Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Dark Side of Cooperation

Cooperation is a popular topic these days.  For example, see this Science review article and this Nature book review of de Waal’s The Age of Empathy:

A repeated foil throughout is Gordon Gekko, from the 1987 movie Wall Street, who reiterates in various forms the basic credo that “greed is good”. … [de Waal’s] main political message is that we should not continue to harp on about evolution justifying only the selfish side of human nature, although of course that exists. He urges that we must also capitalize on the empathetic and cooperative attitudes that evolution has equipped us with, writing: “A society that ignores these tendencies can’t be optimal”.

Here is a New Scientist book review:

Given all that we know about empathy in animals, why do so many persist in seeing ours as a dog-eat-dog world? De Waal chalks it up to what he calls “macho origin myths”, which insist that “our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around”. But humans have shown empathy for as long as we’ve been around too.

Many stories discuss recent research on how cooperation can be sustained by norms to punish non-cooperators, and punish those who don’t punish non-cooperators, etc.  For example, New Scientist:

The temptation to freeload – reap the rewards without contributing anything – often leads to rapidly disintegrating cooperation.  Previous research found that cooperation is promoted by allowing players to punish freeloaders: cooperative players would pay a small cost that enables them to inflict a loss on the offender.

The unstated moral behind most media stories on our biological instincts to cooperate seems to be that we would do better to empower and emphasize these instincts.  Such as, oh, taxing carbon, and shaming those who don’t tax carbon. Continue reading "The Dark Side of Cooperation" »

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Insurance As Signal

Barbara Kiviat in Time:

There are higher-yielding varieties of groundnut than those that farmers in Malawi tend to plant, but getting them to switch is tough. Better seed is pricey, increasing their risk. So researchers from the World Bank ran an experiment. With local NGOs, they offered the farmers loans. Some loans even came with a crop-insurance policy: if the season was dry and the yield a dud, the debt would be forgiven. The farmers’ risk was lowered. Of farmers offered conventional loans, 33% signed up. With the added incentive of insurance, 18% did. The researchers were puzzled.

It’s been more than 30 years since microfinance began its fantastic rise, spreading billions of dollars in credit to hundreds of millions of overlooked borrowers around the world. Insurance is the next big promise of financial services for the poor.  But there aren’t many takers.  That’s not from lack of interest on the part of suppliers. The Gates Foundation has plowed millions of dollars into microinsurance initiatives … Continue reading "Insurance As Signal" »

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What Do Nature Lovers Love? explains who should care about invasive species.  Hikers, Campers:

Invasive plants, such as kudzu, English ivy and Japanese stilt grass can grow over trails and make them harder to follow and navigate through. Natural beauty is reduced by invasives. … Many invasive plants make hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities unpleasant. Exotic stinging needle … can take over camping sites, making it hard to find a good spot to camp.


Landscape plants that seed freely, like privet … must be weeded out before they take over and displace plants that were painstakingly planted in your garden.

Consider also this review of Lyanda Huapt’s Crow Planet:

[Crows] may be the dark shape of our future. … She admits that she cannot quite love them. … Haupt also appreciates the birds’ intensely social biology. She tells stories of crow “funerals”, when the normally raucous birds gather silently around the body of a dead family member. She emphasises their startling intelligence. …

The crow’s ability to adapt to man-made environments – in contrast to the struggles of more fragile species – has made it one of the planet’s most successful bird species. But this achievement is the source of Haupt’s ambivalence: it’s everyone’s loss, she reminds us, if we create an environment that accommodates only tough survivor species like the crow.

While nature shows and nature lovers often give lip service to the wonders of natural selection, in fact they mainly love the particular species alive now.  When nature adapts to recent changes, nature lovers mostly disapprove.  Most folks react similarly when economic competition creates winners and losers; they say they approve of the competition that led to our current wealth, but they disapprove when new winners, e.g., Walmart or Borders, displace old losers, e.g., small stores.

In contrast, I’ve decided I mostly love the competitive process that produced these amazing things we see today.   So I expect to mostly approve of the future changes competition will bring.  Our descendants may not be beautiful to our eyes, but I expect them to be tough, smart, and scrappy, like the crow.

Added 2Oct: Mark Davis:

Only a few per cent of introduced species are harmful. Most are relatively benign; some, such as the honeybee, can even have beneficial effects. … With the exception of insular environments such as islands and lakes, there are very few examples of extinctions being caused by non-native species.

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Gag Deals

Tyler Cowen in today’s NYT:

One disturbing portent came over the summer when it was reported that the Obama administration had promised deals to doctors and to pharmaceutical companies under the condition that they publicly support health care reform. That’s another example of creating favored beneficiaries through politics. …

Even worse, these political deals threaten open discourse. The dealmaking may be inhibiting some people in health care from speaking out in opposition to the administration’s proposals. Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, deserves credit for complaining about this arrangement, but not enough people are asking where such dealmaking might stop.

