Yes to more women in power

Women have come a long way in the past 100 years: “receiving” the right to vote, “being allowed” to work outside the house, “having the choice” of pregnancy. Some of these rights have been “taken” but the majority has been “given” by men who are not always happy to be losing power.

Men still tend to dominate aggressive professions such as sports, business and politics. Although competition in those professions can be helpful, it can also bring destruction, cheating, and social misery. * 

I’m not going to argue on the exact blend of social and biological characteristics inherent in gender, as that mix is irrelevant in comparison to the outcomes of gendered behavior.

What’s interesting (and my point) here is that women’s rising political and economic power should (will?) lead to different dynamics around cooperation and competition. This is not just me saying “mommies are better” but a predictable outcome of gender socialization and evolutionary biology.

Women, for example, do not take as many risks as men because they do not care as much about the additional mating opportunities that come with wealth and fame. Less risk also means more cooperation since risk is an individual pursuit (think “first to the top of a mountain” or “grabbing the job”) and cooperation a collective pursuit.

Coming from a different angle, it’s also possible to view risk and cooperation though the lens of motivation, rewards and punishments. When it comes to group activities, it’s sometimes hard to know who has done what for (or against) the interests of the group. In these circumstances, a strong intrinsic (internal) motivation to cooperate is valuable, since there’s no need to invoke extrinsic (external) rewards or punishment for free-riding. In a co-authored paper on this topic, we found that women paid more attention to collective actions than men, meaning that they are more likely to cooperate when that goal is publicized. (Men are also cooperative, but not as sensitive to cues of where and how to do so.)

I’ve taught a course on cooperation in the production of collective goods for a few years now (I’m starting again in a few weeks), and I looked up the student grades, to see if more men or women were rewarded for cooperation (or penalized for free riding) by others in their group. Ignoring many statistical caveats, the raw data looks like this:

  Rewarded Penalized
Male (37 total) 35% (n=13) 65% (n=24)
Female (52 total) 48% (n=25) 52% (n=27)

These numbers support the idea that women in these groups were more cooperative than men, but let me add two caveats. The first is that rewards and punishments were zero-sum, so it would be impossible to have 100% within a group but not impossible to have 100% here (e.g., groups are 50% free riding men and 50% cooperative women). Second, students knew that they would be graded for their cooperation (extrinsic motivation!), but there’s still quite a gap between men and women.

My one-handed conclusion is that a larger share of women with political and/or economic power is going to result in more cooperation and more punishment for defection. That will be good for the commons of our societies, the environment, and humanity in general.


Ps: My mother died over 30 years ago, but her birthday recently passed. In my experience growing up, I received more care from women than men, who tended to focus on money (and themselves). #checkyourbias

* Addendum (15 Aug): “The average age of admission to a trauma center is about 22. It used to be 90 percent male. Now, it’s only like 84 percent male. Women are becoming as stupid as men.”

Weekend reading

  1. China’s Big Brother surveillance has locked down its Uighur people
  2. Some American governments are slowing retreating from the coasts, as climate change makes “rebuild stronger” impossible.
  3. Academic economists are catching on to the idea that people work for reasons besides money. Read this, this and this.
  4. Taking experiments outside the lab and into policy testing
  5. Gender quotas for politicians are strengthening in Latin America. I endorse this policy as a means of improving women’s rights and policy in general.
  6. Climate change’s non-linear impacts: collapsing Australian ecosystems and (holy shit) the misery of whales (and other species) suffering from constant human impacts. 
  7. Sci-hub circumvents paywalls, making academic research available to everyone. Aaron Swartz fought for this.
  8. Institutional innovation under climate change: A global survey of 96 cities
  9. Using blockchain to track and reward farmers for sustainable practices
  10. The Economist goes back to its liberal roots to defend society against the tyranny of the majority. First up: John Stewart Mill, who supported women’s suffrage (etc.) 50 years before it became fact. My favorite is his defense of free trade (and migration): “It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.

Published: Water civilization

After a few years (and 22 revisions), our paper* has been published!

In “Water civilization: The evolution of the Dutch drinking water sector” Bene Colenbrander and I trace the history of policy, technology, and cultural changes that took the Netherlands from a country with no drinking water infrastructure to one with a world-class system.

