Saturday, 25 May 2019

Process cost

I wonder how much this termination and associated litigation cost a Nova Scotia firm, and how much it would be likely to cost here in New Zealand. From the National Post:
N.S. arbitrator says employer was right to fire man for masturbating in bathroom — but only because it mortified co-workers

The employee and Unifor, his union, tried various unsuccessful arguments in the man's defence, including that he had a disability of sex addiction.

A company is justified in firing a unionized employee for masturbating in a bathroom stall at work, a labour arbitrator in Nova Scotia has ruled.

The arbitrator concluded that the employer, an aerospace firm operating hangars at the Halifax airport, had just cause to terminate the employee because his colleagues could hear what he was doing, and it caused “embarrassment and distress” in the workplace. The employee had also been warned about his behaviour two years earlier.

The employee and Unifor, his union, tried various unsuccessful arguments in their grievance, including that he had a disability of sex addiction. They also argued he had not been properly warned because managers were too embarrassed to directly tell him what the complaints were about and instead spoke in euphemisms about “unusual noises.”

For privacy reasons the employee is not named in the ruling, which came down last week and is publicly posted in an online legal database.

It appears to be the first Canadian labour case on the subject. “Neither (the company) nor the union’s representative had been able to find any case dealing with masturbation in the workplace,” the ruling says.

Arbitrator Gus Richardson was asked to decide whether the act of loudly masturbating in a stall justified discipline and termination, and whether a bathroom stall is a sufficiently private place.
You'd think that doing that in the washroom at work, repeatedly and loudly, and after warning, would be grounds for summary dismissal.

The case is funny, but the whole process had to have cost the firm a bundle in legal representation and hassles.

Let's stick with the funny though:

“I do not accept the grievor’s testimony that he made no sounds while performing this activity,” Richardson wrote. “Obviously if that were true no one would have known that he was doing it. But people did know. They could only have known about it because they could hear it.”

Two technicians had approached their union shop steward with complaints, but the steward “didn’t want to entertain this issue.” Instead the technicians went to management, who met with the employee but avoided directly mentioning the issue. A manager told the employee there were complaints about noises in the bathroom, such as “breathing heavily, making erratic movements and moaning,” and said management was concerned for the employee’s well-being. They told him that if he had a serious medical issue, he should alert human resources.


But two years after that meeting, complaints about the employee’s behaviour reached a boiling point again, with one employee complaining to human resources that the masturbation had become “more frequent and brazen.” The company conducted an investigation, and the employee was eventually fired.

Richardson considered evidence that the employee has a disability in the form of a sex addiction that should mitigate the punishment. He accepted evidence from a therapist on sex addiction despite protests from the company that the therapist’s education was from an online university that was not accredited by any national psychological association.
“In short, even if there was a condition that could be called a ‘sex addiction’ — and I was not persuaded on the evidence that there was — and even if that was what the grievor suffered from — and again I was not persuaded that was the case — there was nothing to establish that it was disabling in any way,” he concluded.

“I am accordingly persuaded that the employer had just cause not only to discipline the grievor, but to terminate his employment. The grievance is dismissed.”
Emphasis added. You'd hope in cases like this that the employer's costs could be awarded against the union.

In any case, the arbitrator's decision seems entirely correct. I would hope that a similar case in New Zealand wouldn't even make it this far, but if it did, I hope the ruling would be similar.

Friday, 24 May 2019

Herald on sugar

Kudos to Boyd Swinburn and the usual anti-sugar folks for getting this wonderful piece of advocacy published in the Herald as journalism rather than advertorial or op-ed. I'm cancelling my subscription to the Herald and asking for a refund of the balance of my annual subscription fee, but that's a bit beside the point. Swinburn et al have done a great job here with cheer-leading reporter Luke Kirkness.

Here we go.
"I've finished pulling teeth today, my right hand's actually sore I pulled out so many."

Those are the harrowing words of New Zealand dentist Dr Rob Beaglehole who is urging the Government to take action and tax sugary drinks.

The problem is so extreme more than $20 million is spent each year anaesthetising Kiwi children so they can undergo tooth removals as a consequence of consuming sugary drinks.

And today, a petition has been launched in an effort to convince the Government to introduce a tax on sugary drinks.

But the current Labour-led Government and Health Minister Dr David Clark have no plans for such a tax.
Excellent heroic-dentist versus uncaring-government framing.
"The Government needs to modify the environment that we're living in," Beaglehole, the New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) spokesman, said.

"We've had enough of Coca-Cola, McDonald's and other junk food companies selling this sickness to our kids.

"They keep getting away with it ... we need to make the healthy choice the easy choice."

Beaglehole told the Herald last night the NZDA backed the petition but the Government should go further than just implementing a tax.
University of Auckland academic Dr Gerhard Sundborn, on behalf of The New Zealand Beverage Guidance Panel, is behind the latest petition.

Calls for a sugary drinks tax aren't new he said. One with 10,000 signatures was presented in August 2017 but largely ignored by politicians.

"It was extraordinary that this earlier call to tax sugary drinks ... was snubbed by the then Minister of Health, and by both major parties," he said.
Getting the journalist to fail to follow up with the Ministry, or to check in on whether the Ministry has done prior work on sugar taxes - again, excellent work. Those interested can read NZIER's comprehensive review of the prior five years' published literature on the topic - commissioned by the Ministry of Health. But the journalist isn't interested. At least Newshub's reporting covered that part. Like, you might think that a journalist would wonder why the Ministry has been sceptical.
"NZDA has estimated that we spend more than $20 million every year to anaesthetise children so they can undergo multiple tooth extractions as a consequence of consuming sugary drinks.

"We must find more ways to address these issues."

The Panel, made up of researchers from a range of fields including public health, medicine and marketing, suggests a targeted tax on sugar should be top-priority to tackle the country's interconnected issues with obesity, type 2 diabetes and rotten teeth.
Really? The dentists have been able to sort out what proportion of extractions are due to sugary drinks and what proportion comes down to other stuff and what comes down to a combination of factors including never brushing one's teeth? This is amazing. I'd love to see that research and see how they established it. The journalist wasn't interested, but I am.

I know I'm blockquoting the whole article here, but I don't feel too bad about it. Here's the press release from the New Zealand Beverage Guidance Panel, and much of the article is a paraphrase of it.

Who is the Guidance Council anyway? This Stuff article (no paywall, better journalism) from 2017 says it was set up by FIZZ - an anti-soda advocacy group. This isn't some neutral bunch of nutritionists - it is an anti-soda advocacy group. This brief says they were modelled on the US Beverage Guidance Panel, "The intention of the panel was to develop guidance to government and community groups to limit the intake of sugary drinks." So: Panel established to fight soda consumption argues for sugar tax.

Let's move on.
The Health Minister agrees but in a statement to the Herald he said the Government had no plans for a sugar tax, as he had "consistently said".

"We need to reduce sugar levels in our processed food and drink, and develop a better food labelling system," Clark said.

"I have met several times with the food industry and set out the clear expectation that business and the Government will work together on this issue."

In September, the Herald reported Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was told a sugar tax would generate millions in revenue and save lives.

Ardern was briefed on a potential tax by the Ministry of Health's chief science adviser Dr John Potter at her request.

Potter said a tax of 20 per cent had been shown to work but should be based on volume or sugar content, not value of the product.

"Reduction of consumption via a tax will probably be greatest among the households with the lowest disposable income. In New Zealand, Māori and Pacific will benefit strongly," he said.
Potter did send that memo: 16 February 2018.

It was two-pages of unreferenced bullet points.

It made no mention of the comprehensive NZIER report on the effects of sugar taxes, which Potter had received on 15 August 2017 and which was publicly released, finally, after much prodding from me, on 31 January 2018: two weeks before Potter's memo.

