NZ Initiative's Eric Crampton on giving yourself a nudge, balancing your drinking, little rockets, the struggles of proving nonsense, councils in a knot, and goat yoga - really. Plus more...

This week's Top 10 is a guest post from Eric Crampton, head of research at the New Zealand Initiative.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below. If you're interested in contributing a Top 10 yourself, contact gareth.vaughan@interest.co.nz.

See all previous Top 10s here.

1. Nudge Nudge

Richard Thaler won this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in behavioural economics. With Cass Sunstein, he developed the now-famous Nudge concept. If people are subject to predictable biases, then small nudges might be able to change behaviour. And it beats more heavy-handed forms of paternalism because nudges are not supposed to be shoves: people can opt-out.

And you can even nudge yourself. Pavlok is like FitBit, but it gives you a shock whenever it catches you doing something you’ve promised not to do. Arguments that we need government to protect us from ourselves ring a bit hollow when those who really want the protection can shock their way to better behaviour. But be careful out there. They’ve now integrated Slack with Pavlok, so your boss or coworkers can zap you if you’re not paying attention in the weekly meeting. Careful out there.

2. But not always nudges

Nudges don’t always work. One clinical trial (New York Times write-up here) checked whether insights from behavioural economics could help encourage patients to finish their prescriptions. It’s a harder problem than it sounds – a lot of health spending winds up wasted because patients don’t follow doctor’s orders, stop taking their pills, and wind up back in hospital. And nothing worked. Paying people to take their pills, social support nudges, and piles of other interventions showed no effect.

3. Holidays

The holidays are coming, and that means a likely endless stream of tut-tutting about holiday drinks. Here’s a bit of help when your local nanny starts in. First up, despite all the headlines on alcohol and cancer, there’s really not much there there. The New York Times covers the evidence and reaches the same conclusion I did: there’s increased risk among heavy drinkers, but not really for lighter drinkers. And because alcohol has a pile of health effects – some positive and some negative – it’s a bit silly to focus on any one disorder rather than on the overall effect across all disorders.

Mark Forsyth provided another voice of reason in conversation with Jesse Mulligan over at Radio New Zealand earlier this week. Forsyth covers the history of drunkenness and how people, and animals, behave when intoxicated. Culture matters at least as much as chemistry.

4. Little rocket man

No, not that one. Trump’s stupid insults give a bad name to little rockets. And little rockets are awesome – they can launch lots of small things at low cost. Rocket Lab’s second launch is coming upand is covered at the Washington Post. MBIE deserves credit for getting the rules right for a competitive space industry in New Zealand. We covered the behind-the-scenes regulatory effort in a report jointly authored with Internet New Zealand on regulation and technology. That was one of the success stories. Others aren’t quite as good. I like Sam Kennard’s take here, from Australia.

5. Meritocracy

There’s been a fascinating debate over in the UK on the limits of just what we might expect from schools. Toby Young warns that schools doing the absolute best possible job for every child could wind up reinforcing inequality rather than reducing it if heritable differences in intelligence matter. If we think that the most disadvantaged students are stuck in the worst schools, then at least fixing that problem shouldn’t make things worse. But what does it all mean overall? I really enjoyed this BBC Radio 4 programme on meritocracy. Interesting and challenging stuff.

6. Debunking is hard

There’s some kind of rule of thumb that debunking nonsense is orders of magnitude harder than producing it in the first place. Here’s a nice case study. Two psychologists in 1998 published a study claiming that you’re more likely to win a game of Trivial Pursuit if you’ve been ‘primed’ with words like professor rather than with words like soccer hooligan. Their original study had just over 40 participants and has been cited over 800 times. It is, of course, nonsense. You could tell as much just by smelling the thing. But debunking it properly – that’s harder. It took 124 authors in experimental labs around the world to show that it was nonsense, through careful replication. Michael Philipp at Massey University helped. I just followed him on Twitter. You should too.

7. Get out of the way: Part 1

Our report on regulation and technology hit on the ways that obsolete regulations are holding back technological progress. But it sure isn’t just a problem for the technology sector. Russell Brown shows how Auckland Council has screwed up a Lorde concert. Here’s what happened:

What it looks like is that the Powerstation had for years been operating in good faith under a licence that permitted a variation for all-ages shows. And then it was told, two working days out from its biggest shows of the year, that the licence was incorrect and under-18 year-olds who paid months ago for tickets would not be able to attend, even with their parents. That included any with tickets for the Monday and Tuesday shows, which were advertised with a “limited” all-ages area.

Yes, even with their parents, and even though they wouldn’t get anywhere near a bar.

