Why isn’t cryonics more popular?

In discussing prizes, Alex wonders why cryonics isn’t more popular?

Who better to ask than Robin Hanson? Read his very short paper on the topic.

Individuals may pay for medicine mostly to convince groups of their loyalty, and groups may pay to convince individuals similarly. This can explain many puzzles, including the low health value of medicine, and the lack of interest in private info about quality of medicine. Together with a few simple auxiliary assumptions, it can also explain many other health puzzles.

This theory also suggests why people might be particularly uninterested in cryonics. At present cryonics is something individuals buy for themselves, which if it works will transport them to an alien social world where they can do little to aid their current social allies. That alien world seems unattractive and downright scary to most current allies, and spending all that money on going there reduces one’s ability to aid current allies. Buying cryonics can then naturally be interpreted as symbolizing betrayal and abandonment. And with medicine mostly being a symbolic purchase, people aren’t in the habit of looking any deeper than that.

This suggests that cryonics is mainly going to be popular among people who think of the distant future not as a scary alien place, but as their home and social world, and especially among tight-knit groups of people who expect to move there together. It suggests that perceptions of social fragmentation (such as when many split off from Alcor) are especially damaging, and that evidence of the effectiveness of cryonics technology is only marginally important.

Have you noticed that women in particular are hostile to the idea of their men surviving them and coming back for another life?

Alas, I am a cryonics pessimist and I have yet to sign up for the extant services. (It is an interesting exercise to sit down and calculate how much resurrection would be worth to you, your implicit probability expectation, and your value for the modest yearly fee; many people have to fudge the numbers to justify their absolute dismissal of the idea.) But I also am pretty sure that most people, including prospective donors, reject the idea for the wrong reasons.

Artworks ruined by overexposure

The ever-insightful James Twitchell offers a list:

1. The Mona Lisa

2. Grant Wood’s American Gothic

3. Washington Crossing the Delaware

4. Whistler’s Mother

5. Munch’s The Scream (we will see whether its theft resurrects its aesthetic oomph)

I’ll add Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington to the list. Nor am I happy about the “Mondrian bag” and “Mondrian shampoo.” Twitchell continues: “Monet, Picasso, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh are just on the edge of becoming cliches.” And you’ll have to Google those images yourself, I won’t add to the problem!

We have a classic tragedy of the commons. I like surprise and power in art, but many different suppliers of images wish to be the ones who deliver the effect. The end result is that the surprise is used up too quickly; the images then bore rather than delight. Many of the most serious public goods problems are embedded in the neuroeconomy of the human mind.

The Test of Time is so difficult to predict in art. A given image can appear powerful in 2004 but by 2030 it is trite. Sitting in 2004, it is hard to imagine how the power might go away.

The same is less true for music, which taps into our nervous systems more directly and is more universal. But still there are examples:

…who can ever listen again to Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March” without seeing that giant foot come down from above, squashing the cartoon figures from Monty Python’s Flying Circus [TC: could this be an improvement?], or hear Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 without seeing that great piano virtuouso Bugs Bunny pounding it out with such wabbit aplomb?

Not to mention Rossini’s William Tell Overture, better known as the theme song for The Lone Ranger. Thomas Schelling once told me that he refused to listen to Bach every day because he wanted to keep those delights for his old age.

The material is from Twitchell’s new and excellent Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld.

Into the Fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

You gave your love to see, in fields of red and autumn brown
You gave your love to me and lay your young body down
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love

It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love bring us love…

May your love bring us love.

Bruce Springsteen. From The Rising.

The Economists’ Voice

We–that is, Joe Stiglitz, Aaron Edlin, and I [Brad DeLong]–aim to start an online publication, The Economists’ Voice, to be “published” by Berkeley Economic Press, to try to remedy this situation. The two youngest of us are confident that we have a very good chance of succeeding. Our confidence is based on one fact: Joe Stiglitz thinks that this will work, and his judgment in this area is very good, as is shown by the remarkable success of the Journal of Economic Perspectives which has greatly increased the flow of information across the subfields of economics, and done a remarkable job of welding the American Economic Association into a stronger intellectual community.

