Statistically informed ideas on how to make the world work better.

Category: Society

The irrationality of modern child safety

Soren in his car seat

Soren in his car seat

Like most new parents, I devote a fair amount of thought to keeping my baby safe, but at the same time want to know when I can cut corners to reduce my stress level without increasing the risk too much. For example, the other day we were driving back to Quebec from Boston, trying to make it to the kennel to pick up the dog before it closed at 5:30. It was our first trip with Soren. Of course, traveling with a baby is more complicated than as a couple, and we got to a point where it was pretty close whether or not we could make it back. And then Soren pooped, and needed to feed…

Our dilemma, then, was whether Ju-hong would attempt to deal with one or both of these things while the car was moving (illegal of course) or whether we pulled over and risked all the inconvenience of not making it back in time to pick up the dog: an extra day’s charges, an extra hour of driving to get the dog the next day (with Soren in tow, of course), lost work time, feeling bad for the kennel owners, etc. In the end we stopped, and made it back a bit late but still got the dog.

Most parents would say stopping was the safe thing to do. Conventional wisdom says that letting a kid in a car without proper restraint is tantamount to murder. But most parents and conventional wisdom are wrong in this case, as were we. Read the rest of this entry »

Idea: How to solve Quebec’s budget problems: stop giving me money!

The logo for the Quebec government program that sends me money I don't need.

The logo for the Quebec government program that sends me money I don’t need.

Like so much of the rest of the developed world, Quebec has been going through a budget crisis recently. The supposedly left-wing government has threatened draconian cuts to health research, unemployment benefits, and a host of other popular programs. There never seems to be enough in the coffers.

Like much of Europe, Quebec has an extensive social welfare state. Free health care. $7/day subsidized public day care. A parental leave program that gives parents 1 year of paid leave (~60% of salary) per child. Incredible benefits to save for a child’s education. Heavily subsidized higher education. Generous unemployment benefits and an employment insurance program. Etc.

So why is a left-wing government cutting such things? That’s a subject for another post, but it’s clear that the cuts are politically unpopular, and that there is therefore some budget reality apparent to those in power that is not apparent to the average citizen. These are not the sort of folks likely to buy into all the austerity hype that was so popular elsewhere until recently.

The cuts proposed are not just unpopular, they are for the most part very bad ideas. For example, the government originally proposed cutting $10 million from medical research, or 30% of a $33 million budget. But research is a long-term investment – cutting so drastically would have stopped many projects in progress and made Quebec a much less attractive place for foreign researchers (like me) to come to. It’s like trying to save fuel by cutting the gas to an airplane engine in mid-flight… (The government eventually pulled back, under pressure.)

More importantly, what can the government do to solve the budget problem? The answer here is surprisingly simple: stop giving me money! Amidst all these budget crises in the news, my wife and I recently received a series of checks for about $800 from the Quebec government as child assistance payments, because we have a new son. The leaflet explained that everyone with a child gets such a payment, and that they are between $651 (for richer people) and $2319 (for poorer people) per year. And it’s tax-free.

I think child assistance payments are a great idea. They can (maybe) encourage people to have more children, which is good in developed countries with low birth rates. They also help defray the costs of raising a child and show a societal solidarity with families. I just don’t think child assistance payments for my family are a good investment of the government’s money.

My wife and I are both professionals with comfortable salaries. Our decision to have a child or not (or to have more children or not) is not affected in the smallest way by receiving $800 from the government. Maybe we’ll use it to get an even fancier stroller. Is this really what Quebec taxpayers should be paying for?

Of course, I’m not just talking about my family. I’m talking about all the families like mine. Anyone with a family income over $80,000 has absolutely zero need of government assistance to raise their kids, and the government gets very little benefit from payments to these families.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, $1 is worth much more to a poor person than to a rich person; following this principle, the $800 we’ve received could do a lot more good helping a poor family, or reinvested elsewhere in the budget.

More generally, my wife and I make too much money and are taxed too little. The Quebec tax brackets are 16% up to ~$40,000, then 20% up to about $80,000, then 24% after that. This is on top of federal taxes of 15-29% depending on income. This all seems high compared to the US, especially with 13.5% sales tax, and it is. But the social benefits here are incredible, and worth it. I don’t have to pay for health insurance, and I don’t have to worry about not having health care, to name just the most prominent.

