Month: October 2004

Democracy: Theory and Practice

Amid all the scaremongering about a nailbitingly close election with a disputed outcome, it is worth observing that if you really believe in democracy, and if the election is close, then it doesn’t much matter who wins. The theory of democracy (stripped down to bare essentials, and omitting all sorts of caveats that I could list but won’t) is that the guy who gets more votes is the better guy. Surely, then, it follows that the guy who gets only slightly more votes is only the slightly better guy. And if one guy’s only slightly better than the other, then a miscount is no great tragedy.

You might have a strong preference for one candidate over the other, but if you have an overriding preference for democracy (“Let the majority rule, even when I’m in the minority”), then you can stop worrying about miscounts. Surely there’s not much difference between a world where Bush gets 3 more votes than Kerry and a world where Kerry gets 3 more votes than Bush. If Bush is the rightful president in one of those worlds, he’s got to be darn close to rightful in the other.

India impressions

Don’t expect a vacation in the ordinary sense of the term, as the main sight is India itself. None of the listed sights are the true highlights.

What was better than I had expected:

1. The overall friendliness, sparkle and wit of the Indians I have spoken to.

2. The quality of the food; I have a few times heard the erroneous claim that Indian food is better outside of India. Don’t believe it.

3. I recall an old saying that in matters of religion, every Indian is a millionaire. This becomes evident on one’s first day in the country.

4. Sitting in parks, people-watching, and seeing the human drama in the small things.

5. Availability of Western consumer goods, including Coca-Cola. It’s been a while since India has been stringently protectionist.

6. The prices of Indian classical music CDs, and yes I mean the legitimate issues; I now have a stock of Pandit Kumar.

7. It is easier to get a straight answer here than I had been led to believe.

My biggest problems:

1. Air quality in central Delhi. It is hard to walk for more than an hour. And more generally Delhi is not a city with anything to walk to, it is one cab ride after the other.

2. There is no street which is truly atttractive. At least I haven’t found one yet. That being said, I am no longer sure I want to find one. Even the “nice” parts of Delhi can be more run down than the not-so-nice parts of, say, Mexico City.

3. Being tempted by street food, so far I have yet to succumb, I fear what will happen when I do.

Assorted humorous moments: Seeing a large cadre of baffled Japanese tourists with newly-acquired red dots on their foreheads. Hearing my Taj Mahal guide speak of Billy Graham and Oral Roberts in glowing terms. Being considered a marvel because I know what a “mango lassi” is. Almost meeting an unfortunate end on a motorized tricycle rickshaw; the driver played a strategy of precommitment while entering a busy motorway.

Animals seen on trip from Delhi to Agra: Bears, monkeys, water buffalos, camels, swan-like birds, and cows too numerous to count.

Saddest moment: Seeing ultrasound clinics in rural areas.

I’ll write another post of this ilk once I have more experiences to relate. I am here speaking for Parth Shah’s Centre for Civil Society. They are an excellent group devoted to bringing market-oriented ideas to India.

Vote libertarian?

Consider this passage:

Establishment politicians don’t have solutions that work in the real world because they aren’t asking the tough question: “Why are jobs becoming scarce? Why do we have so much downsizing and so many corporate mergers?”

The answer is too much regulation and too much government spending. In the 1980s, the number of federal regulators fell from about 122,000 to barely 100,000. The private sector added 3,500,000 jobs as a consequence. The loss of each federal regulator resulted in the creation of more than 150 new jobs, enough to hire the ex-regulator, most of the unemployed, and some of the able-bodied poor. The nation prospered!

From 1987 to 1992, the number of regulators swelled once more to pre-1980 levels. The 3.5 million newly-created jobs were destroyed as a result. The number of regulators has continued to increase, costing additional jobs as well. Was your job among them? Will you be unemployed when the next wave of government regulation hits?

Where does one start? Shall I note that corporate mergers are not per se undesirable, nor is downsizing a source of job loss? Or should I note that the growth of the 1980s was not driven by the (supposed) loss of 22,000 jobs of regulators (N.B.: I cannot verify the numbers)? Or shall we move to the next paragraph? Throughout most of the 1990s employment rose and the degree of regulation rose as well. More generally, the extent of government regulation is not a major variable driving employment fluctuations, although it does influence long-run real wages.

Matt is right to think that the world will read an LP vote as sympathy for smaller government, no matter how off-base or crazy an LP candidate might be. Nonetheless I must offer p = 0 when I ponder the chance that I vote for Badnarik. If I don’t like a picture, I’m not going to hang it on my wall. I gladly supported Ed Clark in 1980, let’s hope that the LP once again puts up a serious candidate.

Too Many Books?

This year’s Man Booker Prize, Nobel Prize for Literature, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction have now all been awarded for works I will never read, and next month’s National Book Award is certain to follow suit. Which causes me to wonder whether the world’s got enough books already. I own hundreds of novels that I will never have the time to read. If these were the only copies on earth and a fire destroyed half of them, my life would not be signifcantly impoverished.

