Evolutionary theories I don’t believe

In their paper titled “Love’s Labour Lost,” recently submitted to a medical journal, anthropologist Edward Hagen, biologist Paul Watson and psychiatrist Andy Thomson suggest that full-blown major depression disorder may be a complex social adaptation originating in the human evolutionary past and designed to help otherwise powerless individuals influence their social groups, focus on problem-solving and obtain help from those with whom one is in conflict.

“Depression evolved to compel assistance from reluctant social partners,” they theorize. “Depression signals need and compels social assistance by preventing the sufferer from providing benefits to others.”

They cite the severe cost of depression not only to the individual but to the whole social network.

“The toll depression takes on both its victims and society may be precisely what it was, in human evolutionary history, designed to do.”

This thinking – that depression is an important signal and part of a complex dynamic among people that provokes change – leads these researchers to argue that drug therapy alone for depression may not be the best solution even it relieves symptoms.

It may be that non-chronic major depressive disorder (MDD) is like fever – a signal that something has gone awry and needs to be healed.

Here is the full story. Here is a link to the relevant research. Here is the specific piece in question. Here is a related piece, called “Depression as Bargaining”. For a good time try using that description on your girlfriend.

Why I am skeptical: I can see why emotional sensitivity to bad events has survival value. Emotions bring general benefits, plus the sensitivity keeps you away from bad events to some degree. It is harder for me to see a great importance for the negative reaction itself, ex post, once bad events have happened.

Japan’s trade with China

I don’t trust the figures, but did you know that China’s per capita income has been estimated at $890 a year, circa 2002, well under that of Guatemala ($1670) or Morocco ($1180)? Guest blogger Russ Roberts cites a slightly higher and more recent figure of about $1000.

That being said, how might you expect growing trade between China and Japan to affect the Japanese economy? The wage differential for semi-skilled labor is about a factor of twenty. Russ also cites worries that trade with China will weaken or impoverish the United States.

Here are a few simple facts:

1. In 2003 Japan’s trade with China, including Hong Kong, rose by nearly a third to $162 billion.

2. Exports to China leaped 40 percent in this same year.

3. A few years ago accepted wisdom was that trade with China would destroy Japan’s manufacturing base. Now observers say that “Even Japan’s “old economy” industries, such as steel, pulp, chemicals, shipbuilding and construction equipment, have been handed a new lease of life.” (Financial Times, March 30, “Crossing the Divide” ($)).

4. Trade with China is widely viewed as bailing out Japan, which was otherwise stuck in more than a decade of virtually zero growth. Japan buys cheap Chinese inputs, and supplies the Chinese manufacturing boom.

5. It is estimated that only about 20 percent of Japanese and Chinese products compete in the same markets. For the most part the two countries produce complementary goods.

The information is from the Financial Times article cited, here is a related link with some roughly comparable statistics.

My take: Won’t any facts convince individuals of the merits of free trade? Surely if any set-up would lead to falling wages in Japan, trade with China should do the trick. In reality it has been a godsend to the Japanese economy. That being said, the Japanese should expect more volatility. In the long run I am bullish on China, but I expect a bubble to burst within the next five years. Has any country made the climb into modernity without a collapse along the way?

Build a house in 24 hours

Randall Parker cites the following link:

Degussa AG, one of the world’s largest manufacturers and suppliers of construction materials, will collaborate in the development of a USC computer-controlled system designed to automatically “print out” full-size houses in hours.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Behrokh Khoshnevis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute has been developing his automated house-building process, called “Contour Crafting,” for more than a year.

Khoshnevis believes his system will be able to construct a full-size, 2,000- square-foot house with utilities embedded in 24 hours. He now has a working machine that can build full-scale walls and is hoping to actually construct his first house in early 2005.

Contour Crafting uses crane- or gantry-mounted nozzles, from which building material – concrete, in the prototype now operating in his laboratory – comes out at a constant rate.