The NZIER report was covered in the Herald on 2 February, by Newsroom on 7 February, and even in the Toronto Globe and Mail on 12 February. If Potter missed it in August, you would think that the Ministry of Health's Chief Science Advisor just might have noticed extensive media coverage of an important report in his brief during the fortnight before he provided his memo. It surely would also have come up in discussions within the Ministry between April and February.

Potter's failure to mention it, and providing advice concluding the opposite of the Ministry's comprehensive commissioned report, could reasonably be characterised as Potter, the Chief Science Advisor in Health, having misled the Prime Minister.

See, if you expect reporters to either know their beat or to ask people who do know the area, you'll be a bit disappointed in the Herald article by now. It would not have been hard to get NZIER's Peter Wilson on the phone.

And you'd be wondering just why you're paying $200/year as a subscription fee, and whether they'll refund the balance of the subscription like you've requested.

I'll stop there. The piece goes on, and does have a quote from the beverage industry saying that the beverage industry doesn't like sugar taxes. And it concludes with a link to Sundborn's petition - despite (I'd thought!) standard drill at Herald being that they don't outlink.

I'll reconsider the subscription cancellation if they fix this mess.


Thursday, 23 May 2019

Data termination

Awww, nutbunnies.

In April, Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham reported that 2500 women had had their requests for abortion turned down over the last decade.

Me, and a few others, immediately started imagining some rather interesting research that could be done if those records could be linked up in IDI. So I started making enquiries. It's not a study I'd ever do as part of the day-job, but if a few queries from me could help the academics who would actually do the studies and tell me interesting things about the world I didn't know before - well, I was happy to poke around to see whether that data could be linked up in IDI.

It can't be. Or, at least, not easily. Consulting physicians provide up to the government reporting on approvals and rejections, case-by-case, but with an anonymous ID number attached to each case where only the consulting physician has the key. The government can request more detail, and the physician can then check back in the physician's notes. But the government itself doesn't have the keys for linking the records to the de-identified records held in IDI - like by health ID number. It just can't be done without getting physicians to agree to sharing more of their notes up the system - and that's a far bigger battle.

It's a darned shame though. Linked up in IDI, here's the kinds of things that friends back in academia could have looked at:

  • Outcomes (across a wide range of indicators) for women who proceed with termination compared with: 
    • statistically comparable women who never requested termination;
    • statistically comparable women who requested termination, were approved for termination, but then changed their minds (a birth happened soon enough after the request was approved);
    • statistically comparable women whose request for termination was declined.
  • Outcomes (across a wide range of indicators) for children whose mothers never sought termination compared with:
    • children of statistically comparable women who requested termination, were approved, but changed their minds;
    • children of statistically comparable women whose requests for termination were denied;
    • the children of statistically comparable women who did not give birth after being approved for termination (you can't tell whether the termination proceeded or whether a miscarriage otherwise obtained) but who did give birth at a later date.
  • Lifetime parity among women among women whose requests were approved compared to those whose requests were not - how much of this is a decision about the timing of children rather than the number.
I'm sure you can think of a lot more research that looks to be near-impossible. 

Many thanks to the patient communications advisor at the Ministry of Justice who walked me through how the system operates. I think she had to do a fair bit of running around to sort it all out. So big plaudits for public sector helpfulness on this one. No mucking around treating things as OIA requests and then long turnarounds on questions of clarification, just helpful replies. Very happy on that front. A++++ recommendation. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Parliament and Twitter Hate

I stay the hell away from twitter fights about which MP draws the most attacks on Twitter and where lines are on what's allowable or not for very public figures who themselves often give pretty hard. Threats of violence seem absolutely wrong; otherwise, I'm not going to be drawn into the argument.

But it seems it would be trivially easy, for somebody who knows what they're doing in Twitter's API, to scrape out all the tweets referring to each MP, and build a timeline of affect. Like, overall volume of tweets referring to an MP, relative mood of those tweets, and how that changes over time.

You'd expect that senior politicians and more vocal politicians draw more attention, both good and bad, and that politicians that are more active on Twitter also draw more attention. All of that should be able to be controlled for. And then you'd be able to check for the effect of things like changing portfolios, movement into and out of cabinet, movement into and out of opposition and all that.

Anyway - a fun project for someone with time and who knows how to play with Twitter's API. I bet the Herald's data journalists could do it in no time at all and put up some ranking that could be interesting.

Update: Thomas Lumley's had a first cut at things:
He later notes that the negative words in reply to me seem to be people sharing my outrage at the outrage-of-the-day, while negative replies to Ms Ghahraman are rather worse. It's an interesting first cut. I also really wonder how much negative engagement is driven by bots as compared to real people. David Hood points out that prior to the last campaign period things just looked less polarising. Did NZ change, or is someone messing with us?

Friday, 17 May 2019

Treasury on the Heartwork event

I'd noted in April that my query of Treasury on the Heartwork event became an OIA request. I have an answer now. I'll copy the letter below, as it also includes the question.

On following up with David by phone, the $35 fee listed on the Eventbrite page was something charged by Heartwork rather than by Treasury, and Treasury staff were not charged for attending. I wanted to check that I'd not gone mad in remembering a $35 Eventbrite ticket fee.

Treasury does host a lot of different events; I've attended a lot of fantastic talks there from external speakers. I've never paid for one of those, but none of the talks I've attended provided take-home materials for attendees. I wonder whether there have been prior instances where an external provider charged an attendance fee for external attendees at a Treasury-venue event. I doubt that Heartwork made much on hosting the event - plausible that it ran at cost on their card decks. Curious on the general principle here.


Thursday, 16 May 2019

State-owned investment vehicles

If I understand the current concerns around Huawei correctly, it isn't so much that there's worry that their current kit is set up for spying, but that it would be too easy for the Chinese government to direct it, down the line, to surreptitiously do naughty things via updates. Everything's a bit opaque in China; the government has ownership stakes all over the place, and ample regulatory/directive ability. Everything in China operates under the shadow of the state. That shadow matters. 

The New Zealand state carries its own smaller shadow. When you're in the Wellington circuit, you start hearing just crazy stories about what regulated entities do, not because they're compelled to do it, but because they think it will curry favour with the government's or regulator's flavour-of-the-month political preferences and make adverse regulatory outcomes less likely. Who knows whether the activity that happens under that shadow of regulation actually affects the regulator's behaviour in any case. But weird stuff happens in that shadow. And you'll just have to take my word for it. 

Anyway, it makes me nervous when state-owned investment entities like the SuperFund and ACC, and Kiwisaver funds that operate under the shadow, start putting weight behind any current government's policy pushes - whether it's the Christchurch Call or anything else.

And I start wondering whether publicly listed companies should be thinking about ways of defending other investors by preventing sovereign wealth funds and public pension funds from picking up too great a total ownership stake. It wouldn't be a cheap call to make - those things manage huge amounts of investment. But if sovereign wealth funds become increasingly activist investors with strong non-return-related preferences, and with an implicit potential regulatory threat behind them where they're aligned with their government-owner's current political preferences - Huawei is nearer than you might like.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Morning roundup

This morning's worthies on the closing of the browser tabs:

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Blindness, hairy palms, and varicoceles

I have a bit of fun with some recent reporting on fitness and eligibility for the Chinese People's Liberation Army over at our Insights Newsletter.
Spanking another dodgy stat

It’s too easy for bad statistics to influence policy. About a decade ago, BERL added up every dollar spent by heavier drinkers, counted some other costs twice, and claimed that alcohol use cost New Zealand $4.8 billion per year.

The number still floats around when someone wants to justify the next round of restrictions on drinking. So I pay a bit of attention to dodgy-looking statistics.

