Weekend reading

  1. A podcast on rethinking economics (something I’ve been doing for awhile)
  2. The institutions of a liberal society depend on trust, which is  under assault. [This is one of the best essays I read in 2018.] Related: The Republican party is using authoritarian methods in a power grab.
  3. Facebook isn’t just showing you ads. It’s selling your data to companies and showing that revenue as “advertising”. Here’s an example:
  4. Humans have some terrible tendencies: lie, betray and more
  5. OTOH: Here’s the paper describing the “general purpose” AI that learned (from zero) how to beat the best chess computer in 4 hours.
  6. Are we getting sick because we’re killing the helpful bacteria in our gut?
  7. Bill McKibbon on how badly we’re screwing up the planet. Sad.
  8. China is buying up media and journalists world-wide to promote “its good side” in yet another step into an illiberal world where power decides truth. 🙁
  9. A really nice history of the synthetic drugs that are messing up so many people

H/T to CD

Porn and social capital

JB asks:

As an economist, what unique perspectives do you bring or how do you weigh in on the increasingly anecdotal if not manichaean (morally bipolar) debate of porn-good / porn-bad? Is porn’s ubiquity symptomatic of a larger cultural dysfunctionality that has yet to be articulated in clarity, and is porn’s popularity a (or the) cause of this so-called “sex recession”?

If you’re interested in the role of sex in society and our sexual habits, then read the linked article above to think over the many reasons why younger people may be having less sex, fewer partners, and (perhaps) unfulfilling relationships.

Out of all the possible reasons listed in that article, I would emphasize how younger people are stressed about success, their “place” in social groups, and the paradox of (too much) choice. Back in the 90s, it wasn’t so easy to browse dozens of potential hook-ups per hour or compare your “success” to hundreds of “friends” and influencers filling social media feeds. Back then (and for all of human history), people hooked up according to their choices from a local pool of potentials. These days, you can compare yourself to the (artificial) profiles of far more people and get distracted/attracted to “horny locals” who are only a few clicks away.

Sadly, young people today are going to be less confident (and thus less attractive and less experienced at sex and relationships) if they get trapped in a downward spiral of “everyone has love… except me.” We see this problem at its worst with the InCel (involuntary celebrate) “movement” of guys who blame women for withholding sex. InCels didn’t exist 20 years ago (in any meaningful way) because it was harder to lust vicariously. With nothing to distract you at home, you went out and met other humans who were also looking for some action.

Turning to porn, I think that it is worsening this problem by creating false impressions of how people meet (“Hey pizza guy, how about anal?”); the role of romance, flirting and foreplay in sex (pizza guy is busy — drop your pants!); and conflating pay-for-view transactions with give-and-take relations.

I’ve never been a fan of porn (or prostitution), but I can see — as an economist — how there will be supply to meet demand. The drop in the price of porn has led to an increase in its variety and rate of consumption, which has probably had a negative impact on young men (usually) who spend time consuming porn rather than awkwardly learning how to flirt. (Girls tend to be more comfortable with the nuances of communication, but I’m sure those skills are underdeveloping as they too turn to social media fantasy, selfie narcicissm, and text-jibberish chatter.) Does porn contribute to cultural dysfunction? Absolutely: It offers an escape for guys trying to avoid the awkward phase of making themselves vulnerable by asking for others’ attention. It’s much easier to live in a fantasy relationship, just as it’s much easier to pretend you’re talking to someone by liking their update or texting some emoji’s.

(The alt-sex scene is different, but I think that gays and lesbians are experiencing similar issues. When it comes to trans-, queer- and gender-identity, I think that sex and relationships are going to be complicated by social norms and psychological wandering. Feel free to comment.)

So my one-handed conclusion is that porn is not the problem, nor the solution, but a symptom of young people having a harder time learning how to let go, take a chance, face rejection and get laid. We need more of this.

And a random question: First of all, is social capital a valid notion? And if so, why does it seem that social capital is not transactable via social media? Said differently, why is it impossible to actually make new friends on Facebook, get a job through LinkedIn, find a companion on OKStupid, etc? No matter what stage of trust one is at with someone else, it would seem that our social capital can only be accrued and spent in handshake transactions. And so, what can social media do for social capital at all? Simply squander it through embarrassing hyperbole or tactless attention-grabbing screeds?

This is a good question on one of my favorite topics. I’ll begin by referring you to my post (“Social media is neither social nor media“) but add a few more comments in response to your particulars.

First, social capital is indeed a real and important type of capital. People with more social capital are better insulated against shocks (insurance), better able to find work and other resources (information) and happier (collective identity). The bad news is that there is no short-cut to social capital: Money can’t buy you love. Relationships and trust need time and commitment.

Second, markets tend to displace social capital (relationships) by supplying substitutes at lower (transaction) costs. Thus, we can buy food from the store rather than bartering with the neighboring farmer. Thus, we hire babysitters for our kids and put grandma in the retirement home rather than living in extended families. In many cases, these market substitutions are better, but we also lose positive externalities (unintended benefits) when we replace relations with transactions. That’s why I worry sometimes that we’re overdoing it when it comes to outsourcing.

