Friday, November 30, 2018

Do you have to be selfish to make more money?

See Selfish people earn less money than generous people by Leah Fessler of Quartz. Excerpts:
"Researchers at Stockholm University, the Institute for Futures Studies, and the University of South Carolina examined data on more than 60,000 people in the US and Europe to understand whether one’s “prosociality,” or interest and engagement in others’ wellbeing, is indicative of how much money the person makes and whether they have children.

While previous research suggests that prosocial behavior positively impacts psychological wellbeing, the authors of this study wanted to examine the effect on income and the number of children people have because, as the researchers write, “these are the currencies that matter most in theories that emphasize the power of self-interest, namely economics and evolutionary thinking.”

Their findings bode well for the future of humanity. Across all five studies they analyzed as part of their research, selfish people were not the highest earners. (They also had the fewest children.) But in four of the five studies, those who earned the highest salaries weren’t the most altruistic people either. Instead, they were “moderately prosocial,” meaning they were mostly unselfish, but not entirely. (In one study, the most prosocial people did in fact earn the highest salaries.)"
It seems that it is in a person's self-interest to care about other people. How does this relate to Adam Smith's idea of the "invisible hand," that it leads people who are acting in their own self-interest to make society better off?

Here is an excerpt from The Wealth of Nations found at The Library of Economics and Liberty
"Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society." 
"But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it."
I have posted on these issues before. One was called "Want to be happy and successful? Try compassion." That was the title of an article by Jen Christensen of CNN. Here is that post

By Jen Christensen of CNN.

Economists assume that people are selfish. It seems reasonable to also assume that selfish people want to be happy and successful. So it could be in the interest of selfish people to be compassionate. This might be a variation on the invisible hand of Adam Smith, the idea that it leads self-interested people to act for the good of society.


"The compassionate tend to have deeper connections with others and more friends. They are more forgiving and have a stronger sense of life purpose. Many studies have shown these results. Compassion also has direct personal benefit. The compassionate tend to be happier, healthier, more self-confident, less self-critical, and more resilient."
The article also discusses compassion exercises that change your brain.

Below is a related post I did in January called "The Dalai Lama Says It Is Sometimes OK To Be Selfish."

"This is mostly a post from November, 2013. But there was another article about something similar involving the Dalai Lama this week. So I have a bit about that at the end of this post.

And of course, Adam Smith said when people act selfishly they are led, as if by an invisible hand, to make society better off.

So when might it be OK to be selfish according to his holiness? When caring for others.

Wait, how can that be selfish? Or is this some kind of Zen riddle like what is the sound of one hand clapping? No, it's biology and evolution. See Lending a hand does a body good by Jessica Belasco, from the San Antonio Express-News, 10-25-2013.

She talked to Dr. James R. Doty, a neurosurgeon at the Stanford University School of Medicine and founder of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Excerpts:

"Practicing compassion — recognizing someone else is suffering and wanting to help relieve that suffering — just might be as important for health as exercise or a healthful diet, some scientists believe.

When we respond to another person's needs, our body responds in turn:

We become relaxed and calm.
Our blood pressure goes down.
Our stress level goes down.

Practicing compassion is associated with lengthened telomeres, the DNA that protects the ends of your chromosomes and is a marker of longevity.

To understand why humans are hard-wired for compassion, Doty said, just look at human evolution: Caring for others was essential to the survival of the species. Humans developed powerful neuropathways associated with nurturing and bonding with their offspring as motivation to care for them in a hostile environment; otherwise their genes could not be passed on. The same was true beyond the nuclear family when humans formed hunter/gatherer tribes.

A few hundred millennia later, our need for compassion remains strong. We may not be facing predators as our ancestors did, but frequent low-level stressors — work deadlines, traffic noise, our cellphone buzzing with texts — keep our fight-or-flight response continually engaged. That releases stress hormones, which raises the risk of disease.

When we're responding to others' needs, though, we engage the “parasympathetic nervous system,” relaxing us, Doty said. Stress hormones decrease, and the immune system is boosted. In fact, that occurs even if we just think about performing a good act for someone.

