Thursday, August 31, 2023

Primitive communism: Marx’s idea that societies were naturally egalitarian and communal before farming is widely influential and quite wrong (plus Ruth Benedict on property rights)

By Manvir Singh. He is an anthropologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. He is now also a professor, at the University of California, Davis. Excerpts:

"It was on that first trip that [anthropologist Kim] Hill saw the Aché share their meat. A man returning from a hunt dropped an animal in the middle of camp. Another person, the butcher, prepared piles for each family. A third person distributed. ‘At the time, it seemed kind of logical to me,’ Hill said. The scene reminded him of a family barbecue where everyone gets a plate.

Yet the more he lived among the Aché, the more astonishing food-sharing seemed. Men were forbidden from eating meat they’d acquired. Their wives and children received no more than anyone else. When he later built detailed genealogies, he discovered that, contrary to his expectations, bandmates were often unrelated. Most importantly, food-sharing didn’t just happen on special days. It was a daily occurrence, a psychological and economic centrepiece of Aché society.

What he started to see, in other words, was ‘almost pure economic communalism – and I really didn’t think that was possible.’"

"In 1985, he started working with another group, the Hiwi of Venezuela. He didn’t expect dramatic differences from the Aché. The Hiwi, too, were hunter-gatherers."

"Then, there was food-sharing. In the primitive communism of the Aché, hunters had little control over distributions: they couldn’t favour their families, and food flowed according to need. None of these applied to the Hiwi. When meat came into a Hiwi village, the hunter’s family kept a larger batch for themselves, distributing shares to a measly three of 36 other families. In other words, as Hill and his colleagues wrote in 2000 in the journal Human Ecology, ‘most Hiwi families receive nothing when a food resource is brought into the village.’

By exercising control over distributions, hunters convert meat into relationships

Hiwi sharing tells us something important about primitive communism: hunter-gatherers are diverse. Most have been less communistic than the Aché. When we survey forager societies, for instance, we find that hunters in many communities enjoyed special rights. They kept trophies. They consumed organs and marrow before sharing. They received the tastiest parts and exclusive rights to a killed animal’s offspring.

The most important privilege hunters enjoyed was selecting who gets meat. Selective sharing is powerful. It extends a bond between giver and recipient that the giver can pull on when they are in need. Refusing to share, meanwhile, is a rejection of friendship, an expression of ill will. When the anthropologist Richard Lee lived among the Kalahari !Kung, he noticed that a hunter named N!eisi once ignored his sister’s husband while passing out warthog meat. When asked why, N!eisi replied harshly: ‘This one I want to eat with my friends.’ N!eisi’s brother-in-law took the hint and, three days later, left camp with his wives and children. By exercising control over distributions, hunters convert meat into relationships.

To own something, we say, means excluding others from enjoying its benefits. I own an apple when I can eat it and you cannot. You own a toothbrush when you can use it and I cannot. Hunters’ special privileges shifted property rights along a continuum from fully public to fully private. The more benefits they could monopolise – from trophies to organs to social capital – the more they could be said to own their meat.

Compared with the Aché, many mobile, band-living foragers lay closer to the private end of the property continuum. Agta hunters in the Philippines set aside meat to trade with farmers. Meat brought in by a solitary Efe hunter in Central Africa was ‘entirely his to allocate’. And among the Sirionó, an Amazonian people who speak a language closely related to the Aché, people could do little about food-hoarding ‘except to go out and look for their own’. Aché sharing might embody primitive communism. Yet, Hill admits, ‘the Aché are probably the extreme case.’

Hunters’ privileges are inconvenient for narratives about primitive communism. More damning, however, is a starker, simpler fact. All hunter-gatherers had private property, even the Aché.

Individual Aché owned bows, arrows, axes and cooking implements. Women owned the fruit they collected. Even meat became private property as it was handed out. Hill explained: ‘If I set my armadillo leg on [a fern leaf] and went out for a minute to take a pee in the forest and came back and somebody took it? Yeah, that was stealing.’

Some proponents of primitive communism concede that foragers owned small trinkets but insist they didn’t own wild resources. But this too is mistaken. Shoshone families owned eagle nests. Bearlake Athabaskans owned beaver dens and fishing sites. Especially common is the ownership of trees. When an Andaman Islander man stumbled upon a tree suitable for making canoes, he told his group mates about it. From then, it was his and his alone. Similar rules existed among the Deg Hit’an of Alaska, the Northern Paiute of the Great Basin, and the Enlhet of the arid Paraguayan plains. In fact, by one economist ’s estimate, more than 70 per cent of hunter-gatherer societies recognised private ownership over land or trees.

The respect for property rights is clearest when someone violates them. To appreciate this, consider the Mbuti, one of the short-statured (‘pygmy’) hunter-gatherers of Central Africa.

The Ute of Colorado whipped thieves. The Ainu of Japan sliced their earlobes off

Much of what we know about Mbuti society comes from Colin Turnbull, a British-American anthropologist who stayed with them in the late 1950s."

"his writings still undermine claims of primitive communism. He described a society in which theft was prohibited, and where even the most desperate members suffered for violating property rights.

Take, for instance, Pepei, a Mbuti man who in 1958 was 19 years old and still unmarried. Unlike most bachelors, who slept next to the fire, Pepei lived in a hut with his younger brother. But instead of collecting building materials, he swiped them. He snuck around at night, plucking a leaf from this hut and a sapling from that. He also filched food. He was an orphan after all, and a bachelor, so he had few people to help him prepare meals. When food mysteriously disappeared, Pepei always claimed to have seen a dog snatch it.

