Friday, 20 April 2018

Precious arable land

I just don't get the fixation with making sure that nobody builds a house on agricultural land.
The government plans to make it harder for councils to approve new homes and lifestyle blocks on productive land near urban areas.

A report out today, called Our Land 2018, shows New Zealand's urban sprawl is eating up some of the country's most versatile land.

It highlights that between 1990 and 2008, 29 percent of new urban areas were built on some of the country's most versatile land.

Lifestyle blocks were also having an impact - in 2013 those blocks covered 10 percent of New Zealand's best land.

Environment Minister David Parker said one area that was at particular risk was Pukekohe, known as Auckland's food basket.

"We obviously need more housing around Auckland, but we also need to protect our elite soils.

"So we are proposing a National Policy Statement under the Resource Management Act which will require the councils when they are planning where to allow subdivisions or even rural lifestyle properties, they'll have to make sure that they don't encroach upon our most precious soils."

Mr Parker said the horticultural sector had been saying for some time that too much of its best land was being lost to housing and lifestyle blocks, and it was time to take some action.
Where to start.

First up, it's probably worth agreeing with one bit that the anti-sprawl people have right. Zoning in Auckland is stupid. It is stupid that people who live on major transport and passenger rail corridors can't turn their houses into apartment buildings to accommodate a lot more people. All of the restrictions against building up encourage building out instead - to the extent that that is allowed. And if infrastructure charging is wrong, that problem will be compounded.

But the solution to that problem isn't banning people from building out. The solution to that problem is a massive upzoning everywhere in town combined with congestion charging and better user-pays forms of infrastructure delivery like special purpose tax vehicles to pay off the bonds levied to put in infrastructure kit needed for urban expansion.

And it's very much worth fixing all that.

But suppose you have an agricultural paddock near town. The land can produce horticultural crops worth, say, $1m per year net after costs. The present discounted value of that stream of profits gets capitalised into the price of the land. And so the price of the land will already reflect peoples' expectations about the value of the agricultural produce that will come out of that land over the long-term.

If a developer is able to pay the farmer more than that, that tells us something important. It tells us that the value of that land in housing is higher than the value of that land in agricultural use. The value of all the agricultural output is already accounted for in the price of the land.

So you really don't need to protect valuable agricultural land from developers. The price of agricultural land already does that. If for some other policy reason government has decided to artificially subsidise building on that land as compared to other places, the solution to that isn't banning the development, it's getting rid of the subsidy. Shift the infrastructure to a user-pays basis.

Banning development on that land only makes sense if you really really believe that the person putting in the ban knows better than either the owner of the land or the purchaser of the land the future price path of agricultural products or dwellings. And in that case the person putting in the ban should just be buying the land directly and reaping the huge and obvious profits from knowing better than the market about futures prices.

We got into this stupid housing mess because the "Let's protect Precious Agricultural Land" people teamed up with the "Let's protect Precious Neighborhood Amenity" people and banned anybody building anything anywhere.

I get depressed when a government that came in promising to fix the housing crisis screws this stuff up.

Update: To address the likely first objection before it shows up: you don't have to worry about the "what if everybody did that" scenario. If land were being bid out of agricultural production and into use in housing, then the expected future price path of food would be a bit higher than otherwise - and the price of the next bits of agricultural land will be bid up. We do have access to imports too. And to address the second likely objection - if you're going to complain about the cost of food rising as consequence while ignoring that the cost of housing would drop, and ignoring that food can be imported while housing can't - there's something wrong with you.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Choice of baseline matters

Looks like folks are back to arguing about whether there's a J-curve in alcohol consumption. The J-curve plots out the relationship between all-cause mortality and drinking. Non-drinkers are at the left-hand upwards tip of the J, light-to-moderate drinkers are in the dip, then heavy drinkers are in the upwards tilt at the right hand side.

And the ballpark numbers I keep in my head on this are from Di Castelnuovo and Donati's metastudy from 2006 that has light drinkers (about a drink a day) with a relative risk of about 0.84 as compared to non-drinkers when former drinkers are excluded.

