Category Archives: Allmänt

Performance indices: Ranking the rankings

This week, I have written my first lead note for The Economist, which concerns the rapid growth in international rankings. Turns out these rankings actually influence policy. An excerpt:

International comparisons are popular, influential—and sometimes flawed

Nov 8th 2014 | From the print edition

EDUCATION ministers across the globe quake in the run-up to the publication, every three years, of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which rates 15-year-olds’ academic performance in dozens of countries. Those that do well can expect glory; the first PISA ranking, published in 2001, surprised the world by putting unshowy Finland near the top in every subject and made it a mandatory stop-off for any self-respecting education policymaker. Germany’s poor showing, by contrast, led to national hand-wringing, school reforms and the creation of a €4 billion ($5 billion) federal education support programme.

Similarly influential is the yearly Ease of Doing Business Index from the World Bank. Government presentations to investors will always show the highlights (provided, that is, there are numbers worth boasting about). The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report compiled by America’s State Department each year ranks governments on their perceived willingness to combat trafficking. A bad showing blackens a country’s name and can mean losing aid and investment.

Such performance indices, which rank social issues or policy outcomes in different countries by combining related measures into a single score for each, are enjoying a boom. Their number has soared over the past two decades (see chart). For many issues, rival indices must now battle it out. “Numbers, rating and ranking catch people’s attention and make information easy to process,” says Judith Kelley of Duke University, who studies the impact of global indicators on policy. Rankings spread like wildfire on the web: some have been cited online more than a million times.

The best indices are meticulous (PISA, for instance, combines dozens of carefully standardised sub-measures and raises statistical caveats). But others are based on shaky figures that are calculated differently in different countries. And choosing what to include often means pinning down slippery concepts and making subjective judgments. An index of democracy, freedom or happiness means putting hard numbers to the fairness of elections, weighing civil liberties against economic rights, or deciding how much to rely on surveys.

Read the whole article here.

Simon Hedlin

A memoir of gratification: Desire delayed

The following is an excerpt from my first book review in The Economist:

Walter Mischel on the test that became his life’s work

Oct 11th 2014 | From the print edition

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. By Walter Mischel. Little, Brown & Company; 326 pages; $29. Bantam; £20 Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

IN THE 1960s Walter Mischel, then an up-and-coming researcher in psychology, devised a simple but ingenious experiment to study delayed gratification. It is now famously known as the marshmallow test. In a sparsely furnished room Mr Mischel presented a group of children aged four and five from Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School with a difficult challenge. They were left alone with a treat of their choosing, such as a marshmallow or a biscuit. They could help themselves at once, or receive a larger reward (two marshmallows or biscuits) if they managed to wait for up to 20 minutes.

Mr Mischel, now of Columbia University, reveals in his first non-academic book, “The Marshmallow Test”, that the purpose of the study was to look at the methods children use to delay gratification—not to measure how well they did it. He admits now that he did not expect that the time they managed to wait “would predict anything worth knowing about their later years”. But after his daughters, who had attended the Bing Nursery, told him years later about how their friends from pre-school were doing, Mr Mischel noticed that those who did well socially and academically tended to be those who had waited longest in the test.

He went on to survey many of the 550-or-so children who were tested between 1968 and 1974. To his surprise, the longer the five-year-olds had waited for their marshmallows, the higher they scored on standardised tests for college admissions a decade later. The patient children had a lower body-mass index when they grew up, greater psychological well-being, and were less likely to misuse drugs than those who had quickly gobbled up the treat.

Mr Mischel has published more than 200 academic papers, and at the age of 84 is still an active researcher. His book is best read as a memoir of gratification and as a tribute to the many researchers who have explored the field of delayed gratification that he once pioneered. His aim in his new book is to tell the reader about the latest “in the marshmallow work”.

Read the full review here.

Simon Hedlin

Sweden’s school choice

Here is my defense of Sweden’s school choice policy. An excerpt:

Education reform: A good choice?

