Thursday, 29 June 2017

Alcohol access and harms

A large sample study of American enlisted soldiers, who turned 21 while enlisted, found large increases in alcohol consumption at the birthday but no increase in harms consequent to that consumption: no meaningful effect on suicidal tendencies, depression, tobacco use, physical fitness, psychological health, deployability, smoking, or job-related infractions. 

Recall too that, following Boes & Stillman, the RDD estimates around the time of the birthday would be larger than the longer term effects one might extrapolate from the RDD (the paper rightly restricts things to the neighbourhood of the birthday and doesn't extrapolate).

From their conclusion
Using data on all soldiers between 2009 and 2015, we observe a large and significant increase in drinking after the 21st birthday overall, and the increases are largest amongst those who were depressed, had a family history of mental health problems, had better coping ability, and had higher cognitive ability. Despite the large increase in consumption, we do not find any meaningful impacts of legal access to alcohol - overall or in any sub-group - on any of the short-term outcomes we observe, including suicidal tendencies, depression, tobacco use, physical fitness, psychological health, deployability, smoking, and job-related infractions.

How do our results add to the current knowledge of drinking behaviors in the military? Drinking and use of tobacco products have long been part of the military culture (Oster et al., 2012). Alcohol is even used by unit leaders as a way to build unit cohesion and reward the completion of difficult tasks. As one USMC sergeant recounted in a New York Times Op-Ed of his experience, beer consumption and underage drinking are common within the barracks even though alcohol is prohibited inside the military compound (Brennan, 2012). Soldiers do know they will get punished if they get caught drinking underage or drinking hard alcohol within the barracks. Thus, it makes sense that using data from the military workplace, we find increases in alcohol have no meaningful impact on soldiers’ physical and mental health and adverse behaviors, even as attaining legal access increased their consumption.
They caution against extrapolating to civilian populations: the environment for soldiers is a bit more controlled, and soldiers might reasonably expect to be caught and punished for poor behaviour consequent to drinking. I'd expect you could extrapolate to say that the expectation of being caught and punished for poor behavior - individual responsibility if you will - is an important part of mitigating social costs.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Afternoon roundup

The notables from the lunchtime closing of the browser tabs:

Monday, 26 June 2017

Inside the asylum: food safety edition

Versions of cost-benefit that tally up all of the savings to a public health system from banning people doing things they like, and ignore the costs incurred by people banned from doing things they like, lead to this:
We reveal today that new Ministry of Primary Industry guidelines for food outlets require your hamburger to be cooked to fried or grilled to 70C internal temperature. As any home cook can tell you (or indeed, anyone with a copy of the Edmonds Cookbook sitting handy) 70C is, to all intents and purposes, nuking it to high heaven. What is left is a hunk of dried out, grey tyre rubber.

...Chefs around the country have no doubt been stewing at the new "guidelines", but it was executive chef Dan Fraser at the historic Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell who put a match to the flambé.

First he received an email from an MPI official. "You need to make some changes," he was told – the same stern message they were sending other restaurants and caterers around New Zealand.
And it isn't just hamburger:
Fraser said the rules will also cause issues for serving steak tartare, beef carpaccio, pate or chicken livers.
This is what you get when the government bears downside costs through the public health system and Vogons run things. If the justification is that people might underestimate risks of undercooked hamburger, then maybe you could make a case for putting warnings on menus about risks of undercooked hamburger. Maybe something like "Well done burgers are safest, but less tasty. We serve ours medium. Consider our non-burger options if that's what you prefer!" At least that version of things has some respect for individual preferences.

I'd written on this back in 2012. Minister Wilkinson was citing $162 million in costs of food-borne illness. A chunk of that was enforcement costs that, if anything, would have to rise with her new regime. As for the rest? Count the costs of illness, ignore the benefits of tastier food. Standard drill when you want a high social cost figure to justify compulsion. My post of 2012:
The bulk of the remaining tabulated costs are individuals' intangible willingness to pay to avoid a foodborne illness - about $100 million in residual private costs as estimated from NZ value of statistical life estimates. We can leave aside for now problems in that we don't have good prevalence data on non-reportable illnesses like norovirus that manifests as mild gastroenteritis; Applied Economics is very up front about the limits of inadequate data here. But by far the biggest part of the cost estimates comes out of willingness to pay measures.* That's important. Why? Because people are choosing, all the time, which dining establishments to frequent.

Suppose that there's a roadside falafel place with food I adore but that comes with completely known 1% risk that I'll get mild food poisoning. I eat there a hundred times, I get food poisoning once. But I keep going back because of the taste. If new food safety regulations mean the place shuts down, Wilkinson's measure says I'm better off because I'm saved those willingness-to-pay derived figures on the costs of mild food poisoning. But I've already specified that I knew about the risk and judged it worthwhile; I'm then necessarily worse off if I can't get a falafel. You can't easily use a willingness-to-pay measure to overturn a consumer's decision when consumer decisions underlie willingness-to-pay measures. You can perhaps make an asymmetric information argument; that tends to argue for random inspections and public posting of findings on facility cleanliness rather than for big compliance regimes.

