A Child Abuse Prediction Model Fails Poor Families

It’s late November 2016, and I’m squeezed into the far corner of a long row of gray cubicles in the call screening center for the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) child neglect and abuse hotline. I’m sharing a desk and a tiny purple footstool with intake screener Pat Gordon. We’re both studying the Key Information and Demographics System (KIDS), a blue screen filled with case notes, demographic data, and program statistics. We are focused on the records of two families: both are poor, white, and living in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Both were referred to CYF by a mandated reporter, a professional who is legally required to report any suspicion that a child may be at risk of harm from their caregiver. Pat and I are competing to see if we can guess how a new predictive risk model the county is using to forecast child abuse and neglect, called the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), will score them.

The stakes are high. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one in four children will experience some form of abuse or neglect in their lifetimes. The agency’s Adverse Childhood Experience Study concluded that the experience of abuse or neglect has “tremendous, lifelong impact on our health and the quality of our lives,” including increased occurrences of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide attempts, and depression.

Excerpted from Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, released this week by St. Martin’s Press.

In the noisy glassed-in room, Pat hands me a double-sided piece of paper called the “Risk/Severity Continuum.” It took her a minute to find it, protected by a clear plastic envelope and tucked in a stack of papers near the back of her desk. She’s worked in call screening for five years, and, she says, “Most workers, you get this committed to memory. You just know.” But I need the extra help. I am intimidated by the weight of this decision, even though I am only observing. From its cramped columns of tiny text, I learn that kids under five are at greatest risk of neglect and abuse, that substantiated prior reports increase the chance that a family will be investigated, and that parent hostility toward CYF investigators is considered high risk behavior. I take my time, cross-checking information in the county’s databases against the risk/severity handout while Pat rolls her eyes at me, teasing, threatening to click the big blue button that runs the risk model.

The first child Pat and I are rating is a six-year-old boy I’ll call Stephen. Stephen’s mom, seeking mental health care for anxiety, disclosed to her county-funded therapist that someone—she didn’t know who—put Stephen out on the porch of their home on an early November day. She found him crying outside and brought him in. That week he began to act out, and she was concerned that something bad had happened to him. She confessed to her therapist that she suspected he might have been abused. Her therapist reported her to the state child abuse hotline.

about the author

About

Virginia Eubanks is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY, a founding member of the Our Data Bodies project, and a fellow at New America.

But leaving a crying child on a porch isn’t abuse or neglect as the state of Pennsylvania defines it. So the intake worker screened out the call. Even though the report was unsubstantiated, a record of the call and the call screener’s notes remain in the system. A week later, an employee of a homeless services agency reported Stephen to a hotline again: He was wearing dirty clothes, had poor hygiene, and there were rumors that his mother was abusing drugs. Other than these two reports, the family had no prior record with CYF.

The second child is a 14-year-old I’ll call Krzysztof. On a community health home visit in early November, a case manager with a large nonprofit found a window and a door broken and the house cold. Krzysztof was wearing several layers of clothes. The caseworker reported that the house smelled like pet urine. The family sleeps in the living room, Krzysztof on the couch and his mom on the floor. The case manager found the room “cluttered.” It is unclear whether these conditions actually meet the definition of child neglect in Pennsylvania, but the family has a long history with county programs.

An Issue of Definition

No one wants children to suffer, but the appropriate role of government in keeping kids safe is complicated. States derive their authority to prevent, investigate, and prosecute child abuse and neglect from the Child Abuse and Prevention and Treatment Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1974. The law defines child abuse and neglect as the “physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, negligent treatment, or maltreatment of a child … by a person who is responsible for the child’s welfare under circumstances which indicate that the child’s health or welfare is harmed or threatened.”

Even with recent clarifications that the harm must be “serious,” there is considerable room for subjectivity in what exactly constitutes neglect or abuse. Is spanking abusive? Or is the line drawn at striking a child with a closed hand? Is letting your children walk to a park down the block alone neglectful? Even if you can see them from the window?

The first screen of the list of conditions classified as maltreatment in KIDS illustrates just how much latitude call screeners have to classify parenting behaviors as abusive or neglectful. It includes: abandoned infant; abandonment; adoption disruption or dissolution; caretaker’s inability to cope; child sexually acting out; child substance abuse; conduct by parent that places child at risk; corporal punishment; delayed/denied healthcare; delinquent act by a child under 10 years of age; domestic violence; educational neglect; environmental toxic substance; exposure to hazards; expulsion from home; failure to protect; homelessness; inadequate clothing, hygiene, physical care or provision of food; inappropriate caregivers or discipline; injury caused by another person; and isolation. The list scrolls on for several more screens.

Three-quarters of child welfare investigations involve neglect rather than physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Where the line is drawn between the routine conditions of poverty and child neglect is particularly vexing. Many struggles common among poor families are officially defined as child maltreatment, including not having enough food, having inadequate or unsafe housing, lacking medical care, or leaving a child alone while you work. Unhoused families face particularly difficult challenges holding on to their children, as the very condition of being homeless is judged neglectful.

In Pennsylvania, abuse and neglect are fairly narrowly defined. Abuse requires bodily injury resulting in impairment or substantial pain, sexual abuse or exploitation, causing mental injury, or imminent risk of any of these things. Neglect must be a “prolonged or repeated lack of supervision” serious enough that it “endangers a child’s life or development or impairs the child’s functioning.” So, as Pat and I run down the risk/severity matrix, I think both Stephen and Krzysztof should score pretty low.

In neither case are there reported injuries, substantiated prior abuse, a record of serious emotional harm, or verified drug use. I’m concerned about the inadequate heat in teenaged Krzysztof’s house, but I wouldn’t say that he is in imminent danger. Pat is concerned that there have been two calls in two weeks on six-year-old Stephen. “We literally shut the door behind us and then there was another call,” she sighs. It might suggest a pattern of neglect or abuse developing—or that the family is in crisis. The call from a homeless service agency suggests that conditions at home deteriorated so quickly that Stephen and his mom found themselves on the street. But we agree that for both boys, there seems to be low risk of immediate harm and few threats to their physical safety.

On a scale of 1 to 20, with 1 being the lowest level of risk and 20 being the highest, I guess that Stephen will be a 4, and Krzysztof a 6. Gordon smirks and hits the button that runs the AFST. On her screen, a graphic that looks like a thermometer appears: It’s green down at the bottom and progresses up through yellow shades to a vibrant red at the top. The numbers come up exactly as she predicted. Stephen, the six-year-old who may have suffered sexual abuse and is possibly homeless, gets a 5. Krzysztof, the teenager who sleeps on the couch in a cold apartment? He gets a 14.

Oversampling the Poor

Faith that big data, algorithmic decision-making, and predictive analytics can solve our thorniest social problems—poverty, homelessness, and violence—resonates deeply with our beliefs as a culture. But that faith is misplaced. On the surface, integrated data and artificial intelligence seem poised to produce revolutionary changes in the administration of public services. Computers apply rules to every case consistently and without prejudice, so proponents suggest that they can root out discrimination and unconscious bias. Number matching and statistical surveillance effortlessly track the spending, movements, and life choices of people accessing public assistance, so they can be deployed to ferret out fraud or suggest behavioral interventions. Predictive models promise more effective resource allocation by mining data to infer future actions of individuals based on behavior of “similar” people in the past.

These grand hopes rely on the premise that digital decision-making is inherently more transparent, accountable, and fair than human decision-making. But, as data scientist Cathy O’Neil has written, “models are opinions embedded in mathematics.” Models are useful because they let us strip out extraneous information and focus only on what is most critical to the outcomes we are trying to achieve. But they are also abstractions. Choices about what goes into them reflect the priorities and preoccupations of their creators. The Allegheny Family Screening Tool is no exception.

The AFST is a statistical model designed by an international team of economists, computer scientists, and social scientists led by Rhema Vaithianathan, professor of Economics at the University of Auckland, and Emily Putnam-Hornstein, director of the Children’s Data Network at the University of Southern California. The model mines Allegheny County’s vast data warehouse to try and predict which children might be victims of abuse or neglect in the future. The warehouse contains more than a billion records—an average of 800 for every resident of the county—provided by regular data extracts from a variety of public agencies, including child welfare, drug and alcohol services, Head Start, mental health services, the county housing authority, the county jail, the state’s Department of Public Welfare, Medicaid, and the Pittsburgh public schools.