‘Nobody really minded Pepei’s stealing,’ wrote Turnbull, ‘because he was a born comic and a great storyteller. But he had gone too far in stealing from old Sau.’

Old Sau was a skinny, feisty widow. She lived a couple of huts down from Pepei, and one night caught him skulking around in her hut. As he lifted the lid of a pot, she smacked him with a pestle, grabbed his arm, twisted it behind his back, and shoved him into the open.

Justice was brutal. Men ran out and held Pepei, while youths broke off thorny branches and thrashed him. Eventually Pepei broke away and ran into the forest crying. After 24 hours, he returned to camp and went straight to his hut unseen. ‘His hut was between mine and Sau’s,’ wrote Turnbull, ‘and I heard him come in, and I heard him crying softly because even his brother wouldn’t speak to him.’

Other foragers punished stealing, too. The Ute of Colorado whipped thieves. The Ainu of Japan sliced their earlobes off. For the Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego, accusing someone of robbery was a ‘deadly insult’. Lorna Marshall, who spent years living with the Kalahari !Kung, reported that a man was once killed for taking honey. Through violence towards offenders, foragers reified private property.

Is primitive communism another seductive but incorrect anthropological myth? On the one hand, no hunter-gatherer society lacked private property. And although they all shared food, most balanced sharing with special rights. On the other hand, living in a society like the Aché’s was a masterclass in reallocation. It’s hard to imagine farmers engaging in need-based redistribution on that scale.

Whatever we call it, the sharing economy that Hill observed with the Aché does not reflect some lost Edenic goodness. Rather, it sprang from a simpler source: interdependence. Aché families relied on each other for survival. We share with you today so that you can share with us next week, or when we get sick, or when we are pregnant. Hill once saw a man fall from a tree and break his hip. ‘He couldn’t walk for three months, and in those three months, he produced zero food,’ Hill said. ‘And you would think that he would have starved to death and his family would have starved to death. But, of course, nothing happened like that, because everybody provisioned him the whole time.’

This is partly about reciprocity. But it’s also about something deeper. When people are locked in networks of interdependence, they become invested in each other’s welfare. If I rely on three other families to keep me alive and get me food when I cannot, then not only do I want to maintain bonds with them – I also want them to be healthy and strong and capable.

Interdependence might seem enviable. Yet it begets a cruelty often overlooked in talk about primitive communism. When a person goes from a lifeline to a long-term burden, reasons to keep them alive can vanish. In their book Aché Life History (1996), Hill and the anthropologist Ana Magdalena Hurtado listed many Aché people who were killed, abandoned or buried alive: widows, sick people, a blind woman, an infant born too soon, a boy with a paralysed hand, a child who was ‘funny looking’, a girl with bad haemorrhoids. Such opportunism suffuses all social interactions. But it is acute for foragers living at the edge of subsistence, for whom cooperation is essential and wasted efforts can be fatal.

Once that need to survive dissipated, even friends could become disposable

Consider, for example, how the Aché treated orphans. ‘We really hate orphans,’ said an Aché person in 1978. Another Aché person was recorded after seeing jaguar tracks:

    Don’t cry now. Are you crying because you want your mother to die? Do you want to be buried with your dead mother? Do you want to be thrown in the grave with your mother and stepped on until your excrement comes out? Your mother is going to die if you keep crying. When you are an orphan nobody will ever take care of you again.

The Aché had among the highest infanticide and child homicide rates ever reported. Of children born in the forest, 14 per cent of boys and 23 per cent of girls were killed before the age of 10, nearly all of them orphans. An infant who lost their mother during the first year of life was always killed.

(Since acculturation, many Aché have regretted killing children and infants. In Aché Life History, Hill and Hurtado reported an interview with a man who strangled a 13-year-old girl nearly 20 years earlier. He ‘asked for our forgiveness’, they wrote, ‘and acknowledged that he never should have carried out the task and simply “wasn’t thinking”.’)

Hunter-gatherers shared because they had to. They put food into their bandmates’ stomachs because their survival depended on it. But once that need dissipated, even friends could become disposable.

The popularity of the idea of primitive communism, especially in the face of contradictory evidence, tells us something important about why narratives succeed. Primitive communism may misrepresent forager societies. But it is simple, and it accords with widespread beliefs about the arc of human history. If we assume that societies went from small to big, or from egalitarian to despotic, then it makes sense that they transitioned from property-less harmony to selfish competition, too. Even if the facts of primitive communism are off, the story feels right.

More important than its simplicity and narrative resonance, however, is primitive communism’s political expediency. For anyone hoping to critique existing institutions, primitive communism conveniently casts modern society as a perversion of a more prosocial human nature. Yet this storytelling is counterproductive. By drawing a contrast between an angelic past and our greedy present, primitive communism blinds us to the true determinants of trust, freedom and equity. If we want to build better societies, the way forward is neither to live as hunter-gatherers nor to bang the drum of a make-believe state of nature. Rather, it is to work with humans as they are, warts and all."

