Archive for December, 2011

Potatoes & guano. Also, airline security.

Charles Mann wrote the wonderful book 1491, a summary of research on the Americas before Columbus, as well as 1493 (which I haven’t read yet), a sequel of sorts that takes on the post-Columbus exchange of ideas, tools, plants, and germs. He’s also written an article titled “How the Potato Changed the World” (which I imagine covers some of the same material as 1493) in the latest Smithsonian.

One of the most arresting sections of the potato article is actually about a forgotten commodity. Today we take nitrogen fixation for granted, but its industrial perfection enabled a massive increase in world agricultural output, and more darkly the use of chemical weapons during the First World War. But prior to all that one of the best source of nitrogen was guano, or bat and bird dung:

In 1840, the organic chemist Justus von Liebig published a pioneering treatise that explained how plants depend on nitrogen. Along the way, he extolled guano as an excellent source of it. Sophisticated farmers, many of them big landowners, raced to buy the stuff. Their yields doubled, even tripled. Fertility in a bag! Prosperity that could be bought in a store!

Guano mania took hold. In 40 years, Peru exported about 13 million tons of it, the great majority dug under ghastly working conditions by slaves from China. Journalists decried the exploitation, but the public’s outrage instead was largely focused on Peru’s guano monopoly. The British Farmer’s Magazine laid out the problem in 1854: “We do not get anything like the quantity we require; we want a great deal more; but at the same time, we want it at a lower price.” If Peru insisted on getting a lot of money for a valuable product, the only solution was invasion. Seize the guano islands! Spurred by public fury, the U.S. Congress passed the Guano Islands Act in 1856, authorizing Americans to seize any guano deposits they discovered. Over the next half-century, U.S. merchants claimed 94 islands, cays, coral heads and atolls.

Read the rest of the Mann potato history article here. A related academic paper is Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian’s “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas” (ungated PDF).

And while the idea of this blog post was simmering in my head I came across another piece by Charles Mann in Vanity Fair, this time on air travel security and how so much of it is theater to reassure the public. It’s called “Smoke Screening”:

Remember the fake boarding pass that was in Schneier’s hand? Actually, it was mine. I had flown to meet [TSA critic] Schneier at Reagan National Airport because I wanted to view the security there through his eyes. He landed on a Delta flight in the next terminal over. To reach him, I would have to pass through security. The day before, I had downloaded an image of a boarding pass from the Delta Web site, copied and pasted the letters with Photoshop, and printed the results with a laser printer. I am not a photo-doctoring expert, so the work took me nearly an hour. The T.S.A. agent waved me through without a word. A few minutes later, Schneier deplaned,compact and lithe, in a purple shirt and with a floppy cap drooping over a graying ponytail.

The boarding-pass problem is hardly the only problem with the checkpoints. Taking off your shoes is next to useless. “It’s like saying, Last time the terrorists wore red shirts, so now we’re going to ban red shirts,” Schneier says. If the T.S.A. focuses on shoes, terrorists will put their explosives elsewhere. “Focusing on specific threats like shoe bombs or snow-globe bombs simply induces the bad guys to do something else. You end up spending a lot on the screening and you haven’t reduced the total threat.”

28

12 2011

Gravity games

My Solar System is a browser-based gravity simulation that lets you choose from several pre-built solar systems or create your own. Endless fun for the nerdy:

(There are several other simulation programs at the PHET website.)

27

12 2011

Monday Miscellany

  • Jon Krakauer is still following the Three Cups of Tea / Central Asia Institute scandal. (Link via @saundra_s)
  • “The accidental universe” is a great essay in Harpers by Alan Lightman on the current state of physics and theories of the multiverse. (Link via @cblatts)
  • My fellow classmates and I will be writing many letters like this in the next few months.
  • Seth Berkley, the new head of the GAVI Alliance, has started blogging. Before GAVI he started the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI).
  • The Walton family opened Crystal Bridges, an art museum in northwestern Arkansas with quite the collection — here’s the NYT review. Bentonville is nearly a four hour drive from Searcy, where I’m spending the holidays, so I’m not sure I’ll make it on this visit. Still it should be a boon for Arkansas tourism, which I believe is Arkansas’ second largest industry after agriculture.
  • Finally, here’s Owen Barder’s take on what happened at the high-level summit on aid effectiveness in Busan, South Korea: “Busan was an expression of new geopolitical realities, but despite high level representation, it has done little to shape the future of development cooperation.”

