London 2012 olympic legacy?

As we approach the one year anniversary of the London 2012 Olympics (sorry, Londinium MMXII), the debate starts to rage about the legacy of the Olympics. UK government claims that the Olympics boosted the British economy by nearly £10 billions. Proponents and participants of all parts are quick to claim that the Olympics created a lot of business opportunities, and created jobs for firms that would have otherwise gone under.

But for any person willing to address the question rigorously and without passion, nothing is so sure. Anyone who listend to last edition of BBC Business Daily will have noticed the economist there was the only one being cautious and explaining again and again the concept of opportunity cost: the billions in cost could have been spent in a very different way that may have yielded better results.

As Stephanie Flanders’ excellent and unusually opiniated editorial points out, two critical arguments keep coming back and still haven’t, to my knowledge, been addressed properly:

  • Figures are inflated by biased assumptions about extra expenditures.
  • It is hard to know the counterfactual.
  • The concept of opportunity cost does not seem to be understood by the parties involved.

To which I’ll add:

  • The revenues generated have all been concentrated in London and in certain sectors.
  • There was no citizen debate about London’s application.

Disputed figures

Although it is rather easy to compute the costs, because they are clearly logged, it is much harder to computer the revenues and opportunities created by the London Olympics. To do one has to get ballpark figures by making some assumptions. And it seems that whenever assumptions were needed, the authors of the report have consistenly erred on the side of bigger figures.

For instance, one needs to assess how much more extra expenditures was created by overseas visitors depending on whether the Olympics is the reason they came to the UK. And depending on their answer, weigh their expenditure accordingly. But the report uses an odd weighing, I’ll let you judge:

Yes – definitely – 1.00
Yes – probably – 0.75
No – probably not – 0
No – definitely not – 0

One seriously has to wonder why every pound spend by the visitors counts as 75p extra expenditure if they answered “Yes probably” but 0p if they answered “No, probably not”.


Or the fact that expenditure by domestic visitors is counted in the benefits whereas, as report briefly mentions “some of the domestic visitor spending will be displaced  spending from elsewhere”. But nevermind, let’s just add it all.

The unsound methodology is also apparent in the report’s blurry definition of the assumptions used to compute baseline versus upper range figure. (Upper range basically assumes that most of the benefits will accrue in 2012-2020, as opposed to 2004-2012.) Strange is also the fact that one sector that apparently is doing well “Professional, scientific and technical”. I’m curious to know what is included in there. Because if scientific research is accounted as benefitting from the Olympics, there clearly is a flaw in the estimation procedure.

By now, it is fair to say that so many of these tiny points accumulate to give the distinctive impression that whenever assumptions were needed, the authors erred on the side of inflating the benefitsConsidering that the costs are said to be £8.7 billions (exceeding the initial budget of course), it is oddly convenient that the final benefits figures reaches £9.9 billions.

How much investment would have happened otherwise?

This is the hardest question: disregarding the errors in the numbers, how much of those numbers can be causally attributed to the Olympics? The main example is investments. Some investments were clearly linked to the Olympics: the Olympic Park, the Olympic village, the Media Centre etc.

Some other investments, such as improvement of transport infrastructures, are a bit harder to attribute clearly. Think about the renovation of some tube stations, or the improvement of the M4 motorway. Such investments did happen in the preparation phase of the Olympics, but some of those investments would probably have happened anyway, just at a later date.

The Olympics act as a catalyst so that a lot of investment happen at the same time, which might indeed improve coordination and reduce overall costs.  But to attribute all of those to the Olympics is fallacious.

The opportunity cost of the Olympics budget

If you listened to the last edition of BBC Business Daily, you’ll understand that none of the guests except one understands the concept of opportunity cost. That guest was Prof.  Andrew Zimbalist, who recently co-authored International Handbook on the Economics of Mega Sporting Events (Edward Elgar, 2012). He was luckily of fresh rational dispassionate and methodologically-sound thinking about the event. The other guests, all very enthusiastic about the Olympics kept hammering him with different arguments in favour of the vent: the jobs created, the companies saved or the fact that people practise sports more frequently now, or anecdotes about people feeling part of something.

Prof Zimbalist’s answer to all those arguments could hold in one paraphrased sentence: No one denies those benefits, but one has to wonder how the £10 billions could have been spent otherwise and probably achieve even greater effects.

