Tag Archives: The Atlantic

The Quest for a Life of Leisure: Prisoner’s Dilemma in Food Production

In a conversation about “vegan food in the workplace,” I heard a thoughtful comment that reminded me of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Before I paraphrase the comment, here’s a quick video to refresh your memory on the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

So, now that we have a better understanding of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, let’s get back to the comment. Essentially, the person was making the argument that large-scale commercial agriculture and farming is unsustainable, harmful to plants, and harmful to animals. The person was making the point that this problem stemmed from the business models/practices required to sustain them (and not the animals/plants themselves). Further to the person’s point, they explained that we also play a part in this by the way we purchase food. Regardless of whether we buy local, wild-caught food or buy large-scale commercialized food, there’s still an impact on the environment.

Upon hearing this comment, the first thing I thought of was the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Let me explain. There’s a demand for food. Consequently, businesses will satisfy that demand by supplying food. [Econ 101, amirite?] But how businesses satisfy that demand is where things get tricky. They could do so in a number of ways, but let’s simplify it into two: large-scale commercial agricultural production or small-scale local farming. If businesses were to focus on small-scale local farming, they’d be supplying food for the town (or maybe the town and some neighbouring towns). Businesses that focus on large-scale commercial agricultural production aren’t supplying food for a town, they’re supplying food for a country or – countries.

The two-by-two that I see here is that if businesses “cooperated,” they’d be supplying food for the local town(s) and “everyone” would be satisfied (consumers get food, businesses make money, environment is ‘harmed’ as little as possible, etc.). The possible hitch here is that businesses see an opportunity to make more money, so they scale up production into a major agricultural conglomerate (i.e. food for countries). That’s not to imply that this is “bad,” just that the opportunity exists and many businesses seek to seize it. In so doing, that provokes other businesses to do the same – the businesses are “betraying” each other, leading to externalities borne out by things like the environment. [NOTE: I’m aware that this example is very oversimplified and does not represent the state of food in all countries, especially where food shortages exist.]

The irony of the race-to-the-bottom is that, often times, the people running these businesses are all in it for the same thing:

An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.

“How long it took you to catch them?” The American asked.

“Only a little while.” The Mexican replied.

“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The American then asked.

“I have enough to support my family’s immediate needs.” The Mexican said.

“But,” The American then asked, “What do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”

“Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

The American said slowly, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”

And maybe that life of leisure is closer than we think or, maybe, as the above parable suggests, we had that lifestyle before we “betrayed” each other in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In an article I read recently in The Atlantic [Emphasis Added]:

The Ju/’hoansi [of Namibia] not only managed to feed themselves better than many in the industrialized world, but that they did so on the basis of only around two hours foraging a day, and cheerfully spent the rest of their time on more leisurely pursuits such as napping, playing games, and making art.

[…]

Over time, a more sophisticated picture of the Ju/’hoansi’s affluence emerged—one I saw firsthand living in southern Africa for 25 years and one I describe in my recent book. The Ju/’hoansi had an unyielding confidence in the providence of their environment and in their knowledge of how to exploit it. This meant that the Ju/’hoansi, like other hunter-gatherers, focused almost myopically on the short term—if the environment always supplied food and materials and the seasons were broadly predictable, what point was there in worrying about the future? This confidence also meant that the Ju/’hoansi did not store food for more than a few days and only expended energy on securing just enough to meet their immediate needs.

The Ju/’hoansi shared their food with one another according to a set of social prescriptions that ensured pretty much everyone, including the young, old, or disabled, got a share. As a result the Ju/’hoansi were also thoroughly egalitarian, mercilessly ribbing anyone that developed delusions of grandeur and seeing no point in accumulating wealth or formalizing systems of exchange.

NOTE: This was cross-posted.

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Do New Stadiums Lead to an Increase in Business?

Unless you’re familiar with the literature in this arena (no pun intended) or you know about Betteridge’s law of headlines, the title of this post is actually still an unresolved question for you. Well, I won’t delay the inevitable: according to research published earlier this year, the answer is no — new stadiums do no lead to an increase in business.

There are two things I want to talk about as it relates to this research. The first is Richard Florida. If this area is an interest of yours, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across him. Florida has been a professor for the last 20+ years and has written extensively on cities. Here’s a post I found from him within the last year that talks about the very thing that the journal article discussed:

The overwhelming conclusion of decades of economic research on the subject is that using public funds to subsidize wealthy sports franchises makes zero economic sense and is a giant waste of taxpayer money. A wide array of studies have shown that professional teams add virtually no income to local economies. In fact, some of them find that large subsidies actually have a negative effect, taking money out of the local economy. Aside from the jobs generated by actually building the stadium, most jobs inside the stadium—selling food and beer or working at team concessions—are low-paying temp jobs. It’s even worse for football stadiums, which are used for games at most a dozen times a year, and maybe a few more times for concerts or large events. Public economic development dollars can be put to much better use on things besides subsidizing sports teams and their wealthy owners.

