Saturday, July 27, 2013

Simpler: Applying lessons from behavioral economics to legislation

  Cass  Sunstein is a law professor at Harvard. He was also the author of Nudge with Richard Tayler and the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 till 2012. His latest book is called "Simpler" in which he discusses his time as administrator. The book provides an interesting perspective on the legislative process and the practice of politics (it took 8 months for Sunstein to have his appointment approved by the senate). Sunstein discusses how he tried to apply insights from behavioral economics (as discussed in Nudge) to the everyday practice of legislation. Many rules and regulations are very complex and confusing which lead to a lot of time wasted in filling out forms and making errors in decision making. Sunstein started the process to look at many types of legislation and find out how the legislation could be simplified so that better decisions can be made. Some people refer to Nudge as manipulation. Indeed insights on decision making can help to manipulate the way we frame the problem to make decisions the legislator wants. But this critique misses the main point. Any legislation creates a framing which affect the decisions people will make. If we develop legislation to stimulate cleaner energy use, healthy eating habits, safer roads and more effective health care it would be useful to learn from behavioral sciences to design effective implementations. It will be a waste of money and time not to try to implement legislation that people understand, where desirable outcomes are created if people do not make a decision, and does not costs much time for citizens and bureaucrats.By being more transparent (see also, we give more options to get feedback from citizens to develop tools to make better decisions and to provide feedback to the legislators.
The critique on nudge as manipulation probably caused by defining what is desirable behavior. That is the outcome of a political process for which we elect representatives to make decisions representing the preferences of majority. Nudge focuses on implementing the legislation given those political decisions. An interesting example is the healthy eating pyramid. This was a complex figure which did not provide much insight on what people need to do to eat healthy. Nevertheless this pyramid was widely used, especially in schools. The office of Sunstein developed a new way to visualize healthy eating habits with the "choose my plate" visual, which is clearer on what kind of behaviors are expected for a healthy eating habit.

If Sunstein is right, we can expect to see many changes in the way legislation is implemented. Based on insights how people actually make decisions, legislation might become more effective and less costly. Of course, whether this leads to the desired outcomes also depend on the political process which define the desired outcomes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Legacy of Lin

It is today a year ago that Lin Ostrom died. During the last year many memorials, obituaries, special issues, awards, scholarships etc. have been produced or are in preparation. This is testament to the influence Lin had on the work and lives of many people.
                Coming just back from the Global Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons in KitaFuji, we can notice Lin’s absence. As somebody mentioned, Lin was the hub before there was Facebook within the community of commons scholars.
                On the other hand, the work of Lin was very present. An increasing number of young scholars are using the IAD framework and the SES framework for the analysis of different case studies. Applications go beyond the traditional commons topics into knowledge commons, waste water treatment and urban parks. Some of the presentations aim to revise and advance Lin’s work and she would have loved that.

                There is no single person like Lin leading the commons community, but the breath and quality of the work of younger scholars indicate that her work will remain inspirational for the years to come. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Inappropriate Appropriation in Academia

Knowledge is a public good, at least this is typically mentioned. However, academia as a knowledge enterprise experience a lot of problems of inappropriate behavior. As a Dutch citizen the recent cases of Dutch social psychologists varying from academic fraud (Stapel) to unwillingness to give transparency on experimental protocols (Dijksterhuis) comes to mind.

Everyone can make mistakes, but fraud and plagiarism are serious issues that may be more frequent than we acknowledge. Due to the pressure of publishing we may have less time to read in detail the literature and test the work of others, and there is a potential incentive and opportunity for people to cheat.

I am writing about this because a former PhD student of mine was asked to review a paper for a journal that appeared to be a copy of a chapter in his dissertation. His dissertation was not mentioned in the article. We informed the journal of the plagiarism and it will not be published in that journal. Since the paper is not published we cannot do anything about this inappropriate behavior and the plagiarizers do not respond to emails. 

Out of curiosity I googled the plagiarizing authors Yu Changrui of the School of Information Management and Engineering, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, Shanghai, China and Luo Yan of the Sydney Institute of Language and Commerce, Shanghai University, Shanghai, China and came across various papers including:

Changrui, Y., and L. Yan (2011) Research on the Development of Customer Ontology,
High Performance Networking, Computing, and Communication Systems, Communications in Computer and Information Science, 163: 584-591

Abstract: This paper is a comprehensive description of Customer Ontology, a collection of terms and definitions relevant to Customer Relationship Management. We state its intended purposes, describe how we went about building it, define all the terms and describe our experiences in converting these into formal definitions. We then describe how we used the Customer Ontology for modeling Enterprise CRM.

I googled the content of the abstract and notice a large overlap with another paper.

Uschold, M., M. King, S. Moralee and Y. Zorgios (1998) The Enterprise Ontology, The Knowledge Engineering Review, 13(1): 31-89

This is a comprehensive description of the Enterprise Ontology, a collection of terms and definitions relevant to business enterprises. We state its intended purposes, describe how we went about building it, define all the terms and describe our experiences in converting these into formal definitions. We then describe how we used the Enterprise Ontology and give an evaluation which compares the actual uses with original purposes.

This might be a remarkable coincidence and they don’t cite the Uschold paper. I have not access to copies of both papers to compare the content, so I cannot really verify whether there is more than a coincidence. I contacted the journal of the two publications in case they want to check. It might be that Yu Changrui and Luo Yan have more publications with remarkable resemblances with other papers.

With the increasing amount of journals and the pressure by scholars to publish it is not strange that we see misbehavior. Journals have a responsibility here to monitor, but many journals also like to have their journals filled and do not have the capacity to check on plagiarism like we can do with assignments of students. Do people now about services where journals can check on plagiarism of submitted papers? This would be an important service to reduce the cheating and would be a worthwhile investment by funding agencies to avoid scholars get funding for plagiarized work.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The price of inequality

The latest book of Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz is a brilliant discussion of some of the fundamental problems in most societies. He shows how the 1% have created institutional arrangements to derive and maintain their wealth at the expense of the 99%. This might benefit the 1% in the short term but economic development will experience major challenges if we reduce our investments in public good like education and public health. Stiglitz also provides some concrete suggestions on how to repair some of the institutional flaws, even in a political system where one dollar is one vote, and he mainly focuses on the financial sector (predatory lending etc.).
One of the reasons I liked the book is that his analysis mimics the findings we derive in our lab experiments with so-called irrigation games. In those games some participants are upstream and other downstream. Everyone can invest to generate a resource, but upstream participants can extract first. Participants downstream accept that those upstream participants will take a bit more than an equal share. But when the participants upstream start to grab major amounts of the common resource, the downstream participants will drop the ball and reduce their investments and reducing the productivity of the whole system. Higher levels of inequality in periods of stability leads to lower levels of adaptive capacity when the system is exposed to disturbances.
These findings from our lab experiments trigger questions whether there are tipping points of inequality beyond which a social-ecological system becomes less productive. If there are those tipping points, how is this affected by scale? Will larger scale social-ecological systems accept higher levels of inequality because there are less alternatives for the poor? As I have noted in earlier posts, inequality seem to be a center topic for the study of resilience/robustness of social-ecological systems.