Thursday, August 22, 2019

Black market in rosewood

National Geographic has the story on the trade in endangered rosewood, which pits forest rangers in Guatemala against Chinese furniture makers on the one hand and  impoverished villagers on the other, and makes clear why it is difficult to enforce bans that lack local support.

The fight to protect the world’s most trafficked wild commodity
Chinese demand for rosewood—trafficked more than ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales—is fueling a crisis in Guatemala's forests

"So coveted is rosewood that it’s now the world’s most trafficked wild product by value or volume—more than ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales combined. According to the Global Environment Facility, an international partnership among governments, civil society, and the private sector to support conservation, the illegal wild animal trade is worth between $5 billion and $20 billion a year; it’s often ranked as the world’s fourth most lucrative black market business after narcotics, human trafficking, and the weapons trade.

"According to Interpol, timber trafficking is valued at between $30 billion and $100 billion a year and accounts for 15 percent to 30 percent of the global timber trade. Sam Lawson, the director of Earthsight, a London-based nonprofit that investigates global environmental crime, estimates that the annual value of smuggled rosewood could exceed a billion dollars.
"The first time Guatemalan forest officials realized they had a rosewood problem was in 2011, according to documents submitted to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife, including rare timber. That’s when three shipping containers of the precious hardwood were discovered at Puerto Santo Tomas de Castilla, one of Guatemala’s two commercial shipping ports.
"The emergence of Guatemala's illegal rosewood trade has been driven largely by demand among China’s nouveau riche for traditional Ming and Qing dynasty-style rosewood furniture. Between 2009 and 2014, customs data analyzed by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K.-based nonprofit, show a 14-fold increase in rosewood imports to China from around the world. This expansion coincided with (and contributed to) the decimation of preferred Southeast Asian rosewoods, which earlier had replaced depleted native rosewoods in southern China. Buyers searched for new sources, and Guatemala, which has at least four commercially desirable species, was one.
"CONAP’s Beltetón says “it’s terrible that [rosewood] is distributed in the poorest areas of Guatemala, and that that's where the trafficker goes, taking advantage of the poverty and ignorance of people who don't have other options.” He adds, “of course, the government also bears some responsibility”—for not providing state services and active law enforcement in the most contested and conflict-ridden areas, such as the Chiquibul Mayan Mountains Protected Area, where El Carrizal is located.

"On the evening of July 1, 2018, acting on an anonymous tip about the illegal transport of rosewood, three environmental police agents made the two-and-a-half hour drive from their post in La Libertad, Petén, to El Barillal, an unincorporated village neighboring El Carrizal.

"As they approached their destination, instead of encountering the suspect, they found themselves surrounded by at least 45 men, some armed, according to the report the police filed the next day. The report says the men prevented their vehicle from passing, threatened them, questioned them about their presence, detained them for over an hour, and fired their weapons, although no one was injured. In the end, the three policemen broke the standoff by returning to La Libertad empty-handed.

In the nine months since, the environmental police have not returned to El Barillal."

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

More chaos in the medical resident interviewing process

Not only do graduating medical students go on (too) many interviews for residency positions, but the process by which interviews are offered and accepted is chaotic. (I'm reminded of the process of offering and accepting actual positions in the 1940's, before a matching clearinghouse was first developed...)

Here's a paper from the August 2019 issue of the Journal of Graduate Medical Education, by three concerned doctors at Northwestern University, who describe the situation and then offer their own suggestions. (I admire the description, and am skeptical that the suggestions are radical enough to change the incentives responsible for the current congestion...)

A Challenge to Disrupt the Disruptive Process of Residency Interview Invitations
Matthew R. Klein, MD, MPH
Sandra M. Sanguino, MD, MPH
David H. Salzman, MD, MEd

"Residency programs may also contribute to the sense of urgency to secure an interview by offering
more invitations than available interview slots. The rise in the number of applications per
applicant, while certainly multifactorial, is facilitated in part by the ease of online interview scheduling...
"In the current environment, applicants who receive an interview invitation while they are in a situation where interruption is impossible—such as taking a clerkship examination, assisting in an operating room, performing a bedside procedure, participating in a difficult conversation with a patient or family, rounding on the wards, or simply being asleep as a result of time zone differences—are effectively penalized. A delay in response may result in the inability to schedule a favorable date or an increase in the cost to travel to an interview at a less convenient time, or it may preclude an interview altogether if all interview slots have been taken.
"We propose a 2-step process that we believe balances the need for residency programs to recruit
applicants and schedule interviews with the goal of preserving an environment that allows students to
maintain their commitment to their educational and patient care responsibilities. We recommend the
following process
Step 1: A program informs an applicant of an invitation for an interview. In that communication,
the program shares the interview dates and indicates the date and time when online interview
scheduling will become available. This allows medical students to plan in advance when they
need to be briefly excused from clinical or educational responsibilities to attend to interview
Step 2: At the time indicated in the initial communication, and no earlier than the day after
that communication, the online interview scheduling system opens to applicants
"In an effort to further decrease pressure to reply immediately to an interview invitation, programs
should also ensure that the number of initial invitations does not exceed the number of interview
slots available. Additional interview offers from a wait-list could occur as needed based on unclaimed
interview slots or subsequent cancellations."

