Yesterday I outlined why genetically engineered children are not imminent. The Chinese CRISPR gene editing of embryos experiment was lethal to around 20% of embryos, inserted off-target errors into roughly 10% of embryos (with some debate there), and only produced the desired genetic change in around 5% of embryos, and even then only in a subset of cells in those embryos.

Over time, the technology will become more efficient and the combined error and lethality rates will drop, though likely never to zero.

Human genome editing should be regulated. But it should be regulated primarily to assure safety and informed consent, rather than being banned as it is most developed countries (see figure 3). It’s implausible that human genome editing will lead to a Gattaca scenario, as I’ll show below. And bans only make the societal outcomes worse.

1. Enhancing Human Traits is Hard (And Gattaca is Science Fiction)

The primary fear of human germline engineering, beyond safety, appears to be a Gattaca-like scenario, where the rich are able to enhance the intelligence, looks, and other traits of their children, and the poor aren’t.

But boosting desirable traits such as intelligence and height to any significant degree is implausible, even with a very low error rate.

The largest ever survey of genes associated with IQ found 69 separate genes, which together accounted for less than 8% of the variance in IQ scores, implying that at least hundreds of genes, if not thousands, involved in IQ. (See paper, here.) As Nature reported, even the three genes with the largest individual impact added up to less than two points of IQ:

The three variants the researchers identified were each responsible for an average of 0.3 points on an IQ test. … That means that a person with two copies of each variant would score 1.8 points higher on an intelligence test than a person with none of them.

Height is similarly controlled by hundreds of gene. 697 genes together account for just one fifth of the heritability of adult height. (Paper at Nature Genetics here).

For major personality traits, identified genes account for less than 2% of variation, and it’s likely that hundreds or thousands of genes are involved.

Manipulating IQ, height, or personality is thus likely to involve making a very large number of genetic changes. Even then, genetic changes are likely to produce a moderate rather than overwhelming impact.

Conversely, for those unlucky enough to be conceived with the wrong genes, a single genetic change could prevent Cystic Fibrosis, or dramatically reduce the odds of Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or cut the risk of heart disease by 30-40%.

Reducing disease is orders of magnitude easier and safer than augmenting abilities.

2. Parents are risk averse

We already trust parents to make hundreds of impactful decisions on behalf of their children: Schooling, diet and nutrition, neighborhood, screen time, media exposure, and religious upbringing are just a few.  Each of these has a larger impact on the average child – positive or negative – than one is likely to see from a realistic gene editing scenario any time in the next few decades.

And in general, parents are risk averse when their children are involved. Using gene editing to reduce the risk of disease is quite different than taking on new risks in an effort to boost a trait like height or IQ. That’s even more true when it takes dozens or hundreds of genetic tweaks to make even a relatively small change in those traits – and when every genetic tweak adds to the risk of an error.

(Parents could go for a more radical approach: Inserting extra copies of human genes, or transgenic variants not found in humans at all. It seems likely that parents will be even more averse to venturing into such uncharted waters with their children.)

If a trait like IQ could be safely increased to a marked degree, that would constitute a benefit to both the child and society. And while it would pose issues for inequality, the best solution might be to try to rectify inequality of access, rather than ban the technique. (Consider that IVF is subsidized in places as different as Singapore and Sweden.) But significant enhancements don’t appear to be likely any time on the horizon.

Razib Khan points out one other thing we trust parents to do, which has a larger impact on the genes of a child than any plausible technology of the next few decades:

 “the best bet for having a smart child is picking a spouse with a deviated phenotype. Look for smart people to marry.”

3. Bans make safety and inequality worse

A ban on human germline gene editing would cut off medical applications that could reduce the risk of disease in an effort to control the far less likely and far less impactful enhancement and parental control scenarios.

A ban is also unlikely to be global. Attitudes towards genetic engineering vary substantially by country. In the US, surveys find 4% to 14% of the population supports genetic engineering for enhancement purposes. Only around 40% support its use to prevent disease. Yet, As David Macer pointed out, as early as 1994:

in India and Thailand, more than 50% of the 900+ respondents in each country supported enhancement of physical characters, intelligence, or making people more ethical.

While most of Europe has banned genetic engineering, and the US looks likely to follow suit, it’s likely to go forward in at least some parts of Asia. (That is, indeed, one of the premises of Nexus and its sequels.)

If the US and Europe do ban the technology, while other countries don’t, then genetic engineering will be accessible to a smaller set of people: Those who can afford to travel overseas and pay for it out-of-pocket. Access will become more unequal. And, in all likelihood, genetic engineering in Thailand, India, or China is likely to be less well regulated for safety than it would be in the US or Europe, increasing the risk of mishap.

