Month: February 2010

Temple Grandin’s theories on autism

As you probably know, the Temple Grandin biopic, starring Claire Danes, is showing this Saturday evening.  Here is Temple on the movie.  Grandin has done a great deal to benefit animals, by designing more humane slaughterhouses, stockyards, and encouraging other innovations.  She also has promoted the idea of talented autistics and helped raise that notion to a very high profile.  I have enormous respect for what she has done and I would gladly see her win a Nobel Prize if the appropriate category for such a prize existed.

That said, researchers disagree with Grandin's theories on autism in a number of ways and my own reading leads me to side with the researchers on some issues.  Many non-autistics defer to Grandin on autism because of her life story, her remarkable achievements, and yes because of her autism.  I thought it would be useful to offer a more skeptical view of a few of her claims:

1. Autistic individuals do not in general "think in pictures," though some autistics offer this self-description.  Grandin repeatedly refers to herself in this context.  I don't read her as claiming this tendency is universal or even the general rule, but the disclaimers aren't as evident as I would like them to be. 

2. There is little evidence to support her view that autistics "think like animals."  Here is one published critique of her theory: "We argue that the extraordinary cognitive feats shown by some animal species can be better understood as adaptive specialisations that bear little, if any, relationship to the unusual skills shown by savants."  You'll find a response by Grandin at that same link.  I'm not totally on board with the critique either (how well do we understand savants anyway?), but at the very least Grandin's claim is an unsupported hypothesis.

3. Grandin tends to brusquely classify autistic children into different groups.  She will speak of "the nerds who will do just fine" (see the eBook linked to below) as opposed to the "severely autistic," who require that someone take control of their lives and pound a bit of the autism out of them.  There's a great deal of diversity among autistics, and autistic outcomes, but I don't see that as the most useful way of expressing those differences.   Autism diagnoses are often unstable at young ages, there is not any useful or commonly accepted measure of "autistic severity," her description perpetuates stereotypes, and Grandin herself as a child would have met criteria for "severely autistic" and yet she did fine through parental love and attention, which helped her realize rather than overturn her basic nature.  That's not even a complete list of my worries on this point; for more see my Create Your Own Economy.

4. Grandin supports some varieties of intensive behavioral therapy for autistics.  Many research papers support those same therapies but those papers do not generally conduct an RCT and furthermore many of the said researchers have a commercial stake in what they are studying and promoting.  In my view we don't know "what works" but my (non-RCT-tested) opinion is that giving autistic children a lot of fun things to do — fun by their standards — and a lot of information to study and manipulate, gives the best chance of good outcomes.  (In any case "spontaneous improvement" is considerable, so anecdotally many therapies will appear to work when they do not; nor is there a common control for placebos.)  Many of the behavioral therapies seem quite oppressive to me and if we don't know they work I am worried that they are being overpromoted.  Grandin has in some ways the intellectual temperament of an engineer and I am worried that she has not absorbed the lessons of Hayek's The Counterrevolution of Science.

5. Grandin refers to herself as more interested in tangible results and less interested in emotions.  She is entitled to that self-description, but it is worth noting that most individuals in the "autism community" would not consider this a good presentation of their attitude toward emotions.

There is a recent eBook (selling for only $4.00), consisting of a dialogue between myself and Grandin, mostly on autism and talented autistics but not just.  For instance we also talk about our favorite TV shows, including a discussion of Lost, and there is a segment on science fiction and the future of humanity.  I try to draw her out on autism, cognitive anthromorphizing, and attitudes toward religion, but she is reluctant to offer her opinions on that important topic.  I would describe the eBook as a good introduction to her thought on autism and society, while also giving an idea of how someone else (me) might differ from some of her basic attitudes.

Bryan Caplan responds to criticisms of libertarianism

He makes many points, here is one of them:

E&O might be right that cynicism about government perversely increases support for government.  But if so, libertarians shouldn't attack the public's justified cynicism.  Instead, they should help people see the logical anti-government conclusion of their cynicism.  Academics who are cynical about government generally are anti-government; see for yourself at the Public Choice Society meetings.  Why not teach laymen to make the same connection?

I worry when I read this.  Most of all, it is surprisingly meliorist; I once read a book that suggested voters were doomed to irrationality (albeit to varying degrees).  If voters can be taught the correct sophisticated mix of cynicism and pro-liberty sentiment, can they not be taught to support good policies, thus making democracy a well-functioning system of government?  The E&O criticism strikes at the heart of an important tension in libertarian thought.  Outcomes which might be described as "good libertarian" also require important public goods to be produced at the level of overall public sentiment; there's no getting around that.