Moveable trowels surrounding the nozzle mold the concrete into the desired shape, as the nozzle moves over the work.

Parker adds:

Robots and other automated equipment have increased factory automation so much that factories are a dwinding source of all jobs. The next big target for automation has been and continues to be office work. Office automation is being addressed with the development of huge amounts of software and information systems.

What never seem to get as much attention is how to automate all the other places where people work aside from the office and the factory. Construction automation is an obvious big target. One approach is to do prefabrication of walls and other building pieces in highly automated factories. Then the prefabricated parts can be shipped to the construction site. But automated methods to doing construction at a site have advantages because they avoid the difficulty of shipping large walls, floors, and ceilings to a site. Also, automated site construction techniques allow more flexibility in site design.

My take: In economics language, this is called “g>r”, which refers to the growth rate of an economy exceeding its rate of interest. If we’re going to make it through our forthcoming fiscal crises, it will be through innovations such as these.

Labor Standards and Bicycle Helmets

Robert Samuelson writes in today’s Washington Post (registration required) that China, though in many ways an abominable economic landscape is a lot like the US 100 years ago. He argues that while growth is a messy thing, there is hope for the future in China, and recent progress is encouraging. He notes (citing the World Bank as his source):

†¢ From 1978 to 2002, the average annual per-person income rose from $190 to $960. It’s probably now above $1,000. (The U.S. figure: about $36,000.)

†¢ Life expectancy increased from 61.7 years in 1970 to 71 in 2002.

†¢ Adult illiteracy fell from 37 percent in 1978 to less than 17 percent in 1999.

†¢ Infant mortality dropped from 41 per 1,000 live births in 1978 to 30 in 1999 (the U.S. rate: about seven).

As the election heats up, we’re going to hear a lot about labor and environmental standards and how we need to level the playing field in trade. China remains a very poor country. It cannot afford the luxury of our standards of today any more than America could have afforded them 100 years ago when the average work week was 67 hours (down to 34 today) and the work place was a much more dangerous place.

One way to see this is to think about bicycle helmets. Where are more bicycle helmets worn–Chicago or Shanghai? Manhattan or Mexico City? More are worn in Chicago and New York. Don’t people in China and Mexico know that it’s dangerous to ride a bike in traffic without a helmet? I suspect they do. It’s just too expensive. Poor people are better off foregoing the helmet, keeping their kids in school a little longer and doing the best they can to avoid being hit by a car. Making the Chinese have factories as safe and clean as ours is like forcing them to wear bicycle helmets. It’s a bad deal for them even though there are benefits.

Politically incorrect paper of the month

African-Americans make up a larger proportion of students than teachers. Many educators say that as a result African-Americans students suffer because they lack role models and white students suffer because they lack diversity. In a newly published paper (working paper version), Thomas Dee (Swarthmore College) supports some but not all of this story. Using data from Tennessee’s Project Star, a very important experiment in which K-3 students were randomly assigned to small and regular sized classes, Dee finds that black students improve when they have black teachers. So far so good. Dee also finds, however, that white students improve when they have white teachers. Uh, oh. There goes the diversity is good for everyone story.

Dee is quick to point out that we don’t understand why students perform better with a teacher of their own race. If it is a role-model effect then why would white students perform poorly with black teachers – surely there are enough white role models to choose from that one more or less isn’t going to have an effect on the self-esteem of white students. Another theory, with some support from other studies, is that teachers spend more time helping students of their own race. Note that if it is the latter then better teacher training, to overcome natural biases, could improve the effectiveness of both white and black teachers.

The cite for the paper is Dee, Thomas S. 2004. Teachers, Race, and Student Achievement in a Randomized Experiment. The Review of Economics and Statistics 86(1): 195-210.

Is it a Vermeer or not?

You judge. Here are some scholarly takes, pro and con, along with more photos. It doesn’t look right to me, but many art experts now say yes. About three million pounds is at stake, according to The Telegraph. Since there are only about 35 other Vermeers in existence, and the last one was sold eighty years ago, I suspect it will go for more, no matter what the doubts.