The fear of genetic engineering is based on unrealistic views of the genome, the technology, and how parents would use it. If we let that fear drive us towards a ban on genetic engineering – rather than legalization and regulation – we’ll reduce safety and create more inequality of access.

I’ll give the penultimate word to Jennifer Doudna, the inventor of the technique (this is taken from a truly interesting set of responses to Nature Biotechnology’s questions, which they posed to a large number of leaders in the field):

Doudna, Carroll, Martin & Botchan: We don’t think an international ban would be effective by itself; it is likely some people would ignore it. Regulation is essential to ensure that dangerous, trivial or cosmetic uses are not pursued.

Legalize and regulate genetic engineering. That’s the way to boost safety and equality, and to guide the science and ethics.

I’m familiar with studies showing estimated economic gains from TPP in the neighborhood of $1.9 trillion (pdf).  Given the past performance of trade models, I am willing to believe that might be an overestimate.  So let’s cut those gains roughly in half to say a trillion.  (That said, if I understand the Peterson document correctly, they are not even trying to incorporate gains from reallocation on the production side, as might result from comparative advantage or dynamic specialization; in this sense $1 trillion may be a considerable underestimate of the upside.)

That is still a sizable sum of economic gain.

What would convince me to oppose TPP if is somebody did a study showing the following: when you use a better trade model, use better data, and/or add in the neglected costs of TPP (which are real), those gains go away and indeed become negative.

Then I would change my mind, or at least weigh those economic costs against possibly favorable geopolitical benefits from the deal.

What does not convince me is when people simply list various costs and outrages associated with TPP.  Furthermore if one of those problems with TPP is addressed, or partially addressed, often these commentators circle around to another possible problem.  In fact that response pattern is a sign the critics don’t themselves have a very good comprehensive estimate of global costs and benefits.  By the way, it also fails to convince me when the critics attack those who support TPP for being craven, superficial, lackeys, and so on.

I say let’s just have a two-way button and ask everyone to press it: do you believe that TPP would lead to a net gain in economic welfare or not?

If those costs and outrages associated with TPP are so bad, it ought to be possible to do a study which makes the trillion in benefits go away.  Has anyone done such a study?  Would such a study survive the commentary from the NBER annual macro conference?

I am not suggesting that economic welfare should be the only criterion for evaluating a policy.  But making everyone press this two-way button — and in the process citing their favorite comprehensive policy study of TPP – would do wonders to bring clarity to the debate.  Commentators still would have the liberty of accepting the reality of the economic gains while disfavoring the policy, as indeed I do with forced kidney extraction and transplant.

In the meantime, the more desultory lists I see of possible negative consequences of TPP, the more likely I am to think it is a good idea after all.

Has it been so bad?  For us?  For them?  How many of us had even noticed?

Here are some information (pdf), and here (pdf), I thank Matthew Vogel for reminding me of this.

Here is my previous post on ISDS and TPP.  Here is a good CRS brief on previous trade agreements with Vietnam.

In 2012 economists at the University of Auckland published research establishing clear correlations between family circumstances and incidents of child abuse or neglect. “No one realized we were sitting on such rich data in terms of its predictive power,” says Rhema Vaithianathan, who led the research. “We can find children who are at considerably elevated risk, and we can find them at birth.”


Using data from welfare, education, employment, and housing agencies and the courts, the government identified the most expensive welfare beneficiaries—kids who have at least one close adult relative who’s previously been reported to child safety authorities, been to prison, and spent substantial time on welfare. “There are million-dollar kids in those families,” English says. “By the time they are 10, their likelihood of incarceration is 70 percent. You’ve got to do something about that.”

Moving closer to home:

Jennie Feria, who oversees risk assessment for L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services, says one idea is to rate families, giving them a number that could be used to identify who’s most at risk in the way lenders rely on credit scores to determine creditworthiness. “The way we may use it, it’s going to be like it’s a FICO score,” Feria says. The information, she says, could be used both to prioritize cases and to figure out who needs extra services. “It’s at the very early stages, because we don’t know how we’re going to use it yet exactly.”

It will be interesting to see how that one develops.  The article is by Josh Eidelson.

