2007-11-21

The four anti-economic biases

My previous attempt at satire about boycotting Santa was inspired by this article on reason, which excerpts Bryan Caplan's book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. The article talks about how there are four basic biases with which most people are burdened:
  • the anti-market bias - people believe that prices are set by the whims of CEOs rather than by market mechanisms of supply and demand; people don't believe that prices set by the market are fair; people believe that profits are an "unjust reward";
  • the anti-foreign bias - trade between individuals is a non-zero-sum game and is good, trade among towns is a non-zero-sum game and is good, trade among regions is a non-zero-sum game and is good - but trade among countries is a zero-sum game and is dangerous;
  • the make-work bias - people believe that there are a finite amount of "jobs" that need to be "preserved" and "protected"; and
  • the pessimistic bias - people believe that the past used to be better and the future is going to be worse, despite empirical evidence to the contrary.
The Santa article illustrates the make-work bias in particular. If Santa brings us goods for free, everyone benefits; people who are laid off in the toy industry can always find more work elsewhere; the supply of work that can be done is infinite, if only people are left free to find that work.

No one needs to be protected from receiving gifts from Santa, or from getting Chinese goods on the cheap. As long as we can rely on Santa to bring us an annual infusion of free toys, or on the Chinese to keep delivering their goods in exchange for a small quantity of ours, that's great - we can make better use of our workforce in other industries. Like the reason article quotes Steven Landsburg from his book The Armchair Economist:
There are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa. Everybody knows about the first technology; let me tell you about the second. First you plant seeds, which are the raw materials from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships westward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.

Boycott Santa! Free the elves! Support your local toy store

The festive season is upon us, and with this time every year comes the night when Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Frost or Father Christmas, whatever name depending on the culture he may be referred with, makes his silent visits under the cover of darkness to bestow prized gifts on children who have behaved well during the past year.

As every year, the majority of children who have been good have all the reasons to look forward to this magical night when rewards for their past good behavior will come into fruition. Yet, in our focus on Santa and his bounty, we tend to ignore the lives of those who do not stand to benefit from Santa's benevolence. In all our festive joyfulness, we tend to ignore that Santa's bringing gifts to children is not equitable to everybody - and by that, I do not mean the naughty children who do not receive his gifts. No. Dear reader, let us turn our minds and hearts towards the poor people who are truly and materially disadvantaged by Santa's annual act of giving: our toy workers.

As is commonly known, Santa does not buy toys at the local market, but instead has them manufactured in his own extensive residence at the North Pole. Presumably, this is to ruthlessly drive down the cost of manufacture. The toys are manufactured in sweatshop-like conditions by toiling elves, who are compensated little or nothing for the fruits of their labor. Another advantage (but only to Santa!) is that, come the day of distribution, he can collect the toys all at once from elvish factories at his doorstep. If he had to instead gather toys from local shops all over the planet, this would support the organic growth of local economies - but his work would perhaps be marginally harder. This is yet another clear example of brutal capitalist logic, red in tooth and claw, aiming to conserve another penny even if that means employing slave labor and depriving the local toy store worker of her rightfully earned income.

It gets worse. Santa gives away all his toys for free; but although that's a boon to the children who receive them, imagine the consequences it must have on legitimate toy manufacturers everywhere. How many toy workshops are driven out of business because they can't match Santa's dumping prices? If the average child expects to get a new toy every month, then Santa's toy dumping is responsible for the destruction of one twelfth of the legitimate economy-based toy market, and thus for the disappearance of some 8% of jobs in the sector of toy manufacture. We all know the good and happy side of Santa, the side that is visible to children; but how about the side that's visible to toy workers who are being laid off? What does Santa say to them? "Ho ho ho - your job will go?"

So, next time Santa visits to bring gifts to your children, think about the other poor children - not the naughty ones who did not receive any gifts, but the poor children of toy workers who've been laid off due to Santa's toy manufacture and dumping practices. Why do you think there are so many hungry children in Africa?