26

12 2011

Understatement of the day

It is ironic that modern capitalist societies engage in public campaigns to urge individuals to be more attentive to their health, while fostering an economic ecosystem that seduces many consumers into an extremely unhealthy diet. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, 34% of Americans are obese. Clearly, conventionally measured economic growth – which implies higher consumption – cannot be an end in itself.

That’s economist Ken Rogoff, asking “Is Modern Capitalism Sustainable?”. And of course it goes beyond ironic; it’s tragic. Changes in policy that address that “economic ecosystem” itself are usually considered outside the realm of public health, which is exactly why public health folks have to (and do) engage on broader policy issues.

23

12 2011

Rights bleg

bleg: (Internet slang) An entry in a blog requesting information or contributions. (from Wiktionary)

This entry was prompted by an interesting post on religion and human rights by Kate Cronin-Furman over at Wronging Rights. My question here has little to do with the contents of that particular post other than having been prompted by it in my impossibly tangential brain, but I think it’s a great post that you should all read regardless. Now on to my question:

I’m not sure I believe in human rights. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a monster, and I’m really more agnostic on them than a certain skeptic. I also happen to value very highly pretty much all the widely-believed human rights and most everything to which the title of a human right has been expanded. I’m not convinced that my personal normative valuation or preference is the same as actually believing in human rights (their existence and universality), or whether the rights framework is the most true or helpful one. The work I want to do overlaps a lot with rights practitioners and language — again with the valuation of those ends. I’ve also read quite a few things written by human rights activists, but mostly on the level of “we were trying to document or stop this atrocity” or otherwise using the language of rights towards an end which I support, but usually assuming from the beginning that the reader believed in human rights. It also seems that a lot of things that just seem good to many people, independent of a rights-based framework, are touted in that language because it is simply what is done. I also get the impression that there are a fair number of people working within the ‘human rights establishment’ who see the construct as more useful than true (or don’t distinguish between the two) but I have no way to verify that.

None of these hesitations are final, of course — this may simply be a shortcoming in my education that I need to rectify. I grew up very religious and went to a very conservative college that only employs professors who belong to a particular conservative evangelical denomination. I missed out on formal coursework or guided readings in secular philosophy or ethics, or at least any presentation of that material by people who actually believed it. Some of what I learned was heavily filtered through that strain of fundamentalist thought that looks at everything that is not itself and decries it as an un-moored, baseless fantasy. (Amongst others, blame Francis Schaeffer — one his books recounts the truly atrocious evangelistic technique of trying to convince a confused young person that there are only two intellectually honest ways to reconcile hopelessness resulting from the perceived failure of secular philosophy to find meaning; believe in God or commit suicide.)

There were certainly others who were more gentle in approach but the underlying thought was always there, that there can be no absolute statements — whether about morality or rights — without theistic belief. However, in college I took a skeptical turn and eventually came to disbelieve my theist roots altogether. My graduate work has been more technically-focused (which is what I wanted), for example considering how to achieve improvements in health rather than deep thinking about the foundational assumption that there is a right to health. Many of my peers who attended liberal arts schools or research universities have obviously focused on the study of human rights to a much greater extent, whereas my education bypassed it altogether. To some extent I want to believe in human rights because it seems to be the dominant framework and language and things would just be simpler if I did. But wanting to believe something because it’s helpful is not enough to me. It seems like it would be easier to believe in human rights if one did believe in a higher power, which may be one reason why liberal religious groups seem well-represented in human rights circles.

So finally, my bleg: what should I read? Is there a single primer on or defense of the foundations of human rights that you would recommend to a secular/skeptical person like me? This could be a book, an essay, a journal article —  whatever you think might be the most convincing case. I think this line of thinking deserves more than a simple read of a Wikipedia page; I’m hoping that you can distill the arguments that you’ve found most useful in thinking about rights into a few recommendations. Likewise, if you’re in the doubter camp or think there is a better secular alternative out there I’d be happy to hear counter-suggestions as well.

21

12 2011

Pick your model

I enjoyed this piece by Dani Rodrik at Project Syndicate:

Indeed, though you may be excused for skepticism if you have not immersed yourself in years of advanced study in economics, coursework in a typical economics doctoral program produces a bewildering variety of policy prescriptions depending on the specific context. Some of the frameworks economists use to analyze the world favor free markets, while others don’t. In fact, much economic research is devoted to understanding how government intervention can improve economic performance. And non-economic motives and socially cooperative behavior are increasingly part of what economists study.

As the late great international economist Carlos Diaz-Alejandro once put it, “by now any bright graduate student, by choosing his assumptions….carefully, can produce a consistent model yielding just about any policy recommendation he favored at the start.” And that was in the 1970’s! An apprentice economist no longer needs to be particularly bright to produce unorthodox policy conclusions.