The Los Angeles Times last week reported on Chinese youth boot camps encouraging boys to shape up into ‘alpha males’ rather than emulate ‘boy band’ idols. It all seemed a bit humdrum. But a supporting statistic in the piece was eye-catching.

According to the Times, the People’s Liberation Army Daily newspaper complained that “20% of recruits were not fit enough to pass the fitness test for admission because they were overweight, watched too many cellphone videos, drank too much or masturbated too often.”

I couldn’t let a statistic like that just pass by.

What proportion of recruits failed the fitness test for each of those reasons? And how could the PLA possibly know about that last one?

While China has compulsory registration for military service, Wikipedia says volunteers staff their army. So the statistic likely wasn’t generated by opportunistic ticks of a box on a recruitment form (or worse!) to avoid the draft. Getting out of the army can’t be that easy, Klinger!

So I wondered again, how could they know? – and, with horror, realised that a government spying on everyone’s movement and their web history could probably make a pretty good guess. Ceiling Xi is watching you.

I tracked the statistic to an August 2017 article on the Chinese Ministry of Defence’s website – which Google Translate helped me read.

I couldn’t find the 20% statistic. But of those unfit for service, 17% were ruled out on a blood or urine test, 46% by an eye exam, 20% due to obesity, 8% due to varicoceles, and 13% for heart conditions or high blood pressure.

And then, without any justification, the military website blamed mobile phones for eye problems, and that for the varicoceles. While embarrassment prevented me from calling up our GP, neither WebMD nor the Mayo Clinic website listed that as a risk factor for or cause of varicoceles.

Dodgy statistics can be bad for policy. Hopefully, this one winds up providing more amusement than harm.
I had to do a lot of Googling around using kinda dodgy search terms for this one. Are varicoceles really caused by that? What other euphemisms can I find for that that can help avoid the content filters on newsletters? Do people still know what I mean if I refer to that simply as Portnoy's primary hobby?*

Fortunately, I haven't yet started seeing the kinds of ads you might expect from that search history.

* Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Sokath, his eyes opened! This problem seems to be getting worse with the fragmentation of culture - which has generally otherwise been to the good, but does mean that attempts at metaphor and euphemism inevitably become in-jokes for those who know the reference. Like Ceiling Xi. I'd originally had "and Portnoy's Complaint for the varicoceles" in the penultimate paragraph; that was dialled back when I was reminded that I was already requiring people to remember who Klinger is, what Ceiling Xi might be, and that they'd probably (like me) have to Google to find out what a varicocele is (it's a varicose vein in the relevant area - who'd have guessed?).

Monday, 6 May 2019

Parent Visas

New Zealand stopped processing parent visas under the prior government. 

The background story you hear on it around town, which may or may not be the truth, is that there was concern that Chinese migrants who'd here received permanent residence would bring their elderly parents over to live in the Auckland Grammar zone and raise their kids, while heading back home to China to earn far more than they ever could earn here. End result: more pressure on the Grammar zone, no income tax revenue, and schooling costs. And, sometimes, PRs who'd abscond on their promised bond to support their parents and leave their parents here alone to struggle.

By that account, a few bad cases spoiled things for everybody else. I have absolutely no clue whether that story ever happened, or the frequency of it if it did, but I heard it enough times that it seems rather likely to have been part of the political reason for halting things.

Thomas Coughlan reports that more than 5000 parents are now in that queue.
Deputy Leader Winston Peters also said that the decision was that of the Minister of Immigration, but added remarks that implied he was unlikely to back the rule being reinstated.

“With the greatest respect, if I go to the United States I can’t bring Uncle Tom Coughlan and all,” Peters said, referring to this reporter's name. 
But that isn't quite right. American permanent residents who have naturalised (received citizenship) can petition for a grant of permanent residence for their parents.

And that might provide a solution to the impasse here. If I'm right about the background policy worry, allowing New Zealand citizens to petition for their parents' visas would knock out anyone who hadn't progressed from permanent residence to citizenship. I've not bothered with it yet but should likely get around to it. A permanent resident is eligible for citizenship if they've been living as a new Zealand resident for at least the last 5 years, and if they have spent at least 240 days in New Zealand in each of the past 5 years, and at least 1350 days across the 5 years. And you must intend on continuing to live in New Zealand.

That would rule out anyone who's established a nominal base here but who isn't really committed to the place. And it would likely finally have me tip over the line to finally sort out my own citizenship.

Friday, 3 May 2019

Platforms and incentives

Politico's Jack Shafer doesn't really like the New Zealand press's agreement to avoid reporting on racist tirades that the Christchurch murderer may wish to provide.

Shafer views the ban as infantilising - as deeming readers being vulnerable and susceptible to the murderer's views and in need of protection.

I come at it from a rather different angle. I see no need to protect anybody from hearing obnoxious views. But in a world where people are willing to incur very high personal cost, and impose massive cost on others along the way, in pursuit of infamy and the dissemination of their views, committing horrible acts should not provide that reward.

The point of the ban, in that view, isn't to protect people from hearing evil. It's to protect us against evil people who would happily repeat this kind of action if it gave them their few days' fame in the witness box to promulgate their own manifestos.

Think of it as analogous to a Son of Sam law where fame and attention, rather than cash royalties, is the currency. New Zealand news outlets working together to minimise those rewards for evil acts seems appropriate.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Short Ireland?

Outgoing Treasury Secretary Gabs Makhlouf will be picking up the reins at the Irish central bank.

Chris Hutching called me for comment about it; after a wide-ranging chat, I'd sent through a potentially quotable-quote that wasn't picked up in the final piece (above-linked). I'll share it here instead.
“Secretary Makhlouf is best known for advancing Treasury’s “wellbeing” approach to economic analysis. There is some merit to that approach: economic analysis always should take a very broad approach in considering costs and benefits. But successful implementation of the approach requires a depth of competence in economic analysis. That depth has eroded substantially during Makhlouf’s tenure. Treasury shed competent senior economists and hired junior analysts who often had little or no training in economics. Makhlouf’s real legacy is not the wellbeing agenda; it is rather a severely weakened Treasury.”
Hutching cites the Treasury card game - I'd given it more as example of the woolier side of wellbeing at Treasury, and where things risk heading with the erosion of economic competence there. I'd referred to the plethora of wellbeing indicators in the wellbeing framework as potentially providing too many analyst degrees of freedom; I don't know how many feelings are in the card game.

We're what, six weeks or so away from the next Treasury CE needing to be in place? Nobody seems to know anything about the next appointee; I understand it is not normal for this not to be known by now.

I take it as a good sign though. The most simplest explanation is that the appointment process has been delayed or reconsidered relatively late in the game. And I expect that to be more likely to have happened for good reasons than for bad reasons. Treasury needs a very strong appointment.

It's an interesting appointment for Ireland though. Secretary Makhlouf has an undergraduate degree in Economics and a Masters in Industrial Relations. A strong background in monetary economics may matter less at Central Banks that are under the ECB; Ireland has had some history suggesting prudential bank regulation may there be of greater importance. And Treasury here has done more thinking about that than you might expect.

Markets and meth

Damian Christie expects worries that allowing pharmacy sales of pseudoephedrine would see an increase in meth supply, or at least a resumption of home cooking.

I'll work through my logic here; y'all can tell me what I've messed up.

Prior to the ban on pseudoephedrine,* folks would go from pharmacy to pharmacy buying up enough cold medicine to start cooking, then they'd use that to make meth. Under that system, pre-2009, meth sold for about $700 per gram. That price would reflect the cost of materials, the hassle of collecting them, the time involved in cooking, compensation for the expertise involved in cooking, the costs of sourcing a site for cooking, and a hefty risk premium for being involved in an illegal market.

