Monthly Archives: June 2010

Spent vs. Ridicule

I just re-watched Ridicule, a ’97 movie I’d liked. Its villains are Versailles courtiers just before the French Revolution, and its heroes are two young idealist engineer nobles seeking money, a man to drain a swamp to improve peasant health, and a woman to help her invent underwater gear. Both are tempted by the “corrupt” Versailles community to sell sex for favors, and the man also to maneuver politically and to spar for the peak of Versailles prestige, a reputation for wit, i.e., clever spontaneous, often insulting, remarks. He sells but is outwitted and fails, she refuses to sell, but no matter, the revolution kills off their rivals a few years later.

Interestingly, in many ways these “corrupt” courtiers achieve the ideal Geoffrey Miller advocated in Spent:

We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates. We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits .. we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits. Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies. … As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient. … Almost every other way of acquiring and displaying human artifacts or experiences sends richer signals about one’s personal qualities. … Buying … offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events … It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances.

The Versailles courtiers described in Ridicule were clearly intended to be despised by movie viewers. Yet they avoided consumerism and returned to forager ways in important ways. That is, they gained status not by buying things but attracting loyal allies and by displaying very personal rich story-full signals, little mediated by wealth or institutions: spontaneous verbal wit. Courtiers also revived forager-levels of promiscuity which, by his go-back-to-what-worked logic, Miller should also approve. But I’ll bet he doesn’t.

So why don’t anti-consumerist let’s-signal-via-storyfull-human-interaction folks celebrate Versailles’ witty courtiers? I’ll bet it is simply that they were rich while others were poor. But we are rich in a world where others are poor. So how could anti-consumerist habits ever vindicate us?

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When Myths Meet Tech

A standard story:

In the bad old days, police gave lip service to law, but actually often looked the other way, issued street justice, planted evidence, or lied under oath, all to implement their own sense of who should be punished, to gain payola, or to bow to the necessities of political influence. While this situation continues in much of the world, in our great nation, ta da, heroic legal activists appealed to our better natures, and shamed us into constraining the police, judges, etc. to actually follow the legal principles to which they give lip service. Sure sometimes we find a few bad apples, but now we mostly do just apply the law neutrally.

This heroic myth is now colliding with rapidly falling costs of recording our interactions with police, and with each other. When such clear evidence is usually available, we will have to either actually follow our legal principles, or be obvious about not doing so. Surely we wouldn’t just make it illegal to record interactions with police, right?

In far idealistic mode, many are tempted to accept this standard story, and assume that any laws against recording one’s interactions with police must be a temporary error, surely to be overturned when the good voters become aware of the outrage. We’d never so transparently turn our backs on our core legal principles, right?  Consider:

In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer. Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized. …

A few weeks ago, an Illinois judge rejected a motion to dismiss an eavesdropping charge against Christopher Drew, who recorded his own arrest for selling one-dollar artwork on the streets of Chicago. … In 2001, when Michael Hyde was arrested for criminally violating the state’s electronic surveillance law – aka recording a police encounter – the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld his conviction 4-2. ..

The selection of “shooters” targeted for prosecution do, indeed, suggest a pattern of either reprisal or an attempt to intimidate. … Recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. …

A recent arrest in Maryland is both typical and disturbing. On March 5, 24-year-old Anthony John Graber III’s motorcycle was pulled over for speeding. He is currently facing criminal charges for a video he recorded on his helmet-mounted camera during the traffic stop. …

Cameras have become the most effective weapon that ordinary people have to protect against and to expose police abuse. And the police want it to stop. Happily, even as the practice of arresting “shooters” expands, there are signs of effective backlash. At least one Pennsylvania jurisdiction has reaffirmed the right to video in public places. As part of a settlement with ACLU attorneys who represented an arrested “shooter,” the police in Spring City and East Vincent Township adopted a written policy allowing the recording of on-duty policemen.

