Mind over Muscle or Where is Fatigue?

The old theory, taught to me in high school, is that muscles become fatigued when they run out of fuel/oxygen or they become suffused with lactic acid, an unpleasant byproduct of work. But if this is so, why do athletes almost always manage to go their fastest in the last mile of a race when their muscles should be closest to exhaustion? An article in New Scientist, (“Running on Empty,” by Rick Lovett, 20 March, 04, p.42-45, a copy is here) based on the work of Timothy Noakes and others, raises some more puzzles and offers a new theory.

If fatigue is based in the muscles then without more fuel, oxygen or less lactic acid you should not be able to improve performance. Yet, amphetamines and drugs like Ecstasy do allow athletes and clubbers to work and play harder (sometimes to dangerous effect). Measurements of the input factors also show that (absent unusual factors) fatigued muscles don’t in fact run out of critical factors.

The common sense response to these puzzles is that runners speed up in the last mile because they know it is the last mile and are willing to push themselves to their limits. Similarly, drugs fool the brain into thinking that the muscles are less fatigued than they are. If one thinks seriously about this common sense notion, as has Thomas Noakes, it provides a quite different view of fatigue than the old theory. The brain in this view is a central regulator that monitors the muscles and sends out messages of fatigue, quite possibly long before the muscles are truly spent as a sort of insurance policy. The central regulator theory doesn’t say that fuel and oxygen are unimportant only that the relation between fuel and fatigue is mediated by the brain.

The central regulator may have rational expectations. Experienced runners apparently report that the first mile of a 10k race is easier than the first mile of a 5k race. Makes no sense on the old theory but if you think about the central regulator meting out a fatigue budget in advance then everything becomes clear.

How then to improve performance? Try convincing yourself that you are running a 10k instead of a 5k (hypnosis may work). Also, Noakes suggests interval training, interspersed bouts of high intensity workouts with recovery breaks. The idea here is to the teach the central regulator that going faster won’t do you any harm.

What’s the difference between anthropology and economics?

Grant McCracken offers an object lesson in how to think about the two disciplines. Along the way he tries to explain why so many people pursue “fruitless” humanities Ph.d. degrees, with no real hope of a job on the other end. Here is his follow-up post on the same topic. His whole blog, in fact, tries to get at the differences between economics and anthropology. I am a big McCracken fan, here is his home page, which includes his on-line trilogy about modern culture.

My take: Anthropology is most likely to outperform economics when wealth maximization is not a useful proxy for utility maximization. That’s quite a broad swathe of cases. We need then to see how other values become imbued with social meaning and why they hold such an important place in the utility function. The answers to these questions are almost certainly context-dependent. Yet most useful economic theories deliberately abstract from context. For this reason, every economist should do fieldwork at some point in his or her career. A stint in government, time behind the counter at Nordstroms, or a sojourn in a third world village can all qualify. That being said, without an inquiring and curious spirit, all of these endeavors are a waste of time. The problems with economics are, to large extent, simply the personal failings of various economists.

What TV ads do people wish to skip?

…Just over one-third of beer ads were skipped through by those taking part in the research, whereas 93% of fast food and credit card commercials were passed over by viewers fast forwarding through the breaks.

MindShare predicted that there would be an increase in the amount of live event television such as sport on TV channels in the future, because these are events that people would be more likely to watch at the actual time of transmission than record.

The company also suggested that broadcasters could start charging a premium for advertising in such events, and could even raise the price of their firstinbreak and last-in-break slots to reflect that more people tune out during the middle of an advertising break.

TV sponsorship was also under much less threat from skipping, said the research.

So how will the market evolve?

What seems clear is that the sectoral make-up of TV advertising is set to change dramatically, consolidating around a smaller number of key industries.

Other industries will increasingly use advertiser-funded content, product placement and sponsorship to get their messages across on TV, or switch to other media altogether.

Outdoor and retail media, being the other two mass media, are likely to benefit from the sectorspecific shift away from TV.

Here is the original article. Earlier Alex wrote on Queer Eye and the Future of Television. Thanks to Eloise, whose blog post put me on to this.

Economic arguments I have never understood

Have you ever heard the claim that U.S. medical care is in trouble because we subsidize third-party insurance through the tax system? Glenn Hubbard presented this view in the Wall Street Journal this Tuesday. Hubbard writes:

Reform the tax treatment of health-care expenses. The most far-reaching and misguided government policy, established more than 60 years ago, allowed employer-provided health care to be exempt from taxation. Under this policy, medical care purchased through an employer’s insurance plan is tax-free, while direct medical-care purchases by patients must be made with after-tax income. The tax preference for employer health insurance has been instrumental in creating today’s third-party payment system. In this perverse world, true insurance, in the form of coverage for catastrophic health events, is the exception; prepaid health care, in the form of coverage with low deductibles and copayments, is the rule. The tax preference for insurance is the primary reason five out of every six dollars of health-care spending are paid by third parties…

Low copayments and deductibles fuel excessive cost growth and breed wasteful medical practice…consumers have little incentive to limit their use of unnecessary medical-care services, little incentive to shop for the health plan that best suits their needs in a cost effective way, and little incentive to evaluate their care on the basis of value.