Admittedly, being pessimistic about public sentiment under democracy does not a priori mandate being pessimistic about the ability of public sentiment to support and maintain more libertarian settings.  (You might for instance think that the public good can be produced under some settings but that democracy per se corrupts public opinion, because of its internal workings, electoral pandering, etc.)  Nonetheless, I've yet to see good, well-fleshed out arguments to support the split claim Caplan is proposing, namely that public sentiment can be produced to support good libertarian outcomes but not good democratic outcomes.  

Addendum: Caplan responds.

What I’ve been reading

So much has happened in the world lately that I've neglected to keep you posted on which books have crossed the threshold.  Here are a few of the more memorable ones:

1. R.W. Johnson, South Africa's Brave New World.  In the U.S. there is only the Kindle edition, but I ordered a British edition through the library.  This is a comprehensive political history of the country since the fall of apartheid; I thought I wouldn't finish it but I did.

2. Juan Goytisolo, Juan the Landless.  It's odd that such a splendid author is read so little in this country.  Beware, though — this one lies in the territory somewhere between Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. It is very powerful for those inclined in this direction and now I can see why his name in mentioned in connection with a Nobel Prize.

3. Steven C.A. Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution.  A clearly written, well-argued book, which on top of everything else is better than most books on the Industrial Revolution, hardly its main area of focus.  The main point is that the Glorious Revolution was more radical than is commonly portrayed and it represented the culmination of a struggle between two very different kinds of modernizing forces in England.  Chapter 12 — "Revolution in Political Economy" — is a gem.  This is a very impressive book.

4. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

5. Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel.  The premise — an alternative literary version of Homer's story — sounds contrived but I was surprised at how good and how moving this was.  Here is one good review of the book.

6. Kent Annan, Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously.  What is it like to be a Christian missionary in Haiti?  This is a surprisingly insightful and moving book, one of the best Haiti books but of general interest as well.  Most of all, it's about the author's struggle with himself.  Chris Blattman likes it too, here is his review.

*On the Brink*

The subtitle is Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System and the author is (?) Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

I don't consider myself a member of the anti-Paulson brigade but this book is a boring whitewash.  At least up through p.100, everyone is brilliant, charming, etc.

He explains that as a Christian Scientist he is comfortable relying on prayer rather than formal medicine.  I guess that doesn't hold for the banking system.

So far the best line is had by Nixon, who on p.29 eviscerates the idea of a VAT.  Everyone else sounds like a cliche.  There may be revelations in the later chapters, but I probably won't get to them.

Karl Case, poet

It's about the housing bubble and subsequent crash and the poem is here.  Excerpt:

So now we come to the end of this ode
Without much to say for certain.
I hate to say, that where we are
Not beginning or final curtain.
The truth of the matter at the end of the day
Is that markets will make you humble.
Just when you think that it's time for a drink
They will turn and fortunes will crumble.

Rebuilding Haiti

Here is a new and very worthwhile short piece from Progressive Fix, authored by Jim Arkedis and Mike Derham.  I am more skeptical of the UN than are the authors, but I agree with many of the recommendations and perhaps the UN is the only option anyway.  Here is one excerpt:

Once order is established, the UN mission will essentially become a national police force in the absence of a Haitian alternative. To transfer power back to the local government, the UN mission should be tasked with building an effective security force and justice system. That means in addition to cops, the UN may solicit prosecutors and judges in a proxy judiciary. It’s a tall order, but it may be the only way that allows the remaining Haitian government to fully concentrate on reconstruction.

Here is a truly excellent article from the NYT, on the previous lack of Haitian openness and the need to mobilize Haitian expat expertise.  Excerpt:

On an economic and political level, the Haitian diaspora could be threatening, said Harry Casimir, 30, a Haitian-born businessman who opened an information technology business there just before the earthquake. “Once the elites have money and power,” Mr. Casimir said, “they’re scared of people like me, the younger generation and so on. Because we travel around the world and see how other governments function, and obviously most countries are not corrupt like Haiti.”

Medicare vouchers

Ross Douthat surveys and evaluates the debate over Paul Ryan's "Medicare vouchers" plan.  Here Ezra interviews Ryan.

I am very interested in voucher plans but here is one source of my unease.  Let's say you are given a voucher for a health insurance plan and there is no legal requirement that the plan cover Parkinson's.  Many people buy plans which do not cover Parkinson's.  Some of those people get Parkinson's.  Are we pre-committing to ignore the woes of those people?  If so, how exactly do we do this?

