The marriage squeeze is hitting China and India

Fascinating read on how the marriage squeeze, already established in countries like Japan and South Korea, has finally hit a third of the world's population, namely that of China and India. It's not just that sex selection at birth has led to a large gender imbalance in the population. Other factors exacerbate the problem.

Countries with normal sex ratios can experience a marriage squeeze if their fertility rates are falling fast. Fertility is important, because men tend to marry women a few years younger than themselves. In India the average age of marriage for men is 26; for women, it is 22. This means that when a country’s fertility is falling, the cohort of women in their early 20s will be slightly smaller (or will be rising more slowly) than the cohort of men they are most likely to marry—those in their late 20s (this is because a few years will have gone by and the falling fertility rate will have reduced the numbers of those born later). This may not sound like a big deal. But in fact between 2000 and 2010 the number of Indian men aged 25-29 rose by 9.2m. The number of Indian women aged 20-24 (their most likely partners) rose by only 7.6m.
Even if India’s sex ratio at birth were to return to normal and stay there, by 2050 the country would still have 30% more single men hoping to marry than single women. This is explained by a rapid decline in India’s fertility rate. But in China, where fertility has been low for years, the more gradual decline in fertility still means there will be 30% more single men than women in 2055, though the distortion declines after that. A decline in fertility usually benefits developing countries by providing a “demographic dividend” (a bulge of working-age adults compared with the numbers of dependent children or grandparents). But it does have the drawback of amplifying the marriage squeeze.
The problem is further accentuated by a so-called “queuing effect”. The length of a queue is determined by how many people join it, how many leave, and how long queuers are prepared to wait. In the same way, marriage numbers are a result of how many people reach marriageable age (the joiners); how many get married (the leavers) and how long people are willing to wait. In India and China, marriage remains the norm, so men keep trying to tie the knot for years.
Hence, a marriage queue in India and China builds up. At stage one, a cohort of women reaches marriageable age (say, 20-24); they marry among the cohort of men aged 25-29. But there are slightly more men than women, so some members of the male cohort remain on the shelf. Later, two new cohorts reach marriageable age. This time, the men left over from the previous round (who are now in their early thirties) are still looking for wives and compete with the cohort of younger men. The women choose husbands from among this larger group. So after the second round even more men are left on the shelf. And so on. A backlog of unmarried men starts to pile up. Just as you need only a small imbalance between the number of people joining a queue and the number leaving it to produce a long, slow-moving line, so in marriage, a small difference in the adult sex ratio can produce huge numbers of bachelors.

One can't help but conclude that India and China must prepare for an end to universal marriage. Is that so bad? Could both countries start to shift their policies to prepare for a post-universal-marriage society? Are there any countries with economic policies that can cope with declining birth rates?

Perhaps, but it's difficult to imagine a world in which the consequences are anything but a net negative.

There may be positive side effects: a shortage of brides in India is causing dowry prices to fall in some areas, for instance. Overall, though, the impact is likely to be negative. A study by Lena Edlund of Columbia University and others found that in 1988-2004, a one-point rise in the sex ratio in China raised rates of violent crime and theft by six to seven points. The abduction of women for sale as brides is becoming more common. The imbalance is fuelling demand for prostitution.

Minority Report for trolls

A new paper suggests that it might be possible to identify potential trolls before they do their worst. Researchers at Stanford and Cornell have pulled out patterns of behaviour exhibited by the approximately one in 40 users of three news sites—CNN, Breitbart and IGN—who were subsequently banned for abuse. These include trolls’ unwillingness to mould their conversation to the slang of an online community; their propensity to swear; and the volume of contributions they make to a debate. Making an algorithm of these patterns, the researchers believe they can be 80% confident of identifying those likely to cause trouble within five posts online.

From The Economist. I wonder what percentage of online trolls are men. It must be a majority. Men are terrible.

Now we just need Tom Cruise and a team of soldiers crashing in through people's windows before they even turn into trolls: “Sir, we're arresting you for the future abusive tweet directed at Sarah Marks that was to take place later this evening at 11:09pm.”

I need me some precogs to help me pre-block people on Twitter before they troll me.

Altruistic punishment

Steve Randy Waldman on the rioting in Baltimore.