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Black markets for academic work, not just for homework anymore

Inside Higher Ed lets you know where you can buy a Ph.D. dissertation...and Clarivate (which publishes the Web of Science) let's you know where you can buy co-authorship in an already accepted academic paper. And the WSJ reveals that some students complain to the Better Business Bureau about sub-par contract cheating services.

Ukraine hosts 46 firms selling ghost-written dissertations
In 2009, there were 16 firms that sold completed dissertations; in 2016, the number nearly tripled to 46 registered enterprises.
By Ararat L. Osipian

"An entire market emerged in Ukraine that offers ghost-written dissertations for a price. This market consists not only of individuals, but somewhat remarkably, also officially-registered firms. In 2009, there were 16 such firms; in 2016, the number nearly tripled with 46 registered enterprises that sell completed dissertations. Their clients lack time and knowledge, but certainly not money. Ukraine is a country with high levels of human capital but low average household incomes. This keeps dissertations reasonably priced and affordable to corrupt state bureaucrats and businesspersons. Highly educated academics earn additional income by producing dissertations for sale."

Protecting the integrity of the scientific record from a new kind of academic misconduct

"At the Web of Science Group, we pride ourselves on protecting the integrity of the scholarly record. We are champions of high editorial standards and research practices, and our global team of in-house, publisher-independent editors are experts in their subjects.  So we are ever-vigilant to trends in unethical research practices, which pose a growing threat to legitimate scholarship worldwide.  Recently, we uncovered a new trend which we think is important to bring to light for wider discussion and action.
Our team in Russia received a tip from the local research community to a new form of publication fraud. The tip led to a website,  set up by unscrupulous operators to serve as a virtual marketplace where authors can buy or sell authorship in academic manuscripts accepted for publication. This kind of peer-to-peer sharing, in “broad daylight” is not something we’ve seen before – so we conducted a quick analysis of the site, and its data, before taking swift action to alert our friends and colleagues in the scientific community.
"The geography of transactions covers primarily the post-Soviet area (Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine), but there are authorships sold outside of that region, notably to the United Arab Emirates, China and the UK."

And then there's homework...this from the WSJ

Schools Fight Websites That Sell Homework Help
Hundreds of sites claiming to offer tutoring services are often selling completed assignments to students
By Tawnell D. Hobbs, Aug. 12, 2019 

"The practice, sometimes called contract cheating by educators, was initially targeted at students in college but has since spread to include high-school students, according to a review of websites offering the service.
"A Wall Street Journal review of 100 websites offering tutoring help or writing services, or both, found they promise custom high-school and college work. Some websites offer to run work through anti-plagiarism programs to prove it is original.
"Seventeen states outlaw selling written work to another for academic credit, said Dr. Bertram Gallant, a board member of the International Center for Academic Integrity, a consortium of academic institutions and individuals focused on integrity in academic communities. But enforcement is difficult since the location of the sites can be hard to determine, she said.

Several sites reviewed by the Journal let students put the work out for bid. “Often, customers may have two or more writers bidding on their project, so before selecting a writer, customers can check the different writers’ ratings and reviews,” said Avery Morgan, spokesman for a site called EduBirdie that launched in 2015 and specializes in essay writing.
"Students unhappy with cheating websites cite missed deadlines and subpar work, according to complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau and online reviews. Some students also allege that tutors demanded more money than agreed upon and made threats."