I'm not ruling this alternative out (there are plenty of cases where we let people die), I just want to know what are the surrounding institutional structures, what happens if these people show up at emergency rooms, and also whether this wouldn't, eventually, give rise to a new "second tier" of lower-quality public sector institutions to handle cases not covered by insurance.

That is indeed one possible reform: a UK-like system for those who gamble and lose, with higher quality care for those who buy the more comprehensive or the more balanced policies.  (Maybe lots of people will buy gold-plated care for heart disease and nursing homes but go uncovered for neurological disorders, just to state one possibility.)  You'll notice, however, a tension.  The better the second-tier public-owned institutions, the more people will gamble with low or unbalanced levels of coverage.  The UK-like system might take over large parts of health care, with a private insurance-based system for some subset of maladies only. 

That's not the end of the world but perhaps it should be evaluated as such.  You might already be thinking that parts of the nursing home and mental health sectors operate this way under the status quo.

There's also a longer-run question, namely whether the seniors would prefer to capture those resources in the form of social security benefits — cash — and take their chances with the publicly owned institutions to a greater degree.  Maybe yes, maybe no, but those are the issues I think about when it comes to this kind of voucher plan.

At the other end of the spectrum, the law can mandate that the voucher-funded insurance plans cover lots and lots of conditions.  Mandates don't stay modest, etc.  In that case, is there really competition between the private insurance plans?  What's the advantage of having private participation here if the insurance companies are regulated like public utilities and forced into a common price/quality mode?

It seems to me that the first set of alternatives are the relevant comparison.

One proposal for health care reform is to stipulate a total (fixed) budget for social security and Medicare together and then create a commission — controlled by Congressmen from Florida — to allocate the funds as is seen fit.  I wonder what the resulting equilibrium would look like.  Is that a politically acceptable way to institute a de facto voucher program?

Markets in everything

Anti-theft lunch bags.  Here is the description:

…a few spots of mold may work wonders to protect your precious sandwich when your custom labels, pleading requests and desperate detective work fail to find your regular at-work lunch thief. Reusable, resealable, one-size-fits-all and ready to go right out of the box (or brown paper bag), these clever little containers from Think of The might seem more like a prank object or gag toy than a functional product but it will almost certainly deter even the hungriest of would-be food hackers.


For the pointer I thank Lawrence Rothfield, author of this excellent book.

Henry Aaron writes to me

James Kwak's calculation of the value of tax exclusion is incomplete.  He leaves out the exclusion from the payroll tax, worth 15.3 percent to the person in his example and to most people, and 2.9 percent (at the margin) for the rest who earn more than the OASDI taxable maximum.  The correct math is that the gross wage is 1 + .0765 = 1.0765 to allow for the employer's payroll tax cost.  The take home pay that could be used, after both payroll and income tax for someone in the 15 percent bracket is 1 – 0.0765 – 0.15 = 0.7735.  That means that the tax wedge is equivalent to a subsidy of 1- [.7735/1.0765] =.7185.  That is a 28.15 percent subsidy. 

For filers in the 28 percent bracket, which is easy to reach for a couple each of whom earns, say, $75,000, the subsidy is a bit over 40 percent.

Words of wisdom

From Felix Salmon:

…if you decided to short only countries whose foreign exchange reserves reached some large proportion of gross world product, you’d be batting 2 for 2 right now as you started shorting China. First you would have shorted the USA in the 1920s, and then you would have shorted Japan in the 1980s.

You can make a lot of mistakes by analogizing governments to countries, but every now and then it is worth doing.  If I were a major investor, I would get nervous each time I saw a company with massive cash reserves on its balance sheet.  That's often a sign that discipline is headed out the window.

To be sure, it is possible for a government (or company) to make mistakes in the other direction as well.

How much does tax-subsidized health insurance matter for health care costs?

James Kwak gives us his back-of-the-envelope estimate:

The median family household had income of $62,621 in 2008, which means it has a marginal tax rate of 15%. (We’re pretty close to the 25% threshold, so I’ll use 20% in what follows.) So without the exclusion, the typical family plan would cost about $16,000 in pretax dollars, not $13,000; the exclusion gives the median family a discount of 20%. Only about 60% of people get health insurance through an employer plan, so the average discount across the population is only 12%. Given that the price elasticity of health care is almost certainly a lot less than one (if you double the price, demand won’t fall in half), the overconsumption due to the tax exclusion must be less than 12%. Yet our per-capital health care expenditures are more than 60% above those of any other advanced country.

In other words it matters, but not as much as many people claim.

Addendum: Here is Henry Aaron's correction.