Monday, December 10, 2012

Food Safety Tip

Last week, I took a class on food law, which also involved subject matter experts on food safety and recalls. Here is one guy's list of the only three things he will never consume:

1) Raw Oysters
This is not news. Everyone knows that eating these things is Russian Roulette.

2) Sprouts
Commercial packaged sprouts have a very long history of being contaminated with pathogens. The growing conditions for sprouts are the ideal growing conditions for all kinds of nasty bacteria. There is no point in buying them; other veggies are better, cheaper, and safer. Sprouting your own seeds can be a good source of cheap vegetables, but only if your kitchen is clean and you know what you are doing, and even then you should cook them well and not eat them raw.

3) Carrot Juice
This was the surprise. Carrot juice is often contaminated with botulism, and higher levels of botulism have been found in this stuff than anything else he has ever tested. Botulism lives in the soil, juice is not sterilized nearly as well as canned foods, and carrot juice containers are a very good botulism incubator. So if you like carrot juice, you should be making your own instead of buying it.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Personality Testing

Last night, a friend asked me about the Myers Briggs personality test. This morning, I just got an email from my workplace's Staff College inviting me to attend a session on Myers Briggs personality testing.

The Myers-Briggs Type Inventory is obsolete. It was derived from one person's theory, not data. It had some use in the past, and it for a long time it was the best thing we had, but we have better methods of measuring personality now. Using this system today is like using a Model T car or an Apple II computer.

The proper way to measure personality is to use the Big Five personality traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN). These traits were found by analyzing lots of data with advanced statistical techniques. They are reliable, robust, and valid, and have been shown to correspond with a wide variety of important life outcomes. All social scientists who do real work with human personality traits have known this for over a decade.

There is not much else to say about that, but this is a good opportunity to point out a potential problem with how people think about personalities. The human mind instinctively wants to put things in groups or categories. This is a relic of our paleolithic past where it was very important for a brain to instantly and accurately put something in the category of 'snake' or 'vine'.

But the categorization instinct often leads to mistakes in the modern world, and it definitely leads to mistakes when applied to personality traits. All personality traits that can be measured fall on a continuous scale, and most of them have the 'bell curve' pattern where most people are in the middle of the scale and it is rare for people to be extreme.

This means that it is a mistake to try to classify everyone as an introvert or extrovert in the same way that it is a mistake to classify everyone as smart or dumb. Most people have an average level of intelligence and extraversion and other traits. Differences between people are differences of degree, not kind.

If you must impose categories, then you should not use the two categories of intovert and extrovert. You should use the three categories of introvert, normal, and extrovert, where people only get classified as introvert and extrovert if they are far enough from the average.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


The memories of most humans are constantly changing. The proper metaphor for memory is not a printed book. It is more like a website that is constantly being added to and edited, often with old irrelevant bits being deleted.
People do not actually remember every detail of their lives. They know an overall narrative, the setting, and the characters. When reminded of a specific event, they reconstruct the memory from those bits like a theater company creating a scene from a play.
Updating memories based on the facts you observe in the world is a proper and healthy thing to do, because human memory is much less reliable than observation of the facts of the world. If your memory disagrees with the facts, then the thing at fault is probably your memory. But this process can be used too often, and manipulated. People construct their memories to fit the narratives of their life. Often, memories are constructed or edited to fit in with social norms. 
For example, if you ask people in a survey about their level of education, reported education levels are much higher than the actual education rates of the time period. This is not due to the lesser educated people dying off, and we do not think that people are deliberately lying. People seem to make honest mistakes, updating memories about the facts of their lives to match current conditions. Consider someone had a couple years of college in the 50's, and then got a good job. Nowadays, people know that it is impossible to get such a job without a full four-year degree. The person being interviewed knows that he went to college, knows that he got a job that requires a college degree, concludes that he must have received a college degree, and therefore remembers that he has one.
Similarly, very few people will report voting for a politician that turned out to be bad. They know that they would not vote for him today, and so they conclude that they must not have voted for him in the past.
I have one memory that I know to be a false reconstruction. There is an important scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo offers the One Ring to Galadriel, and she responds by describing what she would be become if she took the ring. In the book, she says she would become "as beautiful and terrible as the morning and the night". In the movie, this was changed to "beautiful and terrible as the dawn."
I remember watching the movie and seeing Galadriel say "the morning and the night". I remember her face and the intonation of her voice as she said it. But she never said it. My brain reconstructed the dialogue based on the text of the book, filling in the face and voice. Watching the movie again did not erase this memory. It simply created a new memory of her saying 'the dawn'. I have both memories, as if I watched two different cuts of the movie.
In general, however, my mind does not do this nearly as much as most people. My brain usually does not reconstruct memories. This means that the memories I have tend to be more accurate than the memories of most people, but I have a lot fewer of them.
I have very few memories of my childhood, even relatively recent events. Almost all of elementary school and middle school is simply gone. It was a big surprise to me when I realized that most normal people remember the names of most of their elementary school teachers. The only reason I know any of their names is that I remember my parents talking about them, years later.
'Blur' would be the wrong word; the memories are simply gone or were never formed. I remember just a few events from each year, at most. Even vast sections of my recent life are lost to me. I kept random notes of various things when I worked at a lab supply company before going to grad school. As I was looking through some of these recently, I read several descriptions of events that I have no memory of now. They were important events at the time, involving miscommunication, mistakes, office politics, and other high drama, but they are completely gone from my memory. It is like reading an account of someone else's life. I think that most people's minds would reconstruct a memory based on the description and memories of the people involved, but mine does not.
I am far more likely than most people to respond to a question about my life with "I don't know." or "I don't remember." This often surprises my friends and family. It seems especially surprising when asked about my desires or preferences. My friend recently asked me if I liked a brand of cider more than a different brand I had drunk last week. I could not answer the question, because I did not have a sufficiently detailed memory of the last week's cider. They were both simply 'good' and any comparison was impossible because my memory did not have the detail needed to support one. I think that most people would have reconstructed a memory in order to make the comparison, but my brain does not work like that.
My brain simply does not see fit to record most of the things that happen to me, and does not reconstruct memories about them when prompted. Instead, it remembers scientific and historical facts and constructs theories and connections about those facts when prompted. I would not want to have the memory system of a normal person. But I suspect that most normal people would not want to have my memory system.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


My office is next to a metro stop, so when I visit my friends in Virginia I leave my car in our parking lot, take the metro there and back, and then walk from the metro to my car. This means walking past my office building and through a landscaped area with a pond and wetland area next to a creek.
It was about midnight last night when I got off the metro. As I was walking to my car in the dark, I saw something that looked very much like a rat the size of a mastiff. My limbic system dumped an impressive amount of adrenaline into my body before my prefrontal cortex realized that it was a beaver.
The beaver shuffled quickly away from me and into the lake. I am fairly certain that it lives there. It may be my imagination, but it seems that the water level of the lake is higher than it was a few months ago. There is a culvert separating the lake from the creek, and as I came to work this morning I noticed that the water level on one side of the culvert was significantly higher than on the other side. Beavers love to make dams by stuffing things in culverts. It is probably living in a burrow dug in the bank of the lake.
I do not think I want to tell anyone here that there is a beaver living between us and our parking lot. They might freak out and try to have it removed.
People around here get really wierd about animals. Our office sometimes has mice coming in when it gets cold.  A few weeks ago, one ran past the office of one of the other economists. She has run marathons, and she always seemed to be a strong, capable, no-nonsense feminist. But when she saw the mouse, she yelled for me, and when I came out of my office she had a frightened look on her face and her hands in front of her chest in a stereotypical scared-weak-woman pose right from a 50's sitcom.
And then there was the time when I saw a mouse run into the office of one of the lawyers. She left and refused to go back in for the rest of the day. I had to get her lunch out of her office for her.
Not long after I moved into my apartment, I saw a mouse run into my living room closet. I still had my moving boxes then, so I used them to make a wall around the closet. I then removed things from the closet until the mouse came scurrying out. But it could not leave the wall I had made, I was inside the wall with the mouse, and it had no cover. As it ran around trying to find an exit, I calmly killed it with a few smacks from a rubber mallet.
This is a typical country-boy way of solving animal problems. But I do not think it would be wise to tell that story to people here, or about the time when I killed a mouse with a tonfa when I was in my grad student apartment. They might think of me as some kind of monster, despite the fact that those deaths were swift and humane, much more so than the glue traps scattered around our office right now.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What I Believe

1) Knowledge means falsifiability. The purpose of scientific knowledge is to make testable predictions about observable phenomena. Any belief that does not do this is not scientific and has no place in a fact based discussion.
For example, the belief that Buddhism is the most beautiful religion is in exactly the same category as the belief that Sean Connery is the best James Bond.