The Lancet has a piece up that the press are covering as showing no J-curve.

But they start their curve with a reference category of light drinkers: people consuming a small amount of alcohol per week. The J-curve normally starts with non-drinkers as a reference category. If you pull the non-drinkers out of any J-curve, then you'll have a hockey-stick instead: no downward tilt followed by a sharp upwards lift.

And, as Chris Snowdon points out, they do have the standard form buried over in an appendix. Page 31 of the appendix. I've copied that figure below. The one on the right is the all-cause mortality one. Once you put non-drinkers back in, you have a J-curve again. If you also have ex-drinkers, you have a sharper J-curve. The ex-drinkers are the even higher risk folks at the far left.

The reference category are people consuming from 0 to 5 standard drinks per week - so a bit under a drink a day. The category that always has the lowest all-source mortality because they're drinking a bit less than a standard drink per day. And the risk from drinking about 4 standard drinks per day (300 grams per week) is the same as the risk among never-drinkers - with much higher risk beyond that.

The same as we've known since Donati 2006.

Am I missing something? The newspapers are yelling about how the study means there's no J-curve.

Friday, 13 April 2018

US CTPP accession?

Trump's made some noises about seeking to join the CTPP agreement - after having pulled the US out of the TPPA negotiations. 

Should the CTPP countries let him in?

Recall that Trump's steel tariffs, from which Australia are exempt but New Zealand is not (or at least wasn't when last I checked) were justified on national security grounds. WTO Article XXI allows tariffs to protect industries critical for national security. The tariffs weren't put in place for national security. They were put in place for domestic political reasons or because of demons in Trump's head. But try proving that quickly or cheaply in a WTO dispute tribunal.

The CTPP has similar protections built in.
Article 29.2: Security Exceptions
Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to:
(a) require a Party to furnish or allow access to any information the disclosure of which it determines to be contrary to its essential security interests; or
(b) preclude a Party from applying measures that it considers necessary for the fulfilment of its obligations with respect to the maintenance or restoration of international peace or security, or the protection of its own essential security interests.
These kinds of provisions (standard in trade agreements I believe) work among states that you can expect to behave like adults. The United States isn't like that currently. Why let them in? If they are admitted, what are the odds that Trump just invokes security exceptions again to undo whatever's negotiated?

There's risk we'll have eaten dead rats on copyright only for Trump to declare butter in need of protection for national security reasons.

Is Vaping Legal?

The Fairfax papers have a good summary out today of what's going on in vaping - as of a month ago. 

They write:
When British public health experts first said vaping (using e-cigarettes) poses only a fraction of the health risk of tobacco smoking, the trend surged in popularity around the world, including in New Zealand.

But it remains illegal to sell or manufacture nicotine juices, or devices here. So how come there are shops openly touting vaping products containing nicotine?


Currently, it's legal to import juices containing nicotine, but only enough for personal use. Nicotine juices and devices, however, still cannot be legally sold in New Zealand.

But anyone who vapes knows stores sell those products anyway, and aren't likely to get prosecuted. Basically, the law just isn't enforced.
But I don't know that that's right anymore.

Let's put up a giant caveat here first though. I Am Not A Lawyer. This Is Not Legal Advice.

The Court decision in the Philip Morris case on their Heat-Not-Burn said that the SmokeFree Environments Act [SFEA] doesn't apply to oral tobacco products unless they are used in a manner sufficiently similar to chewing. That's the bit that was used previously to block the sale of vaping and Heat-Not-Burn.

Unless the Medicines Act restrictions on nicotine are read as applying to nicotine formulations used in vaping - and nobody seems to know whether it should be read that way - vaping and sale of all the associated kit is legal in New Zealand.

And it's also important that the judge said that the restrictions on reduced-harm products were contrary to the purpose of SFEA. I expect that means that that same judge would not look kindly on back-door efforts to bring stuff back under SFEA - or on other attempts to sue manufacturers and distributors of reduced-harm products through plain packaging rules and the like.