The job of intake screeners like Pat Gordon is to decide which of the 15,000 child maltreatment reports the county receives each year to refer to a caseworker for investigation. Intake screeners interview reporters, examine case notes, burrow through the county’s data warehouse, and search publically-available data such as court records and social media to determine the nature of the allegation against the caregiver and to ascertain the immediate risk to the child. Then, they run the model.

A regression analysis performed by the Vaithianathan team suggested that there are 131 indicators available in the county data that are correlated with child maltreatment. The AFST produces its risk score—from 1 (low risk) to 20 (highest risk)—by weighing these “predictive variables.” They include: receiving county health or mental health treatment; being reported for drug or alcohol abuse; accessing supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits, cash welfare assistance, or Supplemental Security Income; living in a poor neighborhood; or interacting with the juvenile probation system. If the screener’s assessment and the model’s score clash, the case is referred to a supervisor for further discussion and a final screening decision. If a family’s AFST risk score is high enough, the system automatically triggers an investigation.

Human choices, biases, and discretion are built into the system in several ways. First, the AFST does not actually model child abuse or neglect. The number of child maltreatment–related fatalities and near fatalities in Allegheny County is thankfully very low. Because this means data on the actual abuse of children is too limited to produce a viable model, the AFST uses proxy variables to stand in for child maltreatment. One of the proxies is community re-referral, when a call to the hotline about a child was initially screened out but CYF receives another call on the same child within two years. The second proxy is child placement, when a call to the hotline about a child is screened in and results in the child being placed in foster care within two years. So, the AFST actually models decisions made by the community (which families will be reported to the hotline) and by CYF and the family courts (which children will be removed from their families), not which children will be harmed.

The AFST’s designers and county administrators hope that the model will take the guesswork out of call screening and help to uncover patterns of bias in intake screener decision-making. But a 2010 study of racial disproportionality in Allegheny County CYF found that the great majority of disproportionality in the county’s child welfare services actually arises from referral bias, not screening bias. Mandated reporters and other members of the community call child abuse and neglect hotlines about black and biracial families three and a half times more often as they call about white families. The AFST focuses all its predictive power and computational might on call screening, the step it can experimentally control, rather than concentrating on referral, the step where racial disproportionality is actually entering the system.

More troubling, the activity that introduces the most racial bias into the system is the very way the model defines maltreatment. The AFST does not average the two proxies, which might use the professional judgment of CYF investigators and family court judges to mitigate some of the disproportionality coming from community referral. The model simply uses whichever number is higher.

Second, the system can only model outcomes based on the data it collects. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is crucial to understanding how Stephen and Krzysztof got such wildly disparate and counterintuitive scores. A quarter of the variables that the AFST uses to predict abuse and neglect are direct measures of poverty: they track use of means-tested programs such as TANF, Supplemental Security Income, SNAP, and county medical assistance. Another quarter measure interaction with juvenile probation and CYF itself, systems that are disproportionately focused on poor and working-class communities, especially communities of color. Though it has been billed as a crystal ball for predicting child harm, in reality the AFST mostly just reports how many public resources families have consumed.

Allegheny County has an extraordinary amount of information about the use of public programs. But the county has no access to data about people who do not use public services. Parents accessing private drug treatment, mental health counseling, or financial support are not represented in DHS data. Because variables describing their behavior have not been defined or included in the regression, crucial pieces of the child maltreatment puzzle are omitted from the AFST.

Geographical isolation might be an important factor in child maltreatment, for example, but it won’t be represented in the data set because most families accessing public services in Allegheny County live in dense urban neighborhoods. A family living in relative isolation in a well-off suburb is much less likely to be reported to a child abuse or neglect hotline than one living in crowded housing conditions. Wealthier caregivers use private insurance or pay out of pocket for mental health or addiction treatment, so they are not included in the county’s database.

Imagine the furor if Allegheny County proposed including monthly reports from nannies, babysitters, private therapists, Alcoholics Anonymous, and luxury rehabilitation centers to predict child abuse among middle-class families. “We really hope to get private insurance data. We’d love to have it,” says Erin Dalton, director of Allegheny County’s Office of Data Analysis, Research and Evaluation. But, as she herself admits, getting private data is likely impossible. The professional middle class would not stand for such intrusive data gathering.

The privations of poverty are incontrovertibly harmful to children. They are also harmful to their parents. But by relying on data that is only collected on families using public resources, the AFST unfairly targets low-income families for child welfare scrutiny. “We definitely oversample the poor,” says Dalton. “All of the data systems we have are biased. We still think this data can be helpful in protecting kids.”

We might call this poverty profiling. Like racial profiling, poverty profiling targets individuals for extra scrutiny based not on their behavior but rather on a personal characteristic: They live in poverty. Because the model confuses parenting while poor with poor parenting, the AFST views parents who reach out to public programs as risks to their children.

False Positives—and Negatives

The hazards of using inappropriate proxies and inadequate datasets may be inevitable in predictive modeling. And if a child abuse and neglect investigation was a benign act, it might not matter that the AFST is imperfectly predictive. But a child abuse and neglect investigation can be an intrusive, frightening event with lasting negative impacts.

The state of Pennsylvania’s goal for child safety—“Being free from immediate physical or emotional harm”—can be difficult to reach, even for well-resourced families. Each stage of a CYF investigation introduces the potential for subjectivity, bias, and the luck of the draw. “You never know exactly what’s going to happen,” says Catherine Volponi, director of the Juvenile Court Project, which provides pro bono legal support for parents facing CYF investigation or termination of their parental rights. “Let’s say there was a call because the kids were home alone. Then they’re doing their investigation with mom, and she admits marijuana use. Now you get in front of a judge who, perhaps, views marijuana as a gateway to hell. When the door opens, something that we would not have even been concerned about can just mushroom into this big problem.”

At the end of each child neglect or abuse investigation, a written safety plan is developed with the family, identifying immediate steps that must be followed and long-term goals. But each safety action is also a compliance requirement, and sometimes, factors outside parents’ control make it difficult for them to implement their plan. Contractors who provide services to CYF-involved families fail to follow through. Public transportation is unreliable. Overloaded caseworkers don’t always manage to arrange promised resources. Sometimes parents resist CYF’s dictates, resenting government intrusion into their private lives.

Failure to complete your plan—regardless of the reason—increases the likelihood that a child will be removed to foster care. “We don’t try to return CYF families to the level at which they were operating before,” concludes Volponi, “We raise the standard on their parenting, and then we don’t have enough resources to keep them up there. It results in epic failures too much of the time.”

Human bias has been a problem in child welfare since the field’s inception. The designers of the model and DHS administrators hope that, by mining the wealth of data at their command, the AFST can help subjective intake screeners make more objective recommendations. But human bias is built in to the predictive risk model. Its outcome variables are proxies for child harm; they don’t reflect actual neglect and abuse. The choice of proxy variables, even the choice to use proxies at all, reflects human discretion. The AFST’s predictive variables are drawn from a limited universe of data that includes only information on public resources. The choice to accept such limited data reflects the human discretion embedded in the model—and an assumption that middle-class families deserve more privacy than poor families.

Once the big blue button is clicked and the AFST runs, it manifests a thousand invisible human choices under a cloak of evidence-based objectivity and infallibility. Proponents of the model insist that removing discretion from call screeners is a brave step forward for equity, transparency, and fairness in government decision-making. But the AFST doesn’t remove human discretion; it simply moves it. In the past, the mostly working-class women in the call center exerted some control in agency decision-making. Today, Allegheny County is deploying a system built on the questionable premise that an international team of economists and data analysts is somehow less biased then the agency’s own employees.

Back in the call center, I mention to Pat Gordon that I’ve been talking to CYF-involved parents about how the AFST might impact them. Most parents, I tell her, are concerned about false positives: the model rating their child at high risk of abuse or neglect when little risk actually exists. I see how Krzysztof ’s mother might feel this way if she was given access to her family’s risk score.

But Pat reminds me that Stephen’s case poses equally troubling questions. I should also be concerned with false negatives—when the AFST scores a child at low risk though the allegation or immediate risk to the child might be severe. “Let’s say they don’t have a significant history. They’re not active with us. But [the allegation] is something that’s very egregious. [CYF] gives us leeway to think for ourselves. But I can’t stop feeling concerned that … say the child has a broken growth plate, which is very, very highly consistent with maltreatment … there’s only one or two ways that you can break it. And then [the score] comes in low!”