2) Humans are fundamentally flawed. Not only are we evil, we are also stupid. The human brain is subject to a wide variety of cognitive flaws. Because of this, almost all of the output the human brain produces has no value in determining the truth about reality. The scientific method is the only known, reliable way of finding knowledge.

3) Because of human flaws, life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short. Even if we lived in a paradise and all of the natural problems of disease and parasites and predators and malnutrition were somehow waved away, we would turn it into Hell by inflicting violence on each other. Observe the historical behavior of all human beings before civilization.

4) The reason we do not currently live in a state of nature is our institutions: rule of law, individual freedom, democracy, the scientific method, private property, free markets. It is theoretically possible that better institutions exist, but we have never observed any desirable and well functioning society that lacks these institutions.

Note: When I use words like better and worse, good and bad, or make any other normative statements, I am referring to the revealed preferences of large numbers of human beings. A better society is one that people choose to move to.

5) Good institutions do not occur easily. They were developed by trial and error over millenia.  Revolutionary change has the potential to threaten these institutions. Theories and philosophies have been shown to be incredibly bad at designing institutions. However, some of our most important institutions were developed as a result of revolutionary experimentation. We can and should improve our institutions with gradual change and local experimentation.

6) Instinctive human morality is a set of behavior patterns that evolved to coordinate the activities of tribes of foragers in a Paleolithic environment. It is not sufficient to create institutions that function well in a modern world, and in some cases it works against good institutions. For example, the inherent repugnance toward dissecting human bodies caused medical progress to be slower and resulted in millions of lives being lost and a great deal of unnecessary suffering.

7) Social facts, and especially economic facts, are rarely the result of human intention or desire. They are the result of complicated impersonal forces that are best understood through rigorous study and the scientific method. Attempting to alter social or economic conditions without the knowledge that came through such careful study is likely to be counterproductive and possibly  disastrous.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween Block Party

My boss threw a Halloween party yesterday. I thought it would be mainly people from the office but it turned out that it was a block party for his neighborhood. He got a permit to block off a street and rented an inflatable bouncy castle for the neighborhood kids. It was a big event.

Part of the party was a 'chili cook-off'. I brought a crock pot full of vegetarian chili, knowing it would not win, but I wanted to give people some good solid hot vegan food. Almost all of it was eaten and several people thanked me for bringing it. The instructions on the chili judging sheet were written up so that only red chili with meat would win. I thought the best one was a white chili with chicken.

My costume was the Benedictine monk's robe and belt book that my friend made for me, along with a very nice curved walking stick I found on a hike. Lots of people complimented me on it. It is a nice robe, with the perfect black fabric.

After a little child with her mom asked me what I was, she then asked me what a monk was. I said, "During the middle ages, the time of knights and castles, the monks were the only people who knew how to read and write. They kept knowledge alive." Of course this is not a proper, complete, or and accurate explanation for anyone over the age of six, but at least it explained the basics of a vocabulary word. The mother seemed to like my explanation. I seem to have a talent for explaining things like that to children.

I killed 21 yellowjackets with my hands. When they have landed in a cup or on a plate and are eating or drinking, it is easy to crush them with a finger or thumb, and I am not going to get stung if I do it right. Of course, I probably never would have tried, or succeeded, at that stunt without martial arts training.

Nobody else called them yellowjackets. Some people called them 'wasps' which is acceptable and some called them 'bees' which is not.

Halloween costumes have changed from when I was a child. When I was young, lots of people still dressed up as ghosts or skeletons or monsters or other spooky things. Aside from the three adults dressed as mad scientists, I probably had the spookiest costume there. (Witches do not count as spooky anymore after Harry Potter.)  Every single child was dressed up as something heroic or pretty. The only remotely monster-ish one was the two-year-old girl her parents had dressed as a bee. Almost every boy, and several girls, was was a superhero. There were a couple Disney princesses, three cat girls, and a few other animals, but most of the girls were in costumes like musketeer or pirate or hero. There was a supergirl, two wonder women, and a spider-girl, and that was without any movies in recent times. If comic book companies have any sense they will start focusing more on female superheroes, for the merchandising opportunities if nothing else. 

The boy dressed as Thor had a foam Thor's hammer, but he soon discovered that a croquet mallet was a far superior weapon and started carrying that around.

Most of the adults were dressed as a kind of pop culture reference, most from shows that I had never even heard of. The winner of the adult costume contest was dressed as Romney's binder of women.

Friday, October 26, 2012

90-year-old Future Predictions

I always think it is fun to read predictions of the future made in the past. This is a good one:
It is full of good or interesting quotes:
"at any case within the next century sugar and starch will be about as cheap as sawdust"
"The biological invention then tends to begin as a perversion and end as a ritual supported by unquestioned beliefs and prejudices."
"for we are at present almost completely ignorant of biology, a fact which often escapes the notice of biologists"
"The conservative has but little to fear from the man whose reason is the servant of his passions, but let him beware of him in whom reason has become the greatest and most terrible of the passions."

Monday, October 22, 2012

Eat your Veggies

"Happiness and mental health rise in an approximately dose-response way with the number of daily portions of fruit and vegetables. The pattern is remarkably robust to adjustment for a large number of other demographic, social and economic variables. Well-being peaks at approximately 7 portions per day."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Fixing the Economy

Late last Sunday night, my cousin asked me what should be done to fix the economy. I was too tired to answer the question then, and never got around to it the next day. So:
The best way to fix the economy would be to substantially increase high-skilled immigration.
There are no downsides to this policy. It is the closest thing you will ever find in Economics to free money for everyone. There are millions of people who want to come to our country to start companies, invent things, buy houses, raise families, and do scientific research.
The benefits would be both immediate and enduring. People moving in will start buying things, which will boost the economy and provide employment in the short run. It is a powerful fiscal stimulus that costs the government nothing. Then over the years, the things they create, improve, or invent will provide more economic growth, more jobs, and better products for everyone.
There is no economic debate about this. Every economist, no matter what their training, beliefs, and ideology, agrees. There is some evidence that low-skilled immigration lowers wages for low-skilled Americans, and therefore some opposition to that, but nobody opposes high-skilled immigration. Even low-skilled immigration is good for the economy overall.
Perversely enough, the fact that there is no argument means that the issue does not get the attention it deserves. It also makes it hard for me to write an interesting post about the issue. I cannot think of any serious arguments against high-skilled immigration, so there is really nothing to explain.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Perverse Technological Change