Ultimately, the burden of public subsides falls disproportionately on small cities that are the least able to bear the cost. For example, a $200 million public subsidy for a new stadium ends up costing a small city like Santa Clara roughly $1,650 per resident, compared to just $50 a person for L.A. And, of course, teams in bigger cities, with their bigger markets and more revenue, often do not need subsidies at all.

The reason I raise Florida’s name is because I was surprised that I didn’t see his name mentioned in the journal article. To be fair, I don’t think that Florida has done any primary research in this domain, but I would have thought that even in the opening introduction or literature review that there may have been some reference to Florida’s constant discussion of literature like this.

Anyhow, the second thing I wanted to talk about is something that might not be measurable. Well, it might not be measurable in a simple way. As a former amateur athlete, I have a special place in my heart for sports. Certainly, there are plenty of things that one could classify as “wrong” about sports, but part of me still wants to defend it/them and I’ll be upfront: that might be part of what’s going on with this section of this post.

Something I didn’t see in the article (and probably something I wouldn’t expect to find in any well-written article) is a measure of (or discussion of?) the positive externalities that result from a city’s team winning the championship or even the spillover effects from the possible positive externalities. Now that’s a tortured sentence. I’m talking about how the residents of a city feel after their team wins the championship (in a given sport). Naturally, not everyone would be watching (or care), but for those that are fans of the team that wins, there would certainly be elevated levels of joy and happiness immediately following the victory. If there were studies done on this, I suspect that there might be comparisons to those who have won the lottery in that a couple of months after, lottery winners return to a similar level of satisfaction/happiness that they had prior to the lottery win.

I wonder, though, could we measure the economic gains for a city from this positive externality and the resulting spillover effect (in this case, let’s say the spillover effect would be the “pay it forward”-ness of joy from the fans of the team to the non-fans that the fans will be interacting with in the weeks following the city’s team’s victory). Even if there is a tangible effect that can be measured, I’m sure that any reasonable cost-benefit analysis would still conclude that a new stadium isn’t worth it for a city.

ResearchBlogging.orgHarger, K., Humphreys, B., & Ross, A. (2016). Do New Sports Facilities Attract New Businesses? Journal of Sports Economics, 17 (5), 483-500 DOI: 10.1177/1527002516641168

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy

I came across an article in The Atlantic recently that expressed the opinion that empathy might be overrated. You’ll note that the way the headline is written: “Empathy: Overrated?” should already tell us that the answer is no (via Betteridge’s law of headlines). While from the outset, I’m already noticing my bias against the idea of empathy being overrated, I did my best to read the piece with an open mind and I’m glad I did because there are a few passages that I think are important to highlight from the “con” side of empathy:

The problem, as Bloom sees it, is that “because of its focusing properties, [empathy] can be innumerate, parochial, bigoted.” People are often more empathetic toward individuals who resemble themselves, a fact that can exacerbate already-existing social inequalities. And empathy can cause people to choose to embrace smaller goods at the expense of greater ones. “It’s because of the zooming effect of empathy that the whole world cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of millions and millions due to climate change,” Bloom said.

Empathy can also make people do evil. “Atrocities are typically motivated by stories of suffering victims—stories of white women assaulted by blacks, stories of German children attacked by Jewish pedophiles,” Bloom said. It also can lure countries into violent conflicts based on relatively small provocations, and researchers have shown that people who are more empathetic are more likely to want to impose harsh punishments on people. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain,” Bloom said.

Bloom raises some really good points here, but I don’t know if it’s fair to lay the blame for climate change at the feet of empathy. There’s been an extremely strong misinformation movement that I’d “blame” before I’d blame empathy.

The point about empathy exacerbating social inequalities is also a bit curious to me. While we may be more inclined be to empathetic to people who look like us, that doesn’t preclude us from being empathetic to people who don’t look like us and to that end, wouldn’t being at least marginally more empathetic to people who don’t look like us be better than not being empathetic to them at all (if we’re to look at it from a cold, calculated, and objective standpoint)?

Lastly, and most importantly, I’m worried about this point that the more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to want to impose harsh punishments on people. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find the study that Bloom is referring to in this article in the New Yorker from a few years ago, so I won’t attempt to critique the study’s methodology, but I will say this: isn’t campaigning for less empathy taking us a step back? If we’re looking at the progression of humans, I think it’s probably fair to say that empathy is something that we’ve developed along the way. It’s growth. It’s positive (I mean that it’s an addition to our species, rather than when positive is meant to indicate a judgment). Wouldn’t it be better for us — as a species — to incorporate this new phenomenon of empathy as we continue to grow?

