Freakonomics and how to end drug trafficking

Freakonomics, a.k.a the book about how you are wrong about incentives, provides a great deal of insight into solving a lot of important issues in society. One of the examples I like the most is the one about crime in New York. From around the 70s till the 90s, New York was a crime ridden city. It had actually built a fame for being insecure and dangerous. Majors had tried everything including increasing police paychecks and increasing police numbers. However nothing seemed to help bring down crime in New York. But then something happened, in 1994 the crime started slowing down. All crime numbers started to turn negative. The murder rate was down, the pickpocket crimes were down and the most astonishing thing is that nobody knew exactly why.

Back then Giuliani was just elected major of NY. One of the things he did is to increase misdemeanor enforcement. However, contrary to what people thought back then, one of the biggest reasons why crime fell back then was, *drum roll*, legalizing abortion in the 1970s. Apparently most of the crime is done by kids from orphanages or kids whose parents didn’t really want to have them. Contrary to what most people would think, abortion is great for reducing crime rates (you should buy the book if you want to know more!).

Drug Cartels

So how does this relate to drug cartels? Well I want to make the case that logical linear thinking has not worked at all in fighting drug trafficking in Mexico. During 2006, Felipe Calderón was elected president in Mexico. Shortly thereafter he decided to wage a nationwide war on drug cartels. He basically threw a big part of Mexico’s army at the cartels to try to stop them. However as we all know that failed miserably. Murder rates went through the roof, which was expected since that’s what a war is about, however the problem is that the murder rates did not go down after a few years. In fact the murder rate has stayed at the same level since then.

The solution

So it seems just fighting fire with fire is not the solution here. However what would be the freakonomics way of dealing with the problem? Well one solution could stem from supply and demand. Let’s imagine a situation, say that Mexico has 5 main drug cartels which manage almost all trafficking. What would happen if the army shutdowns one of them? Well the others would not only have more clients, but due to the scarcity the price would go up and so they would be richer. It’s basic demand and supply. If you cut supply then the price just goes up. If this is true then the army will never win since if you crush one player, the other one grow automatically.

Now let’s think of a possible solution. What if instead we increase supply? One way to increase supply would be to have the government had an undercover agency which actually trafficked drugs and sold them at an artificially low price. Drug cartels would be forced to lower their prices, which in turn would give them less money which in turn would diminish their power. Of course this is not a very ethical solution, and would probably be a diplomatic disaster with the USA. Another such way of increasing supply is to legalize drugs and so add more players. More players means that the cake would be divided in more pieces and so would decrease the power of any single one.

USA

However it maybe even easier to increasing supply, why not just cut the demand? There have been at least two known cases of countries with drug addict population which have solved it without any violence. Portugal and Switzerland already had this problem, and found a way to successfully lower the addiction rate. If only the US government officials would pull their head from their ass, they could save millions of people’s lives on both sides of the border.

 

 

How Mexico’s deadliest earthquake revealed the best and worst of the country

 Vamos Mexico

The story

It was a Tuesday of September, Tuesday the 19th to be more precise. People in the capital city, also known as Mexico City, woke up on what seemed another normal day in their lives. As noon struck the clock, the sirens started sounding. “Another simulacro” people said. Another simulation of that fatal 1985 earthquake where at least 5000 people had died. Just as every major building was being evacuated in a lethargic and ironic manner, the earth started to shake. “This time they really put effort into it” was heard between the moving mobs.

Only this time there was no simulation. A 7.1 earthquake had just struck the Capital City shaking and breaking every structure on its path. Buildings were crushed, universities destroyed to the point of having to cancel classes indefinitely. Schools were brought down, trapping kids and teachers under tons of rubble. Electricity was lost for the first few hours. Communication networks started to fail even for emergency calls due to the massive flood of messages, images and videos people tried to communicate with their friends and relatives.

As the minutes passed and people managed to communicate with their loved ones, the miracle started to happen. City dwellers from all neighborhoods started to band together offering help. From forming chains to remove rubble, to opening gyms as makeshift hostels, to preparing food and lending cars and motorcycles to move the tools and food, the whole city came alive in a unified effort to help those affected by the earthquake.

