I have been in Washington DC for the last couple of days attending an orientation for an NSF fellowship. The fellowship is for American students working in the sciences. Less than 10% of the group of 200 or so are social scientists. The rest do hard science. I must say it is a little intimidating--they are studying things like nanoparticle electrophoresis and the selection pressures behind insect morphology. I study conspicuous consumption.
Chatting with these hard science people, I realized that they face similar issues to those we talk about in economics. They just call them different names. For instance, hard scientists talk about physical models vs. statistical models. Physical models are based on deep physical theory--conservation of mass, conservation of energy. Statistical models are not tied to any deep theory. They are trained on data to make accurate predictions--a neural network is one example. Compare physical models to structural models in economics and statistical models to reduced form models. Structural models are based on deep assumptions about human decision making, while reduced form models are more concerned with patterns in data--see the microfoundations debate a few weeks ago.
One of the first things we did in this orientation was to dejargonify our project titles. Most of the titles, mine included, went from being totally incomprehensible to someone outside the field to being more or less understandable to an educated non-scientist. I can see that using jargon helps succinctly express complicated ideas to the initiated, but the cost is making your work incomprehensible to lay people. Maybe that is the point.
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.
This semester I attended a couple of lectures given by Dr. Andrei Vavilov, an expert in the Russian natural gas industry. A major theme has been that due to contracting problems, a classic hold-up scenario, and the inability of politicians to negotiate, a bunch of unnecessary natural gas pipelines are being built. Mainly these pipelines are designed to put as few national borders as possible between Russian natural gas fields and the lucrative Western European market. Natural gas pipelines cost about 8 billion dollars per 1000 km. This is a huge waste of resources.
There are three current projects that fit this bill:
The Nord-Stream project is set to be completed in 2012, and the South Stream project by 2015. The Nabucco Pipeline may or may not be built, but if it goes ahead it is planned to be operational by 2017.
Taking the upper bounds on the prices, we get 70 billion dollars. To put that in perspective, if it was divided evenly among all American, it would be 233 dollars a head. 70 billion dollars is enough to pay for a year of the war in Afghanistan.
The building of these excess pipelines is deadweight loss, and reflects pretty poorly on the governments involved in the negotiations. It is surprising more people haven't heard about this.
Last night I watched this old bloggingheads discussion between Peter Singer and Tyler Cowen. The interview was mostly Tyler asking Peter tough questions about his positions on a number of issues. The one I want to focus on here is the question of eating fish. Some vegetarian bloggers have claimed the debate was about whether fish suffer. I don't think this is correct. Tyler agrees that fish suffer when they are suffocated in a net, or their organs explode when quickly brought to the surface. Tyler's stance is that fish live by the laws of Malthus, and thus are doomed to painful deaths regardless of whether they are killed by humans or other predators/disease. The marginal effect of fishing, then, is to deprive a fish of a few days or weeks of life--but not to cause fish more pain--and to provide humans with a little bit of pleasure. A utilitarian like Peter might believe that the benefit to humans is greater than the loss to the fish, and be in favor of fish eating.
I think that questioning Tyler's premise is in order here. Is it true that fish in the wild nearly always die deaths equivalent in pain to being killed by fishermen? Also, notice that Tyler focuses on the stronger case of wild game rather than farmed animals.
The debate between Peter and Tyler is one of the best I have seen in a long while. Don't miss it if you are interested in Peter Singer's ethics.
"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.
In a post today, Andrew Gelman quotes himself on the silliness of microfoundations in economics. The replies in the comments to this post, and his original post, are very nicely written, and represent diverse opinions.
Ok, now let's gather around the campfire. The economics lore on microfoundations begins with the Phillips curve. Until the 1970's, mainstream economists believed that there was a permanent well-defined trade-off between inflation and unemployment. A central bank could lower unemployment, but only at the expense of increasing inflation. Then in the 1970's there was both high unemployment and high inflation--so-called stagflation. On the back of this episode, Bob Lucas made a famous critique of treating historical macro-level relationships like the Phillips curve as fixed when doing counterfactual policy experiments. Unless analysis begins at the level of (unchanging) technological possibility and consumer preferences, altering government policy may affect historical or aggregate relationships which earlier economists took at fixed.
This argument still seems convincing to me, at least. The Gelman post above was written in response to Paul Krugman's post on a similar topic from a couple of days ago. Krugman's points are reasonable, but I don't think that he is really complaining about using microfoundations. Boiling what he wrote down, Krugman has two main points. The first is that reduced form macro relationships are good for intuition, and help us to rapidly interpret the world. The second is that the microfoundations used in economics are patently wrong, and not even a good approximation to the way people behave. Both points are well taken, especially the second. I agree that reduced form relationships aid intuition, but ultimately I would like to be able to derive them from first principles if need be.
Krugman uses a bunch of metaphors from the natural sciences. Physicists often use Newtonian laws as approximations of low energy interactions, even though they know that they are incorrect. If push came to shove, however, the exact calculations could be made--physicists know which events are appropriate to be approximated with Newtonian laws and which are not. The problem is that economists don't know when it is ok to use reduced form relationships, because economists (debatably) don't have a good approximation to how people actually behave. Krugman's second point is right on the money. To really understand the way macro-level economics works, microfoundations are really important. However, that doesn't mean that any old assumptions about the way people act are preferable to just using macro-level relationships. Microfoundations have to at least reasonably approximate the way people actually behave. As far as predicting policy affects goes, garbage in garbage out.
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)