This kind of thing has been a problem since National’s punting of alcohol regulation down to Councils. David Seymour pointed to the problem when he had to use a Member’s Bill to allow the bars to be open for the Rugby World Cup. In principle, the Act provides for that through special licences. In practice, it’s much too hard to overcome the objections of police, medical officers of health, and district licensing committees.

8. Get out of the way: Part 2

Meanwhile, Dunedin’s ban on Easter Trading is running into a bit of a problem with a coming Ed Sheeran concert. He’s to play three concerts over Easter weekend, and anybody coming into town for the show will have rather less fun than they might have with the bars and shops closed. First Union’s Shirley Walthew was quoted as saying “Why should we change everything just to suit that weekend? …They [concert-goers] won’t starve.”

There is a real problem to be solved: some people attach religious significance to Easter, and Easter isn’t a statutory holiday. Why not just make Easter a statutory holiday that doesn’t transfer – so you only get credit for it if you’re rostered to work on Easter. Restaurants can be open on Easter, and because it isn’t a statutory holiday, staff aren’t guaranteed extra pay or time in lieu. Get rid of the trading bans and make Easter a stat holiday. Then you don’t have to change it just for an Ed Sheeran concert, and you have a fix that should work more generally.

9. Australian GST

Kiwi firms shipping to Australia will be hit for GST even for low value shipments, if they ship enough in total to Oz over the year. Retail New Zealand has demanded that we do away with the GST threshold on low valued goods here too.

A government that seems keener on playing tit-for-tat with Australia might find it tempting, but it should be careful. The price difference between domestic retail and delivered-from-overseas is generally much much larger than the 15% GST – or at least for the goods that people will bother having shipped in from overseas. Adding GST at the border could do a lot of harm if there isn’t a clean way of applying it. A lot of foreign companies asked to collect GST for New Zealand might just decide to stop shipping here because it’s too hard, and that would be terrible for access to the broad range of goods available online. I worry too that parallel consumer importation provides a strong competitive constraint on domestic markets. I’d covered the issue in 2015 when it last came up. Until somebody figures out a seamless way of applying GST at the border, this really just feels like protectionism from the domestic retailers. The 15% at the border is a pretty trivial cost. But Customs holding goods for days while awaiting payment could do a lot to block competition.

10. And a final fun one

...With a hat-tip to @JenesaJeram. Washington D.C.’s nanny state has had a go at nanny goats. Goat yoga has somehow become popular in the US. It is exactly what you think it is: yoga classes with goats strolling around for pats. Anyway, it violates DC’s ban on spectators touching animals at public events. I wonder what they’d make of our A&P shows.

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7 Comments

Trade Unions need to move from the 17th Century to 2017 , or risk becoming totally irrelevant , not unlike the Catholic Church needs to move with the times or get overtaken by events and change .

Things have changed , and keeping shops and restaurants closed in Dunedin is just short -sighted and archaic .

The entire planet has become commercialized and frankly almost no one goes to church over the Easter weekend anymore. Dunedin is trying to immerse itself in a time warp by not being progressive .

The First Union is being both a spoiler and bloody minded by not supporting the opening

I believe unions are irrelevant in most industries now. Rail however is their opportunity to regain some power.

Perhaps the reason the left love rail is because its a service where there's no competition so the unions have the power and can hold the employer and the public to ransom. Roads however are open to competition.

In practice, it’s much too hard to overcome the objections of police, medical officers of health, and district licensing committees.

Auckland has an organisation called ATEED that is supposed to focus on this sort of thing. Those poor dears are being paid several $100,000 each, but are never doing their f*#king jobs. Way too much trouble for them to skip the corporate box or long lunches and maybe work at anything that is slightly difficult.

No. That is not ATEED's role. Their mission "to lead the successful transformation of the Auckland economy, and help create a future of prosperity and opportunity for Auckland." Their work is more strategic than execution of the actual functions of the council.

BTW, I think there has been a clearing out of many of the senior people at ATEED.

Strategy belongs to the council and its elected members. They may need one or two secretaries to document their deliberations. Close down ATEED and then think of the next function to be abolished.

Goat Yoga. It was inevitable. When you need to differentiate in crowded market you got to have a brand. Employ a marketer and you end up with a goat. But then how do you tell who is who.

Kudos to interest.co.nz and Eric Crampton for a fantastic top ten. Not a dud in the ten and the BBC item on meritocracy truly enlarged my mind. All my idle wonderings on the topic were clearly articulated in the item, sorted logically, and brilliantly illuminated by specialists in the field.
My two cents on meritocracy; a bit more humility from those thought to be with merit may assuage some of the hostility felt by those who aren't so lucky. Humbleness is not something exhibited in large quanities by today's so-called elite.