Weekend reading

  1. The Street Debater (the “yes-no-on-Brexit”-scale in the photo) gives beggars a way to engage passers-by on topics. Much better than a sign and a hat, and the design is open-source to download.
  2. Dog cloning: rich people and entrepreneur-scientists are pushing technology and ethics to the limit. Human baby cloning? When, not if.
  3. Students from poorer backgrounds can’t just use “grit” to succeed. What they need is agency, which is in short supply in the US.
  4. Americans view “economic health” through the lens of their political affiliation, a tendency that’s common in poorer corrupt countries. Bad sign.
  5. Good competition helps everyone; bad competition harms the powerless.
  6. The end of the liberal order means a return to the power politics, exploitation and conflict of the 19th century, except this time, it may be the (formerly) colonized dealing the pain and taking the gain.
  7. A fascinating discussion of autism between 1.25 autistics.
  8. John Oliver on Astroturfing (i.e., the lie behind “Americans for Prosperity”, “Latinos for water,” et al.) and the identity politics of mayonnaise (!)
  9. The real people of IAmsterdam, a city whose charms continue to seduce me.
  10. Americans “pay” an average of $1,600 per year in “the costs of sprawl.” The  worst offenders are in band from Arizona to Florida. High housing prices in SF and NY may reflect their low “costs of sprawl.”

 

 

 

 

Who has the time to get stuff done?

(I’m taking a break from a multi-day painting project to write this. The irony!)

Most people juggle a mess of overlapping, conflicting time demands arising from a variety of obligations and desires. Running at 110 percent means that there’s always something waiting to be done. (Social media makes this problem worse because it’s common for “a quick scroll” to absorb so much time that you’re not only late for your next to do, but stressed because you “haven’t had a breather” between tasks…)

The problem with piecemeal, jammed schedules is that people have a hard time devoting a block of time (3-4 hours) to a topic, let alone finding 3-4 hours on short notice for an urgent topic. 

Thus, we see an equilibrium where everyone is rushed, each task only gets a little attention, and it’s much harder for a group project to advance in a timely manner. Indeed, it’s much more common to have a three-person project drag on over several weeks instead of getting done in a few hours. The delays are mostly around coordination, because each person, as they turn to the project, needs an update from others, which means delay and confusion before they can even start, let alone send their part to others. In these conditions, transaction costs are high and the whole process annoying. (Trans-disciplinary communication among academics can be particularly bad due to jargon and work norms, let alone philosophical disagreements.)

There are two ways forward from these issues. For individuals, it’s to cut back on casual tasks, leave gaps empty for a breather, and set aside empty blocks of time each week. (I can’t remember where, but I read a few months ago about a very successful person who had blocked out two free days per week.)

For groups, the issue is worse because the person with the worst agenda is going to set the pace for everyone else, losing even more time and annoying even more people. 

I thought of this topic two months ago while at a conference with 700 economists in such a hurry to get to their presentations or find one of 25 parallel sessions that they hardly had any time to think, let alone extend serendipitous meetings into the conversations they might deserve.

So my suggestion for groups is that they go for a “hackathon” concept in which everyone works only on one topic for 1-3 days. The key elements — presence, communication and deadline — will aid success by setting expectations, collecting all decision makers and aiding problem solving.

I suspect that every company, academic department and family could get a lot more done by scheduling 2-4 “hacks” per year, with details (fix a nagging problem, design a new idea, etc.) decided as the date approaches. These hacks will be more productive because everyone will be there, the deadline will force attention onto ugly issues, and progress will motivate everyone to keep pushing for the next step.

My one-handed advice is to set aside more “empty blocks” for yourself and schedule a block for your family or work. 

Do you see anything familiar here? How do you get stuff done?

Weekend reading

  1. All too true.
    A useful look into the statistics on cancer and how the “war on cancer” is going…
  2. Great podcast/interview with an economist who writes for The Economist on trade and tariffs. 
  3. Mr Money Mustache explains cost accounting, i.e., why avoiding is better than renting which is better than buying.
  4. China’s ban on “contaminated” recyclables (see my prior post) wrecks ambitious plans of American cities that didn’t count on paying much to recycle.
  5. Some useful insights on improving airline efficiency (I wasn’t so convinced by the big data sales pitch at the end).
  6. Physicists provide insights into GDP growth by ignoring misleading details and sticking with basic theory.
  7. Private entrepreneurs are helping Yemenis get drinking water as their government and public systems fail.
  8. Youval Hariri: “As a species, humans prefer power to truth” so some of us “speak truth to power” people have a hard job…
  9. Residents of Amsterdam’s Red Light District fight for priority over tourism.
  10. Americans view “economic health” through the lens of their political affiliation, a tendency that’s common in poorer corrupt countries. 