And this is all about the official rules. I’m pretty sure that unofficially, police have ways of punishing you for trying to record them, even if you are legally allowed to do so. Consider also:

An obvious enabler of police corruption is the fact that internal affairs units, tasked with exposing corruption, usually report to the same police chief that would be embarrassed by such exposure, and who may also be corrupt. An obvious solution is to make internal affairs more independent, e.g., reporting directly to a city council or even a governor.

This isn’t some temporary lack of adaptation to a new tech; the obvious solution has been possible, and ignored, for a long long time.  Now ask yourself honestly, in near mode, what you think will usually happen in ten years to someone who tries to visibly record their interaction with police.

Added 16June: New from the Post:

The decades-old wiretap law has suddenly become a fresh battleground for civil libertarians and bloggers who consider Graber’s prosecution and a series of similar arrests a case of government overreach.

Count me as one of those bloggers. 🙂

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Regulator Status

Tyler on Dan Carpenter’s new book Reputation and Power:

This book … is the most comprehensive and most detailed study of a regulatory agency written — ever. … It will prove a model for future investigations. … The starting point is the notion of reputational capital and the claim that the FDA seeks to preserve and extend its reputation, for a variety of political reasons. … The framework is then used to address numerous questions, including the following … The author makes a strong case that the FDA is one of the most powerful and most important regulatory agencies in the world. … This is not mainly a partisan book in one direction or the other, though on net I read the author as wishing to see a stronger FDA.

I just skimmed the book for a few hours and attended a talk by and Q&A with Carpenter. The book is indeed impressively detailed, but it goes out of its way to avoid the key policy questions: whether US drug regulation is overall too strong or weak, whether regulators have too much or little discretion, etc. He mainly talked about what did happen, not about what should have happened.

While Carpenter is not without criticisms of the FDA, he seems to overall approve, and even fawn at times. Carpenter is especially impressed that the FDA become known and respected for introducing a “scientific” approach to regulation, that the FDA had the world’s best drug scientists for a while, that most other nations now mimic its approach, and that a few regulators acquired great discretion to control a big powerful industry.

It seems to me that the FDA’s rare “reputation” that so impresses Carpenter was not for doing well at trading off social costs and benefits of regulation, but was instead a reputation for scientific prestige. Many folks care far more that the FDA exalted scientists, and that the US gained prestige via its prestigious scientists, than whether this regulatory regime was too strict or weak in terms of trading harm, health, and costs for US citizens.

Similarly, Carpenter himself will now be the academic go-to guy on the FDA for the next generation. Whenever folks want advice on FDA changes or on related regulation of other industries, he’ll be invited to speak. It doesn’t matter that he went out of his way to avoid such issues in his book – he showed at his Q&A that he is quite willing to offer such advice anyway. Those who seek academic advisors mainly want to affiliate with the most impressive related academics available; they don’t care if such advisors haven’t demonstrated expertise specifically on their policy question. Being the big FDA academic will be quite enough.

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Let All Med Hang Out?

I assign my undergrad students papers on unusual policy proposals, and grade those papers on the number of important relevant arguments offered, pro or con. While I ask students to take an overall position on the policy proposal, this position doesn’t influence grades.

Overall my students oppose change, moderately favoring whatever is the status quo. So I was quite surprised to see them favoring change in the last paper I assigned in Health Econ.  85% of my students said yes to: Should all medical practice data be published, aside from data identifying patients?

The idea is to publish all births, deaths, disabilities claimed, and all medical records, including doc visits, med tests, drug prescriptions made/used, amounts billed, etc. Docs would be fully identified, but patients would be identified by age, gender, weight, height, etc. — not enough to tell which ordinary person it was. After a semester of seeing how little we really know about modern med, students appreciated that revealing all this info would greatly aid comparison shopping, of docs, hospitals, treatments, etc., both in quality and in price terms.

Could this be a politically feasible change from the status quo?!

Added 8a: Well of course even identifying people by age is enough to identify folks if done with perfect accuracy (e.g., born 23/12/87, 8:36:27.14625 am).  So of course the idea is to not identify age, weight, height with perfect accuracy.  Of course even then there would some rate of error when info is mistakenly revealed; but surely some rate is tolerable.

Added 10p: Wow – while some are concerned about violating rights and government power, no commenter here seems to think this proposal would reduce overall social welfare or economic efficiency! Seems most agree that this is a clear net win that just won’t happen anytime soon.

Added 10June: Karl Smith says reveal it all.

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Rise & Fall of War

There seems to be lots of confusion on the history of war, so let me try to clarify. Most confusion comes from seeking a one-way trend, as in “is there more or less war than in ancient times?” Problem is: overall, warfare increased, then decreased.

Since WWII, at least, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in casualties from wars between states, from civil wars, and from crime. While these are lowest in richer nations, the strongest correlate seems to be the fraction of men aged 15-30. The fewer young men, the less war/crime. Rich societies today likely have the lowest war/murder rates ever. Rich industry does seem to have greatly discouraged war.

Yes, most of the “tribal” societies that anthropologists study have high rates of war.  But most of these are intermediate forms between very distant ancestors and very modern societies, with many relatively modern features. So high rates of war in such tribes does not imply that our very distant ancestors had such high rates.

The rise in density before, during, and after farming seems to have been associated with a huge increase in war. Long ago, strong social norms limited violence within nomadic forager bands, and the fact that one gender typically moved to neighboring bands to find mates greatly discouraged attacking such bands.  War was hard for foragers, as hostile victims were far away, at unpredictable locations, and with few physical goods worth taking; women taken in war could easily escape.  Trading places, with predictable locations and trade worth taxing, made the first good war targets. Increasing density made targets easier to reach and find, and marriage as property made wars to grab women more tempting.  Herding helped attacking armies to travel further and faster, while farming created more tempting and harder-to-defend targets to attack.

War is hell, not an especially modern hell, but also not an especially ancient hell.  War is most distinctly, a farmer’s hell.

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It seems that our distant forager ancestors beat wives but not kids, and weren’t remotely monogamous. They had huge inequalities in status and sex, but low material inequality, due to generous sharing and few durable goods.  They had little overt dominance or positions of power, and valued trust and honesty greatly.  Justice was personal, with personal violence and suicide rare.

How do I know all this?  David Youngberg and I summarize cultural-anthro data on foragers:

Using an existing dataset aggregated from diverse ethnographies, we collect statistics on the social environment of the studied cultures which most closely resemble our hunter-gatherer ancestors. …

Such foragers have neither formal class stratification nor slavery. While private property is usually present, most forager societies have no rich, and none have any poor or dispossessed.

Food sharing is always common. Compared to the most “modern” societies in the larger sample (which are different from us today), disease stress is similar, suicide and murder are rare, conflict casualty rates are lower, and fewer believe in an evil eye. Violence is never over resources, and when enemies are driven from a territory no one uses that territory.

A person wronged always directly punishes the guilty; they never use a third party. If there is a substantial dispute, one side will likely leave the community. Leaders carefully cultivate support before acting, and none have a formal leadership position. Polygamy is always allowed and usually socially preferred. Co-wives either live together or one lives with a husband while the rest live in entirely different bands. On average, about 35% of men have more than one wife, and 50% of women are in a polygamous marriage (vs. 3% and 7% in modern societies).

People are expected to have premarital sex, which is usually common. Extramarital sex is also usually common, though it is usually not acceptable for women. Adults talk about sex openly. While wife-beating exists, divorce is easy. Boys and girls are equally preferred, and women are considered equals of men.

Mothers are usually the main, but not only caregiver of kids. Relative to modern societies, kids are taught more to be generous, trusting, and honest. Parents more emphasize their love for kids, and kids are never punished physically. Adolescents sleep away from their parents.

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School Status Moves

As I was blogging about school, I happened across a fantastic film:

The beauty of The Class is that it puts the lie to the one-teacher-can-make-a-difference myth propagated by so many other films; Bégaudeau may well have an impact on his students, but he and the film have the wisdom to understand that some kids can’t be reached, and teachers often find that cultural or bureaucratic conditions leave their hands tied.

By the director of the also great Heading South, The Class is about:

Lessons schoolchildren learn on their way to the office, factory, shop, unemployment line and perhaps even prison: sit down, raise your hand, stand up, get in line, keep quiet. … The Class slides its points in at an angle, letting them emerge from the children’s chatter.

Watching this film twice made it clear to me that the main classroom dynamic, at least in inner city classrooms, is status moves. Teachers struggle to maintain control and respect, while students struggle to one-up one another and to avoid being dominated by teachers. When getting lower grades is the price of preserving their pride, it is a price most students are willing to pay. Students may not learn much about conjugating French verbs, but they learn lots about how best to gain respect and when they can and can’t resist domination.

Some describe such students as “impulsive,” or “present-oriented,” for sacrificing long-term success to gain momentary pleasures of defiance. But this seems to me to miss the point. I mostly did what I was told in school, but not because I weighed distant future success against current humiliation. I didn’t frame obeying the teacher as humiliation; I framed teacher-praise as raising my status, not as selling out to the man. And I didn’t see my teachers as representatives of a ruling class that unfairly keeps my people down.

I’m not sure where these framings come from, but to me this mildly confirms that one of the main functions of school is to get kids to accept the sorts of ranking and dominance that are common in industrial societies.

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Overconfident Innovation

Some sorts of overconfidence benefit the world:

This paper uses … [a] measure of overconfidence, based on CEO stock-option exercise, to study the relationship between a CEO’s “revealed beliefs” about future performance and standard measures of corporate innovation. … The model predicts that overconfident CEOs, who underestimate the probability of failure, are more likely to pursue innovation, and that this effect is larger in more competitive industries. We test these predictions on a panel of large publicly traded firms for the years 1980 to 1994. We find a robust positive association between overconfidence and citation-weighted patent counts in both cross-sectional and fixed-effect models. This effect is larger in more competitive industries. Our results suggest that overconfident CEOs are more likely to take their firms in a new technological direction. (more)

Added 8JunePostrel on John Nye:

Professor Nye argued that the wins and the losses probably don’t cancel out. Even the biggest winners don’t make enough money personally to cover the losses of all the individuals who went into businesses that failed. … The lucky-fools theory suggests, then, that Victorian Britain’s economy was successful but stagnant not because investors were irrationally afraid of risks but because they were all too mature and calculating. They didn’t tolerate the foolish chances that a vital economy requires.

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The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. …

This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. …

One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones. …

Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, unreal events can be more moving than real ones. There are three reasons for this.  First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn’t include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you. (more)

Yes modern stories and art are more enticing than were those of our distant forager ancestors.  But their stories and art also occupied much of their time, especially when food was plentiful.  It seems rather implausible that this was only because “imagination … hijack[s] mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure.”  Surely our foragers would have evolved a resistance to such imagination, if it in fact wasted valuable time.  I’m pretty confident that since foragers had stories and art, then stories and art must have served, and still serve, important functions.

Modern humans often prefer to believe that the activities which they most treasure have no evolutionary function – that they were accidents.  This attitude helps them stay blind to those functions, awareness of which would make their treasured activities seem less noble.

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Self-Control Is Slavery

I’ve been pondering 3 related points.  1) Self-Control Is Culture-Control:

It seems to me that … the key change after farming [was] an increased sensitivity to culture, so that social sanctions became better able to push behavior contrary to other inclinations. … This increased sensitivity to the carrots and sticks of culture generally appears to us as greater “self-control”, i.e., as our better resisting immediate inclinations for other purposes. And since we have more self-control in far mode, I suspect an important component of change since farming has been greater inclinations toward and abilities in far mode.