Nevertheless, economists get stuck with the charge of being narrowly ideological, because they are their own worst enemy when it comes to applying their theories to the real world. Instead of communicating the full panoply of perspectives that their discipline offers, they display excessive confidence in particular remedies – often those that best accord with their own personal ideologies.

Is it that bad? Well, statistician Kaiser Fung of the blog Numbers Rule Your World) says that it’s actually much worse and that Rodrik doesn’t go far enough as he compares Rodrik’s point with a critique of economic modeling in Emanuel Derman’s new book Models Behaving Badly (which I haven’t read yet):

My own view, informed by years of building statistical models for businesses, is more sympathetic with Derman than Rodrik. There is no way that economic (by extension, social science) models can ever be similar to physics models. Derman draws the comparison in order to disparage economics models. I prefer to avoid the comparison entirely.

The insurmountable challenge of social science models, which constrains their effectiveness, is that the real drivers of human behavior are not measurable. What causes people to purchase goods, or vote for a particular candidate, or become obese, or trade stocks is some combination of desire, impulse, guilt, greed, gullibility, inattention, curiosity, etc. We can’t measure any of those quantities accurately.

21

12 2011

Testing treatments in policy

The students at the Woodrow Wilson School have a group blog on public policy called 14 Points. I’ve been helping promote the blog for a while but just got around to writing my first submission this week. It’s titled “Testing Treatments: Building a culture of evidence in public policy”. Here’s an excerpt:

Similar lessons can be gleaned from the history of surgical response to breast cancer. In The Emperor of All Maladies (2010), a new history of cancer, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee chronicles the history of such failed interventions as the radical mastectomy. Over a period of decades this brutal procedure – removing the breasts, lymph nodes, and much of the chest muscles – became the tool of choice for surgeons treating breast cancer. In the 1970s rigorous trials comparing radical mastectomy to more limited procedures showed that this terribly disfiguring procedure did not in fact help patients live longer at all. Some surgeons refused to believe the evidence – to believe it would have required them to acknowledge the harm they had done. But eventually the radical mastectomy fell from favor; today it is quite rare. Many similar stories are included in a free e-book titled Testing Treatments (2011).

As a society we’ve come to accept that medical devices should be tested by the most rigorous and neutral means possible, because the stakes are life and death for all of us. Thousands of people faced with deadly illnesses volunteer for clinical trials every year. Some of them survive while others do not, but as a society we are better off when we know what actually works. For every downside, like the delay of a promising treatment until evidence is gathered properly, there is an upside – something we otherwise would have thought is a good idea is revealed not to be helpful at all.

Under normal circumstances most new drugs are weeded out as they face a gauntlet of tests for safety and efficacy required before FDA licensure. The stories of the humanitarian-exemption stent and the radical mastectomy are different because these procedures became more widely used before there was rigorous evidence that they helped, though in both cases there were plenty of anecdotes, case studies, and small or non-controlled studies that made it look like they did. This haphazard, post-hoc testing is analogous to how policy in many other fields, from welfare to education, is developed. Many public policy decisions have considerable impacts on our livelihoods, education, and health. Why are we not similarly outraged by poor standards of evidence that leads to poor outcomes in other fields?

Read the rest at 14 Points, and check out the posts by my classmates.

16

12 2011

Why study economics?

As a follow-up to my last post on values and humility in economics, I thought the following video (which Mankiw shared on his blog) of Steve Marglin talking about heterodox economics is great:

Marglin gives two reasons to study mainstream economics in his talk. One of them resonates strongly with me because it is part of why I’m studying economics right now; it is the language of power. While I’m more interested in morbidity and mortality than I am in interest rates, much of health policy, aid policy, and development policy is done by — or strongly influenced by — those who speak the language of economics. For the other reason Marglin gives (and of course, there are many others) you’ll have to watch the talk (it’s good).

16

12 2011

Values and humility in economics

Greg Mankiw is a Harvard economist, former chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, and currently an advisor to the Romney presidential campaign. He teaches a large introductory economics course at Harvard and writes both the widely used Principles of Economics and a blog that displays the same crisp, eminently-readable prose as his textbook. In a show of solidarity with the Occupy Boston movement, some of his students walked out of that class earlier this year. Much has been written about the walkout  (Update: here’s the students’ open letter and a response that outlines why walking out of this particular class isn’t the most informed move.) Still I wanted to highlight Mankiw’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, titled  “Know what you’re protesting.” I share some of his reaction:

But my second reaction was sadness at how poorly informed the Harvard protesters seemed to be. As with much of the Occupy movement across the country, their complaints seemed to me to be a grab bag of anti-establishment platitudes without much hard-headed analysis or clear policy prescriptions. Ironically, the topic of the lecture that the protesters chose to boycott was economic inequality, including a discussion of recent trends and their causes.