But I’m stumped. If the argument is that tax deductibility leads to too much health care, I can see the logic. But then the problem is in the pretzels and beer markets; health care should be doing fine, albeit in bloated form.

Alternatively, it might be argued that buying health insurance involves a negative externality on others. Maybe insurance companies are intrinsically bad monitors, and more insurance corrupts the system as a whole. Grant this premise, but where do we end up?

1. We would have a good argument for taxing insurance purchases. Yet the insurance point is rarely raised with this conclusion in mind. We might have (yikes!) an argument for greater government involvement in health care.

2. If insurance companies are such poor cost monitors, why doesn’t this raise premia accordingly? The poor monitoring of the company would be reflected in policy price and thus would be internalized by the people or institutions who buy the policies. The externality should vanish or at least significantly diminish.

3. Why should insurance subsidies lead to “low copayments and deductibles”? Insurance with high copayments and deductibles is favored by the tax system as well. That being the case, why do we blame the tax system for how insurance is (perhaps) poorly structured?

All these points collapse into a more simple query: how can a simple relative price, whether a distortion or not, corrupt the cost control practices of an entire industry?

And if government provision of health care is ineffective and costly, isn’t there a positive externality from the purchase of private health insurance?

Many of the people who cite this argument about health insurance are smarter and more accomplished than I am. I will grant their greater wisdom and authority. But at the end of the day, I still don’t get it.

Is it just my imagination?

Kevin Garnett recently won the MVP award in the NBA after a stellar and very consistent season. He was awarded the trophy in a ceremony before last night’s playoff game, and then had a subpar performance. I recall this same pattern holding in the past when other players receive the award before games. The example of David Robinson comes to mind; he received the trophy and was promptly outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon. I suspect the lesson is that approbational incentives always matter at the margin, and an MVP trophy makes it harder to motivate oneself for the single basketball game to follow the trophy award. A lesson for life lies therein. If nothing else, try to isolate your awards, triumphs, and conquests from your subsequent performance.

Addendum: Here is another quantitative method of measuring the marginal product of basketball players, the best I have seen yet. Kevin Garnett comes out as number one.

Economics and Philosophy reading list

Here are Brad DeLong’s picks for such a class. I’ll add Derek Parfit to the list, and maybe Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, in his Second Discourse, questioned the identification of wealth with welfare. Instead he saw market society as leading individuals into “approbational traps,” whereby they seek more approval but find themselves on a fruitless treadmill in this regard. Parfit asks whether utilitarianism (or consequentialism more generally) can ever dovetail with common sense intuitive morality. I also would have them read McCloskey on economic rhetoric, to better understand the nature of economic argumentation. Then you could add Thomas Schelling on multiple selves, to illustrate the complexities of individual choice; Parfit chips in on this topic as well. If I taught the class for twenty-five weeks, I would consider using Plato’s Republic, which pretty much contains every argument ever made since.

Hey, I taught that class two years ago…!

If you can’t slow down time, try this…

Control your pain through biofeedback:

People can learn to suppress pain when they are shown the activity of a pain-control region of their brain, a small new study suggests. The new biofeedback technique might also turn out to be useful for treating other conditions.

Biofeedback techniques based on electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of brainwave patterns, in which electrodes are placed on the scalp, are used with some success to treat epilepsy and attention problems such as ADHD.

…Fumiko Maeda, Christopher deCharms and their colleagues at Stanford University in California have tried showing people real-time feedback from a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner.

The eight volunteers saw the activity of a pain-control region called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex represented on a screen either as a flame that varied in size, or as a simple scrolling bar graph. This brain region is known to modulate both the intensity and the emotional impact of pain.

During the scans the volunteers had to endure painful heat on the palm of their hand. They were asked to try to increase or decrease the signal from the brain scanner and to periodically rate their pain sensations.

It took just three 13-minute sessions in the scanner for the eight volunteers to learn to vary the brain activity level, and thus to develop some control over their pain sensations, the researchers reported at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting in San Francisco last week.

Interestingly, none of the participants could explain how they managed some control. But it seemed to work, albeit on a small number sample.

Why stop here? Why not carry around an advanced biofeedback monitor and console to control your emotions more generally?

The bottom line: I can’t imagine how welfare economics will look two hundred years from now.