The idea is that if you are looking for economic benefits, organizing such an event is definitely not the most efficient way to spend money. But one always forget about all the things that could have been done with such big spending. For instance, if one wants to encourage people to practise more sports, it might be much much cheaper to organize a campaign for that, or change curriculum at school. If one wants to renovate East London, there must surely be more efficient ways than building an Olympic park.

Somewhat defeated guests finally had to resort to the their last argument: the feel-good effect generated by the events. The professor’s reply? No proof of long-term effect. And it might be not be worth the money for the short-term feel-good.

It seems that most scholarly studies on the benefits of such events cast a huge doubt on the long-term benefits of mega-events such as the Olympics or the Football World Cups.

The London Olympics induced some hidden redistribution towards London, and certain sports related professions

If you asked people in the North of England whether they would like to give money to London, I am confident most of them would reply that the capital already enjoys a disporportionate amount of the national budget. Yet this is exactly what happened with the Olympics.

The one-year anniversary report makes very explicit that most of the benefits are concentrated in the London area, and in specific sectors (tourism obviously, but some stranger, like “Professional, scientific and technical”–maybe it includes sportsmen?).

But the burden of public spending was borne by tax payers across the whole country and across all sectors. This amounts to a giant redistribution scheme, where farmers from the North effectively paid money for the building of an Olympic park and the renovation of tube lines in London. While there are very good reasons to have redistribution in a country, it should be made explicit so that citizens know what they are in for.

Political consultation?

Bottom-line: it is times that people stop waiving economic benefits as an argument in favour of such events. Instead, one should ask their citizens if they are willing to spend that extra money just for the event itself and if they are willing to bear some of the redistribution burden.

As studies start to accumulate that de-emphasize the benefits of such big events, it is time governments stop assuming that they should apply to host such events, and ask their citizens if all this is worth it after all.

Read More

Running an academic journal might be cheaper than you think

Private academic publishers often argue that they need to levy subscription fees (and sometimes submission fees) to fund the running of the journal. But as this blog post details, running an open access journal might be a lot cheaper than what private publishers would have you think. Even when it is such a successful journal (in its field) as the Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR), which does not charge any submission or publication fees:

Of course, there are costs, but they are all provided through in-kind support. By far the largest costs are the labor required for peer reviewing and its management by the editorial board, but this is all volunteer effort as in most all scholarly journals. […]

The webmaster is a student volunteer. Anderson is right that MIT provides the web server, saving JMLR the tens of dollars per monththey would otherwise have to pay for commercial hosting. […]

JMLR relies on reviewers for the kind of light copy-editing they always have done in the normal course of reviewing. […]

As for the typesetting of articles, computer science authors typically use the open-source LaTeX typesetting system for writing their articles, a system designed for beautiful typesetting of mathematical material and far better for mathematical typesetting than the typical systems publishers are accustomed to.

The biggest expense, it turns out paradoxically, is paying a tax accountant. […]

I thoroughly recommend reading the whole thing in detail. It certainly shows that one cannot claim financial reasons, nor technical ones, to delay the move towards open access data. The only constraint seems to be the importance of reputation for journals. After all, it did take a reknown MIT Professor to create the JMLR.

Read More

Churnalism or journalism?

I have recently discovered the Churnalism initiative, that lets you discover “if the news story you’re reading is a product of real journalism or just a spin off of another story posted elsewhere?”. Click here for the British version and here for the US one.

Their website let you paste a URL or an article, and they determine whether the story you are reading is actually rehashed from somewhere else! The extent of material recycling will hopefully been made more apparent!

There are also a Chrome extension and a Firefox add-on.

I once dated a human journalist who, first thing in the morning, would check news agency feeds and other media outlets, to know what stories were interesting, and use that as the basis to write for her own outlet. Endless recycling of stories…

Roadsign indicating
Directions to the newspaper editor’s office.

Read More

Why are US presidential elections so popular in the rest of the world?

I finally let an unearthly sigh of relief as the results of the US presidential elections were announced, plastered, shouted, tweeted, facebooked, broadcast, podcast, all over the world. And the reason I sighed is not because of the winner (although Obama did appear more in touch with reality, facts, stats, etc.). The reason was that elections were finally over.

In my short time on planet Earth, I have witnessed a marked trend to more and more talk about the US elections. To the point that I do think some people know more about US politics than that of their own country. Why is that so?