The Economists’ Voice will aim for pieces longer than an op-ed and shorter than (and much more readable than) a piece for a standard journal. We thus avoid the op-ed problem–the problem that op-ed space is too short for an argument, and only provides space to be shrill. But we also hope to stay short enough to be readable, and understandable. And we will aim for quick turnaround–days rather than the years of journals.

The level will be non-technical but sophisticated: perhaps what one expects to read in the Financial Times and the news pages of the Wall Street or National Journal, or perhaps a notch above. The aim will be to provide an economist’s argument and point of view on some salient and interesting issue: a survey of something interesting happening in the economy, or a call for some change in policy or institutions–which would consist of a review of what the principal important factors are, what the objective function is, what the constraints are, why the objective function is maximized at the particular set of policies or institutional arrangements that the author prefers.

We will launch the The Economists’ Voice later this year. We will succeed if we become *the* place on the internet where economists, journalists, interested observers, staffers, and others turn in search of high-quality comprehensible economic analysis.

Here is Brad’s full post.

Most of all, something like this is badly needed.

More conceptually, I view this attempt as an implicit criticism of Google. There is nothing stopping economists from posting such writings right now, and of course longer pieces can be linked to. But who will find/read them? How much credibility will those writings carry? So Brad and Co. are betting they will prove better finders, branders, certifiers, and marketers than current institutions.

Is the initial problem one of generating a greater supply of readable but sound content for the web? (“Build it and they will write.”) Or is the problem that of mobilizing audience attention for work that is already being done? (“Build it and they will come.”) A related question is why most established economists have not found blogging to be a useful medium to date.

Should the functions of certifying and commissioning/editing always be combined? What about an additional economics blog or journal that simply selects the best material already out there, analogous to www.aldaily.com or www.artsjournal.com?

Stay tuned…

What do you give the man who has nothing?

Looking to aid the homeless? Voice mail is one good way to start.

Here is some explanation:

“It just makes people feel a lot better about themselves,” said Larry Sykes, Community Voice Mail director at The Stewpot, which hopes to offer more than 2,500 voice mail lines in Dallas within three years. “Unless they tell somebody they’re eating at The Stewpot or sleeping under a bridge, nobody knows it.”

In Cornelison’s case, Goodwill Industries was aware of his plight when it used the voice mail system to contact him and offer him a job at one of its warehouses at $5.68 an hour.

For now, the 40-year-old Dallas man still lives on the street. “But once I start getting paydays, I’ll be able to not do that anymore,” said Cornelison, who hopes to move into a motel, if not a more permanent home.

If Mexico can do it…

Mexico’s Treasury department submitted a tight budget for 2005 to Congress yesterday, calling for the public sector deficit to drop to 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product, down from 0.3 per cent this year…

However, there has been cross-party consensus on the need for a tight budget, and the deficit has fallen as a proportion of GDP each year. Francisco Gil Diaz, the Treasury minister, also retains powers to make spending cuts during the year if there is a risk that the deficit target will not be met.

Note that these budgets are based on the assumption of a steep drop in oil prices, which for Mexico is not a “rosy scenario.” Here is the full story.

How much time do workers spend on the Web?

“It feels both inaccurate and inadequate to describe The Office as a comedy. On a superficial level, it disdains all the conventions of television sitcoms: there are no punch lines, no jokes, no laugh tracks, and no cute happy endings. More profoundly, it’s not what we’re used to thinking of as funny. Most of the fervently devoted fan base watched with a discomfortingly thrilling combination of identification and mortification. The paradox is that its best moments are almost physically unwatchable. Set in the offices of a fictional British paper merchant, The Office is filmed in the style of a reality television show. The writing is subtle and deft, the acting wonderful, and the characters beautifully drawn: the cadaverous team leader Gareth (Mackenzie Crook); the monstrous sales rep, Chris Finch (Ralph Ineson); and the decent but long-suffering everyman Tim (Martin Freeman), whose ambition and imagination have been crushed out of him by the banality of the life he dreams uselessly of escaping. The show is stolen, as it was intended to be, by insufferable office manager David Brent, played by codirector-cowriter Ricky Gervais. Brent will become a name as emblematic for a particular kind of British grotesque as Basil Fawlty, but he is a deeper character. Fawlty is an exaggeration of reality, and therefore a safely comic figure. Brent is as appalling as only reality can be. –Andrew Mueller”

Yes you will find the anti-capitalist mentality in this show, but I doubt if few will walk away with a fervent belief in government planning as the proper response.

