Who buys fiction?

“More than 60 percent of fiction is bought by women and most of that by women aged between 35 and 55”, according to John Baker of Publishers Weekly, here is the link. Men don’t read fiction that much. Please write me if you have a good explanation for this fact in terms of evolutionary biology.

If you are curious, here are bestseller lists for the century, here is a New York Times bestseller list for right now, The Da Vinci Code remains number one, number five is Shepherds Abiding, described by Amazon in the following manner:

Karon [the author] works more homespun magic with this latest uplifting story set in sleepy Mitford, N.C. Father Timothy Kavanagh, stalwart of the Mitford series, is approaching 70 when he comes across pieces of an old English nativity scene at his friend Andrew Gregory’s antique shop. The set has definitely seen better days, and Andrew is hoping that someone will volunteer to restore it. Who better than Father Tim, who seems to have reached a turning point in his life and needs a project to distract him? Inspired by memories of a manger from his childhood that was destroyed in a rainstorm, Father Tim, after much deliberation, takes up the cause, planning to surprise his artist wife, Cynthia…The author’s warm spirituality and vibrant holiday spirit make this heartwarming eighth series entry a welcome one.

No, men are not buying this book in large numbers.

I am always amazed how strongly demographics predict our patterns of cultural consumption. People typically think that their cultural choices reflect their free will and their determination to construct their own identity. But when push comes to shove, it is young people who buy (or download) most of the music, see most of the movies, and middle-aged women who read most of the fiction. If you have a smart 19-year-old girl, who goes to Brown, I bet she doesn’t like heavy metal, but will have sympathies for Tori Amos and REM. And education and “social class” predict cultural taste better than does income.

The first linked piece also details just how hard it is to make a living writing fiction. You can have a few hit books, with reasonably large advances, but unless they are huge you might net no more than $20,000 a year. Yet overall incomes are rising. I predict that having an upper-middle class spouse, or richer, will prove the key to making it as a writer in the future.

Thanks to the ever-excellent www.2blowhards.com for the pointer to the first link.

Government regulation, again

A bit of madness in California…which reports that “under an animal-protection law signed by former governor Gray Davis, it is now technically illegal to set mousetraps in California without a trapping license, ‘available only by paying a fee ($78.50) and passing a fairly complex test.'”

From Cronaca.com, here is the the original link, channeled through Best of the Web.

Don’t let the bed bugs bite

…or Judge Posner will punish you. The punitive damages exceeded the compensatory damages in this bed bug case against Motel 6 by some 37 times. The Supreme Court’s recent line of argument in Pacific Mutual v. Haslip, State Farm v. Campbell and BMW v. Gore has suggested that “four times the amount of compensatory damages might be close to the line of constitutional impropriety.”

But the four-times figure is arbitrary. Judge Posner comes to the Supreme Court’s rescue by cogently laying out the theory of punitive damages, gently taking the Court to task in the process. A high multiple may be justified when the action to be punished is unlikely to be discovered or when the actual compensatory damages are low and would not motivate plaintiffs to otherwise bring suit against a legally-aggresive defendant. Both factors play a role in the bed bug case but would not justify absurdities such as the billions of dollars in punitive damages awarded against Exxon in the Exxon Valdez case.

My only worry with Posner’s analysis is that juries and judges may not be able to handle it. Perhaps the Supreme Court knows this and instead promulgates a foolish rule that is nevertheless easier to follow.

Addendum: Posner is the only person alive who deserves both a Nobel Prize and a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. I put greater odds on the former than the latter but I happen to know that he recently visited the White House. Remember where you read it first.

Bush to drop most steel tariffs

Bush decided in March 2002 to impose tariffs of 8 to 30 percent on most steel imports from Europe, Asia and South America for three years. Officials acknowledged at the time that the decision was heavily influenced by the desire to help the Rust Belt states, but the departure from Bush’s free-trade principles drew fierce criticism from his conservative supporters. After a blast of international opposition, the administration began approving exemptions.