The Grasping Hand, written by our GMU-law colleague, Ilya Somin, is an excellent read and the definitive treatment of eminent domain and the Kelo case. As you might expect, Somin discusses the legal issues with aplomb. So much so that the book is endorsed by both of Kelo’s opposing counsel! In addition to the law and economics, Somin offers what for me was an eye-opening investigation of the history behind many of the major cases.

graspingIn the famous Poletown case, for example, GM and the cities of Detroit and Hamtramck used eminent domain to forcibly remove 4,200 people, 1300-1,400 homes, 140-600 businesses, 6 churches and one hospital in order to build a factory. The primary argument for the expropriation was the economic benefits that GM and the mayor promised would flow from the creation of at least 6,000 GM jobs.

Even though the entire case hung on the number of jobs to be created this number was simply cheap talk. In the marketplace, if GM says that this 100 tons of aluminium is worth more building cars than it is building airplanes they have to demonstrate their belief by outbidding Boeing and all the other users of aluminium. In politics GM need only voice an assertion and with the right lobbying the political system will make the transfer for them. Neither GM nor the city were under any requirement to guarantee new jobs but the majority judges simply accepted the numbers as given to them.

…many judges may have an unjustified faith in the efficacy of the political process and thus may be willing to allow the executive and legislative branches of government to control oversight of development projects. For example, the Poletown majority emphasized that courts should defer to legislative judgments of “public purpose.” Whatever the general merits of such confidence in the political process, it is misplaced in situations in which politically powerful interest groups can employ the powers of government at the expense of the relatively weak.

So what happened?

The GM plant opened two years late; and by 1988— seven years after the Poletown condemnations— it employed no more than 2,500 workers.

Moreover, as Somin continues, it gets much worse because not only were the benefits overstated the costs weren’t stated at all.

An especially striking aspect of the Poletown decision was the majority’s failure to even mention the costs imposed by condemnation on the people of Poletown or the city of Detroit as a whole.

According to estimates prepared at the time, “public cost of preparing a site agreeable to . . . General Motors [was] over $200 million,” yet GM paid the city only $8 million to acquire the property. Eventually, public expenditures on the condemnation rose to some $250 million. In addition, we must add to the costs borne by the city’s taxpayers, the economic damage inflicted by the destruction of up to six hundred businesses and fourteen hundred residential properties. Although we have no reliable statistics on the number of people employed by the businesses destroyed as a result of the Poletown condemnation, it is quite possible
that more workers lost than gained jobs as a result of the decision.

 Truckmaker Freightliner’s newest commercial big rig can steer and drive itself, while the driver relaxes and enjoys the ride. No, I’m not talking about Autobot Ultra Magnus. It’s the Freightliner Inspiration Truck, the first ever self-driving commercial truck to receive a road license plate for autonomous operation on public highways.

The system, called Highway Pilot, operates like the autopilot on a commercial airliner. Once set and underway the system can maintain a cruise without the driver’s intervention. Highway Pilot uses stereoscopic cameras located at the front end of the truck that watch the road ahead for roadside signage, lane markers and other vehicles.

This 3D imagery is fed into the Inspiration Truck’s electronic brain, which then affects the electric steering rack, the drive-by-wire throttle and the automated manual transmission to keep the truck between the lines and a safe distance behind a leading vehicle.

It is not yet a fully autonomous vehicle:

Speaking of the human element, the Inspiration Truck still requires that a driver be in its driver’s seat. A person needs to get the truck moving from a stop, handle complex low-speed maneuvers and to monitor autonomous drive.

Freightliner tells us that the system will notify the driver with visual and audible cues in the event that conditions won’t allow confident autonomy (such as snow, rain or on roads with poorly defined lane markers) and a human is needed to take over. When driving conditions are optimal, however, and the road stretches out ahead, the Inspiration Truck’s driver can set the Highway Pilot and tend to other parts of the business of logistics.

There is more here.

What if, circa 2007, the Fed had figured out what was going on and wanted to take some concentrated steps to save the day?  Well, that is the position China is in today, and they are acting fairly decisively:

China is imposing a $160bn municipal bonds for debt swap on banks in an effort to shift some of the financing costs of cash-strapped local governments back to lenders…

Banks are supposed to swap out higher-yielding business loans in return for more municipal bonds, noting that banks owned about 63 percent of the outstanding municipal bonds to begin with.  As a form of compensation, the central bank will accept these municipal securities as collateral for some of its special lending facilities.  The policy is a mix of jawboning and inducement, in which exact proportions we shall see; there is further coverage here.

You can think of it as “we may expect you banks to share in some of the losses on this paper, but if push comes to shove we’ll just monetize the municipal debt and bail you out too.”

