A Symposium for John Perry Barlow

John Perry Barlow, who passed away in 2018, penned two influential essays early in the web’s evolution A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and Selling Wine Without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net. It’s easy in retrospect to make fun of some of Barlow’s claims:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

or how about this painfully wrong prediction?

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

But as Cindy Cohn notes in Inventing the Future: Barlow and Beyond:

In talking about the Declaration at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) many years later, Barlow admitted that when he stepped out of a party at Davos to write it, he was both a little drunk and trying desperately to channel Thomas Jefferson. So maybe some of the sweeping rebukes are just trying to match his original bravado.

Moreover, Barlow was not nearly as utopian as one might imagine. He was, after all, one of the founders (in 1990!) of the Electronic Frontier Foundation which has worked to make the words true.

The symposium is of mixed quality. Cory Doctorow’s contribution is quarrelsome and weak. James Boyle’s overview and description of the WWW, however, is excellent:

Berners-Lee imagined a republic of ideas built on a vision of language.The whole thing had a whiff of Harry Potter magic.To click on the hyperlink was to summon its referent.The name was the magical command for the presence of the resource, as though every footnote animated itself, went to the library and brought you back the relevant book. To write a web page was to build a transporter of the mind. The link was a reference to the resource, a map to the place where the resource was held and a vehicle to take you there. Each new document wove the network a little wider and tighter. That’s why they called it the world wide web. And its architecture was “distributed.” Anyone could build the web—as if we could all wander outside our houses and build the Eisenhower freeways of the mind ourselves, draw the maps that chronicled those freeways, assemble the cars that traveled along them and then construct the libraries, bookstores, shops, coffee houses and red light districts to which they journeyed. All done through a decentralized process that required neither governmental permission, nor authentication of your content—for better or worse. Better and worse.

I’d also point to Imaginary Bottles on copyright by Jessica Litman and Yochai Benkler’s A Political Economy of Utopia? as excellent. Here’s Benkler:

What the past quarter century has taught us is that there are five basic failure modes of commons-based strategies to construct more attractive forms of social relations.

  1. Companies and countries can usually sustain focused strategic efforts for longer and more actively than distributed networks of users…
  2. Distributed social relations can themselves develop internal hierarchies and inequities (the Iron Law of Oligarchy)…
  3. Distributed open communications have provided enormous play for genuinely hateful and harmful behavior, such that we find ourselves seeking some power to control the worst abuses—the power of the platforms we want to hold democratically accountable, or the power of countries to regulate those platforms for us…
  4. More fundamentally, as long as we live in a society where people have to make money to eat and keep a roof over their heads, markets produce stuff we really like and want. For all the broad complaints about Amazon, it has produced enormous consumer welfare. More directly, for all the romanticization of fan videos and remix, the emergence of subscription streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime has been a boon to professional video creators and underwritten a golden age of professional video entertainment and narrative, both fiction and non-fiction.
  5. States are still necessary to counter market power, provide public goods on a sustained and large-scale basis by using coercive taxing and spending powers, redistribute wealth,and provide basic social and economic security for the majority of the population.

The symposium is here.

Willful Pencil Hurling

WSJ: The man who hurled pencils at 22-year-old Richard Robb went on to become a Nobel laureate.

It was 1982. Mr. Robb, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago, was chalking out an idea on a blackboard. He was studying under the supervision of James Heckman, a pugnacious econometrician who won the Nobel Prize in economics 18 years later.

The two men had the room to themselves. As the chalk squeaked from Mr. Robb’s scratching, Mr. Heckman grew agitated. He thought Mr. Robb’s idea was wrong, that he was making grandiose claims. He threw a pencil—then a few more.

Ducking occasionally, Mr. Robb ignored the assault and continued writing on the blackboard. “I turned out to be right after all,” Mr. Robb, now 59, tells me, “even though my explanation was confusing. And we published it in a long paper titled ‘Alternative Methods for Evaluating the Impact of Interventions.’ ” He adds that pupil and maestro never discussed the incident again—until Mr. Robb emailed Mr. Heckman to ask if I could use the story in this article.

Mr. Robb is now CEO of a $5 billion hedge fund and a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at Columbia.

