Is it the social scientists job (or anyone else’s) to make models of reality? (Hint: no).

Quantitative research for social scienceThere is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think – which is fundamentally a moral problem – must be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

As journalism is the first draft of history, some of my emails are the first draft of blog posts. As here where I was responding to someone with whom I’d already agreed that in economics there’s lots of emphasis on using models to understand reality but not much care given to the question of fitting them to the world.

To paraphrase in a way that’s unfair to him – but which is only intended to provide a point of departure here – he then suggested that social science was about model building and fitting the world to those models and, to shift the world towards better outcomes for social science (we were talking about economics), one needed different kinds of participants in this. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Methodology, Philosophy, Political theory | 5 Comments

How Good are Refugees? This year’s MUST ATTEND dinner with Santo Cilauro. 12th Sept, Melb.

If these kinds of things existed in my country, I wouldn’t need to be running for President to fix everything up.

Elizabeth Warren

The only thing that didn’t leave a nasty taste in my mouth last year was the food.

Barry the hypothetical troll from last year (He’s been debunked, defrocked, unfriended and univited this year)

You may not be in that exclusive group of less than 200 people in Australia who have been to one of my dinners for refugees. But whether you’re Donald Trump or Douggie Hourigan,1 you’ll have heard of them. I can tell you they’re a blast. Born out of a birthday party that went strangely right, I have made this an annual event since. Each function has been in support of refugees.

The basic idea of the dinner is to meet interesting people, have fun and raise a decent amount of money for refugees. Last year, with Christos Tsiolkas as our guest of honour, we raised over $10,000 for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and, in so doing helped them establish a program to train refugees to become program evaluators. I’m thrilled to say that that this is now bearing fruit.

This year, as with the first year, we’re raising money for Urban Refugees. It targets the refugees who are outside the UNHCR process and the protections it affords – that is the millions of refugees living not in refugee camps, or in host countries but largely on the outskirts of cities of the low and middle income world like Kuala Lumpur and Kampala.

It will mostly be dinner and meeting and talking to friends and interesting people you’ve not met before, but Santo Cilauro from Australia’s best TV production company Working Dog will be our guest of honour and we’ll hear from him. We’re inviting you to pay your way at $60 which will include approximately $25 which will be receipted as tax deductible donation. 2

So Book Now for 7.00 pm on Thursday Sept 12th at Tazios on this link. And NOTE: Though it’s still on Flinders Lane, Tazios has moved since last year’s dinner.

I’m also hoping you can make an additional tax deductible donation. In fact I’m so hanging out for you to donate that, as in other years, I’ll match every dollar you donate over $100 up to a total liability of $5,000 for me. 3 (In the first year, Ross Gittins decided to play hard-ball and try to bankrupt me with a thousand dollar donation which took $900 out of my pocket right there! Bring it on I say! I’m planning to sponge off my kids in retirement in any event.)

If you’re making a donation of over $200 (that’s over $300 with my matching donation) and would like to, please feel free to email me on ngruen AT gmail and I’ll send you my bank account details so you can avoid all charges.

The first donor of over $500 will be flown First Class to London where they’ll be chauffeured by Theresa May driving the trusty Aussie hot rod ‘Rooter’ (How good is Rooter?) and taken to dinner with Boris Johnson who will arrive late with carefully towselled, bleached hair.

And there’s a special deal for those from out of town. They can make an even larger donation as they don’t have to pay for dinner.

And please pass this invitation around.

  1. My friend in Grade One – where are you Douggie?
  2. The bloodsuckers of our financial services industry will impose upon you a fee of 30 cents plus approx 1.75% on your payment.
  3. Note the bloodsuckers of finance will subtract 30 cents plus approx 1.75% of your payment and you’ll receive a receipt for the rest. This is altogether fitting and proper given their commitment to making the world a better place for all the little people.
Posted in Blegs, Films and TV, Humour, Media | 4 Comments

There’s no such thing as a free launch: Launching John Quiggin’s Economics in Two Lessons.

Delivered at Melbourne University, Friday 19th July, 2019 and cross posted at The Mandarin.

Welcome to the launch of another book by Australia’s most overachieving economist. A global authority on decision theory, he also publishes in the daily press, in submissions to government inquiries on his blog and in academic journals in any number of other fields in environmental, agricultural, welfare, tax and finance economics to name a few areas I’m aware of. As you do.

I’m not much of a fan of the endless KPIs into which academic life has descended (it’s an important reason why I’m not an academic). I hate the reductive gravity to which they subject pretty much everything in their path. Academics’ KPIs enable the performance of those whom we trust to be at the forefront of human knowledge to be judged by people who know nothing of their field or their work. What could possibly go wrong?

Still, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, in John’s case I’ll make an exception. His KPIs have been achieved whilst actually addressing useful questions rather than disciplinary arcana. John’s been placed in the top 5% economists in the world according to IDEAS/RePEc and two Federation Fellowships from the Australian Research Council.

I don’t really believe a word of this.

The dark dirty secret is that these accomplishments stem from a time when John wore a big black beard that had people wondering who he really was – and why he looked so much like Captain Haddock from the Tin-Tin cartoon books. It’s not the kind of thing one is thanked for when launching a book obviously. But this is an existential matter for anyone who still clings – however quixotically, however much it offends the Nietzschean verities – to the idea that he’s still part of the reality based community.

