Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Sharing Economy – Including the @$$holes

A friend of mine who has made it into his sixth decade without ever sullying himself with gainful employment is now doing deliveries, shared-economy style. (Packages, not people via Uber or Lyft.) I thought he was going to rail against the system when he described what is new in his life, but his attitude surprised me. Transcribed, to the best my of my recollection, his comments were:

So I went down for orientation. There were a bunch of people just like me. Basically, @$$holes who don’t deal well with people. @$$holes who don’t want a job, and couldn’t keep a job if they could get one. What I love about the shared economy is that it allows @$$holes like me to participate. I work when I want, and I’m getting somewhat regular income for the first time in my life.

Obviously, not everyone in the sharing economy is an @$$hole. I’ve met some nice people while taking Lyft, for instance, or staying somewhere through airBNB. And my wife is a superhost on airBNB. I’d be afraid to call her an @$$hole. On the other hand, the only person with whom I have an acquaintance who regularly drives for Uber and/or Lyft has a personality that is best described with words like “volatile” and “belligerent.” In any case, I don’t think he is capable of holding down an actual job but he doesn’t seem to have a problem driving strangers around on short trips.

So maybe one unexpected benefit of the sharing economy is that it has made some otherwise unemployable people into productive citizens.

Update: 10/22/2017, 4:57 AM – corrected first sentence by changing word “fifth” to “sixth.”

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On the Effect of the Gender Composition of the Editorial Boards for Top Economics Journals

Here’s the abstract of a discussion paper from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics by Felix Bransch and Michael Kvasnicka:

Using data on articles published in the top-five economic journals in the period 1991 to 2010, we explore whether the gender composition of editorial boards is related to the publishing success of female authors and to the quality of articles that get published. Our results show that female editors reduce, rather than increase, the share of articles that are (co-)authored by females. We also find evidence that female editors benefit article quality at low levels of representation on editorial boards, but harm article quality at higher levels. Several robustness checks corroborate these findings. Our results are broadly consistent with existing evidence on the behavior of gender-mixed hiring committees and of relevance for gender equality policy.

The rest of the article is also at the link.

Consider this post to be a follow up to this one.

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Race is a Social Construct

Back to back on my to read list were two articles that made an odd juxtaposition. First up was Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue in the once great Scientific American. Here’s a representative blurb:

More than 100 years ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned that race was being used as a biological explanation for what he understood to be social and cultural differences between different populations of people. He spoke out against the idea of “white” and “black” as discrete groups, claiming that these distinctions ignored the scope of human diversity.

Science would favor Du Bois. Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning. And yet, you might still open a study on genetics in a major scientific journal and find categories like “white” and “black” being used as biological variables.

The article goes on as a confused mish-mash, and includes a comment that one researcher feels that

modern genetics research is operating in a paradox, which is that race is understood to be a useful tool to elucidate human genetic diversity, but on the other hand, race is also understood to be a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relationship between ancestry and genetics.

Of course, when people think “race” they think ancestry. Ask a random person to classify people whose ancestors lived in what is now Japan, Sweden, and Uganda 2,500 years ago and he/she will, with little difficulty in most cases, classify those people as “Asian,” “European” and “Black,” respectively. Other objections to discussing race include the fact that people travel, and sometimes procreate after they’ve moved. Additionally, the fact that not all White people are exactly alike, and not all Black people are exactly alike, etc.,  is also viewed as problematic.

Next up on my reading list was Impact of common genetic determinants of Hemoglobin A1c on type 2 diabetes risk and diagnosis in ancestrally diverse populations: A transethnic genome-wide meta-analysis in PLOS Medicine. Here are a few quotes:

Blood glucose binds in an irreversible manner to circulating hemoglobin in red blood cells (RBCs), generating “glycated hemoglobin,” called HbA1c. HbA1c is used to diagnose and monitor diabetes…. About 11% of people of African American ancestry carry at least one copy of this G6PDvariant, while almost no one of any other ancestry does. We estimated that if we tested all Americans for diabetes using HbA1c, about 650,000 African Americans would be missed because of these genetically lowered HbA1c levels… This work supports a role for a precision medicine application to reduce race-ethnic health disparities using HbA1c genetics to improve T2D diagnosis and prediction and to inform screening strategies for T2D across the African continent where the prevalence of the G6PD variant can reach 20%.

From what I can tell reading medical and genetic literature, there is a collage industry in which scholars tell us that “race is a social construct without biological meaning.” But there is a second cottage industry in which a different group of scholars looks for genetic manifestations that strongly correlate with that particular biologically meaningless social construct.

The first cottage industry also warns us (to quote the Scientific American article again) that:

Assumptions about genetic differences between people of different races have had obvious social and historical repercussions, and they still threaten to fuel racist beliefs.