That's why intervening when someone needs help — whether in the form of a hug, reassurance, financial help or something else — has a powerful impact not just on the person being helped but on the helper.

Studies also have shown that volunteering, which is a way to practice compassion, helps increase longevity — but with an important exception. Study subjects who said they were volunteering to impress somebody or for some other benefit, not because they authentically wanted to help others, didn't enjoy the same benefit."
Adam Smith wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. One point he made there was that we are able to sympathize with other people by trying imagine what they are going through (and I wonder if we need to be good storytellers to be able to do that). Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has been studying how the hormone oxytocin plays a role in making us feel good when we have empathy for others (beware: Zak is a big hugger). See an earlier post Adam Smith vs. Bart Simpson for more details.

There is an interesting book called Paleopoetics: The Evolution of the Preliterate Imagination. It relates storytelling to evolution.

Click here to go the Amazon listing. It is by Christopher Collins, professor emeritus of English at New York University. Here is the description:
"Christopher Collins introduces an exciting new field of research traversing evolutionary biology, anthropology, archaeology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, and literary study. Paleopoetics maps the selective processes that originally shaped the human genus millions of years ago and prepared the human brain to play, imagine, empathize, and engage in fictive thought as mediated by language. A manifestation of the "cognitive turn" in the humanities, Paleopoetics calls for a broader, more integrated interpretation of the reading experience, one that restores our connection to the ancient methods of thought production still resonating within us.

Speaking with authority on the scientific aspects of cognitive poetics, Collins proposes reading literature using cognitive skills that predate language and writing. These include the brain's capacity to perceive the visible world, store its images, and retrieve them later to form simulated mental events. Long before humans could share stories through speech, they perceived, remembered, and imagined their own inner narratives. Drawing on a wide range of evidence, Collins builds an evolutionary bridge between humans' development of sensorimotor skills and their achievement of linguistic cognition, bringing current scientific perspective to such issues as the structure of narrative, the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, the relation of rhetoric to poetics, the relevance of performance theory to reading, the difference between orality and writing, and the nature of play and imagination."
Click here to read a longer description by Collins himself.

Here is the new article from this week The Dalai Lama Explains Why Being Kind to Others is the Secret to Happiness. Excerpt:
"Have you ever wondered why it matters that you care for other people?

It seems commonsense that this is a good way to live life. But there are dominant philosophies today that suggest we need to maximize our own individual self-interest.

This comes from economic theories of capitalism that suggest when people look after their own self-interest, then society is better off.

The Dalai Lama explains why this doesn’t make sense in the beautiful passage below. As he says, it’s an obvious fact that your own sense of wellbeing can be provided through your relationships with others. So it’s best to start cultivating practices of kindness and compassion."
Then the article has a long statement from the Dalai Lama on this philosophy. But some economists might say that you can't run a successful business if you don't care about others and try to learn their wants and desires. Here is what Adam Smith said in The Wealth of Nations
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages”"

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thanksgiving dinner is at its lowest price since 2010

See Why the cost of Thanksgiving dinner is at its lowest price since 2010 by By Mark Puleo, AccuWeather staff writer. Excerpt:
"As Americans prepare their elastic waistbands for this year's Thanksgiving feast, they can also be thankful for the extra money they may find in their wallets. For the third straight year, the American Farm Bureau Federation found the average cost of Thanksgiving dinner to have declined in total price from the previous year's holiday.

In the Farm Bureau's 33rd annual survey, the results indicate the average cost for this year’s meal to be $48.90. John Newton, the AFBF Chief Economist, said that this year’s average cost is at the lowest level since 2010.

“Thanks to an ample supply, turkey remains affordable for consumers,” Newton said in the release. “Which helps keep the overall cost of the dinner reasonably priced as well.”

According to the survey, the price of turkeys dropped 3 percent from last year, equivalent to about $1.36 per pound.