Oddly the article goes on to explain how throwing pencils wasn’t really rational or irrational but an example of something that we do, or perhaps just Heckman does, “for itself”—an act that resulted “from the exercise of will rather than the pursuit of preferences.” Doing something from will rather than from preference is the heart of the idea in Robb’s new book Willful: How We Choose What We Do. Not sure I get it either, but I haven’t read the book. Maybe I will.

Hat tip: Frank McCormick.

News of the Weird

SlateStarCodex sums it up:

You might already be following the Navy UFO thing: over the past few years, the Navy has encouraged its pilots to come forward with UFO accounts, signal-boosted the reports, and sponsored UFO research organizations, as if they’re trying to stoke interest for some reason. Now the plot gets weirder: a Navy scientist has filed a patent for a quantum superconducter antigravity drive capable of UFO-like feats of impossible aeronautics. When the Patent Office rejected it as outlandish, the Chief Technical Officer of naval aviation personally wrote the Patent Office saying it was totally possible and a matter of national security, after which the Patent Office relented and granted the patent. The patent thanks UFO researchers in the acknowledgements, includes a picture of a UFO recently sighted by Navy pilots, and does everything short of print in capital letters ‘THIS COMES FROM A UFO’. Scientists who were asked to comment say the proposed drive is “babble” and none of the supposed science checks out at all. Has the Navy fallen victim to conspiracy-peddlers, are they deliberately trying to stoke conspiracy theories for some reason, or what?

Why Don’t We Know More About the Subway Cost Disease?

Alon Levy has a good deck based on data he collected covering 205 projects in 40 countries on why subway costs are so expensive in the United States compared to much of the rest of the world.

One of the points he makes is that a significant fraction of cost varies across countries which means “the explanation should be institutional and not geologic or geographic. This is difficult and requires qualitative research, since N is about 40.”

Costs are lower in poorer countries but Levy argues that GDP per capita is not a big factor once differences in type of subways are accounted for, I find that surprising and somewhat difficult to believe.

Levy’s major factor is simply that Americans and New Yorkers in particular don’t know much about how things are done elsewhere. In Europe, when a city builds a subway it can look to ten or twelve examples in three to four nearby countries for best practices. New Yorker’s don’t look anywhere else and say things like “New York has a more built-out commuter rail network than London,” as MTA chair Pat Foye recently claimed. In one way, this is good news because Levy argues that if Americans adopted European practices such as separating design from construction and simplifying station construction they could cut costs significantly.

Levy is to be lauded for his pioneering work on this issue yet isn’t it weird that a Patreon supported blogger has done the best work on comparative construction costs mostly using data from newspapers and trade publications? New York plans to spend billions on railway and subway expansion. If better research could cut construction costs by 1%, it would be worth spending tens of millions on that research. So why doesn’t the MTA embed accountants with every major project in the world and get to the bottom of this cost disease? (See previous point). Perhaps the greatest value of Levy’s work is in drawing attention to the issue so that the public gets mad enough about excess costs to get politicians to put pressure on agencies like the MTA.

Income Share Agreements

Mitch Daniels, former Governor of Indiana and now President of Purdue University, writes about income share agreements in the Washington Post:

In an ISA, a student borrows nothing but rather has his or her education supported by an investor, in return for a contract to pay a specified percentage of income for a fixed number of years after graduation. Rates and time vary with the discipline of the degree achieved and the amount of tuition assistance the student obtained.

An ISA is dramatically more student-friendly than a loan. All the risk shifts from the student to the investing entity; if a career starts slowly, or not at all, the student’s obligation drops or goes to zero. Think of an ISA as equity instead of debt, or as working one’s way through college — after college.

An excellent point. If you watch Shark Tank the entrepreneurs are always wary about debt because debt puts all the risk on them and requires fixed payments regardless. Yet when it comes to financing the venture of one’s own life suddenly equity becomes akin to slavery and debt bondage becomes freedom! It’s very peculiar.

Another advantage of ISAs is that they provide feedback. Is the university willing to educate you for free in return for a share of future earnings? That’s a good signal!

ISAs have emerged principally in response to the wreckage of the federal student debt system but they also represent an opportunity for higher education to address another legitimate criticism: that it accepts no accountability for its results. As the lead investor of the two funds Purdue has raised to date, our university is expressing confidence that its graduates are ready for the world of work.

Check out Lambda School. “We invest in you. Pay nothing until you get a job making over $50,000.”