Meanwhile, members of the second cottage industry seems hell bent on trying to save lives. It is all very odd.


Update, 10/18/2017, 5:48 AM PST – minor grammatical error corrected by removing the word “with” following the word “mish-mash.”

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CRISPR Critters

The first applications of gene editing are (will be?) to fix deleterious mutations. Nobody, or almost nobody, will complain when previously horrible diseases get fixed before a child is born. But the practice won’t stop there. There will be a progression of editing services from muscular dystrophy to hairlip to more ahtleticism, and eventually, more hair or a more attractive nose. The last two may take a while.

But what will be really interesting will be the tweaking of genes that fix cognitive issues. Again, its a matter of progression. Nobody – OK, almost nobody – will complain in a decade or three when Downs’ Syndrome is edited out of a fetus. From there, bringing a mildly retarded child to normal is a barely an ethical step at all. After that, well, perhaps someone destined to be of normal intelligence can be made smarter than average, or even a borderline genius along one or another dimension.

The timing of this whole process of enhancement will depend on its complexity and difficulty, and the difficulty of dealing with trade-offs that might exist. It is possible, but unlikely, that a single tweak of the genome will bring a noticeable leap in IQ. But it is more likely to require making a lot of small changes to the genome.

Timing also matters in and of itself. An evolutionary process may cause less social upheaval than a revolutionary process. Its one thing to go from cohorts with today’s intelligence to something we’d call a genius today over a period of a century or more. Its another to achieve that over half of a generation.

But regardless of details, its all coming. At some point there will be generations with large numbers of genetically edited young people. And they will be different. On average, they may have some combination of trait we deem desirable. These include athleticism, beauty, creativity, perseverance and intelligence. But those genetically edited people, however different, will also be the same as the rest of us in a few key ways. They will simply be individuals, trying to make their way through life as well as they can. They won’t be a single monolithic entity, and they won’t behave or think the same. They won’t have the same life trajectories. But like the rest of us, they will all be trying to make a living, and for some of them, their inborn traits will make it that much easier for them to outdistance the competition.

If there is one thing the very diverse members of the edited group will agree upon, it is probably this: there is no way in hell they’ll be voluntarily accepting handicaps Harrison Bergeron-style, to level the playing field. All of this is going to be painful to the un-edited who happen to be around at the time, and who may wish for such handicaps. They may even succeed in getting some handicaps required through strength of law or societal pressure.

Such steps to compensate for an uneven distribution of skills, talent and abilities will create winners, namely those given the leg up. But it will be a short-term, and harmful victory. Holding back the talented, or replacing them with those who are less gifted, simply slows development and innovation, and blocks the tide that would otherwise lift more boats.

(A final note: I guess if I were someone else I might have written the same essay about AI. However, having done some work on the outer edge of the distant periphery of the field, I just don’t believe anyone will be building anything that remotely resembles a self-motivated sentient machine in any future that is remotely foreseeable today. As a result, machines won’t outcompete people. People using machines, though, will outcompete other people, but that makes for a very different post.)

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California’s New HIV Law

I’ve stated a number of times that in my opinion, the one positive thing you can say about Democrats is that they usually are marginally less offensive than Republicans. But this is is really, really bad:

Starting January 1, 2018, it will no longer be a major crime in California to knowingly expose a sexual partner to HIV without disclosing the infection. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on Friday that lowers the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor.

So… human nature being what it is… what do you think will be the result of reducing the disincentives to knowingly emposing a sexual partner to HIV without disclosing the infection?


The California legislature passed SB 239 on September 11.
The law previously punished people who knowingly exposed or infected others with HIV by up to eight years in prison. This new legislation will lower jail time to a maximum of six months.
The new law also reduces the penalty for knowingly donating HIV-infected blood from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Bill sponsors Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, both Democrats, argued California law was outdated and stigmatized people living with HIV, especially given recent advancements in medicine. Evidence has shown that a person with HIV who undergoes regular treatment has a negligible chance of spreading the infection to others through sexual contact.
“The most effective way to reduce HIV infections is to destigmatize HIV,” Wiener told CNN. “To make people comfortable talking about their infection, get tested, get into treatment.”

The piece goes on:

Many Republicans staunchly opposed SB 239, saying it could lead to an increase in HIV infections.
Sen. Jeff Stone voted against the bill and strongly expressed his disapproval in September when the Senate voted on it.
Stone, who is also a pharmacist, took aim at Wiener and Gloria’s argument that modern medicine can lower the spread of HIV. The senator said three out of four people who are on prescription medication in the United States do not comply with their doctor’s orders on how to take it.
“If you don’t take your AIDS medications and you allow for some virus to duplicate and show a presence, then you are able to transmit that disease to an unknowing partner,” Stone said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Joel Anderson, another Republican who voted against the bill, argued that people infected with HIV could never live their lives “to the same extent” again. He said it was irresponsible not to disclose the possibility of a life-altering infection.