When I started using the Internet, everything was basically text on a simple background, with maybe a couple pictures. Then entire web looked and felt like a Wikipedia page. I liked this arrangement. With a little care, you could go to a site and get the content you wanted with little or no hassle or distraction.
Over time, random worthless junk started to clutter up web pages. I don't mind the classic banner ads, but after a while I got annoyed enough to install ad-blocking add-ins on Firefox, and later Chrome. For the five years when I was in grad school, I almost always went online using my computer, which used these ad-blocking extensions with customizations to for the sites I visited. The result of this was that web pages were fairly clean and loaded quickly.
I have recently learned that things were getting a lot worse in those five years. While my web browsing was shielded, things were sliding downhill. Now that I have to look up things on a work computer using Internet Explorer with no ad blocking, the much of Internet is now a slow, clunky place filled with junk and clutter.
Most independent blogs are still good, retaining the look and feel of a newspaper or magazine or scholarly article. But websites run by news organizations or other commercial ventures have become horrible. I am assaulted by popups and embedded video ads and attempts to use provocative pictures to send me to other junky sites.
It truly is an atrocity to embed a video advertisement in a page of text. Something that should take a few kilobytes of bandwidth and load in milliseconds now gobbles up megabytes of bandwidth and takes several seconds to load. The Internet browsing experience is, on average, worse than it was ten years ago.
I honestly think that the web might be better if high-speed Internet had never been invented and everyone was forced to remain mostly text-based as a result of sending data over slow modems. We would still have all the good blogs and news articles and access to scholarly papers and connection to everyone, without the distractions. Multimedia advertising would be impossible, so we might have developed a culture and infrastructure of micropayments for content, like a penny per news article.
The main thing you have to understand about the media industry is that if you are not paying for something, then you are the product and not the customer. We will never get a content system that is useful and efficient unless we are willing to pay for it and there are structures to support that willingness.
The problem is that I cannot decide to pay to get rid of ads. I could buy subscriptions to plenty of things on a device like a Kindle, but if a blog post links to a news article that I read I will inevitably be subjected to the advertising barrage that results from the website's desperate attempt to make enough money to stay in business by selling my eyeballs to some huckster. There is no useful system for me to pay them a few cents automatically and add it to a monthly bill.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I saw several articles recently that illustrate thoughts that I have had for some time now:
First, it seems that Mexico is having problems with eco-terrorists attacking its nanotechnology research institutes. This is not the Mexico of my parents' generation. This is a rich-country problem.
Seond, Brazilian researchers have stated that their goal is to have the opening kick of the 2014 World Cup be made by a paralyzed teenager in a thought-controlled exoskeleton. This is not the Brazil of my parents' generation. This is a rich-country of big hairy audacious goal.
Third, there is a vibrant system of online learning in Asia, with the result that people in Africa are getting online degrees from Asian Universities. This is not the Africa and Asia of my parents' generation. This is the kind of thing that will propel these countries to wealth and prosperity
If you pay attention to the long-term trends of international affairs and scientific research, you can see many more things like this. The rest of the world is an interesting, dynamic, flourishing place. So many things are happening. The last two decades have, worldwide, generated more wealth and human well-being than any time in history. Over a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, and a billion more have moved from moderate poverty to something resembling a middle-class lifestyle.
My conclusion is this: If things go well, The world will never again need the United States.
For most of our history, the world needed us. From the 1790's to the 1990's, the world would have been much worse off if the United States fell apart. When our nation was founded, we were the only free republic in a world of kings and despots. Then, we were the only place that millions of immigrants could go to to secure a better life. Then, our military and political power were vital to protect the world from fascism and communism. And for almost all of this time, we were one of the primary engines of economic, technological, and social progress.
For two hundred years, we were the beacon of liberty, the shining city on the hill, the promised land, Zion. For the past several generations, it has been embedded in our national consciousness that we were the center of the world. Where we went, the world followed. If we were to collapse into ruin or a dystopia, then we assumed that the rest of the world would inevitably share the same fate.
But now, things have changed. The rest of the world is full of countries who are getting richer, freer, and more successful each year. They are finding their own way to prosperity, learning from and trading with each other rather than being dependent on a superpower.
If something horrible happened to the United States, then the fate of mankind would not be affected very much. There would certainy be some nasty economic consequences, possibly some geopolitical problems, and probably a masty speed bump for technological progress. But in the long term, nothing would really change. The rest of the world would grow, and develop, and adjust, and adapt, making itself better and richer.
If the collapse was slow and gradual, taking place over decades, then the rest of the world would not care at all. Most of our scientific minds would move to other countries and continue their work in their universities. Businesses would relocate, taking the skilled and important workers with them.
I hope that the world never again returns to a condition where the United States is important. I look forward to a future where we are but one nation among equals, where the engines of human progress are spread across the globe, and all people have the chance to live in rich free countries.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Value of Money

What goes through your head when you see the words, "a hundred dead bodies on the floor"?
Perhaps you imagine three classrooms full of children killed by a psychotic murderer. Maybe it is an entire church full of people killed by a tornado. Maybe it is the aftermath of a battle, or a plague.
In any case, you will imagine a mind-bending scene of horror and devastation. You will see lives ruined, a vast tragedy of erased human potential, an uncountable loss of joy and happiness and beauty.
Now, what goes through your head when you see the words "a billion dollars spent"?
Probably there is very little reaction. You might imagine piles of money. If it is governemtn money you might gripe about taxes, but probably your brain connects this phrase to nothing with any emotional resonance.
I see these two things as identical. Anyone who truly understands math, and public finance, and the Value of a Statistical Life, will also see them as identical. In this post, I hope to explain why you should also think of money in this way.
Economists are sometimes accused of putting a price tag of human life. This is not true. We do not assign the price, we simply measure the price that other people assign. People trade off money and risks to life all the time. Risky jobs pay more. Cars with more safety features are more expensive. Houses in neighborhoods with less crime cost more.
It does not matter if people actually know or understand the risks. We do not have to assume that they are calculating things rationally and carefully. The important fact is that when people have more money, they die less often. They take safer jobs, buy safer cars, eat healthier food, and so on.*
For example, suppose there is a car safety feature that costs $1000 and reduces the odds of dying by one in ten thousand. Then think of how much money it would take to save someone's life. If you gave a thousand dollars each to ten thousand people, and they all used that money to buy a safer car, then one fewer person would die. You would have spent ten million dollars to save a life.
The amount of money it takes to save a life in this manner is called the Value of a Statistical Life. Economists study occupational wages, decisions about medical care, and so on, to find this value. The Value of a Statistical Life in developed countries is somewhere between six and ten million dollars. I'll use ten million, because more recent studies tend to show higher numbers and it makes the math easier.
Everything I have said so far is basic textbook economics. Now I need to highlight the consequences of these facts. Imagine that the government collects a $1000 tax from each of ten thousand people, and they react by purchasing a car without the safety feature. One more person will die. Collecting that tax has resulted in a dead body on the floor, or in this case the pavement.
Given that the value of a statistical life is ten million dollars, every ten million dollars the government collects in taxes will, statistically, kill someone. You cannot escape this fact by taxing rich people. If the rich have less money, then they spend less, which means less money for all of the people they hired or bought things from.
This is not evidence on favor of anarchism. All of the governments of modern democracies save far more lives by existing and operating than they kill by collecting taxes. But it is a useful and powerful way to think about the money the government spends.
When you see that a government program cost a billion dollars, remember that the taxes it took to fund that program resulted in a hundred dead bodies on the floor.
For example, the Mars Science Laboratory cost $2.5 billion. That is two hundred and fifty human beings sacrificed for science. This fact by itself does not mean that the program was a bad idea. I do not automatically dismiss the argument that bringing pride and joy to millions of people, while adding to our civilization's knowledge of the universe, is worth two hundred and fifty bodies on the floor. But we should be aware of the cost, and we should be having that discussion.
It is wrong and dangerous to think "it is just money" and argue that some other moral consideration justifies spending massive amounts of money. Money means life. Spending money means spending lives. If you argue that money should be spent for something, you should be prepared to argue that lives should be sacrificed for that thing. 
*Sometimes people choose to spend their money in ways that add value to their life rather than simply avoiding risks. But for an otherwise identical quality of life, more money means less risk.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Good Food on a Tight Budget

An NGO has produced an excellent guide to basic, cheap, healthy cooking: Good Food on a Tight Budget. Their press release announcing it and giving some other info is here.
I have reviewed it, and aside from a few little details, it is very good. It starts with a guide to foods that are cheap and healthy, and then gives recipes. If I were to write a guide to how I shop and cook, it would look very much like this. My diet basically consists of about half of the foods they recommend, and about half of their recipes they show. I plan on experimenting with the other half.
There are so many good points. They tell you how to make salad dressing. They recommend yogurt and tell you how to make good things with it. They recommend eggs. They give the basics of making oatmeal.
Most of the people in my family will know much of this, but I would still recommend that you read it as a refresher, and to pick up a few tips. You should definitely bookmark it as a reference, and have it handy to send to friends. Following this guide will tell you how to feed a family well on a budget that is smaller than SNAP benefits.
If you are not a healthy eater, you can use this guide to make a few easy changes to your diet that will have big rewards. I'd recommend starting with replacing your snacks and desserts with their yogurt parfait recipe. Then follow their advice for healthier breakfast foods. Just make one easy change every couple weeks or so, and within a year you will be feeling a lot better and your health will improve.
Information like this is the best way to improve the health and quality of life of people in this country. If everyone had this knowledge and acted on it, then people would never go hungry, and most of the health problems in the country would go away.
Now, for the nitpicking:
The biggest problem is that they push organic foods. There is no good evidence that organic foods are any healthier, or that the levels of pesticides in normal foods cause significant harm. If you are poor, you do not need to be spending money on organic foods. The health gains from lowering pesticide exposure are tiny, if they even exist, and there are many, many things that are a better use of your money.
They say, "Buy brown rice in bulk and mix with white rice if needed to lower cost." This is bad advice. Brown rice needs to be cooked about twice as long as white rice. If you mix different types of rice, you will get a nasty hash of overcooked white rice and undercooked brown rice.
Typo alert: they have 'mungo beans' when they should say 'mung beans'.
They really should have produced a printer friendly version without all the background graphics. This is something that I would like to print several copies of to give to people. This is something that you might want to print dozens of copies to to give to people in your church.
I am guessing that some of the foods they recommend would cease to be cheap if more people started buying them. There is only so much starfruit and squid to go around.
They assume you know basic cooking tasks like how to peel and chop vegetables. This can be hard to figure out on your own, and it is very easy to get disappointing results and get discouraged. Even experienced cooks like me and my family sometimes have trouble dealing with the exotic Asian or Hispanic things we buy as experiments. You need to learn food preparation by seeing someone doing it. There is a learning curve to cooking, and this guide will not get you past it if you are a complete novice. They should have recommended a cooking show for people to watch for tips. I have no idea which show is best, but I know there must be some good ones out there.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Politics of Food