The screen that displays the AFST risk score states clearly that the system “is not intended to make investigative or other child welfare decisions.” Rhema Vaithianathan told me in February 2017 that the model is designed in such a way that intake screeners are encouraged to question its predictive accuracy and defer to their own judgment. “It sounds contradictory, but I want the model to be slightly undermined by the call screeners,” she said. “I want them to be able to say, this [screening score] is a 20, but this allegation is so minimal that [all] this model is telling me is that there’s history.”

The pairing of the human discretion of intake screeners like Pat Gordon with the ability to dive deep into historical data provided by the model is the most important fail-safe of the system. Toward the end of our time together in the call center, I asked Pat if the harm false negatives and false positives might cause Allegheny County families keeps her up at night. “Exactly,” she replied. “I wonder if people downtown really get that. We’re not looking for this to do our job. We’re really not. I hope they get that.” But like Uber’s human drivers, Allegheny County call screeners may be training the algorithm meant to replace them.

From AUTOMATING INEQUALITY: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, by Virginia Eubanks. Published in January 2018 by St. Martin’s, an imprint of Macmillan. Copyright © 2018 by Virginia Eubanks.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/excerpt-from-automating-inequality/

Python is one of the best languages for first-time coders and you can learn it for $10

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Learning how to code is all the rage these days. It pays well, it’s in high demand, and it exposes you to tons of hidden jokes in the show Silicon Valley. Many professional coders recommend starting with the Python language due to its simple syntax, power, and sheer flexibility (it’s used in everything from web apps to e-commerce platforms.) Get your feet wet with this online course on Python for Beginners.

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Heretics welcome! Economics needs a new Reformation | Larry Elliott

Neoclassical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats those challenging the creed as dangerous

In October 1517, an unknown Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther changed the world when he grabbed a hammer and nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Reformation started there.

The tale of how the 95 theses were posted is almost certainly false. Luther never mentioned the incident and the first account of it didnt surface until after his death. But it makes a better story than Luther writing a letter (which is what probably happened), and thats why the economist Steve Keen, dressed in a monks habit and wielding a blow up hammer, could be found outside the London School of Economics last week.

Keen and those supporting him (full disclosure: I was one of them) were making a simple point as he used Blu Tack to stick their 33 theses to one of the worlds leading universities: economics needs its own Reformation just as the Catholic church did 500 years ago. Like the medieval church, orthodox economics thinks it has all the answers. Complex mathematics is used to mystify economics, just as congregations in Luthers time were deliberately left in the dark by services conducted in Latin. Neoclassical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats anybody who challenges the creed of self-righting markets and rational consumers as dangerous heretics.

Keen was one of those heretics. He was one of the economists who knew there was big trouble brewing in the years leading up to the financial crisis of a decade ago but whose warnings were ignored. The reason Keen was proved right was that he paid no heed to the equilibrium models favoured by mainstream economics. He looked at what was actually happening rather than having a preconceived view of what ought to be happening.

Somewhat depressingly, nothing much has happened, even though it was a crisis neoclassical economics said could not happen. There was a brief dalliance with unorthodox remedies when things were really bleak in the winter of 2008-09, but by late 2009 and early 2010, there was a return to business as normal.

The intellectual monopoly is something of an irony given how central the idea of competition is to orthodox thinking, but it is a sad fact as the preamble to the 33 theses notes that the neoclassical perspective overwhelmingly dominates teaching, research, advice to policy, and public debate.

Many other perspectives that could provide valuable insights are marginalised and excluded. This is not about one theory being better than another, but the notion that scientific advance only moves ahead with a debate. Within economics, this debate has died.

That debate needs to be rekindled. A more pluralist approach would take account of the complexity of markets, the constraints imposed by nature and rising inequality. So what needs to be done?

Firstly, listen to consumers, because it is pretty obvious that they are unimpressed with what they are getting. The failure of the economics establishment to predict the crisis and its insistence that austerity is the right response to the events of a decade ago has meant the profession has rarely been less trusted.

Of course, there were economists who got it right and some of them Paul Krugman, for example wielded real influence. But it should have come as little surprise that when it came to the Brexit referendum, voters took the warnings from the UK Treasury, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England with a very large pinch of salt. After all, not one of these august bodies armed as they were with their general equilibrium models saw the deepest recession since the second world war coming, even when it was already under way.

It is welcome news that discontent is bubbling up from below on university campuses. True, the prestigious academic journals remain in the hands of the old order and in economics faculties there is strong resistance to change but increasingly students are showing their frustration at being told to learn and regurgitate economics that is not just narrow and of little relevance, but also plain wrong. Of the 33 theses pinned to the LSE, five involved the teaching of economics, with demands to be taught history and economic thought, and for the monopoly of the status quo to be broken.

One of the theses demands that economics must do more to encourage critical thinking, and not simply reward memorisation of theories and implementation of models. Students must be encouraged to compare, contrast, and combine theories, and critically apply them to in-depth studies of the real world. The fact that students feel the need to say this is a terrible indictment of the way economics is being taught, and their discontent negates the idea that this is just whingeing from aggrieved Keynesians.

Secondly, we should stop treating economics as a science because it is nothing of the sort. A proper science involves testing a hypothesis against the available evidence. If the evidence doesnt support the theory, a physicist or a biologist will discard the theory and try to come up one that does work empirically.

Economics doesnt work like that. Theories can be shown to work only by making a series of highly questionable assumptions such as that humans always behave predictably and rationally. When there is hard evidence that disputes the validity of the theory, there is no question of ditching the theory.

Thirdly, economics needs to be prepared to learn from other disciplines because when it does the results are worthwhile. One example is the way in which auto-enrolment has increased pension coverage. If humans were truly economically rational, it would make no difference whether their employers automatically enrolled them into pension schemes: they would decide whether to join schemes on the basis of whether they deemed it worth deferring consumption until they had retired. Yet, basic psychology says this is not the way people actually act. They are far less likely to opt out of something than they are to opt into something.

Fourthly, economics needs to be demystified. One of the big battles between Catholics and Protestants in mid-16th century England was over whether the bible should be in Latin or English, a recognition that language matters. The easy part of an economic Reformation is to attack the current establishment; the difficult part is to present a compelling story without resorting to jargon. Control of the narrative as George Osborne realised when he criticised Labour for failing to mend the roof while the sun was shining is crucial.

At the launch of the 33 theses last week, Victoria Chick, emeritus professor of economics at University College London, put it this way: The economics mainstream has the hallmarks of certain religions. They think they have the truth. But read for yourself and think for yourself. Change has occurred before and it can occur again. Shes right. It can.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/dec/17/heretics-welcome-economics-needs-a-new-reformation

Billionaire Mathematician James Simons Flopped the First Time He Invested

James Simons is an investing legend. He founded a wildly successful hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies LLC, that employs Ph.D. mathematicians to detect subtle predictive patterns in market data. He’s accumulated a net worth of almost $16 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

In a talk on Oct. 26, Simons revealed that he hasn’t always been so smart about investing. He said he opened his first account, with Merrill Lynch & Co., when he was in his early 20s and needed a place to put about $5,000 in wedding gifts. He bought a few stocks, but they didn’t move, so he asked his broker for something more “exciting.” The broker recommended soybean futures, and luckily enough they went up in price, Simons said in an onstage interview at the IESE Business School in midtown Manhattan.

That’s when Simons made his first mistake as an investor. A colleague told Simons he should sell the soybean futures to lock in the gains but he ignored the advice. The price went right back down. 

Simons, who was working toward a doctorate in mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley at the time, kept trying to make money on soybeans but eventually realized that uninformed speculation was not going to get him anywhere. “I’m either going to trade soybeans or write my thesis,” he recalled saying to himself. He earned his doctorate at age 23.

Pivoting to the Ph.D. was a good choice, because math later became the secret sauce of Renaissance Technologies, which is based in the Long Island village of East Setauket, N.Y., and has more than $50 billion under management. In between, Simons taught at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked as a codebreaker in Princeton, N.J., and built a highly ranked mathematics department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Simons doesn’t give a lot of interviews, so there was strong interest in his breakfast talk at the New York City campus of IESE Business School, a branch of the University of Navarra in Spain. His interlocutor was Bill Baker, an IESE professor who is past president of WNET-Thirteen, New York’s public television station. Here are some of the highlights:

SECRETS OF RENAISSANCE

Renaissance’s mathematicians and scientists sift through terabytes of data daily looking for anomalies—movements in prices that, if they persist, could become money-makers. The signals are faint. If they weren’t, someone would have found them already. To make money, Simons said, “You have to put together a lot of signals and just keep working at it, working at it.” Other firms took note of Renaissance’s success. At times, he said, “It felt like we were running in front of a pack of wolves that were trying to catch up and devour us.”