That's the real legacy of Santa's gifts. That's the cost at which your children receive them.

If you object - as you rightly should - there is still time. Santa may try to bring your children toys. But you can let him know he isn't welcome. Send him mail to his opulent rich capitalist abode at the North Pole. Post a sign on your roof telling him he is not welcome. Block your chimney so that Santa can't come in.

Then support your local toy workers and buy your children's toys in the nearby shop. Poor children of the laid off toy workers will be thankful. Their hard working parents may yet get their jobs back, and there may be a bright day for their families after all.

(See follow-up: The four anti-economic biases)

2007-11-20

Passive-aggressive economics

I watched my first two episodes of The Office today. It was hilarious... if in a painful way. It was somewhat like watching a train wreck: you know it's awful, yet you can't look away.

I don't know if real people actually have to live out their work lives in such offices. Some people say they do. Some people compare their workplace with the Dilbert comic, and say it's exactly like that. I can't say. I only worked in an office for something like 18 months of my life; it wasn't like that.

But is it possible that a great number of people are experiencing that kind of workplace? That they have a stupid bumbling boss like Michael from The Office, or a pointy-haired one like in Dilbert? And above these half-competent bosses are people who you hardly ever see, people who sometimes come and give you stupid trendy "motivational" pep talks, but who you feel don't really give a rat's ass about you? They pay you as low as they can, and if the going gets tough, whether you've done a good job or not, they'll fire you?

Every caricature probably has a real-life inspiration, or worse. What I'm really asking here is then not so much whether a workplace like that exists - I'm sure there are some - but whether such workplace experience is prevalent. Do most people work in environments like this?

Because if this is prevalent, then I can imagine how progressive taxation and minimum wages and weekly work limits and all that socialist nonsense get their support. Is it possible that people are bitter about their experiences in the workplace, but they feel they are helpless about it, so they imagine themselves taking it out on their bosses in the voting booths? You can tread on me all you like in the workplace, pal, but I have a vote just like you do, and you'll see, I'm gonna vote for the Democrats, I'm gonna stiff you! Go gettem, those overcompensated bastards! If my boss won't provide me with decent working terms, hell, I'm gonna vote for the politician that's gonna force him to, and take away his money, too!

Except that it doesn't work. Voting for politicians who "squeeze the rich" and who set a minimum wage and who limit maximum work hours has impacts of all sorts - it decreases investment, it gets people fired, it reduces the growth of the economy, it increases unemployment - and perhaps most importantly of all: it doesn't remove the bitterness in the workplace. It doesn't change the fact that your boss is a tool; or that they treat you unfairly; or that the company doesn't give a rat's ass about you. It bogs down the economy, and it doesn't change any of what you really care for.

But you got back at the Man. You squeezed your boss. Every day, he's the one squeezing you. The policies you voted for are counter-productive; but it sure feels warm to know that, even if in a small way, you've made the boss feel some of the pain too.

2007-11-19

Amazon's "Kindle" book reading device

I want one. Awesome. It's too bad it only works in the States. If only Amazon would consider a version with WiFi in place of, or in addition to, the Sprint network's EVDO, so that you could use it worldwide, wherever there's internet access...

Link thanks to Larry O'Brien, who's already emailing publishers to ask about their support.

All hail the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

It is serious:
The appearance of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on the agenda of the American Academy of Religion's annual meeting gives a kind of scholarly imprimatur to a phenomenon that first emerged in 2005, during the debate in Kansas over whether intelligent design should be taught in public school sciences classes.

Supporters of intelligent design hold that the order and complexity of the universe is so great that science alone cannot explain it. The concept's critics see it as faith masquerading as science.

An Oregon State physics graduate named Bobby Henderson stepped into the debate by sending a letter to the Kansas School Board. With tongue in cheek, he purported to speak for 10 million followers of a being called the Flying Spaghetti Monster -- and demanded equal time for their views.