At Purdue, the university I lead, hundreds of students have such contracts in place, and other colleges large and small are joining the ISA movement. Beyond traditional higher education, coding academies and other skill-specific schools are making the same offer: Study for free, and pay us back after you get the good job we are confident you’ll land.

Although the very nature of ISAs protects the participant, early adopters such as Purdue have built in safeguards. A user-friendly computer simulator provides quick, transparent comparisons with various public and private loan options. No investee pays anything for the first six months after graduation or until annual income exceeds $20,000. For those graduates who get off to fast career starts, a ceiling of 250 percent of the dollars that purchased their education limits total repayment.

I’ve been writing about income-contingent loans for years. Milton Friedman was an early advocate. It’s good to see forward movement.

The Optometry Racket

Every year I curse the optometry racket when I run out of contact lenses and have to return to the optometrist to get a “new” prescription. It’s a service that I don’t want and don’t need but am forced to buy by US law which require patients to have a recent doctor’s prescription to buy eyewear. I can stretch out the time by buying months in advance, sometimes I buy when abroad, for a few years I managed to evade the law by buying from Canadian internet sellers but that route has mostly been shut down. Writing in the Atlantic Yascha Mounk notes that around the world no prescription is needed:

In every other country in which I’ve lived—Germany and Britain, France and Italy—it is far easier to buy glasses or contact lenses than it is here. In those countries, as in Peru, you can simply walk into an optician’s store and ask an employee to give you an eye test, likely free of charge. If you already know your strength, you can just tell them what you want. You can also buy contact lenses from the closest drugstore without having to talk to a single soul—no doctor’s prescription necessary.

The excuse for the law is that eye exams can discover other problems. Sure, trade offs are everywhere. Let people make their own decisions. as Mounk concludes:

Like the citizens of virtually every other country around the world, Americans should be allowed to buy any pair of glasses or set of contact lenses at a moment’s notice. While the requirement to get a medical exam from an optometrist who has spent a minimum of seven years in higher education may have good effects in some cases, it also creates unreasonable costs—and unjustifiable suffering….Put Americans in charge of their own vision care, and abolish mandatory eye exams.

The First Words of Thanksgiving

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock in 1620 they were cold, hungry and frightened. Imagine their surprise when on March 16 as they unloaded cannon from the Mayflower in preparation for battle an Indian walked into their encampment and asked, “Anyone got a beer?” Seriously, that’s what happened. Samoset, the thirsty Indian, had learned English from occasional fishermen.

Even more fortunate for the Pilgrims was that Somoset was accompanied by Squanto. Squanto had been enslaved 7 years earlier and transported to Spain where he was sold.  He then somehow made his way to England and then, amazingly, back to his village in New England around 1619. It’s a horrific story, however, because during his absence Squanto’s entire village and much of the region had been wiped out by disease, almost certainly brought by the Europeans. Nevertheless, in 1621 Squanto was there when the Pilgrims landed and he hammered out an early peace deal and most importantly instructed the settlers how to fertilize their land with fish in order to grow corn.

Squanto instructed them in survival skills and acquainted them with their environment: “He directed them how to set their corn, where to take fish, and to procure other commodities, and was also their pilot to bring them to unknown places for their profit, and never left them till he died.”

Anyone got a beer?

 

Wealth by Generation and Age

Kurt Andersen made the following arresting tweet

Fraction of all US wealth owned by Boomers & Gen-Xers when the average member of each was age 35:

Boomers, 1989 21%
GenX, 2008 8%
The average Millennial turns 35 in 2023. Right now they own 3%.

There will surely be political implications.

Definitions: Baby Boomer=born 1946-1964, Gen X=born 1965-1980, and Millennial=born 1981-1996.

You can’t take it with you, so this will change eventually but perhaps too late. Think of this as the Prince Charles effect. Prince Charles hasn’t offed his mother and led a revolution yet but in an earlier age he probably would have and surely he has thought about it. Similarly, perhaps the demand among some Gen-Xers and Millennials for wealth redistribution can be understood as a demand to get their share of the pot before they are old and tired.

The data, which are from the Federal Reserve are here.