Politically motivated riots are a form of altruistic punishment. Look it up. Altruistic punishment is a “puzzle” to the sort of economist who thinks of homo economicus maximizing her utility, and a no-brainer to the game theorist who understands humans could never have survived if we actually were the kind of creature who succumbed to every prisoners’ dilemma. Altruistic punishment is behavior that imposes costs on third parties with no benefit to the punisher, often even at great cost to the punisher. To the idiot economist, it is a lose/lose situation, such a puzzle. For the record, I’m a fan of the phenomenon.
Does that mean I’m a fan of these riots, that I condone the burning of my own hometown? Fuck you and your tendentious entrapment games and Manichean choices, your my-team “ridiculing” of people you can claim support destruction. Altruistic punishment is essential to human affairs but it is hard. It is mixed, it is complicated, it is shades of gray. It is punishment first and foremost, and punishment hurts people, that’s its point. Altruistic punishment hurts the punisher too, that’s why it’s “altruistic”. It can’t be evaluated from the perspective of winners or losers within a direct and local context. It is a form of prosocial sacrifice, like fighting and dying in a war. If you write to say “they are hurting their own communities more than anyone” you are missing the point. Altruistic punishment is not a pissing match over who loses most. The punisher disclaims personal gain, accepts loss, sometimes great loss, in the name of a perceived good or in wrathful condemnation of a perceived evil.
So you want to evaluate riots, then, as tactic. Surely these rioters can’t imagine that this — this — will reduce the severity of policing, bring jobs to the inner city, diminish the carceral state. By the way, have I told you, fuck you? Altruistic punishment is generally not tactical. Altruistic punishment is emotional. The altruism in altruistic punishment is not pure, not saintly. The soldier takes pleasure even as he takes wounds exacting revenge for a fallen comrade on another human who was not, as an individual, his friend’s killer. The looter takes a pair of shoes, because why the fuck not? If you perceive the essence of the riots in the shoes you are an idiot. Altrustic punishment is not tactical, it is emotional, and it is sometimes but not always functional. It functions, sometimes, to change expectations about what is possible or desirable or acceptable. In economist words, people’s propensity for altruistic punishment changes the expected payoffs associated with nonaltruistic behavior by those punished directly and, more importantly, by third parties who observe the unpleasantness. Changes in expected payoffs change the equilibria that ultimately prevail, in ways which may be beneficial for some groups or for “society as a whole”, however you define the welfare of that entity. Of course, there are no guarantees. Changes in expected payoffs can alter equilibria in undesirable directions as well. Drones anybody? This is a risky business.

Economists, game theorists, and psychologists come up with some of the most elegant names for various phenomena. I'd never heard of altruistic punishment, but I'll never forget it now. That is, sometimes when you bear the costs of the world unjustly, it can feel like the only way to set things right is to force a more even distribution of the costs across the population.

Housing and wealth inequality

In the last 50 years, the two societies have become even more unequal. Although a relatively small black middle class has been permitted to integrate itself into mainstream America, those left behind are more segregated now than they were in 1968.
When the Kerner Commission blamed “white society” and “white institutions,” it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time. It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished, and separately from whites. Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments. These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.
Nationwide, black family incomes are now about 60 percent of white family incomes, but black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth. In Baltimore and elsewhere, the distressed condition of African American working- and lower-middle-class families is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating housing equity during the suburban boom that moved white families into single-family homes from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—and thus from bequeathing that wealth to their children and grandchildren, as white suburbanites have done.

A must read on all the policies that have entrenched and amplified segregation in Baltimore. If we learned nothing from The Wire we should have learned that the forces aligned against the black population in Baltimore was structural, built in to our institutions, and not just the work of a few pernicious people. The whole environment is hostile, toxic.

Baltimore, not at all uniquely, has experienced a century of public policy designed, consciously so, to segregate and impoverish its black population. A legacy of these policies is the rioting we have seen in Baltimore. Whether after the 1967 wave of riots that led to the Kerner Commission report, after the 1992 Los Angeles riot that followed the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King, or after the recent wave of confrontations and vandalism following police killings of black men, community leaders typically say, properly, that violence isn’t the answer and that after peace is restored, we can deal with the underlying problems. We never do so.
Certainly, African American citizens of Baltimore were provoked by aggressive, hostile, even murderous policing, but Spiro Agnew had it right. Without suburban integration, something barely on today’s public policy agenda, ghetto conditions will persist, giving rise to aggressive policing and the riots that inevitably ensue. Like Ferguson before it, Baltimore will not be the last such conflagration the nation needlessly experiences.