Science is Not War

For fifty years the United States dominated the rest of the world with its scientific advances, Nobel prizes and life-saving drugs. We were the king! We ruled!

But now, Tom Daschle sees “disturbing” signs. “America’s dominant position in the scientific world is being shaken,” he says.

Quake! Hold on!

We are in decline and “it’s frightening,” intones Dr. Armbrecht from the Industrial Research Institute.

“They’re catching up to us,” warns Jennifer Bond.

Run, run for your lives!

Funniest statement is from the aforementioned Jennifer who is a vice-President at something called the Council on Competitiveness, an organization in Washington that seeks “to promote industrial vigor.”

We must not lose our precious bodily fluids.

All of this is from a hysterical and hysterically funny article in the NYTimes, U.S. Is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences by William Broad. One of the brief nods to sanity in the entire piece is this sentence:

Even analysts worried by the trend concede that an expansion of the world’s brain trust, with new approaches, could invigorate the fight against disease, develop new sources of energy and wrestle with knotty environmental problems.

Of course, the next sentence begins with the word “But…”

Now, the U.S. system has its share of problems. The university system is not a market and as a result price signals don’t allocate labor very well so we have too many English and history majors and not enough natural science and engineering undergraduates. (See Paul Romer for the academic argument and the Invisible Adjunct for the life lesson.)

The basic point, however, is that science is not war. So let us turn away from the mediocrities like Tom Daschle and the New York Times and turn instead to Thomas Jefferson who wrote nearly 200 hundred years ago:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Subjective time, or the tourist illusion

When you are driving to a new place, it feels longer to get there than to return. No, you are not crazy, this is a confirmed perceptual bias. When taking the route for the first time, you are engaged in an act of problem solving. Subjective time passes more slowly (this has been validated by various experiments). On the way back, you know the route (you hope). Subjective time then passes more quickly. Jay Ingram puts it this way: “When your mind is focused on something other than the passage of time, you are fooled into thinking that less time has passed.”

Similarly, if you do two identical tasks, and they take the same time, you will judge your first attempt as having taken longer. But if you change the background context, such as by putting the people in a different room, this illusion tends to vanish.

There is also strong evidence that time seems to go faster as you get older. (Do we leave the problem-solving mode as we age?) Say you are forty and you will live to eighty. According to one set of calculations, your life, as subjectively perceived, is already seventy-one percent over. This is the most disturbing scientific fact I have heard in a long time. Your last twenty years will feel like no more than thirteen percent of your life. Another set of equations, harder to confirm, puts the age of seventeen and a half (!) as the midpoint of your subjectively experienced life. Occasionally patients with extreme brain damage will experience time as passing very very rapidly; the internal clock of one man seemed to be set at about four times regular speed.

For more information on these experiments, see Jay Ingram’s The Velocity of Honey.

Many scientists are hard at work trying to overcome aging; others are more pessimistic about how long we can live. But perhaps markets will look to another solution altogether. Why not also slow down subjectively perceived time? Might this be easier than stopping aging itself? Would it be nearly as good? In the meantime, what can you do to make your life feel longer?

OK, so here is the economists’ question: what is your marginal rate of substitution for real time vs. perceived time? Would you rather have one year that felt like two, or two years that felt like one?

My personal preferences tend toward objective time. Put aside family issues and matching what one’s partner or family does. I am curious about how history will run its course, how music will evolve, and which movies will come out. And what about the theory of quantum gravity? For this you need objective time more than subjectively perceived time. It’s worth a great deal to me just to get this information injected into my brain, even if I only receive a short extension of my life.

The cost of dieting

Why are Americans so obese? One factor is surely the decline in the relative price of carbohydrates. In hunter-gatherer society, you couldn’t get pasta or bread at all. But how about today?

“What’s really cheap are foods made with refined flour, added sugar and corn syrup and added fat.” People with limited income, he says, “buy foods that fill them up, and who’s to blame them? They get the most calories for their money.”

Not everyone is willing to pay for a good and tasty diet. Christine Davies speaks:

“I tried both the Atkins and South Beach diets, but pound for pound, protein is a lot more expensive than carbs,” she says. “The South Beach diet recommends fish about three times a week. I’d have to eat canned tuna three times a week to afford it, and I get tired of eating the same foods.

“Plus, you have to cook everything yourself,” she says. “Following it on a day-to-day schedule would be completely impossible because of the complexity of the recipes and the cost of the foods.”

She’ll get little argument from Phil Lempert, one of the nation’s leading experts on food prices and grocery-store shopping. Using exclusive data from AC Nielsen and menus from the best-selling diet books, Lempert calculates that strict adherence to the low-carb, meat lovers’ Atkins diet would cost about $100 a week (presuming you eat all meals at home). The salmon-rich South Beach diet priced out at almost $90 a week. That’s far more than the $35 that Davies spends at the grocery store each week to feed herself.