Learning about the Roots of Progress from the History of Smallpox Eradication

The excellent Jason Crawford at the Roots of Progress has a long-form read on the history of smallpox eradication. It’s an important and insightful piece especially because Jason is interested not just in what happened but why it happened when and where it did and what the lessons are for today:

In 1720, inoculation had been a folk practice in many parts of the world for hundreds of years, but smallpox was still endemic almost everywhere. The disease had existed for at least 1,400 and probably over 3,000 years. Just over 250 years later—it was gone.

Why did it take so long, and how did it then happen so fast? Why wasn’t inoculation practiced more widely in China, India, or the Middle East, when it had been known there for centuries? Why, when it reached the West, did it spread faster and wider than ever before—enough to significantly reduce and ultimately eliminate the disease?

The same questions apply to many other technologies. China famously had the compass, gunpowder, and cast iron all before the West, but it was Europe that charted the oceans, blasted tunnels through mountains, and created the Industrial Revolution. In smallpox we see the same pattern. [Why?]

  • The idea of progress. In Europe by 1700 there was a widespread belief, the legacy of Bacon, that useful knowledge could be discovered that would lead to improvements in life. People were on the lookout for such knowledge and improvements and were eager to discover and communicate them. Those who advocated for inoculation in 1720s England did so in part on the grounds of a general idea of progress in medicine, and they pointed to recent advances, such as using Cinchona bark (quinine) to treat malaria, as evidence that such progress was possible. The idea of medical progress drove the Suttons to make incremental improvements to inoculation, Watson to run his clinical trial, and Jenner to perfect his vaccine.
  • Secularism/humanism. To believe in progress requires believing in human agency and caring about human life (in this world, not the next). Although England learned about inoculation from the Ottoman Empire, it was reported that Muslims there avoided the practice because it interfered with divine providence—the same argument Reverend Massey used. In that sermon, Massey said in his conclusion, “Let them Inoculate, and be Inoculated, whose Hope is only in, and for this Life!” A primary concern with salvation of the immortal soul precludes concerns of the flesh. Fortunately, Christianity had by then absorbed enough of the Enlightenment that other moral leaders, such as Cotton Mather, could give a humanistic opinion on inoculation.
  • Communication. In China, variolation may have been introduced as early as the 10th century AD, but it was a secret rite until the 16th century, when it became more publicly documented. In contrast, in 18th-century Europe, part of the Baconian program was the dissemination of useful knowledge, and there were networks and institutions expressly for that purpose. The Royal Society acted as an information hub, taking in interesting reports and broadcasting the most important ones. Prestige and acclaim came to those who announced useful discoveries, so the mechanism of social credit broke secrets open, rather than burying them. Similar communication networks spread the knowledge of cowpox to from Fewster to Jenner, and gave Jenner a channel to broadcast his vaccination experiments.
  • Science. I’m not sure how inoculation was viewed globally, but it was controversial in the West, so it was probably controversial elsewhere as well. The West, however, had the scientific method. We didn’t just argue, we got the data, and the case was ultimately proved by the numbers. If people didn’t believe it at first, they had to a century later, when the effects of vaccination showed up in national mortality statistics. The method of meticulous, systematic observation and record-keeping also helped the Suttons improve inoculation methods, Haygarth discover his Rules of Prevention, and Fewster and Jenner learn the effects of cowpox. The germ theory, developed several decades after Jenner, could only have helped, putting to rest “miasma” theories and dispelling any idea that one could prevent contagious diseases through diet and fresh air.
  • Capitalism. Inoculation was a business, which motivated inoculators to make their services widely available. The practice required little skill, and it was not licensed, so there was plenty of competition, which drove down prices and sent inoculators searching for new markets. The Suttons applied good business sense to inoculation, opening multiple houses and then an international franchise. They provided their services to both rich and poor by charging higher prices for better room and board during the multiple weeks of quarantine: everyone got the same medical procedure, but the rich paid more for comfort and convenience, an excellent example of price differentiation without compromising the quality of health care. Business means advertising, and advertising at its best is a form of education, helping people throughout the countryside learn about the benefits of inoculation and how easy and painless it could be.
  • The momentum of progress. The Industrial Revolution was a massive feedback loop: progress begets progress; science, technology, infrastructure, and surplus all reinforce each other. By the 20th century, it’s clear how much progress against smallpox depended on previous progress, both specific technologies and the general environment. Think of Leslie Collier, in a lab at the Lister Institute, performing a series of experiments to determine the best means of preserving vaccines—and how the solution he found, freeze-drying, was an advanced technology, only developed decades before, which itself depended on the science of chemistry and on technologies such as refrigeration. Or consider the WHO eradication effort: electronic communication networks let doctors be alerted of new cases almost immediately; airplanes and motor vehicles got them and their supplies to the site of an epidemic, often within hours; mass manufacturing allowed cheap production at scale of needles and vaccines; refrigeration and freeze-drying allowed vaccines to be preserved for storage and transport; and all of it was guided by the science of infectious diseases—which itself was by that time supported by advanced techniques from X-ray crystallography to electron microscopes.