Fair. But later in the piece Mankiw says something that really rankles (emphasis added):

I don’t claim to be an economist of Paul Samuelson’s stature. (Probably no one alive can.) But like him, I have written a textbook that has introduced millions of students to the mainstream economics of today. If my profession is slanted toward any particular world view, I am as guilty as anyone for perpetuating the problem.

Yet, like most economists, I don’t view the study of economics as laden with ideology. Most of us agree with Keynes, who said: “The theory of economics does not furnish a body of settled conclusions immediately applicable to policy. It is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking, which helps the possessor to draw correct conclusions.”

That is not to say that economists understand everything. The recent financial crisis, economic downturn and meager recovery are vivid reminders that we still have much to learn. Widening economic inequality is a real and troubling phenomenon, albeit one without an obvious explanation or easy solution. A prerequisite for being a good economist is an ample dose of humility.

I’ll preface my reaction to this with my own dose of humility: my studies at the Woodrow Wilson School this semester are my first exposure to serious economics, and I’m realizing every day that I have ever more to learn. I think it can be helpful to approach a field with fresh eyes so I hope my thoughts here won’t be entirely discredited by my fresh arrival to the dismal science.

That said, No! This seems like denial, pure and simple. My impression is that one of the areas where economists have most often failed to display humility is when thinking of and talking about the interaction of their values and methodologies.  Yes, economics has epistemological limitations, but these are equaled or surpassed by its axiological limitations, and may be more consequential because — unlike with the more readily acknowledged methodological shortcomings — economists themselves don’t always make clear the values implicit in their worldviews. I think economists and those who are impacted by their views (ie, everyone else) would benefit from clearer statements of how values impact economics.

Mankiw’s textbook does very briefly address the political philosophies underlying views on income redistribution, from utilitarianism to liberalism to libertarianism (pages 442-3 in the 5th edition). But this is halfway through the text and only in the context of the chapter on “income inequality and poverty.” In reality, your views on maximizing utility for all versus (at another extreme) only caring about how policies affect the poorest have an impact on pretty much every piece of welfare economics. Here from what I can tell Mankiw is quite mainstream — when considering the effects of a particular policy using the tools of welfare economics, the underlying philosophical preferences are almost always assumed. The conclusions of those studies are then touted as positive statements (“Policy X is bad for the economy”) when that may or may not be true, depending on whether you share the same fundamental normative roots.

Prof. Mankiw spoke at Princeton on October 20 (you can view the lecture here) and it was a well-presented talk. His remarks were broad and intelligent, though maybe a bit constrained by the fact that he is associated with a presidential campaign and thus can’t rock the boat too much (even with a disclaimer that his remarks were his own). In that talk Mankiw similarly began by emphasizing the need for economists to show greater humility in light of recent failures; he then proceeded to discuss a good number of specific policy recommendations with quite a bit of confidence. My biggest question coming out of the lecture was how to square the Mankiw who calls for greater humility from economists with the Mankiw who makes policy prescriptions. If we don’t know with certainty what the impacts of particular policies will be or how to do more than tweak the performance or recovery of an economy, why not start with the policies least likely to do harm to the most vulnerable members of society? That would generally be my preference, growing out of my own nascent political philosophy.

In his textbook (5th edition page 35) Mankiw evenly explicitly notes that “Economists give conflicting advice sometimes because they have different values.” This is true, and if anything it is under-emphasized. Elsewhere Mankiw has been more direct, contrasting the philosophies of Nozick and Rawls and noting how those might result in very different policy prescriptions on taxation. Mankiw ends up closer to Nozick and so it’s no surprise that his policy prescriptions are for lower corporate taxes (re-emphasized in the Princeton talk as one of the things on which he very strongly agrees with Romney).

How is this anything but a heavy dose of ideology being injected into economics? How can we square this with the Mankiw who says he doesn’t see the study of economics as “laden with ideology”? Part of the problem is that there are figures such as Mankiw who are concurrently serious researchers on scientific questions within economics and proponents of normative preferences in the political sphere. Can the outside observer tell when an economist is being one and not the other? Can economists realize this in themselves? When you couch these preferences in the language of economics without making the underlying values explicit, it’s hard to believe that the field is not laden with ideology. To the extent that he doesn’t even recognize how these value statements pervade the field, Mankiw is — in his own words — as guilty as anyone for perpetuating the problem.

04

12 2011