"We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it," Henderson wrote. As for scientific evidence to the contrary, "what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage."

...

The presenters' titles seem almost a parody themselves of academic jargon. Snyder will speak about "Holy Pasta and Authentic Sauce: The Flying Spaghetti Monster's Messy Implications for Theorizing Religion," while Gavin Van Horn's presentation is titled "Noodling around with Religion: Carnival Play, Monstrous Humor, and the Noodly Master."

...

Lucas Johnston, the third Florida student, argues the Flying Spaghetti Monsterism exhibits at least some of the traits of a traditional religion -- including, perhaps, that deep human need to feel like there's something bigger than oneself out there.

He recognized the point when his neighbor, a militant atheist who sports a pro-Darwin bumper sticker on her car, tried recently to start her car on a dying battery.

As she turned the key, she murmured under her breath: "Come on Spaghetti Monster!"
Via reason.com. Take a look at the image accompanying the article. :-)

The pitfalls of harnessing evolution

Eliezer Yudkowsky has been writing fascinating articles on various aspects of evolution. Here's the latest:
Sounds logical, right? If you take the hens who lay the most eggs in each generation, and breed from them, you should get hens who lay more and more eggs.

...

Selecting the hen who lays the most eggs doesn't necessarily get you the most efficient egg-laying metabolism. It may get you the most dominant hen, that pecked its way to the top of the pecking order at the expense of other hens. Individual selection doesn't necessarily work to the benefit of the group, but a farm's productivity is determined by group outputs.

Indeed, for some strange reason, the individual breeding programs which had been so successful at increasing egg production now required hens to have their beaks clipped, or be housed in individual cages, or they would peck each other to death.

...

And the fall of Enron? Jeff Skilling fancied himself an evolution-conjurer, it seems. (Not that he, like, knew any evolutionary math or anything.) Every year, every Enron employee's performance would be evaluated, and the bottom 10% would get fired, and the top performers would get huge raises and bonuses. Unfortunately, as GreyThumb points out:

...

"So Enron was applying selection at the individual level according to metrics like individual trading performance to a group system whose performance was, like the henhouses, an emergent property of group dynamics as well as a result of individual fitness. The result was more or less the same. Instead of increasing overall productivity, they got mean chickens and actual productivity declined. They were selecting for traits like aggressiveness, sociopathic tendencies, and dishonesty."

Idiot politicians - how the U.S. trade deficit is no catastrophe

The Economist's Free Exchange blog calls attention to Russel Roberts' short essay Why We Trade:
To hear most politicians talk, you’d think that exports are the key to a country’s prosperity and that imports are a threat to its way of life. Trade deficits—importing more than we export—are portrayed as the road to ruin. U.S. presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to get tough with China because of “unfair” trading practices that help China sell products cheaply. Republican candidate Mitt Romney argues that trade is good because exports benefit the average American. Politicians are always talking about the necessity of other countries’ opening their markets to American products. They never mention the virtues of opening U.S. markets to foreign products.

...

We don’t export to create jobs. We export so we can have money to buy the stuff that’s hard for us to make—or at least hard for us to make as cheaply. We export because that’s the only way to get imports. If people would just give us stuff, then we wouldn’t have to export. But the world doesn’t work that way.

It’s the same in our daily lives. It’s great when people give us presents—a banana bread or a few tomatoes from the garden. But a new car would be better. Or even just a cheaper car. But the people who bring us cars and clothes and watches and shoes expect something in return. That’s OK. That’s the way the world works. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the goal of life is to turn away bargains from outside our house or outside our country because we’d rather make everything ourselves. Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.

And imports don’t destroy jobs. They destroy jobs in certain industries. But because trade allows us to buy goods more cheaply than we otherwise could, resources are freed up to expand existing opportunities and to create new ones. That’s why we trade—to leverage the skills of others who can produce things more effectively than we can, freeing us to make things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
Read the whole thing.