Third, most social media companies are promising something for nothing while manipulating you and selling your data. If you want to see what they really do, then read their financial and investor-facing documents. Facebook is NOT “connecting the world,” it’s selling advertising. LinkedIn is NOT about your career, but revenue from HR departments. OKCupid is NOT about love, but selling your personal details to marketeers. I can guarantee that any reader on this post is more likely to get friends, jobs and romance by meeting people face-to-face (at parties, bars, through friends, etc.) than putting in a few more clicks.

Fourth, social media has lowered the cost of connecting, which means that any given “demander” will be overwhelmed by supply. Influencers have so many friends that they cannot possibly say “hi” in response. Companies advertising jobs need bots to filter thousands of applicants. Attractive people on OkCupid and Tinder spend so much time saying no that they miss opportunities. Even when they do take a chance, they are nearly always tempted to drop someone with a slight flaw for a virtual perfection who pops into their feed.

(Stronger labor markets, btw, are reducing noise in this system as companies compete for workers and employed people waste less time on social media fantasies.)

My one-handed conclusion is that social media companies are making our lives worse by giving us false hopes, wasting our time, and selling our data. As above, I suggest spending more time in meat-space and less time in cyber-space.

Weekend reading

  1. Trolls, Trump and college professors (?!) are responsible for America’s loss of civil discourse.
  2. The lessons of the financial crisis have not been learned.
  3. The best (?) supermarket in the US? (I think so.)
  4. This podcast with James Kenneth Galbraith (son of the more famous Galbraith) is interesting, even if he’s a bit smug.
  5. Would women with “real” rights stop carrying babies and instead focus on community? Related (?): Communists had a sex-positive culture.
  6. We all use drugs. 
  7. Cities are getting better at using “meanwhile” spaces.
  8. “Reagan’s true legacy is a hollowing out of the middle class… that ultimately led to the financial crisis, a stupendous increase in the national debt, and a rise in inequality that gave rise to an oligarchy… and the resentment that elected Trump.” Read the paper [pdf].
  9. Housing cannot be affordable AND a good investment. Choose one.
  10. Veganism can “save the world” one soy-sausage at a time!

H/T to CD

Weekend reading

  1. An update on the massive damage from palm oil plantations in Indonesia. What’s driving the destruction? American biofuel policies.
  2. Amazon delivers fast and cheap, but that’s the price of heavy workloads and stress. A 10 percent price increase might mean the difference between their misery and a sustainable work environment.
  3. Investors might cause a real revolution in climate policy if Exxon loses this lawsuit on deceiving investors over its climate change risk.
  4. Cryptoprices are down 80+ percent from their high, but the “decentralized web” (Web 3.0) is carrying on. Here’s an interesting tale of a social media site that was shut down because it was not decentralized enough.
  5. In Pontevedra, 80 percent of kids age 6 to 12 walk alone to school
  6. Who earns the most? Not the selfish (defectors) or generous (cooperators) but the mostly but not entirely unselfish. According to my research [pdf], about 70-80 percent of people are in this last category.
  7. Some insights into Russia’s “Silk Road” [Darknet market]
  8. How to get organized.
  9. “Weather and climate disasters in the United States cost an estimated $306 billion in 2017, about $100 billion more than ever before. Climate change isn’t an abstract threat for our grandchildren. It’s here.
  10. A bribery case highlights how Venezuelan officials are making $billions off government controls and currency manipulation. Citizens suffer.

H/T to PB

 

 

Published! The Best of Aguanomics

I thought I’d have this book out last May, but it takes a lot of time to choose 445 posts (out of 5,460), edit them into a manuscript, and then make editing corrections (with the help of nearly 20 people). 

But now that process is done, and The Best of Aguanomics is available! 

What does that mean to you? Read on…

Should you buy it? 
Not unless you’re going to read it. I am selling the book at cost (Amazon has added its 60 percent markup but that’s not money to me), so don’t buy it to send me money 😉

Should you read it?
The book is nearly 700 pages, but it’s not meant to be read cover to cover.  I included posts if they contributed either to discussions on important topics  or to exploring how I developed my thinking on ideas over the 11-year history of the blog. For examples of “important,” consider posts I wrote on agricultural policy, water auctions, important books, psychology, political corruption, academic failure, and many other topics (MOT). For examples of “development,” consider the collections I wrote on pricing water, climate change, and MOT. See below for MOT.

My main goal with this book was to summarize the best out of a massive body of work. I think it’s best read as a sampler that gives you a new topic each day (the average post is 500 words).

The book is available in paperback only on Amazon.com ($15.40), Amazon.co.uk (£12.80) and Amazon.de (€16.00). FYI, I am not providing kindle or PDF versions of the book because I want to encourage people to sit with a physical thing and think at their leisure about interesting ideas. 

Here’s a short video introduction to the book:

How about a sample to give me an idea of MOT?
This PDF has the table of contents, Introduction and bits of 2 chapters.