This idea reminds me of Ken Wilber and his work. In particular, the idea that we start with x, move to y, and then find a way to integrate our understanding of x and y to move to a third stage, let’s call it xy. It seems to me that we’ve learned about this thing called empathy (stage x), and now we’re learning about how it can sometimes have a negative effect on us. As a result, there’s this backlash or movement against empathy (stage y). So now, we’ve got to move to place where we can integrate the two (stage xy).

~

Finally, I wanted to talk about one more thing that Bloom said:

At the end of the Aspen session, an audience member posed a scenario to the scientists: What if she was fired from her job, and her partner offered her a back rub and kind words but didn’t truly get why she was upset? Wouldn’t the comfort feel hollow, useless?

“What you’re really asking for is compassion plus understanding,” Bloom replied. “Suppose you feel humiliated. I don’t think it’s what you want or what you need for your partner to feel humiliated. You want your partner to understand your humiliation and respond with love and kindness. I think for your partner to feel humiliated would be the worst thing you want. Because now, you have to worry about your partner’s feelings.”

I like Paul Bloom and I’ve even written about him before, but I wonder if this is a misunderstanding of empathy. Or maybe more accurately, the way that the study defines empathy is different from the way that others may define empathy. The way that I remember empathy is that understanding is a component of empathy. I wrote a post about this a little while back and included a helpful short from the RSA:

How You Probably Discriminate and Don’t Even Know It

Are you a part of a group at work, school, or recreationally? Well, then you’ve probably discriminated without even knowing it. A recent theoretical review of the literature concluded “ingroup favouritism is more potent than outgroup hostility” when it comes to discrimination in the United States. Meaning, preferential treatment to the people that are on your team contributes to discrimination more than outward displays of hostility to people not part of your team.

I should say that this ingroup favouritism doesn’t simply apply to overt teams/groups. Consider your work relationships for a moment. Let’s say that your son or daughter gets along quite well with the son or daughter of one of your subordinates. This particular subordinate missed a bunch of days of work this year because they were taking care of their child who was sick. When it comes time for performance reviews and this particular subordinate’s performance falls between two possible ratings, you give the subordinate a higher rating. However, there is another subordinate, without a child who’s friends with your child. This subordinate has also missed some work this year, but instead of giving them the higher rating, you give them the lower (of the two) ratings. By giving a higher rating to the subordinate to whom there is a connection, you’d be exhibiting ingroup favouritism. You’re not openly discriminating against the other subordinate, but you are showing preferential treatment (even if it’s inadvertently!) to one subordinate over the other.

This particular bit of research seemed especially important given Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent essay in The Atlantic. As I grew up in a fairly multicultural environment, I like to think that I don’t let a person’s race or ethnicity factor into any decisions I make. However, I, as many others have learned from Harvard’s Project Implicit Test, the culture that I live in has had an important influence on me.

~~

There are obvious streams for this kind of research, but I was thinking about it in a broader context. As it stands, there’s the idea of ingroup and outgroup. That is, “our people” are over here and I’m going to do everything I can for them, while you’re people are over there and I’m not going to necessarily do everything that I can to help them. What if there no longer was an ingroup and an outgroup? Or maybe more specifically, what if everyone was part of your ingroup?

Consider someone like the Dalai Lama. There’s the ‘obvious’ ingroups for the Dalai Lama (Tibet, Buddhism, etc.), but I’d bet that the Dalai Lama probably thinks of all humans as his ingroup. Of course, we can’t all be the Dalai Lama, but we certainly could strive for this.

Let’s simplify this example just a little bit. Americans — is an ingroup — when you put it in context of a global stage. Americans look at themselves as an ingroup when it comes to some sort of international competition. That is, at the upcoming World Cup in June, Americans will be an ingroup, especially when there are matches against other countries. What if, instead of Americans thinking of themselves as the ingroup, they, instead, thought of the ingroup as fans of soccer (or football, depending upon where you’re from — although most Americans probably say soccer). While this is still an ‘ingroup,’ it’s certainly a broader and bigger ingroup than simply American (fans of soccer).

While not perfect, this is also on the way to expanding the ingroup to all of humanity.

ResearchBlogging.orgGreenwald AG, & Pettigrew TF (2014). With Malice Toward None and Charity for Some: Ingroup Favoritism Enables Discrimination. The American psychologist PMID: 24661244

Why Love Actually is a Good Christmas Movie

While Christmas happened a few days ago now, I wanted to write a quick note on Love Actually. You may or may not have heard of this Christmas movie. It was first released about a decade ago, but many people seem to want to watch it when Christmas rolls around. I didn’t realize just how popular this movie had become at Christmas time (my wife and I have watched it just about every Christmas since we’ve been married) until I started seeing notes about the movie in my twitter feed.