As night came, information tools were extensively put into place. Google maps with the locations of damaged and destroyed buildings were created. Facebook walls were filled with alerts and messages about the status of different sites. Twitter was a flurry of updates. People outside Mexico started spreading the word for people to donate. By next day, the status of the whole City was on the internet. However here and there people started noticing that although the City was hit hard, there were small towns and cities that were devastated. And so people started packing food and water and ready to drive to were the help was needed.

This was the second earthquake just this month that had hit Mexico. Two weeks before the southern state of Oaxaca had seen an even bigger 8.1 earthquake hit its coasts. So by the time the second earthquake was over, the southern states of Mexico were left in rubble. And it’s just not that buildings were damaged and/or destroyed. Some highways were disrupted as well, with bridges falling down and other segments turned to big holes.

The best – the people

These two earthquakes have brought out the best of the Mexican people. Solidarity, union and compassion were seen as never before. Regardless of race, gender, age or socioeconomic status, people were united. And it was the people who have been doing most of the work, to the extent that communication media and the government have had to apologize for having stood at the sidelines of it all.

But also not just inside the city, since as time passes, this solidarity is spread across the country were people are driving out of their home cities and towns in aid of the affected ones. And again, even as the Cruz Roja or UNICEF tried to help, the real aid came from the people without any orders. It’s probably the most pure form of solidarity among connationals.

The worst – politicians

Just like when an old building is demolished and the rats come out, the earthquake has once again shown politician’s true colors. It all started around 6 hours after the incident. A change.org petition started to circulate demanding that the INE should remove a part of the 1.3 billion MXN given to political parties on election years, and instead use it to help the people affected by the earthquake. And what was their first response? To say no to 2.3 million mexicans which have seen their homes damaged or destroyed, hiding themselves behind the argument that the law can’t be change so “close” to the election.

Ratas politicas
Ratas politicas

INE has come out and said that they’d prefer to see people suffer the aftermath of the earthquake rather than shortening the campaign duration for the presidential elections. This just goes to show the immense care they have for the people they serve and represent.

Finally one of the candidates for the 2018 presidential elections came out saying he would donate 20% of his campaign budget (remember this is tax money taken from the people in the first place!) to help the afflicted. Of course other parties couldn’t stay behind in the popularity contest, and consequently have come out saying they will also donate their money. Note that this is what they are saying, who knows if they’ll really do that.

But unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. There has now been several reports (here, here and here) of politicians diverting the ‘despensas’ (packages of food and basic need products). They then can store this despensas and when the campaign starts, give them out for free promising big things to people in rural areas, and in so, securing more votes for their campaign. It is really sad to see that even in the worst of times, there are people who just never stop trying to rip-off everyone else.

Conclusion

The earthquake has changed the social fabric of Mexico in a very important way. It has brought together the Mexican people like never before. It has also revealed the true motives of some groups of people and at the same time, showed who people can depend on during trying times. Let’s hope Mexico can get up fast from this accident.

 

 

Do you think this is correct? Let me know what you think on the comments below. Y sigue con todo Mexico #FuerzMexico

More earthquake videos

What really happened with Google’s memo?

Disclaimer: None of the views here portrayed are those of Google. These are all personal ideas and points of view.

Google HQ image
Google

Google has been all over the news lately (here, here, here and many more). For the sake of clarifying some confusions and giving my own point of view of the whole situation, I am writing this post.

How it all started

It all started when a James Damore, now a former Google engineer, decided to write a 10 page document about how political correctness was affecting Google as whole.  It seems James released first the document to internal Google forums early last week. By Friday the whole company was going at it. Discussions started erupting from all outlets. And then suddenly someone decided to leak a piece of the document to Motherboard. Only a snippet was released, however it did not take too much time for Gizmodo to obtain the (almost) full copy.  The following weekend, people around the globe were learning of Damore’s ideas. It is worth noting that somewhere in the Gizmodo leak, the document lost some important information like the original doc’s references to various studies.