Oct 6th 2014, 16:06 by S.H. | STOCKHOLM

SCHOOL vouchers are a divisive subject in America. Proponents claim that vouchers not only grant parents the opportunity to send their children to a private school, but also raise the quality of all education by creating more competition between schools. Critics complain that these subsidies divert necessary resources from public schools, and rarely cover the full cost of a private education. To settle this debate, many have looked to Sweden, where vouchers were introduced in 1992. The results there have been cited as both a case for and against vouchers. So, what has been the actual effect of this Swedish experiment?

Swedish students used to lead international rankings, but the country’s education standards have been declining for years. Indeed 15-year-olds in Sweden perform well below average in mathematics, reading and science when compared with students from other OECD countries, according to the most recent global ranking. Critics of vouchers blame school choice for these dismal results. Raymond Fisman of Columbia Business School recently called the Swedish voucher scheme a disastrous experiment and warned Americans not to go down the same path.

But there are good reasons to believe the problem is not school choice. This is because Sweden’s voucher scheme coincided with a host of other reforms, most significantly a change in the national curriculum in 1994, which emphasised individualised learning over teacher instruction. A comprehensive study (in Swedish) published in 2010 found that this was among the most plausible explanations for the drop in student performance. (Sweden duly changed its national curriculum again in 2011.) Norwegian schools implemented similar curriculum changes in the 1990s and saw similar unfortunate results, whereas Finland concentrated on teacher-led pedagogy and saw improvements in student performance.

Read the full story here.

Simon Hedlin

Big data: Turning the tables

Today I am writing an article for the quite newly-launched online edition of The Economist. An excerpt:

New technology has enabled start-ups to predict the behaviour of politicians and big businesses

Sep 3rd 2014 | Business and finance

AS THIS year’s congressional elections in America steadily draw closer, incumbents and hopefuls running for office are planning to spend billions of dollars on their campaigns. Much of this cash will be spent on paying savvy analysts to use big data to forecast how undecided voters will cast their ballots in November. But in this year’s campaign, the trend also seems to be going the other way. Rather than forecasting how ordinary voters behave, firms are now offering to make predictions, based on analysing big data, of how the various candidates would vote if elected to Congress or a state legislature.

These sorts of services are part of a wider movement to increase government transparency, by making it easier to access and analyse government statistics. For instance, OpenGov, a web-based tech firm, gives users access to vast amounts of state and local-government data. Yet even with the help of such services, the sheer volume of information on offer is ovewhelming to most individuals and companies. So a new breed of firm has come along to fill a gap in the market, by processing the data to predict the voting patterns of legislators.

One prominent example is FiscalNote Prophecy, a web-based service, sold on a monthly subscription basis by FiscalNote, a start-up founded last year. The company claims that its self-learning algorithm can—based on public data such as legislative votes, electoral statistics and campaign-finance figures—predict, with an accuracy of over 95%, the outcome of bills in Congress and state legislatures. Another is the Georgia Legislative Navigator, a website owned by the Cox Media Group, a publishing firm. It offers a similar, free service, albeit focused solely on legislative proposals in Georgia’s General Assembly.

Read the full story here.

Simon Hedlin

Free exchange: Aid to the rescue

My first Free exchange column in The Economist is published in this week’s issue. An excerpt:

New research suggests that development aid does foster growth—but at what cost?

Aug 16th 2014 | From the print edition

FIFTY years ago the first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development launched a debate about how much money rich countries should give to poor ones to reduce poverty and bolster growth. In the end, the UN settled on a figure of 0.7% of national income—a target subsequently reaffirmed by endless international powwows. Although few countries have met it, aid spending in real terms has nonetheless increased steadily ever since, to $134.8 billion in 2013 (see left-hand chart). Yet economists are still arguing about how much the aid helps—if it helps at all.

Aid comes in many forms, from food and tents handed out to refugees to cash that plugs holes in poor countries’ budgets. Donors tend to stretch the definition, to make themselves look more generous. But the goal, in most cases, is to lift a poor country’s productive capacity through investment in things like roads, schools and maternal health.

