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Something I have wanted to write about for a long time is the uncanny way in which human societies are analogous to ecosystems.  Furthermore, the roles within these societies grow and change and wink out—just like species in different ecosystems do–and yet they hew to certain broad generalized templates over time. This seems so self-evident to me that almost doesn’t need to be talked about, and yet when I do talk about it, I realize that it is difficult to explain comprehensively.

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There are many ecosystems—like rainforest, arid scrubland, deep ocean bottom, steppe, or coral reef.  The creatures in these ecosystems are designed by long, long generations of competition and gradual mutation to use the resources of the ecosystem to survive.  Thus a sea anemone eats plankton that the current wafts into its tentacles…and then a clownfish evolves to live protected in the stinging tentacles and look after the anemone…and then a sea turtle evolves which eats anemones and so on.  The larger ecosystems are connected too.  For example, the pelagic ocean depths engender huge quantities of plankton which wafts onto the reef.

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There are many niches in ecosystems—like arboreal fruit gatherer, lurking swamp predator, or planktonic browser.  Convergent evolution causes the shapes of creatures adapted to these roles to take on many similar characteristics:  thus arboreal fruit eaters (whether they be iguanas, tarsiers, or cockatoos) have cunning grips, small agile bodies for precise balance, & acute depth perception; planktonic browsers have huge mouths, filter membranes/apparatuses, and a shape build to conserve energy; and reef building organisms are sessile with grabby arms and a calcium carbonate skeleton they can retreat into (even if they are not corals).

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Of course there are always generalists like raccoons or rats or pigeons which have a number of useful traits that allow them to flourish in a city, a field, or a forest, or wherever…but truly complicated ecosystems engender flamboyant specialists like frogs that live in bromeliads or saber hummingbirds with beaks longer than the rest of the bird’s body.

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A jungle might support a few tribes of generalized hunter gatherers (who literally live off the rainforest in the manner of jaguars and toucans), but humans build our own jungles which we call cities.  In the city there are niches for jaguar people who take what they want and for toucan people who are colorful and pick fruit from the tops of trees that others can’t even get to.  Let’s imagine them respectively as business magnates and art curators. Resources are plentiful in cities.  They arrive in raw forms from other places like farms, mines, or forests and then are processed and synthesized by the city which creates secondary and tertiary tiers of specialists who live off of individual refinement steps which might not even exist elsewhere.

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A farm town might have farmers, millers, bakers, bailiffs, carters, and a few thieves, as well as a single baron and a mayor. The city has grain merchants, food factory workers, pastry chefs, bicycle police, teamsters, catburglars, legions of dukes, and a whole vast city hall bureaucracy (and all the other roles in between).

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As the niche change through time so to the roles change, but there are underlying similarities. Farriers, lectors, and lamplighters have died away but we now need mechanics, voiceover actors, and electric engineers. Some jobs, like bricklayer or toymaker endure for thousands of years.  Some, like wartime airplane detector exist only for a particular moment in time (after airplanes but before radar).

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If you look at society from a distance you can see how technological and social changes mirror the changes of evolution. Cartwrights generally are replaced by automakers (although there were probably not may individuals who made that career change).  Indeed, our manufactured objects themselves illustrate this change (as you can see by looking at a history book of cars and watching fins and fenders grow and shrink, even as the overall cars become lighter, faster, and safer).

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Just as the natural world is more dynamic, beautiful, and robust when there are may sorts of environment with many different creatures, human society is more prosperous when it has lots of different sorts of settings including places of enormous diversity with all sorts of specialized roles.  The interchange is complicated in the human world.  How many theatrical make-up artists can Iowa support? Yet the collagen in the makeup came from Iowa farms…and perhaps the makeup artist herself (and maybe the actors she works on too) originally came to Broadway from little towns in the corn belt.

This metaphor is useful in looking at the arc of history (which is really hard to comprehend from a human-length temporal perspective).  Additionally, it ties the world of natural history/paleontology together into a seamless narrative with the world of history/sociology (we will get back to this in later posts).  It becomes easier to see how thoroughly we humans are part of the natural world—we are sophisticated colony primates not some aberration from outside biology (or clockwork children made by a crazy god). Beyond these vast perspectives of deep time, biology, and macro-economics, however, it is useful to look at society as interlocking ecosystems because it reminds us to be more careful of one another since we need one another.