Singh's article reminded me of a passage about the Kwakiutl from Ruth Benedict's book "Patterns of Culture." Click here to go to a link that has her entire book online. It indicates that they may have had strong property rights

"The tribes of the North-West Coast had great possessions, and these possessions were strictly owned. They were property in the sense of heirlooms, but heirlooms, with them, were the very basis of society. There were two classes of possessions. The land and sea were owned by a group of relatives in common and passed down to all its members. There were no cultivated fields, but the relationship group owned hunting territories, and even wild-berrying and wild-root territories, and no one could trespass upon the property of the family. The family owned fishing territories just as strictly. A local group often had to go great distances to those strips of the shore where they could dig clams, and the shore near their village might be owned by another lineage. These grounds had been held as property so long that the village-sites had changed, but not the ownership of the clam-beds. Not only the shore, but even deep-sea areas were strict property. For halibut fishing the area belonging to a given family was bounded by sighting along double landmarks. The rivers, also, were divided up into owned sections for the candlefish hauls in the spring, and families came from great distances to fish their own section of the river."


Wednesday, August 30, 2023

U.S. second-quarter GDP growth revised lower (from a 2.4% annual rate to a 2.1%)

From Reuters.

That might not seem like a big deal, just 0.3% less than before. In my macro courses we read a chapter in the book The Economics of Macro Issues. The chapter discussed how nations with common law systems, where property rights are better protected than in nations with civil law systems, have higher growth rates. I pointed out to my classes that even a small difference in growth rates ends up causing a very big difference in per capita incomes due to the annual compounding effect.

The table below shows how much per capita income would be at various rates after 100 and 200 years. Assume we start with a per capita income of $1,000. If we grow 2.0% per year, after 100 years it will be $7,245. At 2.1% per year, it would be $7,791 or about $700 more. That is how much that little .1% matters. The difference over 200 years is about $11,000. After 100 years at 2.5% per year, per capita income would be $11,814. That is $4,000 more than the 2.0% rate. Small differences in growth rates add up to big differences over time.

Using the latest GDP figures for another example, if we grow 2.4% a year for the next 30 years, and if per capita GDP now is, say, $76,399, it would reach $155,628. But if it only grows 2.1% for 30 years, per capita GDP would be $142,515. That is about $13,000 less than if we grow 2.4%.  (It was $76,399 in 2022).

Per Capita Income After 100 and 200 Years At Various Annual Growth Rates (Starting With $1,000)

Monday, August 28, 2023

Accommodations for disabled people and Type I & II Errors

When airlines and theme parks make accommodations for disabled people, how do they know who is disabled? Sometimes people fake it. Should these companies crack down hard to make sure no fakes get in (running the risk that some actual disable people don't get the accommodation)? Or, should they not be so strict to make sure no truly disabled people don 't get left out (running the risk that they let some fakes get the accommodation)?

This is where Type I error and Type II errors come in.

I used the book The Economics of Public Issues in my micro classes. Chapter 1 is called "Death by Bureaucrat." It discusses how the Food and Drug Administration can make either a Type I error or a Type II error.

Type I error: The FDA approves a drug before enough testing is done and when people take it, there are harmful side effects.

Type II error: The FDA tests a drug longer than necessary to stay on the safe side. But people might suffer because the drug is not yet available. 80,000 people died waiting for Septra to be approved.

The FDA would usually rather make a Type II error because the public can blame the FDA if a Type I error occurs. But in this case, they wanted to get masks to people quickly. Not enough testing was done.

Something similar is happening with accommodations for disabled people.

See Some Travelers Abused Disability Accommodations. Now Comes the Crackdown.: Theme parks and airlines are turning to third parties to figure out who gets some kinds of assistance. Disabled people and their families say the new processes present new obstacles by Jacob Passy of The WSJ. Excerpts:

"Theme parks, airlines and other businesses are stepping up efforts to weed out abuse by opportunists pretending to be disabled to save money or cut long lines.

Companies looking to stem the abuse increasingly are turning to nonprofits or credentialing agencies to determine who qualifies for exemptions. In July, Universal theme parks in California and Florida began requiring guests with disabilities to register ahead of their visits with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. IBCCES, a for-profit company, also works with Six Flags theme parks across the U.S. and the Sesame Place park near Philadelphia.

Accommodations include front-of-line access or traveling with a service animal. This assistance is critical for disabled people for whom traveling already can be a Herculean task.

Travel companies say the new policies will cut off avenues schemers have used. Still, these policies can create new operational challenges as employees get up to speed. And disabled travelers say they create additional burdens when they travel."

"[one expert] says the documentation requirement could present challenges."

"Travelers say the process isn’t always seamless. Elizabeth Schoen, a Minnesota college student, says she missed a JetBlue flight in March after the carrier denied boarding to her service dog. Schoen is legally blind."

"Disney parks used to let people with disability passes skip standby lines upon request. It overhauled the system about a decade ago following reports that visitors were hiring people with disabilities to get them front-of-line access."

Related posts:

The FDA, Masks and Type I & Type II Errors (2020)

Fraction of Covid-19 Rental Assistance Reaches Tenants and Landlords (follow up to a post on June 11) (2021)

Zombies might return and fighting them is art as well as science (2021)

Friday, August 25, 2023

Being in good physical shape could reduce the risk of nine types of cancer, study finds (or, is taking care of your health an investment in human capital?)

Economists talk about human capital. That is when you learn skills that are valuable in the market place. You train to become a doctor or engineer or accountant. Then you can earn more money.

If you take care of your health (and maybe especially when you are younger) you are investing in your human capital since you will then be able to remain productive for longer and also enjoy the benefits of good health as you age.

People at high fitness levels had an especially sizable reduction in their risk of gastrointestinal cancers, the research showed

By Maia Pandey of NBC. Excerpts:

"A new study adds to the large body of evidence that being in good physical shape can dramatically reduce cancer risk.