Monday, August 19, 2019

Paternalism as a motivation for repugnance: Ambuehl, Bernheim and Ockenfels

When I talk about repugnant transactions, I mean transactions that some people would like to engage in, but others don't think they should be allowed to, even if those others don't suffer themselves when the transactions take place.  In this recent NBER working paper, Sandro Ambuehl (one of the leaders in the study of these things) teams up with Doug Bernheim and Axel Ockenfels to study paternalism, which is closely related and often a primary cause of a transaction being repugnant (e.g. you might not think I should chew tobacco, because you think it would be bad for me...)

by Sandro Ambuehl, B.Douglas Bernheim, and Axel Ockenfels
NBER Working Paper 26119

Abstract: "We study experimentally when, why, and how people intervene in others' choices. Choice Architects (CAs) construct opportunity sets containing bundles of time-indexed payments for Choosers. CAs frequently prevent impatient choices despite opportunities to provide advice, believing Choosers benefit. We consider several hypotheses concerning CAs' motives. A conventional behavioral welfarist acts as a correctly informed social planner; a mistakes-projective paternalist removes options she wishes she could reject when choosing for herself; an ideals-projective paternalist seeks to align others' choices with her own aspirations. Ideals-projective paternalism provides the best explanation for interventions in the laboratory and rationalizes support for actual paternalistic policies."

From the conclusion:

"This  paper  examines  when,  why,  and  how  people  intervene  in  others’  choices.   In  a  setting  involvingintertemporal tradeoffs, we find that Choice Architects frequently remove options that are attractive toimpatient decision makers.  Choice Architects believe their interventions benefit the Chooser, and are thusacting paternalistically.  How do Choice Architects judge what is good for others?  This is a difficult taskbecause, by definition, paternalists are hesitant to rely on the judgments implicit in Choosers’ decisions,and indeed may even question whether Choosers are aware of their own best interests.  Ideals-projectivepaternalism  emerges  from  our  empirical  analysis  as  the  key  organizing  principle.   An  ideals-projectivepaternalist acts as if she believes other share, or ought to share, the ideals to which she aspires for herself."

I think of paternalism as being one cause of a lot of repugnance to certain transactions, but certainly not the only cause. For example, I don't think that repugnance to same-sex marriage was intended to help those who wanted to marry...

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Steve Leider celebrated for experimental economics

This cheerful email came in yesterday:

Dear ESA Colleagues,

We are pleased to announce that Stephen Leider has been selected as the 2019 recipient of the Vernon L. Smith Ascending Scholar Prize for his research on behavioral operations management.

This $50,000 prize is presented by the International Foundation for Research in Experimental Economics (IFREE).  You can learn more about IFREE, including its small grants program and workshops, at        
The Vernon L. Smith Ascending Scholar Prize is given to an exceptional scholar in the field of experimental economics whose work embodies IFREE’s mission to Promote Human Betterment through Experimental Economics to Improve the Understanding of Exchange Systems. Eligibility is limited to Assistant and Associate Professors (or equivalent). Dr. Leider was selected through a nomination process which identified many promising and highly-productive scholars in experimental economics who were then screened through peer review. Here is a link to the Prize announcement.

Please join us in congratulating Dr. Leider for his outstanding work and accomplishments!

Finally, mark your calendars, we will be sending out the call for nominations for next year's award in the Spring.

Jim Murphy & Cary Deck
IFREE Board Members

Here's a picture of Steve (wearing a tie) after his dissertation defense ten years ago:

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Poll: majority of Canadians approve of paying plasma donors

New survey results from Peter Jaworski
Canadians think that pay-for-plasma is “morally appropriate.”

"A significant majority of Canadians (63%) believed that paying Canadians for plasma donations was “morally appropriate.”

By age, 18-34 year-olds were most likely to think that pay-for-plasma was “morally appropriate,” with 75% saying so. 70% of 35-54 year-olds, and 49% of those 55 or older thought pay-for-plasma was morally appropriate.

By region, 64% of Atlantic Canada, 69% in Quebec, 61% in Ontario, 70% in the Prairies, 65% in Alberta, and 56% in British Columbia held that opinion.

The provinces of Ontario (2014), Alberta (2017), and British Columbia (2018) have all recently banned pay-for-plasma citing moral objections as part of the motivation behind the prohibitions"

Friday, August 16, 2019

Waitlists in NYC school choice--early reflections on yesterday's initial announcements

Yesterday the New York City Department of Education announced a change in the school choice assignment process--I gather that after one round of deferred acceptance, they will do something else, involving interim assignments  and wait lists.  (The original design included a subsequent round of deferred acceptance, after disseminating to unmatched students a list of schools with vacancies, and eliciting new preference lists for this second round.)
The details of the new plan for the second round aren't yet clear (at least to me).