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There can be no city without the countryside! And who would farmers sell their barley to without cities? (and where would rural hospitals get doctors or malls get new fashions)?  Likewise the farmland needs the forest. The fishing village needs the ocean. In this red-blue era where people from the country and the city apparently despise each other (!) we need to recall it is a false distinction. Everyone needs each other.  The world is a web.  If you touch one thread the whole thing vibrates. And it is changing so fast that we little spiders and flies must also change so swiftly that it is barely possible to figure out who is preying upon whom anymore.  We will come back to this concept, but right now take a look around you and squint.  If the clerks, and stockbrokers and stockboys don’t start to seem more like termites and tigers and tapirs…if the dairymaids and cows don’t seem like ants and caryatids, well let me know. I’ll write it all down a different way.  But I will be surprised if you don’t see it.

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There is a fundamental problem with economics.  Well, actually I am sure there are many, many problems with this pseudo-scientific discipline of resource management (which is fetishistically concerned with money instead of value).  However, this particular problem lies at the crux of the discipline’s inability to predict human behavior or bring about valuable outcomes.   We will briefly explore why we should care about economics at the end of the post, but let’s get right to the thesis and baldly state the problem which economics does not appropriately address: humans are more concerned with status than with substance at least when they are not under mortal duress (and if they are in fear of their lives, their behavior will be irrational anyway).

The usual metaphor for rational economic thought involves pie (probably because the round pastry is irresistible and because it resembles pie charts, which economists love).  According to conventional economic theory: if you get an allotted slice of pie, what matters is how big your slice is, not who gets the rest of the pie.  If an economically rational being is faced with a scenario where he gets pie for some reason, he will happily take his pie and worry about how to make the pie bigger (even if a grotesque bully hogs the majority of the pie and then doesn’t even eat it).   From this reductionist fable we can then move on to other scenarios like increasing the participant’s slice relative to other participants (zero-sum pie?), contractual niceties of pie eating, seasonally adjusted pie indexes, or twisted game theory dilemmas…or whatever.

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Yet any parent can tell you that if one sibling gets one small slice of the pie and the other sibling eats the rest, it is going to be a problem.  Children understand that pie allotment is a proxy for social worth (which is worth more than the pie).  Economists get twisted up in unnecessarily complicated numeric models (or in facile metaphors of resource allocation) and tend to overlook the real thing people are after.

Kids innately understand that money is a red herring for status, and status is true currency.  A Hollywood A-lister can wander into a bar and never pay for anything and leave in a limousine with the best-looking person present.  Their status stands above money. Likewise, the pope or some slimy cult leader or the “communist” prime minister of a failed state does not really need to truck in naked dollars and cents.

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I was arguing about the affairs of the world with one of my college friends (he has an honors degree in economics from the University of Chicago and was managing George Soros’ fortune at the time).  He was worried that populism would vitiate the rewards of globalism.  “People will vote to get a bigger slice of a smaller pie rather than a smaller slice of a bigger pie (even if the latter is a much larger relative slice)!” he exclaimed angrily.

As moneyed interests capture all available levers of power in our troubled democracy and economic productivity drops, his words seem prescient.   I assumed then that he was talking about silly plebs, but I now wonder whether he was really talking about rapacious financiers. I guess it doesn’t matter: both these factions are now backing the current leadership’s agenda of corporate amalgamation, tax-giveaways to the super rich, isolationism, and protectionism—things which ultimately decrease the pie, but make it seem larger for the moment.

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Oligarchs and reactionaries both would prefer a smaller pie—so long as they have a bigger slice for themselves.  The pie doesn’t matter—it is not a metaphor for goods and services, like economists think, instead it is a metaphor for pecking order.  If someone tells you that you are ranked 300th among the 300 people who matter to you, what does it matter what is happening in China or whether tariffs will undo national prosperity? The fundamental metaphor is not apt, and thus economists are misunderstanding why people make the choices they do. Our fundamental problems: stagnant productivity, inequality, and political deadlock come from the fact that power brokers are busy making castes and setting them in stone…not baking pies.