The abstract explains:

Dutch drinking water companies now deliver safe affordable water to the entire population, but this result was not planned. It emerged, rather, from an evolutionary process in which various pressures on the commons resulted in changes to drinking water systems that addressed old concerns but uncovered new problems. Our analytical narrative traces this problem-solution-new problem pattern through four eras in which a common-pool dilemma is addressed by a private-good solution (1850-1880), a club-good solution (1880-1910) and a public-good solution (1910-1950) before returning to a private-good solution in the last 1950-1990 era. Actions, like the dates just given, were not always exact or effective, as the process was shaped by changing social norms regarding the distribution of costs and benefits from improved water services. This Dutch history is unique, but its insights can help improve drinking water services elsewhere.

This academic paper of 36 pages might seem irrelevant for a non-Dutch reader or daunting for a lay reader, but we suggest you give it a go. For non-Dutch, there are lessons on the difficulty of change and how interest groups fight over money and public health. For non-academics, this paper explores  the complexity of changes that took over 100 years to implement. 

One of the paper’s key features is our model describing how drinking water service could be described as one of four types of “economic good,” depending on conditions. This model is not new, but our application to this history is novel and (we think) helpful in explaining how various barriers arose or were overcome. It took quite some time to make it simple and many words to describe how it works, but we think that readers can learn a lot from the model, which can be used elsewhere. We hope you agree!

My one-handed conclusion is that it’s always difficult to implement systems that benefit all at a cost to a minority, but also that there are many cases (as with drinking water) where implementation creates net benefits. The difference between communities that can change and those that cannot is the difference between life and death, between development and failure.

* You can download a PDF from my personal site or get it via the publisher’s webpage [paywall/login].

Weekend reading

Stop plastic pollution (bag deposits will help)
  1. Great TED talk on how fast technology is eliminating any pretense that we will have privacy (e.g., pitching adverts to you with “spokespeople” whose faces are copied from photos of your Facebook friends).
  2. In the 1870s came rail and steamship technology, which brought economic gains (via larger markets) and social oppression (via colonialism).
  3. How Amsterdam’s government doubled down on failed decisions regarding its metro.
  4. The Dutch are dealing with their “9/11” differently. They know the Russians are responsible, but they cannot invade. It will be a patience game.
  5. Russia tried to shut down Telegram and kneecapped itself. (Read this to learn of how little privacy Russians have online: your name and address costs only $0.01.) I use Telegram because I trust its encryption more than I trust WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) with anything. Telegram is a Russian app, btw 😉
  6. Watch this video on the challenges entrepreneurs face in Senegal (typical for developing countries). Want more? Watch Poverty Inc.
  7. Mr Money Mustache explains cost accounting, i.e., why avoid > rent > buy.
  8. Behavioral economics starts to grow up (less hype, more balance)
  9. Work norms in America are killing people.
  10. A very long introduction to the claim (and probably fact) that “Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace,” i.e., egalitarian life did not end when hunter gatherers moved to cities.

H/T to CD

China doesn’t want your rubbish

I was a bit surprised to hear (from one of my students) that China banned the import of “low value materials” for recycling in the country in July 2017. This move has raised panic in many countries that had been using China as a “dumping ground” but also some head shaking among economists who prefer to see more, rather than less trade, as trade allows countries and people to specialize in what they do best (“comparative advantage”). 

I think those reactions are not as important as two other points. 

First, it shows that the Chinese government is willing to “stand up” for its people, by blocking the import of garbage. That perspective might be slightly distorted by nationalism and NIMBYism, but it is probably more popular with citizens than efficiency or potential job losses in the recycling industry. (It’s also popular with proponents of the “circular economy” who want to see more local management of inputs and waste outputs.)

Second, I don’t think there will be many job losses, as this move fits into a trend of “greening” China that has been developing over the past decade. This trend might be invisible in the statistics for air quality or coal consumption, just as it is perhaps over-emphasized in the massive deployment of solar and wind power, but there’s clearly something going on. In this case, I see an “interesting” (not accidental) confluence between the sudden drop in international demand for Chinese recycling services (via the ban on imports) and a growing desire to clean up China, which translates into a domestic demand for recycling. The ban, in other words, might be part of a plan to shift Chinese productive capacity towards domestic consumers.

