Monthly Archives: August 2013

Measurement is about learning and improvement, not control

Chris Blattman rants against the resistance to trying to estimate cost-effectiveness that he has encountered in the aid world. One thing he writes about is the “we do not experiment on people” argument (counter: there are always some who gets the stuff and some who do not).

Another expression of reluctance to measurement that I have encountered is: “We understand that we should be held accountable to donors, but why the need for such tight control? Don’t they trust us?” But this gets wrong the rationale for measuring, which primarily is to learn about the effects of what we do in order to do it better. Even if you are not accountable to anyone, measurement may help you learn what you do best and to improve. 

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One person, one vote? Malapportionment in the Norwegian parliament

One person, one vote is a cherished principle, however, in most countries the representatives to the national legislative body come from certain fixed geographic regions. E.g., in the US Senators are elected from the states, while the  members of the House of Representatives come from a congressional district.

In Norway, each of the 169 representatives in parliament, the Storting, comes from one of 19 counties. At the heart of the distribution of seats is a weighted sum of the number of inhabitants of a county and its area, calculated as follows: #inhabitants+1.8 x area in sq.m. So 1 sq.m. counts as 1.8 person. This is a systematic overrepresentation of people in counties with relatively low population density and corresponding underrepresentation of people in more densely populated counties.

How does this play out in practice? For the elections in 2005 and 2009, the seat allocation was based on the inhabitant count as of 2004-01-01. Below I have plotted the number of representatives per inhabitant against the number of inhabitants for all the 19 counties. Counties with few inhabitants tend to have more representatives per inhabitants. The most Northern county, Finnmark, is the outlier, with more than double the number of seats per inhabitant as several other counties. (Or in other words: Fewer than half the number of people behind a representative.)

Norway 2005 and 2009

Due to migration within the country and a small reform, the allocation for the elections of 2013 and 2017 is shifted somewhat. More populous counties will now be a little less underrepresented: Norway 2013 and 2017

This topic is currently on my research agenda, so I will return to it in not too long. A seminal paper (pdf) by Samuels and Snyder,  more countries on Andrew Gelman’s blog, discussions of representation in the US Senate on CrookedTimber and in the New York Times

Update: for Norwegian readers: Discussions from the election in 2009, from Minerva, Aftenposten and Ferskvannsmandatet.

Friendship, humanness and sainthood

Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.

That is George Orwell writing on Gandhi, who took love of others to such an extreme that he denounced close relationships, and thereby in Orwell’s view ceased to be human. I was lead to Orwell’s essay by the first pages of philosopher Stephen Asma’s recent book Against Fairness, in which he among other things takes up the virtues of favoritism. I do not know if the framing the issue as a conflict between preference and fairness is a good one, but how we do in fact care differentially about others, and have few problems doing so, is an interesting topic.

There is probably a gigantic literature on universalist vs particularist ethics or something like that, but what is brought to my mind is Friedrich Hayek:

If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once. (p. 18, 1988, The Fatal Conceit)

Even if Orwell and Hayek may have had different opinions about the actual rules of both “orders”, they have in common that they suggest that there is something essential in the micro-cosmos, a point denied by those elevating sainthood to the ideal.

Monthly book roundup

Books finished in July:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

  • From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath by Kenan Malik. Malik, a psychologist and writer living in Britain, son of an Indian Hindu-Muslim couple, was shocked by the burning of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in Bradford in 1989, and it is never any doubt that his sympathy is with the freedom of speech and against making exceptions to that, to any religious or political side. He makes several good points:
    -Rushdie early on an outspoken anti-racism, anti-imperialism voice.
    -multiculturalism in Britain imposed from above, not broadly demanded from below.
    -multiculturalism restraining youth to live within boundaries and rules the British society had in many cases discarded.
    -diversity of views within communities, evidence from surveys. Mullahs, etc often not representative.
    -militants often have little knowledge. In fact, Malik views them more as generic protesters/rebels than moved by religious, fairness, or other intellectual motives.
    -Malik got article with an analogy between Rushdie and the freethinker Thomas Paine (1737-1809) rejected by the Independent, and is worried about possible increasing self-censorship.
    -cartoons etc published many times without controversy, then some people were able to make them light fire. This shows that the context is crucial. Perhaps there is some hope in this, in that controversy does not necessarily run deep.
  • Ava’s Man, by Rick Bragg. Nostalgic about Charlie Bundrum, an all-beloved family- and handyman living in the South during the great depression. Not without faults, but revered by everyone. Worked as carpenter, (bootleg) whisky-maker, and fisherman. A bygone time that was not long ago.
  • Two Caravans, by Marina Lewycka. Ok.
  • The Prodigy: A Biography of William James Sidis, America’s Greatest Child Prodigy by Amy Wallace. The life of William James Sidis (1898-1944), wizard of mathematics, languages and much else. Probably well endowed naturally, and was taught to love learning and reasoning by his parents. It is striking how much of this upbringing is regarded as standard in many environments today: Answering children’s question seriously, talking to them as adults, learn them reasoning and principles rather than isolated facts and rigid rules. The author makes that case that WJS suffered from a dysfunctional relationship between his parents, having to be socially together with older others, and above all from being hunted on by the tabloid press. Made substantial contributions to mathematical physics, but eventually he retreated into anonymity and menial jobs, although still an intellectual firework in the areas that he did not leave behind, like politics and the collection of streetcar transfers(!). Although eccentric he did not appear bitter. The moral is nevertheless to treat children seriously as learners, but let them be children.
  • Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington. Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856. He lived as a slave until the end of the civil war in 1865, when his family was freed. He was determined to learn how to read and managed to obtain an education at the Hampton Institute, Virginia. A strong advocate of the importance of education for the black race. Apparently there were tensions between this approach and the more confrontational tone of many others in the black political community, but this is not something that is mentioned specifically in the book. Washington stressed the importance of learning a trade to become an integrated and valued member of society, and worked as an educator for most of his life, heading the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, from 1881 until his death in 1915.
  • Revolt in the Desert: The Authorised Abridged Edition of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T. E. Lawrence. Unnuanced generalizations about nations, peoples, etc. Not engaging.

Ratings and additional books are in the library.