Moving on:

The bill enjoyed support from Californians for HIV Criminalization Reform (CHCR), a coalition of several organizations, including the ACLU of California, whose mission is to replace the “stigmatizing laws that criminalize HIV status.”
Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California — one of the organizations in the coalition — told CNN his group was “elated” that the governor signed the bill and changed the state’s “archaic laws.”
“This is an important bill that modernizes California’s HIV laws,” Zbur told CNN. “It will really advance public health and reduce stigma and discrimination that people living with HIV have suffered.”
The Los Angeles LGBT Center also supported the bill. The organization’s director of government relations, Aaron Fox, told CNN the new law will see HIV-positive people “treated fairly under California law.”

Apparently preventing people from knowingly exposing others to HIV stigmatizes people who have HIV and is unfair. No word on how the victims of such behavior feel.

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Freedom of Speech

I am not a libertarian nor am I a member of the ACLU, but I generally agree with them on the importance of free speech. This, I believe, is a real and growing problem on college campuses:

Students affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement crashed an event at the College of William & Mary, rushed the stage, and prevented the invited guest—the American Civil Liberties Union’s Claire Gastañaga, a W & M alum—from speaking.

Ironically, Gastañaga had intended to speak on the subject, “Students and the First Amendment.”

The disruption was livestreamed on BLM at W&M’s Facebook page. Students took to the stage just a few moments after Gastañaga began her remarks. At first, she attempted to spin the demonstration as a welcome example of the kind of thing she had come to campus to discuss, commenting “Good, I like this,” as they lined up and raised their signs. “I’m going to talk to you about knowing your rights, and protests and demonstrations, which this illustrates very well. Then I’m going to respond to questions from the moderators, and then questions from the audience.”

It was the last remark she was able to make before protesters drowned her out with cries of, “ACLU, you protect Hitler, too.” They also chanted, “the oppressed are not impressed,” “shame, shame, shame, shame,” (an ode to the Faith Militant’s treatment of Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, though why anyone would want to be associated with the religious fanatics in that particular conflict is beyond me), “blood on your hands,” “the revolution will not uphold the Constitution,” and, uh, “liberalism is white supremacy.”

This went on for nearly 20 minutes. Eventually, according to the campus’s Flat Hat News, one of the college’s co-organizers of the event handed a microphone to the protest’s leader, who delivered a prepared statement. The disruption was apparently payback for the ACLU’s principled First Amendment defense of the Charlottesville alt-right’s civil liberties.

Organizers then canceled the event; some members of the audience approached the podium in an attempt to speak with Gastañaga, but the protesters would not permit it. They surrounded Gastañaga, raised their voices even louder, and drove everybody else away.

Two comments… First, as Gastañaga learned (assuming, and it may be one hell of an assumption, that the message sunk in), giving in to this sort of bullying, as with any kind of bullying, doesn’t mean the bully looks on you with more sympathy. It doesn’t even mean they save you for last. Bullies simply aren’t that smart, nor do they have that sort of self-control. They sense only strength, or its absence. Second, I’ve often wondered how Chinese people of a certain age explain the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards to their children. I guess I will find out first hand. Sooner or later, when my son is older, I will have to explain this nonsense to him. I just hope it has run its course by then.

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Genes, Violence, and Testing

The abstract of an article in Molecular Psychiatry entitled Genetic background of extreme violent behavior reads as follows:

In developed countries, the majority of all violent crime is committed by a small group of antisocial recidivistic offenders, but no genes have been shown to contribute to recidivistic violent offending or severe violent behavior, such as homicide. Our results, from two independent cohorts of Finnish prisoners, revealed that a monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) low-activity genotype (contributing to low dopamine turnover rate) as well as the CDH13 gene (coding for neuronal membrane adhesion protein) are associated with extremely violent behavior (at least 10 committed homicides, attempted homicides or batteries). No substantial signal was observed for either MAOA or CDH13 among non-violent offenders, indicating that findings were specific for violent offending, and not largely attributable to substance abuse or antisocial personality disorder. These results indicate both low monoamine metabolism and neuronal membrane dysfunction as plausible factors in the etiology of extreme criminal violent behavior, and imply that at least about 5–10% of all severe violent crime in Finland is attributable to the aforementioned MAOA and CDH13 genotypes.

Now, we are in the early phases of something that will be one day be termed a genetic revolution. Whatever is known about genetic influences on crime (or anything else, for that matter) pales in comparison to what will be known in a couple of decades. We may not be far from the point where a journal article tells us about eighteen, twenty or fifty three genotypes that explain 85% or 90% or 99.9% of all severe violent crime in Finland. So it pays to think about the big questions early.