Since the ban, the market has shifted to importation of finished product. That finished product sells at less than $500 per gram.

I think that some of the disagreement here comes from how we're viewing costs and prices.

If you think that the underlying 'real' cost of home-cooking meth is just the cost of getting pseudoephedrine (buying it, time spent walking from pharmacy to pharmacy), the cost of additional chemicals, and maybe a bit of compensation for the cook's time, then it's easy to imagine being able to undercut the $500/gram price. So allowing pharmacies to start selling the stuff again then sounds risky.

But if that were the case, why wasn't there massive entry into p manufacturing prior to 2009? If there were decent returns to be had at a $500/gram price point, the profits at $700/gram would have been substantially higher. Why wasn't the price of meth, back in 2009, bid down to $500/gram or less if there were still substantial profits there to be made?

To me, evidence of 2008 prices well in excess of current prices suggests strongly there would be no substantial resumption of cooking meth from pseudoephedrine if we again legalised the decent cold medication. The current supply chain is able to deliver meth to consumers at a much lower price point than the previous supply arrangement. That suggests the costs involved in the current supply chain are far lower than the costs under the prior regime.

Potential objections, and I think there are some potentially good ones:
  1. If that's all true, why didn't they adopt the current supply chain earlier? 
  2. There could have been a generalised reduction in risk premiums in meth that has hit all potential ways of running a meth supply chain. 
  3. Prices also reflect industry organisation. Ex ante prices depended on local cartel behaviour enforced by local gangs. Current structure may differ from that. So the 2008 prices were propped up by the prevention of entry enforced by the gangs. 
  4. Something else I haven't thought of.

The first one I owe to Paul Walker on Twitter. There are a few potential reasons why the 2008 meth supply chain hadn't shifted to the current supply chain. Local gangs may have lacked international supply contacts, and may have worked to keep out potential entry by international players. There could have been fairly substantial fixed costs in establishing those supply chains that none of the 2008 players were willing or able to front. Perhaps someone who knows more about the local industry can help fill in the blanks here.

The second one - imagine that the police just kinda gave up on meth. They stopped reporting on progress on meth back in 2015, when it was looking pretty obvious that the drugs had won the drug war. If they gave up, then it would be cheaper to cook meth from pseudoephedrine now than it was in 2008, so that product could be delivered at a lower price point. Alternatively, if there have been tech developments in small-batch cooking that have radically lowered the cost of production in that sector since 2008, then 2008 prices may not be the best guide. If that's happened, and someone can point me to evidence on it, that'd be helpful. In either of those cases, you could see a re-emergence of a local industry making meth out of cold medicine.

Finally, industry organisation. Imagine that, pre-2008, we had a monopoly gang running meth supply. Imagine it controlled everything and restricted supply to keep prices up. The early prices then reflected monopoly profits rather than just real production costs and real risk premiums. But for that to affect the relative cost of importing meth versus cooking it from pharmacy medicines, the switch in the supply chain would also have had to have broken the cartel/monopoly. In that case, current prices are competitive; prior prices were inflated by monopoly/cartel profits; and, relative prices between the two points don't tell us about the relative costs of the two production methods. If we still had a monopoly importer/distributor that just flipped supply chains, the lower price would reflect monopoly profit maximisation under a lower cost structure. It feels like you need the current model to be far more competitive than the prior model to reckon out of this that cooking meth from cold medicine might have any cost advantage. And that just seems odd when the prior model had lots of small scale folks buying cold medicine and the current one has more sophisticated import methods.

It just doesn't seem plausible that small-batch cooking is in any way cost-competitive with the meth that's currently imported. There are mechanisms that can get you there, but they just seem far less likely than the rather simpler model: it's just gotten a heck of a lot easier to import methamphetamine out of Asia that's reportedly of better purity.

Bottom line: my odds-on expectation is that a resumption of pharmacy sales of pseudoephedrine-based cold medicine would not see any substantial re-emergence of that way of making meth. There might be a few cases here and there of folks giving it a go for their own supply or a bit of social supply, but they'd have a tough time competing with current imports - unless something happened to make importing meth a lot harder.

* Yes I know that it's still available by prescription. But that's a ban in all but name. If the worst of a cold takes 48 hours to pass and it takes 48 hours to get a doctor's appointment to get a prescription, you just can't get decent cold medication when you get a cold. You have to have a doctor willing to provide a prescription in case you get a cold later, and a pharmacist willing to fill the prescription, and the hassle of setting a doctor's appointment, and the cost of a doctor's appointment.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

W=MP is a harsh mistress

I love today's SMBC

Read it over at SMBC to get the alt-text, and to push the red button. 

This should be on every labour economics syllabus. 

Corollary: masochists are more likely to take up hobbies like chess, where your own relative position in the world is very quickly made clear by an unambiguous points ranking. 


I do not miss having to worry about PBRF evidence portfolios.

The 2018 results are now up.

I hadn't realised how small Canterbury's econ group now was relative to the econ contingents at the other universities - at 10 FTE, they're now the smallest economics group in the country. Note that the measure doesn't count R ranked staff as those staff would not draw PBRF funding; I doubt including Rs would change that since there are only 10 in econ at Canty.

It's a good group - only Waikato seems to have a stronger research ranking, per capita, on an eyeball metric. So kudos!

Update: that eyeball metric is wrong. Waikato is top with 85% A or B-ranked. Otago's next with 73% so-ranked. Canterbury's very slightly behind on 70%. Everyone else is miles behind that.

I keep remembering an economics department of about 16-18 people from 2007. I miss that place.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

The Price of Meth

Back in 2011, New Zealand's drug warriors claimed a success in their war on methamphetamine. The price of meth had risen. 
The report shows the price of P has been steadily moving upwards since 2006, and remains high. The latest survey data shows the mean price of a gram of P is $768, up from $723 at the same time in 2010.

"However, this is not the time for sitting on our laurels. While the price of P has risen dramatically in Christchurch, we are seeing fluctuations around the country. While we are seeing progress, it's more important than ever for authorities to continue to be vigilant."

The nature of seizures at New Zealand's borders is continuing to change. Seizure levels of precursor chemicals, like ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, are down 44 per cent compared to the same time last year. In contrast, seizures of methamphetamine are rising. In the first nine of months of 2011, 23 kilograms of methamphetamine were seized at the border - nearly 95 per cent of the total seized during 2010.
At the time, I wondered how much of that increase was CPI and the GST increase. Sure, you don't pay GST on meth directly, but neither do meth dealers get to claim back the GST on any of their legally purchased inputs.

Whatever the case then, the Herald today reports that meth costs $500 per gram in Auckland and $600 per gram in Christchurch.

Maybe it would be even more prevalent if we again had easy access to pseudoephedrine over the counter, but it seems unlikely. It seems rather that drug dealers have figured out better ways of getting meth into the country.

If making meth out of pseudoephedrine got us to a price point per gram of about $700 in 2008, before the ban, it seems unlikely that anybody's going to go back to that way of making meth if their current supply methods get to a price point of $500-$600 per gram.

Can we please un-ban pseudoephedrine for over-the-counter purchase? The continued ban is just stupid.

Doesn't the government claim to have some wellbeing-based agenda? If that's about more than playing card games at Treasury and adopting trendy vocabulary, this seems an obvious cost-effective way of improving wellbeing. One line of regulation flipping pseudoephedrine out of Class B2 and back into its prior pharmacy-medicine status. Costs the government nothing and makes everyone with a cold a bit better off.

Update: A source in Christchurch who would know tells me that the quoted price in Christchurch is "way wrong Haha" - on the high side. Christchurch prices are lower than the Herald there quotes - though it notes those were the prices at the time of the survey. The earlier numbers come from a more comprehensive drug price survey; the Herald doesn't say where the researcher drew the more current price figures from.