Bonus: This spreadsheet has links to all 445 posts, grouped by chapter. You can use this as a “cheat” way to read the book, but I don’t recommend it because (1) there are so many posts and (2) I wrote a little bit about every post to put it into context (see the PDF sample). 

Enjoy!

Weekend reading

  1. Down and Out in New York’s Bowery
  2. Sustainable (non-animal) foods are finally taking market share via taste and value (instead of guilt). This is a tipping point.
  3. How bad is it in Venezuela? So bad that the indigenous people (you know, the people who have lived there for thousands of years) are fleeing. That says something about their adoption of modern life styles (consumption), but also about the loss of their traditional means of mitigating risk.
  4. Turkey’s dam projects are destroying the environment and thousands of years of heritage to deliver profits to construction companies. (The photographer was arrested for a month by Turkey’s paranoid government, which imprisons more journalists than any other country.)
  5. Bitcoin miners are on track to use all the world’s electricity. Something will change, but I have no idea.
  6. What happens when women win election? Good stuff. Keep going, I say!
  7. The war on sugar — an interesting podcast
  8. If you want to learn more about water (conflict) between Israel and Palestine, then I suggest reading this very interesting paper on wastewater management in the region. The authors are also looking for feedback, so free free to contact them!
  9. Plan on dying at 75. Your life will be more enjoyable and less hopeless. Related: Genes determine only about 6 percent of life expectancy.
  10. I’m pleased to see an initial international effort to police ocean pollution

 

 

Forgetting things past

Under the GDPR, EU residents have gained several important rights over their data. (Privacy laws are weak in the US and non-existent in China.) 
 
One of them is the “right to be forgotten,” which tries to balance the right to privacy against the public’s need to know history. 
 
This post is not about these rights, but the actions that we can take to improve our remembrance of things past, i.e., removing details that might have been interesting for a few days or months but no longer matter to us.
 
As examples, consider emails you wrote to someone you no longer date, silly photos of events long ago, or tweets in reply to a once-urgent-but-now-forgotten conversation.
 
The main idea of deleting, cleaning or summarizing your past is not to whitewash it but to align with our natural tendency (or ability) to forget events (both good and bad) over time. This tendency is very useful, but it loses its power if our digital detritus is saved and shown to us (or others) when we (they) are looking for something else.
 
Even worse, the rise of artificial intelligence means that companies that are storing our data on various clouds (dropbox, iCloud, google drive, etc.) are increasingly likely to mine those data to build algorithms that they will use to make money.
 
Thus, in the past few years, I have:

(Note that I have kept copies of all these deleted items on a back-up hard drive — just in case — but I kinda doubt I’ll ever look at that stuff. Years ago, I threw away the negatives from a few thousand rolls of film I shot while traveling for five years. I’ve not missed them. I still have most of my travel diaries from that period, but I have no temptation to read the detailed scribbles of my 25-year-old self.)

My one-handed conclusion is that you should take control of your digital memory, first to protect yourself from the bots and second to free your memory to keep what’s really important. This control takes more effort than letting things pile up, but the resulting privacy and calm should make the effort worthwhile.

Weekend reading

  1. Most medical academic studies are wrong… due to a bias of publishing exciting (outlier) statistical results.
  2. How one Amsterdam neighborhood saved itself from homeless junkies… only to lose itself to tourists attracted to its quaint charm
  3. Silicon Valley is driving the technology that’s creating a “useless class” — and they don’t mind. Related: Fascism simplifies life (before it destroys it)
  4. Metabolism affects our weight, but it’s hard to “manage”
  5. The value of “do nothing” on your to-do list. Related: Slow down your internet life to enjoy your real life
  6. In a randomized control trial, psychologists show that people who limit social media use are less depressed than those who do not. 
  7. Nature vs commerce on the Mississippi
  8. Some Trump supporters are betting Iraqi dinars will suddenly rise in value. That’s as likely as Trump telling the truth. Related: Authoritarianism.
  9. They should read “5 principles for making better life decisions
  10. Tim Cook: “For artificial intelligence to be truly smart it must respect human values — including privacy. If we get this wrong, the dangers are profound.” Related: The AI Cold War (see also my discussion)

America’s Pravda

When I visited my father a few weeks ago in California, I was forced to listen to Fox “News” for more than the 12 seconds that I can usually stand. What struck me then was its relentless devotion to all things Trump and obsession with tiny slights that served Republican talking points (like four days of discussion of Jim Acosta’s refusal to give up the mike while asking Trump questions at the press conference). 

What I didn’t realize is how far Fox has strayed from any objective definition of news-reporting or journalism. As this VOX video shows — with clips of Fox personalities — the channel has basically morphed into a full time propaganda machine for the Republican Party. Yes, that may be profitable, but it’s also horrible to see tactics borrowed from Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and the Soviet Union’s Russia’s Pravda (un-ironically meaning “truth”) in the US. 

Watch the video and tell me that you’re ok with that. (If you are, then I have a few dictators whose prisons you’d enjoy.)

My one-handed conclusion is that a few too many Americans seem to prefer delusion to truth and tribal loyalties to national strength. Sad.