Many other people live in “food deserts,” where supermarkets with fresh vegetables are a long distance away. Of course all this holds only for North America. The world’s very poor find calories hard to come by, engage in hard physical labor, walk much more, or have better access to home farmed fresh foods. Only in the U.S. are carbohydrates so cheap.

Here is the full story. Here is a related article on the cost of dieting. Here is Bruce Bartlett’s excellent short piece on the economics of obesity, with links to the academic literature.

As for me, if you ignore price and delivery costs, I would gladly eat sashimi for at least half of my meals.

How much is a Picasso worth?

Pablo Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe (the link is broadband with audio and video; here is a lower tech image) is on the auction block at Sotheby’s, this Wednesday evening. Some analysts expect the painting to go for at least $100 million, an all-time record. The Whitney family bought that same picture in 1950 for $30,000.

Are you thinking of bidding? Well, what else could you buy with $100 million?

One new opera house in downtown Toronto

15,625 pounds (or 7,087 kilograms) of gold

One six-album recording contract with Whitney Houston

Four years of ball-playing by New York Yankees star third baseman Alex Rodriguez

One Adam Sandler movie, including production and marketing costs

1.5 million hepatitis-B vaccines for children in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia

One day of Iraqi occupation by U.S. forces

Here is the full story. By the way, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is thinking of selling $27 million worth of its Picasso holdings, perhaps to buy more Damien Hirst.

How much consensus is there in economics?

Some economists believe that we should bicker less among ourselves. Instead we should devote more resources to convincing the public on matters where most economists already agree. I have mixed feelings toward this attitude. Even if more instruction would improve economic performance, I am concerned it would damage our long-run ability to track truth. Plus for me it would make economics less fun. I, for one, would not devote my life to being a missionary for the theory of free trade and comparative advantage.

That all being said, how much do economists in fact agree? Check out this paper. The authors survey 1000 economists from the AEA roster; the data cover both 1990 and 2000. Here is one result:

…there was strong agreement with the propositions that restraints on free trade reduce welfare…and that market-determined exchange rates are effective…There was also strong disagreement with the propositions that increasing globalization threatens national sovereignty in environmental and labor standards…that U.S. trade deficits are a result of nontariff barriers…and that the increasing inequality in the U.S. distribution of income is caused by the pressures of a global economy.

What else do we have?

Macroeconomic propositions usually met with “moderate” to “substantial” consensus, but never “strong” consensus (the paper defines these terms more rigorously). And over the last ten years the consensus on macroeconomics has lessened (this result runs counter to my intuitions; I think there is now fairly broad consensus on something between loose price level targeting to mild inflation. Of course that is just monetary policy, not all of macro.) Economists have moved slightly closer to some supply side ideas but are more skeptical about the macro stimulus properties of fiscal policy.

Pollution taxes are very popular, and economists are starting to buy the Card-Krueger argument that minimum wage hikes don’t much damage employment.

Read the whole piece, it has more content than I have presented.

And will the Internet and distance learning drive down the demand for professors? There we see strong disagreement. I might add that I see future demand as more robust than Alex does and I can’t bring him around to my point of view.

Education and economic development

…I was left wondering if anybody knew what education was really about. I have begun to suspect that economic development causes education to develop even if governments don’t force it as Korea has done.. After all, that’s how education got started. When we were all hunters and gatherers 10,000 years ago, we did not have time for education…Only when our productivity for food production increased did we have time for other things.

…It’s possible that poor countries today will not get out of their poverty traps without political changes. Those political changes may only be possible with broader education. The point is, however, that education is not a constraint on the ability of today’s workforces to achieve substantial productivity improvement around the world. Constraints on productivity improvements are the reason education is not developing faster around the world.

That’s from William Lewis’s interesting The Power of Productivity.

My take: I’ve never drawn many real conclusions from the cross-sectional correlations between education and economic growth. These statistical methods are not ideal for ferreting out causal relationships. Hours of television watched probably correlates with growth as well. That being said, I do see at least one special feature of education. If a family in a developing country decides to invest heavily in the education of the children, it is a very special signal. That family has crossed a particular line and is taking a very definite stance within its community. That family will almost certainly be a positive force for growth. In this regard investing in education is a bit like converting to Mormonism. The decision to become a Mormon, for growth, can be at least as important as Mormon doctrine itself. Mormon families in Latin America typically are committing to a greater work ethic, tight family bonds, no alcoholism, entrepreneurial aspirations, and close connections to their religious peers.

Addendum: This paper argues that IQ outperforms education in traditional growth equations.