Around the traps

  • Me at Newsroom ($) on coalition politics and the Capital Gains Tax. I wonder whether Labour wasn't rather pleased to be able to blame Winston for not progressing the thing. Ungated here.

  • Me at The Spinoff on the job creation claims around the Provincial Growth Fund. Where I'd worried that MBIE was delaying my OIA so they could backfill workings onto some high-looking job creation numbers, reality was far less complicated. Why they took so long to release things is up in the air, but all they did was take the lower bound of the job creation estimates provided by the grant applicants and added them together. Dunno why it took months to tell me that. 

  • In our Insights newsletter, I wonder whether Treasury's Heartwork game were a parody. But I fear the answer is no. I'm told that Treasury's Intranet, last Wednesday, included this bit.
    What's all the fuss about Heartwork?

    Wednesday 24 April 2019

    Over the last couple of weeks, you might have read or heard about criticism being levelled at the Treasury for its involvement with training organisation Heartwork, who’ve run several workshops with small groups of our staff as well as an external event at our premises last week.

    You will already know the importance the Treasury places on staff wellness, diversity and inclusion, and building capability of our people. We have many initiatives underway to help achieve our objectives in each of these key areas.

    Our workshops with Heartwork were a small trial to see what benefit we - as individuals, teams and as an organisation - might gain from their approach to incorporating empathy in our dealings with others.

    In providing the venue for last week's event, organised and run by Heartwork, the Treasury provided an opportunity for others interested in this approach to gather together and talk about their thoughts and experiences. Providing a venue for groups to gather for presentations and discussion about aspects of wellbeing is one way in which the Treasury can help promote diversity of thinking and common understanding.

    Contrary to the rhetoric of critics, the importance of empathy and communication skills in business is well established – and our stakeholders are asking this of us. Engaging effectively with a broad range of New Zealanders, and collaborating productively with our peers across the public sector, is also core to our ability to provide policy advice well. We will continue to focus on growing these and other skills in our people.

    Finally, to give you clarity around one of the comments made in the media: the Treasury's involvement in these workshops, and with the event held here last week, is in no way related to the government’s Wellbeing approach or Budget 2019. It has been an internal capability-building exercise.
    The response doesn't really address the 'why the heck is this a Treasury priority when you have rather bigger problems' concern raised in my NBR column of the prior week. My probity questions of Treasury, posted here, are now an OIA request with a due date of 20 May. But I guess we now know that it was a Heartwork event at Treasury rather than an event Treasury commissioned.

    If you haven't yet read Danyl Maclaughlin's write-up of the event, you really really should. It may leave you somewhat sceptical about the whole thing. Point of Order on Treasury's Heartwork game is also worth a look.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Board composition and company performance

In 2012, the NZX required listed firms to disclose the gender composition of their boards. No gender quotas were introduced, but the disclosure rule was expected to encourage changes in board composition.

Glenn Boyle takes up the topic with Michael Foley and Sanghyun Hong.
The Impact of the 2012 NZX Listing Rule Change on Board Composition and Company Performance

We examine the impact of the December 2012 NZX listing rule change that introduced compulsory disclosure about gender diversity on NZ boards. Most notably, the rate of growth in female-held directorships increased significantly after the introduction of the new rule, resulting in, by 2016, average female board representation being approximately double what it had been in 2012. However, we find no relationship between this response and company performance. Across six measures of operating and financial performance, firms that responded most strongly to the listing rule change fared, on average, no better or worse than those that stuck closer to the status quo.
That doesn't mean that tighter rules requiring specific board gender balance targets would be costless; it is always risky to extrapolate from changes like this voluntarily undertaken by firms that were able to do so to changes that would obtain under compulsion.

They conclude:
We have obtained two principal results in this paper. First, NZ companies significantly increased their rate of female director appointments following the 31 December 2012 listing rule change that required all NZX-listed firms to disclose more information about the level of gender diversity on their boards. Although we cannot totally rule out the possibility that this relationship is merely coincidental, it seems more likely to have been at least partly causal. Thus, despite its “gentle-nudge” nature, the new listing rule appears to have had a positive impact on the gender diversity of NZ boards.

Second, however, this positive impact did not translate into better firm performance. Although post-2012 NZ company performance was generally strong, inter-firm variation appears to have been independent of changes in gender diversity: on average, firms that responded most strongly to the listing rule change subsequently performed no better on average than firms that failed to respond at all. Perhaps even more strikingly, there is also no relationship between listing rule responsiveness and performance improvement following the listing rule change. Such a finding is consistent with the bulk of the literature on the relationship between company performance and female board  representation: as Klein (2017) has noted, meta-studies of this relationship conclude that there is essentially zero relationship between these two variables. Our work provides further support for this view, in a NZ context.

Our results are consistent with an efficient director appointment process in NZ. If, following the 2012 listing rule change, NZ firms had over-reacted by appointing unqualified female directors, then we would expect to see a relative deterioration in performance among the firms that responded most strongly to the rule change. Similarly, if prior to 2012 NZ firms had been under-utilising available female talent, then we would expect to see a relative improvement in performance among the firms that responded most strongly to the rule change. However, we observe neither such effect, suggesting that NZ firms applied, at least on average, meritocratic principles in appointing directors prior to 2012 and have continued to do so since.

This leads to one final implication of our results. Despite the meta-study evidence, NZ commentators (e.g., Meier, 2014; Parker, 2018) and politicians (Lambert, 2018) periodically call for the imposition of female quotas on boards. Our study suggests such claims should be treated with caution: if a voluntary increase in female directors (which is likely to consist of mainly well-qualified appointees) has no impact on firm performance, then a further enforced increase (regardless of ability and qualifications) could well have a negative impact.
Relatedly: Reddell on that full-page ad in the Dom.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Our Tarot Treasury

It is at least as bad as I'd thought. The event I mean. Danyl's reporting is excellent.
Fiona Ross is a thought leader in the public service; an articulate and engaging public speaker. She stands at the front of the room: a seminar space on the third floor of Treasury. The 30 people in the audience fall silent. She begins. “We all know we live in a DEVUCA world.”

Everyone nods thoughtfully. Except me. I raise my hand. “We live in a what?”

Ross looks at me and blinks. “DEVUCA.”

I try to imitate the sound, unsuccessfully. Someone at my table explains the acronym in a low voice. “It stands for diverse, ambiguous, volatile, uncertain …”

“I think complexity is in there,” another person suggests. There is some disagreement. No one is quite sure exactly what kind of diverse complex ambiguous world we occupy.

“Google it,” Ross advises.

“I will. How do you spell …?”

“And in a DEVUCA world we all need to be more empathic and inclusive. That’s why Heartwork is so exciting.”
Maybe at the next event they'll all wear flower pots on their heads in celebration of a DEVO world.

Among the more depressing aspects of Treasury's degeneration is that, for many on the left, it still defines the right hand side of an Overton window. If Treasury pronounces something, only madness can lie beyond that to the right.
Treasury looks deceptively normal, like an ordinary government department. It is not. Treasury is the most powerful organisation in the public service. In parliament the seats in the House occupied by government MPs are known as “the Treasury benches”. To control Treasury is to control the country.