The study, published Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that men with high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness in young adulthood had a lower risk of developing nine forms of cancer years later, including in the head and the neck, the lungs, the kidneys and the gastrointestinal system.

The study followed more than 1 million young men in Sweden over an average of 33 years, starting when they took a military fitness test that, until 2010, was legally required at around 18 years old. The researchers then analyzed the rates of cancer diagnoses among the men and compared them to the fitness levels registered on their military tests.

The test involved riding a stationary bike, first at a low resistance level for five minutes, then with an increase in resistance of 25 watts per minute until the test takers were too tired to continue. 

The authors of the new study sorted participants into low, moderate and high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness — a measure of how well one’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems supply oxygen to the muscles — based on their bike test results. They found that the people with high fitness levels had a 19% lower risk of head and neck cancer and a 20% lower risk of kidney cancer compared to the low-fitness group.

The risk of lung cancer, meanwhile, was 42% lower for the fittest participants, though that was explained mainly by people’s smoking habits."

"the risk for high-fitness participants was nearly 40% lower for cancers in the esophagus, the liver, the bile ducts and the gallbladder and about 20% lower for the stomach and the colon."

"a March study involving more than 30 million participants found that just 11 minutes of daily physical activity was linked to lower risk of death from various cancers. And a 2016 analysis found that higher physical activity levels were associated with a reduced risk of developing 13 of 26 cancers studied. Studies have shown that physical activity is linked to a 30% lower risk of death even after colorectal cancer diagnoses"

Related posts:

What if the Most Powerful Way to Live Longer Is Just Exercise? (2023)

Exercise Helps Blunt the Effects of Covid-19, Study Suggests (2023)

Carry Your Groceries, Take the Stairs: Short, Intense Movement Can Improve Your Health (plus non drug ways to fight diabetes and Covid) (2022)

Almost half of cancer deaths globally are attributable to preventable risk factors, new study suggests (2022)

New research leads to doubt over the extent or even existence of the ego‐depletion effect (the theory of the exhaustible willpower muscle) (2019)

How lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of dementia (2019)

Good health begins with individual decisions (2018)

Nearly half of U.S. cancer deaths blamed on unhealthy behavior (2017)

Regular Exercise: Antidote for Deadly Diseases? (2016)

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

“Why did the human stare at the glass of orange juice?” “They were trying to concentrate.”

This reminds me of another joke or pun:

WHAT do you get when you cross a fragrance with an actor?

Answer: a smell Gibson.

The issue is can computers or artificial intelligence (AI) tell jokes and will they replace comedians and comedy writers? This gets at the issue of structural unemployment. One example is when workers are replaced by machines. But sometimes machines or robots complement workers instead of replacing them. Workers are made more productive and the jobs are made easier (some of my related posts listed below discuss this). The NY Times article I link does raise this possibility for comedians and comedy writers.

The joke which is the title of this post was written by AI. It comes from a recent NY Times article (and the Mel Gibson joke comes from a NY Times article in 2013). See In the Battle Between Bots and Comedians, A.I. Is Killing: In roast battles and stage shows, comics are experimenting with ChatGPT and other models. But inspired stand-ups shouldn’t fear for their jobs — yet. by Jason Zinoman of The NY Times. Excerpts:

"His opponent was a ChatGPT-powered version of Sarah Silverman, the comic who, as it happens, had sued the developer behind that chatbot for copyright infringement earlier in the week. On a screen nearby, her head shook back and forth. “Why did the human stare at the glass of orange juice?” it asked in a close approximation of her girlish voice. “They were trying to concentrate.” Then oddly, it proclaimed: “Roasted!”"

"Jimmy Kimmel has told jokes written by ChatGPT on his show in February, and once-cautious computer scientists are now predicting it will only be a matter of years before robots are regularly generating professional comedy."

"It’s worth recalling that in the 1990s, supercomputers lost to chess grandmasters before they started winning. But comedy is not chess. And whether A.I. can intentionally generate truly funny art is as much a philosophical as a technological question."

"Tony Veale, a computer scientist who wrote a book on comedy and A.I., “Your Wit Is My Command,” is impressed with new large-language models’ ability to imitate genre and voice, analyze and generate metaphors, explain itself and even admit mistakes. He’s bullish on computers making professional-level jokes in five years and when asked about originality responded that A.I.’s process isn’t any different from that of young artists. “Many comedians, such as Eddie Murphy and Jerry Seinfeld, trained themselves by repeatedly listening to and repeating Bill Cosby’s early comedy albums,” he wrote in an email. “We all learn from those we aim to emulate and transcend.”"

"On the cutting edge of this work is Joe Toplyn, who studied engineering and edited The Harvard Lampoon before writing jokes for “Late Night With David Letterman,” where he helped come up with the concept of throwing watermelons off a five-story building (a very human idea). Toplyn has created a bot called Witscript that takes a headline or thought and spits out three jokes, then picks the best one.

In a demonstration at a conference last September, he presented two examples of what he considered “human-level” jokes that he claimed would make you chuckle if delivered by a friend. In one, he put in this prompt: “Some casinos are using fine-arts exhibitions to bring in new business” and Witscript responded: “I lost my Monet but gained a Jackson Pollock.” In another, Toplyn typed in “I’m thinking about growing a mustache” and the punchline was: “Tom Selleck called — he wants his look back.”"