This ties closely with a 2014 paper (PDF) from MIT grad student Matthew Rognlie that argues that what's responsible for the rise in wealth inequality is not, as Piketty argues, r - g, but instead the ability for the wealthy to capture outsized returns on housing and to pass that wealth on to future generations through that real estate. 1

  1. Rognlie's paper, fascinatingly, began as a comment on economics blog Marginal Revolution on a post about Krugman's review of Piketty (search for “Rognlie” on that post to see his two comments that launched, if not a revolution, at least an intellectual salvo). Here is a great profile of Rognlie and the story of how his comment turned into a paper that was the talk of the economics world.

At the heart of Rognlie and Piketty's debate is how easy it will be for capital to substitute for labor in the future. Today it is still difficult, and thus Rognlie's prediction that the marginal returns to capital is still sound. Until robots can replace humans in more tasks, that should hold. In that environment, our best bet to decrease wealth inequality is to fight NIMBY-ism, loosen development codes, and build more housing.


James Somers wrote a Chrome extension called Draftback that allows you to play back a Google Doc so you can see every keystroke and edit that went into the writing. Chadwick Matlin spoke to Somers about Draftback for FiveThirtyEight:

Somers started all this because he thinks the way we teach writing is broken. “We know how to make a violinist better. We know how to make a pitcher better. We do not know how to make a writer better,” Somers told me. In other disciplines, the teaching happens as the student performs. A music instructor may adjust a student’s finger placement, or a pitching coach may tweak a lefty’s mechanics. But there’s no good way to look over a writer’s shoulder as she’s writing; if anything, that’ll prevent good writing.

As a result, finished work has become a writer’s currency. It’s what she hands in to her editors, what she publishes as a book, what she’s assessed on. The process of writing — the masochistic act of choosing what to put down on the page — is merely what she complains about to friends. It’s a hidden act, and self-conscious writers (as if there were any other kind) prefer it that way.

Somers wants to use Draftback to peek over somebody’s shoulder — ideally somebody really good. His personal goal is to get A.O. Scott, the film critic for The New York Times, to write a review or essay in Draftback. “He’s a beautiful prose stylist (diction, cadence, etc.), his writing is accessible and unpretentious but world-class, and he seems to always put his finger on the essence of whatever it is he’s talking about.” Somers is curious about whether all that comes naturally to Scott.

It's an interesting experiment into demystifying the craft of writing, but I tried watching a playback of Somers' writing of his post and I gave up after a few minutes. It's playback at too granular a level.

Much of good writing does occur at the editing or revision stage, call it post-production, and perhaps watching the fits and starts in Somers' piece is testament to that. Some writers sketch out the skeleton of a piece first, almost an outline, and then flesh in the actual prose. Others just dive in and start writing and find the structure later, or they have an intuitive sense of structure that just emerges sentence by sentence, like a sculpture being revealed from a block of stone.

Rather than seeing a piece played back one note at a time, I'd prefer to see a piece at a few discrete stages, perhaps the most valuable being the first rough draft, then the draft the author sends to an editor, and finally the draft marked up with the editor's proofs, especially if the editor were someone like the legendary Eleanor Gould. 1

The valuable lesson to be learned, in the end, may be the same one to be learned from watching anyone who is good at anything. Craft takes dedicated practice and lots of hard work. Sometimes viewing just the final product can hide all of that, and unearthing all the discarded drafts on the cutting room floor can be instructive.

  1. I've written before about my adoration for Gould; a collection of some of her most renowned proofs would be a national treasure. Let's hope The New Yorker has kept some and releases them in book form someday.

Hedonic adaptation

A fundamental question in economics is whether happiness increases pari passu with improvements in material conditions or whether humans grow accustomed to better conditions over time. We rely on a large-scale experiment to examine what kind of impact the provision of housing to extremely poor populations in Latin America has on subjective measures of well-being over time. The objective is to determine whether poor populations exhibit hedonic adaptation in happiness derived from reducing the shortfall in the satisfaction of their basic needs. Our results are conclusive. We find that subjective perceptions of well-being improve substantially for recipients of better housing but that after, on average, eight months, 60% of that gain disappears.