Here is a good article about the politics of food.
But far fewer people pay attention to reverse food snobbery—to folks who are proud of eating junk, and lots of it, in part out of the conviction that doing so offends Whole Foods shoppers, who, on this view, "think they're better than us." When Michelle Obama announced her program to encourage American children—one in three of whom is overweight or obese—to eat healthier meals, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin attacked the First Lady as a busybody and a fatso.
Children need guidance on how to eat and what's good for them; that's what adults are for. If you define "what's good for kids" as "what kids want to eat," they would gorge on cookies and ice cream at every meal. The right thing to do is not always the easy thing. Isn't this common sense—especially for conservatives, who profess a belief in personal responsibility?
Apparently not. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the states with the worst childhood obesity rates are all in the South, the most culturally conservative region in the country.
Read the whole thing. I come from a Crunchy Con family, and this is the kind of article I might write. I agree with it, and I learned some things:
Granted, nobody on a limited budget can afford to shop exclusively at Whole Foods. But then again, Americans expect to spend far less of their income on food than do other industrialized nations. The USDA reports that in 2010, the average American spent 7 percent of his income on food—roughly half of what Western Europeans do, the UK excepted. European Union 2011 statistics show that though Britons spend only 9 percent of their income on food, they are the most obese population in Europe.
Another bit of evidence that cheap food makes you fat.
Interestingly, I did not find it from the food-related RSS feeds I subscribed to after working at the FDA. I got it from an old favorite: Atomic Nerds, who linked to the article and added more good commentary.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thought and Categories

Alleged Wisdom is back, for the first time in months. I find that I miss writing, and my family misses reading my writing. For various reasons I hardly ever log onto Facebook anymore, so this is once again the ideal communication mechanism. I'll try to post at least once a week, but don't bother checking more often than that.
Today's thoughts are a tangent from an article I happened across. I want to give my thoughts first and the link at the end, so you can read the article with a persepctive that most people do not have.
Uneducated minds always try to fit things into well-defined categories. The human mind has a very strong desire to categorize everything. This is a natural result of human history; the ability to instantly and correctly categorize an unknown object as 'snake' or 'root' is very important. People whose brains had a strong tendency to decisively categorize things were more likely to survive and reproduce.
This habit often causes problems in the modern world. Proper scientific thought usually involves unknowns, probabilities, and lots of interesting things that do not fit neatly into pre-defined categories. It is very difficult to be a good scientist if your brain insists on making categorical judgments. A reliable way of telling the difference between good research and pseudoscientific nonsense is to look for clues that the author has already put things into categories and is looking for reasons to justify that choice.
The attitude causes even more problems when we insist on putting people into categories. One of the fundamental tensions in the modern world is the fact that we simply do not have the mental ability to treat everyone we meet as the unique individuals that they are. We have to make assumptions about how to properly interact with them. One way of defining 'culture' is the default assumprions you use to interact with people.
As civilizations become more enlightened and less barbaric, they use fewer categories to define people. The social ideal is to treat everyone the same, rather than fitting people into byzantine category systems of race, caste, family, and/or social status. There are massive benefits to this from increased human freedom, but there are also costs. Interaction can become more difficult if you do not know exactly who you are dealing with.
It may be the case that forcing people to confront the complexity of other people as individuals makes them better scientists. If you live in a society where everyone is categorized, then you are trained from birth to think that everything in the universe fits into neat categories. If you live in a more modern and free society, your thinking will be less lazy.
This understanding of the benefits of non-categorical thinking influenced my thoughts as I read this article about tolerating differences in children. As I read this article, I felt very optimistic about the future of our society. Mainly this optimism was because the article hints at a future where freedom of human thought and action will be respected and cherished, but I also feel that we will all be better thinkers as a result. Consider the following talk with an 8-year-old:
"No, I don't want to be a girl," he said, as he checked himself out in his bedroom mirror and posed, Cosmo-style. "I just want to wear girl stuff."
"Why do you want to be a boy and not a girl?" I asked.
He looked at me as if I were daft. "Because I want to be who I am!"
By way of explanation, he told me about a boy in his third-grade class who is a soccer fanatic. "He comes to school every day in a soccer jersey and sweat pants," P. J. said, "but that doesn't make him a professional soccer player."
If he came up with that explanation himself, he has a more coherent and creative thought process than most people in our society.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Habits and Communication

I have been neglecting this blog for some time now. I have gone a month without posting, which has not happened since I started four years ago.

This has mainly happened because I have spent most of that month finishing my dissertation. When a dissertation deadline is coming up, everything else gets pushed aside. I even shut off most of the subscriptions in Google Reader to save time, which means that my knowledge of current events is limited to what I read in the Wall Street Journal during my lunch break.

But I have successfully defended, gotten my revisions passed, and made sure that all the paperwork was being processed. The last week has been pretty relaxed. I have not posted anything, partly because I got out of the habit of writing blog posts.

The dissertation was not the only reason I got out of the habit of writing posts. The purposes of this blog were to share my life and thoughts with family and friends, to practice and improve my writing, and to develop an online archive of my thoughts and writings on various subjects. None of these goals are as relevant as they once were.

The last two goals have already been met. I have written on many topics, and I can easily give people a link to them. Having this portfolio was useful during my job search. There is not really a lot to add at this point. My writing has improved with practice, to the extent that some of the older posts are a bit embarrassing, but I do not really need more practice. The writing that I will be doing in the future, academic papers and cost analyses, is different than what I have been writing here, and from a career perspective, I should be practicing that rather than writing blog posts.

Society and technology have also changed, meaning that this blog is no longer the ideal tool for communication. Four years ago, most of my family did not have a Facebook account. The only ways to regularly share my life with them were to spam their email, waste a lot of time calling people individually, or write a blog. But today, a Facebook note or status update is the most efficient way of sharing things with people I know. I started putting all of the personal posts on Facebook, saving the blog posts for things that a potential employer would want to see.

I am not quite ready to announce the end of this blog, but it is a possibility. I will have to see how the next month goes. Maybe I will get back in the habit of writing posts.

If I do start blogging in a serious way, I will probably start a new blog that is focused on a specific topic. Starting next month, my job will be analyzing food safety regulations for the Food and Drug Administration. After a couple years of doing that, I will have a lot of expertise in food safety, and a lot of knowledge that would be valuable to a wide audience. I have had a personal interest in food issues for years, which was one of the reasons I got the job, so it might be fun to blog food safety and nutrition from the perspective of a PhD Economist.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Review: The Legal Analyst

My main goal in teaching my introductory Economics class is to give students a good set of mental tools for understanding the world. This semester, I had a student who already had a surprisingly good understanding of game theory and questions of knowledge and proof. As we talked after class, he mentioned that he had learned these things from a book assigned for an introductory law class. After I asked about the book, he lent it to me. 

From the minute I started reading The Legal Analyst, I saw that it was consistently excellent. About two-thirds of it was a readable, intuitive, high-quality summary of things I already knew, and the other third was new information that I am very glad to have. After finishing the book, my professional opinion is that it is extraordinarily good. Anyone who studies it will be a much better thinker and citizen.

The Legal Analyst is not just a law textbook. The subtitle is A toolkit for thinking about the law. These should be reversed. The title of the book should be A Toolkit for Thinking and the subtitle should be using examples from the legal system. The book is an excellent overview of a lot of very important things, such as incentives, thinking at the margin, game theory, the social value of rules and standards, heuristics and biases in human thinking, and the tools of rational thinking. It has the best intuitive explanation of Bayes' Theorem I have ever seen, making this incredibly important mental tool available for everyone's use. 