"Comics have always been quicker than other artists to experiment with technology — Whitney Cummings had an eerie robot version of herself tell jokes on a Netflix special in 2019 — and most of the half dozen or so I talked to who did use some form of A.I. to make jokes seemed underwhelmed. Bill Oakley is a veteran of “The Simpsons” who, along with Josh Weinstein, produced many classic episodes, including “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” He asked a bot to write an episode in their style. The result, about a bees infestation, was “on the level of a seventh-grade fan,” he said."

"In media and culture today, a greater premium is placed on producing work quickly and in volume, an approach that already benefits computers more than humans."

"Toplyn was part of this wave, publishing a book on how to write late-night jokes. He broke down monologues, desk pieces and parodies with practical theories on how they work. And he used these conclusions to train his bot."

"In an introduction to a new book of poems produced by A.I., “I Am Code,” the poet Eileen Myles is shown the work and finds it badly derivative."

"Rigid characters trying and failing to escape their mechanistic situation is classically funny. (Think of Charlie Chaplin trapped in the gears or Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory.) Henri Bergson, one of the first great modern philosophers of humor, who was wise enough to reject “imprisoning the comic spirit in a definition,” saw comedy as a corrective to Industrial Age automatism. He believed that we laughed as a response to people acting like machines."

"Artificial intelligence can come up with jokes, but it can require emotional intelligence to make them work. What makes people crack up is not just the joke but also the connection with a human consciousness telling it."

"Human creativity, he (movie director Jason Woliner) believes, is not replaceable, but it is able to integrate this new technology in exciting, creative ways. With Dale (a crude cowboy robot named Dale using speech-synthesis software and ChatGPT), he found a “a new tone” to play with and plans to continue to work with it."

"The conversation about A.I. today gravitates toward doomsday scenarios, but consider the utopian outcome, that bots don’t replace comics but become useful tools."

"Competition from increasingly clever computer programs will force artists to not only rely more on intuition than imitation, but also to think harder about what makes them, and their work, distinctly human."

Related posts:
Rent a robot for Christmas? Makes sense if you are a logistics company (2022)

Walgreens Turns to Prescription-Filling Robots to Free Up Pharmacists (2022)

Answering the Call of Automation: How the Labor Market Adjusted to the Mechanization of Telephone Operation (2022)

Many Jobs Lost During the Coronavirus Pandemic Just Aren’t Coming Back (2021)

Can computers write poetry?Could they replace poets? (2020)

Will computer programs replace newspaper columnists?  (2020)

McDonald’s Tests Robot Fryers and Voice-Activated Drive-Throughs: Burger giant wants to speed service as competition for fast-food diners mounts (2019)

Is Walmart adding robots to replace workers or because it is hard to find workers? (2019)

Robot Journalists-A Case Of Structural Unemployment? (2010)

Structural Unemployment In The News-Computers Can Now Tell Jokes  (2013)

WHAT do you get when you cross a fragrance with an actor?

Answer: a smell Gibson.

Robot jockeys in camel races (2014)

Are Computer Programs Replacing Journalists? (2015)

Automation Can Actually Create More Jobs  (2016)

The Robots Are Coming And It Might Not Be A Case of Structural Unemployment  (2018)

Broncos to debut beer-pouring robot at upcoming game (2018)

Robots Are Ready to Shake (and Stir) Up Bars (2018)

Is Covid causing some structural unemployment? (2020)

Is Covid causing some structural unemployment? (Part 2)

Warehouses Look to Robots to Fill Labor Gaps, Speed Deliveries  (2021)

Is unemployment still high because of structural unemployment?    (2021)

The Pizza Delivery Guy Will Be a Robot at Many Campuses This Fall  (2021)

Monday, August 21, 2023

University of Chicago Agrees to $13.5 Million Settlement in Financial Aid Antitrust Case

School is one of 17 accused of colluding to limit financial aid and drive up tuition prices

By Melissa Korn of The WSJ. Excerpts:

"The University of Chicago has agreed to pay $13.5 million to settle a lawsuit in which it was accused of illegally colluding with other top universities to limit financial aid to students, making it the first defendant in the case to settle, according to a court filing Monday. 

The lawsuit, filed in Illinois federal court in January 2022, accuses 17 colleges and universities, including most members of the Ivy League, Duke University, Vanderbilt University and the California Institute of Technology, of engaging in price fixing by using a shared methodology to calculate applicants’ financial need. 

Under a decades-old federal antitrust exemption that expired in the fall, schools were allowed to collaborate on their aid formulas, but only if they didn’t consider applicants’ financial circumstances in their admission decisions. The suit alleged that these schools do weigh applicants’ ability to pay in certain circumstances, including by giving an edge to children of wealthy donors or when considering who to admit from wait lists. As a result, the suit says, the schools shouldn’t have been eligible for the antitrust exemption."

"The other 16 schools continue to deny the allegations in court. The schools moved to have the lawsuit dismissed last year. The University of Chicago agreed in the settlement to provide documents to the plaintiffs and detailed information about the school’s financial aid practices and those of other schools named as defendants."

See also MIT charged, along with other universities, in federal lawsuit for illegally limiting student financial aid awards: Defendant universities are alleged to have made admissions decisions without being fully need-blind by Kristina Chen of The Tech from January, 2022. Excerpt:

"The suit resembles a civil antitrust case in 1991 in which MIT and the eight Ivy League universities were charged with violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by working together to limit price competition on financial aid to prospective students. 