So is the new regime worth the cost? That depends on the compliance costs that will be faced by small and mid-sized traders. Wilkinson assures us that small traders won't face onerous burdens, but I'd really prefer seeing proper analysis of the Bill from someone like Otago's Andrew Geddis. And we have to keep in mind that a substantial proportion of the costs Wilkinson cites might actually be voluntary choices consumers are making that, on lucky draws, yield tasty goodness any diminution of which consequent to regulation ought be counted against the Bill's possible health benefits. Banning me and others like me from having my hamburgers medium-rare might save the health system a bit, but it'll certainly cost me some utils. Equally bad is what a big fixed-cost regime would do to food startups. I really hope that the legislation isn't as costly on those two fronts as some folks fear; I'd love to see independent legal analysis.
Emphasis added.

Remember when National campaigned against the nanny state? I know it was a long time ago. I think they've forgotten too.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Higher education, big big numbers

I don't think we can blame the consultants for this one.

Normally, big big numbers in economic impact reports are a black mark on the consultancy producing them. They don't come with enough health warnings, and the misleading big big figures draw headlines too easily.

Dave Guerin's Ed Insider newsletter (essential reading for anybody following tertiary ed in New Zealand) covers the Universities NZ report, produced by NZIER. He writes:
Universities NZ released Regional activity of universities (30 pages) on 27 Apr 2017 (UNZ media release).
  • The report had straightforward analysis of the direct university spending and employment in their region, and the contribution to regional GDP.
  • NZIER also estimated the indirect and induced expenditure due to universities, but placed major caveats on those figures, stating that UNZ had specifically asked for them. They noted that the government did not see such numbers as a credible argument for increased government expenditure on universities. NZIER repeated their 2-paragraph warning 9 times in the report, and added an appendix with more detail on the issue.
  • Universities NZ cited the largest number possible ($19.95b) in their media release.
For an example of a nice health warning, here's a bit from NZIER's Exec Summary:
Estimating the size of these indirect and induced effects in a way that is economically meaningful is problematic. They can be estimated using multipliers that try to reflect the ripple effects of university expenditure on the economy, but this approach makes so many assumptions that the estimates should be seen as indicative only. The multiplier analysis approach (used in the mid-2000s but now discredited) massively overstates the indirect and induced economic activity attributable to any industry because it fails to consider alternative uses for the resources employed by the industry. At best, multiplier based estimates of indirect and induced effects are a measure of the current footprint of the university in the city/region. They cannot be added to calculate a national total across cities/regions and they are not accepted by central government as a credible argument for increased expenditure on university education or R&D.

Though indirect and induced effects are estimated in this report they should be seen as indicative only. See Appendix A for further caveats and comments on indirect and induced effects.
Pretty blunt. When clients use the big big numbers, even when the reports have health warnings as blunt as these are... yikes.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Farewell Molly Malone

Courtney Place pub Molly Malone's was damaged in last year's earthquake. The building is old, but not heritage-listed. So it fortunately can be demolished, as the owners wish.

"In this case, the building has been identified by the council as earthquake prone … [and] the applicant contends that the building 'is a clear and present danger to the public'."

In addition, the owners planned to fill the space in the interim, and eventually rebuild, meaning any effects on the streetscape would be temporary, Hayes said.

However, the council's senior heritage advisor Vanessa Tanner opposed the demolition.

She said that while the build was not heritage listed, it had significance in terms of the build and social context.

Heritage New Zealand also weighed in, saying the loss of the Molly Malones building was regrettable due to both the heritage qualities of the building and its place in more recent social history.

[Council Senior consents planner Lisa] Hayes said there were no rules preventing its demolition as it was not a heritage building.

"While I acknowledged the advice of Ms Tanner that there will be an adverse heritage effect associated with this loss, this will be a public effect and needs to be balanced with the risk to public safety if the unsafe building is to be retained," Hayes said.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Diversity in the metastudy

Wharton's Katherine Klein has a nice literature review up on the effects of corporate boardroom gender diversity.

The bottom line seems to be no effect.

Klein usefully contrasts consultancy reports on the topic with the findings of the academic literature:
Do companies with women on the board perform better than companies whose boards are all-male? Many popular press articles and fund managers make this claim, citing studies by consulting firms, information providers and financial institutions, such as McKinsey, Thomson Reuters and Credit Suisse.

Writing recently on Huffington Post, for example, one consultant observed the following:
“Companies with gender-diverse management teams have been proven to consistently perform better and be more profitable than those without them. There is overwhelming evidence to support the value of having more women in senior leadership positions. A growing body of research –including studies by McKinsey & Company — has proven that companies with more women in senior executive and board roles have advantages over those that don’t.”
But research conducted by consulting firms and financial institutions is not as rigorous as peer-reviewed academic research. Here, I dig into the findings of rigorous, peer-reviewed studies of the relationship between board gender diversity and company performance.

Spoiler alert: Rigorous, peer-reviewed studies suggest that companies do not perform better when they have women on the board. Nor do they perform worse. Depending on which meta-analysis you read, board gender diversity either has a very weak relationship with board performance or no relationship at all.
That's consistent with my read of things as well. But be careful here too: there being no relationship doesn't mean that quotas or mandates would be costless. You'd need to specifically sort through the studies that looked at effects of quotas, because changes in board composition that are board initiated might differ from ones that are compulsory.

Previously: Wishful Treasury Thinking

Friday, 16 June 2017

Afternoon roundup

Some highlights from the closing of the browser tabs: