Monthly Archives: November 2010

Postrel on Shiny Futures

I recently explained why The Future Seems Shiny:

Since we expect far away things to have less detail, we tend to imagine themwindturbine with fewer parts and flourishes, and less detailed textures and patterns. The future is not paisley. And in fact, if you Goggle “futuristic style” images, you’ll tend to see images like those in this post – simple, smooth, cool, blue, and sky/spacy. In a word, “shiny.”

Virginia Postrel elaborates on how this distorts policy:

When Robert J. Samuelson … [argued] that high-speed rail is “a perfect example of wasteful spending masquerading as a respectable social cause,” he … [calculated] that even the rosiest scenarios wouldn’t justify the investment. He made a good, rational case—only to have it completely undermined by the evocative photograph … to accompany the article.

The picture showed a sleek train bursting through blurred lines of track and scenery, the embodiment of elegant, effortless speed. … It was beautiful, manipulative and deeply glamorous. The same is true of photos of wind turbines adorning ads. … These graceful forms have succeeded the rocket ships and atomic symbols of the 1950s to become the new icons of the technological future. …

Glamour always contains an element of illusion. … It offers an escape from the compromises, flaws and distractions of real life. It shows no bills on the kitchen counter, no blisters under the high heels, no pimples on the movie star’s face. In those glamour shots, wind power seems clean, free and infinitely abundant. Turbines spin silently … The sky is unfailingly photogenic, … The landscape is both empty and beautiful. … The image of a speeding train, meanwhile, invites you to imagine taking it when and where you want, with no waiting, no crowds and no expensive tickets … no visible source of fuel. …

For at least some technophiles, in fact, the trains and windmills are goods in and of themselves, with climate change providing a reason to force the development and adoption of cool new machines that wouldn’t otherwise catch on. … The problems come, of course, in the things glamour omits, including all those annoyingly practical concerns the policy wonks insist on debating.

It seems that [at least one key kind of] glamour is far. Glamour presents a simplified idealized image, which appeals most when thinking about the glamorous object from a distance.  Such images tend to be targeted at observers who are socially far, and often physically far.

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Why College Cores?

College faculties taught from the same, fairly static list of Western scholars until the late 1800s, when the American research university took shape and students began to choose their own majors. A wave of immigrants in the early 1900s prompted a return to “core” academic programs that surveyed the Western intellectual tradition for students who hadn’t learned it in high school. The academic freedom movement of the 1960s set off another pendulum swing. …

Today, only a handful of national universities require students to survey the span of human knowledge. … Extreme is the “great books” approach of St. John’s College in Annapolis. … “They are perfectly capable of coming up to someone at a cocktail party and talking about their soul.” … But the great books model is at odds with the structures of research universities, whose faculties succeed by cultivating academic specialties. …

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni … handed out F grades in August to Hopkins and many of its peers. … [They] faulted the schools, including Yale, Brown, Cornell, Amherst and the University of California at Berkeley, for failing to require students to take courses in more than one of seven core academic subjects: math, science, history, economics, foreign language, literature and composition. … “Those schools don’t do a good job at providing their students with a coherent core.” …

The schools awarded “A” grades by the raters are an unusual bunch: highly structured military academies, a few public universities …, tradition-minded Christian institutions (Baylor University) and the “great books” schools. … Harvard, meanwhile, got a D. Only a few of the nation’s top national universities and liberal arts schools fared better. (more)

Whence this urge to make college students all take the same “core” classes? It might be paternalism re the intellectual health of the students. But if so, why only require this core of college students; why not make everyone take it? Why expect students to underestimate the benefit of core classes, even after they’ve heard your arguments for such classes? And why do advocates seem much less interested in which classes are in the core than that there be a common core?

Another theory is that students neglect being innovative because they don’t get all of its benefits, and people innovate more when they learn more than just one narrow field. But the usual breadth requirements seem sufficient for that purpose – people taking a variety of different breadth classes betters encourages finding unusual connections between fields. And we see little interest in encouraging people to know two fields in depth, which would seem to help cross-field connections the most.

A related theory is that a common core enables better communication between specialists in different areas. But again, this seems better encouraged by lots of diverse overlaps, and especially by people who know two fields in depth, than by everyone taking the same common core, Also, why not make non-college folks do this, and why don’t those who talk internalize gains from better communication?

An important clue here is that a burst of immigration coincided with an increased perceived need for a common core. So perhaps insiders wanted the core to create a stronger clearer contrast between “us” and “them.” One possibility is that people really wanted to push a certain package of “our” course content, in order to change immigrants from “them” into “us.” Under this theory, apparent advocate disinterest in core content is deceptive; they were confident that if we picked a standard core it would have the content they wanted.

Another possibility is that the common core was to affirm the high status of a kind of sophistication that immigrants and other outsiders lacked, and the low status of those who lacked it. Imagine that by luck or perseverance a person of “low” origins achieved great things in some narrow area, such as physics or computers. Imagine further that this person also read widely and learned about many different fields. With a standard common core one could still label this person as insufficiently intellectual, and below the status of a college graduate, if they had not learned the specific “diverse” things in the common core.

Any other theories?

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Bah Complex Regulation

There are many good arguments for and against regulation. But the strongest general economic argument against complex regulation is innovation:

A disease … is slowly killing the American economy. We are creating so much regulation – over tax policy, health care, financial activity – that smart people have figured out that they can get rich faster and more easily by manipulating rules on behalf of existing corporations than by creating net new activity and wealth. … It is always hard to start a business. It is especially hard to start an innovative business, one that will foster a new technology or business method. … The two largest pieces of legislation enacted in the past two years – health care and financial reform – are very vague. …

This is highly dangerous to innovation, which depends on clear and transparent rules. The more complexity, the more incumbents are favored. They have the capital to participate in complicated regulatory proceedings. They can hire high-priced lobbyists to present facts in a light most favorable to them. … The World Bank ranks the United States 62nd in the world in terms of how easy it is to pay taxes – and with a 16,000-page tax code, this is no surprise. .. So, what is to be done? … It is time for Congress to do the hard job of saying what lawmakers mean in clear and easy-to-understand language. … We should reject bills that are thousands of pages or that delegate vast authority to unelected regulators. (more)

Growth is continuing even with heavy and complex regulation, so its not quite fair to say that is “killing” the economy.  But to those who try to develop products and services that stand a chance of substantially changing existing practices, it is pretty obvious that complex regulations are their main preventable obstacle. And these are the innovations that have the best chance of producing a large social surplus relative to private profit. Most new products and services, in contrast, are far more likely to benefit some firms at the expense of others, giving a low and perhaps negative net social gain.

If our hope is that Congress will volunteer to do a hard job, well we can just give up now. Since this innovation-hindering effect of complex regulation has been long known, you might think opponents of regulation would emphasize it loud and often. After all, even a small increase in growth rates due to more innovation offers enormous gains to our grandchildren and further descendants. But regulatory opponents hardly mention such gains; they realize that this argument has little emotional punch. Why?  An obvious answer: people hardly care about future generations.

But people do find it engaging to invoke future generations when they argue that carbon taxes will save future generations, or that redistribution today will hurt future generations. What is the difference? My theory: non-ideological stuff we don’t fundamentally care about is mainly interesting when it connects to ideological stuff, i.e., standard left-right positions we commonly argue. Key implications of such positions, or arguments for or against them, are interesting to us. But since both future generations and regulation complexity are mostly non-ideological, the connection between them is just not of interest. Politics is not about policy.

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Deathbed Regret Is Far

“No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time in the office,” the saying goes. … I have my doubts. (more)

Ben Casnocha likes palliative care worker Bronnie Ware’s “top regrets … from her patients on their death beds” (HT Tyler):

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

For ten years my wife has been a hospice social worker, supporting ten dying patients a week. And she can’t recall any of those 5000 patients ever spontaneously expressing a general life regret. She usually gives open-ended questions like “tell us about your life” and sometimes dying folk express apologies to particular people, or regret that a surprise early death prevents particular plans like visiting Europe. Sometimes patients say what they are proud of about their lives, or how they’d like to be remembered. But they just never give general regrets about their lives. Who would?

Ms. Ware said regrets are expressed “when questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently”; my wife isn’t thrilled about this as a care technique.

Deathbed folks are usually far from their analytical peak – they are often in great pain, and rather muddle-headed. So why would we think their comments especially insightful? I suspect we attach unrealistic significance to deathbed words because we are terrified to think about death, and eager to show our devotion to the dead and dying.

But if deathbed regrets are less than reliable descriptions of reality, where might they come from? One theory is that they are like the famous interview question “What is your main fault?”, which evoke answers like “I work too hard” or “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” These are obviously attempts to brag about a good feature, but call it a “fault.” All but regret #4 above fit this directly – they basically say “I sacrificed so much for you people.” Regret #4 similarly declares how much the dying cares about others.

Another theory is that deathbed regrets arise from taking a far view of our lives. The far mental mode is more happy, social, and idealistic, and the above regrets express a commitment to the ideals of happiness, friend and family, and resistance to conformity pressures.

It may be good to take stock of your life and consider your basic priorities. And you might do well to listen to spontaneous comments by those experienced in life on the mistakes they’ve made. But what pain-pinned muddle-headed dying folks say when pushed to express regrets seems unlikely to be especially informative.

Added 9a: Stephen Smith suggests these regrets are the predictable result of opiate pain medication.

Added 24Nov: Andy McKenzie points to studies showing “as time since a decision grows, people tend to shift their regrets towards not making the hedonistic decision.”

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Naked Classism

When San Francisco banned the McDonalds Happy Meal, Adam Ozimek said that illustrated the slippery slope of paternalism; if we’ll ban that, what won’t we ban? Now the US Feds offer a bigger example:

The Food and Drug Administration said it had concluded that adding caffeine to alcohol was unsafe and unapproved. … The products … have become a favorite among college students. … Treasury Department officials announced … the companies would be told that the products had been mislabeled and were therefore illegal to be shipped. And the Federal Trade Commission told the companies that marketing the products might violate federal law.

cans1

Federal officials were facing increasing pressure to take action in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents. … Students … ended up in the emergency room after consuming the most popular of the drinks, Four Loko, including some with alcohol poisoning. In other incidents, deaths and fatal car crashes have been blamed on the drinks. …

The drinks … contain high levels of alcohol and caffeine, making it difficult for people to realize how intoxicated they are, experts say. … Consuming one can of Four Loko is the equivalent of drinking as many as five cans of beer and a cup of coffee. …

Four Loko [said] … “If it were unsafe, popular drinks like rum and colas or Irish coffees . . . would face the same scrutiny that our products recently faced.” … It had previously added multiple warning labels to its cans.

My college student son assures me caffeine doesn’t keep kids from knowing they are drunk, and it is easier to track drinking with a few big cans than with lots of little shots; they usually limit themselves to one or two cans a night. Those who want to binge can do so just as easily without the cans. But the facts don’t seem to matter.

cans2The FDA likes to present itself as a paragon of scientific rigor, but there is no rigor here. No randomized experiments or even careful regressions. Just public pressure to “do something” about vivid examples of “those people” hurting themselves.

Little remains of the rule of law precept to treat people equally. The exact same chemical combinations which are fine to serve rich old folks at cocktail receptions, are banned in cheap cans from convenience store coolers. Clearly the goal is to target particular vaguely-imagined classes of people, and regulators would be fine with having the law specify the color of the cans, the geographic locations, time of purchase, form of financing, whatever it took to get to “them” without overly bothering “us.”

And this is where the slippery slope of paternalism leads: naked classism. When we the good people notice that those distrusted others do things that don’t seem proper to us, well we should just pass whatever laws it takes to make them toe our line. Surely it wouldn’t be responsible to just let them do stuff we wouldn’t, right?

Added 8a: mtraven points us to a CDC fact sheet, which cites exactly one randomized experiment with 26 subjects, whose abstract says:

When compared with the ingestion of alcohol alone, the ingestion of alcohol plus energy drink significantly reduced subjects’ perception of … impairment of motor coordination. However, the ingestion of the energy drink did not significantly reduce the deficits caused by alcohol on objective motor coordination.

They saw no difference after 30 minutes, but after 120 minutes the perception of altered motor control under alcohol was 15 +/- 15 (0 is none, 100 is max), while under alcohol plus energy drink was 11+/- 12, and under energy drink alone was 6 +/- 12.  They pooled the later two groups to get a 5% significant difference from the first group!  That’s not remotely kosher.

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Bungling Bounties

Back on ’07 I posted on how the NSF thwarts Congress’ efforts to “pay for results” in research via prizes:

NSF pulled the usual agency trick of stalling until Congressional pressure faded. and those who get the usual money the usual way made sure the official recommendation was for no change in that; only a little money, and only new money, should go to new methods.

This week the NYT tells how the SEC thwarts Congress’ efforts to “pay for results” in law enforcement via bounties:

When insider-trading scandals plagued the financial markets in the late 1980s, lawmakers created a bounty program for whistle-blowers, allowing regulators to reward tipsters who uncovered evidence of manipulation. The effort largely failed, in part because the issue of whether to make a reward payment was left to the discretion of regulators. In 20 years, the program paid out a total of less than $160,000 to a handful of whistle-blowers.

Now, Congress and financial-market regulators are revamping a reward system for whistle-blowers, offering big payouts for tips about a host of securities and commodity law violations, to be doled out from a new $451 million fund. …

Already, business executives and trade groups are arguing that those lottery-size windfalls … will make it harder for companies to police themselves and will pit employees in search of a big payday against a company’s effort to make sure it is obeying the law. …

The proposed S.E.C. rules … exclude a large raft of people from receiving potential awards. Experience with other bounty programs shows that most whistle-blowers receive relatively small awards and that their lives are often made miserable as part of the experience. Other government agencies also have ramped up their whistle-blower bounties in recent years. The Internal Revenue Service whistle-blower program, revised as part of the 2006 Tax Relief Act, awards 15 percent to 30 percent of the proceeds it collects in enforcement actions worth more than $2 million, or in the case of individual taxpayers, $200,000 in gross income. The False Claims Act, a century-old law updated last year that rewards people who uncover fraud against the government, also can produce blockbuster awards. …

Part of the incentive for the new financial whistle-blower program was the failure of the S.E.C. to catch some of the most egregious wrongdoing that surfaced after the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. … Staff had received numerous early warnings and detailed complaints about Mr. Madoff but had not performed a thorough investigation. …

The new programs … require the payment of 10 to 30 percent of the penalty or amount recovered when a whistle-blower’s tips provide the basis for a case involving violations of securities or commodities laws.

In drawing up its rules, the S.E.C. said it wanted to encourage employees to go first to their corporate compliance departments, offering potentially higher rewards for whistle-blowers who did so. … Employees who turned to corporate compliance officers … have often been fired. [HT Alex T.]

I don’t have high hopes as long as the S.E.C. designs the process, and decides who to prosecute when. Now if we move toward a full bounty system, where the bounty hunter could collect evidence, and then choose to prosecute the case, we’d see a much stronger deterrent. Which is of course why finance firms prefer the S.E.C. to retain full control.

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Get Eggs Froze

A few years back I endorsed an unfairly-neglected tech to extend life: cryonics.  Yesterday, Amara Graps reminded me of a related unfairly-neglected fertility-promoting tech: egg freezing. Slate in March:

In 2004, the fertility field’s professional organization, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), declared egg freezing “experimental.” … In an unprecedented paper calling for the removal of the experimental label, three of the world’s most prominent researchers in egg freezing claim the technology has vastly improved and is safe: Frozen-egg babies, so far, have no more health problems than the rest of the population. Doctors who support the experimental classification argue that more research is needed and say they’re still uneasy offering the technology to vulnerable women who might unwisely be counting on their frozen eggs years after extraction. … Egg freezing … has been unfairly singled out. By comparison, the adoption processes of other breakthroughs in fertility medicine, such as freezing embryos, injecting sperm into eggs to help men with low sperm count, or screening embryos for abnormalities, have been more informal. … The ASRM did not assign them the term ‘experimental.’ “

In fact, egg freezing received such an outsized institutional smackdown that the ASRM pointedly said it “should not be marketed or offered as a means to defer reproductive aging.” Why the special treatment? Many members … feared women would use egg freezing as “baby insurance” by paying $8,000 to $13,000 per cycle to stash away some good eggs in case their fertility is gone by the time they’re ready to become mothers. …

Many IVF programs are achieving the same success rates using frozen eggs as they normally would with fresh eggs. … Other practitioners have less stellar results. Many have no data at all because they’ve never thawed the eggs they’ve frozen. Although 54 percent of American clinics now offer the procedure, only 1,500 babies have been created from frozen eggs in the world. … With more competition, professional standards would rise and the price might even go down.

Seems docs discourage freezing eggs because they fear people might find, horrors, that it works and adds value. Gee we wouldn’t want people using something that might save the world from a falling fertility collapse!  Sigh. Yes, let’s encourage this, and get usage up and costs down.

Let’s not forget at a big cause of falling fertility is women thinking they can wait longer than they can to have kids. Here’s Bryan citing a 2001 survey:

In the survey, “high-achieving women” are basically those in the top 10% of the distribution of female income. … Survey highlights:

  • 33% of high-achievers … are childless at age 40.
  • “Looking back to their early twenties… only 14 percent said they definitely had not wanted children. … More than a quarter … in the 41-55-year-old age bracket said they would still like to have children”
  • Only 1% … had a first child after 39.
  • 89% of young high-achieving women believe they can get pregnant into their 40s. In reality, only 3-5% of women in their early 40s are able to have a live birth using in vitro fertilization.