The survey is based on prices of common items found on many Thanksgiving tables, such as turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie. All the quantities were adjusted to sufficiently serve a family of 10.

Along with turkeys, the price of milk, sweet potatoes, green peas and rolls were also found to be less expensive than they were in 2017."
The article also discusses how weather has affected the pumpkin and cranberry crops.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Pre-market societies could sometimes have alot of violence

Non-capitalist or pre-capitalist societies can have quite a bit of violence. The first quote comes from The Making of Economic Society, 13e by Robert L. Heilbroner and William Milberg.
"It is difficult for us to reconstruct the violent tenor of much of feudal life, but one investigator has provided a statistic that may serve to make the point: Among the sons of English dukes, 46 percent of those born between 1330 and 1479 died violent deaths. Their life expectancy when violent death was excluded was 31 years; when violent death was included, it was but 24 years."
That came from T. H. Hollingsworth, “A Demographic Study of the British Ducal Families,” Population Studies, XI (1957–58). Imagine if someone told you that 46% of the sons of senators or Fortune 500 CEOs were going to die violently over the next 150 years.

Now there is a study out called "The Better Angels of Their Nature: Declining Violence through Time among Prehispanic Farmers of the Pueblo Southwest", American Antiquity, Volume 79, Number 3 / July 2014. See The Most Violent Era In America Was Before Europeans Arrived. It discusses some periods when native American life was quite violent. Here are some excerpts:
"Writing in the journal American Antiquity, Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler and colleagues document how nearly 90 percent of human remains from that period had trauma from blows to either their heads or parts of their arms.

"If we're identifying that much trauma, many were dying a violent death," said Kohler. The study also offers new clues to the mysterious depopulation of the northern Southwest, from a population of about 40,000 people in the mid-1200s to 0 in 30 years."
"It wasn't just violent deaths that poke holes in the harmony with the land and each other myth. A paper in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Southwest also had a baby boom between 500 and 1300 that likely exceeded any population spurt on earth today. The northern Rio Grande also experienced population booms but the central Mesa Verde got more violent while the northern Rio Grande was less so.

Kohler has conjectures on why. Social structures among people in the northern Rio Grande changed so that they identified less with their kin and more with the larger pueblo and specific organizations that span many pueblos, such as medicine societies. The Rio Grande also had more commercial exchanges where craft specialists provided people both in the pueblo, and outsiders, specific things they needed, such as obsidian arrow points.

But in the central Mesa Verde, there was less specialization.

"When you don't have specialization in societies, there's a sense in which everybody is a competitor because everybody is doing the same thing," said Kohler. But with specialization, people are more dependent on each other and more reluctant to do harm."

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Leaders In Gross National Debt As A Percent of GDP Among Advanced Economies In 2017

This comes from an IMF report. See IMF Fiscal Monitor: Capitalizing on Good Times, April 2018. You have to click on "Methodological & Statistical Appendix." Then click on "Full Text." Look for "Table A7. Advanced Economies: General Government Gross Debt, 2009–23
(Percent of GDP)."

Here are all the countries with at least 90%:

Country % of GDP
Japan 236.4
Greece 181.9
Italy 131.5
Portugal 125.6
G7 118.6
Singapore 110.9
United States 107.8
Belgium 103.2
Cyprus 99.3
Spain 98.4
France 97

G7 means the average of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

They also have "Net Debt" as a percentage of GDP. The U.S. was at 82.3% in 2017 while the average for all Advanced Economies was 76.3%. For the G7 it was 87.5%.

From the report:
"Net debt: Gross debt minus financial assets corresponding to debt instruments. These financial assets are monetary gold and special drawing rights; currency and deposits; debt securities; loans, insurance, pensions, and standardized guarantee programs; and other accounts receivable. In some countries, the reported net debt can deviate from this definition based on available information and national fiscal accounting practices."
China is in the category of "Emerging Market and Middle-Income Economies." Their gross debt as a % of GDP was 47.8% in 2017. They don't have a report for their net debt.