This oddly specific world bank report (ht: CGD) reminded me of my experience as a freight forwarder in New York. One of the tasks I was responsible for was shipping school buses to West Africa. African businessmen would buy cheap old school buses at auctions on the east coast of the United States. The businessmen would hire us to find someone to drive them to a port, and ship them off to the relevant African port.
I remember one shipment in particular. I was shipping some buses to Congo-Kinshasa. First the buses were to arrive in (say) Italy, then to be shipped to (say) Cote D'Ivoire on a different ship, and then on to Nigeria on another ship, and so on, following a complicated path ending at Boma, Congo. This sort of circuitous shipment is common in that part of the world. Anyway, once the buses shipped out, I prepared the documents, sent them off to my client in the Congo, and forgot about the shipment.
Six-weeks later, my client called me demanding to know where the buses were. After some detective work including a bunch of long distance phone calls to exotic locales, I found out the buses were sitting in port at Pointe-Noire in Congo-Brazzaville. They had been sitting there for two weeks, and had missed several ships to Boma. I called Pointe-Noire several times with a horrible phone connection, but I couldn't figure out why the buses were not shipping. This was extremely frustrating, given the proximity of Boma and Pointe-Noire. The buses made it half-way around the world, and then got stuck right next to where they were supposed to go.
Weeks later the buses did ship, and the client received them in good condition. Who knows what sort of bribes my client ended up paying. The last thing I remember about that file was that at some point I suggested that my client just drive to Pointe-Noire and pick up the buses himself. He told me that if he tried to drive on the roads in that area, he would probably be shot and the buses stolen.
This evening I finally got around to watching this award winning documentary. The film is way too Michael Moore for me. The hallmark of this type of film making is the "gotcha" moment. For example, Inside Job shows clips of government/industry officials making incorrect predictions, repeatedly uses footage from a congressional hearing in which legislators sputter angrily at the heads of the big investment banks, and edits interviews with Wall Street's defenders to make them look bad. I find this style of argument insulting to my intelligence. There are two sides to every story, and I feel like I am not hearing the other side.
I actually agree with most of the points the documentary is trying to get across. Investment banks betting against the same assets they are selling to clients is highly questionable business practice. Economists should reveal funding sources or conflicts of interest in published papers. The incentives of the financial industry cause managers to take overly risky bets, and the financial industry has a cozy relationship with the government. I just do not need to have the argument shoved down my throat. The truth is on the film's side. All it needed to do is let the facts speak. I wish Inside Jobs had been more Frontline--present the facts, and let me decide.
The New York Times is holding a contest for a 600-word ethical defense of meat eating. (ht: Kevin Hurley) As you may know, I am a vegetarian, but for fun I am going to submit a statement anyway. Here is my first draft. Please poke holes in the comments.
IS it ethical to eat meat? First let us cut this whale of a question down to a more bite-size morsel. I doubt that anyone would disagree that eating meat is ethical in some extreme situations--suppose that you were stranded in a lifeboat and you needed to kill a fish to feed a starving child. Likewise, it would be hard to defend the practice of cutting pieces off of a live pig to eat in front of the wounded animal. Let's specialize the question to more common situations. In particular, I choose what I think is the easiest position to defend--regularly hunting and eating fish for consumption.
This position is relatively easy to defend because wild animals exist whether humans kill and eat them or not. Wild animals rarely die of old age. They starve or are eaten by predators. Even if an animal dies of illness or infection, it will meet a painful end as scavengers begin feeding while their victim is still alive. If a human kills a wild animal, the end may still be painful. The point is that the animal was going to die painfully anyway. The relevant question is about how much longer the animal would have lived, and weighing the pleasure gained from these extra days or weeks against the pleasure that a human receives from consuming the animal. In the case of fish, I can see how the pleasure a human gets from eating a fish may outweigh the additional pleasure (or displeasure!) a fish gets from living a short time longer.
People often choose to be vegetarian because eating meat is bad for the environment. This is not the place for a discussion of what sorts of meat farming are sustainable. Instead, let us grant the premise that eating meat harms the environment. Is it unethical to benefit oneself at the cost of harming the environment? Not necessarily. The cost of a poor environment is borne by everyone, including future people, but the beneficiary of meat eating is a single person. The costs of eating meat are not fully paid by the individual doing the eating. In economics, this is known as an externality. It is unethical to substantially harm others in order to benefit oneself a small amount. However, as long as the meat eater compensates everyone else for the marginal impact his meat eating has on the environment, then meat eating is not unethical due to its environmental impact. Externalities are often corrected using taxes, and I can easily imagine a meat tax functioning like current taxes on tobacco products.