In that case, the Ivy League schools signed a consent decree, agreeing to not collaborate on financial aid. MIT refused to sign the decree and instead participated in another federal trial. As a result of the trial, the U.S. Department of Justice dismissed the case against MIT and established new guidelines for non-profit universities to cooperate on need-based financial aid, which Section 568 was modeled after."

Related posts:

Threat of anti-trust investigation leads colleges to compete more for students (2019) 

Lawsuit Says 16 Elite Colleges Are Part of Price-Fixing Cartel (2022)

Friday, August 18, 2023

Drought Forces Spain to Source Drinking Water From the Sea

Mediterranean region is becoming warmer and drier more quickly than most places, prompting a costly revamp of infrastructure

By Margherita Stancati of The WSJ

I used to use the book "The Economics of Public Issues" as supplemental text when I taught. One chapter was called "Are We Running Out of Water?" One thing they point out about water is that 

"water is no different than any other scarce good. If we want more of it, we must sacrifice more of other things to achieve that goal."

This article seems to be an example of that. Excerpts:

"Fill a glass with tap water in Barcelona these days and one-fifth of it will be processed seawater. Another fifth will be treated wastewater derived from toilets, showers and other urban uses.

This mix is emerging as the drinking water of the future in Mediterranean countries. The region is becoming warmer and drier more quickly than most places on Earth, forcing people and governments to act faster here than elsewhere to find new freshwater supplies."

"For many years after Barcelona’s Llobregat desalination plant opened in 2009, it was little used, contributing less than 5% of the city’s drinking water, which is mostly supplied by reservoirs and groundwater. Since last summer, the plant has worked at full throttle, producing over 500 gallons of fresh water per second."

"In countries around the Mediterranean Sea, recurrent droughts and dwindling flows of water from mountains into rivers are leading to a re-engineering of the water infrastructure. Farmers are digging more and deeper wells, and often switching to crops that need less water. Governments from Spain to Israel to Algeria are investing massively in desalination plants and looking for supplies of fresh water farther afield.

In the Italian region of Puglia, local authorities want to build a €1 billion, 100-kilometer underwater pipeline—not to carry oil or natural gas but drinking water."

"Puglia has no major rivers or snow-capped mountains. For now, the region is making the most of the little water it has. Local authorities are spending some €1.7 billion, equivalent to $1.9 billion, to repair and replace leaky water pipes, through which some 48% of drinking water there is lost."

"There are downsides to desalination. Turning seawater into drinking water is an energy-intensive process, which makes desalination both costly and bad for the environment. The super-salty brine that is left over is harmful to the ocean’s ecosystem.

Spain is betting heavily on the technology."

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Adam Smith Meets Jonathan Haidt (on political polarization and the animosity of hostile factions)

Jonathan Haidt wrote the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. It is about how polarized and nasty our politics have become, how everyone loves to demonize and ridicule anyone from a different political party. But these are things that Adam Smith talked about in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I will have an excerpt from that at the end of the post.

Haidt is also concerned about how politically biased higher education has become, with the vast majority of professors being liberal, especially in the social sciences and humanities. So he and some other professors have founded the Heterodox Academy. Here is what they are about:

"We are a politically diverse group of social scientists, natural scientists, humanists, and other scholars who want to improve our academic disciplines and universities.

We share a concern about a growing problem: the loss or lack of “viewpoint diversity.” When nearly everyone in a field shares the same political orientation, certain ideas become orthodoxy, dissent is discouraged, and errors can go unchallenged.

To reverse this process, we have come together to advocate for a more intellectually diverse and heterodox academy."
The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article in 2017 titled  Can Jonathan Haidt Calm the Culture Wars? You might have to be a subscriber to read it. Excerpts:
""The extremes, the far left and the far right, are being" — Haidt pauses a beat — "well, I’d say bizarre and crazy, but first, that would be a microaggression" — a roar of laughter from the audience — "and second, it would not be true. What’s happening isn’t crazy. It’s straight moral psychology.""

[Haidt] "explains what he calls "the new moral culture spreading on many college campuses." It is a culture, he says, that values victims, prioritizes emotional safety, silences dissent, and distorts scholarship. It is a culture that undermines the university’s traditional mission to pursue truth"veritas" is right there on the seals of Harvard and Yale — in favor of a new mission: the pursuit of social justice. It is a culture that Haidt believes is fueled by three factors: political polarization, the rise of social media, and a lack of ideological diversity in the professoriate."

"Today, however, precious few conservatives are in psychology departments. "If you say something pleasing to the left about race, gender, immigration, or any other issue, it’s likely to get waved through to publication," says Haidt. "People won’t ask hard questions. They like it. They want to believe it." This represents "a real research-legitimacy problem in the social sciences.""

"His critics, of whom there are many, see his efforts to shift the conversation about diversity away from race and gender and toward politics as at best obtuse and at worst hostile. They say his absolutist stance on free speech is at odds with the need for a diverse and inclusive university. They say he lends a social-scientific sheen to old conservative arguments. They say his penchant for skewering the left, coupled with his willingness to engage the right, is suspect and creates confusion about where his sympathies actually lie. They say he’s either a closet conservative or a useful idiot for the right.

Haidt acknowledges that, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, he risks sounding like a guy in Berlin in 1933 insisting that wisdom is to be found on both sides of the political spectrum. "The election has ramped up emotions so strongly that any effort to say, ‘You really need to have more conservatives in the university, and you need to listen to them’ strikes some people as immoral." On the other hand, he says, the election has forced a reckoning. More academics are saying, "Wow, we really are in a bubble. We must get out of this bubble.""