Of course there are great novels that have brought me a lot of pleasure—most recently, Ian Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpostand Donna Tartt’s The Secret History come to mind—(warning! Do not read the Amazon reviews of Fingerpost; they give away the ending!). But the opportunity cost of reading a great novel is reading some other great novel, so if either of these had gone unwritten, I’d probably have some other wonderful book to recommend.

There’s an important economic point here: The vast rewards that go to successful novelists can grossly overstate the social value of their work. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold over 6 million copies and almost surely earned its author over $20 million. But if The Da Vinci Code hadn’t been written, some other now-unnoticed book might have taken its place as the blockbuster of the year, and readers would have been almost as happy.

Writing a book is not like growing an orange. If you grow the best orange in the world, the second best orange still gets eaten. But if you write the best book in the world, the second best book loses a lot of readers. So the market price of an orange is an excellent reflection of its true social value, whereas the bulk of Dan Brown’s $20 million is only an excellent reflection of what he was able to divert from some
other author to himself.

Against the law reviews

Here is Richard Posner on law reviews.

The result of the system of scholarly publication in law is that too many articles are too long, too dull, and too heavily annotated, and that many interdisciplinary articles are published that have no merit at all….the biggest obstacle to reform is that the present system provides useful training for law students and signals the quality of particular students to prospective employers. The law review editors tend to be the elite of the student body; prospective employers know this and so the elite students tend to be sorted to the elite firms. This service function of law reviews is so important, and the rapid turnaround of submissions is so valued by law professors, that I do not anticipate fundamental reforms, desirable as they may be in the abstract. Ideally, one would like to see the law schools “take back” their law reviews, assigning editorial responsibilities to members of the faculty. Students would still work and write for the reviews, but they would do so under faculty supervision. Their care in citation checking would be valued by the authors, but the tendency toward poor judgment and thoughtless impositions on authors would be held in check. Doubtless it is too much to hope for such a reform.

Thanks to Houston’s Clear Thinkers for the link.

Wise words on energy independence

…if we increased fuel economy in modest ways, we could stop buying oil from the Persian Gulf. But we wouldn’t stop buying oil from the Persian Gulf. We might even buy a *greater* percentage from there if we were more efficient – because if we consumed less oil, then the law of supply and demand should drive oil prices *down*, which in turn would mean a greater market share for the lowest-cost producer, which is Saudi Arabia. This is exactly what happened from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s: a collapse in oil prices led to greater demand on Persian Gulf oil specifically as more costly sources of supply stopped producing.

That’s from Gideonsblog. I don’t agree with the entire post, but it does get at the idea that the much-vaunted goal of “energy independence” needs to be dissected carefully. It is low prices — present and future — we care about, not energy independence per se.

My favorite things Indian

Being here is number one at the moment, but here are a few specifics:

1. My favorite Indian musician – I have to go with Zakir Hussain; yes the CDs are wonderful but they do not compare with seeing him live. Honorary mentions go to Ali Akhbar Khan (sarod) and L. Subramaniam (violin).

2. My favorite Indian movie – Bollywood stands or falls as a whole, but if I had to pick one film, it is the classic Mother India; this 1957 movie is arguably the defining moment of Indian cinema.

3. My favorite Indian novel – Rushdie is the obvious favorite, but I will opt for Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Better than any Dickens but Bleak House. And did you know that he was an errant economics Ph.d. student at Stanford when he wrote the manuscript?

4. My favorite Indian artist – Indian miniatures are a favorite, but we must go with named artists for this category. How about Nandalal Bose, the Bengali painter from the early twentieth century? Here are more nice pictures by him.

5. Favorite Indian chess player Vishwanathan Anand is a no-brainer. India has a history of supercalculators, so how about this guy? You give him two and a half hours on his clock and he still uses only thirty minutes, and that is against world class competition. He used to be ranked number two in the world, though he has slipped in the last few years.

Status, Stress and Sex Ratios

The presidents of the United States have had, collectively, almost half again as many sons as daughters ((148 to 102 if I’ve counted correctly). Far more strikingly—because the sample size is so much larger—the people listed in Who’s Who have, collectively, about 15% more sons than daughters. (For the latter statistic, I rely on the testimony of the biologist Robin Baker, writing in his remarkable book Sperm Wars.)

Why do high-status parents have more sons? Presumably because high-status sons can give you lots of grandchildren (Baker points to an ex-emperor of Morocco with 888 children). A daughter is far more likely to give you about the average number of grandchildren. On the other side, low-status boys die childless more often than low-status girls. (On average, boys and girls have the same number of offspring—they must, because each offspring has one mother and one father. But girls are clustered around the average, while boys veer off to both extremes.)

So if you want a lot of grandchildren (and whether you want them or not, your genes do) you’ll want sons if you’re near the top of the status heap and daughters if you’re near the bottom.

Now: What’s the mechanism to accomplish all this? One suggestion from the biologists—and one that makes very good sense to an economist—is that a pregnant woman’s body, in deciding how much to invest in nourishing the embryo, takes account of the parents’ status and the embryos’ sex. High status mothers give more nourishment to male embryos; low status mothers give more nourishment to female embryos; better nourished embryos are more likely to be born alive.