Read the whole thing and follow the roots of progress.

Is Elon Musk Prepping for State Failure?

FuturePundit on twitter has an interesting theory of Elon Musk’s technology portfolio, namely a lot of it will be very valuable for living in a failed state.

Solar panels, for example, are a necessity when the state can’t deliver power reliably, as is now the case in California.

Solar panels plus the Tesla give you mobility, even if Saudi Arabia goes up in smoke and world shipping lines are shut down.

Starlink, Musk’s plan for 12,000 or more cheap, high-speed internet satellites, will free the internet from reliance on any terrestrial government.

Musk’s latest venture, the truck, certainly fits the theme and even if the demonstration didn’t go as well as planned isn’t it interesting that the truck is advertised as bulletproof. Mad Max would be pleased.

Image result for musk truck

And what will you be carrying in your Tesla truck? One of these for sure.

Finally, the Mars mission is the ultimate insurance policy against failed states.

More Pregnancy, Less Crime

When it comes to crime, economists focus on deterrence. Deterrence works but it’s not the only thing that works. Simple things like better street lighting can reduce crime as can high-quality early education or psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The sociological literature has emphasized that crime is about preferences as well as constraints. Life-events or turning points such as marriage and childbirth, for example, can greatly change crime preferences. The sociological literature is mostly from case studies but in an excellent new paper, Family Formation and Crime, Maxim Massenkoff and Evan Rose (both on the job market from Berkeley) demonstrate these insights in a huge dataset.

A big part of what makes their paper compelling is that almost all of the results are blindingly clear in the raw data or using simple analysis. Here, for example, is the crime rate for women (drug, DUI, economic, or property destruction crimes) in the years before pregnancy, during pregnancy (between the red dotted lines) and after birth. Crime rates fall dramatically with pregnancy and in the three years after birth they are 50% lower on average than in the years before pregnancy.

Pregnancy imposes some physical limits on women but the effects are also very large for men whose crime rates fall by 25-30% during pregnancy of their partner and continue at that lower rate for years afterwards. Keep in mind that in our paper on three strikes, Helland and I found that the prospect of an additional twenty years to life (!) reduce criminal recidivism by just ~17%, so the effect of pregnancy is astoundingly large.

It’s not obvious what the policy implications are. Have children at a younger age doesn’t sound quite right, although in an analysis on teen births Massenkoff and Rose do indeed show that whatever the costs of teen pregnancy there are some offsetting benefits in reduced crime of the parents. More generally, however, there are policy implication if we think beyond the immediate results. First, these results show that crime isn’t simply a product of family background, poverty and neglect. Crime is a choice.

In Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, Edin and Nelson relay the following anecdote (quoted in Massenkoff and Rose):

Upon hearing the news that the woman they are “with” is expecting, men such as Byron are suddenly transformed. This part-time cab driver and sometime weed dealer almost immediately secured a city job in the sanitation department (p. 36).

Byron chose to change and he did so based on the rational expectation of a future event. Massnekoff’s and Rose show that these choices are common.

Instead of thinking of these results as being about pregnancy and marriage we should ask what is it about pregnancy and marriage that makes people reduce crime? Love, responsibility and long-run thinking are all at play. In economic terms, pregnancy reduces discount rates and gives men and women a reason to invest in human capital and work for the future. Children and marriage play a large role in socializing and “civilizing” both men and women but they surely can’t be the only such factors. Indeed, although men and women on average reduce their crime rates dramatically on pregnancy this is mostly coming from men and women who had high rates to begin with–there are plenty of men and women who don’t much reduce their crime rates on pregnancy because they were already low–in a way, these men and women were pre-socialized so how do we extend the benefits of pregnancy to the expectation of pregnancy or how can we widen the effect to other factors that can also civilize?