I am very glad that law students are reading The Legal Analyst. They will be much better thinkers as a result. The existence of this book makes me more optimistic about the future of our government and legal system. If the principles outlined here become widely understood, the world will be a better place. This book should be required reading in any course that can get away with assigning it. Anyone who is responsible for writing any kind of regulation or policy, or does economic analysis, needs the information in this book.

The Legal Analyst is a very easy book to read, making it even better from a cost-benefit analysis standpoint. I read it a few chapters a time, in my spare time, without any mental effort required. A great deal of high-quality research has been carefully and expertly summarized in clear, vibrant language.

Anyone who has an interest in understanding how the world works, or becoming a more rational thinker, should read The Legal Analyst.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Movie Review: Artificial Intelligence

Imagine a very bad version of Blade Runner. Now imagine a very bad version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now imagine a slightly better version of Waterworld. Now imagine that random bits of these three awful movies are poured into a sausage grinder, which churns them up and extrudes an oozing mass of incomprehensible nonsense. You would then have something that resembles Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence is not simply bad in the way that a SyFy original movie is bad. It is the special unique kind of bad that can only be made by famous and pretentious people who are trying to Send A Message. While watching the movie, I could never stop wondering 'What is Spielberg trying to say here?' and 'Where is he going with this?'. It was this train-wreck fascination that kept me watching.

To share my mental state while I watched Artificial Intelligence, imagine that you have been invited to a special ritual dance of a distant tribe that you have some academic knowledge of. This ritual is clearly important to the tribe; they have put a great deal of effort and expense into it, and many members of the tribe have talked to you about how wonderful, moving, and life-changing the dance is. You decide to share in the ritual, in an attempt to better understand the culture of the tribe.

The dance starts normally enough, and is about what you expected. It seems to be a kind of origin myth that is used to illustrate the tribe's beliefs about the world. But then odd bits of imagery start to show up for reasons that you cannot understand. Stereotyped cartoonish villains appear in a way that has nothing to do with the theme of the story. They seem to be thrown in as a way to mock and belittle the tribe's traditional enemies.

Things start to happen that are almost, but not quite, entirely random. You see vague connections to the other myths and stories of the tribe, but you are increasingly lost and bewildered. You are no longer sure what the message of the dance is supposed to be, even as it becomes increasingly clear that the dance exists for the sole purpose of telling you big important things.

You can tell that the tribal dancers truly believe in the deep meaning of their dance. It is clearly a religious experience for them, but to you it seems to be nothing more than a mash of chaotic imagery. It is no longer enjoyable in any way, but you keep watching out of a vague sense of obligation, and a distant hope that it will start to make sense if you keep watching.

Finally, you think it ends, but then the dance restarts again, and makes even less sense than before. The story loses any sense of coherence and dissolves into a series of random emotional appeals and references to other tribal dances. When it does finally end, you understand the tribe even less than before, you are mad at them for wasting your time, and want nothing more to do with them in the future.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Differential Equations

One of the reasons I chose the intro Economics textbook I use in my class is that they introduce the Solow Growth Model. This is a very simple differential equation model of how economic output and growth depends on the capital stock of a country. It lets you understand the world a lot better and make useful predictions about things like the reaction to a natural disaster, the results of foreign aid, and the expected future growth rate of China.

One of the well-known pitfalls of teaching a general education class is that the students have a wide range of knowledge. This is always apparent when I teach the Solow model. People who have taken a class on differential equations pick it up very quickly and end up bored by my explanation. People who do not know differential equations have real trouble following along and often need extra help.

Today, I departed from my usual question-answer format and spend most of the class explaining the basics of the Solow model, so that they would be able to follow along better when they read it in the book.  After class today, a couple students came to me and said that they did not understand and would probably coming to office hours next week for extra help.

After that, a chemical engineer came up to me and asked, "Does this mean that we will spend the rest of the semester using differential equations to model the economy?". He was clearly excited about the idea of doing so, and disappointed when I told him that this was not the plan.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Nazi Soldiers

Think about what it was like to be a Nazi soldier.

I am not talking about the Waffen-SS, or the death camp guards, or any of the real monsters. I am talking about the ordinary infantry grunts who were drafted into the army to fight a war for their country, and went along with it.

Most of these people had no idea what their government was doing. They probably liked Hitler. Maybe they had been little boys when their parents took them to a rally, and they were happy and excited to join a huge cheering crowd. Maybe they had been in the Hitler Youth, and enjoyed a lot of good times with their friends in the countryside. Maybe they had family who fought in World War 1. They had certainly heard stories about the cruel damage that the Allies had done to Germany after winning that war.

It was easy to believe their government when it told them that fighting for their country a good and noble thing. It was easy to believe that they were protecting their friends and family from the bad people out there who were just waiting to harm them. To them, World War 2 was just another in a long series of European wars that had to be fought to protect their nation. Most of them honestly believed that their Fatherland was being threatened, and that they had a duty to defend it.

My grandfather fought the Nazis in World War 2, in the Italian front. He was captured in 1944 and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. He got along fairly well with the guards and the soldiers there. Everyone knew that they were all just soldiers, doing their jobs. There was no hate. When the war was ending and the Russian army approached the camp, the guards opened the gates and let everyone out. The Germans and Americans both went west to get away from the Russians, and the Russian prisoners went east to rejoin their people.

None of this changes the fact that Nazi soldiers were agents of evil. If they had won their war, a brutal, oppressive, horrific regime would have conquered all of Europe, destroying the lives of millions, and threatening the peace and security of the world. There is a reason we see Nazi soldiers as an embodiment of pure evil. They really were.

It was through inaction, rather than action, that these men became cogs in one of the most dangerous war machines ever created. They did not wake up one day and decide that they would become an embodiment of evil. They allowed themselves to be pulled into an evil system. 

And for this crime, they had to die. It was right and proper for soldiers like my grandfather to kill these Nazis, who in different circumstances might have been their friends. These soldiers had to be cut down on the battlefield, just like rabid dogs must be put down as a threat to humanity.

If we capture Nazi soldiers, and take their guns away, then they become human again, and deserving of human rights. It would be a war crime to murder them, when they can be locked safely away until the end of the war. But while they are armed, while they are attempting to conquer other nations, it is right to see them as inhuman monsters and kill them without mercy.

It is hard to admit that a normal human can be turned into an agent of horrible evil. We want to think that our enemies are naturally bad people. But most of them are no worse than we are.

Ask yourself this question: "What would stop me from becoming a Nazi soldier? If my country was doing something evil, and conscripted me into its army, would I resist?"

We like to think that we would resist. We like to think that we would never support our government as it wages an aggressive war of conquest. But when I am honest with myself, I realize that I would not resist. If culture, authority, and self-interest were all telling me to do something, I would do it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Too Much Service

One of my friends sent me an email yesterday that eloquently explained a mental quirk of mine I did not know anyone else shared. Since the email builds on a previous conversation, I will present an edited version so you can follow along:


I'm slightly jealous of the fact that you'll get to wear Vibrams to work - whatever shoes I end up wearing will almost certainly be less comfortable.


You don't wear Vibrams now. You will be making enough money to buy shoes that look nice while being as comfortable as non-toe shoes can possibly be. You might have to shop in stores you have never set foot in before, and spend hundreds of dollars for each pair, but it is worth it.


While I don't wear Vibrams now, I don't wear snazzy shoes now, either.
I probably will have to shop in nicer stores now.  I wish I didn't have to.  To illustrate why, I should point out that my employer is paying for relocation services, and so I'm working with a real estate agent.  This agency is clearly used to dealing with crazy people - the lady I was originally going to work with had to go to an emergency doctor appointment, and so couldn't call that day. The head of the agency called, repeatedly apologized, and said that she'd try to get the agent to call me in the afternoon (as it turns out, the original agent had to go to the hospital and, according to the agency head, got "very bad news").  My new agent is available until 10:00 PM on her cell phone.  My only thoughts are: what sort of narcissistic nutters must these people deal with on a regular basis, and how can I avoid getting lumped in with them?
So anyway, I don't want to go in really nice stores.  I'm going to shop at JCPenney as much as possible, where they (more often) deal with normal people.

The mental quirk is that excessive customer service makes us both uncomfortable, and is something to be avoided. I get annoyed whenever people do things for me that I could easily do myself. We do not want to be served too much. This seems odd at first. Why would we both prefer to avoid something that a lot of people want to pay for?

The key is in the line, "My only thoughts are: what sort of narcissistic nutters must these people deal with on a regular basis, and how can I avoid getting lumped in with them?". It is clear that, to my friend, an insistence on being served at all costs is a signal of a bad character trait.