Incidentally, one of the people responsible for this fear-mongering (probably stemming from genuine beliefs) on behalf of the politicians is the distinguished idiot economist, Lester C. Thurow. His 1995 book, The Future of Capitalism, well nigh predicted a global catastrophic meltdown of capitalism imminent 'any day now', with the U.S. trade deficit being one of a number of causes. He's the same guy who wrote in 1989, just before the Soviet Union imploded:
Can economic command significantly... accelerate the growth process? The remarkable performance of the Soviet Union suggests that it can... Today the Soviet Union is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States.

2007-11-18

Photos from a helicopter tour of St. Kitts

A company (Leeward Islands Helicopters, apparently no website yet) just started offering helicopter tours of St. Kitts & Nevis this month, so about a week ago, my wife and I went for their 25 minute helicopter tour of St. Kitts. It was just awesome. We've been around the island several times by car, and there are nice vistas from several vantage points, but you just can't beat the view from a chopper. Here are some of the photos from our tour.

Golfview Estates with Half Moon Bay Villas in the background
St. Christopher Club with the Atlantic beach in the foreground and the Caribbean beach in the background
St. Christopher Club with Ocean's Edge Resort construction in the background
Frigate Bay
A view towards Conaree Bay, leaving Marriott
Golf course with the Marriott building on the left and Half Moon Bay Villas on the right
Floating above the rainforest
Neighboring St. Eustatius from above Brimstone Hill
Brimstone Hill Fortress with an outline of Nevis in the background
A view down the west side of St. Kitts with an outline of Nevis
A view down the west side of St. Kitts with a glimpse of Basseterre, upper left; the southern peninsula of St. Kitts merges with an outline of Nevis, top right
Basseterre and Port Zante
Bird Rock with Frigate Bay behind the hill
Calypso Bay development on the left, Horizons on the right
Horizons development with the Marriott and the golf course in upper right background
Frigate Bay with the Atlantic in the background: Marriott in far left, St. Christopher Club and Ocean's Edge construction on the right, Timothy Beach Resort in front right
A view of St. Kitts from its southern peninsula

2007-11-15

The weak versus the strong: the law of the strongest

The thread on Reason.com on limiting human population growth (whether or not to) prompted me to express some fundamental thoughts about the relationship between 'us' - Western civilization, you know, the tough guys, macho - versus some weaker groups that exist or have existed in nature, such as the animals and the indigenous people of continents 'we' overtook.

Julian Fondren made a decent case asserting that the survival of animals is up to people. He implies (without justifying) that all corners of the planet must be owned, and that if any species are to survive, it must be through directly serving humanity - i.e., the owners of the territory the animals occupy.

What about when a species needs a vast territory, such as the Atlantic, in which to flourish? We're currently seeing a tragedy of the commons, with fish species being overfished to extinction, that only someone owning the entire ocean could prevent.

Julian is making a biblical presumption that humans are morally different from animals and that animals, in so far as they have rights, have such rights only in so far as it serves humans. That's a fairly popular view which I think is fundamentally unjust, except if one admits that one is only recognizing the freedom and ownership rights of other humans for strictly selfish and utilitarian reasons - i.e. because you're not powerful enough to ride roughshod over them; or if you are powerful enough, because you want to benefit from other people's creativity and such is not forthcoming unless the people in question feel they are free. On the other hand you don't have any creativity-based economic results to gain from animals, and as opposed to humans you can ride roughshod over them, so you do, and you don't feel bad about that at all.

I would say that such an attitude makes one a rather unappealing character, but if you admit to such views and ask me "so what?", I guess I'll have to live with you, since I too can't ride roughshod over you.

So, what do you say? Are animals independent creatures whose well-being should be respected as a terminal value of its own, or are animals dependent creatures whose well-being is at best an instrumental value subservient to the whims of humans?

If it is a terminal value, which I would subscribe to, then I think we need to consider fair outcomes for animals, too.

