The Poorest of the Poor

As Alex mentioned, I’ll be blogging next week from Monrovia, Liberia.  I will try to post three to four times, but the reliability of "internet cafes" in Liberia is suspect at best.  Part of the problem is the lack of public electricity.  If I am able to blog, it will likely be courtesy of a gasoline generator.

Despite its naturally beautiful beaches on the Atlantic Ocean, Liberia is not exactly a popular vacation destination.  My time in Liberia will be spent lecturing on economic growth and visiting orphanages with my oldest daughter and a small group from my church.

Liberia may be the poorest nation in the world.  Recent estimates from the world bank indicate that per capita gross national income in Liberia is about half that of Rwanda

Some more facts about Liberia:

  1. Liberia was founded by freed U.S. slaves.
  2. Since 1980, the only "elected" leaders of Liberia (Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor) assumed power through bloody coups.
  3. Carolyn Cole of the L.A. Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for these photos of the Liberian civil war, which raged off and on from 1989 until 2003.
  4. Since the fall of 2003, U.N. troops have been stationed in Liberia to disarm the various factions, keep the peace, and oversee presidential elections (slated for this coming October).

By the way, Tyler’s sage advice to me before my first trip to Liberia was "beware of men wielding machetes."

Monitor your social fabric

The Social Fabric features a display of avatars on a mobile device’s screen, representing individuals in a group of friends or acquaintances. The avatars use body language to show how recently you’ve contacted each person: Regularly contacted friends appear alert and look directly at you. Less frequent contacts might slouch and turn to the side, and infrequent contacts could have their backs turned.

Read more here, and then go call your mother.  We can imagine this technology extended in various ways, as the non-salient is made more salient and memorable.  Should wives not favor cell phones that tell the husbands when to call them?  Or does this simply make one party feel more guilty and the other more aggrieved?  There is surely an optimal degree of forgetting.

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead is an excellent movie if you would enjoy a synthesis of cinematic Marxism, Mexican "Day of the Dead" folk religion, unmitigated cannibalistic gore, a critique of U.S. immigration policies, allusions to necrophilia (with the corpse as rapist), and a complete unwillingness to invert the usual racial and ethnic cliches.  In other words, thumbs up.  This movie creates its own world with panache, which is more than you can say for the mainstream Hollywood releases this year.

Insanity at 20,000 feet

Most people know that India and Pakistan have had many border wars since the 1940s. What few people realize is that India and Pakistan are still engaged in a 20 year war of attrition in the Himalayas. Since the early 1980s, both nations have wasted huge amounts of human and financial resources fighting over small ridges and icy glaciers over 17,000 feet above sea level, places most mountaineers would consider suicidal. About 4000 Indian and Pakistani soldiers have died, mainly because of the weather and the hostile environmental conditions. One officer says:

Ninety-seven per cent of casualties here are due to the extreme weather and altitude, rather than fighting. On the glacier you have to first survive the elements and then you fight the enemy.

Read more at Sepia Mutiny (click here and here) to learn about this unusual alpine stalemate. You’ll quickly see how bizarre and dangerous it is live and fight in such a place. Even using the latrine presents special challenges, such as what to do with piles of frozen human waste (answer: pulverize it with your machine gun). Time magazine Asia has a whole story (click here). You can also read Outdoor magazine’s account of the conflict.

Guest Blogging from Liberia

We are excited to have Lee Coppock, an economist at the University of Virginia and friend of mine from graduate school, guest blogging for us over the next week.  Lee is visiting Liberia on a private aid mission and will be giving us an on-the-ground perspective on economic growth, culture, institutions and aid.  Lee visited Liberia last year but tells me that at that time he was afraid to visit the downtown internet cafe.  This time he promises to risk it on behalf of the revolution, the Marginal Revolution!  Thanks Lee!

Why do people gamble?

Lucas Wiman, an MR reader, tries to explain gambling to me, using evolutionary psychology:

I think gambling is a result of a cognitive adaptation caused by the scarcity of certain kinds of resources.  Imagine that an individual has need for two resources (say fruit and water).  Fruit is obtained from bushes which bloom at irregular intervals, and is quickly eaten by other animals after it ripens, while water is always available at the creek.  In this circumstance, it is rational (from an economic perspective) to devote more time to checking whether there is fruit available than water.  Water can be easily obtained as needed, but given the irregularity with which fruit is available, it makes sense to check frequently and horde for later usage.  This applied a selective pressure, so that utility was increased simply by checking whether an occasionally-available reward exists, whether it was found or not.  Gambling is then a system designed to exploit this odd utility curve–by producing an occasional reward, a slot machine activates this system.  After someone wins once at slots, they get a utility boost from checking whether the reward is there again.