The WTO’s ruling against the tariffs was finalized three weeks ago, clearing the way for the retaliatory levies, and Bush’s economic team concluded unanimously that the tariffs should be scrapped. The source involved in the negotiations said the consensus in the White House was that “keeping the tariffs in place would cause more economic disruption and pain for the broader economy than repealing them would for the steel industry.”

Here is the full story. The formal decision is expected to be announced later this week. This is the first piece of economic policy good news in some time, but it is sad that it required a WTO ruling and threats of European retaliation to come about.

Will the FCC regulate Internet phone calls?

Hearings start today, here is the full story. A month ago a Federal court ruled that state governments may not regulate such calls. And the FCC traditionally has left the Internet alone. Nonetheless long-distance service over the Internet costs only a fraction of most calling plans, which threatens both telecommunications companies and government revenues from long-distance calls.

The problem has arisen, in part, because of previous regulatory decisions, most specifically access fees:

Long-distance companies now pay local companies $25 billion a year in “access charges.” The fees cover the cost of connecting long-distance customers to the local network. The long-distance companies argue they should not have to pay access charges for calls that travel over the Internet.

In other words, Internet calling is cheaper in part because the calling services do not have to pay access fees to the long distance network. Over time we can expect such accees fees to fall apart, they will prove to be neither a political nor an economic equilibrium. Here is what one industry spokesman predicts:

Nortel Networks, the Canadian telecommunications equipment maker, estimates that local telephone companies could cut their costs of running a network by 30 percent by shifting to a Internet-based network. Nortel also contends that carriers can cut their capital investment costs by 50 percent. “The market is absolutely moving in the direction of the convergence of these networks,” said Martha Bejar, president of carrier solutions at Nortel.

The bottom line: Competition will become more intense, calling will continue to become cheaper, but the long-run problem of paying for the telecommunications network will become more severe.

Our growing mobility

How much territory do you move through on a typical day? Jesse Ausubel writes:

US per capita mobility has increased 2.7% per year, with walking included. Excluding walking, Americans have increased their mobility 4.6% each year since 1880. The French have increased their mobility about 4% per year since 1800.

Most of all, driving has been replacing movement on foot. Follow this link and scroll down for the illustrative graph and the exact figures. Ausubel believes that in the future people will cover hundreds of kilometers every day, on average, you can think of him as the Julian Simon on transportation economics. In his view people are often willing to travel up to 60 or 70 minutes per day, but they don’t like to go beyond this figure. Yet transportation becomes ever easier and more rapid. He is bullish on magnetic levitation trains, and much of the future improvement may come from airplanes:

During the past 50 years passenger kilometers for planes have increased by a factor of 50. Air has increased total mobility per capita 10% in Europe and 30% in the United States since 1950. A growth of 2.7% per year in passenger km and of the air share of the travel market in accord with the logistic substitution model brings roughly a 20-fold increase for planes (or their equivalents) in the next 50 years for the United States and even steeper elsewhere.

And how is this for optimism?

By the year 2100, per capita incomes in the developed countries could be very high. A 2% growth rate, certainly much less than governments, central banks, industries, and laborers aspire to achieve, would bring an average American’s annual income to $200,000.

And this?

Staying within present laws, a 2.7% per year growth means doubling of mobility in 25 years and 16 times in a century.

This is almost enough to make you forget about the irresponsible fiscal policy of the Bush Administration.

Thanks for Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox for the pointer to Ausubel’s work.

Oddly we travel as much as we do, in part, because we love home so much. Did you know that sixty percent of all European flights involve a return flight on the same day? We can go far, but the pull of home is indeed strong.

France and Germany break the rules

The EU fiscal rules, that is. Each country using the euro is supposed to maintain a budget deficit of less than three percent of gdp. Earlier this week France and Germany announced that they had no real intention of meeting the target, here is the full story. What are the implications of this?

1. The euro hit an all-time high against the dollar, clearly the markets were not rattled and largely expected this outcome or some version thereof.

2. Many of the smaller countries in the EU are upset, most of all Netherlands, Austria, Finland and Spain, all of which went through painful fiscal restructuring themselves. It appears there are two sets of EU rules, one for France and Germany, one for everyone else.