The banking sector has been facing similar constraints; if bankers criticize the Treasury or the Fed, they risk losing their gilded cages and could get a bad deal when the next bailout comes. When major economic sectors can be influenced in this way, are we really very far from the nightmare depicted by Ayn Rand in “Atlas Shrugged”?

This identifies an important conflict in democracy.  On the one hand, deals help democracies get things done.  More bills get passed with deals like “If you support my bill, I’ll support yours.”  If different groups couldn’t get together to to negotiate deals, but instead could only propose bills and lobby for the bills they liked, it would be harder to find solutions that many groups prefer to the status quo.

On the other hand, democracies require citizens to get info on which proposed bills are in their interest.  To evaluate a politician, voters may evaluate bills that politician has supported or opposed, and to evaluate bills voters may depend on hearing support or opposition from known interest groups.  But this interest group signal can be muddled if groups make deals to support or oppose bills in ways contrary to voter expectations.

Part of the problem may be voter naivete about interest groups.  If docs or pharma firms support a med reform bill, that may be because they have been paid off financially, not because the bill helps docs help patients, or improves drug development.  Futarchy would help with this, as speculators should be much less naive.

It seems especially problematic for the president to make gag deals, as the president has unusual power to use administrative discretion to punish those who speak against him.  But is it the discretion or the gagging that is the real problem here?

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Painless Meat

New Scientist:

Might “pain-free” be the next sticker slapped onto a rump roast? … Progress in neuroscience and genetics in recent years makes it a very real possibility. …  “If we can’t do away with factory farming, we should at least take steps to minimise the amount of suffering that is caused,” says Adam Shriver, a philosopher. … [who] contends that genetically engineered pain-free animals are the most acceptable alternative. …

One objection to the idea of knocking out pain in livestock is that it could mean they put themselves in harm’s way. In 2006, researchers identified six children from three Pakistani families with mutations that inactivated one particular gene. None of the children had ever felt pain, though they appeared otherwise healthy. All the kids had bruises and cuts, and one, who was known to place knives through his hand and walk on coals, died after jumping off a roof.

There could be a way around that problem. Recent research indicates that the sensation of pain is distinct from the unpleasantness, or “affective pain”, connected with it. This suggests it might be possible to eliminate the suffering caused by pain without tampering with the physical sensation. … They have engineered mice that lack two enzymes … When the team injected a noxious, painful chemical into their paws, the mice licked them only briefly. In contrast, normal mice continued to do so for hours afterwards (Neuron, vol 36, p 713). This suggests that livestock could be spared persistent, nagging pain. ….

Alan Goldberg … contends that public attitudes may make pain-free livestock a non-starter. He and colleague Renee Gardner conducted an online survey on the use of pain-free animals in research and found little public support, even among researchers who experiment on animals (Alternatives to Animal Testing and Experimentation, vol 14, p 145).

This last result is striking.  (I can’t find the article to learn more – the journal is here).  Why not save farm animals from pain?  My guess: for most folks to be interested in reducing farm animal pain, they would have to believe farms animal suffer lots more pain than wild animals suffer.  And they don’t so believe.

But wild pain isn’t obviously the right standard.  If lives with farm pain are still better than not existing, it is still good to create farm animals even if they suffer more than wild animals.  But if reducing pain is cheap, it might well be good to reduce farm pain well below wild levels.

I really don’t know how much pain we cause farm animals.  So far I have given farms the benefit of the doubt, but I’d be interested in visiting typical meat farms in my area, if that could be arranged.

Added: Unnamed finds the survey article, which only considers pain-free animals in biological experiments, not farms:

Participants were evenly divided between agreeing and disagreeing with the practice, and scientists followed this trend. Participants who classified themselves as a member of an animal advocacy group or as a vegetarian were much more likely to disagree with the practice.

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Catholic Girls

Come out Virginia, don’t let me wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
aw But sooner or later it comes down to fate
I might as well be the one

Billy Joel, “Only The Good Die Young

Apparently Billy was going after the wrong Catholic girls:

[On] college students … casual physical encounters or what some have termed “hooking up.” In this article, we examine the impact of both individual and institutional religious involvement on “hooking up” in a national sample of college women (N= 1,000). … Catholic college women are more likely to have “hooked up” while at school than college women with no religious affiliation. Second, conservative Protestant college women are less likely to have “hooked up” while at school than college women with no religious affiliation; however, this difference is mediated or explained by church attendance, which is protective against “hooking up.” Finally, women who attend colleges and universities with a Catholic affiliation are more likely to have hooked up while at school than women who attend academic institutions with no religious affiliation, net of individual-level religious involvement. …

Other work on young women’s sexual activity (Brewster et al. 1998), which shows sharply bifurcated patterns among Catholic women—those with high levels of religious commitment tend to delay sexual activity while those with lower levels of commitment display increased odds of sexual behavior compared to their unaffiliated counterparts. … Contrary to the “moral communities” thesis and to some widespread assumptions, the odds of “hooking up” are actually much higher at religious schools than at secular educational institutions. Upon closer inspection, this pattern is determined entirely by a large Catholic college effect.