On the other hand, if one sees the welfare of animals as merely instrumental to that of humans, then I guess one's logic would be: if enough humans care about animal welfare, they should band together and buy the Atlantic Ocean and enforce cod preservation fishing quotas there. But if there are not enough such humans, then they should accept the scarcity of their numbers and just face the extinction.

On the other hand, this is basically similar to the moral dilemma of Europeans coming to other continents and taking the land for themselves after slaughtering most people there into submission. Don't the indigenous people, although technologically inferior, have the right to that land, too? Or do they have to move aside willy nilly, simply because they are weaker?

Now substitute indigenous people for other species that we're driving to extinction, and it is the same moral dilemma. In both cases it is a strong group conquering the territory of the weaker one, or even eating it to extinction, because it can. But just because the stronger group can, should it?

I have some respect for the law of the strongest. It is the law of nature. But if all we do is follow the law of the strongest, then what are libertarian principles, such as respect for other people's property, based on? If it's merely on their being human, then (1) you are biased against animals with no explanation (at most a bad rationalization), and (2) you need to explain what happened to indigenous people everywhere.

If on the other hand our respect for other people's property is based on the practical concept that we can all kill and steal from each other so let's agree not to, then I understand that, and then I can see how it follows that animals and even indigenous people are subservient to us. They are weak, so they are no threat if we plunder and steal from them as much as we want, and even drive them to extinction. They can't do much about that anyway. So it's fine.

Right?

One might not like what one sees in the mirror. But that is the consistent view.

See also Fake Justification. Just because you think your reasons are based on lofty principles, that doesn't mean that they are.

2007-11-14

Is curbing population growth necessary?

Following up to my previous post proposing a cap and trade system to curb population growth, I've now been convinced by the people at Reason.com that there's a good chance we don't actually need to impose a limit.

If we assume that we have the political strength to impose a global population growth curb, then we can probably also assume that we have the political strength to protect the Earth's ecosystems from people, regardless of how many people there are.

If that is the case, then the remaining issue at stake - in deciding whether to impose a curb or not - is whether everyone's quality of life is likely to increase more with a curb or without one.

In the past, people have always been able to stave off a Malthusian catastrophe through increases in technological efficiency and breakthroughs in science. In the early 20th century, famines were averted by the advent of tractors. The most recent threat of catastrophe in India was averted by the introduction of high-yield varieties of wheat and rice and other grains, genetically engineered using hybrid techniques. It appears that a large portion of India wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for genetic engineering.

To draw a parallel with IT, computers were big and unwieldy in the 1950s. They were horribly expensive, they were made of vacuum tubes and were very difficult to maintain. At that cost, some of the people who dealt with computers back then perceived that the world's total market was maybe for 5 or so computers.

Fifty-five years of technological advances later, OLPC are giving away laptops to children that cost $199 a piece. Silicon chips vastly superior to any computer in 1950 can be found in the cheapest cell phone.

Essentially, the optimists are saying that we are underutilizing our resources, and that there are magnitudes of improvement that can be made simply through advances in technology, i.e. by learning to use what we have more effectively. In this light, the more people we have, the more talented engineers we will have that will help to advance the world technologically. Hence, everyone's standard of living will improve even though the number of people is increasing.

Conversely, the pessimists are saying that the possibilities for major advance in some of the most crucial resources, say food or water, are limited. If this is so, then in fact increasing the population will lead to a Malthusian catastrophe, and the standard of living will drop considerably compared to keeping the population at current levels or reducing it.

Going with the optimists and allowing unchecked growth means risking a Malthusian catastrophe in the event that the expected and necessary breakthroughs don't materialize, and the world ends up short in one or more crucial resources.

On the other hand, curbing population growth when this is not necessary deprives the world of people who would otherwise contribute many new discoveries, creativity and technological advancement.

It all depends on whether we do or do not have vast unrealized efficiency reserves in our most crucial resources.