3. France in essence has given up on its dream to provide significant leadership for the other EU countries, and can no longer expect to lead by example. Otherwise France and Germany will suffer no real penalties from this.

4. France and Germany have shown that they simply will not make significant spending cuts, no matter what.

5. France and Germany were right not to raise taxes to meet the targets.

6. The three percent rule is effectively dead. The rule was a bad idea in the first place. Rules based on strict targets, with trigger penalties kicking in at a predetermined level, are likely to fail in democracies (remember the Gramm-Rudman Act, first it was to control deficits, then spending, ha-ha?). The boundary lines are arbitrary, and if they start to matter the penalties are seen as arbitrary and unfair by voters. So no penalty is accepted and then the targets fall apart.

7. The old written rule mandating three percent will not be revised. The new system in practice will likely take the form of loose ranges, with penalties of moral suasion applied by other EU members.

8. The real question is what will happen when one of the smaller nations thumbs its nose at France and Germany someday, over some EU agreement, and then claims exemption from the relevant penalties. Until then, stay tuned…

Dreaming of a White Christmas?

It is less likely than ever in many parts of the country, read here for some exact figures, based on data since 1948. Here is the geographic distribution of the changes, snow is less likely in the east but more likely in some mountain states:

The decrease in the number of snow days has been especially pronounced east of the Mississippi River, where 117 of 125 stations reported an average of five fewer days with snowfall.

“Five fewer days of snowfall over a 30-day period may not seem all that significant until you consider that, in many regions, snow days occur relatively infrequently,” Kaiser said.

One region that is more wintry between the holidays, however, extends from the Central Rocky Mountain states (Utah, Colorado and Wyoming) eastward into the Central Plains (mainly Nebraska), where the number of days with snow has increased significantly.

“The area across the Central Rockies and Central Plains is the one part of the country that is bucking the trend, with a few stations in Utah and Colorado seeing nearly 10 more days with snowfall,” Kaiser said.

The researchers caution against thinking that this is a tale of global warming, one way or the other.

Progress against AIDS?

Haiti is renowned for its weak or non-existent institutions. Therefore it is both surprising and heartening to see the country making some progress against AIDS. In fact some of Haiti’s problems are being turned to its advantage, namely its large number of underemployed laborers, who are now being used to carry retrovirals to the desperately poor:

No program to treat people in the poorest countries has more intrigued experts than the one started in Haiti by Partners in Health – which has succeeded by enlisting help from hundreds among Haiti’s vast pool of unemployed and underemployed workers.

It is the rainy season now. So each morning and evening, 700 villagers strike out across dirt roads turned into a morass of mud and dung to deliver medicines to people with AIDS and tuberculosis. They tramp through muck and wade through streams on foot; a lucky few sit atop mules or donkeys.

Here is the full story. One leading participant noted:

“We didn’t do it to be a model program,” said Dr. Farmer, 44, a Harvard medical professor and anthropologist, who is also the subject of a recent book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” by Tracy Kidder. “We did it because people were croaking.”

Good news from Haiti is hard to come by, but here is another bit: Haitian artisans will have greater access to the web to sell their wares, visit this site, in addition to the brokers who sell through ebay. Haitian artisans, craftspersons, and artists are remarkably talented and hardworking, this is one of the few areas where Haitians can compete in world markets, this link shows one of my favorite Haitian voodoo flags, click on the hearts to see the larger image.

Does evolutionary biology weaken left-liberal views?

An interesting review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate suggests that a better understanding of biology does not damage the prospects for social engineering, “The more we understand our nature, the better we’ll be at nurturing.” Here is one lengthier bit:

Contrary to what its critics say, evolutionary psychology does not threaten our ability to assess and transform our social and cultural landscapes. Quite the opposite–understanding the particular channels that we’re prepared to learn can throw into sharper relief the achievements of culture. Knowing something about our reproductive drives and our tendencies toward violence makes the extraordinary drop in murder and birthrates experienced by many Western countries over the past few centuries all the more impressive. And just because our mental modules are implicated in political issues, that’s no reason to hand over our societal reins to the evolutionary psychologists. To include biological explanations in a discussion of human society by no means eliminates the validity of other kinds of explanations. What Pinker and E.O. Wilson are proposing is not biological determinism but rather biological consilience…