That is, there were some folks who were vehemently against Love Actually as a “good” romantic comedy. In fact, one person wrote:

The fundamental problem with Love Actually is that it presents romance as either absurdly easy—something that strikes you like a thunderclap and requires only a single grand gesture in order to be fulfilled—or all but impossible. Notably absent is the idea that love might ever be worth a little sustained effort: some mutual exploration and discovery, a bit of care and nurture, maybe even the overcoming of an obstacle or two. Indeed, it’s hard to shake the sense that what is “classic” about Love Actually is not that it shows us anything about how people fall in love, but that it so conspicuously declines even to try.

But there are also those folks who feel quite the opposite. That is, they think the film is actually quite good:

More than anything, Love Actually is a movie by people who get it. That get that the holidays are about love and loss and memories. It’s about new beginnings and it’s about endings. It’s about family and second chances, and sometimes it’s about the same old, same old. It’s love, in its many, many forms, lighting the way through the coldest season.

Then, there are those who are trying to figure out whether the movie should actually qualify as a classic (over 80% of voters on this CBC website think that it should be).

I can stipulate that Love Actually might not be promoting the “best” version of love, but I would say that with a level of maturity and understanding that some of what’s being portrayed is actually tongue-in-cheek (do all British men really think that their accent is enough to get American women to sleep with them?) the movie can be quite heartwarming. Putting that aside for a moment, one of the best aspects of the movie for me is the message of truth-telling. On a number of occasions we hear the characters saying something to the effect of, “It’s Christmas, so I wanted to tell the truth,” (or “tell you,” or “check with you,”).

To me, this is great. I enjoy that there’s this subtle albeit noticeable message that it’s important that we tell the truth with people we care about and/or are interested in spending time with on a regular basis. So, if you do decide to watch Love Actually at Christmas time or any time for that matter, maybe pay less attention to the “fake love” parts and pay more attention to the “truth” parts.

How Americans Get to Work: Is It Time to Change Incentives?

This past Friday, there was a rather startling chart from The Atlantic. The chart illustrated how Americans get to work, by volume. That is, the total number of people who take the bus, the total number of people who drive, the total number of people who walk — you get the idea. Before clicking through to read the post, I was hopeful… afterwards, not so much:

In case the numbers are too small to read, the effect should still stand — well beyond the majority of Americans drive alone to work. Now, it’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this, but now that we’ve seen things like the image below, that illustrates the space needed to transport 60 people in various ways, it seems more reasonable that people shouldn’t drive alone in their car.

Of course, some folks might jump to the argument that there are more people who live in rural areas in America — not true. “In 2010, a total of 80.7 percent of Americans lived in urban areas, up from 79 percent in 2000.” However, just because the vast majority of American live in urban areas, that doesn’t mean that they have access to viable alternative means of transportation. Maybe it’s time for Americans to reconsider the emphasis on culture of cars.

 

The Flipped Classroom: Homework in Class and Lecture at Home

A couple of weeks ago, there was an article in The Atlantic that not only discussed the idea of a “flipped” classroom (homework in class, lecture at home), but actually had data on this idea. Before we get into the data, I wanted to talk a little bit about this idea of the flipped classroom.

As you know, I’m a big proponent of perspective-taking, so the idea of flipping the classroom on its head is intriguing. That’s not to say that I like being the devil’s advocate just for the fun of it, I think there is great value to having someone intentionally take the opposite perspective. Currently, most folks believe that education happens through lecturing in the classroom and students doing homework at home. So, what if we flipped that around. What if the students had lecture at home and did homework in the classroom?

On its face, the idea might sound a bit strange (how can one have lecture at home without the teacher!), but there are, of course, ways around that. So let’s get back to the study from the article. Do you think that you’d like to have taken part in a flipped classroom? That is, if you think back to your days as a student (or if you still are one), do you think you’d want to learn this way?

Well, the students who took part in the study certainly didn’t think that they’d want to learn this way: 75% of the students in 2012 said that they preferred lectures in class. Do you want to guess how many liked this method after trying it? 90%. That’s a 165-point swing! From 75% who preferred lectures in class to then 90% who preferred the new method.

Alright, so the students like it, but what about their performance? Did it improve?

The study examined three years of a foundational pharmaceutics course, required for all doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.) students attending UNC. Overall, student performance improved between 2011 and 2013 by 5.1 percent.

Five percent is a substantial amount, especially when you consider that this method appears unorthodox. The second line of that paragraph causes me to raise an eyebrow: “…doctor of…” Meaning, the students who took part in this study were doctoral students.

Why is this significant?

Well, doctoral students are self-selected group of people who are highly motivated to pursue a graduate degree. This self-selected and highly motivated group is certainly not representative of all university students. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that there are undergraduate students who are like this sect of graduate students, but there are probably more students not like them than there are students who are like them.

This is certainly a great window into how a flipped classroom might succeed, but before I’d consider it a viable option for undergraduate classes, I’d want to see some evidence that the effect holds in that kind of a setting.