Our current salaries – modest compared to doctors, lawyers, business people, and many other professsionals – nonetheless give us an excellent quality of life. All we could want in a home. Plenty to save for retirement or a rainy day. Plenty to eat well. Plenty to travel to see family abroad, or to vacation overseas. Whatever stresses we may have in life, money is not one of them. Of course we could always find a way to use more, but our quality of life would be essentially untouched if we gave $10,000 more per year to the government in taxes. Instead, the government is sending us checks.

So, my proposal to fix Quebec’s budgets: stop all child assistance payments to the richest 30% of families, and similarly cut back drastically on other benefits for the rich and upper middle class. Less retirement benefits, less pay during parental leave, less unemployment insurance benefits. All of these things could be capped at the amount that would be received by a family with an $80,000 income, for example. And then raise our taxes.

I don’t argue this because I feel we have to always soak the rich. I argue this because this extra money could be used so much better to strengthen great government programs. It’s not just a question of giving money to the poor (though I’d be all for increasing the child assistance payments to the poorest families); it’s a question of smart investment in society. Medical research is the example I know best, of course. Funding medical research attracts educated, foreign professionals like myself. We then set up shop here, and we hire people to work in our labs using money we obtain from research grants. At any given moment, I am supporting about 5-8 students or employees in my lab, and I’m young and just getting started. These people will then go out and spend their salaries, and there is a multiplier effect. And we generate the results of the research, which is (we hope) of great use to society. Some discoveries by researchers like me become patented and create business opportunities, creating more jobs.

So, Quebec can tax me more and hire more people like me, or it can let me keep my money and put it into a savings account, or (if I were a completely different person) buy an Audi, a pool, and a vacation home in Miami. Most of the things a rich person could do with extra money have relatively modest benefits for the Quebec economy; not so for money invested in society, or given to those with modest incomes.

No, I’m not about to donate my extra salary to the government. But it seems silly to talk of a budget crisis when the simple solution is to cut government support to the better off, and to tax them more heavily. This doesn’t have to be exorbitant – there is probably some truth to the idea that higher taxes can slow growth – but a moderate hike could go a long way.

Idea: Limit government surveillance by granting warrants for algorithms, not people


All the controversy surrounding the surveillance of phone logs and internet use by the US National Security Agency (NSA) shows that it is very difficult to simultaneously make full use of technology to catch potential terrorist threats and to protect the civil liberties of individual citizens. Most of the debate has been polarized: The US government is or is not justified in doing what it’s done. But there is an innovative compromise position no one is discussing, one that (mostly) gives the best of both worlds.

Read the rest of this entry »

Phil Garrity on the human costs of perfect analysis

Partners-In-Health logo

The Partners-In-Health logo

I often write here about some of the hard-nosed reasons to be wary of trying to measure things that are not easily measurable – risks of bias, misaligned incentives, and missing important information that is harder to quantify. But, as a follow-up to my last piece, I came across an excellent essay by Phil Garrity, who works as a Monitoring-Evaluation-Quality (MEQ) program assistant at Partners in Health. His job is to try to measure hard-to-measure things, and he makes an excellent case for a soft-nosed risk of trying to measure everything: that we lose a bit of our humanity. This is particularly poignant if you know that he’s a young guy who’s just returning to work after a fight with bone cancer. He has given me permission to post the essay, which is below:

Read the rest of this entry »

Plummeting marriage rates in Quebec

In my previous post I mentioned that marriage rates are very low here in Quebec. I just came across this surprising statistic: In a recent study of 354 women giving birth here at the hospital in Sherbrooke, only 28 (8%) were married! (The 95% confidence interval is 5% to 11%, so random sampling does not explain the low rate. It’s less clear how well it could be generalized to Quebec as a whole – the sample is likely not perfectly representative, though it’s hard to know if marriage rates are higher or lower than would be expected generally.)

Statistics for current marriage rates are tricky: do we include people in their 60s who married when cultural norms were different? Do we look only at new marriages, and risk failing to capture people who are just delaying marriage but will eventually marry?

In this sense, the 8% statistic is particularly telling because it shows just how few people here consider marriage a prerequisite for a family. In the US, about 59% of births occur to married parents, or 7.5 times more than here in Quebec. The dramatic shift away from marriage here becomes even more clear considering that there are fewer single (i.e. unpartnered) mothers in Quebec than in the US (I’m making an educated guess here due to more poverty in the US). The vast majority of people looking to start a family here see marriage as irrelevant.