This is half correct. Future social engineering, if done with noble motives and an informed basis, will have a better chance of succeeding a century from now. But I have long felt that the “public choice” critique of social engineering — you can’t trust people, especially not politicians — carries more weight than the informational critique. Scroll down one post and read my remarks on the all-too-frequent lack of meta-rationality as well, or scroll up one post and read about the prosperous marvel that is North Korea. And evoloutionary psychology suggests that, short of genetic engineering (not the topic at hand, and besides, who do you trust to do that?), human nature is not about to change anytime soon. So score at least half a point against social engineering, which should make Michael happy at www.2blowhards.com.

Meta-rational animals

Monkeys and dolphins are capable of recognizing when they do not know the answer to a question. Here is a brief summary of the experiments:

In the first one, trained monkeys sat at a computer joystick and watched the density of colored dots in a square on the screen. When there were many dots, the monkey moved the joystick to the square itself, choosing “dense.” When there were few dots, the monkey put the cursor on an “S,” superimposed on the screen, indicating “sparse.”

Gradually, examiners added more dots to the “sparse” test until the monkey reached a threshold where it could not easily discern whether the panel was “dense” or not. At that point, the monkey chose to put the cursor on a star, indicating uncertainty.

Smith said the two monkeys displayed uncertainty at almost the same threshold as seven humans who also took the test. This result, Smith and his co-authors said, “presents one of the strongest existing matches between human and animal performance in the comparative literature.”

In the second test, a bottlenose dolphin was trained to press a lever when it heard a “low” tone, and another lever when it heard a “high” tone. At first, the dolphin was so enthusiastic that it kicked up swirls of water as it raced to the levers.

But when researchers raised the low tone until it approached the high tone, “he would creep in because he didn’t know what to do,” Smith said. “It was the dolphin equivalent of scratching its head.” The dolphin would then resort to a third lever, indicating uncertainty.

In other words, very intelligent animals are aware of their own cognitive limitations, here is the full story. So far it has not been possible to induce comparable behavior in rats, nor in many political commentators.

The bottom line: Of all kinds of rationality, meta-rationality is perhaps the hardest to come by. It is most rare when more than one person, or questions of status, are involved. For whatever reasons, a kind of false certainty must have yielded evolutionary advantages in earlier times, and perhaps still does today. Those animals would really impress me if they dropped their admissions of uncertainty when a member of the opposite sex was watching.

Update on Medicare reform

Several days ago I predicted that the recent Medicare bill would turn out to be largely the prescription drug benefit, with little real institutional reform in the direction of privatization, for better or worse. An article in today’s New York Times provides a closely related argument.

Here is a summary:

The most politically charged feature of the Medicare legislation passed by Congress – its attempt to make the federal Medicare program compete with private managed-care plans – is also the least likely to come to fruition on the seven-year schedule set in the bill, according to health policy experts…Similar plans, the experts say, have failed to find support among patients, doctors and hospitals, or even some insurers. Even people who favor the idea say the potential for trouble this time is formidable…Many people enrolled in Medicare fear that they will end up with less generous benefits in a privately run program…Nor do hospitals and doctors like the idea of health insurers pushing down fees to make a profit for themselves, and health plans have balked at previous projects that threatened to squeeze their profit margins…In addition, many privately run Medicare plans, known as Medicare H.M.O.’s, withdrew from many areas of the country when government payments lagged, forcing millions of patients to scramble to obtain new coverage.

The bill passed by the House and Senate in the last few days calls for six-year demonstration projects in four to six cities, where private health plans would compete with the traditional Medicare program to enroll subscribers by offering a variety of new services with the goal of possibly reducing costs…But four previous attempts at experimenting with competition among Medicare H.M.O.’s were aborted before they began – blocked in Congress after members heard objections from health care providers and elderly voters.

Arguably this kind of “mixed privatization,” with strong public elements, and few real incentives for cost control, was not a good idea in the first place. But in any case it is unlikely to ever see the true light of day.