DONALD TRUMP

Robert Mercer, a co-chief executive officer of Renaissance, helped get Trump elected president and is a financial backer of Breitbart News, the right-wing website led by former presidential counselor Steve Bannon. Simons made no mention of Mercer but was clear that he’s no Trump supporter. “We’ve never had a president remotely like our current president,” Simons said. “We’ve had some doozies but never like that caliber.” Simons says he believes the U.S. is resilient and will bounce back from a Trump administration without lasting damage “if we can just get through these four years without an atomic bomb dropped.”

MANAGEMENT

Simons, flouting the convention that mathematicians are antisocial, said one of his favorite tasks at Stony Brook and Renaissance was recruitment. His philosophy: “Hire the greatest people you can and then give them a lot of authority.”

PHILANTHROPY

The New York City-based Simons Foundation will give away about $400 million this year. It gives grants for basic research in math, physics, biology, the origins of life, and autism. The Flatiron Institute, founded last year in Manhattan, does in-house research in the hard sciences using computers—computational biology, etc. It’s helping build a complex of telescopes at high altitude in Chile’s Atacama Desert to search for primordial gravitational waves—a clue to how the universe was born in the Big Bang. When hedge fund founders talk about inflation, they generally mean rising prices. Simons is as likely to be referring to the theory that the universe expanded rapidly in the first tiny fraction of a second of its existence. Said Simons: “I’m not a fan of inflation.”

MATH EDUCATION

The Simons Foundation also funds Math for America, which seeks to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education in secondary schools. Simons said he was originally impressed by the idea of rewarding teachers based on the performance of their students on standardized tests until he realized that the scores were a poor indicator of teachers’ ability. The correlation of a teacher’s performance by that measure from one year to the next is almost random, he said. He also doesn’t like the project of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel to pay people who drop out of college to start companies. “I think it’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

SOCKS

Simons didn’t say anything about his socks. He wasn’t wearing any, as is his custom. And not because he can’t afford them.

 

    Peter Coy
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist

    Peter Coy is the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and covers a wide range of economic issues. He also holds the position of senior writer. Coy joined the magazine in December 1989 as telecommunications editor, then became technology editor in October 1992 and held that position until joining the economics staff. He came to BusinessWeek from the Associated Press in New York, where he had served as a business news writer since 1985.

    Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-27/billionaire-mathematician-james-simons-flopped-the-first-time-he-invested

    Romania shrugs off label of Europes poor man as economy booms

    Since it joined the EU in 2007, government economic measures and communist-era educational excellence have spurred rapid growth

    At a sleek new office in the heart of Bucharest, Fitbit co-founder and chief executive James Park explains why the smartwear giant is rapidly expanding its operations in Romania and following the lead of a host of multinationals. The tech talent here is amazing. Romania and other countries in central and eastern Europe have great existing talent, and also great universities, he says.

    The US company, which bought Romanian smartwatch brand Vector Watches for a reported $15m (11.4m) late last year, and has tripled its staff in Romania since, has just opened its largest research and development centre outside the US, in the Romanian capital. Its not alone: in recent years, major global companies such as Siemens, Ford and Bosch have set up or expanded operations in Romania, boosting an economy thats already growing at speed.

    While many see Romania as a country of migrants flocking abroad to find work, back home the economy is booming. The services sector is expanding at pace, along with exports and manufacturing. Meanwhile, private consumption from clothes to furniture and cars hit a nine-year high in 2016, and increased a further 8% in the first half of this year.

    The economy grew 5.7% year-on-year in the second quarter of 2017, the fastest rate in the EU, where the average growth rate was 2.4%. This was on the back of a GDP rise of 4.8% in 2016 and 3.9% in 2015; during the same period the UK economy grew by a more placid 1.8% and 2.2%. According to the International Monetary Fund, Romanias economy is expected to grow by 5.5% for the whole of 2017.

    The tech sector, in particular, is expanding fast, built on a communist-era legacy of excellence in science, mathematics and technical education, as well as Romanias strong language skills, which have long made it a hub for IT outsourcing. While the Romanian languages Latin roots have helped explained the countrys linguistic skills, some suggest it was a decision to subtitle rather than dub foreign programming on television that boosted foreign language exposure and proficiency.

    According to industry insiders, the tech sector which employs about 150,000 people is expected to double its share of GDP to 12% by 2025, aided by one of the fastest broadband internet speeds in the world (behind only Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Iceland).

    Elsewhere, Ford has announced plans to hire almost 1,000 workers for its plant in Craiova, 180km west of the capital, adding to its current workforce of 2,715. The automotive giant has invested more than 1.2bn (1.1bn) in its Romanian manufacturing operations since 2008. Renault-owned Dacia, a former communist state-owned giant, remains the countrys largest company based on revenue, with a turnover of 4.1bn in 2016. Joining the EU in 2007 clearly had an impact, while more recent government measures have also boosted the economy.

    The government in 2015 decided to cut taxation for consumption, says Ionut Dumitru, chief economist at Raiffeisen Bank Romania and chairman of Romanias fiscal council. They cut VAT from 24% to 20%, and now 19%, and extended the reduced VAT rate for food and some other items. This was a very strong stimulus for consumption.

    The government has also doubled the minimum wage in four years. And its not only the minimum wage that has increased a lot, but also public sector wages.

    Wages in Romania remain far below the EU average, making it an enticing option for outsourcing; the minimum monthly wage is currently around 283 only Bulgarias is lower within the EU.

    However, lower wages have stopped many Romanians returning home, leaving companies short of workers in 2016, the unemployment rate dropped to an historic low of 5.9% compared with an EU average of 8.6%, amid predictions it will drop to 5.4% this year.

    Uncertainty over Brexit is having an impact, with companies looking at alternatives within the EU in case the UK pursues an exit that restricts trade.

    Were getting inquiries from UK companies on a weekly basis since the referendum, says Shajjad Rizvi, the director of the British Romanian Chamber of Commerce in the northern city of Cluj, one of the largest tech centres in central and eastern Europe.

    We are seeing global companies hedging their bets, in case tariffs are not favourable or something else, and Romania is one of the choices they are looking at, he adds. Software companies, a lot are doubling or tripling their workforces in Romania, and a lot of those jobs are coming from the UK. Whole departments: marketing, PR, HR; they are being closed down in the UK and moved out here.

    But there are also serious challenges. Romania has long been considered one of the most corrupt nations in the EU. Despite progress, there are still major concerns. In February, the country experienced the largest protests in decades after the government pushed through legislation that would have effectively decriminalised low-level corruption. The government backed down, but has yet to regain public trust.

    Transportation infrastructure is also poor. Romania came 128 out of 138 countries for the quality of its road infrastructure in the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report; the railway system, which is old and slow, came in slightly better at 79. There are only 747km of motorway in the whole country.

    There is also concern about the rising deficit. In 2016 the government deficit the gap between state income and spending rose to 3% of GDP, up from 0.8% in 2015, due to increased spending and tax cuts. The main concern for the economy is the fiscal situation, says Raiffeisens Dumitru. The deficit is under pressure.

    Even so, Romanias economy looks set to continue to expand in the near future. Its hard to sustain more than 5% growth, says Dumitru. Most analysts are predicting closer to 4% for next year. But even 4% will probably be one of the highest growth rates in Europe, so its not bad at all.

    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/14/romania-economy-booming

    One of the most celebrated mathematicians has died

    Vladimir Voevodsky made math better.
    Image: Getty Images

    Not going to class isn’t typically something good to boast about. But perhaps the late Vladimir Voevodsky is the exception to the rule. 

    Voevodsky is credited with founding new fields of mathematics, such as motivic homotopy theory, and a computer tool to help check mathematical proofs, as the New York Times explored in an obituary this week. The latter was a feat that other mathematicians didn’t dare approach, but Voevodsky’s effort has overwhelmingly benefited the industry — and everyone, really — by allowing mathematicians to fact-check their work.

    He died at age 51 on Sept. 30, at his home in Princeton, New Jersey from unknown causes. He leaves behind his former wife Nadia Shalaby and their two daughters. 

    “His contributions are so fundamental that it’s impossible to imagine how things were thought of before him,” Chris Kapulkin, a former colleague at the University of Western Ontario, told the Times.

