Monthly Archives: March 2016

Well, there is hope that we see foreigners increasingly differently

Here is a little google ngram chart on the use of ‘immigration’ vs. ‘invasion’ over time.


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Mocking Excel reveals the Hubris of Quant People

Among bloggers, academics and practitioners of quantitative methods it is standard gossiping procedure to make fun of allegedly dreadful spreadsheet programs like Microsoft excel. Indeed such programs are error-ridden, (too) low-tech, and – a cardinal sin for many quant people – do not require programming skills! This cannot be any good. Instead, quant people preach an intellectual hierarchy going from the apex, programming using something like Python, to advanced statistical packages like R, to other specialized software, with programs like stata or spss residing at the bottom. Spreadsheet programs like excel don’t make the cut; they are the pariahs of the software landscape for quantitative methodologies.

Indeed there are good reasons to mock excel, as, for instance, this Dilbert shows


Yet, I think that mocking excel also is a sign of methods specialists to risk being a sect, a cult looking for its own hermetic truths rather than catering to a wider audience and disseminating its skills to a wide array of people. The downside of such an elitist strategy is that many people are illiterate when it comes to basic spreadsheet techniques like computing an average, handling simple data transformations etc. The abyss between the ‘chosen’ high-tech people, and the ignorant masses becomes even larger. For instance, just to launch a more or less user-friendly ‘surface’ of R such as Deducer one often needs to be able to work around all the problems of Java scripts etc, something that turns most people with limited computer skills even farther away from getting literacy in this area.

I think it is time for the quant people to lose their attitude and teach programs not only in accordance to what they think is best, but also those that are most in use in the private/ non-profit/ or public sector. If they really think that excel is bad on practical or ethical grounds (after all excel costs money), why don’t they create decent and easy to understand online alternatives or freeware programs? The zero- or low-cost alternatives to STATA or SPSS/ Excel are still not convincing, but would be dearly needed. Google, if you have time, put some effort into this! I would happily embrace such a software package when teaching basic stats classes.

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Refugees and Humanitarian Aid

Some scholars like James Fearon have wondered why humanitarian aid is on the rise, even if the total amount of victims from natural catastrophes, famines and civil wars does not show a clear trend over time.

What I think is missing is the globalization of humanitarian crises. People are no longer ‘internally displaced people’, but flee their countries, not only to neighboring regions, but, eventually, to OECD safe havens. And for good reason. In this sense, I think OECD countries’ drive to humanitarian aid is not (always) altruistic, but a response to increasing flows of refugees.

Here are some numbers on refugees and humanitarian aid from the OECD in the last decade or so.


We see that that there are cycles or jumps in both the amount of humanitarian aid given and the number of refugees seeking asylum in OECD countries. Though this is very little data to play with it is relatively clear that jumps in refugee numbers precede jumps in humanitarian aid. I ran a little, not too serious, regression logging both numbers (to dampen the effect of very large swings) and lagging the number of refugees. In other words, how much does the number of refugees in the previous year change the humanitarian aid in this year?

While the results are far from perfect, they do show that ‘causality’ runs this way: governments are responsive to refugee crisis by pumping money into the regions where they come from. The question is, of course, whether this money is sufficient and effective, since it mainly comes in the form of crisis mitigation rather than crisis prevention.


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Why US Liberals fall for Trumps’ frames

What surprises me these days is that even staunch liberals like Bill Maher seem to fall for Trump’s claim that he is an independent candidate, using his own money. Instead of ignoring these arguments, they buy into his logic and actually check whether his claims are true. Of course, Trump exaggerates: he also uses other people’s money, he is not as rich as he claims to be etc. But this is beside the point. Liberals agree with Donald Trump’s idea that there is too much money in politics, and that the influence of corporations needs to be reduced. This makes them vulnerable. By making liberals discuss these details Trump already has won: he has framed them into a trap.

As a matter of fact, Trump’s rhetoric illustrates the powerful role of frames in political debates. If this is what liberals want, then they need to agree with him on this point, at least in matters of principle. They know that this is wrong, but they are trapped. So what happens? Let me illustrate this just using one speech of his (16th of June, 2015), the one in which declares his candidacy.

