How should we frame foreign aid?

I’ve always been inclined to frame foreign aid in purely self interest terms – helping others makes us all safer, preventing disease etc. But if we want our governments to increase foreign aid is that the best argument?

Terence Wood and Chris Hoy from the Australian National University have done an interesting study on precisely this issue:

All of the treatments, including the basic treatment, increased general approval of aid giving (by roughly ten percentage points) and decreased the percentage of the population who thought Australia gave too much aid by a similar extent. Simply providing people with some tangible detail about what aid is doing, and coupling this with endorsement from an independent expert, is enough to have a substantial impact on support for aid. The specific way aid is framed – basic information, appeals to national interest, altruism, etc. – doesn’t seem to matter much for these improvements.

These are from their dev policy blog post about their paper. (My emphasis)

Increasing the share of Australians who thought Australia gives too little aid was more difficult though. Only the altruism and national interest treatments brought statistically significant increases, and the increases were only in the vicinity of about five percentage points.

There’s more to this story – for one the authors note that this is complicated by what participants believed the intention of the project is. But at the very least this confirms that low information is a major problem and seemingly any discussion is a good discussion.

Are fines and barriers really worth it?

In Berlin, a city whose public transit uses an honesty system (backed up with unannounced in-vehicle inspections) and fairly low fines for fare dodging, it’s estimated that 3 to 5 percent of journeys aren’t paid for. 


London, by contrast, has a closed subway system with ubiquitous barriers and high fines for being caught without a ticket. Unambiguous figures are impossible to come by… but a survey from a decade ago suggested a similar rate of fare evasion in the U.K. capital as Berlin, with 6 percent of riders admitting having dodged a fare.

These are both from an article in Citylab, which also notes that a Dutch city is seeing success by taking the Berlin route – forcing fare dodgers to buy a ticket.

If ~6% of customers fare dodging is the price of doing business, wouldn’t we much rather public transport without all the nasty fences and gates and ticket inspectors?

At the very least we could put that money towards comfier seats.

Oligopoly harms housing affordability

Interesting paper from Jacob Cosman and Luis Quintero that finds the concentration of house builders has a significant impact on construction, and therefore availability and prices.

The research is from the US. But it is particularly concerning in Australia, where builders appear to be dropping like flies in the face of the downturn and investor pullback.

Our estimates suggest that in the average market a decline from six firms producing 90% to housing to five firms producing 90% of housing (the change in median from 2006 to 2015) with all else equal would lead to a reduction in the value of housing produced by 58%, a reduction in square footage by 60%, and a reduction in the number of housing units by 46%.

Of course there are particular reasons for increased concentration in the states, but it’s hard to imagine the same is true for the mechanism:

When many firms are competing to build, they build early to preempt their competitors. This increases total housing production, raises the volatility in the supply of housing, and creates a surplus of unfinished units. Conversely, in a more concentrated market, firms can time their housing production to maximize their profits without fear of pre-emption. This lowers production volumes but increases price volatility as firms with market power can opt to build when demand growth is strongest and charge prices higher above their marginal cost of production.

(My emphasis)

Finding joy in mathematics

I have always regretted losing touch with maths during high school. Part of this is undoubtedly my fault. I wasn’t a great, or really even that interested in being, a student until midway through university. But there’s also something a bit broken in how we approach maths. Both in school and life generally.

I’m talking about maths as a purely abstract phenomena. A series of formulas and steps, divorced from how they relate to the real world. Where multiplication is a table to be memorised and trigonometry takes place purely within a textbook.

This kind of mathematics not only strips away a lot of the beauty and joy, but relegates the subject to one only grasped by those who excel in a particular system. It turns maths into something like an ecclesiastical language, almost scary to the unindoctrinated.

This is a shame, really, as Lara Alcock writes in Mathematics Rebooted:

“…mathematical thinking is not magical. It is often thought of that way in our culture, where it is common to have a demanding career or to run a happy and successful household, yet to say, ‘Oh, I am terrible at maths.’ I hear this a lot, and every time it is clear to me that it cannot really be true: this person is obviously a capable thinker. ”

To some extent abstraction is necessary in schools as currently constituted. Students must be judged against something objective, and must be taught at scale. But does this really require so much concentration on the doctrine, to the detriment of the art?

Why is maths largely rote, rather than logic? Abstract rather than practical?

“Your mathematical knowledge might be rusty and full of holes, but people who can function well in our complicated world must be good general thinkers, and mathematics is just general thinking about abstract concepts.”

When you read about the likes of Newton and Galileo, maths jumps out as a tool for problem solving and creativity. In The Triumph of Numbers, I. Bernard Cohen explores how numbers and maths have evolved over time, and describes a plethora of interesting applications.

Including the algebra of morality:

“[Francis Hutcheson] used this algebraic relationship to translate several commonsense notions about morality into mathematical language. The first is that if two people have the same natural ability to do good (A), the one who produces more public good (M) is more benevolent (B). Conversely, if two people produce the same amount of public good, the one with more ability is less benevolent (since it was in that person’s ability to do more). The plus/minus sign in the equation allowed Hutcheson to factor in self-interest.”

“…he concluded from his algebra that “in equal Numbers, the Virtue is as the Quantity of the Happiness, or natural Good.” That is, he taught that “Virtue is in a compound Ratio of the Quantity of Good, and Number of Enjoyers.” This led him to the important conclusion that “that Action is best, which accomplishes the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers.” Here is a precursor, by more than 50 years, to Jeremy Bentham’s (1748–1832) utilitarian philosophy of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

This is a maths of reasoning and personal application. He wasn’t trying to calculate the change from a $20 or the tensile strength of a beam.

Similarly, in The Calculus Story, David Acheson produces probably the best explanation of how to calculate the area of a circle, by imagining a polygon with more and more sides (I think I finally understand pi r squared).

As you might be able to tell, I’ve been reading a fair amount of maths books recently, and the thing that strikes me is how differently mathematicians approach the subject than how I was taught in school.

Mathematicians work through subjects largely by reasoning and logic, not necessarily ever more complicated formulae. They also emphasise the problem solving nature of maths, often tasking you to think about a problem and come up with your own generally applicable rule.

Putting this into practice, I have also been studying maths using Brilliant.Org, which has a similar philosophy:

“In school, people are often trained to apply formulas to rote problems. But this traditional approach prevents deeper understanding of concepts, reduces independent critical thinking, and cultivates few useful skills…The capacity to think critically separates the great from the good. We can grow this capacity by trying — and often failing — to solve diverse, concrete problems.”

I have only finished one module on Brilliant and I’m not sure how it will work as a method for the masses. But I will report back in a couple of months.

In the mean time, I’ll leave you with Lara Alcock again, whose book I really recommend:

“School mathematics tends to come in horizontal slices: children learn basic ideas about several topics, then, the next year, they learn slightly more advanced ideas about those topics, and so on. This is entirely sensible. But it means that the vertical links are not very salient, which is important because mathematics can be seen as a highly interconnected network in which more sophisticated ideas build upon more basic ones. So this book’s approach is to focus explicitly on the vertical links. Each chapter starts with an idea that is bang in the middle of school mathematics—primary school mathematics in many cases—then takes a tour upward through related concepts, arriving eventually at ideas that people encounter in more advanced study”


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