    Among Voevodsky’s achievements was changing the meaning of the equal sign. In 2002, he won the Fields Medal for discovering the existence of a “mathematical wormhole” that allowed theoretical tools in one field of mathematics to be used in another field. 

    He wasn’t a top student of the traditional, rule-abiding sense. According to the Times, Voevodsky was kicked out of high school three times. He was also kicked out of Moscow University after failing academically. He later attended Harvard. Despite neglecting to attend lectures, he graduated in 1992.  

    He worked through it all, and all present and future mathematicians have him to thank. 

    Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/10/08/vladimir-voevodsky-mathematician-died-awesome/

    How economics became a religion | John Rapley

    The long read: Its moral code promises salvation, its high priests uphold their orthodoxy. But perhaps too many of its doctrines are taken on faith

    Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as derivative or structured investment vehicle. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

    Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment. For a long time, they seemed to deliver on that promise, succeeding in a way few other religions had ever done, our incomes rising thousands of times over and delivering a cornucopia bursting with new inventions, cures and delights.

    This was our heaven, and richly did we reward the economic priesthood, with status, wealth and power to shape our societies according to their vision. At the end of the 20th century, amid an economic boom that saw the western economies become richer than humanity had ever known, economics seemed to have conquered the globe. With nearly every country on the planet adhering to the same free-market playbook, and with university students flocking to do degrees in the subject, economics seemed to be attaining the goal that had eluded every other religious doctrine in history: converting the entire planet to its creed.

    Yet if history teaches anything, its that whenever economists feel certain that they have found the holy grail of endless peace and prosperity, the end of the present regime is nigh. On the eve of the 1929 Wall Street crash, the American economist Irving Fisher advised people to go out and buy shares; in the 1960s, Keynesian economists said there would never be another recession because they had perfected the tools of demand management.

    The 2008 crash was no different. Five years earlier, on 4 January 2003, the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas had delivered a triumphal presidential address to the American Economics Association. Reminding his colleagues that macroeconomics had been born in the depression precisely to try to prevent another such disaster ever recurring, he declared that he and his colleagues had reached their own end of history: Macroeconomics in this original sense has succeeded, he instructed the conclave. Its central problem of depression prevention has been solved.

    No sooner do we persuade ourselves that the economic priesthood has finally broken the old curse than it comes back to haunt us all: pride always goes before a fall. Since the crash of 2008, most of us have watched our living standards decline. Meanwhile, the priesthood seemed to withdraw to the cloisters, bickering over who got it wrong. Not surprisingly, our faith in the experts has dissipated.

    Hubris, never a particularly good thing, can be especially dangerous in economics, because its scholars dont just observe the laws of nature; they help make them. If the government, guided by its priesthood, changes the incentive-structure of society to align with the assumption that people behave selfishly, for instance, then lo and behold, people will start to do just that. They are rewarded for doing so and penalised for doing otherwise. If you are educated to believe greed is good, then you will be more likely to live accordingly.

    The hubris in economics came not from a moral failing among economists, but from a false conviction: the belief that theirs was a science. It neither is nor can be one, and has always operated more like a church. You just have to look at its history to realise that.


    The American Economic Association,to which Robert Lucas gave his address, was created in 1885, just when economics was starting to define itself as a distinct discipline. At its first meeting, the associations founders proposed a platform that declared: The conflict of labour and capital has brought to the front a vast number of social problems whose solution is impossible without the united efforts of church, state and science. It would be a long path from that beginning to the market evangelism of recent decades.

    Yet even at that time, such social activism provoked controversy. One of the AEAs founders, Henry Carter Adams, subsequently delivered an address at Cornell University in which he defended free speech for radicals and accused industrialists of stoking xenophobia to distract workers from their mistreatment. Unknown to him, the New York lumber king and Cornell benefactor Henry Sage was in the audience. As soon as the lecture was done, Sage stormed into the university presidents office and insisted: This man must go; he is sapping the foundations of our society. When Adamss tenure was subsequently blocked, he agreed to moderate his views. Accordingly, the final draft of the AEA platform expunged the reference to laissez-faire economics as being unsafe in politics and unsound in morals.

    Trinity
    Economics has always operated more like a church Trinity Church seen from Wall Street. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

    So was set a pattern that has persisted to this day. Powerful political interests which historically have included not only rich industrialists, but electorates as well helped to shape the canon of economics, which was then enforced by its scholarly community.

    Once a principle is established as orthodox, its observance is enforced in much the same way that a religious doctrine maintains its integrity: by repressing or simply eschewing heresies. In Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas observed the way taboos functioned to help humans impose order on a seemingly disordered, chaotic world. The premises of conventional economics havent functioned all that differently. Robert Lucas once noted approvingly that by the late 20th century, economics had so effectively purged itself of Keynesianism that the audience start(ed) to whisper and giggle to one another when anyone expressed a Keynesian idea at a seminar. Such responses served to remind practitioners of the taboos of economics: a gentle nudge to a young academic that such shibboleths might not sound so good before a tenure committee. This preoccupation with order and coherence may be less a function of the method than of its practitioners. Studies of personality traits common to various disciplines have discovered that economics, like engineering, tends to attract people with an unusually strong preference for order, and a distaste for ambiguity.

    The irony is that, in its determination to make itself a science that can reach hard and fast conclusions, economics has had to dispense with scientific method at times. For starters, it rests on a set of premises about the world not as it is, but as economists would like it to be. Just as any religious service includes a profession of faith, membership in the priesthood of economics entails certain core convictions about human nature. Among other things, most economists believe that we humans are self-interested, rational, essentially individualistic, and prefer more money to less. These articles of faith are taken as self-evident. Back in the 1930s, the great economist Lionel Robbins described his profession in a way that has stood ever since as a cardinal rule for millions of economists. The fields basic premises came from deduction from simple assumptions reflecting very elementary facts of general experience and as such were as universal as the laws of mathematics or mechanics, and as little capable of suspension.

    Deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question is a time-honoured method. For thousands of years, monks in medieval monasteries built a vast corpus of scholarship doing just that, using a method perfected by Thomas Aquinas known as scholasticism. However, this is not the method used by scientists, who tend to require assumptions to be tested empirically before a theory can be built out of them.

    But, economists will maintain, this is precisely what they themselves do what sets them apart from the monks is that they must still test their hypotheses against the evidence. Well, yes, but this statement is actually more problematic than many mainstream economists may realise. Physicists resolve their debates by looking at the data, upon which they by and large agree. The data used by economists, however, is much more disputed. When, for example, Robert Lucas insisted that Eugene Famas efficient-markets hypothesis which maintains that since a free market collates all available information to traders, the prices it yields can never be wrong held true despite a flood of criticism, he did so with as much conviction and supporting evidence as his fellow economist Robert Shiller had mustered in rejecting the hypothesis. When the Swedish central bank had to decide who would win the 2013 Nobel prize in economics, it was torn between Shillers claim that markets frequently got the price wrong and Famas insistence that markets always got the price right. Thus it opted to split the difference and gave both men the medal a bit of Solomonic wisdom that would have elicited howls of laughter had it been a science prize. In economic theory, very often, you believe what you want to believe and as with any act of faith, your choice of heads or tails will as likely reflect sentimental predisposition as scientific assessment.

    Its no mystery why the data used by economists and other social scientists so rarely throws up incontestable answers: it is human data. Unlike people, subatomic particles dont lie on opinion surveys or change their minds about things. Mindful of that difference, at his own presidential address to the American Economic Association nearly a half-century ago, another Nobel laureate, Wassily Leontief, struck a modest tone. He reminded his audience that the data used by economists differed greatly from that used by physicists or biologists. For the latter, he cautioned, the magnitude of most parameters is practically constant, whereas the observations in economics were constantly changing. Data sets had to be regularly updated to remain useful. Some data was just simply bad. Collecting and analysing the data requires civil servants with a high degree of skill and a good deal of time, which less economically developed countries may not have in abundance. So, for example, in 2010 alone, Ghanas government which probably has one of the better data-gathering capacities in Africa recalculated its economic output by 60%. Testing your hypothesis before and after that kind of revision would lead to entirely different results.

    New
    The data used by economists rarely throws up incontestable answers traders at the New York Stock Exchange in October 2008. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

    Leontief wanted economists to spend more time getting to know their data, and less time in mathematical modelling. However, as he ruefully admitted, the trend was already going in the opposite direction. Today, the economist who wanders into a village to get a deeper sense of what the data reveals is a rare creature. Once an economic model is ready to be tested, number-crunching ends up being done largely at computers plugged into large databases. Its not a method that fully satisfies a sceptic. For, just as you can find a quotation in the Bible that will justify almost any behaviour, you can find human data to support almost any statement you want to make about the way the world works.

