grace from the creditor, asked for a holiday from my employers, and spent the time in begging in the City under my disguise. In ten days I had the money and had paid the debt.
     "Well, you can imagine how hard it was to settle down to arduous work at 2 pounds a week when I knew that I could earn as much in a day by smearing my face with a little paint, laying my cap on the ground, and sitting still. It was a long fight between my pride and the money, but the dollars won at last, and I threw up reporting and sat day after day in the corner which I had first chosen, inspiring pity by my ghastly face and filling my pockets with coppers. Only one man knew my secret. He was the keeper of a low den in which I used to lodge in Swandam Lane, where I could every morning emerge as a squalid beggar and in the evenings transform myself into a well-dressed man about town. This fellow, a Lascar, was well paid by me for his rooms, so that I knew that my secret was safe in his possession.
     "Well, very soon I found that I was saving considerable sums of money. I do not mean that any beggar in the streets of London could earn 700 pounds a year -- which is less than my average takings -- but I had exceptional advantages in my power of making up, and also in a facility of repartee, which improved by practice and made me quite a recognized character in the City. All day a stream of pennies, varied by silver, poured in upon me, and it was a very bad day in which I failed to take 2 pounds.
     "As I grew richer I grew more ambitious, took a house in the country, and eventually married, without anyone having a suspicion as to my real occupation. My dear wife knew that I had business in the City. She little knew what.
Shades too of Gordon Tullock on Competing for Aid.

Saturday, 28 February 2015


Here's a fun one for those of you still based at a university.

All of you put together a Human Ethics Review proposal for a field experiment on Human Ethics Review proposals.

Here is the proposal within my proposal.
Each of you would propose putting together a panel of researchers at different universities. You would propose that each of your panel members - from diverse fields, seniority levels, ethnicities and such - would submit a proposal to his or her ethics review board or Institutional Review Board for approval, and each of the panellists would track the time it took to get the proposal approved, which legitimate ethical issues were flagged, which red herring issues also held things up, and how long and onerous the whole ordeal was.

Still in your proposal, you would then propose gathering the data from your panellists and drawing some conclusions about what sorts of schools have better or worse processes. Specific hypotheses to be tested would be whether universities with medical schools were worse than others because medical ethicists would be on the panel, and whether universities with faculty-based rather than centralised IRBs would have better approval processes.

You would note that members of your panels could ask their University's HR advisers to get data on the people who are on the IRBs - race, gender, ethnicity, area of study, rank, age, experience, time on panel, number of children, marital status, and sexual orientation (though not all of those would be in each place's HR database); you'd propose using these as control variables but also to test whether a panel's experience made any difference and whether having a panel member from your home Department made any difference. It would also be interesting to note whether the gender, seniority, ethnicity and home department of the submitter made any difference to the application.
End of the proposal-within-the-proposal.

Now for the fun part: each one of you reading this is a potential member of a panel for a study for which nobody has ever sought ethical approval, but which will be self-approving in a particularly distributed fashion: The IRB proposal to be tested is the one I've just outlined. Whichever of you first gets ethical approval is the lead author on the paper, is a data point, and already has the necessary ethics approval. Everybody else, successful or not, is a data point.

I expect that they might raise legitimate concerns about accessing private HR data and that you limit yourself to publicly available data, or that you survey your IRB members AFTER they issued a decision on your proposal. Those would be very legitimate things for them to point out, and they are the practices I'd want you following anyway: don't bug your HR people. They could also very legitimately point out that since you have zero reason to expect that marital status, children, or sexual orientation have any effect, you shouldn't even survey them asking for it. A good ethics review process, I'd expect, should raise both of those.

More meddlesome ones might ask whether you have appropriately considered the value of the IRB's time across the different institutions. You might then note that getting some 'best practice' guidelines out of this could save many multiples of that time for anybody who's ever sent stuff to an IRB.

But if they tell you you'd need to seek up-front approval from each of the IRBs for your study on IRBs, well, they're proposing killing the study and it would be interesting to know which universities would do that. While they’d be raising the deception of IRB members as an issue, the deception would be necessary for the study to be undertaken.

If there seem to be enough potential folks to make a go of this, I think it could be a lot of fun.

Now it could be that I've just wrecked the potential for running this particular study.

But it could also mean that IRBs that have read the post would be more reasonable in assessing your proposal to assess other IRB proposals. So either way it's good.

If you wind up submitting the proposal above, let me know that you're doing so (so I can tell you if anybody else at your school's already done it) and then let me know how it turns out. If enough people get back to me, then that's the study; first one successfully through can be lead and I'll forward the other data points on to that person.

If we don't have enough data points, well, the first one who did get approval will have to run the study as I actually outlined it above the hard way: setting up a panel of people who will formally submit an IRB proposal. I have a couple of really fun field/audit ones that would be worth doing in their own right, but I'm not going to post them here for fear of skewing things all the way down.

And, to be very clear, lead author above means "you do all the work".

Previously: The Ethics of Ethical Review Boards.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Missed opportunity

Sadly, our tech regulations do not put us in the outside of the Asylum.

I wrote in May 2013:
New Zealand keeps ranking at or near the top of the various indices of economic and social freedoms. We could do well by encouraging greater immigration of American techies fed up with that the American governmentseems to be archiving and storing just about everything for later searches. Just show them Novopay as example of how we couldn't, even if we wanted to.
Alas, we're not immune to the shenanigans going on elsewhere. Our NSA, the GCSB, is getting a legislative redraft. Thomas Beagle of TechLiberty summarisesNoRightTurn has a few additional comments. I'm not a lawyer - maybe things aren't as bad as they seem. David Farrar is considerably less concerned....When the US seems to be doing everything it can to convince its tech guys that the government really does want to be spying on everybody, and that the IRS wants to know everything you talk about at political meetings if you have small-government leanings, the last thing we need are headlines suggesting we're heading down similar paths if the legislation doesn't actually do that. And if it does, it does need changing.
At the time, a whole pile of people offered me big assurances that the TICSA legislation was far more innocuous than the press made out and that it wouldn't just work to kill innovative startups who couldn't handle the regulations and that it was all just a beat-up by people who didn't understand the regulations and hadn't had all the super-secret briefings.

The NZ Herald now tells me that we've scared off a pile of tech investment. I guess that they didn't understand the regulations or profit from the super-secret briefings either.

Charting the Minimum Wage

It's never enough, is it?

As reply to those clamouring for a higher minimum wage, after the National government just hiked it by $0.50 to $14.75, some charts from MBIE's advice on the minimum wage hike.

The minimum wage is 64.9% of the median wage and will rise to about 65-66% of the median wage depending on what comes out in the next Income Survey release. 

Update: Here's me quote at The NBR on the same topic.

Keyhole solutions: alcohol edition

One of the main real external costs of alcohol use comes via alcohol-associated crimes. And so it's good to see the government attempting a more finely tuned intervention on this than using excise tax.

David Farrar points to the Drug and Alcohol Testing of Community-based Offenders and Bailees Legislation Bill coming up. In short, it allows drug and alcohol testing to be a condition of bail.

Why is this a good idea? Something similar seems to have done a lot of good in Hawaii. Here's Heritage on the Hawaii Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) project, which targeted methamphetamine users, and here's an evaluation of South Dakota's programme that targeted alcohol use.

To be very clear: I only support this kind of thing for offenders who have committed real violent or property crimes, and not those caught simply for drug possession.

But for those offenders who go out and do bad things to people while drunk or high, well, they've probably well signalled that they should be kept away from the stuff for a while.