For evidence of an intentional shift, I’ll note that China has been placing less emphasis on export-led economic growth and more emphasis on the domestic-driven sort (since the 2011-2015 Five Year Plan), meaning that an increasing share of firms and workers are now selling goods and services to fellow citizens rather than internationally. *  

How far do they want to go? Guess…

My one-handed conclusion is that China’s ban on imported waste is part of its ongoing policy of improving life for its increasingly wealthy citizens who demand better, cleaner lives.


* Read PDF reports from McKinsey (2009) and the Demand Institute (2015)

Weekend reading

  1. This is indeed what cyber warfare will look like. Stay tuned, but people may not know its happened until years after it’s too late.
  2. Transwomen are to women…” and an economist on how s/he transitioned and knew she “succeeded”: men ignored her ideas.
  3. This Argentinian hitchhiked across 90+ countries to meet people and understand our common humanity.
  4. Alcohol is not good for sleep and melatonin for sleeping.
  5. A math-economist on markets and complexity.
  6. Zuckerberg won’t fire himself on handling the world’s “social network utility.” It would be better if he did and Facebook was reorganized as a non-profit that served its users instead of its advertisers (and Russians).
  7. “The brilliance of the Russian move is to make domestic failure into foreign policy success. No one in Russia thinks that Russia is a success in conventional terms. What their leaders want them to believe is that everyone else is also a failure.
  8. Manipulating Amazon’s book rankings (and revenues), a romance.
  9. Rural Arizona flounders as its farmers pump aquifers dry and residents “cope,” unable to find consensus or pass a law on sustainable use.
  10. The Dutch governing coalition says it “needs 2 years” to write a law for deposits on bottles and cans (as a means of reducing litter), in the meantime “hoping industry can fix this.” What a failure of public service.

H/T to DL

So what happens in a drought?

If you were walking along the path on an island in Gothenberg’s archipelago, you might have thought you’d run into another selfie-mad idiot, but that’s me doing a TV interview on drought in the Netherlands.

Not just any idiot

Only a few seconds of that interview was aired (I show up at 2:40), but my main points — that farmers and nature would bear the brunt, unlike citizens who would still have 24/7 drinking water — have been showing up in the news, along with some interesting infrastructure implications:

My one-handed conclusion is that heat waves and drought, which are getting worse with climate disruption, are going to cause a lot of trouble for people as well as lower our standard of living. (I just spent €50 on a fan that I could have spent on wine!)

Quantified disappointment

I am a big fan of statistics, facts and data, and the internet has made quantification easy, fast and cheap. In fact, I think a little too easy, fast and cheap for our own good (or my own good).

As you know, you can get market data by the second, count your “friends” on social media, see precisely how much something you’ve done is “liked,” or even check your bank balance as you ride an elevator. 

As a blogger, I can get data on how many visitors come by my site, which posts are viewed more often, where these visitors come from, and so on.

Except now, on this blog, I do none of those things that I used to do at Aguanomics. I dropped tracking to reduce flows to the “data dragnets” deployed by Google (via their free “Analytics” service), Facebook (via their “like” button) and other services. I also chose ignorance for my own sanity, as I have no real way of using the data to write better posts (I don’t use advertising, so I don’t need to refine garbage clickbait posts), and I can’t really get a quality feedback from quantified activity. 

As evidence (for myself), I can think of the many terrible articles on topics I know that get 1000x the reads/likes/shares on other sites, along with dozens of ignorant, simplistic, and trying-to-be-helpful-falling-on-deaf-ears comments. I can also remember “Ask Me Anythings” that I’ve done on Reddit that had 300 to 5,000 upvotes. Those votes disappointed and thrilled me, respectively, and they did reflect different degrees of engagement, but they did not perhaps represent failure or success to readers. If anything, I had more time to give better answers in the “slow” AMAs than I did in the popular ones, where the same question was asked ten times, and I struggled to give short answers to everyone.