    Thats why ideas in economics can go in and out of fashion. The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next. Economics, however, moves in cycles. A given doctrine can rise, fall and then later rise again. Thats because economists dont confirm their theories in quite the same way physicists do, by just looking at the evidence. Instead, much as happens with preachers who gather a congregation, a school rises by building a following among both politicians and the wider public.

    For example, Milton Friedman was one of the most influential economists of the late 20th century. But he had been around for decades before he got much of a hearing. He might well have remained a marginal figure had it not been that politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were sold on his belief in the virtue of a free market. They sold that idea to the public, got elected, then remade society according to those designs. An economist who gets a following gets a pulpit. Although scientists, in contrast, might appeal to public opinion to boost their careers or attract research funds, outside of pseudo-sciences, they dont win support for their theories in this way.

    However, if you think describing economics as a religion debunks it, youre wrong. We need economics. It can be it has been a force for tremendous good. But only if we keep its purpose in mind, and always remember what it can and cant do.


    The Irish have been known to describetheir notionally Catholic land as one where a thin Christian veneer was painted over an ancient paganism. The same might be said of our own adherence to todays neoliberal orthodoxy, which stresses individual liberty, limited government and the free market. Despite outward observance of a well-entrenched doctrine, we havent fully transformed into the economic animals we are meant to be. Like the Christian who attends church but doesnt always keep the commandments, we behave as economic theory predicts only when it suits us. Contrary to the tenets of orthodox economists, contemporary research suggests that, rather than seeking always to maximise our personal gain, humans still remain reasonably altruistic and selfless. Nor is it clear that the endless accumulation of wealth always makes us happier. And when we do make decisions, especially those to do with matters of principle, we seem not to engage in the sort of rational utility-maximizing calculus that orthodox economic models take as a given. The truth is, in much of our daily life we dont fit the model all that well.

    For decades, neoliberal evangelists replied to such objections by saying it was incumbent on us all to adapt to the model, which was held to be immutable one recalls Bill Clintons depiction of neoliberal globalisation, for instance, as a force of nature. And yet, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the consequent recession, there has been a turn against globalisation across much of the west. More broadly, there has been a wide repudiation of the experts, most notably in the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum.

    It would be tempting for anyone who belongs to the expert class, and to the priesthood of economics, to dismiss such behaviour as a clash between faith and facts, in which the facts are bound to win in the end. In truth, the clash was between two rival faiths in effect, two distinct moral tales. So enamoured had the so-called experts become with their scientific authority that they blinded themselves to the fact that their own narrative of scientific progress was embedded in a moral tale. It happened to be a narrative that had a happy ending for those who told it, for it perpetuated the story of their own relatively comfortable position as the reward of life in a meritocratic society that blessed people for their skills and flexibility. That narrative made no room for the losers of this order, whose resentments were derided as being a reflection of their boorish and retrograde character which is to say, their fundamental vice. The best this moral tale could offer everyone else was incremental adaptation to an order whose caste system had become calcified. For an audience yearning for a happy ending, this was bound to be a tale of woe.

    The failure of this grand narrative is not, however, a reason for students of economics to dispense with narratives altogether. Narratives will remain an inescapable part of the human sciences for the simple reason that they are inescapable for humans. Its funny that so few economists get this, because businesses do. As the Nobel laureates George Akerlof and Robert Shiller write in their recent book, Phishing for Phools, marketers use them all the time, weaving stories in the hopes that we will place ourselves in them and be persuaded to buy what they are selling. Akerlof and Shiller contend that the idea that free markets work perfectly, and the idea that big government is the cause of so many of our problems, are part of a story that is actually misleading people into adjusting their behaviour in order to fit the plot. They thus believe storytelling is a new variable for economics, since the mental frames that underlie peoples decisions are shaped by the stories they tell themselves.

    Economists arguably do their best work when they take the stories we have given them, and advise us on how we can help them to come true. Such agnosticism demands a humility that was lacking in economic orthodoxy in recent years. Nevertheless, economists dont have to abandon their traditions if they are to overcome the failings of a narrative that has been rejected. Rather they can look within their own history to find a method that avoids the evangelical certainty of orthodoxy.

    In his 1971 presidential address to the American Economic Association, Wassily Leontief counselled against the dangers of self-satisfaction. He noted that although economics was starting to ride the crest of intellectual respectability an uneasy feeling about the present state of our discipline has been growing in some of us who have watched its unprecedented development over the last three decades.

    Noting that pure theory was making economics more remote from day-to-day reality, he said the problem lay in the palpable inadequacy of the scientific means of using mathematical approaches to address mundane concerns. So much time went into model-construction that the assumptions on which the models were based became an afterthought. But, he warned a warning that the sub-prime booms fascination with mathematical models, and the busts subsequent revelation of their flaws, now reveals to have been prophetic it is precisely the empirical validity of these assumptions on which the usefulness of the entire exercise depends.

    Leontief thought that economics departments were increasingly hiring and promoting young economists who wanted to build pure models with little empirical relevance. Even when they did empirical analysis, Leontief said economists seldom took any interest in the meaning or value of their data. He thus called for economists to explore their assumptions and data by conducting social, demographic and anthropological work, and said economics needed to work more closely with other disciplines.

    Leontiefs call for humility some 40 years ago stands as a reminder that the same religions that can speak up for human freedom and dignity when in opposition, can become obsessed with their rightness and the need to purge others of their wickedness once they attain power. When the church retains its distance from power, and a modest expectation about what it can achieve, it can stir our minds to envision new possibilities and even new worlds. Once economists apply this kind of sceptical scientific method to a human realm in which ultimate reality may never be fully discernible, they will probably find themselves retreating from dogmatism in their claims.

    Paradoxically, therefore, as economics becomes more truly scientific, it will become less of a science. Acknowledging these limitations will free it to serve us once more.

    Main image: Maxian/Getty/iStockphoto/Guardian Design

    This is an edited extract from Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong by John Rapley, published by Simon & Schuster on 13 July at 20. To order a copy for 17, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

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    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/jul/11/how-economics-became-a-religion

    Meet the millennials making big money riding China’s bitcoin wave

    The cryptocurrency may have no physical form but the returns from trading it can be very real and for some theyre worth giving up your job for

    On a sunny afternoon in west Beijing, on the auspicious eighth floor of a nondescript concrete high-rise, Huai Yang sits with the curtains drawn in his apartment, making his own luck.

    For the past six months, 27-year-old Yang has worked mainly from home, mainly from his sofa, tracking and trading bitcoin, and watching the money roll in. The flat itself is modestly sized; Yang moved in in his pre-bitcoin days when he worked variously for a crowdfunder start-up, a branding consultancy and dabbled in hedge-fund management, all of which he describes as creative financial work. Now, though, his main focus is bitcoin, which is much younger, more fun, and much more money. Yang claims to make up to 1m yuan (116,000) a month, under the radar of the taxman, purely from trading the online cryptocurrency.

    Bitcoin has no physical form but the rewards are very tangible; Yangs home is packed full of expensive gadgetry, most prominently a mega-sized flat screen smart board, over a metre wide, which Yang uses to chart bitcoins rise and fall in HD.

    Normally, the graphs on Yangs screen show bitcoins and his own fortunes going up and up. At the time of writing, one bitcoin is worth 6,600 yuan (768) recent months have seen the value hover well above 8,000 yuan. The global worth of bitcoin is over $14bn USD (11.3bn), of which over 90% is in yuan, and Yang and his peers are cashing in. I want a more splendid life, he says.

    Huai
    Huai Yang, who trades bitcoin from his sofa Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

    Theres certainly big money to be made in bitcoin, but it comes at a high risk. Bitcoin was designed to be a peer-to-peer currency, free from interference from government and central banks. Since the currency was launched in 2009, however, the Chinese market, where government interventions are common, has come to dwarf all others.

    One such intervention took place in February this year, when the government warned that there would be serious violations for trading platforms that failed to abide by strict money-laundering regulations. In line with this, OKCoin and Huobi.com, the two biggest exchanges in China, announced that they would be suspending bitcoin withdrawals for one month.