As a Google engineer I try to distance myself from the internal forums where Damore’s document was first discussed since I think they are a waste of my and Google’s time. However on Friday evening even the normal outlets where bustling with people discussing the document. By Monday the whole globe was reading the news. By Monday night Google fired Damore. That was impressive to me since we rarely hear Google firing employees. However what followed impressed me even more. Instead of stopping the leaks, firing Damore had the opposite effect. Soon after the media wrote on what had happened, Sundar sent an email to the whole company. The message stated what Google’s values are, and why was Damore fired. Basically he was fired because he had breached the Code of conduct. Soon after I read the letter, the media was already commenting on Sundar’s letter.

And this is what surprises me the most. During my last three years at Google, leaks had been sporadic and  dealt with (every leaker I read about had been fired). However after Damore was fired, there was a profound twist to Google’s culture. Leaking became commonplace so much so that even the all hands meeting to discuss all of this was canceled. Even the fact that the meeting was canceled was leaked. It seems that leaking has now become a tool for Googlers to attack other Googlers. And the attacks have become so insidious that Googlers’ names have started to appear in the public eye. This has in turn lead to more serious security issues for Googlers. To think that so little has become so much in a matter of days still amazes me.

The document

So what can this document contain to have caused all this? This is a basic summary of what he says in the document:

My interpretation goes as follows with some of my opinions (marked in blue):

1 Google and scientists in general are biased because most of them are left leaning:

Left Biases Right Biases
Compassion for the weak Respect for the strong/authority
Disparities are due to injustices Disparities are natural and just
Humans are inherently cooperative Humans are inherently competitive
Change is good (unstable) Change is dangerous (stable)
Open Closed
Idealist Pragmatic

I agree in this part with James. Google should not chastise or silence groups with opinions contrary to the majority. However I do think that opinions can become offensive to people. Where do we draw the line? A very tricky question.

2 Explanations of why there are less women in tech other than common biases:

  1. Because of biological predisposition to personality differences (on average):
    1. Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas
    2. Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness
    3. Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance)
  2. Because men have a natural predisposition to have a drive for higher status

There have been several research studies which contradict what James says. Firstly the gender gap in tech can be explained by media constructs from the last century. Secondly there are other studies which suggest that women are less productive than men not because of their  innate traits, but because of their family responsibilities. 

One other thing he mentions is that all these studies are biased because scientists are left leaning. My question is, did he check each and every one? 

3 Ways we can reduce the gender gap without relying on 1:1 gender equality:

  1. Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things, so software should be more about people than things
  2. Women on average are more cooperative, so reduce competitiveness metrics for performance review of women 
  3. Women on average are more prone to anxiety, so we should make tech less stressful
  4. Women on average look for more work-life balance, so we should increase part-time roles
  5. The male gender role is currently inflexible, we should allow men to feel more feminine

4 The harm of Google being left biased. Google has created several discriminatory practices:

  • Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race
  • A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates
  • Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates by decreasing the false negative rate
  • Reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same scrutiny in the reverse direction (clear confirmation bias)

What James misses here is that Google spends more money to get people in disadvantaged groups to apply for the job. Once the candidates enter the hiring process, there is absolutely no discrimination either direct or reversed towards candidates.

5 Why Google biases came to be. Basically because left leaning is affected by a natural disposition to protect females and the weak

6 Suggestions

  1. De-moralize diversity. Good point
  2. Stop alienating conservativesGood point
  3. Confront Google’s biases. Do they really exist?
  4. Stop restricting programs and classes to certain genders or races. Good point although I don’t see majority groups attending these classes
  5. Have an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity programs. That already happens
  6. Focus on psychological safety, not just race/gender diversity. Already happens
  7. De-emphasize emotional empathy for policy making. 
  8. Prioritize intention.
  9. Be open about the science of human nature. Good point
  10. Reconsider making Unconscious Bias training mandatory for promo committees.

Conclusion

I am not sure James Damore should have been fired over what he wrote. Some of his points are pretty good and should be discussed. Some of his other points are offensive even if they are his own opinion. I guess if people had not leaked the story, maybe Google would not have fired him. My own opinion is that Google practices are fine, I think spending more money to recruit less traditional CS candidates is good option. Should we treat women and men differently when talking about promotion and salary? Should we judge women by their cooperativeness and men by their competitiveness? I would say probably not. It is a tough problem and the current solution is good enough. Maybe there’s a better solution, however it’s not what was portrayed in the Google memo.