H/T to MV

Living with Water Scarcity in Farsi

Iran also faces dehydration problems!

I published Living with Water Scarcity in 2014 and made it free to download shortly thereafter. In 2015, I published  Vivir con la escasez de agua, the Spanish version of the book, which was translated with the aid of volunteers and is also free to download.

Now I am very pleased to announce the Farsi-version of my book [PDF], which was also translated by volunteers. I hope  this version makes my political-economic ideas on water management more accessible to Farsi-speakers in Iran and elsewhere.

For the introduction, I wrote:

Dear Reader,

You are now holding the Farsi translation of my book, Living with Water Scarcity, which contains — I hope — many ideas that may be useful to you and your communities.

I was born and raised in California, an American state whose weather and water patterns sometimes resemble those of Iran. California’s agricultural industry specializes in fruits, vegetables and nuts (almonds and pistachios).

I didn’t know very much about water management in California before studying for my PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics (University of California Davis, 2002-2008), but I quickly learned that California has many problems. Farmers use 80 percent of the water but they always want more, so they have dried out rivers and emptied aquifers. In cities, there are problems with breaking pipes and poor water quality because too little money is spent on maintenance. Many cities have too little supply for local demand but price their water so cheaply that people waste it. Some cities are spending billions of dollars on desalination plants to get more supply while farmers flood desert fields with water that costs less than one percent of city prices. Politicians and water managers have talked about solutions for decades, but most of their ideas involve taking more water from ecosystems rather than reducing demand to sustainable levels. Climate change (which I call “climate disruption”) is making everything worse.

I’ve never visited Iran, but I have visited many countries in the region, and I am eager to learn more about your people, your land and your culture.

I am also eager to learn more about water in Iran: where it is, how you use it, and how you will live with water scarcity in the next 100 years.

In preparing this introduction, I did a little reading to learn more about water in your country. I already knew about qanats, but I was surprised to read that some of these systems are still working after 2,500 years. Sadly, I also learned that many qanats have fallen into disuse as communities have lost the traditions of collectively maintaining and repairing damage. One reason this has happened, I read, is that it has been easier and cheaper to pump water directly from the ground — a system that seems better in the short run but takes so much water that some land is forever dead.

I also read that farmers use around 90 percent of Iran’s water, with the rest going to municipal and industrial uses. These basic statistics make me wonder: who gets how much of that water? I suspect that larger industrial farms use more water. That’s what happens in California.

Those human uses add up to 100 percent, which makes me wonder how much water is left for the environment? I read that your Lake Urmia [see cover image above] is dying as its water is taken and its rivers dry out. Did you know that California used to have the largest freshwater lake in the western United States? Farmers dried out Tulare Lake with the help of government subsidies and laws that let them take as much as they wanted. Today, those same farmers are using groundwater so fast that their land is dropping by 10cm per year in some areas.

I read that some Iranians think that new dams and longer canals will bring enough water to allow “business as usual” to continue. In my experience those costly solutions don’t help because they increase water stress and risk for communities losing their water without encouraging sustainable use in the places receiving it.

As an economist, I know that my ideas (raise prices to reduce use, for example) are not very popular because nobody likes paying more for anything, but I am sure that you agree that it’s better to pay more to get a reliable supply instead of paying less to get nothing at all. Price increases, of course, have different impacts on rich and poor, so it’s important to try to protect the poor from those increases, just as it’s important to protect them from shortages.

Climate disruption will complicate all water management as it brings higher temperatures, stronger storms, and longer droughts. I moved to the Netherlands because the Dutch are good at managing their abundant water, but we are now struggling with a drought that is killing crops, drying rivers and increasing costs. Even here, it takes work to manage water for the benefit of all, today and in the future.

The bottom line is that increasing water scarcity means that people need to change their laws, habits and institutions of water management. This book will give you some ideas of how to do that.

I hope you enjoy it, and please do contact me (in English) if you have ideas, news or information that will teach me about your unique country. One day, I will visit.

Khoda hafez [Goodbye :)]

David Zetland Amsterdam (25 July 2018)

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