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A few people out there are thinking about the same things I’m thinking about:

  • Russ Roberts of Cafe Hayek points us to an alarmist who thinks technology is damaging the brains of young people. I made my feelings clear here. Don’s commenters seem to agree with me.

Athletic Chemistry

Baseball spring training is underway early this year, and I for one am tremendously excited. [Jim insists that you can’t get excited for a sport that isn’t exciting. He has a point – baseball takes patience. Patience is not exciting.] Amidst the flood of new articles, there’s the usual spring staple of “will they get along?” stories, in which sportswriters wonder if a given team will be able to win after adding new players because it changes their “chemistry.” [Not steroids.]

Chemistry stories appear in all major sports constantly, and I happen to think they’re mostly overplayed, especially in baseball. The thing about baseball is that, except in a few situations, individual success leads to team success. That is, the conflict between individual incentives and team incentive is very close to non-existent. There’s a few situations where individual sacrifice is required for team, though they’re conveniently labeled as such in baseball, as in the case of sacrifice bunts and flies. In any other case, individual statistical success leads to team success – a player’s hit benefits his team no matter what.

This is not the case in most other sports.  A running back’s four yard carry benefits his individual statistics but it may be detrimental to his team on fourth-and-ten. A basketball player may get himself points for an easy lay-up when his team needed a three-pointer. As a result, individual players may benefit from actions that harm their team [assuming that players are largely judged and paid on their individual statistics]. In such a case, selfish players are actually a problem.

However, many commentators aren’t talking about chemistry on the field but rather off the field, or in the locker room. I happen to think that aspect of team chemistry is grossly overrated, especially in baseball. Since much of the sport is reactive [swing, field, throw], it hardly matters whether you hate your teammate – it won’t distract you, and, as I mentioned, individual success and team success coincide almost perfectly. In other sports, where effort is more important than in baseball, whether you like your teammate or not may affect how hard you play to help him [blocking for him or feeding him an assist], but I think that’s largely canceled out by your need to perform well and keep your job and perhaps get a better contract.

I think the most underrated aspect of team chemistry is how it affects preparation. Distracting or unpleasant teammates can distract players from properly preparing for games and practices, which in turn affects in-game performance. A receiver who doesn’t run hard in practice makes it difficult to practice timing for an offense; a guard who improvises in practice makes it difficult for others to learn plays for crunch time. This effect is obviously bigger in sports that require lots of preparation and planning, so it would matter more for football than for baseball.

Basically, I won’t worry about any team’s chemistry this spring. I’ll just enjoy the beginning of another season.

The Rise of Love

Given that today is Valentine’s Day a post on love seems appropriate. [In the words of the greatest writer of our times, please don’t tell us how it’s a made-up corporate holiday. Don’t mention Hallmark. We get it. We’re okay with it.]

There are few things less romantic than economics, and applying economic analysis to love seems wildly inappropriate. It would take a very strange person to subject love to rational self-interest and find anything heartwarming. Fortunately for you, I am a strange person.

Some great work has been done in economic analysis of human relationships: Gary Becker’s A Treatise on the Family is one of the best examples. It defines marriage as a contract designed to maximize joint utility through joint consumption and joint production. The former refers to doing things with a companion we like. The latter refers to the division of labor within a marriage, which has meant that men hunt/farm/earn and keep the family safe, and women cook, clean, and bear and raise children. Given how much of human history [everything until about 200 years ago, and still in some places] was spent battling for survival, the joint production aspect was crucial: families could often only survive if each spouse did his/her job, and the ability to do the job was a major factor in selecting a mate.

Because of its importance to survival, marriage became important and subject to lots of rules. Royalty could marry other royalty, and noble families intermarried with each other. The upper classes married among themselves to maintain wealth and status – the castes still do. Even the adage that “peasants marry for love” was usually not true: where marriage was not arranged by the lord or the family, it was strictly limited by the pool of eligible singles available, which is pretty much “your village.” Additional limitations have, until today, been national, ethnic, religious, or racial lines. Crossing them has been taboo: the last anti-miscegenation law in the US was struck down in 1967. In many parts of the world, marriages that break any of these rules may technically be legal but are subject to such social stigma that they almost never happen. Romantic love is clearly not the rule.

The exceptions, however, are on the rise.