This speech contains all Trump stands for: populism, vile anti-immigration and anti-China rhetoric, him making fun of other candidates etc. Let’s look at the main type of arguments that appear in his speech. I will differentiate between five different types: ‘bashing others’, ‘the poor (state of the) economy’, ‘my own strengths’, ‘dangerous foreign policy’, ‘domestic issues’. I hand-coded these arguments on basis of natural sentences (for a more thorough investigation one could, for instance, check whether other coders would get similar results, but I want keep it simple here). Overall there are some 640 statements (sentences) in his speech.


Let’s look at the first graph. It shows the frequency of each of the main arguments. It’s visible with the bare eye that Trump is all about ‘me, me, me’. In almost a third of all sentences he talks about himself. Topic number two is foreign policy (mainly immigration and terrorism). Domestic issues other than the economy get little attention. So far this only tells you, he is a narcissist, so let’s dissect these categories further. The second graph shows the results.


We see that Trump is obsessed with making America great again (whatever that means. I interpreted this mainly as in relationship to other countries, but this might be debatable). Followed by scaremongering about terrorism and ‘our poor troops’. More interesting, to me, is that number three is a familiar frame: ‘I am an independent candidate/ (because) I am rich’. This is more important than all his other strengths combined (my astute business practices, my great family, my network…). All other issues, although clearly vitriolic at times (e.g. immigration), have less (numeric) salience for him.

And this is the issue: The only positive messages Trump sends are (unsurprisingly) about himself, and more importantly him being a successful and hence independent business man. He does not take money from others, so he is not corrupt. It’s a frame, in the sense that it is an idea so powerful that nobody even observes its manipulative power. Critics might dispute his de facto independence, but they operate already in his terrain.

To see this let’s go back to basics: as a political economist I am, ironically, not so much concerned about the fact that there is money in politics. I am concerned about the consequences of money in politics, about the fact that money gives rich people preferential access to politics. This is important: In modern mass democracies, campaigning always costs money. The problem is that the rich (aka capitalists) have more money and get better access to politics than the poor. That’s the real issue, and it matters relatively little, whether the rich directly run for presidency (Trump), or whether they give money through PACs to candidates (Cruz, Rubio) who represent their wishes. In that sense, there is little difference between Trump and the others.

Hence, this is where Trumps argument becomes a farce. In what sense is it good to be independent of other people’s money (which he arguably is not to the degree he claims)? He is a representative of the very problem: giving unfair access to rich people. When only rich people can put up a candidacy, that’s the real issue, not who among the rich gets access, or how they do it.
This is also why liberals need to break the spell of the frame: they need to tackle the real issue (unfair influence of rich people) rather than the vehicles (PACs, corporations, donations). Of course, a reform of campaign finance should include curtailing the excessive influence of PACs, super-PACs etc. But it would be naïve to assume that this would lead to a level playing field. Instead, there must be other instruments to guarantee that the poorer parts of society get their equal voice. Just as an example, in European democracies parties often receive substantive state-subsidized campaign finances to achieve a minimum level of level-playing-field.

Hence, liberals would need to change their game. Rather than focusing on independence from money, then need to invoke frames of inequality, fairness etc. And they need to set positive frames. But this is a problem for liberals, because they get nailed to the very concept of liberty. It’s in their name. Conservatives can always exploit the weakness of the notion of liberty. So, liberal solutions are not enough. After all, paying parties for campaigning is hardly compatible with naïve pluralism and a lean notion of liberty. But what can replace it? Unfortunately, some radical liberals overshoot by demanding socialism. This is, in my view, a terrible strategy. Decades of anti-communist scare and Reaganomics have made this frame antagonistic: it will rather mobilize the opponents than swing them in your favor. Socialism is even a controversial frame in Europe (ask most Danes, Bernie Sanders ‘go- to-people’), so forget using it in the US context. Liberals should rather aim for something conceptually different such as social democracy and make sure that this is not the same as socialism. This is what mainstream left parties in Europe have done for more than 150 years. It’s time for left leaders in the U.S. to brush up their European politics 101.

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