That's the abstract of this paper (free to download).

Hedonic adaptation is a central principle of the human condition, and it's been fascinating to see more and more research on how it works, how it varies under different conditions. Is it really true that money can't buy happiness? Or does that only apply after you reach some baseline of economic well-being? The paper provides a solid overview of the current state of the thinking on the subject.

The hedonic adaptation hypothesis is that there is a psychological process that attenuates the long-term emotional impact of a favorable or unfavorable change in circumstances, such that people’s level of happiness eventually returns to a stable reference level (Frederick and Lowenstein 1999). According to the hedonic adaptation hypothesis, then, variations in happiness and unhappiness are merely short-lived reactions to changes in people’s circumstances. In other words, while people initially have strong reactions to events that change their material level of well-being, they eventually return to a baseline level of life satisfaction that is determined by their inborn temperament (Diener et al., 2006). In psychology, this idea is known as the set point theory and was labeled the hedonic treadmill in the seminal work of Brickman and Campbell (1971). Indeed, in a widely cited paper, Brickman et al. (1978) present evidence that lottery winners report life satisfaction levels that are comparable to those of people who did not win a lottery one year after the event.2
Frederick and Lowenstein (1999) hypothesized that people do not adapt to shocks in terms of basic necessities that are related to survival and reproduction. This suggests that hedonic adaptation is manifested the most in people who have achieved a certain level of basic material well-being rather than being a persistent phenomenon that is evenly distributed across all socioeconomic groups. The idea is analogous to the notion of diminishing marginal utility, where the marginal increase in happiness derived from material gain is higher at lower levels of material wealth. The analog in hedonic adaptation is that adaption is more limited at lower levels of material wealth. In essence, then, the idea is that the happiness levels of the poor do not adapt, or do not adapt completely, to shocks in terms of basic necessities.
In this paper, we present the first piece of experimental evidence on hedonic adaptation among the poor to improvements in the satisfaction of their basic necessities, specifically shelter. 

I'm no expert on the subject, but in my experience this holds true: being rich doesn't guarantee happiness, but being really poor is almost certain to make you unhappy. Even if hedonic adaptation affects the poor, even if those who are well-off are unhappy if their neighbors are more well-off (a common Silicon Valley disease), I still think the greatest human welfare gains to be made in the world come from bringing those in poverty up to some baseline of economic self-sufficiency and good health. Reducing unhappiness is often undervalued in comparison to creating happiness.

So much brainpower devoted to trying to create so many consumer behaviors, but someday someone will figure out how to make philanthropy addictive and habitual, and that will change the world.

The worst board games

FiveThirtyEight crunches the data and identifies what players consider to be the worst board games.

The outliers have a relatively large number of user ratings — people actually play them — and a relatively low average rating — people do not like to play them. This hall of shame includes War (the card game), tic-tac-toe, Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, The Game of Life and Monopoly.
The worst games, for the most part, have one thing in common: luck. They’re driven by it, often exclusively. Candy Land, Snakes and Ladders (also called Chutes and Ladders) and War are driven purely by chance. The Game of Life is close. It’s heavily chance-based, but one can make some decisions.4Overreliance on luck makes a game boring or frustrating or both. Good games are driven by skill, or, like Twilight Struggle, a healthy mix of skill and luck.

Luck is the reason I always hated playing Candy Land. It teaches you nothing at all, except perhaps to endure the random arrows of misfortune. At least some games of chance like blackjack teach you some basic probability theory.

I finally received my copy of what is considered the best board game, Twilight Struggle. Looking forward to cracking it open soon, though the manual is intimidating in its length.

Fantasy sports are underrated as a game in their cognitive lessons. Fantasy baseball, in particular, is a good teacher of statistics and asset management because of the predictability of player performance. Fantasy basketball is deterministic enough to be a useful teacher as well. Fantasy football, by virtue of all the injuries and extreme variance in game to game performance, is much too random to be as instructive, but playing is a great hack for upping your enjoyment of any random game if that's your goal.