In the developed Western world, thanks to the market economy, the majority of people don’t have to battle death and starvation every day. Social norms are such that family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and race are no longer strict barriers to interaction. Because of the market economy, people don’t need a spouse: the services previously only provided by a spouse can now be purchased on the market. A man can pay a maid and a cook; a woman can earn her own money and buy an alarm system to stay safe. The joint production aspect of marriage simply is no longer that important. For some, this portends the death of marriage and, by implication, the breakdown of society. Of course, they forget the joint consumption I mentioned above. The fact that people don’t need do get married doesn’t mean they won’t want to. Only now, they will do it for the right reasons.

Because of the rise of the market economy and the breakdown of arbitrary restrictions on relationships, people can now look for mates solely to maximize joint consumption. Since there is no reason to find someone who can help you survive, you can look for someone you like having around, and because tolerance is rising, the pool you choose from is essentially the whole world. People can finally be together for no reason other than love.

You have to admit, that’s pretty romantic.

This Is Your Brain On Technology

UCLA scientists are researching whether the brains of children growing up with modern technology are developing differently than brains of prior generations. Specifically, because people interact with and through technology while brain circuits are still forming, the concern is that abilities necessary for healthy face-to-face interaction will atrophy as brains instead adjust to interacting with technology. A related concern is that the internet causes growing brains to get used to short tasks and multi-tasking, thus costing them the ability to focus on single topics for longer periods of time. The common example is that short articles and links on the internet are creating brains unprepared to read books.

Unlike the researchers, I’m not too worried about about this development. While I don’t have the scientific knowledge to speak about the details, it seems to me that brains adjusting to a new environment is actually advantageous. Brains that are especially well-suited to interacting with technology and multitasking are probably going to do well in the modern world, where technology is omnipresent and jobs are more and more likely to require multitasking. The concern about shortened attention span strikes me as especially misplaced – as books evolve into more interactive media [the Freakonomics blog that followed the book perhaps being the prototype] a new brain might best take advantage of them.

The social skills critique might actually have merit to it. Dealing with other people is a key skill that you may not develop as well on the internet, where you essentially get to choose your environment, you get to stay anonymous, and you don’t have to deal with people you disagree with. Of course,  I think these risks are overblown: it’s still impossible to escape dealing with people, and life still takes place offline. We’re not all going to be turned into a nation of nerds. [This concern strikes me as something old people worry about because something is changing.]

This does, however, bring up a possibility: what if the environment in which the brain develops is different from the world it eventually lives in? Then everyone would grow up less than ideally suited to the world they live in. Of course, we’d just change the world we live in to suit us – that’s the beauty of having control. So even this scenario is nothing to worry about.

Basically, if brains are developing differently,  I don’t think it’s nearly as much of a concern as people seem to think.

Seniority Sucks

As my sister turns approximately 23 today, I got to thinking about aging and old people. Generally, I am not a fan of old people. I think they have disproportionate amount of political power and use it at the expense of young people. There is no reason that there should be universal health insurance [Medicare] for old people but not for children [financed by a national debt to be repaid by those children], or that more money is spent on diseases that afflict seniors than on care pre- and neonatal care. My view is that old people have had a lifetime to prepare for everything: absent unusual circumstances, old people have had a lifetime to save up and make all arrangements for old age, when they perhaps can’t work as productively as they previously could. Children never had such an opportunity. If we’re going to take from some to give to others, the transfer should be from old to young.

My attitude toward the elderly is not particularly popular – it’s much more common to think we should “respect” and “honor” older people and defer to their accumulated wisdom. I agree with the former, obviously, but the latter is becoming an increasingly dangerous tendency. I understand where this instinct comes from: for most of human existence, we have lived in a static world, where the oldest people usually knew the most, having had more time to learn it. However, “accumulated wisdom” means very little in a rapidly changing world. Experience becomes far less important than adaptability and learning ability.  It’s important to fight the instinct to be respectful to seniority when it comes to ideas: experience is no longer a reliable signal of wisdom and intelligence. Of course, you’ll never get them to admit that – they’ll still try to win arguments by reminding you that they’re older and therefore wiser.