US elections make full use of professional and social media

All news agency send people there, so it’s easy to hear about it. Candidates have Tweeter accounts, Facebook pages, etc. They even have Google+ pages for heavens’ sake. And now that everyone has smartphones and mics, every step they take, every hand they shake, every word they say, all is available to the entire planet. There is no such thing as off-the-air  anymore (Mitt Romney certainly learnt this the hard way).

This omnipresence of communication is fuelled by the arms race the candidates are waging in a country where money buys you time on TV. Candidates spent more than 850 million USD on political ads in this campaign, not far from small country yearly GDP. To that number, you should add all the money that was spent on PR consultants, social media campaigners, etc.

In this context,  an ill-chosen word, an awkward photo-op, a hidden camera… something new happens every day and the whole world know about it. Some just watch the campaign like a soap-opera.

It is like a movie

Like any crowd-pleaser from Hollywood, the campaign sets up a hero fighting a villain. And to most of the world, the villain was Mitt Romney. His religious background, pro-business attitude, fake tan (take THAT, Obama), excessive personal wealth and disregard for the poor did not fare too well out there. So the rest of the world watched as the villain gathers his troops and prepares to take over the world. As the polls got narrower and narrower, it looked like that familiar cinema trope when it seems the villain has won the battle. The world gasped for air, clinging to their armchairs as polls started to get all over the place (and the electoral rules made them too complicated to follow). Could Romney really win? Surely the good guy must win in the end, right? Yes he did, phew. But with 50.4 percent for Obama versus 48.1 percent for Romney, let’s say it was a close call and Obama may not have made it, were it not for his sidekick (the electoral system and absurd electoral importance of “swing states”). Like in any good movie.

Much more interesting than deliberations at the European Parliament on what size of screws Europe should use.

It’s the most important country in the world

As the Now Show funnily pointed out last Friday,

This week saw the leadership battle in the most powerful country in the world. But we don’t know much about the Chinese elections, so let’s concentrate on America’s instead.

I have heard the argument many times: the US is the most powerful country in the world, so it is only fair that we are interested in the results. The implied reasoning is that the identity of the winner can affect US foreign policy, so we should care even if we do not leave in the US.

Well I do not much about foreign policy, geopolitics and diplomacy. But let’s be honest. If you live in Continental Europe, US foreign policy has almost zero implications for you. Same if you leave in Africa or pretty much anywhere in South America. If you live in Russia or China, your government is almost always going to oppose US influence in the Middle-East, and South-East Asia, regardless of who is President.

If you’re Israeli, you get support even under Democrats. If you’re Turkish or citizen from a relatively safe country in the Middle-East, relax, the US need you for peace in the region. If you’re a citizen from an oil-producing country, you’re safe. You may prefer a Republican head of state because they are less likely to invest in alternative sources of energy, but frankly given the inertia and the dependence of US population on road transportation, you can relax.

Obama greeted in Saudi Arabia
The biggest prank Sacha Baron Cohen ever pulled.

And if you’re Mexican and you happen to live next to the border, than yeah, all my sympathies to you because frankly your future looks grim regardless of who’s in charge.

Now it may suck if you’re Canadian, British or Australian. Because Republicans tend to be a more hawkish in foreign relations (to please their military-grade weapons buying voters). And if they stir up trouble, you’re expected to cheerfully join them into getting your soldiers killed. In the name of freedom and badly-designed military interventions, that’s why.

In a nutshell, the identity of the US President probably matters very little to you. Also do not forget that the US are often (unduly) for the invention of checks and balances in political institutions. Which means that:

  • even someone like George W Bush could not entirely go berserk on Iran;
  • someone educated like B. Obama still has to manage the swarms of culturally-oblivious morons who populate the Department of State and the Department of Defense.
In a nutshell the US president does not matter nearly as much as what you think. If anything we should probably follow Russia’s politics a bit more.


Russian policemen push off journalists during an unauthorized demonstration against politics of Kremlin in central Moscow on July 31, 2009.
It sure is more rowdy than Paul Ryan’s soup kitchen visit.

Read More

Should US presidential candidates support American football teams?

The answer could well be yes if one follows this article by researchers Andrew J. Healy, Neil Malhotra, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, aptly entitled “Irrelevant events affect voters’ evaluations of government performance“.

