Monday assorted links

1. NYT symposium on smart phones and childhood.  And when do young female suicide rates start rising?  Tweet here.  And “Gen Alpha (my kid’s generation) has already optimized out of it and have figured out how to do the social play they need to in the new medium.

2. Prize money for prompts.

3. Bridgewater x Metaculus forecasting contest.

4. Louise Perry on Andrea Dworkin.

5. Chechenya bans all music deemed too fast or too slow.

6. Is Pakistan seeking normalization with India?

7. Eclipse songs.  And from India.

8. Levitt and Donohue defend their abortion-crime results.

Cultivating Minds: The Psychological Consequences of Rice versus Wheat Farming

It’s long been argued that the means of production influence social, cultural and psychological processes. Rice farming, for example, requires complex irrigation systems under communal management and intense, coordinated labor. Thus, it has been argued that successful rice farming communities tend to develop people with collectivist orientations, and cultural ways of thinking that emphasize group harmony and interdependence. In contrast, wheat farming, which requires less labor and coordination is associated with more individualistic cultures that value independence and personal autonomy. Implicit in Turner’s Frontier hypothesis, for example, is the idea that not only could a young man say ‘take this job and shove it’ and go west but once there they could establish a small, viable wheat farm (or other dry crop).

There is plenty of evidence for these theories. Rice cultures around the world do tend to exhibit similar cultural characteristics, including less focus on self, more relational or holistic thinking and greater in-group favoritism than wheat cultures. Similar differences exist between the rice and dry crop areas of China. The differences exist but is the explanation rice and wheat farming or are there are other genetic, historical or random factors at play?

A new paper by Talhelm and Dong in Nature Communications uses the craziness of China’s Cultural Revolution to provide causal evidence in favor of the rice and wheat farming theory of culture. After World War II ended, the communist government in China turned soldiers into farmers arbitrarily assigning them to newly created farms around the country–including two farms in Northern Ningxia province that were nearly identical in temperature, rainfall and acreage but one of the firms lay slightly above the river and one slightly below the river making the latter more suitable for rice farming and the former for wheat. During the Cultural Revolution, youth were shipped off to the farms “with very little preparation or forethought”. Thus, the two farms ended up in similar environments with similar people but different modes of production.

Talhelm and Dong measure thought style with a variety of simple experiments which have been shown in earlier work to be associated with collectivist and individualist thinking. When asked to draw circles representing themselves and friends or family, for example, people tend to self-inflate their own circle but they self-inflate more in individualist cultures.

The authors find that consistent with the differences across East and West and across rice and wheat areas in China, the people on the rice farm in Ningxia are more collectivistic in their thinking than the people on the wheat farm.

The differences are all in the same direction but somewhat moderated suggesting that the effects can be created quite quickly (a few generations) but become stronger the longer and more embedded they are in the wider culture.

I am reminded of an another great paper, this one by Leibbrandt, Gneezy, and List (LGL) that I wrote about in Learning to Compete and Cooperate. LGL look at two types of fishing villages in Brazil. The villages are close to one another but some of them are on the lake and some of them are on the sea coast. Lake fishing is individualistic but sea fishing requires a collective effort. LGL find that the lake fishermen are much more willing to engage in competition–perhaps having seen that individual effort pays off–than the sea fishermen for whom individual effort is much less efficacious. Unlike Talhelm and Dong, LGL don’t have random assignment, although I see no reason why the lake and sea fishermen should otherwise be different, but they do find that women, who neither lake nor sea fish, do not show the same differences. Thus, the differences seem to be tied quite closely to production learning rather than to broader culture.

How long does it take to imprint these styles of thinking? How long does it last? Is imprinting during child or young adulthood more effective than later imprinting? Can one find the same sorts of differences between athletes of different sports–e.g. rowing versus running? It’s telling, for example, that the only famous rowers I can think are the Winklevoss twins. Are attempts to inculcate these types of thinking successful on a more than surface level. I have difficulty believing that “you didn’t build that,” changes say relational versus holistic thinking but would styles of thinking change during a war?