Eliminate Journal Formatting on First Submission!

Many years ago I was incredulous when my wife told me she had to format a paper to meet a journal’s guidelines before it was accepted! Who could favor such a dumb policy? In economics, the rule is you make your paper look good but you don’t have to fulfill all the journal’s guidelines until after the paper is accepted.

In The high resource impact of reformatting requirements for scientific papers Jian et al. calculate the cost of reformatting–it’s $1.1 billion dollars annually! True, the authors simply surveyed 203 authors for the time it took to reformat and then multiplied that by an hourly wage and then multiplied that by all article submissions so, at best, this is a back of the envelope calculation. What is beyond doubt, however, is that reformatting typically takes several tedious hours for a high-wage professional.

Our data show that nearly 91% of authors spend greater than four hours and 65% spend over eight hours on reformatting adjustments before publication…Among the time-consuming processes involved are adjusting manuscript structure (e.g. altering abstract formats), changing figure formats, and complying with word counts that vary significantly depending on the journal. Beyond revising the manuscript itself, authors often have to adjust to specific journal and publisher online requirements (such as re-inputting data for all authors’ email, office addresses, and disclosures). Most authors reported spending “a great deal” of time on this reformatting task. Reformatting for these types of requirements reportedly caused three month or more delay in the publication of nearly one fifth of articles and one to three month delays for over a third of articles.

And for what? Most papers will be rejected so the reformatting serves no purpose.

What frustrates me about this inanity is that, as far as I can tell, almost no one benefits! We simple seem stuck in an inefficient equilibrium. What hope is there to deregulate zoning or pass a carbon tax–where benefits exceed costs but you can understand why the process is difficult because some people gain from the inefficiency–when we can’t even fix wasteful journal formatting policy? Can Elsevier or other publishing heavyweight not unilaterally move us to the Pareto frontier! Pick up those $1.1 billion bills! Come on humanity, just do it!

Addendum: Economics is good on the reformatting score but n.b. “A prior survey-based research study on biomedical journal publications times noted a median time of first submission to acceptance of five months but this seemingly included all delays in the publication process (including review time and changes to improving scientific content).” Five months would be unheard of speed in economics where you are lucky if you get referee comments in five months!

Air Pollution Reduces IQ, a Lot

The number and quality of studies showing that air pollution has very substantial effects on health continues to increase. Patrick Collison reviews some of the most recent studies on air pollution and cognition. I’m going to post the whole thing so everything that follows is Patrick’s.

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Air pollution is a very big deal. Its adverse effects on numerous health outcomes and general mortality are widely documented. However, our understanding of its cognitive costs is more recent and those costs are almost certainly still significantly under-emphasized. For example, cognitive effects are not mentioned in most EPA materials.

World Bank data indicate that 3.7 billion people, about half the world’s population, are exposed to more than 50 µg/m³ of PM2.5 on an annual basis, 5x the unit of measure for most of the findings below.