We all know that it’s taboo to “talk salary” with friends, family and co-workers because those conversations rarely go well. Maybe it’s nice to know that you make more than anyone, but does that knowledge actually mean anything? Are you happier? Healthier? What about your relations with work colleagues? At my university job, we know we make roughly the same salary because we’re on a bureaucratic scale, and that knowledge removes at least one source of friction that might exist at a job where people are paid based on their negotiating skills, the boss’s prejudice and/or some quantified dimension that may not correlate very well with your actual contribution. 

When I give grades to students, I see exactly the same dynamics: They give too much attention to the grade (especially when nitpicking to raise it) and  too little attention to my comments on what they did right and wrong and how to improve. They resist when I say “grades don’t matter,” as they know that many graduate schools and hiring departments will judge them by their grades, but maybe that filtering indicates that study or work in those places will involve an endless chase after even more grades or KPIs? 

I’m rather happy and relieved to lack data on how popular this new blog is, as it leaves me free to think more about what to write. I am happy to be off Facebook (and, soon, Twitter), as I don’t need to worry about how many likes my latest brainfart post gets, or from whom, or in comparison to the paid popularity of some “thought leader.”

It’s no accident that (sane) people ask “do you love me?” when they need some attention instead of “how much do you love me?”, as it’s easy to be pleased with “yes” and far-too-easy to be disappointed with “7.8.”

My one-handed conclusion is that we need less, not more, quantification in our complex, multi-dimensional, and unique lives.

What quantification would you banish to improve your life? Why don’t you?

Weekend reading

  1. The Netherlands is in drought >> 
  2. Are Americans buying big houses to show off (and risk) their wealth?
  3. A long but insightful look at US-China relations — and how Trump’s personality is undermining America’s future.
  4. A libertarian leaves China after 9 years. Read this essay on rule of law bureaucratic dictatorship.
  5. A podcast with Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist who was in the lead to push back against the “mathurbation” version of economics that doesn’t work in reality
  6. American intellectuals trying to break out of the D-R axis
  7. A very nice podcast on bringing civility back to American discourse
  8. The academic left that downplayed Cambodia’s genocide
  9. How the Dutch use sand dunes to filter their drinking water
  10. What’s the value of crypto? Read this interview with Vitalik Buterin, creator of the ethereum protocol.

The gender-pay gap misses manly risk

The debate over the gender-pay gap has raged for years, and we know quite a bit about it. This 2017 paper, for example, indicates that the gender gap has been shrinking while the motherhood gap has persisted.

I’m not here to question these findings or the “fairness” of the gap, but reflect a little more on motherhood, risk and productivity.

As a first step, let’s agree that men tend to take more risks than women, on average. These risks might be good for society (inventions! discoveries!), but they can be bad for individual men (death!) or their firms (bankruptcy!), so risk will be relevant to firms, profits and productivity.

Turning to motherhood, we know that it’s predictable (at least in the last few months that might lead to maternity leave), that it’s likely to reduce a mother’s availability for the job, and probably going to lead to even less risky behavior by a mother who wants to take care of herself, her child(ren), and family.

Employers might pay women less for their predictable chance of having children but fail to reduce men’s pay for the unpredictable risks they bring…

Taken together, we can suppose that employers might pay women less for their predictable chance of having children but fail to reduce men’s pay for the unpredictable risks they bring to the firm. The list of such risks is long and stereotypical: lying salesmen, heart-attack stress, over-aggressive purchases,  bad hires based on hunches, sexual harassment, etc. These risks are hard to predict or plan for, so they are more like uncertainties (“known unknowns”) than risks that can be insured against, which means that firms may be “paying too much” for the generic male employee.

My one-handed conclusion is that the risk of a woman having a baby might  be correctly priced in terms of a wage discount while the risk of errant male behavior may not be correctly priced, meaning that men (especially those who are younger, childless and/or aggressive towards their careers) may be paid too much, relative to the risk they represent to the firm.


Note: This post also links to my earlier post on “pondering” because women — in my experience — tend to wait and ponder before acting while men rush into action without as much reflection. (Got an angry email to send? Write it today but send it tomorrow, after a good sleep and careful reread.)