Is keeping a diary bad for you?

Better to just forget about your troubles, it seems:

…regular diarists were more likely than non-diarists to suffer from headaches, sleeplessness, digestive problems and social awkwardness..[the researcher] speculates that diarists buck the usual trend because instead of a single, cathartic outpouring to offload trauma, diarists continually churn over their misfortunes and so never get over them.

Writing about trauma is most closely correlated with poor health, although the researchers admit that correlation is easier to show than causation. I’ll predict a similar result will hold for personal blogs, though I don’t know of any data.

Addendum: The ever-insightful Randall Parker offers further commentary.

Sponsoring Prizes

Wouldn’t it be fun to endow a prize like the X-Prize or the space elevator prize I discussed yesterday? I’m surprised that more rich people don’t do this. Of course, we have the Nobel and similar prizes but these are awarded for general achievement in the past and as such are unlikely to exert a significant incentive effect. Foundations can last a long time but there is a history of foundations, for example the Ford and Carnegie Foundation, spending money in ways that their founders would not approve. If you fund a prize, however, you can specify the conditions for success reasonably precisely and for that reason the money is more likely to be allocated in a way close to what you would have wished. Furthermore, if you set the prize up so that the seed money is invested in the market until it is won you can almost be guaranteed that one day the prize will be won and you will be thanked for your contribution to humanity.

As noted, I like the space elevator idea but I think that if I had a few million to spare I’d endow a cryonics prize. This is the sort of research which seems doable, has a big payoff but for which there is virtually no serious funding. I’d endow the prize with a series of staggered awards, so much for succesfully reviving a rat after 1 week, so much for a rabbit after 2 months, so much for a pig after 5 years. The Grand Prize? That would be for reviving me.

Why have labor markets been slow to recover?

Employment is an increasingly lagging indicator, here is more data. Growth and productivity are humming along, but employment as a percentage of population fails to impress. Consider a few reasons why this might be:

1. Productivity growth is high, so employers are disinclined to hire more workers. The workers they already have are producing plenty. This explanation, of course, requires that firms have some market power, so they can’t sell all they want at prevailing market prices. There is then little point in hiring more workers, even if wages were to fall, because the extra output would be hard to sell at a good price. Of course if real demand were rising or otherwise robust, high productivity could cause firms to hire more workers rather than fewer.

This all may lead some of my astute readers to wonder what coordination failure is preventing Say’s Law from holding in this context. Does not supply create its own demand, at least barring a massive increase in the demand to hold money? Read Alex for more on this one.

2. The data may overstate the puzzle in the first place.

3. Maybe we are mismeasuring employment by focusing too much on the payroll survey and not enough on the household survey. But just try mentioning this one, and Brad DeLong will thwack you hard. Do note that Alan Greenspan agrees with Brad. The two measures are often quite different, but I have to go with the payroll survey here.

4. Health care costs per worker are extremely high. True, but this has been the case for some time.

5. Some parts of the Bush tax plan have induced firms to substitute capital expenditures for labor. And in the short run, capital and labor may be more substitutable, and less complementary, than in times past. Information technology can substitute for unskilled labor more than before.

6. Bush introduced a “tax cut for the rich,” rather than undertaking fiscal stimulus of the traditional Keynesian kind; read Brad on this one. I am less sanguine about traditional fiscal policy, plus this doesn’t explain why labor market recovery has been so slow, even if it might have been more rapid under different conditions.

7. Firms are outsourcing jobs overseas. The ever-excellent Daniel Drezner debunks this one, though I am not quite ready to assign it measure zero in effect.

8. For some unknown sociological or economic reason, workers are getting discouraged from seeking work more easily than in times past. They leave the labor force, which keeps the percentage of employed low but the unemployment rate low as well. I don’t rule this out, but I don’t have a contending hypothesis here either.