You may recall:

Rating agency Standard & Poor’s late last year estimated that half of all Chinese provinces would merit junk ratings…

These (non-transparent) municipal debts may exceed $3 trillion. And Christopher Balding, in his excellent post on all this, makes a very good point:

Especially with land revenue falling by more than 30% annually when it typically constitutes more than 50% of government revenue, the provinces’ ability to repay is highly suspect.

Some goals of the bailout are to keep the local governments up and running, and also building infrastructure, so that urbanization does not slow down.  This is all being done in conjunction with a series of interest rate cuts, and there is likely yet more to come.

Balding adds this as well:

…the banks, after getting cash for the bonds as collateral from the PBOC, are being encouraged to lend out this cash to firms in favored industries.  Given the drop in risk weighted capital from holding government as an additional benefit, this means that banks will have significant new capital to lend.  The rapid rise in Chinese debt, which has even officially surpassed most developed countries, seems bound to rise even more.  I can’t [help but] think that this seems like trying to sober up an alcoholic by buying him a beer.

…Here is hoping that deposit insurance will never be needed.

It will be very interesting to see how this goes, and so far these events remain a dramatically undercovered story.  My net takeaway, to date, is that the finances of the provincial governments must be worse than most observers had thought.

Measuring the expertise of burglars

by on May 11, 2015 at 12:42 am in Education, Games, Law | Permalink

Here is a Schneier on Security post in toto, I won’t indent it once again:

New research paper: “New methods for examining expertise in burglars in natural and simulated environments: “preliminary findings“:

Expertise literature in mainstream cognitive psychology is rarely applied to criminal behaviour. Yet, if closely scrutinised, examples of the characteristics of expertise can be identified in many studies examining the cognitive processes of offenders, especially regarding residential burglary. We evaluated two new methodologies that might improve our understanding of cognitive processing in offenders through empirically observing offending behaviour and decision-making in a free-responding environment. We tested hypotheses regarding expertise in burglars in a small, exploratory study observing the behaviour of ‘expert’ offenders (ex-burglars) and novices (students) in a real and in a simulated environment. Both samples undertook a mock burglary in a real house and in a simulated house on a computer. Both environments elicited notably different behaviours between the experts and the novices with experts demonstrating superior skill. This was seen in: more time spent in high value areas; fewer and more valuable items stolen; and more systematic routes taken around the environments. The findings are encouraging and provide support for the development of these observational methods to examine offender cognitive processing and behaviour.

The lead researcher calls this “dysfunctional expertise,” but I disagree. It’s expertise.

Claire Nee, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K., has been studying burglary and other crime for over 20 years. Nee says that the low clearance rate means that burglars often remain active, and some will even gain expertise in the crime. As with any job, practice results in skills. “By interviewing burglars over a number of years we’ve discovered that their thought processes become like experts in any field, that is they learn to automatically pick up cues in the environment that signify a successful burglary without even being aware of it. We call it ‘dysfunctional expertise,'” explains Nee.

See also this paper.”

The pointer is from the estimable Chug.

Stephan F. Gohmann has a paper on this topic, here goes:

Most southern states have fewer breweries per population than the rest of the country. This paper examines why. The main outcome is that in the South, the number of breweries is negatively associated with higher campaign contributions from big breweries, the number of beer distributors per capita, and the Southern Baptist adherence rate. In the non-South, these associations are insignificant or positive. The limited number of breweries in the South follows the idea of bootleggers and Baptists where those who gain economically from limited competition—large breweries and distributors—side with groups morally opposed to alcohol to keep breweries out.

The pointer is from the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Guantánamo Diary*

by on May 9, 2015 at 12:33 pm in Books, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

That is the recent book by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who has been held at Guantánamo for many years.  This is a classic of prison literature, and I will teach it next year in my Law and Literature class.  Almost every page is interesting:

It is just amazing that the FBI trusts the Jordanians more than the other American intelligence agencies.


I don’t know any other language that writes Colonel and pronounces it Kernel.

His written English is quite good.  Definitely recommended, and the heavily redacted nature of the text enhances the reading experience rather than detracting from it.  Here is a good review from The Guardian.

The residential segregation bill won the City Council’s approval of December 9, 1910…

Blacks simply were not allowed to live in white neighborhoods, and when it comes to mixed blocks, it was hardly the rule of law which reigned.  Blacks who moved into mixed blocks were penalized when white politicians wanted to do so.  The entire regime was extreme:

Baltimore’s innovation was the use of government legislation to achieve systematic, citywide race separation.  “Nothing like it can be found in any statute book or ordinance record of this country,” the New York Times wrote.  “It is unique in legislation, Federal, State, or municipal — an ordinance so far-reaching in the logical sequence that must result from its enforcement that it may be said to mark a new era in social legislation.”  Baltimore thus became a national leader in residential segregation.

