Month: April 2016

Capuchin monkeys punish those who have more

There is a new paper by Kristin L. Leimgruber, Alexandra G. Rosati, and Laurie R. Santos, here is the abstract:

Punishment of non-cooperators is important for the maintenance of large-scale cooperation in humans, but relatively little is known about the relationship between punishment and cooperation across phylogeny. The current study examined second-party punishment behavior in a nonhuman primate species known for its cooperative tendencies—the brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella). We found that capuchins consistently punished a conspecific partner who gained possession of a food resource, regardless of whether the unequal distribution of this resource was intentional on the part of the partner. A non-social comparison confirmed that punishment behavior was not due to frustration, nor did punishment stem from increased emotional arousal. Instead, punishment behavior in capuchins appears to be decidedly social in nature, as monkeys only pursued punitive actions when such actions directly decreased the welfare of a recently endowed conspecific. This pattern of results is consistent with two features central to human cooperation: spite and inequity aversion, suggesting that the evolutionary origins of some human-like punitive tendencies may extend even deeper than previously thought.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

How to manage your supply of the very best chocolate

My favorite (readily available) American chocolate bar is the dark Chocolove XoXoX, but recently they changed it.  The packaging went from very dark to to gold, and the flavor is now a little sweeter and less nutty.  The cocoa content is higher, but somehow it doesn’t quite shine through as strongly.  It still might be the best on the American market, but now I wonder, because it is modestly worse than before.

I no longer find the old bars in supermarkets, and an Amazon order of the old bars brought a shipment of the new bars instead.  But when I go to bookstores which sell chocolate, their supply turns over not so quickly, and so some of them still carry versions of the old bar.  For now.

I have five copies of the old bar left in the cupboard, and no guarantee for when I might replace them.

Chocolove Xoxox Premium Chocolate Bar - Dark Chocolate - Strong - 3.2 oz Bars - Case of 12 - Kosher - 70% Cocoa

My intuition is to eat them next in sequence, rather than postpone the exhaustion of their supply.  Eventually I will engage in an optimal forgetting of their very fine taste, and it is best that happens sooner rather than later.  To cite George Constantinides, that would be an optimal smoothing of habit-forming consumption.

An alternative philosophy is to consume them later in life, as late as spoilage costs will allow, so as to spread out aesthetic peaks over time.

Yet another alternative is give them away to latter-day customers who only have known the slightly inferior bar, and thus wreck their lives for sport.

Should rates of return go up or down in aging societies?

Carvalho, Ferrero, and Nechio have a new paper (pdf) on this question.  Here is one interesting sentence:

An increase in longevity or expectations thereof puts downward pressure on the real interest
rate, as agents build up their savings in anticipation of a longer retirement period.

Here is another:

We calibrate a tractable life-cycle model to capture salient features of the demographic transition in developed economies, and find that its overall effect is a reduction of the equilibrium interest rate by at least one and a half percentage between 1990 and 2014.

Sunday assorted links

1. John Lanchester short essay on Bitcoin.

2. Paul Krugman on the return of elasticity pessimism; I would stress more whether the supply chain for the exports is internal to the single nation or spread across many nations (currencies).

3. In Manitoba you can vote “none of the above.”

4. The actual Chinese economic growth figures, released quietly and late.

5. The Nicholas Berggruen think tank (NYT).

What would a recovery path for the American middle class look like?

I am not predicting this scenario, but it is useful to think through which paths might restore the growth gains to the American middle class.  From my column in The Upshot, here is the section on China:

Much of the competition for American manufacturing has come from China, and recent research has shown that China’s economic impact in the United States has been bigger than many economists initially thought, and in some ways, it has been more painful. China’s manufacturing has held down American middle-class wages, while soaring Chinese demand for commodities has pushed up resource prices. Of course, cheap Chinese imports have made American paychecks go further, but that is no consolation for people who have lost their jobs or suffered lower wages as a consequence.