My take: Researchers spent about ten years studying the picture. If it takes so long to tell the difference, spend your money elsewhere.

The French can compete

When the barricades that France’s protectionist auctioneers had erected to prevent the reform of their art market were finally stormed in late 2001, it seemed as though revolution was in the air. Many people believed that “les Anglo-Saxons”, as the French refer to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, were about to sweep their smaller, local competitors aside.

The logic was simple. The 456 licensed French auctioneers (commissaires-priseurs), who had been legally protected against foreign competition since 1556, would be no match for the two international giants now that the latter were allowed to hold sales in France for the first time. However, the reality has proved very different and in less than two and a half years Paris has evolved into the world’s most unpredictable and fiercely competitive art market centre.

And how can the French possibly compete?

The local auctioneers have survived by using their contacts, particularly among lawyers who arrange estate sales, and in some cases by reorganising and bringing in outside investors, which the law reforming the market allowed them to do for the first time. ArtCurial is a new creation, an alliance of three well-known French auctioneers – Francis Briest, Hervé Poulain and Remy Le Fur – with the Dassault aviation and newspaper dynasty and the Monaco real estate millionaire and art collector Michel Pastor. Its main specialities are modern art and vintage cars, and last year it came in third behind Christie’s and Tajan [another French firm] with sales of £41.7 million.

My take: European culture isn’t dead, it is simply oversubsidized and overprotected. Here is the full story. Here is an article about how the French have an unjustified fear of being bought out by foreigners.

Note also that Coca-Cola has postponed and possibly shelved its plans to compete with the leading French mineral waters. The British version of the product, Fasani (a terrible name, no?), turned out to be purified tap water. It is now an open question whether the French release will ever see the light of day.

Addendum: Daniel Drezner points out that McDonald’s is more popular in France than elsewhere in Europe. I blame expensive French food, high labor costs through regulation, and bizarre opening hours (i.e., your favorite place is usually closed). But if you think that French haute cuisine has been harmed, you haven’t eaten in Helene Darroze, where last night I had one of the finest meals of my life.

Tax and Spend

On my way in to work today, I heard a snippet of a President Bush speech on C-Span radio. “Tax and spend is the enemy of job creation,” he said.

That’s probably true. Unfortunately for the President, if tax and spend is the enemy of job creation, so is “borrow and spend,” the President’s recent formula.

The size of the budget and what it’s spent on is more important than how it’s financed. There are really only two choices for financing–taxes today and taxes tomorrow. Borrowing just means taxes tomorrow. The President likes to describe tax cuts as letting people keep more of their own money. I like that idea. Unfortunately, I agree with my hosts Tyler and Alex that the current administration has raised our taxes by increasing spending. So ultimately we’re keeping more of our money today and expecting to give back even more tomorrow.

Ironically, Bush has raised spending in what I would guess is a labor intensive way. By expanding homeland security, a lot of workers have been drawn into public employment rather than the private sector.

Last month’s job growth was “small” and almost all of it was in the public sector. That’s most likely a result of government spending pulling people into public sector jobs rather than the private sector.

This Friday is a big day for Bush and Kerry. The job numbers for March will be released. If they are weak again, Bush will have to keep talking about home ownership being up.

Does file-sharing hurt CD sales?

A new study by two researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, finds that sharing digital music files has no effect on CD sales. This is the first study that directly compares actual downloads of music files and store sales of CDs.

The authors, Associate Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard Business School in Boston and Professor Koleman Strumpf of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, conclude that “File sharing had no effect on the sale of popular CDs in the second half of 2002. While downloads occurred on a vast scale during this period – 3 million simultaneous users shared 500 million files on the popular network FastTrack/KaZaA alone – most people who shared files appear to be individuals who would not have bought the albums that they downloaded,” say the authors…

Even in the professors’ most pessimistic statistical model, it takes 5,000 downloads to reduce the sales of an album by a single copy. If this worst-case scenario were true, file sharing would have reduced CD sales by 2 million copies in 2002. To provide a point of reference, CD sales actually declined by 139 million copies from 2000 to 2002.