Both of us grew up in a lower middle class culture. We are not accustomed to being served. In our worlds, service is something that is done for children, the infirm, and the incompetent. Adults are expected to be self-reliant. Economic exchange should based on specialization and mutual respect. If people are putting a lot of effort into serving us, that means, in our minds, that there is something wrong with us. If we expect that service even in the face of someone else's misfortune, than there is definitely something wrong with us.

I have no problem with people doing things for me if they have a skill, or tools, that I do not. I have no desire to ever learn how to change the oil in my car; it would be a waste of my time to bother with that when I can easily and cheaply hire a specialist. I hate the self checkouts in grocery stores, because they are so slow and inefficient. The cashier can scan and bag a dozen items in the time that it takes me to do one.*

But it really bugs me when, for example, there are no trash cans at a reception and you have to rely on a waiter to carry things off. I hate leaving a mess for other people to deal with. That is the behavior of children, not adults. I have no problem with leaving dirty dishes for them, because clearly I cannot wash the dishes myself and it would be a waste of my time. But it costs me nothing to toss junk in a trash can myself rather than find a tray to put it on.

Our ideas about service are particular to our class and culture. Rich people seem to like ordering others around. They pay a lot of money for the right to feel important and served. They grew up thinking that it was right and proper for other people to do cater to their every whim. Poor people will also spend a lot of money for people to do things for them, like preparing taxes, because they cannot handle the process themselves.

For me and my friend, it is not proper to demand or require too much service, or the wrong kind of service. Being served too much or in an unfamiliar way attacks our self-image at a very deep level. I know that a lot of this is due to habit. There are some kinds of service that we do expect, because we have grown up with them and are comfortable with them. But if we are pushed out of that cultural comfort zone, it makes us feel out of place, uncomfortable, and alien.

*This is partly due to the fact that the self checkouts are programmed with checks and delays to prevent shoplifting. It measures the weight of what you put in the bag against what you just scanned. If you go too fast, it forces you to go back and redo everything. You have to scan an item, wait two second for the horribly slow software to process it, put it in the bag, wait a couple more seconds for the weight reading to be processed, and then continue. During this whole process a loud, nagging voice is talking to you the way that a parent talks to an idiot child.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Guys and Dolls

Last year, the sensei of our dojo auditioned for a spot in Rent, and was chosen to play Benny. This year, they asked him to play Lt. Brannigan in Guys and Dolls, as well as two other minor roles. We were commenting on how he has been typecast*, but it is kind of nice to get called up without auditioning. I get the impression that there are very few black guys studying theater here.

We went to see him last night. It was an interesting experience for me, because I had seen the play before. Years ago, my family went to see it at a community theater. Before watching the play, I only dimly remembered bits of it, but as I watched it, I started to remember a lot more, so that I always knew what was coming next and was comparing the two versions.

Here, the play started with a video montage of Times Square, New York, starting in the modern era and going back in time, with images of cultural icons from each decade it passed through, before stopping in the 1930's. It was a very good way to set the scene. The curtain opened on all the actors standing so uncannily still that they looked like statues, and then they started moving all at once.

In the community theater version, Lt. Brannigan was portrayed as a lovable incompetent oaf. In this one, he was cold and menacing, filling the other characters with fear. A mutual friend mentioned to me at the climbing wall today that sensei would make a very good cop. Considering how he manages the dojo with an air of law and authority, I definitely agree.

But Snesei also played the announcer for the Hot Box Girls, and then he was a totally different person. The dojo ribbed him for being 'black Elvis' and 'Disco Stu'. He also played one of the extras in the nightclub in Hanana. I do not remember a fight in the community theater version, but here there was a giant rumble. Everyone from the dojo complained at how clumsy and off-balanced everyone looked, and commented how it much have been painful for Sensei to fight so badly.

Part of this is the requirement of being a stage actor. Every movement has to be massive and exaggerated, in order to convey emotion to the back row.

Because this was a college production, everything got amped up. The two chorus songs with Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls were almost as racy as an actual seedy 1930's nightclub, stripping down to period underwear for the "Take Back Your Mink" song, and subtly highlighting several double entendres in some of the other songs and acts that I do not remember from the community theater version. Tone of voice can really change what people hear.

The facts that the play changes every time, and that you are often more aware of the people playing the roles, make theater a very different art form than film.

*It is not just the theater people who typecast him as 'the bad guy'. Here's another example of a stage performance featuring him.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Social Criticism

One of the best things about studying history and anthropology, and reading good science fiction, is that it helps you understand the wide range of possibilities for organizing human society. To use a familiar phrase from a rotten man, it helps you see that the customs of your tribe and island are not the laws of nature.

Lots of people like to play the game of "Point out problems with your society". But at least nine-tenths of them do so in order to try to gain some kind of political power. The complaint only serves to motivate the supporters of a cause, or to score points against their political enemies. People complain about something that is wrong, blame the other side for it, and claim that they would do better. The complaints are usually designed to appeal to self-interest among a certain group of people. The condition of other places may be used as evidence to support the argument, but the comparison is rarely done from a spirit of honest inquiry. 

People whose morality is guided by self-consistent philosophical principles, rather than convention, are rare, but such people often produce social criticism. This tends to be of higher quality then the political kind, but usually it ends up comparing our society to an imaginary utopia where everything works perfectly, guided by whatever the writer's philosophy is.

It is extraordinarily rare to see people who try to look at our society from the outside in, guided not by political posturing or utopian fantasies, but by an honest attempt to think about how others might see us. It takes a lot of work to think that the things you are accustomed to might be unusual or bizarre, temporary aberrations of the human condition rather than the default state of existence.

I am going to try to point out some things that I think are uniquely wrong with our society. I have no plan to fix them. They are not caused by any one group of people or political party. There are no scapegoats. The vast majority of people accept them unthinkingly, not knowing that there is any alternative, not knowing that their beliefs and actions are anything but the natural state of humanity. There is no simple philosophical principle that could end them; they spring from a combination of deep tradition and fundamental flaws in human cognition.

I am only focusing on things that are unique to modern Western society. Human universals like greed, poverty, war, and oppression are not interesting to point out. I am looking for things that both our ancestors and our descendants would be horrified by.

1) End-of-life medical care. We do things to people that are literally torture, and have very low chances of accomplishing anything useful, out of a misguided effort to show that we care. European society has always had a tradition of invasive and pointless quackery, at least among the upper classes, but in the past people had a better understanding of the inevitability of death and it was not considered proper to do 'heroic' things just to prolong life a few months. There are many, many things we do today that future generations will view the same way we view bloodletting.

2) Mass incarceration in general, and The War on Drugs in particular. Lots of people complain about this for lots of reasons, but I want to point out how bizarre it is for us to punish people by throwing them in a box and spending more on their upkeep than most people spend to live a comfortable life. It is an astonishing waste of resources, never before seen in human history, and it serves no moral or practical purpose. Another one where both past and future generations would wonder why we are collectively insane.

3) Our educational system. For most of human history, children learned social and technical skills by working alongside friends and family. In modern society, we dump kids into an institution full of barely disciplined savages, and force them to do a regime of strange things with no apparent purpose. The result is a seething mass of bullying, alienation, and social pathology.

Notice that all of these have a common thread. We like shoving people into bizarre and unnatural institutional settings and claiming that it is for their own good. People from more 'primitive' societies do not tolerate this kind of regimentation, in any context.

I am guessing that this is related to the rise of factories as the primary tool of economic activity. For a period of about 200 years, the most productive and powerful societies were the ones that were best able to get their people in the habit of being cogs in a complex and unnatural machine. Modern warfare, with its massive armies of infantry, also selected for well-regimented societies. There were vast social pressures for people to adapt to this kind of thing, and that spilled over into other aspects of human life.

This kind of thing should slowly fade away as we move to a more service-based economy. But the rise of information technology, with people constantly connected to each other and a global information web, will probably cause a brand new set of social pathologies, just like industrialization created the social pathologies of our world.

This does not mean we should stop the process. Our world, even with all of its flaws, is far better than any that came before. The future will be better than our world. But it will probably have deep social flaws that are accepted unthinkingly by its citizens.

Friday, February 24, 2012


I just read something very interesting:

"From the earliest times of which we have record-back, say, to two thousand years before Christ-down to the beginning of the eighteenth century..."

The rest of that sentence and its context is not relevant to this post, except that it was written by a very well-educated man in the year 1930.