Treasury is located at the bottom of the Terrace, opposite the Beehive. The building is handsome, spacious, filled with air and light. But in the minds of progressive intellectuals and left-wing activists Treasury casts a black and terrible shadow over the history of modern New Zealand.
But Treasury isn't that anymore. It's something else.
That was all a long time ago, and today’s Treasury is working hard to return New Zealand to a pre-neoliberal, prelapsarian state. Next month the government will release its first “Wellbeing Budget”’ It uses the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, a world leading concept which, Ross informs us, the department has been working on for 18 years. Instead of focusing purely on economic capital the public service, led by Treasury, will seek to grow the country’s human, social and environmental capital. But also still the financial capital. “We’re definitely not saying economics and finance isn’t important.” After the session is over I ask Ross, “How does any of that connect to this game? Are there any metrics to show Heartwork leads to those outcomes?”

“We’re still building the evidence base for that.”

The Heartwork game is separate from the Wellbeing budget but related to the concept of wellbeing, the company’s other co-founder, Clare Rousseau, a former Treasury analyst tells me. Heartwork incorporates the ideas of Marshall Rosenberg, a psychologist and conflict negotiator who advocated non-violent communication, and combines his teachings with Te Whare Tapa Whā, the “four cornerstone” model of Māori mental health, along with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; the Stanford Social Review’s model of the Dawn of System Leadership; Mindfulness; Gamification and “Theory of U”, a change-management theory from the 1970s filled with Heideggerian jargon about presencing and co-sensing.
I didn't attend last week's session. I wouldn't have liked it, and I'm rather sure I wouldn't have been welcome.
There is a disturbance in the psychological safe space of the Heartwork learning journey, and it is mostly the fault of Eric Crampton, chief economist at the New Zealand Initiative, a champion of the neoliberal reforms and a critic of the new wellbeing focused Treasury. The experiment with Heartwork came to Crampton’s attention last week. He blogged about it, and this led to a Newshub story in which National leader Simon Bridges attacked the card game as “bizarre and actually wrong”, while Jacinda Ardern quickly explained that Heartwork was “nothing she or any of her ministers had anything to do with”. It’s the reason we’re warned at the beginning of the session not to take photographs or any recordings or share any of the personal stories that emerge during the event.
My column on the mess at Treasury is now online at NBR ($)

Danyl goes through how you play the game. Except it isn't really a game. Games will usually involve other players. The Heartwork game is just, well, playing with yourself. So whatever questions you have about the game - you can go there to read how it goes.

I have a few other questions though.

Did Treasury hire Heartwork to provide this session? If it did, what is probity like when contracting for this kind of thing with a former consultant reported to be friends with folks in ELT? Is the registration fee a partial recouping of the costs of the card decks for Treasury, or is it Heartwork’s charge for the session? Does Treasury’s Guidance for Setting Charges in the Public Sector apply?

If Treasury didn’t hire Heartwork for the session, and instead it’s been through other arrangements, what’s policy at Treasury around hosting commercial outfits like Heartwork for these kinds of sessions – do they charge rent on the space? If a different company wanted to run a similar event at Treasury for their own proprietary teamwork program marketing thing [there are oodles of consultants in this general space], what would be the process around approving that?

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Dale Carnegie being happy to provide sessions with similar objectives/outcomes, for example. And it would totally make sense for Treasury to send staff for training for this stuff on an as-needed basis. But the nut of it here is if Carnegie’s local trainers [or other equivalent] asked Treasury if they could provide a $35/head session at Treasury with Treasury and others invited, on what basis could they decline them when they’ve allowed Heartwork? Carnegie at least is reputable. What if the Scientologists wanted to provide e-readings?

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Howling at the Treasury moon

I like the headline that The National Business Review put on this week's column. It isn't online yet; I've a few snippets below:
Big organisations get up to a lot of stuff that looks pretty silly from the outside – and even from the inside. Corporate retreats with ridiculous team-building exercises. Awkward social functions. Corporate family picnics when you would all rather prefer to be out with your own friends.

Anybody who has ever worked in a big organisation knows this. Even smaller organisations sometimes get into this game. It is hell for the more analytically minded and introverted among us, and doubly so for analytically minded, introverted economists, but such exercises seem to serve a functional purpose. It is easier to work with people if you know them better. And it is important to know people outside your own smaller team because others might know things you need to know.

Last week, Treasury caught critique, and even some ridicule, for hosting an event with Heartwork scheduled for 17 April.

On the face of it, the event did look risible. The event teaser, after all, initially invited readers to “Imagine surprising Aotearoa with a strain of compassion so delightful that it re-wires our collective consciousness!” After featuring on the evening news and in a question to the Prime Minister in Parliament, the Heartwork event’s invitation has been toned down just a little.

In any case, it is definitely not your father’s Treasury. But perhaps your woke nephew’s Treasury.


But is a failure to consult sun and moon feelings really at the root of Treasury’s problems?
After going through the declining capabilities in economics at Treasury, often canvassed here, I hit some of the implications:
All of that would make for a very difficult workplace environment with a change in government. Rapid changes in policy priorities and direction require staff with the training and expertise to shift quickly into new areas. Where Treasury has not been able to keep up with an outflow of economic expertise, a greater burden would fall on those analysts able to handle the work. Rebuilding capability in Treasury’s core work would reduce pressure on staff, improve outcomes in external surveys, and help Treasury in its role as advisor to government.

But there seems to be a schism within Treasury.

Some have taken the government’s wellbeing agenda to heart, and put it within an economic framework of a kind. Others seem to have taken the wellbeing agenda to mean rigour is passé, quantification is bad, and advice should be based on holistic views that lack an underlying economic framework. In that view, little economic expertise is needed in policy analysis beyond that which can be provided in a few days of training sessions on-the-job.

George Mason University Professor of Economics Peter Boettke likes to say economics puts parameters on our utopias. Putting the different measures of wellbeing into a consistent cost-benefit framework reminds us that we live in a world of trade-offs. Resources put to the pursuit of one wellbeing objective are generally resources not put toward the pursuit of another. Getting rigorous assessments of the effects of policy is needed if the government’s wellbeing agenda is to be taken seriously.

All that then brings us back to the Heartwork card game. Big organisations like Treasury will have this kind of thing. But even if it helps staff to better understand themselves and each other, it is far from addressing the underlying problem at Treasury. Worse, it feeds into a sense of wellbeing as woo at Treasury. Even worse, can you imagine being one of the relatively few remaining economists at Treasury and being asked to play a game about your sun and moon feelings?

A Treasury that addresses symptoms of the underlying problem with sun and moon games rather than by strengthening its capabilities may not be a Treasury that can do its necessary part in improving the quality of government services under the wellbeing agenda. It is remarkable that two senior Treasury managers have made the wellbeing game a priority.

Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf’s tenure as Chief Executive ends mid-year. While no announcements have yet been made about his successor, it is critically important that a strong appointment be made. Treasury needs to be able to rebuild its core capabilities and needs a Chief Executive who takes that work seriously. But it is hard to throw a stone in Wellington without hitting someone who will tell you it is not in the interest of the State Services Commissioner to provide a strong appointment.

I very much hope Minister Grant Robertson will be watching this appointment process closely and ensuring that the candidate can provide him the kind of Treasury he needs. It is important. We may all yet wind up with moon feelings otherwise.

If all of that's too depressing, here's some Ozzy Osbourne to help. 

Bark at the moon.

Update: here's an ungated link; here's a gated link.

He's a failure on top of everything else.

"His greatest shortcoming is that he's unable to do the thing I don't want him to do! What a blistering fraud!"

I love the alt-text on today's Wondermark.

It sounds too much like Question Period here.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Easton on schools

A recent contribution has been from the NZ Initiative’s report Tomorrow’s Schools: Data and Evidence. [EC note: I've updated the link to the Initiative's site rather than Scoop] Unfortunately it is only note of six pages, which does not meet the standards of a research report, so I can hardly comment on the quality or veracity of the findings.