    Incidents like these, which Yang sees as not convenient, but not [a] problem, give Chenxing (who asked that I only use his first name) pause for thought. Chenxing, a boyish, skittish 35, has been trading bitcoin for the past four months, after giving up his too comfortable job as a geo-information engineer for the government. The governments pressure on bitcoin platforms is not so easy to understand, he tells me. Im not sure its really about money laundering they try to control [bitcoin], but they cannot.

    For Chenxing, its the system itself that is vulnerable: Technology changes every day, he explains. Maybe tomorrow a hacker can find a way to crack bitcoin the security is from mathematics. If you can crack the mathematics, bitcoin is nothing. Thats why, even though Chenxing describes himself as a believer in bitcoin, he doesnt plan to stay involved for the long term.

    Its really not a stable thing, he says, both in terms of fluctuating prices and the uncertain technological future of the cryptocurrency. That said, hes still making more money than in his previous government job. In a good month, Chenxing will pocket the cash value of around five bitcoin, which is close to 40,000 yuan, and which Chenxing prefers to have in cold, hard cash.

    Chenxing is something of an anomaly in Chinese bitcoin circles, where the general mood is one of evangelical faith in the currencys potential, especially in an economy where the government often devalues the national currency.

    Brendan Gibson, 32, is a United States national who has been in China for six years, trading bitcoin for three. Weve barely sat down to talk when Gibson takes my phone and downloads the BTC Wallet app onto it, before transferring me the seeds of my cryptocurrency fortune: 0.0027 bitcoin, worth 2.50, which is the amount that everyone in the world would have if the 21m bitcoin in existence were equally divided up between all 7.8 billion of us. He believes that everybodys aunt or grandma should be using bitcoin.

    Brendan
    Brendan Gibson: Im just kind of fed up with the system. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

    For Gibson, bitcoin is a way of life. He hopes to be completely bank free in the near future. Hailing from the shady mortgage industry of corporate America, Gibson shares Chenxings distrustful attitude, but is more concerned about private banks than bitcoins technological vulnerability. Im just kind of fed up with the system, he tells me over coffee in a slick caf and co-working space from where Gibson does most of his work remotely.

    I dont think economies should be built on inflated numbers, and I think its kind of ridiculous that everybody relies on this inflated number in their bank account when its definitely not there bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are making it so that we are our own banks, and thats one less things we have to worry about. Gibson owns two companies in China, and as far as possible uses bitcoin for all his daily expenses, converting the personal profits he makes into bitcoin to avoid using banks.

    One of the commonly cited weaknesses in the bitcoin system is that if you lose your private key to access your bitcoin wallet, the bitcoin within are lost forever. In 2015, it was estimated that up to 30% of all mined bitcoins had been lost, with a value of 625m. Unsurprisingly, plenty of people see this as an opportunity to make some money.

    Sun Zeyu, 27, works at a tech start-up based near Beijings university district that specialises in bitcoin. His latest project is Coldlar, an offline, physical wallet that stores users bitcoin and can be accessed by scanning a QR code. Bitcoin security is a tough question, Sun tells me, which is why he and his colleagues designed a product that allows people to circumvent bitcoin platforms and have even greater control over their bitcoin. Now that the value [of bitcoin] is going up, he explains, people really realise the importance of security.

    Before, when we just traded one or two coins, people didnt mind, [but] now the value of bitcoin is much bigger. Sun got involved with bitcoin while at university after attending a seminar run by Huobi, one of the biggest trading platforms in China. Like his flashier friend Yang, Sun wanted money, and lots of it. He wont tell me exactly how much he earns, but assures me that its hundreds or thousands times more than the 10,000 yuan per month he was earning when he first dabbled in bitcoin three years ago.

    His money comes from both his trading activity and his company salary. With the growth of bitcoin and related products like his Coldlar wallet, Sun believes that in 10 years time, the value of the cryptocurrency will be one bitcoin, one house in Beijing. Minor shocks to the system, like the recent suspension of bitcoin withdrawals in China, are just like breathing, he insists, and the inhalations of profit dwarf any other bumps in the road.

    Sun
    Sun Zeyu at work. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

    Despite the solitary nature of their work, Yang, Sun, Gibson and Chenxing are all sociable creatures. Gibson is connected to hundreds of bitcoin aficionados in China, and has introduced close to 1,000 new people to the technology (although how many are like me, with 2.50 lying dormant in an unused wallet, is unknown), such is his enthusiasm for the cryptocurrency. Chenxing cites the social side of the bitcoin scene in Beijing as one of the main attractions of staying in the industry and the city.

    I can meet some fun people who really love bitcoin I think most of the people who like bitcoin are people who like freedom he says. Yang, however, takes a slightly harder-edged approach. He has little patience for sceptics: Yes, bitcoin is a risk. Why should I have to discuss these things with [people concerned about the security]? I earn my money, thats enough. I dont waste my time explaining bitcoin [if] youre not my client. In some ways, Yang concedes, the less people understand bitcoin, the better it is for him. At the moment, the industry is like an ATM for him and his peers, and hes perfectly happy for things to stay that way.

    In the fast-changing world of the crypto-currency, nothing seems to stay the same for long. Whether its unpredictable government interventions, or debates within the community about how the industry can and should be scaled, general growth in value thus fair doesnt necessarily suggest anything about the future of bitcoin, despite the faith of its adherents. Gibson makes the point that bitcoin has only been around for nine years; it took PayPal at least 10 to properly catch on.

    In Japan it has recently been recognised as legal tender. Its unlikely that the same could ever happen in China, no matter how much its popularity continues to balloon. Chenxing, who has years of insider experience, is sure that [the government] will never accept a thing thats not built by themselves. Many bitcoin traders in China are in it for the long haul, confident that they can ride out any governmental interferences, as long as they have access to the internet. Chenxing, however, is more paranoid. His final thoughts on bitcoin are: I never feel secure.

    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/11/meet-the-millennials-making-big-money-riding-chinas-bitcoin-wave

    College majors dominated by women lead to lower-paying jobs, Glassdoor found

    The gender pay gap is linked to college majors, but even choosing a high-paying field doesn't always help.
    Image: Shutterstock / silvabom

    The gender pay gap in the United States starts early with what you choose as your college major.

    Majors that tend to lead to higher-paying jobs are dominated by male college students and majors that feed into lower-paying jobs are dominated by women, Glassdoor found in a new report.

    “Because men and women systematically sort into different college majors, they experience different early career paths, which pay differently,” Glassdoor chief economist Andrew Chamberlain and senior data analyst Jyotsna Jayaraman wrote in their report. “These pay differences in turn reveal themselves as major contributors to the well-documented gap between male and female pay in the labor market.”

    The well-documented gap shows that women earn just over 80 cents for every man’s dollar, with the gap increasing significantly for women of color.

    In companies’ reports on equal pay, they tend to point out that the gender pay gap narrows or almost disappears when it’s adjusted women and men in the exact same jobs, especially early in their careers, earn about equal salaries. But the unadjusted pay gap, caused by men being awarded higher-paying roles and women working in lower-paying jobs, persists across majors and industries, as Glassdoor found.

    The jobs site analyzed nearly 47,000 resumes uploaded to its platform to find these results. Across college majors, men earned $56,957 per year to women’s $50,426 per year. That’s a pay gap of 11.5 percent.

    “Solutions to todays remaining gender pay gap must go beyond examining current pay practices among employers.”

    Of the 10 college majors that lead to the highest-paying jobs in the first five years after graduation, nine were dominated by men. Those majors were six engineering degrees, plus information technology, management information systems, statistics, and the lone women-dominated degree, nursing.

    Of the 10 lowest-paying college majors, six were dominated by women. Those majors were healthcare administration, social work, education, liberal arts, psychology, and biology. Men made up more students in the low-paying criminal justice, kinesiology, and music fields. The last low-paying major, exercise science, was about equal in its gender divide.

    It’s not enough to say that women should choose majors that lead to higher-paying jobs. Part of the problem is that professions where women make up most of the workforce sometimes called “pink collar” jobs have been undervalued and underpaid. Over 85 percent of social work majors were women and 66 percent of education majors were women, Glassdoor found. Women’s choices of college majors are affected by their pre-college preparation, gender norms, and other societal factors besides just their own individual interests.

    And choosing a major that leads to a higher-paying field doesn’t insulate women from the wage gap. After graduation, women biology majors found jobs as lab technicians, pharmacy technicians, and sales associates, according to Glassdoor. Male biology majors were employed as lab technicians or higher-paid data analysts and managers. The majors with the biggest wage gaps for their male and female students were healthcare administration and mathematics.