What the UN sees as a potent weapon against poverty, others consider money down a rat hole. Critics reckon aid hurts its recipients by fostering dependency, propping up oppressive or incompetent regimes and pushing up the value of poor countries’ currencies, thereby undermining the competitiveness of their exports. If aid helped, they say, the poorest countries would have been getting steadily richer for decades, which they have not (see right-hand chart). Those who favour giving aid argue that it could indeed lift people out of poverty, but rich countries simply do not give enough. It is like sending fire engines to combat a wildfire: it only works if you send a lot of them.

Assessing the impact of aid on economic growth is complicated by the fact that the causality is not always clear. A positive relationship between the two could simply mean that rich countries reward poor ones for implementing policies that would have helped their economies whether or not they had brought in money. Conversely, a negative relationship may just mean that more aid flows to the countries with the most sluggish growth. In neither instance would aid actually be driving growth.

To get around this problem, economists have long hunted for a factor that affects the amount of aid disbursed but is not otherwise correlated with growth—an “instrumental variable”, in the jargon. Finding one is harder than it seems. Many proposed candidates—such as the size of a poor country’s population or even the colonial empire to which it used to belong—have been found by subsequent studies to have an independent connection to economic performance after all.

Read the rest of my article here.

Simon Hedlin

Women in politics: Treating the fair sex fairly

And here is my second article in the print edition this week. It presents some new evidence that shows that female politicians are just as competent as male politicians. One commonly proposed rationale behind women’s underrepresentation in politics is that they generally are less qualified than men. But as this research suggests, that is unlikely to be true:

Female ministers are fewer than their male colleagues, but equally effective

Aug 9th 2014 | From the print edition

“A TOKEN sprinkling of women,” is how Luciana Berger, a member of parliament for the opposition Labour Party, dismissed the recent British cabinet reshuffle, the avowed aim of which was to make the government less male. Similar cries of tokenism followed last year’s appointment of Julie Bishop as Australia’s foreign minister, which made her the sole woman in the country’s cabinet. Almost everywhere women are in a minority in government cabinets (see chart for a selection of countries). Some fret that they are treated as mere window-dressing, making the government look more representative but given neither meaningful portfolios nor the support needed to be effective.

New research suggests such criticisms may miss the mark. In a forthcoming paper, Maria Escobar-Lemmon and Michelle Taylor-Robinson of Texas A&M University compare the experience and accomplishments of the men and women among 447 cabinet ministers in recent administrations in five countries in the Americas: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and the United States. Experience was measured by relevant academic background, previous cabinet posts and political connections; and success by the number of bills presented, length of tenure and whether a minister’s time in office ended with firing or forced resignation.

Read the rest of the article here.

Presidents and growth: Timing is everything

The first of my two articles in this week’s print edition discusses the empirical evidence on whether Democratic presidents or Republican presidents are better at making the American economy grow:

Why the economy has grown faster under Democratic presidents

Aug 9th 2014 | From the print edition

“SINCE 1961…the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24,” said Bill Clinton in 2012. “In those 52 years, our private economy has produced 66m private-sector jobs. So what’s the jobs score? Republicans 24m, Democrats 42[m].” In the two years since, Barack Obama has increased the Democrats’ lead by close to 5m.

Since the second world war the economy has done better under Democratic presidents, who have overseen more job creation and higher stockmarket returns than Republican leaders. During this time the economy has grown about 1.8 percentage points faster when a Democrat occupies the White House (see chart). Messrs Clinton and Obama credit their economic policies. But new research suggests it has more to do with luck.

Alan Blinder and Mark Watson, economists at Princeton University, studied the last 16 presidential terms—from Harry Truman’s second to Mr Obama’s first—to find out why the economy has grown faster under Democrats. They were quickly able to rule out some possible explanations, like a president’s age and experience, or which party controlled Congress. Though one might surmise that Democratic presidents inherited hardier economies than Republican ones, they actually tended to take over when times were more difficult.

Read the full article here.

Simon Hedlin

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