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Human societies have always been hierarchical and probably always will be, so why should we care if the economists get this metaphor wrong? It matters because the pie actually should matter! The fact that everyone is jockeying for status by betting on short-term stock gains (or even scammier things) is impairing our ability to do important things. We are baking the wrong sort of pies   Our system is not producing medicines it is churning out drugs.  We are not researching, we are marketing.  The “makers” are busy making monopolies and cartels rather than space robots and immortality serums.  We really would be better with a small delicious pie made of summer fruit and real butter than with the monstrosity made of saccharine, corn starch, and cellulose.  This monstrous confection is the result of the fact that our system is some weird & debased celebrity contest (our leader is a conman and a reality tv star!). Economists need to wake up to the fact that we aren’t even baking pies…we are all in a bad reality tv show or a nightmarishly catty high-school clique.

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It is May Day! This weekend I was thinking about whether to celebrate the ancient pagan festivals and rituals associated with this holiday of seasonal rebirth or whether to instead write about the international day honoring workers. This latter manifestation of May Day came about in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a response to the excesses of the industrial revolution and the undemocratic forms of power manifested by the cartels and monopolies which sprang up with the railroad, the mills, the mines, and the oilfields. I was sitting in my yard looking at the spring blossoms when the issue was decided for me. Sirens and chants of “The only SOLUTION is COMMUNIST revolution!” filled up the garden. I ran out to the street and a parade of communists was marching up Flatbush in Brooklyn. They were waving blood red flags and waving placards. Most were wearing red shirts and some were riding in a huge old flatbed lorry which looked like it came out of 1960s Cuba.
Although I can respect the socialism of Jaures and I am fascinated by the social democracy of modern forward-thinking northern European countries like Holland and Denmark, I have trouble uncoupling communism per se from the ghastly totalitarian abuses of Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot et al. (plus I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War) so I stared at the communists in shock—as though medieval monks or Sumerian charioteers were riding through. A number of people in the crowd joined them or eagerly grabbed their manifestos though. Evidently the communist message was not as outside of time as I thought.

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A lot of these recherche movements have been springing up lately. There are communists, confederates, tea partiers, celibate terrorists (?), and syndicalists popping up all over the place. There are even confused ultramontanists angry that they can’t understand the current pope sufficiently to treat him as an emperor.

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The oligarchs who reap the greatest benefits of globalized capitalism have not been sharing the benefits of global commerce, nor reinvesting in next generation technology, nor even buying epochal flounder-themed art (although there is always time, great masters!) Moneyed interests are not even hiding the extent to which they are manipulating the American political system, except maybe with some awkward metaphors about how the financial system is like blood. They are breaking the system to exploit it and weirdness, old and new, is seeping into the cracks.
Our democracy and our fundamental economic system are having serious troubles. It is unclear if these are growing pains, or if they are the onset of the sort of changes which felled Athens or undid the Roman Republic. The ossification of our system has combined with rapid social and economic change to completely undo one political party (albeit through mechanisms which would look more familiar to Tiberius & Gaius Gracchus and Huey Long, than to Ayn Rand or William Buckley Junior).

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But back to the communists in Brooklyn—who were, after all, surrounded by police (to a disquieting degree, actually) and drew far more chuckles and eye rolls from the Flatbush crowds than they got converts. It is a reminder that we all need to laugh less at the dysfunction in Washington. Fascist totalitarians are cropping up on the left as well as the right. We need to have some serious conversations about democratic reforms and how to reestablish useful and helpful mechanisms and norms to deal with the changes in the world. Otherwise unexpected weirdos will make those choices for us and instead of a comic stunted Mussolini with porn stars and Russian business ties we might end up with a high theocrat or a tribunal of the people. Things are moving fast: let’s talk more and think more clearly!

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We are swiftly coming up to the United States election and Ferrebeekeeper needs to endorse a candidate. You can probably already guess whether I will endorse the competent and hard-working patriot (the one who is admittedly very ambitious and bit sloppy with finicky data protocols) or the unhinged con-artist who is not only an ignoramus, a bully, and a bigot, but poses an existential threat to the republic itself. However, before we get around to making this difficult choice (and, maybe…finally reaching an end to this ghastly and divisive national contest) we need to think about primatology.

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Specifically there was an experiment conducted by primatologist Frans de Waal with some capuchin monkeys to understand social behavior and social cognition in primate groups.  In the experiment, the capuchins (who are exceedingly bright characters) were asked to do a small task in exchange for a food reward while the other monkeys watched the exchange.  Some monkeys were given grapes…which capuchins love.  Others were given little slivers of cucumber (a far less valuable treat) for completing the same task.