  • Substantial declines in short-term cognitive performance after short-term exposure to moderate (median 27.0 µg/m³) PM2.5 pollution: “The results from the MMSE test showed a statistically robust decline in cognitive function after exposure to both the candle burning and outdoor commuting compared to ambient indoor conditions. The similarity in the results between the two experiments suggests that PM exposure is the cause of the short-term cognitive decline observed in both.” […] “The mean average [test scores] for pre and post exposure to the candle burning were 48 ± 16 and 40 ± 17, respectively.” – Shehab & Pope 2019.
  • Chess players make more mistakes on polluted days: “We find that an increase of 10 µg/m³ raises the probability of making an error by 1.5 percentage points, and increases the magnitude of the errors by 9.4%. The impact of pollution is exacerbated by time pressure. When players approach the time control of games, an increase of 10 µg/m³, corresponding to about one standard deviation, increases the probability of making a meaningful error by 3.2 percentage points, and errors being 17.3% larger.” – Künn et al 2019.
  • A 3.26x (albeit with very wide CI) increase in Alzheimer’s incidence for each 10 µg/m³ increase in long-term PM2.5 exposure? “Short- and long-term PM2.5 exposure was associated with increased risks of stroke (short-term odds ratio 1.01 [per µg/m³ increase in PM2.5 concentrations], 95% CI 1.01-1.02; long-term 1.14, 95% CI 1.08-1.21) and mortality (short-term 1.02, 95% CI 1.01-1.04; long-term 1.15, 95% CI 1.07-1.24) of stroke. Long-term PM2.5 exposure was associated with increased risks of dementia (1.16, 95% CI 1.07-1.26), Alzheimer’s disease (3.26, 95% 0.84-12.74), ASD (1.68, 95% CI 1.20-2.34), and Parkinson’s disease (1.34, 95% CI 1.04-1.73).” – Fu et al 2019. Similar effects are seen in Bishop et al 2018: “We find that a 1 µg/m³ increase in decadal PM2.5 increases the probability of a dementia diagnosis by 1.68 percentage points.”
  • A study of 20,000 elderly women concluded that “the effect of a 10 µg/m³ increment in long-term [PM2.5 and PM10] exposure is cognitively equivalent to aging by approximately 2 years”. – Weuve et al 2013.
  • “Utilizing variations in transitory and cumulative air pollution exposures for the same individuals over time in China, we provide evidence that polluted air may impede cognitive ability as people become older, especially for less educated men. Cutting annual mean concentration of particulate matter smaller than 10 µm (PM10) in China to the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard (50 µg/m³) would move people from the median to the 63rd percentile (verbal test scores) and the 58th percentile (math test scores), respectively.” – Zhang et al 2018.
  • “Exposure to CO2 and VOCs at levels found in conventional office buildings was associated with lower cognitive scores than those associated with levels of these compounds found in a Green building.” – Allen et al 2016. The effect seems to kick in at around 1,000 ppm of CO2.

Alex again. Here’s one more. Heissel et al. (2019):

“We compare within-student achievement for students transitioning between schools near highways, where one school has had greater levels of pollution because it is downwind of a highway. Students who move from an elementary/middle school that feeds into a “downwind” middle/high school in the same zip code experience decreases in test scores, more behavioral incidents, and more absences, relative to when they transition to an upwind school”

Relatively poor countries with extensive air pollution–such as India–are not simply choosing to trade higher GDP for worse health; air pollution is so bad that countries with even moderate air pollution are getting lower GDP and worse heath.

Addendum: Patrick has added a few more.

The Anarchy

William Dalrymple is one of my favorite writers of non-fiction. He burst upon the scene in 1989 as a precocious, if occasionally a bit snotty travel writer, with In Xanadu in which he traced the path of Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to Xanadu in Inner Mongolia. He really hit stride, however, with City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, an essentially perfect example of the “Year in” genre that combines humor, history and analysis and remains to this day an excellent guide to historical Delhi. In From the Holy Mountain Dalrymple traveled from Greece to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to understand the ancient roots of the Christian populations in these countries. Sadly, Dalrymple’s trip has become in some respects a last document of cultures now disappearing under the stress of war, revolution and suppression. As Dalrymple aged he turned more and more to pure history. In The Last Mughal and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Dalyrmple gives what I think are the definitive accounts of the Indian mutiny of 1857 and the British invasion of Afghanistan of 1839-1842. Especially notable in both of these books is that Dalyrmple draws on previous ignored or underused Indian and Afghani accounts. There are other books, collections of journalistic essays, photographs and more but I will mention just one more, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, a beautiful and unforgettable account of nine people in modern India each walking a unique religious path.

In his latest book, The Anarchy, Dalrymple recounts the remarkable history of the East India Company from its founding in 1599 to 1803 when it commanded an army twice the size of the British Army and ruled over the Indian subcontinent. I review The Anarchy at EH.net. Here’s one bit from my review:

The Mughal emperor Shah Alam, for example, had been forced to flee Delhi leaving it to be ruled by a succession of Persian, Afghani and Maratha warlords. But after wandering across eastern India for many years, he regathered his army, retook Delhi and almost restored Mughal power. At a key moment, however, he invited into the Red Fort with open arms his “adopted” son, Ghulam Qadir. Ghulam was the actual son of Zabita Khan who had been defeated by Shah Alam sixteen years earlier. Ghulam, at that time a young boy, had been taken hostage by Shah Alam and raised like a son, albeit a son whom Alam probably used as a catamite. Expecting gratitude, Shah Alam instead found Ghulam driven mad. Ghulam took over the Red Fort and cut out the eyes of the Mughal emperor, immediately calling for a painter to immortalize the event.

Read the whole review and buy the book. It’s a hell of a story.