 To precisely test for the effects of irrelevant information, we explore the electoral impact of local college football games just before an election, irrelevant events that government has nothing to do with and for which no government response would be expected. We find that a win in the 10 days before Election Day causes the incumbent to receive an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential elections, with the effect being larger for teams with stronger fan support.

As Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier point out in their Slate article, maybe the US presidential candidates should support teams in those States where the race is close and that could determine the overall winner of the presidential election.

The key to victory could come down to . . . Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. On Oct. 27th, a little more than a week before the election, the Ohio State Buckeyes have a big football game against Penn State. The University of Florida Gators have a huge match up against the University of Georgia Bulldogs. If the election remains razor close, these games in these two key battleground states could affect who sits in the White House for the next four years. Can you imagine Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer getting a late night call from the Obama campaign suggesting a particular blitz package? Or maybe Romney has some advice for how the Gators can bottle up Georgia’s running game. The decision of whether to punt or go for it on that crucial fourth down could affect the job prospects of more than just the football team’s coaching staff.

This is not saying that voters do not pay attention to the actual candidates’ platforms, but also that they are also influenced by other irrelevant elements. A bit like the type of music played in a supermarket influences how long you stay, how much you buy, etc.

In his meta-meta-article on this, Andrew Gelman confirms that this indeed a marginal effect, and claims that the final victory may depend on this might be exaggerated:

In summary, it is indeed disturbing that people are more likely to vote for the incumbent party if their local team wins—sure, 2% isn’t much, but it’s a nontrivial proportion of the undecided voters. But the claim, “It is statistically possible that the outcome of a handful of college football games in the right battleground states could determine the race for the White House,” while literally true (if the election happens to be extremely close) is overstated.

Which might rather fortunate. The US presidential elections, with all its moronisms, is already taking over many public domains, and is already spilling its non-sense in the media all over the world. So it is lucky that political lobbying is not going down the slippery slope of influencing sport events. Otherwise, who knows what would be next? Films?

Poster for Atlas Shrugged part 2 movie
Oh wait.

Read More

Of rape-pregnancy rates and doubt in science

US Senator Todd Akin declared on TV that:

If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

What he meant was that when a woman gets raped, her body triggers a biological reaction that would decrease the likelihood of her getting pregnant. (He was discussing whether pregnant rape victims should be granted the right to abortion.)

Todd Akin got a proper storm of outrage and almost had to step down in the electoral race for Senate.

Yes, it was mostly outrage. It is my impression that it was uncontrolled reaction. People got angered, because rape can be an extremely traumatising crime and somehow, Akin’s comment seemed to make it sound unconsequential. A lot of comments revolved around Akin’s basic ignorance of female physiology.

But a lot of these comments came from people who have no medical training, nor did they know that he was really wrong. Twitter is a beautiful outrage machine.

To be fair, Akin did preface his comment by saying that this was his understanding (read: that he didn’t know much on the issue). And to be fair, most people don’t know.

When I suggested to friends that he might be right, I got laughed at and my question was cheekily dismissed. I should mention at that point that I am not a doctor (nor are my friends). “Are you serious? How would that even work?” they asked immediately. “I don’t know, isn’t true that stress can affect hormonal reactions?”

Fairly I had to concede that I clearly had no idea. But in retrospect neither did they really. One of them finally pointed out from hearsay that pregnancy rates are not lower among rape victims than in consensual sex. I investigated, and found this study showing that pregnancy rates even tend to be a bit higher than usual among rape victims.

So they were right.

But I still feel that my question should not have been dismissed. It was a legitimate (pun intended) question, that should be answered very seriously, not be dismissed with outrage.

As a big admirer of Popper, I felt that for once, he was on my side. He advocated that we should always be critical of our most-cherished beliefs (this is the way science progresses). Although I would have found the thought of it disgusting, I did think that the medical situation was not so clear, and that Akin’s comment was dismissed too seriously by people who felt that it just couldn’t be true.

Well it could have been true. Maybe I was an idiot for not knowing about pregnancy rates. But then probably most of us were.

Cover of "Unscientific America", by Chris Moony and Sheril Kirshenbaum
I should probably read this.

I think it is appropriate to support my case by another quote, by Carl Sagan, whom I should REALLY read one day. A quote that Karl Popper could have written himself:

When Kepler found his long-cherished belief did not agree with the most precise observation, he accepted the uncomfortable fact. He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions, that is the heart of science.

Read More