That is from Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, by Antero Pietila.  Anyone interested in the roots of current problems in Baltimore should read this book

Robin Grier (with Jerry F. Hough) puts it thus:

The great weakness of the Spanish government was not its bureaucratic nature, but its inability to build an effective bureaucracy until the 1700s. Without an effective bureaucracy, Spain was doomed to a personalistic policy process in which options and tradeoffs often were not properly weighed. Rulers could not trust the market because they were incapable of taxing decentralized economic activity.

One example of the lack of bureaucratic capability during the 1500s and 1600s is found in the example of Philip’s attempt to conquer England with the Spanish Armada. Until the 1580s Philip’s “defense department” had only one secretary assisted by a handful of clerks, none with military experience.

As he prepared to launch the Spanish Armada to try to conquer England, he doubled the number of responsible defense officials to two – one for the army and one for navy!

The ships were largely rented from Genoa. Although many of them were sunk in the failed attack, Philip did not try to build a merchant fleet of his own to match Elizabeth’s rapid expansion of her armed merchant fleet at the same time.

That is from her new and excellent The Long Process of Development: Building Markets and States in Pre-industrial England, Spain and their Colonies, recommended.  This is essential reading for the history of colonial Mexico in particular.

The end of doggie privacy?

by on May 6, 2015 at 1:05 pm in Data Source, Law, Science | Permalink

Dogs can run, but they can’t hide from PooPrints.

BioPet Vet Lab, which specializes in canine genetic testing, is partnering with the appropriately named London borough of Barking and Dagenham to track down dog owners who fail to remove their pets’ public deposits.

Starting in September 2016, people who don’t pick up after their dogs could be fined 80 pounds, or about $125. The registration of dogs’ DNA could become mandatory five months earlier if a pilot program proves successful.

There is more here, via Ray Lopez.  And here is a related story from Vancouver.

The limited data available do not suggest a recent overall increase in the number of homicides by police or the racial composition of those killed, despite the high-profile cases and controversies of 2014-2015, according to a New York Times analysis. But a January 2015 report published in the Harvard Public Health Review, “Trends in U.S. Deaths due to Legal Intervention among Black and White men, Age 15-34 Years, by County Income Level: 1960-2010,” suggests persistent differences in risks for violent encounters with police: “The rate ratio for black vs. white men for death due to legal intervention always exceeded 2.5 (median: 4.5) and ranged from 2.6 (95% confidence interval [CI] 2.1, 3.1) in 2001 to 10.1 (95% CI 8.7, 11.7) in 1969, with the relative and absolute excess evident in all county income quintiles.”

And this:

For the most recent period where statistics are available (2003-2009), the BJS found that 4,813 persons “died during or shortly after law enforcement personnel attempted to arrest or restrain them… About 60% of arrest-related deaths (2,931) were classified as homicides by law enforcement personnel.” However, among these 2,931 homicides by law enforcement personnel, 75.3% were reported to have taken place in response to a violent offense — constituting a force-on-force situation, such as an intervention with an ongoing assault, robbery or murder: “Arrests for alleged violent crimes were involved in three of every four reported homicides by law enforcement personnel.” Still, 7.9% took place in the context of a public-order offense, 2.7% involved a drug offense, and among 9.2% of all homicides by police no specific context was reported.

There is much more of interest at the Harvard Kennedy School link.

In my spare time I was reading some Huey Newton, and it struck me how contemporary his ideas were in some regards, in particular the risk of arbitrary violence at the hands of the police.  Here is an excerpt from Revolutionary Suicide:

As our forces built up, we doubled the patrols, then tripled them; we began to patrol everywhere — Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, and San Francisco.  Most patrols were a part of our  normal movement around the community.  We kept them random, however, so that the police could not set a network to anticipate us.  They never knew when or where we were going to show up…The chief purpose of the patrols was to teach the community security against the police, and we did not need a regular schedule for that.  We knew that no particular area could be totally defended; only the community could effectively defend and eventually liberate itself.  Our aim simply was to teach them how to go about it.  We passed out our literature and ten-point program to the citizens who gathered, discussed community defense, and educated them about their rights concerning weapons.

By the way, Hillary Clinton worked as a young intern for the Huey Newton legal defense team (he was accused of shooting a policeman).