350+ coauthors study reproducibility in economics

Jon Hartley is one I know, here is the abstract:

This study pushes our understanding of research reliability by reproducing and replicating claims from 110 papers in leading economic and political science journals. The analysis involves computational reproducibility checks and robustness assessments. It reveals several patterns. First, we uncover a high rate of fully computationally reproducible results (over 85%). Second, excluding minor issues like missing packages or broken pathways, we uncover coding errors for about 25% of studies, with some studies containing multiple errors. Third, we test the robustness of the results to 5,511 re-analyses. We find a robustness reproducibility of about 70%. Robustness reproducibility rates are relatively higher for re-analyses that introduce new data and lower for re-analyses that change the sample or the definition of the dependent variable. Fourth, 52% of re-analysis effect size estimates are smaller than the original published estimates and the average statistical significance of a re-analysis is 77% of the original. Lastly, we rely on six teams of researchers working independently to answer eight additional research questions on the determinants of robustness reproducibility. Most teams find a negative relationship between replicators’ experience and reproducibility, while finding no relationship between reproducibility and the provision of intermediate or even raw data combined with the necessary cleaning codes.

Here is the full paper, here are some Twitter images.  I have added the emphasis on the last sentence.

Can you guess who wrote this passage?

We often hear today that Wokeism and Political Correctness are gradually receding.  Contrary to this opinion, I think that this phenomenon is gradually being “normalized,” widely accepted even by those who intimately doubt it, and practiced by the majority of academic and state institutions.  This is why it deserves more than ever our criticism — together with its opposite, the obscenity of new populism and religious fundamentalism.  In Cancel Culture at its worst, your public life can be destroyed for reasons that are not even clear in advance.  This is what makes Cancel Culture so threatening: something very particular that you did (or are) can be unexpectedly elevated into the universal status of an unforgivable mistake, so that every particular case is never just a neutral case of universality but gives its own spin to a fuzzy universality.

No, it is not Bari Weiss, not Naveen or even Community Notes.  Please try to guess first, but if you must you can peek here.

Sunday assorted links

1. Can the Left be happy? (Ross D. in the NYT)

2. Explosive growth from AI automation?  (This paper is economically literature, and uses some simple models)

3. James C. Scott, “Academic Diary of an Iconoclast” (academic gate).

4. Some more serious evidence that rising population density predicts lower fertility uh-oh.

5. Liberia fact of the day.

6. Soumaya Keynes FT column on government debt, with a focus on Jamaica.  She is flat out one of the best columnists period, time for more people to say that!

7. Oliver Kim on Albert Hirschman on development, including “development decisions” as the truly scarce factor.

When does provenance justify a consumption experience?

Konstantin emails me a question:

Hey Tyler! You said you tried coffee just once, at a coffee ceremony in an Ethiopian village, as coffee probably originates in Ethiopia.

What else would you try (or do) only due to its provenance?

What else have you tried or done only due to its provenance?

I used to always try the local foodstuffs, no matter what the expected quality, for instance that terrible fermented dish in Iceland.  I guess I have stopped doing this?  (“I’ll just have the beef rendang, please!”  No monkey brains either.  I do however make a point of trying new dishes I think I will enjoy.)  In the case of coffee, I felt it would be rude to refuse.  Plus after all these years I was curious what coffee tasted like.

More generally, I am a fan of consumption experiences tied to what Konstantin calls provenance.  If you are in Japan at the right time of year, it makes sense to walk up Mount Fuji.  The fact that the mountain has a special status in Japanese lore makes the experience more valuable, even if you don’t believe in Japanese lore per se.  It is one way of “connecting” yourself to Japan, and seeing how that connection feels.