To sum up, I have defended two positions. Eating wild fish is ethical because additional time alive is not worth much to fish, some people get substantial pleasure from eating fish, and fish die painfully whether or not they are killed by humans. Eating meat is unethical if people harmed by its adverse effect on the environment are not compensated. If these people are compensated, however, eating meat is ethical.
I have been mulling over schadenfreude for a while now. Introspection leads me to believe that schadenfreude--pleasure resulting from the suffering of others--is something that humans feel. Apparently psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for some time. They even have a theory about why humans feel it: social comparison theory.
What if some people have especially strong schadenfreude, i.e. they really get a lot of pleasure from seeing others justly suffer? Economists like the idea of Pareto efficiency, but people with strong schadenfreude make mutually beneficial trade impossible. If anyone is better off, then the strong schadenfreude people are much worse off. Moreover, these people can greatly improve their own well-being by making others miserable.
Schadenfreude imposes a negative externality on society. A pigovian tax (that fully compensates the victims of schadenfreude) would cause people to totally lose the benefit they received from hurting others, plus these people would be paying a tax which would further reduce their welfare. On the face of it, the best tax would be any prohibitively high one (prison?).
Somewhere in there there is a research topic--I just have to pick through it a little bit more.
"U: Well, what do you think: We can bury her or burn her?
M: Well, um, which would you recommend?
U: Well they're both nasty. If we burn her, she gets stuffed in the flames, crackle, crackle, crackle, which is a bit of a shock if she's not quite dead. But quick. And then we give you a handful of the ashes, which you can pretend were hers.
M: (timidly) Oh.
U: Or, if we bury her she gets eaten up lots of weevils and nasty maggots, which as I said before is a bit of a shock if she's not quite dead." -Monty Python
Google News pointed me to a thought-provoking Wall Street Journal editorial arguing against organ donation. The editorial argues that legal brain death may not be the same as "actual" death in relevant ways. First, the standard brain death tests check for activity in the stem, but don't look for higher-level brain cortex activity. It may be possible to have higher level brain waves even if the stem is not functioning. Second, the body may exhibit reactions to the organ removal process such as high blood pressure or elevated heart rate. My take is that the editorial wants to imply that the first point means a brain dead body may still be thinking, and the second means that a brain dead body may still feel pain.
I have been a proponent of organ donation, so after reading the article I wanted to make at least a mental rebuttal to the editorial. My first stop was the wikipedia page on brain death. Traditionally, medicine considered someone dead when certain physical processes like breathing and the heartbeat stopped. By the 1960's, however, doctors were able to revive people whose hearts had stopped, and keep biological processes functioning in bodies with non-functional brains. The old criteria for death were no longer applicable, so a new measure was invented: brain death.
The current criteria applicable in most US states is called the Uniform Determination of Death Act. The complete act is only five sentences long, and the first sentence reads:
"An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead."
I don't think that the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial would disagree with this part. If the entire brain has irreversibly ceased to function, then organ donation has no cost to the dead person and a large benefit to others. The issue is presumably related to sentence two:
"A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards."
The editorial author believes that the current medical tests are not thorough enough. A quick glance at recent neurology papers belies this opinion. Not surprisingly, the medical community is very worried about false brain death positives. This recent article in neurology reviews the literature from 1995 to the present, and finds that no one declared brain dead (using some criteria established in 1995) has ever been reported to regain neurological function. A casual reading of the article recommended procedure for establishing brain death convinced me that standard determination is very careful.
The last point I want to make is that there is a trade-off between establishing that someone is truly brain dead, and the urgent need for an organ donation. If there is a one in a billion chance that you will regain some neurological function, versus several people that will likely significantly extend their lives with your organs, it would still be ethical to donate.
There is a certain metaphysical point of view, which I associate with Derek Parfit, which holds that you are not the same person as future you. If people are the same as their future selves, the argument goes, then why do current people discount the future-- they procrastinate and reschedule painful appointments for the more distant future.
Suppose that you agree that a person is not the same as his future self. Then should it be illegal for the current person to behave in ways that benefit themselves at the expense of their future selves? Think cigarette smoking. There is an externality argument to be made for taxing cigarettes. If someone else is smoking in the bar I am at, it is bad for my health, and I should be compensated for the additional risk I am taking on. Some of the legislation seems to go beyond this, however. On NPR today I heard a report about legislation aimed at preventing cigarette companies from marketing to children. If someone, say a young adult, chooses to smoke at home, who are they harming? The answer is their future selves. If you agree with the metaphysical position above, then maybe you think that government is correct in correcting a market failure--the harm current people are doing to future people.
Recently AidSpeak wrote a meditation on what the poor deserve (ht: Good Intentions). The point is that your view on how deserving the poor are comes down to why you think the poor are poor. Are the poor themselves at fault? AidSpeak not surprisingly believes "that the poor deserve the best we’re capable of, if for no other reason than simply by virtue of their humanity."