That's it on the law stuff. Was a bit surprised that it wasn't mentioned in the piece. But we still have a ton of uncertainty out there. Nobody knows if the Ministry will appeal. Whether or not it appeals, it can still choose to implement a regulatory framework for reduced-harm devices. And Nicky Wagner's member's bill is sitting in the ballot that would bring vaping back under the SmokeFree Environments Act - that bill was relatively liberal relative to the status quo of a few months ago, but is very restrictive relative to what I think the current status quo is.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Heckman Curve is flat

It sounded good in theory. Interventions targeted at youths could very plausibly have been rather more effective than programmes targeted at older cohorts. Heckman's foundation thing made a pretty infographic about it.

But it's fundamentally an empirical question. The infographic is based rather more on intuition than on any real lit survey. 

Rea and Burton checked it out. They went into the big Washington State intervention database, sorted interventions by age, and just plotted out the cost effectiveness. There was no curve - just a noisy mess. And the regressions found nothing either. 

Here are the key tables. 

Figure 3's the kicker. Compare it to the stylized Heckman curve. Ocular least squares really are enough here. 

It also links into my other worries about the Perry preschool stuff that Heckman's been pushing and that seems really not to have fared well in broader roll-outs in Tennessee or in Quebec. 

If there is a Heckman Curve, it's hard to see it in the programme evaluation work compiled in the Washington State database

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Please don't run active shooter drills in NZ schools

I sent this off to our school this morning after hearing the morning news on Radio New Zealand.
[preamble that needs not here be repeated]

Radio New Zealand this morning reports that a lot of schools are contracting with some security company to provide lockdown drills.

I'm writing to ask whether our school is doing this, and if it could please consider not doing this.

The baseline risk of a shooter in New Zealand is exceptionally low. The kids hear about that kind of stuff on the news, and they're comforted that we chose to live in a place where that kind of thing really doesn't happen.

While drilling for this kind of thing can feel like making the kids safer, it really doesn't where the background risk is low and where the drill itself is a kind of a harm. It puts a terrifying scenario onto kids for no particular benefit. Earthquake drills make sense because the background risk is far from trivial - they need to keep that stuff front of mind. They don't need the drills for shooters.

Please don't bring these guys into our school.

I hope that we get a reasonable answer back. But it is depressing that this part of the Asylum Wall is crumbling.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Much Ado About Nothing - Partnership Schools edition

So I put in an OIA request for the Martin Jenkins final evaluation report on partnership schools performance back in February. The government looked set to be shuttering the things and I was keen to see what evidence was out there. I should have gotten the request in earlier, but I was expecting that somebody else would already have been on top of this one. Guess not.

I made my request on 19 February, splitting it into three parts to make it simpler.

The first part asked for the terms of reference, timelines, dates, correspondence and briefings on it, and expected publication date for the final report.

The second one asked for any preliminary drafts of the final reports, in case there were holdups in getting the final report.

And the last one asked for the final report.

Simple enough, right? Delays in the final report should have at least gotten me the drafts.

A phone call from the Ministry suggested a down-scoping that might hurry things along. They wanted to restrict the dates to after 1 March 2017 and exclude correspondence. Smelling something fishy, I said "Now wait a minute. Sometimes Ministries seek a clarification so that they can re-start the OIA clock. You're not doing anything like that are you?" And the Ministry assured me they weren't. I made clear that I wouldn't agree to any changed wording if it meant they were going to restart the clock. And then I sent them a note agreeing to the clarification on the condition that it wouldn't change the dates. The correspondence would have been nice, but even nicer to just get the report.

The OIA clock had it all due on 19 March.

I received an extension letter on 26 March telling me that they'd restarted the clock because of the clarification of the date. Nice. After they told me that they totally weren't going to do that. The Ministry replied they could do that at their sole discretion so nuts to me. More the fool me for believing what the Ministry told me on the phone. I'm told that it's odd for the Ministry to push an extension after having already secured an agreed down-scoping.