Better times may be ahead, though. Higher wages in China — and other emerging nations — are now limiting the competitive advantage of those economies. And perhaps more important for Americans, as China reaches technological maturity, it is likely to shower innovations on consumers, creating a net gain for people in the United States.

China is already the major producer of solar panels and electric cars, for example. It is likely to contribute important innovations in consumer drones and driverless cars and in many other fields: The Chinese government is pouring immense resources into biotechnology, including new gene editing techniques. When it comes to mobile apps, messaging and electronic payments, China is arguably ahead of America. Imagine a future in which Chinese innovations benefit Americans just as the United States benefited Europe and vice versa.

This would mean more competition from China, of course, and lost jobs in some fields, but to simply focus on the negatives would be shortsighted. The reality is that innovators do not capture all or even most of the benefits they bring to the world. Once an idea emerges, its benefits begin to expand, and those benefits will surely spread to the United States.

I believe China will become much more innovative even if Chinese growth goes through continuing turmoil; keep in mind the United States was remarkably innovative in the 1930s throughout the Great Depression.

The column also considers skill-based technical change, and how it might turn more toward less skilled workers, and also…religion and Mormons.

The rationality of researchers?

…one piece of the agency has found a potentially powerful new tool to flatten the spikes and cut the number of proposals: It can simply eliminate deadlines.

This week, at an NSF geosciences advisory committee meeting, Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated.

Here is the story, via the excellent Otis Reid.

Don’t count on strangers in a medical emergency

So long, good Samaritans.

In the first study of its kind, Cornell sociologists have found that people who have a medical emergency in a public place can’t necessarily rely on the kindness of strangers. Only 2.5 percent of people, or 1 in 39, got help from strangers before emergency medical personnel arrived, in research published April 14 in the American Journal of Public Health.

For African-Americans, these dismal findings only get worse. African-Americans were less than half as likely as Caucasians to get help from a bystander, regardless of the type of symptoms or illness they were suffering – only 1.8 percent, or fewer than 1 in 55 African-Americans, received assistance. For Caucasians, the corresponding number was 4.2 percent, or 1 in 24.

People in lower-income and densely populated counties were also less likely to get help, the researchers said. Conversely, those in less-densely populated counties with average socioeconomic levels were most likely to get assistance.

Here is more, via Charles Klingman.

Saturday assorted links

More Lead, More Crime

In the second half of the nineteenth century, many American cities built water systems using lead or iron service pipes. Municipal water systems generated significant public health improvements, but these improvements may have been partially offset by the damaging effects of lead exposure through lead water pipes. We study the effect of cities’ use of lead pipes on homicide between 1921 and 1936. Lead water pipes exposed entire city populations to much higher doses of lead than have previously been studied in relation to crime. Our estimates suggest that cities’ use of lead service pipes considerably increased city-level homicide rates.

That’s from Feigenbaum and Muller in Lead Exposure and Violent Crime in the Early Twentieth Century. Lead, it ain’t just about Flint.

Singapore has a graciousness index

Singapore, 5 May 2015 – The Graciousness Index has continued to move up, from 53 in 2013 to 55 in 2014, and to 61 in 2015. This year’s rise is led by a growing sense of positive perceptions about kindness and graciousness in Singapore, with respondents rating both themselves and others higher when it comes to being considerate, courteous and showing appreciation.

The Graciousness Index is an annual study commissioned by the Singapore Kindness Movement to track experience and perceptions of kindness and graciousness in Singapore, as well as study attitudes towards various pertinent community issues. Over a six-week period from December 2014 to February 2015, a demographically representative sample of 1,850 respondents was asked to share their experiences and perceptions of graciousness in Singapore.

There was a marked increase in optimism, with 44% of respondents indicating that graciousness in Singapore had improved, compared to just 28% last year. 84% rated their own gracious behaviour as either good or excellent, and 69% felt the same about overall Singapore society. They also felt that Singapore was improving across the graciousness pillars of being considerate, being courteous and showing appreciation to others.