I gotta admit, it is not easy to come up with a signaling explanation for this pattern.  Thanks to Alex for the Joel quote.

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Words Vs. Bets

I once had a long discussion with Ken Steiglitz about P=NP, while I was still at Princeton. … Ken was and still is sure that P must not be equal to NP. Okay, I said to Ken, what are the odds that they are equal? Ken said that he thought the odds were a million to one. I immediately suggested a bet. I did not ask him to “bet his life,” but I did ask for a million to one bet. I would put up one dollar. If in say ten years P=NP had not been proved, then he would win my dollar. If P=NP was proved in that time frame, then I would win a million dollars from Ken. Ken said no way. After more discussion the best bet I could get out of Ken was {2} to {1}.  Two to one. That was the best he would do.

That is from Richard Lipton; hat tip to Michael Nielsen.  Does anyone doubt that two to one better summarizes his evidence than a million to one?

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Obama’s Dreaming

From Obama’s speech tonight:

I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – either now or in the future. Period. And to prove that I’m serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don’t materialize. …

We’ve estimated that most of this plan can be paid for by finding savings within the existing health care system – a system that is currently full of waste and abuse. … We will also create an independent commission of doctors and medical experts charged with identifying more waste in the years ahead. …

Because Medicare is such a big part of the health care system, making the program more efficient can help usher in changes in the way we deliver health care that can reduce costs for everybody. We have long known that some places, like the Intermountain Healthcare in Utah or the Geisinger Health System in rural Pennsylvania, offer high-quality care at costs below average. The commission can help encourage the adoption of these common-sense best practices by doctors and medical professionals throughout the system – everything from reducing hospital infection rates to encouraging better coordination between teams of doctors.  Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan. …

Add it all up, and the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years.

So he’s going to save $500+ billion over ten years by having an independent commission “encourage best practices”?  Actually doing that would require this commission to have enormous power and be willing to use it to create many politically powerful enemies.  I see no sign whatsoever that they are actually willing to do this, nor any sign that they would actually be willing to cut medical spending if “spending cuts” somewhere were required by law.  So far this still looks like the usual empty campaign promise to pay for spending deficits by “cutting waste and abuse.”

Added: The Post fact-checker agrees on Obama’s cost-cutting claims: “This is, at best, wishful thinking.”  The White House website elaborates that the Commission will not ration or cut benefits or access:

An independent Commission, made up of doctors and medical experts [will] make recommendations to Congress each year on how to promote greater efficiency and higher quality in Medicare.  The Commission will not be authorized to propose or implement Medicare changes that ration care or affect benefits, eligibility or beneficiary access to care.

So they will cut vast waste without ever telling anyone they can’t get a treatment they want?  Fantasy.

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Just Beautiful

nebulaDon’t miss the hi-res version.

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Crazy Cones

On a long drive across the country this summer I noticed something odd about construction areas.  They put out cones to block off an area for construction many hours before the construction actually starts, and take them away many hours after the construction ends.  Most of the time you drive by a blocked-off area, there is no construction actually happening there, though there are a lot of travelers delayed by these cones.

Now I’m sure they save some time by being able to put out and pick up the cones on some schedule and plan convenient to them, and it would cost more to put out and pick up the cones just before and after the construction.  But I’m also sure that this extra cost would be far far less than the value of the time lost by the delayed travelers.  Why do they make such inefficient decisions?

I don’t expect full efficiency from governments, far from it, but I do expect them to try to appear somewhat efficient to voters, and I expect them to try especially hard on the most visible choices they make.  There is an awful lot that governments do that I suspect is inefficient, but it is usually hard to be very sure of that.  But these crazy cones look like a very clear case which is very visible to thousands of voters who have little else to do at that moment but fume about their inefficient government.

Why are governments be so very visibly inefficient, and why don’t voters punish them more for it?  We aren’t talking about some policy where emotions or moral considerations get people all confused and muddled, after all.  This isn’t about race or gender or precious bodily fluids  This is very simple and mechanical and obvious, for God’s sake.  What gives?

Added: A serious WordPress error deleted this post and all 20+ comments!!  I’ve just replaced the text, but not the comments. 🙁

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