Here is another interesting tidbit:

31 percent of all individuals who download music live in the United States. Other important countries are Germany with a 13 percent share of worldwide users, Italy with 11 percent, Japan with 8 percent and France with 7 percent. File sharers in the United States are particularly active. While they represent 31 percent of worldwide users, they download 36 percent of all files.

U.S. file sharers download files from all over the world. Only 45 percent of the files downloaded in the United States come from computers in the U.S. 16 percent of music files are downloaded from computers in Germany, 7 percent from Canada, 6 percent from Italy, 4 percent from the U.K. A legal strategy that focuses mostly on the United States is unlikely to change the supply of music files.

In other words, going after domestic uploaders, as the RCAA is doing, won’t cut off supply.

Here is one summary. Here is the original research.

My take: Yes I believe the result. Most downloaders are young or just sampling songs for kicks. But I doubt if this, legal developments aside, would be true five years from now. Over time I expect more people to forgo buying the CD, unless of course the law intervenes.

Addendum: Newmark’s Door offers some additional links. Larry Lessig argues for complementarity. Here is an article that copyright is too strict more generally, and yes The Grey Album is wonderful.

Was Nietzsche right?

In recent weeks there’s been a furor in the Washington D.C. area over lead in the District’s water supply. Today, the Washington Post (registration required) looks at why lead is bad for you and covers some of the science and public policy. That lead is bad for you is open and shut. Too much lead kills you and for kids, too much is not that much. But I am skeptical of recent studies that find that the worst effects of lead happen at the lowest levels of exposure.

Here‘s a typical newspaper account of one of those studies and a quote from a leading researcher on the topic:

“There is no safe level of blood lead,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, lead author of the lead study presented Monday at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting.

Edward Calabrese would not agree. Calabrese is a toxicologist at UMass-Amherst and a leading scholar of hormesis, the phenomenon that most if not all toxins are actually good for you at sufficiently low doses. This does not imply that you should start adding mercury to your eggs or lead back into your pots. But the impact of toxins appears to be U-shaped–good for you at sufficiently low levels then bad as exposure increases. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Hormesis also implies that linear models or threshold models of toxic impact are misspecified and understate the impact of toxins over some ranges of exposure.

Here’s a Scientific American article on Calabrese and hormesis.

Here’s my take on the economics and policy implications of hormesis.

Electronic voting

Many people fear electronic voting. What if there is an error? Don’t we need a paper trial? How can we be sure that the election won’t be stolen? My response is simple. Ever buy gas? When you buy gas do you pay cash or use a credit card? And when the terminal offers to print you a receipt do you take it, save it, and check it against your monthly Visa bill? Or do you press “no receipt” and drive away?

I have never once checked a gas receipt against my monthly credit card bill and I suspect most people don’t either. The credit card companies have big incentives to record transactions quickly and accurately. The system isn’t perfect but it’s good enough so that I don’t worry about being ripped off and, the key point, the electronic system is certainly more accurate than the primitive process of counting out paper and metallic tokens and handing them over to a minimum-wage cashier who repeats the process by counting out change. I see no reason why electronic voting should not be far superior to punch cards or other manual machine.

Obviously, we need to be careful, which brings me to a suggestion. How about open-source software for voting machines? Opening the source makes life easier for outsider hackers but harder for inside-hackers and open source is less-susceptible to bugs. Open-source would also be well, open – as in an open society.

I would say turn this project over to Linus Torvalds but he’s a Finn and we have to be careful about them but surely there are some skilled programmers who would like to lay the core for voting in the twenty-first century?

Addendum: Yup, here is an open-source voting project.