The economics of Texas roads

I grew up in northern New Jersey, where you must do a convoluted U-turn (think Rt. 17) to visit the other side of the highway.  I live in Northern Virginia, where you simply turn left into the strip mall of your choice, but you face an intimidating array of traffic lights along the way.

Houston and El Paso (and presumably other places as well) have a better system, or so it appears to me.  You drive on an elevated highway free of lights, and there are parallel service roads on each side.  The stores sit on the service roads.  Exit and entrance ramps are frequent.  This photo shows all.

A location theorist might worry this encourages too many shops to line up in a straight row along the main road, rather than clustering in a more circular fashion.  Who cares, I say?

Can you think of economic arguments against this arrangement?  Comments are open…

I might add that the elevated Rt.10 in El Paso is aesthetically impressive as well.  Headed west, to your right is the city and mountains, ahead of you is New Mexico, to your left is Mexico Mexico, all in one fantastic blick…

Acting White – Solutions to the Puzzle

A few days ago, I wrote about a paper by Ron Fryer and Paul
Torelli (click here for the post). To sum it up, they found that white student GPA correlates positively
with popularity, black student popularity peaks with a GPA of about 3.5 and
Hispanic popularity peaks at about 2 to 2.5 GPA. My question to the readers:
why the marked difference between Blacks and Latinos?

I was deluged with emails. So let me start by thanking all
the Marginal Revolution readers for sending their thoughts! Even if I haven’t
gotten around to responding to every email, please know that I read them all
and learned quite a bit.

In general, there were two sorts of emails – personal
recollections and attempts to explain the phenomena. Among the former, many support that for the idea that there is an acting white penalty. At the very least, the "acting white" accusation is very real for many people. One
person wrote that although s/he earned a modest 2.1 GPA in their final year in
high school, s/he was till accused of acting white by peers. A teacher in a
mainly Hispanic high school told me that success for many children of
immigrants is defined in rather modest terms, and that striving for college and
advanced education was out of the norm.

Now, let’s turn to some proposed explanations. One popular
answer was that each ethnic group has different GPA distributions and that
people become unpopular as they deviate from the group average. It is certainly
true that GPA varies from group to group, but the mean white GPA is not 4.0 –
the height of popularity for white students. It is also true that in data that
Fryer and Torelli use black and Hispanic GPA are about the same at 2.5 (check out page 51). So the “deviate from
the mean” explanation only fits Hispanics, but not the other groups examined.

Another batch of emails suggested that a shared Spanish
language, close social networks and tight families might mean that Hispanics
are better at monitoring each other than Blacks. If a Hispanic student wants to
do well in school, they have to master English. It’s pretty easy to know if
someone speaks English with any degree of fluency. OTOH, Black students already
know English. I can imagine that an ambitious Black student could do pretty
well in school and not attract attention. They “fly under the radar,” in the
words of one MR reader. However, once you get a super high GPA, you get lots of
public recognition in school (honor roll, advanced courses, etc.) and it’s
harder to evade the “acting white” tag.

A couple of readers felt that the statistical finding for
Hispanics was misleading. They suggested that it was important to discern
between fluent English speakers and mainly Spanish speakers. Assimilated
Hispanics, they thought, might resemble White students and what Fryer and
Torelli report only pertains the least assimilated, where there would of course
be unusually strong in-group pressures for conformity. There might be some
credence to this; Fryer and Torelli don’t include English fluency as control

So thank you to all who emailed! As you can see, I enjoyed
the email enormously and I think we have some tips on solving this puzzle.

How to improve student evaluations

Bryan Caplan hits the nail on the head:

I have a simple solution: stretch the scale upwards. If students call 60% of their professors "excellent," we need to add stronger adjectives to the list of responses. I suggest we add 6="best professor I’ve had this year" and 7="best professor I’ve ever had."

I still suspect students would overuse these options – during their four years, a student might give out ten 6’s and five 7’s, instead of four 6’s and one 7 like they should. But my reform would publicly distinguish teachers who do their job and appease complainers from professors who change their students’ lives but refuse to coddle them.