When I was younger, I took a cable car in San Francisco, even though I didn’t find the experience an intrinsically valuable one.  Frankly, it bored me, but I also don’t regret doing it.  Think of the underlying model as “trying to approach a native culture from as many different angles as possible.”  You also should try the angles they put forward as focal.  Even though those angles may not in fact be the most relevant or focal ones.  How important are cable cars for understanding San Francisco?  I am not sure, but if they are irrelevant that too is an angle you might try on for size.  And then take off.  When you are done, you can always walk over to the local bookstore.

A simple model of AI and social media

One MR reader, Luca Piron, writes to me:

 I found myself puzzled by a thought you expressed during your interview with Professor Haidt. In particular, from my understanding you suggested that in the near future AI will be able to sum up the content a user may want to see into a digest, so that they can spend less time using their devices.

I think that is a misunderstanding of how the typical user experiences social media. While there surely are some brilliant people such as the young scientists you described during the episode who use social media only to connect with peers and find valuable information, I would argue that most users, alas including myself, turn to social media when seeking mindless distraction, when bored or maybe too tired to read of watch a film. Therefore, having a digest will prove unsatisfactory. What a typical user wants is the stream of content to continue.

I think these are some of the least understood points of 2024.  Let us start with the substitution effect.  The “digest” feature of AI will soon let you turn your feeds into summaries and pointers to the important parts.  In other words, you will be able to consume those feeds more quickly.  In some cases the quality of the feed experience may go up, in other cases it may go down (presumably over time quality of the digest will improve).

We all know that if tech allows you to cook more quickly (e.g., microwave ovens), you will spend less time cooking.  That is true even if you are “addicted” to cooking, if you cook because of social pressures, if cooking puts you into a daze, or whatever.  The substitution effect still applies, noting that in some cases the new tech may make the cooked food better, in other cases worse.  In similar fashion, you will spend less time with your feed, following the advent of AI feed digests.

Somehow people do not want to acknowledge the price theory aspect of the problem, as they are content to repeat the motives of young people in spending time with their feeds.  (You will note there is the possibility of a broader portfolio effect — AI might liberate you from many tasks, and you could end up spending more time with your feed.  I’ll just say don’t bet against the substitution effect, it almost always dominates!  And yes for addictive goods too.  In fact those demand curves usually don’t look any different.)  No one has to be a young genius scientist for the substitution effect to hold.

Note that a majority of U.S. teens report they spend about the right amount of time on social media apps (8% say “too little time”) and they are going to respond to technological changes with pretty normal kinds of behavior.

I think what has in fact happened is that commentators have read dozens of MSM articles about “algorithms,” and mostly are not following very recent tech developments, including in the consumer AI field.  Perhaps that is why they have difficult processing what is a simple, straightforward argument, based on a first-order effect.

Another general way of putting the point, not as simple as a demand curve but still pretty straightforward, is that if tech creates a social problem, other forms of tech will be innovated and mobilized to help address that problem.  Again, that is not a framing you get very often from MSM.

The AI example is also a forcing one when it comes to motives for spending time with social media feeds.  Many critics wish to have it both ways.  They want to say “the feed is no fun, teenagers stick with the feed because of social pressures to be in touch with others, but they ideally would rather do something else.”  But when a new technology allows them to secede from feed obsession to some degree, (some of) those same critics say: “They can’t/won’t secede — they are addicted!”  The word “dopamine” is then likely to follow, though rarely the word “fun.”

It is better to just start by admitting that the feed is fun, and informative, for many teenagers and adults too.  Of course not everything fun is good for you, but the “social pressure” verbal gambit is a slight of hand to make social media sound like an obvious bad across all margins, and a network that needs to be taken down, rather than something we ought to help people manage better, at the margin.  If it really were mainly a social pressure problem, it would be relatively easy to solve.

For many teens, both motives operate, namely scrolling the feed is fun, and there are social pressures to stay informed.  The advent of the AI digest will allow those same individuals to cut back on the social pressure obligations, but keep the fun scrolling.  Again, a substitution effect will operate, and furthermore it will nudge individuals away from the harmful social pressures and closer to the fun.