"On the left in the early 2000s, he grew frustrated by what he saw as the failure of Al Gore and John Kerry to speak to voters’ moral concerns. Haidt shifted his research focus to political psychology and immersed himself in conservative media, subscribing to National Review and watching Fox News. "My reaction was constantly like, ‘Oh, I never thought of that. Oh, that’s a good critique,’ " he says. "The scales were falling from my eyes." He’s since carefully positioned himself as a centrist, a neutral broker who speaks with all sides."

"Some liberal professors fear giving even inadvertent comfort to the right, especially with Trump in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress. Others, he argues, are intimidated by the bullying tactics of the far left.

That diagnosis rings true to David Bromwich, a professor of English at Yale. His 1992 book about the campus culture wars, Politics by Other Means (Yale University Press), is a withering assault on both traditionalists of the right and thought-policers of the left. (As John Silber wrote in a review, the book might have been called A Plague on Both Your Houses.) Asked how the current mood on elite campuses compares with that time, Bromwich says it’s at least as bad. "There is a horror of being associated with anything or anyone conservative," he says, calling it "a mark of the timidity of the academic personality in our time. It leads to a great deal of conformity, small acts of cowardice, and the voluntary self-suppression of ideas.""

"It’s human nature to make things sacred — people, places, books, ideas, Haidt says. "So what’s sacred at a university?" he asks. "Victims are sacred," he answers. And a victimhood culture offers only two ways to get prestige: Be a victim, or, if you can’t manage that, stand up for victims. How? "By punishing the hell out of anyone who in any way, shape, or form, even inadvertently, marginalizes a member of a victim class.""

""I’m very alarmed by the decline of our democracy." He grabs a stack of four books from beside his keyboard. The spines read like a map of his anxious mind: The Authoritarian Dynamic, The Federalist Papers, Rude Democracy, Why Nations Fail. He is especially worried about how social media deepen our political divisions. "We are all immersed in a river of outrage, drowning in videos of the other side at its worst," he says"
Here is the passage from Adam Smith:
"The animosity of hostile factions, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is often still more furious than that of hostile nations; and their conduct towards one another is often still more atrocious. What may be called the laws of faction have often been laid down by grave authors with still less regard to the rules of justice than what are called the laws of nations. The most ferocious patriot never stated it as a serious question, Whether faith ought to be kept with public enemies?—Whether faith ought to be kept with rebels? Whether faith ought to be kept with heretics? are questions which have been often furiously agitated by celebrated doctors both civil and ecclesiastical. It is needless to observe, I presume, that both rebels and heretics are those unlucky persons, who, when things have come to a certain degree of violence, have the misfortune to be of the weaker party. In a nation distracted by faction, there are, no doubt, always a few, though commonly but a very few, who preserve their judgment untainted by the general contagion. They seldom amount to more than, here and there, a solitary individual, without any influence, excluded, by his own candour, from the confidence of either party, and who, though he may be one of the wisest, is necessarily, upon that very account, one of the most insignificant men in the society. All such people are held in contempt and derision, frequently in detestation, by the furious zealots of both parties. A true party-man hates and despises candour; and, in reality, there is no vice which could so effectually disqualify him for the trade of a party-man as that single virtue. The real, revered, and impartial spectator, therefore, is, upon no occasion, at a greater distance than amidst the violence and rage of contending parties. To them, it may be said, that such a spectator scarce exists any where in the universe. Even to the great Judge of the universe, they impute all their own prejudices, and often view that Divine Being as animated by all their own vindictive and implacable passions. Of all the corrupters of moral sentiments, therefore, faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest."

Monday, August 14, 2023

Life is full of tradeoffs: we can preserve more natural & cultural treasures by giving up uranium that promotes cleaner energy & less energy dependence

See Biden Designates New National Monument to Protect Land Near Grand Canyon: The mining industry and local Republican officials have opposed the move by Talal Ansari of The WSJ. Excerpt:

"President Biden designated a new national monument that would protect lands near the Grand Canyon, a move that has been opposed by the mining industry. 

The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in northern Arizona covers more than 900,000 acres of public land. Biden, who is in Arizona as part of a three-state tour, designated the monument on Tuesday in an announcement near the Grand Canyon. 

Biden has designated five national monuments, including the Grand Canyon one, as part of his administration’s conservation efforts. Several tribes have long sought permanent protection of their ancestral homelands in the Grand Canyon region, as have environmentalists. The mining industry has opposed curtailing access to uranium deposits in the area, arguing it will undermine the effort to produce more energy in the U.S. and increase dependence on Russia for the critical nuclear-power fuel."

Related posts:

Life is full of tradeoffs: More Renewable Diesel Might Mean Higher Food Prices (2023) 

Life is full of tradeoffs: More wind power might mean more light pollution & noise (2023)

Life is full of tradeoffs, west Texas wind power vs. the Air Force, landowners, ecotourists, astronomers, archeologists and conservationists (2023)

Tradeoffs and anti-trust policy (2019) 

More Proof That Tradeoffs Are Everywhere: Blind People Don't Like The New, Quiet Hybrid Cars (2007)

Solar Power’s Land Grab Hits a Snag: Environmentalists: Mojave Desert residents say they support clean energy, but not giant projects, citing threat to tortoises and views (2021)

The Recession Cleaned The Air, Another Example Of How Life Is Full Of Tradeoffs (2011)

Life is full of tradeoffs, the case of federal renters assistance (2021)