Dr. William Wan, General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, believes that this is a promising sign. “The increase in positive perceptions and overall sense of improvement is encouraging. If we as a nation continue this positive trend, then kindness and graciousness can become part of our norms and national identity.”

That which cannot be measured…

Here is the link, via James Crabtree.

Is China recovering?

The new gdp figure came in at 6.7%.  No matter what you believe “the real number” to be, this is probably more important:

Chen Xingdong, China chief economist at BNP Paribas, notes that first quarter growth was bolstered by industrial production, fixed-asset investment and an “astonishing” acceleration in construction starts while service sector growth moderated. That is exactly the opposite of what is supposed to be happening. “The pick-up in SOE investment and slowdown in private sector investment will cause problems for structural change,” Mr Chen said.

The first quarter this year also saw record credit expansion in China, even though most economists believe the country needs to be deleveraging. Here is David Keohane citing Wei Yao:

In Q1, increases in total credit exploded to CNY7.5tn, up 58% yoy and equivalent to 46.5% of nominal GDP – one of the highest ratios ever. Credit growth accelerated to 15.8% yoy to end-March, the quickest pace in 20 months.

Also from the FT (see the first link) is this:

Meanwhile, the “Mr Li got lucky” argument suggests that the most powerful player is not the country’s much feared president, Xi Jinping, but rather Janet Yellen, chair of the US Federal Reserve. According to this theory, Ms Yellen’s pause on US rate rises saved China from what looked like the beginning of run on the renminbi and Beijing’s foreign exchange reserves, which fell precipitously in January and February.

These falls moderated only after the Fed suggested it would not raise interest rates as aggressively as it had indicated late last year.

“The Fed’s reversal has taken a lot of pressure off the renminbi and without the currency looking like it’s going to collapse, people are feeling better,” said one Asian investment strategist, who asked not to be named.

The simplest China model for 2016 is this.  Due to the prevalence of SOEs and state influence in the economy, the country can in fact (for now) achieve almost any gdp target it wishes, at least within reason.  But it trades off the quantity of gdp for the quality of gdp, and this time — again — the Party opted for the relatively high growth figure.  That is bad news, not good news.

Here is an unpacking of some parts of the gdp number.  Here is Nerys Avery.

Are workaholics a danger to society?

The Economist’s new 1843 periodical asked me to write a short theme on that question, here is the result:

Work? What is work anyway? I’m a writer on economics and thus also a reader.  I don’t find writing to be so hard, but I need something to write about and that means reading. For me, working more means reading more. And you know what? Working less also means reading more. It does however mean reading different things.

If I worked less, I would read more fiction and less non-fiction. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps the fiction enriches me more as a human being, but I enjoy reading the non-fiction (including The Economist) just as much, sometimes more.

Plus I get paid, usually indirectly, for absorbing non-fiction material, playing with the ideas, and converting them into content for others. I enjoy earning that money, and spending it.

Also, most fiction isn’t that good. In fact, it isn’t even true. Or if it is true, it is true by coincidence or accident. That’s not a complaint, but I don’t see why I should give up cash income for the privilege of giving up reality. Can it be such a winning bargain to give up cash and reality at the same time? It’s not, and I won’t. Unless it’s Star Wars or Elena Ferrante.

Otherwise, see you at work.

Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

Here is the whole symposium, which includes Diane Coyle and Daniel Hamermesh.  This was all inspired by Ryan Avent’s excellent recent essay on work-life balance.

“A question of privilege”

An excellent short essay by Marti Leimbach.  Here is the opening:

My university-aged daughter is always tell me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans- or gender queer or mentally ill.  I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on  my skin colour or gender. And while I am have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.

Nonetheless, this whole notion of  “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.

The story continues…it is hard to excerpt with its various twists and turns, definitely recommended…

Here is her forthcoming novel,The Age of Consent.