2) Fogel & Engerman’s economic classic analysis of US slavery:

Plantation agriculture based upon slave labor … may have been significantly more efficient than family farming. … The typical slave field-hand may have been more productive than a free, white field-hand. … Slavery was not incompatible with industrial production. … Slave-labor farms were 28 percent more productive than southern free-labor farms and 40 percent more productive than northern free-labor farms. …

Plantation operators strove for a disciplined, specialized and coordinated labor force. Labor was organized into something like the assembly line operations in industry. This involved “driving” the slaves’ efforts to maintain a pace of production. The “drivers” or foremen were slaves themselves. …

Plantations had a much higher rate of labor force participation, two thirds, as compared with a free population, one third. This was achieved by finding productive pursuits for the young and the elderly and maintaining nurseries so that slave women could work.

3) The latest AER on designing work to aid self-control:

The Industrial Revolution involved workers moving from agriculture to manufacturing; from working on their own to working with others in factories; and from flexible work-hours to rigid work-days. … Some work-place arrangements may make self-control problems more severe, while others may ameliorate them. … The firm … can use regular compensation to … make the returns to effort more immediate. Firms can also create disproportionate penalties for certain types of low efforts … so as to create sharp self-control incentives. … Conforming to an externally set pace, however, can decrease these self-control costs. … Workers planting rice-fields often find it helpful to synchronize movements to music or to beats. In industrial production, the assembly line may serve a similar purpose. … An intrinsic competitive drive may make the momentary self exert more effort when surrounded by hard-working coworkers. Young boys run races faster when running alongside another boy than when running alone. …

[Farming] creates difficult self-control problems. First, it involves long time horizons — farmers must tend their land constantly for months before reaping benefits at harvest. These lags can generate suboptimal effort in early stages of production. Financially, farmers may also fail to save enough money out of lumpy harvest payments to make efficient investments during the production cycle, further affecting labor supply returns and output. Second, agriculture often involves self-employment or very small firms. As a result, there are rarely firms or large employers to mitigate the self-control problem. Tasks cannot be structured, compensation altered, or work intensity regulated. Finally, agrarian production by nature is also geographically dispersed, which makes colocation of workers difficult. … This can help explain the observation that work hours appear to be low in modern-day subsistence agriculture. …

In the workshop system, workers rented floor space or machinery in factories, received pure piece rates for output … Clark presents evidence that workers under the workshop system had very unsteady attendance and hours, spent a lot of time socializing at work, and concentrated effort in the latter half of the week leading up to paydays. Clark argues that this led firms to transition to the factory discipline system to solve self-control problems.

OK, now let’s put it all together.  Apparently, factory-like methods that greatly increase farming productivity have long been feasible.  (First known factory: Venice Arsenal, 1104.)  Yet it took slaves to actually implemented such methods in farming. Even after ten thousand years of Malthusian competition, a farming method that could support a much larger population per land area did not displace other methods.  (And if factory-fortified foraging was possible, the timescale problem gets much worse.)

The introduction of farming was associated with important new elements, like religion, that encouraged more “self-control,” i.e. sensitivity to social norms.  However, those additions were not sufficient to achieve factory-like farming — most humans had too little self-control to make themselves behave that way, and too strong an anti-dominance norm to let rulers enforce such behavior.

This dramatically illustrates the huge self-control innovations that came with industry. School, propaganda, mass media, and who knows what else have greatly changed human nature, enabling a system of industrial submission and control that proud farmers and foragers simply would not tolerate – they would (and did) starve first.  In contrast, industry workers had enough self/culture-control to act as only slaves would before – working long hours in harsh alien environments, and showing up on time and doing what they were told.

So what made industry workers so much more willing to increase their self-control, relative to farmers?  One guess: the productivity gains from worker self-control were far larger in industry than in farming. Instead of a 50% gain, it might have been a factor of two or more. Self-controlled workers and societies gained a big enough productivity advantage to compensate for lost pride.

Humans are an increasingly self-domesticated species. Foragers could cooperate in non-kin groups of unprecedented size, farmers could enforce norms to induce many behaviors unnatural for foragers, and the schooled humans of industry would willingly obey like enslaved farmers. Our descendants may evolve even stronger self/culture-control of behavior.

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