The note observes there are performance differences among schools (it uses NCEA attainment as a measure). No one is surprised that higher-decile schools outperform lower-decile schools by a large margin (on average). However, once the NZ Initiative adjusted for the effect of family background (they dont explain how), they found that the average differences in education outcomes across school deciles disappears. The report concludes that the inequality in education outcomes evident in school league tables is not a result of large differences in school quality, but rather of large differences in family background, particularly differences in parental education.

The NZ Initiative concludes that their ‘research’ demonstrates that the current schooling system is working and should be retained. Maybe; one wants to see the research first, especially as it contradicts the international literature. (I can think of a number of ways one could do the exercise – not all of them would be valid.)

What strikes me is that the NZ Initiative barely observes that the research suggests that the main source of educational inequality (and a whole lot of life opportunities which follow on from it) is ‘family background’, whatever they mean by that. The implications for inequality are hardly explored. As far as I can infer, the NZ Initiative is so besotted with defending the competitive model of schooling it is uninterested in the wider questions of the sources of and policies for children’s opportunities,; issues central to the egalitarian society. That, I think, captures a deep attitude of the elite right; ‘who cares about social inequality providing we are doing all right’.

Indeed there is celebration of inequality when the rich display their wealth. Of course there was inequality in the egalitarian society before 1985, but it was rare for the rich to show it, to display, what Thorstein Veblen called, ‘conspicuous consumption’. After 1985 it became common to flaunt how rich you were.
Our analyst, Joel Hernandez, spent about a year in the IDI lab on this one.

The mission we gave him: start by figuring out how much of the variability in school performance is due to things outside the school's control, like family and student background. Current league-tables could easily mostly be picking up parents' education or income. We need to be able to find the schools that are doing a superb job despite difficult circumstances, so that we can learn from them. The measures out there just aren't up to spec for doing that kind of work.

So he spent the last year merging a ton of administrative data sets and cleaning the data. It is not a small job.* For the population of students who completed NCEA from 2008 through 2017, there's a link through to their parents. From their parents, to their parents' income. And their education. And their benefit histories. And criminal and prison records. And Child, Youth, and Family notifications. And a pile more. Everything we could think of that might mean one school has a tougher job than another, we threw all of that over onto the right hand side of the regressions.

It's student-level observations with a ridiculous number of control variables enabled by the data linkages in the lab.

The point of the exercise wasn't to precisely identify coefficients on each of the independent variables. The point rather was to mop up all of the variation that comes from family circumstances. There's no structural equation modelling here or any attempt at getting at causality among those variables - just a giant reduced-form kitchen sink.

Plus, five hundred or so indicator variables for each of the country's secondary schools.

On the left-hand side - a few measures of performance at NCEA. But that's just the starting point. We're going broader. Employment after graduation. Income after graduation. Progression to tertiary. NEET status (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Benefit uptake. We could even put future criminal activity in there. So far, it's just NCEA though.

After separating out all of the variability that comes from family background, the coefficient on each of the schools' indicator variables tells you the average effect of that school on outcomes.

Our plan had been to put up the big report in July(ish) with all of the method and the first set of results. Then, short reports would follow regularly on different outcomes.

But then the Bali Haque report came out. The report said that there are huge differences in student outcomes across schools, that those differences showed up as differences by decile, that decile differences were inequitable, and that the entire school system needed to be overturned because of it. Currently self-managed schools operating under school boards would be replaced with hubs managing dozens of schools.

There are indeed very real problems in board governance in some failing schools. It's something that features regularly in stories of persistent school failure. But if the justification for abolishing school boards and putting in place a big new governance structure is strong differences in school outcomes by decile, well, we know that that wasn't the case.

So we moved. Because we're a think tank. Forward the short report on the variability in outcomes by decile after separating out the family background effects.

And then Brian thinks we're hiding stuff or trying to downplay the family circumstances, perhaps trying to hide the evidence that big income redistribution schemes are warranted.

It would have been irresponsible of us to put up the coefficients on the other correlates. We have a kitchen sink of variables to mop up effects, not to precisely identify the coefficients on any of them. Putting up all of those coefficients without checking their sensitivity would have been premature. We control for whether the child is from a single-parent household. Whatever the sign on the coefficient, it would feed into culture wars around divorce and the desirability of two-parent families. We control separately for mothers' and fathers' incomes, and mothers' and fathers' educations. Results could feed into arguments around two-earning families. Most of those control variables would fuel one interest group or another. And even if we were sure we had the numbers right, they're still not causal. If you find that kids of well educated parents perform better at NCEA, that doesn't mean you should start giving degrees to parents to boost their kids' chances.

We'll have more in the full report. What we have so far though lends zero support to arguments around redistribution. Parents' education matters a ton. Income - not so much when education is controlled for. But we need to play with it more before we say anything more. If we have to suffer Easton's grouchiness for it, oh well.

But our object here is the exact opposite of Easton's imaginings. If we can identify the schools that do a fantastic job with kids that other schools have a hard time helping, that means the Ministry or ERO could go into those schools and see whether they're doing anything differently from schools that aren't doing such a good job. Sure, it would take a policy change around operational use of IDI. But it is entirely doable. Learning from that can help lift performance for those that too many schools are currently failing.

And there are all kinds of ways of handling it.

Within the current model, you could get reports from the Ministry to every school board telling them where they're doing well, where they're doing poorly, and which schools they might want to learn from (and which might need their help). The reports would help empower school boards that cannot tell whether poor outcomes are because the community is disadvantaged, or because the Principal is failing. And if the data were available to the parents, that could encourage parents to take a more active role in board governance in places where there is underperformance. Both voice within the school, and exist from underperforming schools, could help encourage better performance. And don't pretend that this is bad because the status quo is some paradise where all the schools are doing great and everyone sends their kid to the local school. Right now, parents use worse proxies for school performance and will happily walk by an excellent low decile school to get their kid into a higher decile school that's further away. The local school might be the one who could do more to help their kid. But we can't tell without better data.

Within a hub-based model, the reports provided by the Ministry could help the overarching structure to manage performance among their schools, to send investigators in to figure out why one school is doing particularly well in ways that nobody had noticed before, and to use what they learn to help others. They could use it to test the effects of different kinds of practice on outcomes. In the data lab, what goes on in the schools is a black box. We just don't know. But the hubs might know that one school never shifted to modern learning environments and the other one shifted to them 6 years ago. It could look at whether those kinds of policies had any effect.

Either way, it would also help the Ministry in similar ways. It could help ERO check whether any of their interventions improve student outcomes.

There is just so much that can yet be done with better use of the data we have. I've been pointing to it for years. Nothing's being done about it. The Ministry has a staff of 3000; we have Joel. We don't have time to do all of it. That's one reason we're opening up all our code in the lab for others to build on.

Imagine if every guidance counsellor in every school received a report from the Ministry for every student. The report for each student finishing Year 10 would say "Here are a thousand kids who looked a lot like you 5 years ago, and another thousand who looked a lot like you 10 years ago. Here are the choices they made about paths through school, through to tertiary or vocational training, and their later employment outcomes. Here's what the kids like you who chose a Bachelor's Degree are doing now. Here's what's happened for those who chose vocational training. Many of these choices may never have occurred to you." It is entirely feasible to do this right now. It would take a few months' coding. After that, it's just push-the-button. And it isn't being done. 

What difference could it make for a kid who never considered university a possibility, because of the community she grew up in, to see that other kids with similar academic records had done brilliantly at uni and that they'd better push to do the UE courses? What difference could it make for a kid whose parents were pushing university to see that kids with comparable records did far better pursuing a trade? Better information has to help.