2007-11-13

A cap-and-trade system to curb population growth

I've been arguing today with the good people (some more than others) at the Reason.com blog about the merits and demerits of the Chinese population control policies. This time, I'm on the side of the commies - by agreeing to the principle that there is a need for population control, more so than supporting their totalitarian tactics. I am perplexed by the futility and uselessness of commonly stated opinions such as Rhywun's, who says:
Regardless of whatever resource limitations may or may not present themselves in the future, it is the height of fascist arrogance to tell a couple they may not have a child. Shame on you.
Well, here's what I think.

I'm not worried that the human population cannot sustain itself at the current level, or even with many more people. What I am worried about is that doing so will require an utter transformation of this planet to a form devoted exclusively to sustaining humans; there will not be a place for any species less well organized than us.

I am quite confident that the human population can grow to enormous numbers and yet survive. I have no doubt that, when faced with either death or technological progress, that progress will prevail.

What I very much doubt is that anything of value, other than humans, will survive in the process. Monkeys can't vote. Tigers can't vote. Whales can't vote. Lobster can't vote. Dolphins can't vote. Cod can't vote. The grasses can't vote, and the forrests can't vote either.

All of these entities have no say in our expansion process, and they are going to be trampled.

Earth as it is right now is luxurious. We've trampled lots of it already, but luxurious it still is. The world of 9 billion people either cannot be prosperous in the sense that you or I are prosperous today, or it won't be very luxurious.

Now, if anyone wants to live in a completely artificial world, I have no problem with anyone going off into space and forming off-world colonies and multiplying as much as they want up there. But for the world down here, I really don't see why we need to create yet more human beings that will convert this planet into an ever more artificial concoction, as if there aren't already enough of us as it is.

There is no harm done in restraining our reproduction. Creatures who aren't conceived do not suffer for it. With a global cap and trade system, anyone could have as many children as they want, as long as they pay the market price for the privilege.

If someone wants unchecked population growth for themselves, let them go launch a colony in space. Find a technological way to do that. There's nothing to trample on there. And unlike here, there's nothing valuable that they will be irreversibly destroying.

I have no problem with technological solutions that would lead to the creation of amazingly populated and rich artificial worlds in space. There's few things I'd love to see more than that.

But it will be tragic if the Earth will first need to be trampled to get there.

There's a reason why some sensitive tourist sites restrict the number of tourists despite the light impact of each individual visitor. Large numbers of people coming through and just looking, not touching anything - even if they're just breathing, that has an effect.

The Earth is one such sensitive tourist site.

That said, I do agree that China's ways of exercising their policies are fascist. But it doesn't necessarily need to be run that way.

To limit global population growth, I would propose a global system of cap-and-trade. Under such a system, every person would initially receive the right to have 1.5 or so children. However, the rights of two persons in a couple wouldn't add. A formerly childless couple together could immediately have one child, but if they wanted another one, they would each need to buy the right for 0.5 each from two other people willing to forfeit 0.5 of their right to have a child (or one person willing to forfeit 1.0, or 4 people willing to forfeit 0.25 - you get the drift). The rate for these rights would be set by the market. The higher the demand relative to supply, the higher the price; and the higher the supply relative to demand, the lower the price. These rights would need to be tradeable globally and without tax repercussions for sellers. The net effect would be that people in developed countries would continue to have about as many children as they do now, and people in less developed countries may have less as they would sell some of their rights to have children to people in developed countries. The result would be a net flow of capital towards less developed countries as compensation for them to restrain their population growth, while the levels of population in developed countries would be maintained. Benefits all around.

Of course, try selling that to people who believe that everyone should have a recognized fundamental right to make as many copies of their DNA as they wish, and have each of those copies automatically receive education, support and voting rights. A cap-and-trade system seems optimal as a way to restrict population growth, but it can be put into practice only if the majority of people put a greater value on not irreversibly destroying the planet's ecosystems, rather than on vain reproduction.