Ironically, of all the places I’ve lived, Quebec has the strongest family values. All of society is structured to give parents lots of time with their kids and to help them raise kids. This can be formal and legal: For example, public day care costs $7 per day, everyone gets lots of vacation time, and education savings plans are fantastic. More importantly, it’s also cultural. I’ve seen many instances of employers encouraging employees to take time off to be with their families under circumstances where that would be rare in other countries, and there are certain times of the week where no one participates in organized activities (e.g. sports) because everyone is with their families. My challenge to conservatives in America is thus to explain how Quebec can have such strong family values if marriage is essential for family values…

How conservatives should have argued in court that gay marriage harms traditional marriage

korean traditional wedding



I believe strongly in gay rights: I believe that whatever rights straight people have, gay people should have too. But, as regular readers of this blog know, I try to be honest about the evidence for my positions, and I point out when people I agree with on the big picture are wrong about the details or the rationale. Such is the case for the idea that gay marriage has no impact on traditional marriage.

On its surface, the idea that the gay couple next door will destroy my heterosexual marriage by tying the knot is laughably absurd. It’s so absurd that opponents of gay marriage couldn’t even find any rationale for it when arguing it in court, first before the California state supreme court, then before the US supreme court. When pressed by the justices, the lawyers ummed and ahhed and sputtered, a rarity in court.

However, this absurdity is only when we consider individual cases – there is substantial truth to the idea that gay marriage undermines traditional marriage at the societal level. American conservatives couldn’t make this argument because they are so ruggedly individualistic that more communal arguments didn’t occur to them (even if they believed them in their heart of hearts). Here’s how it works:

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What crime statistics, standardized tests, and scientific researchers have in common

I had thought about calling this post “Cohen’s law for predicting distortions in incentivized systems.” Tongue-in-cheek of course – it’s approximate, and thus not really a law. And I don’t like the self-aggrandizing habit of naming a law after oneself. And it would have been a dry title, and you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Nonetheless, this post is about the single most important thing that everyone designing public policy should understand. It is about the principle that makes most public policy fail (or work less well than intended).

Most public policy is designed to achieve certain goals – lowering crime, improving education, advancing scientific knowledge, improving health care etc. And most of the time, these goals are achieved by trying to get the right people to do the right things: police to arrest criminals, teachers to teach well, researchers to perform well, doctors to treat patients well, etc. In order to encourage this, most policy incorporates some form of incentives: tax structure, salary scales, rewards for good performance, and so forth. Police departments are judged by their crime statistics, and in turn find ways to pressure their officers to deliver these stats. In US education policy, No Child Left Behind was supposed to implement standards to encourage schools and teachers to perform better. Researchers who are productive are more likely to get funded for their next research grant. And so forth.

Read the rest of this entry »

A modern history of Japan and Korea in one figure

jap-kor fig

The y-axis? Whatever you want it to be…

We can, of course, add in the West:

jap-kor-west fig


Ah, the beauty of the logistic function…

Obesity and mortality: challenging the conventional wisdom, part III: BMI is nearly useless

I’ve just written a couple posts critiquing the recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association claiming that overweight people are at lower risk of mortality. This is the third and last, and will be a detailed exploration of why BMI is a bad metric of obesity.

I am certainly not the first to claim this, and indeed there are many researchers who have been defending measures such as waist circumfrence for years. But my point is not just to trash BMI, nor to defend another measure in particular (I think waist circumfrence is also a red herring), but rather to use BMI as an example of how shoddy thinking can lead to the adoption of poor metrics and thus serious public health consequences.

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Obesity and mortality: challenging the conventional wisdom, part II: Categorisation is fatal

This post is the second in a series critiquing the much-publicized recent study by Flegal et al. in JAMA, which claims that there is a lower risk of mortality among overweight people than normal weight people. As in my last post, my main beef is that our standard categories of BMI are a problem, but here I argue against categorizing altogether. In fact, I think there is a good argument that researchers categorizing BMI is literally fatal for many people.

How so? Well, once we put someone in a bin such as “obese” or “normal,” we have a mental tendency to accept the categories as something real, something objective. But they are not. These cut-offs are arbitrary, chosen mostly because they are nice round numbers. This can be seen easily on a histogram of 53,000 BMIs taken from the NHANES study (American adults age 20+, roughly 1998-2010):

NHANES BMI dist Read the rest of this entry »