Environmentalists vs. . . . other environmentalists? Or, are birds more important than clean, cheap energy? (2007)

Tradeoffs: More Goods And Services Might Mean Less Clean Air (2013)

Life Is Full Of Tradeoffs: If We Want To Do More To Fight Climate Change We May Have To Lower Tariffs On Solar Panels Which Might Put U.S. Firms Out Of Business (2021)

Life is full of tradeoffs, wind power vs. fishing edition (2022)

Life is full of tradeoffs, reducing animal cruelty vs. increasing worker safety (2022)

Life is full of tradeoffs: If we want more historic preservation we might have to give up some solar panels (2022)
Life is full of tradeoffs: We can have more bison or we can preserve archaeological sites (2022)

Life is full of tradeoffs: Adding geothermal power could hurt the environment (2022)

Life is full of tradeoffs: sustainability vs. competition edition (2022)

Life is full of tradeoffs: more houses to help the homeless vs. more trees (2023)

Life is full of tradeoffs: if we want more graphite for car batteries we might get more emissions in making it or raise humanitarian concerns (2023)

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Supply, demand and the price of bacon

See California Law Threatens to Help Drive Up Bacon Prices: Wholesale pork-belly prices nearly triple as the state’s animal-welfare measure takes effect by Kirk Maltais of The WSJ. 

It looks like a new regulation is the initial cause of this price increase. Regulations increase the cost of production, which reduces supply (a leftward shift). That would raise prices. Since buyers expected the price to increase once the regulations went into effect demand increased first which then increased price anyway. But this is one of the shift factors we talk about in principles, expectation of future price.


"Helping drive the price surge is an animal-welfare law in California requiring pigs to be given at least 24 square feet of pen space for their meat to be sold in the state, which accounts for roughly 15% of U.S. pork consumption. After facing years of legal challenges, Proposition 12 was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May and went into effect July 1.

Pork producers initially held off on buying new products after the Supreme Court ruling because they were unsure about how the law would be implemented. “You had processors that didn’t want to buy products for their freezers if it wasn’t Prop 12 compliant,” said Adam Samuelson, an agribusiness analyst with Goldman Sachs. 

Then in June, California struck a deal with pork producers allowing them to sell their pre-existing inventory for the remainder of the year. Prices subsequently charged higher as buyers rushed to load up on supplies before the law came into full effect." 

"How bacon prices change in coming months as a result of Prop 12 is still to be determined. Most of the pork produced in the U.S. isn’t currently compliant with the law, and some suppliers might opt to stop selling in California rather than change their practices. That could drive up retail prices in the state, while pushing them down in the rest of the country where supply would increase, analysts say."

Thursday, August 10, 2023

The Seasonally Adjusted CPI Was up 0.17% in July & 3.3% over the last 12 months

See Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items in U.S. City Average from FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data) compiled by the Research Division at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis for data on the seasonally adjusted CPI.

That site shows a graph but if you click on the Download button you will get the actual numbers in Microsoft Excel.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items in U.S. City Average (CPIAUCSL) was 304.348 in July and 303.841 in June. Since 304.348/303.841 = 1.0017 (which, I guess, rounds off to 1.002), that means it was up 0.17% in July (media reports might say 0.20% due to rounding). If we had that every month for 12 months it would be up just 2.02%.

It was 294.628 in July 2022. Since 304.348/294.628 = 1.033, that means it was up 3.3% over the last 12 months.

The non-seasonally adjusted CPI was 305.691 in July and 296.276 in July 2022. That was up 3.2% also since 305.691/296.276 = 1.032. So pretty close to the seasonally adjusted CPI. This is still above the Fed's target of 2.0% (although they prefer to use the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index).

The percentage of 25-54 year-olds employed rose from 80.0% in June 2022 to 80.9% in July 2023. So it is good to see the employment picture improving at the same time the inflation news is getting better.  

The table below shows the percentage increase in seasonally adjusted CPI over the previous 12 months. For example, it was just 1.39% higher in January 2021 than it was in January 2020. But in June 2022 it was 8.93% higher than it was in June 2021. There is some good news since this 12 month rate has been falling.
























































































































For more information, see Inflation rises for the first time in 12 months—but it’s not as bad as it looks by Mike Winters of CNBC. Excerpts:

"After a year of monthly declines, the year-over-year inflation rate has risen from 3% to 3.2%, still well above the Federal Reserve’s target of 2%, according to the Labor Bureau’s latest consumer index report.

However, the data is not as scary as that might sound.

The increase is partly due to the way energy costs are accounted for in the report, as year-over-year inflation no longer reflects the dramatic climb down from peak prices in June 2022, when average gas prices hit $5 per gallon.

While rising oil prices are an ever-present concern, recent energy price increases have been “amplified in the year-over-year inflation numbers,” says Kurt Rankin, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group.

Similarly, housing costs have cooled in 2023, but there’s a months-long lag in the way data is represented in Labor Bureau reports. Moderating prices for houses and rent are expected to help lower core inflation in future CPI reports, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

To get a better sense of where inflation is headed, the Federal Reserve looks to core inflation, which measures the price of all goods and services excluding volatile food and energy prices.

Core inflation continued to cool by 0.2%, as it did in June, after six months of increases closer to 0.4%."

Other related links:

Consumer Price Index Data from 1913 to 2023

Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index

Click here to see the BLS data on The Percentage Of 25-54 Year-Olds Employed 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics makes seasonal adjustments. See Consumer Price Index Summary.