Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Seven Quick Takes -- Clearing Out Stuff That I've Meant To Post About Edition

With thanks to the hostess...

1) There's a paper out in the current issue of Current Biology about chimps fighting "war" for territory. Good popular press articles about it here and here. We've known for a long time that chimps can be violent, and that groups fight against each other, but what's interesting about this case is that a larger group consistently over a period of a couple years wiped out the males of a neighboring group and then annexed their territory. From the Times article:
A band of males, up to 20 or so, will assemble in single file and move to the edge of their territory. They fall into unusual silence as they penetrate deep into the area controlled by the neighboring group. They tensely scan the treetops and startle at every noise. “It’s quite clear that they are looking for individuals of the other community,” Dr. Mitani says.

When the enemy is encountered, the patrol’s reaction depends on its assessment of the opposing force. If they seem to be outnumbered, members of the patrol will break file and bolt back to home territory. But if a single chimp has wandered into their path, they will attack. Enemy males will be held down, then bitten and battered to death. Females are usually let go, but their babies will be eaten.

These killings have a purpose, but one that did not emerge until after Ngogo chimps’ patrols had been tracked and cataloged for 10 years. The Ngogo group has about 150 chimps and is particularly large, about three times the usual size. And its size makes it unusually aggressive. Its males directed most of their patrols against a chimp group that lived in a region to the northeast of their territory. Last year, the Ngogo chimps stopped patrolling the region and annexed it outright, increasing their home territory by 22 percent, Dr. Mitani said.

2) Economist Bryan Caplan has a book coming out entitled Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids which he's blogged about frequently over at EconLog. Last weekend he had an article in the WSJ laying out part of his thesis. I think he makes some good points about how people overestimate what is "necessary" in raising kids: love, attention and affection, yes; organized sports and lessons four nights a week, not so much. And also draws attention to the point that people often make decisions about whether to have more children while going through the most difficult part (the first few years) or raising their first one or two. However, I tend to think he'd do well by refocusing the way he makes those points a bit -- in that this sounds a little like he's saying, "Your kids' success is pretty much genetically determined, so you might as well crank out a few extras and spend less time on them, because you'll really enjoy having adult children and grand kids." Also, it strikes me (as a parent dealing with the work and joys of having the fifth on the way) that "selfish reasons" for having more kids will not really get people there. Unless you have strong philosophical and moral reasons for having a pro-large-family approach to life, most people won't get past the standard 1-2.

3) The Washington Post offers a story about the last ironing board factory in the US. It employs 200 people and pays it's line workers $15/hr (about 30k/yr). It's kept in business by US tariffs on imported ironing boards from China ranging from 70% to 150%. Matt Yglesias of Think Progress sees the economic dead loss but doesn't see how one can vote to take away people's jobs in a recession. These ironing boards sell for $15-20 at places like Wal Mart, Target and K-Mart, so it's easy to say that the savings if the wholesale cost of ironing boards were not being doubled by tariffs would be small. Is your life that different if you pay $20 for an ironing board instead of $10? Is that worth someone's job? Yglesias's comments are furious that he would even suggest it might be beneficial not to prop up prices to "protect US jobs".

The numbers, however, are interesting. Take an average ironing board price of $16.99. According to the article, there are 7 million ironing boards sold in the US per year. On average, the tariff doubles the cost of an ironing board. This means the total money spent on ironing boards is being artificially increased by $59.5 million per year. If you divide that money by the 200 workers, that gives you $297k/yr as the cost of every $30k/yr job waved. Even if retailers didn't pass through all cost savings, or the Chinese increased their prices, we'd clearly be seeing a net overall savings if we weren't pumping up the annual expenditures on ironing boards by $59mil. Where that money would go is hard to say. With such a small percentage of any one household's income going to ironing boards, it is literally impossible to know where this money would go if it didn't go to slightly more expensive ironing boards, but it would go somewhere (produce, services or savings) and would work it's way around to providing some people with jobs. Not those 200 particular jobs, but definitely jobs.

Though most people prefer to assume that if a system is too complex for them to understand (indeed, for anyone to understand) that it must therefore be only theoretical, or "not be that way in the real world."

4) Failed States: If you need your daily dose of realizing how privileged you are, try this slideshow of life in failed states from Foreign Policy magazine.

5) Nestle is attempting to reach customers in remote small cities and large towns in Brazil by sending a floating snack supermarket out on Brazil's river system. Apparently, however, a number of people in the US are outraged at the idea that the world's largest food company (and thus "Big Food") is bringing candy bars and ice cream treats to people who would otherwise be eating the delicious "whole" or "raw" or "sustainable" foods of rural Brazil.

6) I was struck by these two pieces by William Deresiewicz on The Disadvantages of an Elite Education and on Solitude and Leadership. As with any strongly made point, I think parts of his argument go too far, but his talk about how often the elite are not a meritocracy but rather an entitled mediocricy strike me as pretty dead on at the moment. It also struck me that this might shed some light on the roots of the quiet background strife between those from Ivy League universities and those not here in Fortune 50 land.

7) Bruce Charlton thinks that human ability peaked with the moon landings and that we're actually able to do less now than we were then.
I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.

This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
It was around the 1970s that the human spirit began to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy (although the trend had been growing for many decades).
The fact is that human no longer do - *can* no longer do many things we used to be able to do: land on the moon, swiftly win wars against weak opposition and then control the defeated nation, secure national borders, discover ‘breakthrough’ medical treatments, prevent crime, design and build to a tight deadline, educate people so they are ready to work before the age of 22, block an undersea oil leak...

While as a conservative I'm sympathetic to "golden age" thinking (though if you can't put the peak of human ahievement before 1900, you're really not trying) this line of thinking strikes me as deeply silly. Some problems are more amenable to brute force solution than others (finding a "cure for cancer" is a far more complex problem then building a rocket capable of sending people to the moon and back) and there's also much of this that is the result of changing political and social mores, not to mention backwards forgetfullness.

Did, for instance, the British Empire at its height actually do that great a job of "swiftly win[ning] wars against weak opposition and then control[ing] the defeated nation"? Not to our modern standards, really. The Boer War was incredibly messy, and cost far more casualties on the British side (and brutality against the enemy) than a modern nation like the US would tolerate in our "little wars" such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor were the Brits ever that great at keeping Afghanistan pacified themselves. However, there was a willingness of the Brits at that time to sustain fairly heavy deployements and casualties on a constant basis throughout the Empire in order to keep things more or less moving along -- while in the US this is the sort of thing which loses presidents elections.

Similarly, it's hard to see how the US public would support pouring 5% or more of total federal spending into the space program these days, when we'd all be so much happier granting ourselves a right to cable television or some such.

1 comment:

Enbrethiliel said...


On #7: A friend of mine just got back from a two-week-long holiday in Egypt and she is convinced that human ability peaked with the pyramids.