To speak truth to a poster-boy of our KPI riddled academic community, behind that beard he could have been any number of people – all at once. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, Education, History, Humour | 1 Comment

Market – what market? The catch 22 that stops ‘scaling’ innovation in government in its tracks

Cross posted from the Mandarin

There is a huge catch 22 driving impact measurement in human services. A lot of the evaluation is done because governments seek it, but then it goes nowhere – and for good reason. NGOs and others hoping to ‘scale-up’ innovation can’t escape this without something like an Evaluator-General, writes Nicholas Gruen.

There’s a spectre haunting service provision. For decades now, we’ve presumed that new and innovative service provision will emerge from innovation out in the field, with successful pilots and innovative programs initiated by NGOs being grown to their appropriate size and unsuccessful ones being improved or closed down. But it almost never happens. 

As Peter Shergold put it in 2013, things don’t actually work out this way: 

Too much innovation remains at the margin of public administration. Opportunities are only half-seized; new modes of service delivery begin and end their working lives as ‘demonstration projects’ or ‘pilots’; and creative solutions become progressively undermined by risk aversion and a plethora of bureaucratic guidelines.1

As I’ve pondered this paradox over the past decade, it’s slowly dawned on me that, however well-intentioned we’ve been, it’s all built on a lie – a lie we’re not even admitting to ourselves. 

There’s a catch 22 at the heart of the system. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Innovation | 7 Comments

Comparing the Census to alternative data or information: What is the right counterfactual?

You might think that on a post about counterfactuals, we’d have a picture of sliding doors together with two contrasting pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow. But you’d be wrong. We’re full of surprises here at Lateral Economics.

By Matt Balmford; Gene Tunny; and Nicholas Gruen

Our inaugural blog post for the Valuing the Census project provided an overview of our strategy for estimating the benefits of the Census to the Australian community.

From here, we’ll be blogging about various issues that we’re grappling with in making this assessment.

To assess the value of the Census, we need to assess the additional value it generates over alternatives in its absence.

These alternatives are counterfactual scenarios to assess the benefits of the Census against.

So, that value is of the extra precision or insight for a given use, compared with the next best alternatives.

(In later blog posts we’ll get into what Census-related data or information means, as well as what the impacts of this extra precision or insight might be.)

But what are the alternatives to the Census? Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy | 6 Comments

If your problem is darkness, it’s better to light one quarter of a candle than to light any more of a candle (apparently)

Here’s Phil Lowe reporting on the RBA’s failure to meet its performance targets and refusal to do anything about it:

This decision [to cut rates by 0.25%] was not in response to a deterioration in the economic outlook since the previous update was published in early May. Rather, it reflected a judgement that we could do better than the path we looked to be on.

If anyone can fill me in on what that means, I’d be grateful.

Monetary policy is one way of helping get us onto to a better path. The decision earlier this month will assist here. It will support the economy through its effect on the exchange rate, lowering the cost of finance and boosting disposable incomes. In turn, this will support employment growth and inflation consistent with the target.

It would, however, be unrealistic to expect that lowering interest rates by ¼ of a percentage point will materially shift the path we look to be on. The most recent data – including the GDP and labour market data – do not suggest we are making any inroads into the economy’s spare capacity.

Steady as she goes.  

Posted in Economics and public policy | 3 Comments

Blogging another inquiry: Valuing the Australian Census

Lateral Economics has been commissioned by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) to estimate the value of the Australian Census to the Australian community. As part of that exercise we’ve got the go-ahead from ABS to do something that, it seems to me, all public inquiries, and most independent public agencies, should do as a matter of course. Run a blog a little like the blog we ran when I chaired the Government 2.0 Taskforce.

Ten years on from the Taskforce, it’s amazing how slow the practice has been to catch on. It seems to me the kind of thing that the Productivity Commission should do, and the Reserve Bank. Anyway, as far as I know, there’s no such blog on offer there or anywhere else much. One exception is the Bank of England which runs a lively blog in which staff explore all manner of questions relating to their research. It greatly enhances both its work and their staff’s morale and willingness for some of the best to stay at the Bank rather than moving off into academia or consultant land.

Anyway, this exercise gives us an opportunity to trial it again. Accordingly we will post from time to time outlining the progress of our investigations, particularly highlighting issues we are trying to understand to improve the quality of our review.

Comment will be post-moderated with a back-up plan to provide pre-moderation in the unlikely event of commentary which is judged to lack bona fides in a disruptive way. We’ll be consulting ABS with draft blog posts before posting them to give the ABS an opportunity to provide input. We nevertheless remain responsible for the exercise, and for the content of each post, not the ABS.

Finally, if you do have anything to offer, please do so to show how productive this kind of exercise can be. I know myself how productive it is from my own experiences blogging myself not least as part of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, but as I’ve grown older it’s struck me how much adoption relies on, well, adoption. If no-one’s doing it, no one does it. Then a few people do it and the obviousness of doing it seems to become accessible to others, even as they keep their in-tray reasonably cleared.

Valuing the Australian Census

Gene Tunny, Nicholas Gruen, and Matt Balmford, Lateral Economics

The five-yearly Australian Census provides a wealth of data on Australian households. Those data are used extensively by all levels of governments, industry, and non-profits in decision making and planning. The Census provides important information on household composition, journey-to-work flows, Indigenous status, and languages spoken at home, among other data. It is also used extensively to ‘ground-truth’ and so assess and improve the representativeness of a wide variety of data sets. The ABS understands that all this information is of substantial value, but no careful estimate of its total value has yet been made. The ABS has engaged Lateral Economics to provide such an estimate. Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, IT and Internet, Metablogging, Public and Private Goods, Web and Government 2.0 | 25 Comments