And this abstract raises one big question: what if we have the tools to detect those most likely to commit the worst of the worst violent crimes? Biology is not destiny, and some percentage of people who have a tendency toward violence (a big percentage? a small percentage?) may have the fortitude or wherewithal not to follow through. Or to avoid getting caught, which legally amounts to the same thing, though not for the victim(s). That makes widespread testing for these traits problematic, particularly if it were mandatory.

On the other hand, if the genetic link with violence turns out to be sufficiently strong, one can imagine situations arising where people formed associations whose membership is based on disclosure of results of tests for specific genetic traits. I’m guessing parents of young children would join en masse. Exactly what those voluntary associations might look like, and whether they could actually exclude those who “failed” or “tested positive” for the wrong thing might be something future courts will be considering. As long as nobody was being coerced, such situations might be deemed legal. All sorts of things seem to be legal depending on the context. For instance, age discrimination is illegal when it comes to jobs, but seems to be perfectly acceptable when it comes to determining who can live in a retirement community.

One additional tidbit of information worth considering. Despite a number of silly articles in the early oughts that violated all semblance of common sense, not to mention some insane drivel coming out of a few corners of academia today, increased levels of testosterone are associated with aggressive behavior. Testosterone, of course, happens to be the primary male sex hormone, and that’s a big part of the reason that in just about every human society, at just about every point in time, males have been the perpetrators of the overwhelming majority of the violence. (It goes for other primates too.)

Anyway, what can, what should, and what will be done may be three separate questions in a few decades. That’s all too far out for me to have a good idea of the shape of what is to come, but it will tremendously affect society and how we live.  What are your thoughts?

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People Killed by Police, 2016

As a follow up to my post on homicides in 2016, I decided to combine homicide data from the FBI with figures from the police shooting database from the Washington Post. The only difficulty is that the FBI classifies people as being from Black, White, Other, or Unknown races, whereas the Washington Post breaks out other groups, such as Hispanic. Because Hispanic people can be Black, White, or Other (as per FBI classfication), it is necessary to assign Hispanic deaths at the hand of the police to Black, White, or Other to match the FBI figures.

One approach would be based on the percentage of Hispanic people who are Black, White, etc. According to the Census, 2.5% of Hispanics are Black. On the other hand, it has been noted that Black people are disproportionately likely to have negative interactions with Police. In the past few years, that has been the subject of protests. Lacking a perfect way to allocate the Hispanic figures, I assigned them to Black, White, and Other based on their share of the population that were victims of homicides. Its not perfect, and would, if anything, inflate the number of Black people killed by police. But… given the magnitude of the numbers involved, the choice of how to allocate Hispanic deaths among Black and White people will not have much of an effect on the graphs below.

With that said, here is a graph showing the percentage of Black people killed by police v. the percentage of Black people killed by someone other than the police.

(click to embiggen)

Here’s the equivalent graph for White people.

(click to embiggen)


Edit:  9:29/2017, 4:07 AM – added “(click to embiggen)” under each graph.

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2016 Homicides

The FBI just released data on homicides for 2016. In light of the various protests by the BLM and now football players, I thought I’d provide a a graph.  It breaks out population, homicide perpetrators and homicide victims by race.

(click to embiggen)

Note… the number of offenders exceeds the number of victims. This is a result of some homicides involving multiple perpetrators. This can happen, for example, if both the shooter and the getaway driver in a drive-by shooting are charged with the crime. The race breakdown comes from the FBI, and the population comes from the Census. Data sources are shown in the graph itself.

The key driver of the graph is the large percentage of perpetrators of unknown race. This happens because not all jurisdictions report on the race of offenders, but perhaps more importantly, because many crimes are not officially solved. I believe this is particularly true in urban areas with a lot of homicides where nobody wants to cooperate with the police. For example, through August of 2016, the clearance rate for homicides in Chicago was 21 percent. In Baltimore, its about a third. Nationally, its about two thirds.

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Self-Driving Cars

Being a parent of a child under 16 means trying to figure out ways to get said child from here to there, say from school to home, and from home to after school activities, and then back. There is often a fair amount of juggling involved – one or more, er, “caregivers” are typically involved in the process To an economist, therefore, being able to put a child in a self-driving car means, potentially, more output in the economy. That’s a parent or grandparent that doesn’t have to take time away from something else (work?) to traipse across town, pick up the kid, drop him/her off, etc.

And of course, its not just kids. Other people or things that sometimes can’t drive themselves include some of the elderly, women in Saudi Arabia, and packages. And for those who do drive, I wouldn’t be surprised, for instance, if typical commutes become longer, but time spent on the commute will be “more efficiently” used – for instance, in a self-driving vehicle, one can eat a leisurely breakfast and read the morning news while on the way to work. So, what changes do you anticipate we will see as self-driving cars spread?

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