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Not surprisingly, monkeys who watched a different monkey do the same task for a much better reward flew into a rage. They hurled their cucumber away and banged on their plexiglass enclosures and shook their little bars and sulked.

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Now, a tiny sliver of cucumber is not a valueless thing for a monkey who spends all day being tortured by scientists and fed bland monkey chow. Probably the rational thing to do would be to take the cucumber and kiss the cruel scientists’ hand and call it a day (then quietly wait for a chance to rise up, bite some faces off, and enslave Charlton Heston).

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But if you were a monkey and reacted with apparent docility to unfair treatment, who knows how you would be taken advantage of next? It wouldn’t just be primatologists who took advantage of you, soon enough your fellow monkeys would too.

What is truly important to social animals is status: this intangible commodity is fungible and it is pegged to a highly complex and immediate relative framework. A cucumber slice, though fine in its own right confers less status than a prestigious grape.  To throw it away and freak out makes sense to capuchin monkeys because larger issues are on the line (even if they are apparently hurting themselves in the short term).  Spite matters for monkeys: it is one way that monkeys can mess with more powerful entities and protest the unfair allocation of resources and rewards.

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Again and again the question arises among the people I know in New York of how anyone could be taken in by an illiterate orange charlatan with a pronounced tendency to molest woman, steal from workers, and cheat on taxes.   Maybe some people truly believe in Donald Trump, but I believe for a larger number of people in the middle of the country he is neither the grape nor the cucumber: Trump is the act of throwing the cucumber away.  High status monkeys should take note and make some immediate changes, but I suspect they will only hide their equities in the Cayman Islands and buy bigger Bentleys. Primates are not great at solving social hierarchy problems without lots of shrieking, biting, and shit-throwing.

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The Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) Africa's most infamous venomous snake

Sanofi Pasteur is a French biomedical corporation—the vaccination division of Sanofi-Aventis Group, the world’s third largest drug company. The company produces “Fav-Afrique” a highly effective snake antivenin cocktail used to treat bites from Sub-Saharan Africa’s ten most poisonous snakes…or I guess I should say they used to make Fav-Afrique.  Snake antivenin is difficult and expensive to produce: making Fav-Afrique involves keeping and milking extremely poisonous snakes and then giving this venom to large domestic mammals such as sheep and horses.  A course pf Fav-Afrique costs around $500.00—which is big money in Sub-Saharan Africa—and the production was already heavily subsidized by NGOs and governments.  Yet somehow the entire affair was not economically feasible for Sanofi Pasteur.   There are a limited number of fairly shelf-stable doses left, but the earliest anyone is going to make a comparable product is 2018.

This job looks hard

This job looks hard

Snakebites are not particularly deadly here in the United States where snakes kill maybe 2 people a year, however the reptiles of Southern Africa are more formidable…while medical and emergency infrastructure there is a lot poorer (and there are far more people who live closer to the ground) so an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people a year die of snakebite in Sub-Saharan Africa.  That is a huge number—for comparison the 2014 Ebola outbreak which (rightly) scared the bejeezus out of everyone “only” killed 6,500 people.

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All of this makes me wonder anew about the way incentives work in the broader affairs of the world. I understand why medical companies don’t want to mess with a process which is dangerous and complicated yet provides little (or no) profit.  Would you want to do that? Pro-market adherents (who increasingly strike me as bastards) would probably argue that the price of a course of antivenin should be much much higher (which is the case here in America with our sky-high health care costs)…but who would then pay for it in Africa?  Should we not have antivenins—even though we know how to make very fine ones which could save many lives?

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

It seems likely that powerful NGOs like the Gates Foundation and Médecins Sans Frontières will step in and take over Fav-Afrique–once they build an organization to master the complicated process of producing it.  Perhaps the entire flurry of media attention (like this article) is a useless kerfluffle designed to get frightened people to read articles…but I don’t feel like it is.  I feel like this whole error begs larger questions of how our system works and doesn’t work.   I don’t have any answers to macro-scale resource allocation questions, but I can see the invisible hand of the market trembling and doing dastardly and stupid things and it bothers me.

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Of course all of this also begs question about what these ten super-poisonous African snakes are and where and how they live. I can answer questions about these amazing and formidable mambas, vipers, cobras, and puff adders!  I will be writing more about them in weeks to come…so even this poisonous cloud has a scaly silver lining.

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