I will carve out an important exception to the last paragraph: older people are pretty good with advice on things that haven’t changed. Specifically, if you need someone tell you how to deal with human relationships, old people are pretty good resources. Strip out some of the cultural stuff  [“when I was your age, girls didn’t do X”] and underneath you’ll find that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, and being around it for a lifetime makes you pretty good at dealing with it.

So I don’t really have anything against old people. I just don’t like having them in charge of me, because I have a longer term to think about than they do. [Or so I hope.]

The Misanthropy Principle

I promised last time I’d reveal how someone with no economic training should approach economic “experts,” since, for various reasons, they all seem to be saying contradictory things. The simplest rule of thumb is that you want to trust those guys who show the least faith in people. Any economist who does not believe that one human being can take care of another is closer to being right than one who relies on any selflessness whatsoever. I call this the Misanthropic Principle.

The WordNet entry for misanthropy:

  • (n) misanthropy (hatred of mankind)
  • (n) misanthropy (a disposition to dislike and mistrust other people)

A misanthropic person is one who doesn’t believe in the goodness and selflessness of other people. The economist who comes closer to this ‘ideal’ is probably more trustworthy than one who wants to rely on other people. Anyone who wants you to believe that someone else will do something to benefit you is much more likely to be arrogant, lying, or just plain wrong.

Generally, the arrogance/deceit/wrongness will manifest itself in the demand that the government must do something. That is, you should trust the government to both know your best interest and be  willing and able to help you get there. If you know people, you know that’s unlikely. You’ll just end up being told what to do by someone. Relying on a third party – any third party – to take care of anything for you is a silly idea. So when some “expert” gives you any advice that involves someone else taking care of you, you can safely assume he’s arrogant, lying, or wrong.

Addendum: I’m obviously oversimplifying. You can rely on lots of other people. Your family and your friends, for example. And there are many situations where you simply have to rely on a third party like a firm or the government. The big point is, there better be a really good reason for you to trust someone else to do what’s best for you. When in doubt, be misanthropic.

The Value of Experts

the thing that annoys me about economists, like it annoys me about many experts, is that it seems there are so many different solutions economists offer, so many ‘right’ ways that they/you are adamant about. and if your second point is true, then what’s the point of having economic experts at all? please expand.

This question was asked in response to a recent post in which I argued that the bar for economists was set way too high, relative to other social and hard scientists. I address the added difficulty economists face because a monster is loose in their field, but it’s a fair question. Why do economists offer so many different solutions with seemingly equal conviction? Does that not undermine their value as advisers?

The answer to the latter is obviously both yes and no: conflicting stories aren’t useful to the layman if he can’t figure out what’s right, but it would probably also be worse to have experts endorsing the wrong idea in unison. The former question is more difficult, but I believe it can be raised about any discipline, including the so-called hard sciences.

There are two reasons that people get this impression about economics. First, macroeconomic debates happen in the public eye, usually on high-profile issues, where an economically illiterate media insists on showing contrasting views for the sake of ‘balance.’ The perception of disagreement among economics is far bigger than actual disagreement: Greg Mankiw shows that on the main issues, economists mostly agree, especially on basic microeconomic issues. Settled issues don’t appear in debates, of course; it would be the equivalent of physicists discussing whether gravity exists. [It does.] Macroeconomics, the study of entire economies and economic systems, is not all of economics, but it’s certainly the most contentious area, as people’s values, preconceived notions, and even financial interests begin to “inform” their economic opinions. For example, some people think they are smart enough to make the economy run better when they are not; others would get rich if their economic ideas became universal law. Political interests weigh more heavily on macroeconomics than in any other area of economics. This is why macro has a wider range of  expert [using the term loosely] opinions.

The second part of the is that economic debate that most people are privy to is at the cutting edge of economics, where there are bound to be disagreements. Given the relative unpredictability of government actions and the rapidly changing globalized world, accurate answers on many issues are not yet readily available. This, however, is true at the cutting edge of any discipline: even physics, which I often use as the classic hard science, has many controversies at the edges of knowledge, where experiments or measurements are unavailable or unreliable [as they always are in economics]. Yet we wouldn’t use the “string theory vs. standard model” debate to say that physicists can’t agree on anything.

If you combine the increased publicity devoted to economic issues with the fact that such debate deals with the inherently most unpredictable economic issues you understand why people think that economists can’t agree on anything. Which is why next time, I will reveal a basic rule of thumb as to which economists to trust.


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