2007-11-07

Libertarians claim victory in elections

Wow! Sense prevails in the US?
Libertarians were elected in Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—54 percent of the states in which Libertarians ran. Libertarians in Michigan won four of the five known races in that state where Libertarians were involved—a stunning 80 percent rate of victory.
The one immediate explanation I can think of is that the sensible people who used to vote Republican because of their position on economics might have become disgusted by that party because it has obviously forfeited those leanings, and now are voting their true position - libertarian - instead.

The real liberals are those who advocate liberty not just in the social sphere, as the Democrats, but also in the economy. The economic kind of liberty used to be represented by the Republicans; but there used to be no way to vote for both. If the trend of Libertarians picking up pace continues, that could be a harbinger of good times to come in the States. At least - one may hope.

Meanwhile, the campaign of the somewhat-libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul seems to be doing well at this stage. I don't agree with him on everything, but the things we do agree on are so important that I cannot not endorse his bid. Vote Ron Paul in 2008. He seems the only reasonably sane candidate. Even one such candidate is more than can be said for most elections.

Heterosis may explain Flynn effect, height paradox

There is a paradox in IQ studies that has so far not yet been satisfactorily resolved. The paradox is that IQ has been shown to be determined largely genetically. Yet, over the past century or so, average IQs in developed countries have grown 3-7 IQ points per decade (known as the Flynn effect), which is too fast for genetic selection. Therefore IQ appears at once to be determined predominantly environmentally (the global trend) as well as predominantly genetically (other studies). This appears to be a paradox; both influences cannot simultaneously dominate.

Michael Mingroni argues convincingly that the cause for the Flynn effect in IQ is heterosis. Quoting Michael:
Briefly, heterosis is a genetic effect that will cause populationwide changes in a trait whenever three conditions are met. The first condition is that the population in question must initially have a mating pattern that is less than completely random prior to the occurrence of the trend. Such a deviation from panmixia, or random mating, creates an excess of homozygotes in the population and a deficit of heterozygotes. Second, the population must undergo a demographic change toward a closer approximation to random-mating conditions. This causes the frequency of homozygotes to decline and that of heterozygotes to increase. Of course, this second condition presupposes that the first condition is already met, as a trend toward more random mating cannot occur in a population already mating randomly. Third, the trait in question must display directional dominance, with more of the genes that influence the trait in one direction being dominant and more of those that influence the trait in the opposite direction being recessive. Given such nonadditive gene action, any increase in the ratio of heterozygotes to homozygotes will cause the distribution of the trait to shift over time in the dominant direction. Heterosis has been mentioned as a potential cause of the IQ trend by a number of researchers over the years (Anderson, 1982; Flynn, 1998; Jensen, 1998; Kane & Oakland, 2000; Mingroni, 2004; see also Dahlberg, 1942, chap. 10). Few would dispute that heterosis could be responsible for at least some part of the trend; what is mainly at issue is whether it could be a major cause.
Mingroni discusses other models that have so far been suggested to explain the Flynn effect, which all have significant shortcomings. He then argues compellingly that heterosis can explain not only the Flynn effect, but also other unresolved paradoxes of genetics vs. environment in trends such as height or myopia. Conversely, the presence of these other trends explainable by heterosis supports his proposition that heterosis is occuring in the first place, because if it's occuring, it would be expected to cause all these other trends as well, not just the IQ Flynn effect. Mingroni's arguments are surprising and compelling, consistent in a wider view of things than just intelligence alone.

It would be great to see Mingroni's paper followed up by research to test this promising hypothesis.

"Journal of Geoclimatic Studies"

Something interesting just happened on the net. In an article that got quickly deleted, Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine linked to this "study", supposedly by researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Goteborg in Sweden, claiming to have found an exact correlation between global temperatures and CO2 emissions caused by ocean bacteria. I searched the net for other references to this site, but the only other one I could find had also been just recently posted and deleted. The website of the "Journal of Geoclimatic Studies" curiously lists only one issue on its website - which website was curiously registered just a few days ago on November 2 - and of the several "articles" listed for that "issue", the one about benthic bacteria is the only one available for reading. Meanwhile, John Fleck comments that "the University of Arizona doesn't really have a 'Department of Climatology'" as referred to in the "study".