Here's the press release from the city:

Mayor de Blasio, Chancellor Carranza Announce Easier and More Transparent Middle and High School Admissions Process
August 15, 2019
Families will now have one form and one deadline for middle and high school admissions

"“We are changing the middle and high school application processes so families don’t have to go through the gauntlet just to get a placement. There will be one application round and one deadline to make everyone’s lives easier.”
“We’ve heard from families and educators that they want a simpler, more transparent, and more accessible system of school choice, and today we’re taking a step forward,” said Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza. “This common-sense change will make a real difference for families across the five boroughs, and improve our middle and high school choice process for years to come.”
The DOE is eliminating the second application rounds for middle and high school. The main round application process and timeline will remain the same, with middle and high school applications opening in October with a December deadline. Students will receive their offer in March. Families can still appeal for travel, safety, or medical hardships; if families have any hardship, they will be able to access in-person support at Family Welcome Centers, rather than wait to participate in a second process. The waitlists will open after offers are released and will be a simpler, clearer process for families, increasing:
  • Transparency:  By knowing their waitlist position, families have a better understanding of their chances of getting into a preferred school option in the event that seats become available.
  • Ease: This is a shorter process that requires less paperwork. Rather than having to complete a second application and wait weeks—often into May or June—for a second decision or offer, families will complete one process, receive one offer, and receive any additional offers based on waitlist position.
  • Consistency:  Families will now have one admissions system at all grade levels, with the changes to the middle and high school process making it more similar to the elementary school admissions process. Currently the elementary school process has one round, and the middle and high school processes have two rounds with different names; now, families will not need to learn a different process each time a child applies to a new school—allowing them to focus on school options and not process."
From the WSJ:

New York City Introduces Wait Lists for Students Unhappy With School Placements
City’s complex school-choice system, in which students hope to be assigned to a top pick, has long been daunting for many families
By Leslie Brody

"In recent years, applicants who didn’t like their middle school assignments—given in spring for entry the next September—would have to go through an appeals process. High school applicants who didn’t like their offers would have to try a second round of applications and then appeal if need be.

"Under the new Department of Education system for fall 2020, students will be placed on wait lists for each school listed higher on their applications than the schools they were admitted to. They will be informed of their positions on wait lists and may be offered seats if they open up."

I got some emails about this. Here's my reply to a reporter...

"at this point I’m only an observer of NYC schools from a distance—I haven’t been involved in advising them for over a decade, and even then I worked only on the high school match, not anything involving middle schools.

So I don’t know anything about the current plans besides what I’ve read today ...

So I don’t have comments so much as questions.

  1. How is the NYCDOE going to handle the timing of moving waitlists?  Many vacancies don’t become visible until just before (or just after) the official start of school, which means that there could be some complications right around that time, for families and schools.
  2. How will students on multiple waitlists be dealt with?  Suppose a student waitlisted at multiple schools is admitted off one of them in the summer—if he or she accepts that new assignment, do his/her other waitlist positions remain?  
    1. (If other waitlists have to be given up, this could be a complicated decision whether to accept a somewhat preferred school, or wait for an even more preferred one…  If other waitlist positions can be maintained, then the process may move slowly, as some students accept for one waitlisted position, and then a better one when it becomes available, and maybe another…)
  3. How long will a student have to consider whether to accept a given waitlist position?

As with many questions of market design, the devil is in the details…"

and I added this in replies to followup emails asking for my thoughts on waitlists:

"I’ve always been cautious about waitlists, because some of the questions I asked you just don’t have good answers.  There’s a tension between wanting waitlists to move early and fast—to make planning easy for families and schools, and avoid disruption of the first week(s) of school, and wanting to give students the best chance at the schools they like best…"

"my colleagues and I never recommended waitlists to nyc, back at the turn of the century.:)
We thought it was important to reduce the number of “unmatched” students who had to be assigned to a school over which they  hadn’t had an opportunity to express preferences. This is why we had a second stage of the matching algorithm, in which lists of schools with still available places were disseminated to students unmatched in the first round, so that they could express preferences over these.

Another question about the new system is, how will such students now be assigned?  E.g. they might be assigned to the closest school to their home that has unfilled places.  In what order?  i.e. after some students are assigned this way, some schools will no longer have unfilled places, and students will have to be assigned to other schools.  The things I read today didn’t address that issue, but I gather that these interim assignments of unmatched students, which will turn out to be final assignments for students whose waitlists don’t move enough, will be made without having the students express preferences.

Another question about the waitlists: how will they be ordered?  According to the school priority/preferences that were used in the first round of matching?  Or perhaps unmatched students will be given preference? (that might sound attractive but I think it would be a bad idea, because it might make it seem desirable to be unmatched after the first round, which would interfere with eliciting student preferences altogether….)

My point is not to try to guess what design decisions have been made, but rather that there are lots of important decisions that have to be made to have a working system, and the initial announcements and news reports don’t reveal these. And they will have consequences.  So I hope that the system has been carefully designed."