How can a process as involuntary as nourishing an embryo respond to conscious information like the status of the father? Well, how can a process as involuntary as sweating with fear respond to conscious information like the approach of a tiger? Clearly this kind of thing happens all the time. More fundamentally, decisions like how much to nourish your embryo are among the most important economic problems the body ever faces. Is it really plausible that the body would simply throw away highly relevant information when it’s making a decision like that?

Incidentally, this ties into my earlier post about stress and daughters. There is evidence that stressed parents, like low-status parents, have more daughters, presumably for the same reason: stressful circumstances, like low-status parents, tend to depress reproductive success.

Quantum Game Theory, Revisited

My post on quantum game theory ignited something of a firestorm over on, where the badly confused Daniel Davies asserts (quite mistakenly) that the quantum mechanism I described allows players to communicate, making it unsurprising that they can beat a coordination game.

The followup posters are in some instances equally confused, though there are excellent responses from several, most notably Glenn Bridgman.

Here’s the analogy that I hope will clarify all the issues:

Suppose you and I sit in separate rooms. Once per minute, we each receive a red or green tennis ball through our mailslots. When we look at them, they’re always opposite colors. We know this, for example, because we each write down the sequence of colors we see and compare them afterward.

The same thing happens if I wear sunglasses. My vision appears to be affected not a whit, and we always see opposite colors.

Ditto if you wear the sunglasses.

But whenever we both wear sunglasses, we invariably see balls of the same color.

Something very like that happens in quantum mechanics. It works with electrons instead of tennis balls, and the correlations are less than 100%, but in every essential aspect, this is the story.

Notice that we can use this mechanism to win the dog/cat game. (The game again: We are each asked one question: “Do you like dogs?” or “Do you like cats?” . We win if our answers differ, unless we were both asked about dogs, in which case we win if our answers match.) All we have to do is agree to leave off the sunglasses when we’re asked about cats, put them on when we’re asked about dogs, answer yes when we see a red ball, and answer no when we see a green.

Now it is Daniel Davies’s position that there’s nothing extraordinary about this; of course we can win— because we’re exchanging information.

But we’re not. And for those who think we are, here is my question: You take off your sunglasses (or put them on, as you prefer). A ball comes through the slot. You notice it’s red. What information has been exchanged?

Organ Transplants

Bob Hickey, who lives near Vail, had needed a transplant since 1999 because of kidney disease. He met donor Rob Smitty of Chattanooga, Tenn., through Matching, a for-profit Web site created in January to match donors and patients for a fee.

On Wed. the transplant was performed. It is the first “publicly brokered” transplant to occur in the United States. It is currently illegal to pay donors so Rob Smitty, the donor, was not paid (Hickey did cover Smitty’s expenses). Hickey did pay to have his name listed by and this has upset a lot of people. No one seems upset, however, by the fact that the Hickey’s doctors were paid, his nurses were paid, the hospital was paid etc.

See my article for more on organ donation. Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber comments on the definition of death and another organ donation case in the recent news.

Thanks to Taggert Brooks for the link.

Sometimes correlation does too imply causation

Correlation, as we all know so well, does not imply causation. But sometimes it comes damn close.

For example: Parents of daughters are more likely to divorce than parents of sons. When I wrote and then rewrote about this odd fact in Slate, I got hundreds of emails from readers protesting that daughters might not cause divorce. Maybe some third factor causes both divorce and daughters.

There’s even a clear candidate for that factor: Stress. It’s well established that in many species, stressed populations produce unusually many female offspring. If the same is true in humans, then perhaps both daughters and divorce are the products of exogenous stress.

The problem with that theory is that it’s arithmetically implausible. To explain even a small correlation between daughters and divorce, you’d have to make pretty extreme assumptions about the effects of stress.

For example: Suppose half of all parents are stressed, stressed parents have 55% girls and a 50% divorce rate, and unstressed parents have 45% girls and a 25% divorce rate. Those are much stronger effects (especially on the boy/girl ratio) than anyone could actually believe. Nevertheless, even with these strong assumptions, we get a 36.25% divorce rate among parents of girls and a 38.75% divorce rate among parents of boys—not a very big difference. So the stress theory just doesn’t hold water.

The general point is that before you attribute a correlation to some mysterious (or non-mysterious) third factor, it’s worth pulling out an envelope, flipping it over, and jotting down some numbers. If your numbers have to be ridiculous to get the result you want, you probably need a different theory.

Is India overpopulated?

India is not an overpopulated country. Its population density is lower than that of many other countries not thought of as overpopulated. In 1999, Belgium had a population density of 130 people per square mile; the Netherlands, 150; India under 120. It is the cities of India that are overpopulated. Singapore has a density of 2,535 people per square mile; Berlin, the most crowded European city, has 1,130 people per square mile. The island city of Bombay in 1990 had a density of 17,550 people per square mile. Some parts of central Bombay have a population density of 1 million people per square mile…Two-thirds of the city’s residents are crowded into just 5 percent of the total area…

I’m in Delhi, not Bombay, but you get the idea. The quotation is from Suketu Mehta’s new and excellent Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.