For all of my life, I have been aware of at least 10,000 years of human history. Yet here is a man, one of the smartest intellectuals and best economists of his time, who only knows about 4,000 years of human history.  Most of that probably comes from the Old Testament and other written records. Anything before Ancient Greece and the New Kingdom of Egypt is a mystery to him, and he shows no knowledge of the millenia-long histories of India and China.

In 1930, archaeology was basically just Indiana Jones-style tomb robbing and nobody had any clue about the overall history of humankind beyond what happened to be preserved in a few written texts. There was no concept of learning about the people of the past by looking at the bones and debris they left behind. Most of the background knowledge of human history and development that I take for granted was simply absent.

It is an incredible state of ignorance. Now I understand how Robert Howard could invent the ancient, advanced civilizations that populated his prehistorical world. As far as anyone knew, it could have happened. Human history might have involved hundreds of millenia of civilizations rising, prospering, and then falling into myth. It is only in the last 50 years of so that we have surveyed enough of the planet to know, with high probability, that there were no forgotten ancient civilizations with Iron Age tech or higher. 

We can trace our history to the beginning. We know where we came from and how. This was not true 80 years ago.

Archaeology has been responsible for this. It has advanced our knowledge of the world and ourselves in many ways. But it is hard to measure the value of this knowledge and put a good price on it, which is why archaeologists are constantly low on cash. It does not produce fun toys like research in physics and chemistry. But I think the quality of my life is higher because I know the history of the human species in a way that previous generations did not.

Edit: I posted to soon, I should have finished reading the article. The fun continues:
The absence of important technical inventions between the prehistoric age and
comparatively modern times is truly remarkable. Almost everything which
really matters and which the world possessed at the commencement of the
modern age was already known to man at the dawn of history. Language, fire,
the same domestic animals which we have to-day, wheat, barley, the vine and
the olive, the plough, the wheel, the oar, the sail, leather, linen and cloth, bricks
and pots, gold and silver, copper, tin, and lead-and iron was added to the list
before 1000 B.C.-banking, statecraft, mathematics, astronomy, and religion.
There is no record of when we first possessed these things.
At some epoch before the dawn of history perhaps even in one of the
comfortable intervals before the last ice age-there must have been an era of
progress and invention comparable to that in which we live to-day. But through
the greater part of recorded history there was nothing of the kind. 
This is so wrong that is it both funny and sad. Note the speculation of advanced civilizations before the last ice age. Archaeologists and historians have have given us records of when we first possessed all of the things he mentions.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Fallacy of "Consumption Driven Growth"

There is an annoying bit of economic illiteracy floating around that needs to be addressed. It often shows up in the newspapers and the other social sciences, and it needs to be squashed. This is, as the post title says, the idea of "Consumption Driven Growth".

Here's the example that inspired this post. My friend is a TA in a Geography class. One of the exam questions asked students to compare the economic growth of China and Brazil and the answer key said

China's growth in more investment driven. That means the Chinese are making things that make other things: factories, roads, telecom systems, urban metros, etc. Brazil's boom on the other hand is largely consumer and consumption driven, which doesn't create more favorable conditions for future growth.

This is wrong. It is completely backwards. It is the equivalent of me telling my class that jungles cause rain.

The correct answer is that productivity improvements are propelling growth in both Brazil and China. China has a higher higher investment rate, which is causing a temporary, and unsustainable, boost in the growth rate.

To show why, I will give a quick overview of the Solow Growth Model. This is normally an intermediate Economics issue, but it is included in the intro Econ textbook that I use, and this inclusion was one of the reasons I chose the book.

All economic output is divided between investment and consumption. Consumption is things like food and shelter that make your life better. Investment increases your capital stock, which is things like roads and factories that help you produce output more efficiently. More capital means more output, which means more resources that can be invested. If you keep investing the same percentage of your output, this would cause a never-ending positive feedback loop if it were not for depreciation.

Each year, some percentage of your capital stock falls apart and needs to be replaced. You have to divert investment spending to repairing things. While depreciation is a constant fraction of capital, each extra unit of capital gives you diminishing returns. Eventually you hit a point where the extra output that something adds to the economy is less than what it costs to repair. Think Bridges to Nowhere. Assuming no technological growth or improvement in the institutions of the country, depreciation plus diminishing returns mean that the economy will find an equilibrium where the capital stock is constant.

A one-time investment will do nothing in the long run, if people keep the same investment rate, because it will just fall apart. The capital stock will decay back to its initial equilibrium. We see this when some charity builds a road in Africa, where the government cannot maintain it, and it falls apart.

A permanent increase in the investment rate will permanently boost the capital stock. This causes a temporary boost in the growth rate, but you will eventually hit an equilibrium where the capital stock is no longer growing. Once you hit that equilibrium, the growth rate goes back to normal.

You cannot keep a permanently higher growth rate through investment, because you would have to keep constantly increasing the percentage of output invested, and the investment rate is limited to 100%. There exists some rate of investment that produces the highest amount of consumption in the long run, and it does not make sense to invest more.

Every economist knows that China's investment driven growth rate is not actually sustainable. They are doing what Japan did back in the 80's, and that ended in two decades of stagnation as the economy rebalanced itself. However, there is not anything unsustainable about Brazil's growth, except the bits driven by natural resources. 

The talk about consumer demand driving economic growth is superficial nonsense. All economic growth comes from productivity. You can have temporary bubbles driven by debt, or inflation, or transfers from other places, but that is not happening in Brazil. Their economy is growing because they are getting better at making stuff. The Brazilians are choosing to spend more of their new wealth on consumption, and their government is not using any financial repression to stop them.

There is a theoretical way for "Consumption Driven Growth" to happen. People split their time between leisure and work, and work allows them to purchase consumption goods. If people are all consuming a lot of leisure, and someone introduces a new consumption good that is highly desirable, than people will choose to work more because the relative rewards of work have gone up. This would generate economic growth. This situation, however, is not an accurate description of any major period of economic growth. Brazilians are working less, and enjoying more leisure, than before. All throughout history, the introduction of new consumer goods has happened along with with shorter workdays, not longer ones.

It is true that people are motivated to work, and become more efficient, and generate economic growth, because of a desire to consume. But this fact is pointless as a tool of economic analysis. The desire to consume is always there. It is a human universal to want more consumption, and to use consumption as a signal of social status. What matters is if you have the resources to fulfill those desires, and that depends on how much you can produce. Saying that consumption caused some period of economic growth is like saying that sex caused the baby boom.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fractal Camouflage

When I walk across campus, I am always looking around at the surroundings and other people. I like to be in the habit of maintaining good situational awareness, and it is very rare for anything to surprise me. A couple days ago, I was mildly surprised when I suddenly became aware of a person about twenty feet away that I had not seen before. It was a cadet wearing a fractal-camouflage Army Combat Uniform with a patrol cap. He had been looking down at his smartphone, so the visor of the cap covered his face, and I only noticed him when he looked up and his face was visible.

He had not been making any effort to hide. He was just standing around, against a backdrop of a grassy field that sloped up. The camouflage was good enough to completely fool the part of my visual cortex that looks for patterns and tells me when someone is nearby.

This incident is interesting by itself, but it is also related to the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, that I have been reading recently and highly recommend. The book surveys decades of research that show that much of our thought is automatic and unconscious, and subject to cognitive illusions that can hide the truth from us just like the optical illusions that let a cadet hide in plain sight.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Good Student

There is a student in my intro Econ class who really loves the class and my teaching style. His family includes bankers and finance professionals, so he is glad that he is learning enough to be a part of their conversation. He really likes the way that Economics uses math to address social issues, and the course has already changed his mind on the minimum wage and drug laws.

He is a senior, finishing up a mechanical engineering degree. He is doing a co-op with a power utility, and is on the management track. He came to my office yesterday and we had a nice long chat. I learned a lot of interesting things about our electric grid and the contracting arrangements between the different companies and organizations that make everything work well. I used my knowledge of the Coase Theorem to make a guess about arrangements for power line maintenance that was so accurate that it literally stunned him speechless.

Before coming here, he got a 2-year degree in some kind of engineering, and spent a summer working at a co-op in Belgium working with the dikes and water transport systems. Before that, he was a junior manager at a contact lens plant. He is very good at math, has excellent people skills, and has a great curiosity and love of learning, but is a bit disorganized and messy. Overall, he is the kind of student that every teacher dreams of having.

If you have not done so already, form a mental picture of this guy in your head.