We have a pretty big work programme here on deck. Once Joel's code is up in the data lab, I'll put up a note about it. I've already been in touch with friends back at Canty. One substantial barrier to assigning IDI projects for Masters thesis work is that you spend a year in data cleaning and matching (and just learning your way around) for any big project. You can't dump that on a Masters student without strong risk that the project falls over. But you can assign projects that build on an existing codebase.

Academics won't put up their code because their incentive is the opposite of ours. They'll want to get the vita lines on every possible way of dicing the data after fronting the fixed cost of merging it. Just look at access around the Dunedin Longitudinal survey, or some of the others out there. Tons of publicly funded work locked up for the benefit of those who ran the surveys.

We want ours to be as open as possible within the constraints set by StatsNZ around the data lab. We want way more people using that code base to see what's going on in education. And if any of them find ways of improving the code to improve match rates, even better!

Our work here is a starting point.

* Even worse, it seems to be a much-repeated job, with anyone doing work in the area duplicating efforts. Joel will be getting all of his code up into the StatsNZ wiki for others to build on - the process for getting it in there isn't trivial though.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Continued census whoas

Stats has started providing some detail on the missing response figures in the last Census.

Motu has followed Brian Easton's earlier call to bring forward the next Census to 2021, returning us to the timings we were on prior to the Christchurch earthquakes.

A correspondent raises a few further questions, which I hope are answered in the full report on the 2018 Census:

  • There are substantial differences between responses with a missing question or two, and responses where the respondent has only filled in their name. How big of a mess are we looking at?
  • The web-based Census may have had some problems, but it may also have provided some opportunities. Like, how many responses suggest the respondent isn't really taking things seriously - for example, by ticking the first box on every question. This could have been done in real-time, prompting a follow-up visit. Did Stats do any of this?
  • My correspondent finds it odd that there are more people who didn't do the Census at all than that left at least one question unanswered. I'm not so sure there - if you're filling in the web form, it can prompt that you've missed a question before it lets you move on to the last page. I'm not sure if the survey did that or not though. 
A have a few others:
  • If they're interpolating data from other administrative sources, are they filling blank cells from relevant admin data, or putting in an average based on matched other respondents' answers? How are these generated answers flagged in the data? This will matter for researchers doing things like checking the correspondence between census responses and administrative data to see how well the two line up. But it'll also matter for any research using those generated answers. I expect Stats will be well on top of this. 
  • We keep hearing Labour partisans blaming National for not sufficiently funding Census. Did the Government Statistician raise any specific risks in the shift to the online Census under that funding arrangement? If the Government Statistician had raised a lot of concerns about the viability of the Census under the funding provided, and National went ahead anyway, then pretty fair to sheet it back to National. I do not know what warnings of risks were provided.
  • I had thought that the funding allocation for the 2018 Census built in some of the expected costs of shifting to an online census model, with the prospect then of lower cost censuses to come. Given the problems in 2018, will that have to be revisited? 
  • We hear rumours around that non-responses were concentrated among particular communities. Stats' statement doesn't get into that yet, as they weren't asked. We should expect to see more detail on that in the full reporting yet to come.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

A bleg for knowledge about knowledge

If I want to know what people know about politics and their political systems, I know where to go. Jack Vowles's New Zealand Electoral Survey has some basic civics knowledge in it; for the US, I'd look to Dye & Ziegler or Scott Althaus.

But I'm now looking for work on general knowledge. If there's any decent work out there, and especially if it gives international comparisons, on basic public knowledge of basic facts, I'd love to hear about it. Like basic facts about geography, science, world history, that kind of thing.

Any pointers appreciated.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

A compassionate Treasury

Your regular reminder that Treasury today is rather different from the Treasury of the 80s and 90s.

I'm going to copy and paste rather more of this than I usually would, just in case the thing gets deleted.

There's a $35 registration fee for this event at Treasury.

I have no clue whether the money goes to the folks running the session or what; I suspect it covers a cost of the deck of cards provided. But they recommend that attendees buy a deck of their cards in advance as practice as well, so attendees would wind up with double the compassion. It's wonderful how Treasury is helping to promote a small business by hosting it and encouraging folks to buy its products.

Minister Jones would approve, if Heartwork were based in the Provinces.

Here's the pitch. Treasury is Love.

Imagine surprising Aotearoa with a strain of compassion so delightful that it re-wires our collective consciousness!



+ Fiona Ross - The Treasury Chief Operating Officer

+ David Dougherty - The Treasury Manager Strategy and Performance

+ 24 curious and creative people at The Treasury

have been experimenting in the social lab.

We’ve created a "compassion starter culture" - a network of people who want to create a more compassionate culture in Aotearoa, starting where we are - in our workplaces.
We’ve been playing and rapidly prototyping with the Heartwork Wellbeing Card Game* - now available publicly.
We know that the intention for what we want to create has a huge power.
We don’t have all the answers. And we can't do this mahi alone.

So we’d like to invite you into this social lab.

So we can grow an even more beautiful, and more resilient strain together.
We'll share what we’re learning while we’re still metabolising.
Heartwork and The Treasury
Come along to:
  • Hear from Fiona Ross about what she’s been learning from her experiments with the Heartwork cards in her work as Chief Operating Officer of the Treasury.
  • Meet the Heartwork team and understand the potential they see for people to be 1) meeting their own needs 2) meeting each others' needs and 3) creating more delightful outcomes together with Aotearoa.
  • Learn at least three powerful ways you can use the Heartwork cards to cultivate a 'win-win-win' culture for Aotearoa, your teams and yourself.
  • Play the card game and share stories with other people who care deeply about people.
  • Connect with other people who want to cultivate compassion throughout Aotearoa.
  • Contribute ideas and co-create with us as we consider how to take this kaupapa forward together.
Heartwork's Wellbeing Game

Simon Sinek quote

Watch our video about the card game here.

"The cards are a really good way to recognise what you need to do to end up with positive outcomes. After using them I felt more complete, certain of what [the other person's] feelings and needs were, and was able to come up with different strategies to find solutions for negative feelings I was having." - Penny
Heartwork and The Treasury
"Before having [a] chat I used the cards to check in on what I wanted to feel and not feel, and what I wanted them to feel and not feel. This really helped me identify my needs and what I wanted out of the conversations- which then helped me put together a really quick plan. And it took 5 mins tops. So I went in more prepared emotionally as well as intellectually; and being more intentional is a work-on for me.
As a result I feel the conversation went well and I am more confident in my decision and the reasons for it..." - Sam
what could we create together with the power of win-win-win intentions
*win-win-win: good for you, good for others in your organisation, and good for society as a whole.

FAQS: (contact us if you have other questions that aren't answered here)

It sounds like this event is targeted to people who work in government. Can I attend if I don't work in the public service?

Yep - if this invitation speaks to you, you're more than welcome to attend.

Can I take home my Heartwork cards on the night?

Yep. We recommend ordering your cards through our website now, and we'll give you a pack to take home on the night.

I can't make it until 5.30pm. Can I arrive late?

No can do sorry. The Treasury security system means that you will need to arrive promptly at 4.45pm to be able to get into the building.
Heartwork's Wellbeing Game
Heartwork's Wellbeing Game

I, for one, love that this is a priority both for Operations and for Strategy and Performance at Treasury, as indicated by the attendance and presumed endorsement of the Chief Operating Officer and the Manager for Strategy and Performance.

Just imagine how better Treasury would have been prepared for the currency crisis after Muldoon lost election if they had thought to consult both their sun feelings and their moon feelings. I don't know how New Zealand came through it without that. But we will be far better prepared for the next crisis. Treasury may have few remaining economists, but every single person who remains there will care deeply.

And surely that matters more than anything else.

Update: Here's Newshub's take on it, with reporting by Tova O'Brien. The Prime Minister doesn't know what moon feelings are; Treasury refused to answer questions about it.