The post reminded me of a point from the Peter Singer book "How are we to live?". I read the book last summer, and I just picked it up from the library to skim it again. If I remember correctly, Singer considers the question of what the poor deserve, but ultimately sidesteps it. As long as your beliefs are not extreme, you probably should be paying more attention and doing more towards helping those in extreme poverty. More on this once I have finished reviewing the book.
Bryan Caplan also frequently posts on this topic. His view is that the deserving poor are those that are poor through no fault of their own. Examples are neglected children and would-be immigrants. Undeserving poor are those who have access to low-paying unpleasant jobs and do not take them. In practice, it can be hard to tell the difference. One problem with this method of separating the poor is that it is hard to imagine that anyone couldn't have exited poverty if they had been in the right place at the right time (buying the right lottery ticket, for example). Is not being in the right place at the right time someone's fault? I don't want to put words in Bryan's mouth, but my impression is that deep down what Bryan cares about is effort. The deserving poor are those who try hard to escape poverty, but are unable to.
In the end, this whole topic is Rawlsian. Suppose that everyone is doing the best for themselves, given things like how conscientious they are and how much support they received from their families. Someone like Bryan Caplan is successful because he is intelligent and working hard is relatively painless for him. Should we condemn as undeserving someone less intelligent who finds working more painful, if these personality traits are largely endowed and not chosen (Bryan also believes that parenting has very little direct effect on children's adult personalities--its all genes and environment, neither of which are chosen by children). How does Bryan reconcile these two positions?
I'm personally attracted to the veil of ignorance position. A sophisticated take on this view would acknowledge that subsidies affect incentives. If a society was to implement the (fair) "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" system, the only way to provide enough for everybody would be coercion. In the United States, I think it is fair to ask how close we are to the optimal veil of ignorance allocation. I suspect that much more redistribution is required. Thinking about the whole world, the distribution of wealth and health is scandalous.
Scientists and Canadians are perennially heckling us Americans about the English measurement system. This is nothing more than base 10 snobbery. We Americans prefer base 2, the most parsimonious number base and the language of computers. Behold the beautiful base 2 English system, and the ugly metric system. I am proud to use measurements that aren't based on the number of toes I happen to possess. (source: wikipedia)
“People say, 'I'm going to sleep now,' as if it were nothing. But it's really a bizarre activity. 'For the next several hours, while the sun is gone, I'm going to become unconscious, temporarily losing command over everything I know and understand. When the sun returns, I will resume my life.'"
There are a lot of things that, like sleep, seem weirder the more you think about them. Today Robin Hanson posted about trees. Why are trees so chaotically shaped? Why do they let any sunlight pass by them at all? Why are they supported by a single trunk? I am sure that there is some evolutionary arborist out there who can provide some insight.
I have mentioned before on this blog that the existence of firms is weird. Right-wingers in the United States (stereotypically) both love the free market and also support pro-business legislation. If you think about it, though, the market ends in the lobby of the firm. Within a firm is a command economy in which employees are directed to do different tasks by managers, and which are in turn directed by bigger managers all the way up to the CEO or board. Employees create output which is incrementally passed around to other employees (not bought or sold for a price) until a final product is delivered to buyers outside the firm. Each firm is a mini Soviet Union, with planners at the top allocating resources below based on their judgement about which department will need what and when. This can be a difficult task. My brother-in-law works for a large company as a controller. He flies around the country evaluating how much money to budget for various factories and branches. Presumably he reports to even higher level management who make an ultimate decision.
On an unrelated strange note, most employees have no contract with the firm--they just show up to work everyday, do a bunch of things, and then a paycheck arrives once a month. There is an excellent wikipedia article about why firms exist here.
A classmate and I were discussing how easy it is to gain administrator rights to most peoples' computers simply by booting their computers in linux using a flash disk (note: it is easy to prevent this by putting a password on the computer's bios--do this now if you have any sensitive information on your hard drive!). We agreed that it is a smart move to encrypt your hard drive, and my classmate told me about plausible deniability encryption, or steganography. With traditional encryption, it is hard to access encrypted information without a password, but it is easy to tell how much encrypted information is present. This makes the information vulnerable to rubber hose attacks, or coercing someone who knows the password to give it up. The idea behind plausible deniability is that there are multiple levels of encrypted data making it very difficult to tell how much encrypted information is actually present without knowing passwords. The idea is that whistle blowers can protect themselves if they are detained by claiming that there are only n levels of encrypted data, when there are actually n+k levels.
The best part is that there is a free, fairly easy to implement steganography program for linux called phonebook. I am going to try installing this on my test machine at home. All I need is some sensitive information to justify using the software--anybody have some for me?