He is a big black guy with a backwards baseball cap and diamond stud earrings.

Every year, I seem to have at least one guy that matches that description, who is a good and inquisitive student who likes learning what Economics teaches about the world. I tend to connect well with them, and with older and non-traditional students, and anyone who wants to learn.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Real Word

A student just came up to me after class and asked 

Is 'technocrat' a real word, or did someone just make it up?

I explained to him that the answer to his question is 'yes' because the answer to both parts is 'yes'. 'Technocrat' is a real word, and someone just made it up. This is true of every single word in our language. Someone invented the word at some point on the past, and it became a real word whenever enough people used it and knew what it meant.

Now, it is a linguistic bastard of a word, because it combines an English prefix and a Greek suffix, but a great deal of English vocabulary was constructed in a similar way. Our language does not really follow any rules other than popularity.

This leads to thoughts of what makes a thing 'real' in a social setting. His question implies that 'reality' in language is defined by some authority. In France it is. They have an official committee that decides what words can be used. This means that French is a more beautiful and logical language than English, but that the French are utterly incapable of succinctly expressing modern concepts like 'weekend' and 'internet' without using English.

There is actually a good lesson there about emergent order versus central planning.

Friday, February 10, 2012

IQ Dogma

Today I got am email from that included the following:

One panel at this week's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC is called "The Failure of Multiculturalism," and it features the founder of a website that's claimed:
* Black Americans have lower IQs than whites,

The tone of the email email implied that such a claim is a self-evident sin, on the same level as anti-semitism, and that anyone who would associate with the people who make it is evil.

It is a statistical fact that the average black person has a lower IQ than the average white person. This is not an accusation of inferiority. Having a low IQ does not make you a bad person, for several reasons.

First, IQ is strongly affected by environmental factors like nutrition, pollution, and low access to enriching activities. Growing up in the bad environments associated with poverty will lower a child's IQ, and once they grow up, it is too late to change it. As we improve public health, IQ differences will become smaller.

More importantly, IQ tests only measure a very limited slice of human cognitive potential. I may have a higher IQ than the black sensei of my dojo, but he is a far better leader than I will ever be. He is politically astute, a good teacher, has excellent stage presence, and is skilled at working a crowd, commanding attention, maintaining friendships, making people comfortable, making people trust him, and a lot of other little things that are required to turn a disorderly mass of people into a well-functioning team.

For most of human history, his cognitive skills would be far more valuable than mine. The fact that my skills have a much higher market value in our economy does not mean that I am superior. It means that we live in a strange world.

It is probably best to think of a high IQ as a freakish mutation that hijacks the brainpower meant for social organization and uses it to do things that are unnatural, bizarre, and random. The skills that IQ tests measure happen to be extremely useful in the artificial and unnatural technological civilization we inhabit. 

A high-IQ human is to a natural human what a dog is to a wolf. The dog might make a better pet, but it would have much lower survival odds in the wild. It is silly to say that one is better than the other. They are suited for different situations.

We will never be able to think intelligently about human capability and potential, and help all people live good lives, unless we are comfortable with these facts.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Future Looks Good

I am very optimistic about the future of mankind in general and the United States in particular. This post will explain why, with reference to economic theory.

One of the fundamental lessons of economics is that wealth comes from productivity. Wealth, defined broadly, includes everything that makes our lives better, including material goods, leisure, health, a good environment, love, community, and human connection. All of these things are improved by any factor that improves the productivity of human endeavors.

People think that economists are money-obsessed, but an economist is actually more likely than most commentators to look at the big picture when analyzing human choices. For example, we understand that Facebook has given the world a massive increase in wealth and productivity. Facebook has dramatically decreased the time cost of 'purchasing' friendship and community. When people work less in order to spend more time on Facebook, they are sacrificing material goods to gain more social connections. This is a natural and rational response to the new, lower price of social connections.  Anyone who claims that Facebook decreases productivity is focusing only a limited slice of the human experience.

There are three overall categories of things that can affect productivity: technology, politics, and culture. Technology is any knowledge, tool, or infrastructure that helps you accomplish things or makes your life easier. Politics is the formal structure of government, and how laws and taxes affect human behavior. Culture is everything else, like religious doctrine, or how children are raised, or the prevalence of discrimination in a society, or shared social attitudes about education, that can affect people's ability to accomplish their goals.

Over the past few years, everything I read about technology made me more optimistic about the future, while most of the things I read about politics and culture made me more pessimistic. It seemed that there was a tug-of-war, with technology pulling us forward while the government wasted more resources and cultural changes harmed people's ability to be productive.

Even then, I was cosmopolitan enough to understand that humanity as a whole would probably be just fine even if things were getting worse in the United States. If you look at the total well-being of every person on the planet, then right now is the best time in human history, and things are getting better at a rapid pace. I had anticipated that the USA was going to experience a gradual decline, in relative terms, as the rest of the world got richer and freer and we got more dysfunctional.

Several things have changed this appraisal. The first is a dramatic improvement in our diplomatic and geopolitical situation over the last several years. Our deft handling of the Arab Spring is making friends all over the world, and our major rivals are revealing themselves to be venal and incompetent. China is making enemies all over Asia, pushing everyone there, including Vietnam and possibly even Myanmar, towards friendship with us. The Chinese regime is also under severe internal stress as the failures of state control become apparent, and its people are ever more vocal in demanding liberty and self-determination.

Another big improvement seems to be coming in education. Our education system is literally stuck in the dark ages; the 'production technology' of a teacher lecturing to a class comes from the days when books were too expensive for students to buy. In the past this was a source of pessimism, but now I predict that technology is going to shake things up, and discard much of the flawed old system entirely, more quickly than many people imagine. I think that online schools of various kinds will displace traditional lecture halls, and a system of electronic records will replace our antiquated credential-based signaling system. This will cause a massive boost in productivity and happiness, and probably some positive cultural change, over the next few generations.

From what I can tell, the USA is further along in developing online education systems than other countries. If we get it right, we will remain the market leader in higher education, just as we are today, and might extend our leadership into many other kinds of education. This would give us an incredible source of financial and social power.

Our short-term relative economic situation is also starting to look better. Europe is still in serious trouble, Japan is still stagnant, and China is showing hints of the kinds of economic imbalances that crippled Japan two decades ago. Meanwhile, we have made a lot of progress at getting rid of the debt imbalances that played a big part in the crisis, and a general recovery seems to be progressing nicely.

In the middle to long term, things still look good for us. We still dominate high tech. iPhones may be made in China, but all of the profits and the good jobs go to Americans. All of the major players in the tech industry are American; the foreign companies have all been reduced to selling commodity products. Of course that itself means nothing, given how fast the tech industry changes, but we always seem to dominate the cutting edge, no matter how things change, which is a good sign. We will probably also have a comparative advantage in the 'App Economy' that is developing. And as much as is annoys me, our entertainment industry is a reliable source of exports and profits and cultural influence. Given that a great deal of the economy of the future will revolve around tech, entertainment, and education, we are in a very good position.

There is a very real possibility that we will soon see a world that is almost entirely free and democratic, and that we will remain the economic, political, and cultural leader of that world.

Our internal politics and much of our culture remain a mess, but as the rest of the world improves, it will force us to improve as well. Right now, an extremely productive American has the choices of putting up with taxes and regulations, lobbying for government change, breaking the law, or not working. The latter two are not credible threats for most people, and true wealth generators do not have a comparative advantage in lobbying, so the people who generate most of the wealth have relatively low political bargaining power and cultural influence.

As long as you will earn more money working in the USA than anywhere else, the government, driven by the desires of society, will be able to extract the difference from you, plus a bit more because moving is expensive. But if enough wealth-generating Americans could credibly threaten to move to India or Estonia and make as much money, then the government would be forced to lower taxes or regulations and/or do something to make the Americans more productive again.

The USA keeps slipping down in the rankings of economic freedom, corruption, and a few other measures of political quality. Partly this is because we are getting worse, but mainly it is because other places are getting better. Pretty soon this will generate a powerful moral and practical case for reform that favors wealth generation and productivity over populist redistribution.

The economic conditions of the rest of the world form a lower limit to our productivity and prosperity. We will see one of two possible futures. Either Americans are much more productive than people elsewhere, and the government extracts that difference from people, or we are just as productive as the rest of the world, and the government must remain lean and efficient to compete. I think that other nations will get a lot better, but that we will improve at least as fast. The only real threat to our prosperity is the rest of the world getting a lot poorer and less free, but the odds of that look are very low right now.