Anyway, it's all sitting with the Ombudsman.

And then, on Friday, the report showed up on the Education Counts website. I found out about it by Twitter, when Seymour's office noted that it was out. And then when I went through emails I hadn't looked at on Friday, there was one from one of the partnership schools lauding how well it did in the report. So I guess I would have seen it Friday if I'd been a bit less busy Friday afternoon. Maybe it went up earlier than Friday - I couldn't tell.

So - the Ministry stonewalled the OIA request for the report, then never told me when it quietly went up on their website. I've still not heard back from them. I sent them an email this morning letting them know it's on their website in case they hadn't noticed it.

What's then the explosive stuff that the Ministry's been so reluctant to release? Nothing, really. Survey results from parents and students at some of the partnership schools with uneven response rates and that doesn't compare results with traditional state schools. They didn't compare outcomes because there was no comparison group available - I would have thought that you could put together a matched group of students through IDI.

They use anonymised student record data from the Ministry of Ed to look at student characteristics like:
  • ethnicity and iwi affiliation
  • proportion of students who had attended lots of schools prior to going to the partnership school (transience)
  • proportion of students who had only attended a partnership school, who had shifted to a partnership school from another school, proportion that jumped around between other schools and partnership schools - but with nothing that would let us know whether the transitions out of partnership schools are high or low relative to other schools
  • number of stand downs and suspensions - with comparison for those same students at their prior or subsequent non-partnership schools. Students at partnership schools look to have substantially lower numbers of standdowns while at the partnership schools - but you'd really want to check against other students who flip around among state schools and compare with their currently attended school.
The rest is all survey data from parents and kids about why they chose the partnership schools. The parents answering the surveys look pretty satisfied, but we have no comparison group of comparable students at state schools and little sense of whether the parents answering the surveys are representative. Parents generally find things at their current partnership school better than at their kids' prior school, but the same could easily be true of any other group of students who recently shifted from one school to another school - people change schools when they didn't like the last school (or when they move for other reasons). 

And that's about it. There's nothing really in there that would let you know whether the partnership schools are doing well or doing poorly. And since all the parents would have been answering the survey questions under the cloud of "You know, if the answers look bad, the government will likely close our school and you love our school right?, it's hard to tell what to make of any of it. Whatever your priors were about the things, there's no reason to change them. Folks like me who think parental choice matters won't have changed views about that, other than frustration that the prior government so completely screwed up setting an evaluation framework around the things that could have provided any kind of evidence as to effectiveness. It wouldn't have been that hard: baseline testing of all kids applying for partnership schools, randomised entry into oversubscribed schools, then annual testing of all the kids who applied regardless of whether they went to the partnership school. 

It all leaves me a bit baffled. Why stonewall a report that really doesn't have much in it? Why not just release the thing saying "Well, we don't really find any compelling evidence in this report either way, so we see no need to change our prior policy." 

I wonder if part of the problem was just that the report looks like it was delivered way late. All the prior stuff had suggested the report was due end-2017. The report on the website is dated March 2018. Why couldn't the Ministry have just said "Hey, the report hasn't been delivered yet" when we talked on the phone back in February? 

Maybe the stonewalling was less about avoiding embarrassing the Minister and more about having commissioned a report that really can't say much.

Update: Nothing in here should be read as damning any of those schools - as I understand some have read it. The evaluation framework is the problem.

From the response rates, it looks like one of the schools took the evaluation more seriously than did the others and worked harder to get responses back. But even if there were 100% response rates, without comparisons over in state schools, it's hard to say what any of the parent satisfaction numbers would mean. Would a lot of parents saying that they're happier with their current middle school than with their prior primary school mean that there's something in particular that's better about that middle school - or about that parents are generally happier with middle schools? Impossible to tell without baseline data on how well middle schools (for example) generally perform.