Looks like a prank. :-)

The exact match in the graphs alone should be a dead ringer - it's very implausibly convenient.

But isn't April 1 the traditional time for elaborate pranks of this kind?

How evolution ignores our fanciful wishes

A fascinating article by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Excerpts:
As an example of romance, Vero Wynne-Edwards, Warder Allee, and J. L. Brereton, among others, believed that predators would voluntarily restrain their breeding to avoid overpopulating their habitat and exhausting the prey population.

...

Obviously, selection on the level of the individual won't produce individual restraint in breeding. Individuals who reproduce unrestrainedly will, naturally, produce more offspring than individuals who restrain themselves.

But suppose that the species population was broken up into subpopulations, which were mostly isolated, and only occasionally interbred. Then, surely, subpopulations that restrained their breeding would be less likely to go extinct, and would send out more messengers, and create new colonies to reinhabit the territories of crashed populations.

The problem with this scenario wasn't that it was mathematically impossible. The problem was that it was possible but very difficult.

...

A decade after the controversy, a biologist had a fascinating idea. The mathematical conditions for group selection overcoming individual selection were too extreme to be found in Nature. Why not create them artificially, in the laboratory? Michael J. Wade proceeded to do just that, repeatedly selecting populations of insects for low numbers of adults per subpopulation. And what was the result? Did the insects restrain their breeding and live in quiet peace with enough food for all?

No; the adults adapted to cannibalize eggs and larvae, especially female larvae.

Of course selecting for small subpopulation sizes would not select for individuals who restrained their own breeding; it would select for individuals who ate other individuals' children. Especially the girls.

Once you have that experimental result in hand - and it's massively obvious in retrospect - then it suddenly becomes clear how the original group selectionists allowed romanticism, a human sense of aesthetics, to cloud their predictions of Nature.

2007-11-06

The well-adjusted occasionally smoke pot

Over at Reason Magazine's Hit & Run blog, Jacob Sullum thus quotes from his book about drug use where it speaks of a 1990 study by Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block:
Tracking a group of children from preschool until age 18, the two University of California at Berkeley researchers found that "adolescents who had engaged in some drug experimentation (primarily marijuana) were the best-adjusted in the sample. Adolescents who used drugs frequently were maladjusted, showing a distinct personality syndrome marked by interpersonal alienation, poor impulse control, and manifest emotional distress. Adolescents who, by age 18, had never experimented with any drug were relatively anxious, emotionally constricted, and lacking in social skills."

Shedler and Block did not conclude that a little pot is just the thing to help children grow up right. Rather, they found that "psychological differences between frequent users, experimenters, and abstainers could be traced to the earliest years of childhood and related to the quality of parenting received." They observed that "problem drug use is a symptom, not a cause, of personal and social maladjustment" and that "the meaning of drug use can be understood only in the context of an individual's personality structure and developmental history."
By age 18, I had never tried any illegal drugs (still haven't), and I can confirm that "anxious, emotionally constricted and lacking in social skills" describes me quite well at the time. Meanwhile, most of the gregarious, well-adjusted types that I know of did occasionally smoke pot then.

As Jacob writes, it's not the pot that makes you well-adjusted - but it does appear that well-adjusted people do tend to occasionally smoke pot. And it doesn't appear to obviously harm them.

Does that make the politicians who are against legalizing pot either hypocrites, or maladjusted?

The former more so than the latter, I'd think.

It does appear as though hypocrite politicians are catering to prejudiced voters, of whom three groups, the old, the religious and the Republican, are particularly adverse to legalization. Is it that the old geezers, themselves well used to getting drunk on booze, have a prejudice against pot? If so, perhaps old people dying off is part of the reason why U.S. support for legalizing marijuana has steadily increased over decades?