For more quotes, here is Nature in 2007: Continue reading "Get Eggs Froze" »

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Talk Tonight at Heritage

I’m talking briefly tonight, 6p, on “Paying For Results”, to the Prosperity Caucus, at A.E.I., 1150 Seventeenth Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036  [Heritage in DC].  The announcement is wrong, as it says the date is tomorrow.

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Fertility: The Big Problem

Many folks want to save the world. Especially young, single, energetic folks. Especially if they also get to:

  1. Support their side in common political/etc. divides.
  2. Affiliate with statusful prestigious folks who share their cause.
  3. Network with other young energetic single folk in the process.
  4. Show off being informed on progress, options on this issue.
  5. Show off via gadget making, activity organizing, or art.
  6. Show devotion and self-control via paying exceptional costs.
  7. Have a vivid chance of making a huge personal difference.

But alas, while popular save-the-world causes offer many such perks, the cause of fertility, my guess for the world’s biggest problem today, is neglected in part because it offers few such perks.

The problem is this: If the falling-fertility trend of the last two centuries continues for another century (see fertility vs time and income here; more fertility stats here), we might well see a fully-developed world with fertility <1.5, lifespan >90, tax funded leisure for all over 65, and perhaps also >30% of GDP spent on “free” medicine for all. The resulting rapidly falling population would cut the scale economies that contribute to economic growth today. And strong intrusive innovation-limiting global governments might be required to keep young workers paying >75% income tax rates to support the retired masses. (Imagine young low-tax African nations forced at gunpoint to pay “their share” of the world’s retiree burden.)

Yes, robots might save us, yes even if they don’t growth will probably continue anyway, and yes eventually if incomes fell far enough or with enough time fertility would eventually rise again. So this is not directly an existential risk. But such a long stressful period would at least make us more vulnerable to other risks, risks that great filter considerations suggest are bigger than they seem. Yes, other potential problems may seem more serious than falling fertility, but remember those are mostly hypothetical, while falling fertility is actually happening.

This fertility problem is in principle easily reduced: just have more kids. But since that strategy offers few of the extra cause-perks listed above, I don’t expect fertility to become a popular cause. After all, we’ve seen this problem coming for a while, and it will take a long while to play out. So you can’t claim to be in the vanguard of a perceptive few who finally see the problem, or who will finally solve it. Elites have long been leaders in lowering fertility, making more-fertility folks seem lower status. The fertility problem doesn’t offer many excuses for new gadgets or networking events, and the joys of parenthood have long been explored in the arts. Furthermore, if you pick mates before having kids, having kids works poorly as an excuse to meet potential mates. Finally, your having more kids can only make a tiny dent in the overall problem, and the sacrifices you’d make to have kids would not be exceptional relative to your ancestors’ sacrifices. It is hard to tell grand hero stories here.

The good news is that we understand our likely biggest problem well enough that you can do something substantial about it, nearly as much as anyone can do. And, alas, that is also the bad news.

Now for many long quotes from two articles. First a recent article: Continue reading "Fertility: The Big Problem" »

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Collapse Was Slow

The abstract of a new 3-page Science article:

An eclectic group of scholars who met recently at the University of Cambridge argues that true social collapse is a rare phenomenon. They say that new data demonstrate that classic examples of massive collapse such as the disintegration of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, the end of the Classic Maya period, and the vanishing of pre-Columbian societies of the U.S. Southwest were neither sudden nor disastrous for all segments of their populations. Rome, for example, didn’t fall in a day; recent work underscores the fact that the sack of Rome was just one step in a long and complex spiral of decline that affected peoples of the empire differently. This emphasis on decline and transformation rather than abrupt fall represents something of a backlash against a recent spate of claims that environmental disasters, both natural and humanmade, are the true culprits behind many ancient societal collapses.

The important bottom line: yes societies have “collapsed,” but usually rather locally, taking centuries, and only moderately influenced by climate change. To avoid our future collapse, we should not be overly focused on climate or ecology, or on sudden collapse scenarios, where refuges might be useful. Let us instead look to the more basic long-run stability of our social order. Quotes: Continue reading "Collapse Was Slow" »

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