    “Our findings suggest that solutions to todays remaining gender pay gap must go beyond examining current pay practices among employers,” Chamberlain and Jayaraman wrote. “Instead, they must also address pipeline issues including the choice of college major that help drive men and women into different career paths and pay.”

    WATCH: This typewriter-inspired keyboard will have you kickin’ it old school

    Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/04/19/college-major-gender-pay-gap-glassdoor/

    Meet the millennials making big money riding China’s bitcoin wave

    The cryptocurrency may have no physical form but the returns from trading it can be very real and for some theyre worth giving up your job for

    On a sunny afternoon in west Beijing, on the auspicious eighth floor of a nondescript concrete high-rise, Huai Yang sits with the curtains drawn in his apartment, making his own luck.

    For the past six months, 27-year-old Yang has worked mainly from home, mainly from his sofa, tracking and trading bitcoin, and watching the money roll in. The flat itself is modestly sized; Yang moved in in his pre-bitcoin days when he worked variously for a crowdfunder start-up, a branding consultancy and dabbled in hedge-fund management, all of which he describes as creative financial work. Now, though, his main focus is bitcoin, which is much younger, more fun, and much more money. Yang claims to make up to 1m yuan (116,000) a month, under the radar of the taxman, purely from trading the online cryptocurrency.

    Bitcoin has no physical form but the rewards are very tangible; Yangs home is packed full of expensive gadgetry, most prominently a mega-sized flat screen smart board, over a metre wide, which Yang uses to chart bitcoins rise and fall in HD.

    Normally, the graphs on Yangs screen show bitcoins and his own fortunes going up and up. At the time of writing, one bitcoin is worth 6,600 yuan (768) recent months have seen the value hover well above 8,000 yuan. The global worth of bitcoin is over $14bn USD (11.3bn), of which over 90% is in yuan, and Yang and his peers are cashing in. I want a more splendid life, he says.

    Huai
    Huai Yang, who trades bitcoin from his sofa Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

    Theres certainly big money to be made in bitcoin, but it comes at a high risk. Bitcoin was designed to be a peer-to-peer currency, free from interference from government and central banks. Since the currency was launched in 2009, however, the Chinese market, where government interventions are common, has come to dwarf all others.

    One such intervention took place in February this year, when the government warned that there would be serious violations for trading platforms that failed to abide by strict money-laundering regulations. In line with this, OKCoin and Huobi.com, the two biggest exchanges in China, announced that they would be suspending bitcoin withdrawals for one month.

    Incidents like these, which Yang sees as not convenient, but not [a] problem, give Chenxing (who asked that I only use his first name) pause for thought. Chenxing, a boyish, skittish 35, has been trading bitcoin for the past four months, after giving up his too comfortable job as a geo-information engineer for the government. The governments pressure on bitcoin platforms is not so easy to understand, he tells me. Im not sure its really about money laundering they try to control [bitcoin], but they cannot.

    For Chenxing, its the system itself that is vulnerable: Technology changes every day, he explains. Maybe tomorrow a hacker can find a way to crack bitcoin the security is from mathematics. If you can crack the mathematics, bitcoin is nothing. Thats why, even though Chenxing describes himself as a believer in bitcoin, he doesnt plan to stay involved for the long term.

    Its really not a stable thing, he says, both in terms of fluctuating prices and the uncertain technological future of the cryptocurrency. That said, hes still making more money than in his previous government job. In a good month, Chenxing will pocket the cash value of around five bitcoin, which is close to 40,000 yuan, and which Chenxing prefers to have in cold, hard cash.

    Chenxing is something of an anomaly in Chinese bitcoin circles, where the general mood is one of evangelical faith in the currencys potential, especially in an economy where the government often devalues the national currency.

    Brendan Gibson, 32, is a United States national who has been in China for six years, trading bitcoin for three. Weve barely sat down to talk when Gibson takes my phone and downloads the BTC Wallet app onto it, before transferring me the seeds of my cryptocurrency fortune: 0.0027 bitcoin, worth 2.50, which is the amount that everyone in the world would have if the 21m bitcoin in existence were equally divided up between all 7.8 billion of us. He believes that everybodys aunt or grandma should be using bitcoin.

    Brendan
    Brendan Gibson: Im just kind of fed up with the system. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

    For Gibson, bitcoin is a way of life. He hopes to be completely bank free in the near future. Hailing from the shady mortgage industry of corporate America, Gibson shares Chenxings distrustful attitude, but is more concerned about private banks than bitcoins technological vulnerability. Im just kind of fed up with the system, he tells me over coffee in a slick caf and co-working space from where Gibson does most of his work remotely.

    I dont think economies should be built on inflated numbers, and I think its kind of ridiculous that everybody relies on this inflated number in their bank account when its definitely not there bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are making it so that we are our own banks, and thats one less things we have to worry about. Gibson owns two companies in China, and as far as possible uses bitcoin for all his daily expenses, converting the personal profits he makes into bitcoin to avoid using banks.

    One of the commonly cited weaknesses in the bitcoin system is that if you lose your private key to access your bitcoin wallet, the bitcoin within are lost forever. In 2015, it was estimated that up to 30% of all mined bitcoins had been lost, with a value of 625m. Unsurprisingly, plenty of people see this as an opportunity to make some money.

    Sun Zeyu, 27, works at a tech start-up based near Beijings university district that specialises in bitcoin. His latest project is Coldlar, an offline, physical wallet that stores users bitcoin and can be accessed by scanning a QR code. Bitcoin security is a tough question, Sun tells me, which is why he and his colleagues designed a product that allows people to circumvent bitcoin platforms and have even greater control over their bitcoin. Now that the value [of bitcoin] is going up, he explains, people really realise the importance of security.

    Before, when we just traded one or two coins, people didnt mind, [but] now the value of bitcoin is much bigger. Sun got involved with bitcoin while at university after attending a seminar run by Huobi, one of the biggest trading platforms in China. Like his flashier friend Yang, Sun wanted money, and lots of it. He wont tell me exactly how much he earns, but assures me that its hundreds or thousands times more than the 10,000 yuan per month he was earning when he first dabbled in bitcoin three years ago.

    His money comes from both his trading activity and his company salary. With the growth of bitcoin and related products like his Coldlar wallet, Sun believes that in 10 years time, the value of the cryptocurrency will be one bitcoin, one house in Beijing. Minor shocks to the system, like the recent suspension of bitcoin withdrawals in China, are just like breathing, he insists, and the inhalations of profit dwarf any other bumps in the road.

    Sun
    Sun Zeyu at work. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

    Despite the solitary nature of their work, Yang, Sun, Gibson and Chenxing are all sociable creatures. Gibson is connected to hundreds of bitcoin aficionados in China, and has introduced close to 1,000 new people to the technology (although how many are like me, with 2.50 lying dormant in an unused wallet, is unknown), such is his enthusiasm for the cryptocurrency. Chenxing cites the social side of the bitcoin scene in Beijing as one of the main attractions of staying in the industry and the city.

    I can meet some fun people who really love bitcoin I think most of the people who like bitcoin are people who like freedom he says. Yang, however, takes a slightly harder-edged approach. He has little patience for sceptics: Yes, bitcoin is a risk. Why should I have to discuss these things with [people concerned about the security]? I earn my money, thats enough. I dont waste my time explaining bitcoin [if] youre not my client. In some ways, Yang concedes, the less people understand bitcoin, the better it is for him. At the moment, the industry is like an ATM for him and his peers, and hes perfectly happy for things to stay that way.

    In the fast-changing world of the crypto-currency, nothing seems to stay the same for long. Whether its unpredictable government interventions, or debates within the community about how the industry can and should be scaled, general growth in value thus fair doesnt necessarily suggest anything about the future of bitcoin, despite the faith of its adherents. Gibson makes the point that bitcoin has only been around for nine years; it took PayPal at least 10 to properly catch on.

    In Japan it has recently been recognised as legal tender. Its unlikely that the same could ever happen in China, no matter how much its popularity continues to balloon. Chenxing, who has years of insider experience, is sure that [the government] will never accept a thing thats not built by themselves. Many bitcoin traders in China are in it for the long haul, confident that they can ride out any governmental interferences, as long as they have access to the internet. Chenxing, however, is more paranoid. His final thoughts on bitcoin are: I never feel secure.

    Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/apr/11/meet-the-millennials-making-big-money-riding-chinas-bitcoin-wave