9. Firms are/were uncertain about terrorism, Iraq, corporate scandals, new information technologies, and sectoral shifts. Rather than locking in with hires, they will hold back and wait. But why would this affect labor more adversely than investment or stock prices?

10. Downward stickiness of wages. OK, this is what classical economics would lead you to expect, but in reality wages have become less sticky over time.

The bottom line: The conventional wisdom will opt for some combination of one and nine. Four, five, seven, and eight may explain further pieces of the puzzle. But I would sooner call the whole thing a continuing mystery. Note that most of these hypotheses imply that the economy can still become quite a bit better yet. Either Bush or Kerry will get credit for this, without deserving the plaudits.

Addendum: Arnold Kling adds to the mix.

Science round-up

There are plenty of new science reports, here is a sample:

1. The Americas may have been settled by Pacific navigators in early times.

2. Global suicide takes more lives than war and murder put together.

3. Medieval man was almost as tall as modern American man, and the eighteenth century was a low period for height in the Western world.

4. Being out of shape is a better predictor of heart disease than is being overweight.

Thanks to Cronaca.com for the pointer on the third item.

One of America’s biggest “export” industries is declining

U.S. graduate schools this year saw a 28% decline in applications from international students and an 18% drop in admissions, a finding that some experts say threatens higher education’s ability to maintain its reputation for offering high-quality programs.

The sharp declines, based on responses from 126 institutions, were reported in a study released Tuesday by the Council of Graduate Schools, a Washington-based nonprofit. About 88% of those schools reported a decline in international applications; 12% saw an increase.

Several factors contribute to the drops, council president Debra Stewart says. Those include changes to the visa application process after 9/11, a perception that the USA has grown less welcoming of foreigners and increased competition from universities abroad.

Applications from China show an especially steep drop, about 45%. Here is the full story. Will either Bush or Kerry come out for streamlined immigration procedures in this arena, or at least a greater allocation of resources toward speeding these visa applications? If we are devoted to the idea of nation-building abroad, what better way to start?

Gay marriage and the deficit

What would happened if all of America’s roughly 600,000 cohabitating gay couples decided to marry?

For one thing, they would all start paying the marriage penalty. Each year, over the next five years, the deficit would fall about $350-450 million per year. Yes that is about one-tenth of one percent of the yearly deficit, but at least a move in the right direction. It is also estimated that social security and related expenditures would increase only slightly as a result of the marriages.

That is from The Atlantic Monthly, October issue, p.64. If you are looking for a good historical introduction to some of the issues surrounding gay marriage, I recommend George Chauncey’s recent Why Marriage?.

Going up?

The X-Prize is close to being won and has been a success in motivating the research and development of private spacecraft. Ultimately, however, putting people into space by sitting them atop powder kegs or similar devices just seems too crude. As I wrote earlier, a space elevator would dramatically lower the costs of developing space. Elevator 2010 is sponsoring several new prizes for space elevator related technology.

Which countries face a medical cost crunch?

China, in short:

…health costs will rise more rapidly as a percentage of national income among Third World nations that are now entering into modern economic growth than has been the case in OECD countries…

The supply of chronic conditions that require treatment is much greater at middle and late ages in China than the supply that currently exists in OECD nations…a [previous] low life expectancy and such a high infant death rate mean that those who survived to middle ages experienced severe biomedical and socioeconomic insults in utero, in infancy, and in later developmental stages…Despite the rapid advances in public health and strong economic growth, the negative conditions that influenced physiological development remained severe into the early 1960s…such early-life insults reduce the waiting time to the onset of chronic diseases at later ages and increase their severity.

Consequently, individuals who are age 50 and older in China today will have far higher prevalence rates of chronic diseases than is the case in OECD nations.

That is all from Robert Fogel’s short but excellent The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100.

It is estimated that the number of chronic diseases per person could be triple than currently experienced in the United States; the level in China would be comparable to that of the U.S. in about 1900. At that time the average American male suffered from six chronic medical conditions, and it was very likely that at least one of those six was debilitating, meaning the person could not work.

The bottom line: Expect China to experience some serious demographic problems in the coming decades.