As Katherine Boyle pointed out on Twitter, a lot of this debate is being conducted in terms of 2016 technology.  But in fact we are in 2024, not far from the summer of 2024, and soon to enter 2025.  Beware of regulatory proposals, and social welfare analyses, that do not acknowledge that fact.

In the meantime, please do heed the substitution effect.

Saturday assorted links

1. Zvi annotates the CWT with Jon Haidt.

2. How is bird flu spreading in cows?

3. Not sure I believe in these kinds of correlations, but here are some results suggesting that automation leads to less religion.

4. Claims about GPTs.  Complicated but interesting.

5. Ezra Klein and Nilay Patel on AI and the future of media and the internet (NYT).


7. Janan Ganesh on peace and technological stagnation (FT).

Zimbabwe launches new gold-backed currency

Zimbabwe has introduced a new gold-backed currency called ZiG – the name stands for “Zimbabwe Gold”.

It is the latest attempt to stabilise an economy that has lurched from crisis to crisis for the past 25 years.

Unveiling the new notes, central bank governor John Mushayavanhu said the ZiG would be structured, and set at a market-determined exchange rate.

The ZiG replaces a Zimbabwean dollar, the RTGS, that had lost three-quarters of its value so far this year.

Annual inflation in March reached 55% – a seven-month high.

Zimbabweans have 21 days to exchange old, inflation-hit notes for the new currency.

However, the US dollar, which accounts for 85% of transactions, will remain legal tender and most people are likely to continue to prefer this…

He committed to ensuring that the amount of local currency in circulation was backed by equivalent value in precious minerals – mainly gold – or foreign exchange, in order to prevent the currency losing value like its predecessors.

Here is the full story, file under “less than fully credible.”  That said, I do think that many of the important monetary innovations of the future are likely to come in Africa.

Your Subsidies are Undercutting My Subsidies!

NYTimes: Treasury officials say that they fear that elevated Chinese production targets are causing its firms to produce far more electric vehicles, batteries and solar panels than global markets can absorb, driving prices lower and disrupting production around the world. They fear that these spillovers will hurt businesses that are planning investments in the United States with tax credits and subsidies that were created through the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, a law that is pumping more than $2 trillion into clean energy infrastructure.

Amazing that Yellen can say this with a straight face:

as an economist, it was her view that China could benefit if it stopped giving subsidies to firms that would fail without government support.

What should I ask Joe Stiglitz?

I will be having a Conversation with him, and please note this is the conversation I want to have, not the one you want me to have.  So what should I ask?  Note that Joe has a new book coming out The Road to Freedom: Economics and the Good Society.  That said, I also would like for the dialogue to cover Joe’s career more generally, starting with 1970 or so.

So what should I ask him?

Lockean homesteading for goats, bonus added

The mayor of an Italian island is attempting to solve an animal overpopulation problem with an unusual offer: free goats for anyone who can catch them.

Riccardo Gullo, the mayor of Alicudi, in Sicily’s Aeolian archipelago, introduced an “adopt-a-goat” program when the small island’s wild goat population grew to six times the human population of about 100.

Gullo said anyone who emails a request to the local government and pays a $17 “stamp fee” can take as many goats as they wish, as long as they transport them off the island within 15 days of approval.

“Anyone can make a request for a goat, it doesn’t have to be a farmer, and there are no restrictions on numbers,” he told The Guardian.

He said the scheme is currently available until April 10, but he will extend the deadline until the goat population is back down to a more manageable number.

The mayor told CNN that officials will not investigate the intentions of prospective goat owners, but “ideally, we would like to see people try to domesticate the animals rather than eat them.”

Here is the full story, via the excellent Samir Varma.

What should I ask Slavoj Žižek?

Yes, I will be doing another Conversation with him.  Here is the first one, in Norway with a live audience.  I am very much enjoying his new book Christian Atheism: How to Be a Real Materialist.  Slavoj is one of the very few CWT guests (can you guess the others?) who can handle pretty much any question about any area, and have something fresh to say in response.

So what should I ask him?