Archive for May, 2008

Having been really so bad?

May 27, 2008

David Benatar’s anti-natalist monograph Better Never to Have Been left me unconvinced.  The short book presents Mr. Benatar’s simple argument in favor of non-existence, describes how life is more harmful than most people think, and discusses the implications of Mr. Benatar’s view.

The non-existence argument is so simple I can sum it up in several sentences (if I read it correctly).  The absence of suffering is always good even if there is no one to be not suffering.  The absence of pleasure is however merely neutral, neither bad nor good.  Thus not having a child is always good, because no matter how pleasurable a child’s life may be, there will always be some suffering.

If Benatar had convinced me that this asymmetry between pleasure and suffering was real, his conclusions would have been hard to argue with.   Unfortunately, he didn’t explain why the absence of pleasure is only neutral, and not bad.  The closest he comes to defending the asymmetry is to say that if we accept that the absence of pleasure is bad, we must have as many potentially happy children as possible, and regret that there are uninhabited islands on which people could pleasurably live.  It is strange that someone who is advocating the cessation of childbirth and extinction of the human race would be unwilling to accept these much less counter-intuitive conclusions.

Benatar is on stronger footing when he discusses the harmfulness of life.  The discussion is more complicated than the asymmetry argument, but most convincingly Benatar notes that even the people with the most satisfying lives spend much of their time stressed out, tired, uncomfortable, hungry, having to go to the bathroom, etc.  Nearly everyone’s life has some events of profound suffering, such as grieving the loss of loved ones.  Moreover, many people have profoundly unhappy lives (malnutrition, war, etc.).   Even here, though, there is a way around Benatar’s argument.  Certainly some people are more likely than others to have happy children.  People in a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, with its extended, brutal, ongoing civil war are likely to have children that profoundly suffer.  But on the other hand, a very rich family in Switzerland might be relatively likely to have happy children.  As long as the Swiss family has a high chance of having a happy child, it doesn’t seem immoral for them to give birth.  This, of course, if we reject the asymmetry argument.

On the whole, the book was provocative and peppered with interesting digressions and a surprising variety of famous peoples’ anti-natalist quotes.  It was worth reading, but in the end left me where I started–on the fence about the kid question.

Childless by Choice?

May 27, 2008

In the last several weeks I have brought up the subject of having children with two childless married couples I know.  Both dropped a hint about how not everyone can have children and subtly changed the topic.  I didn’t press further.   These two families already represent most of the married people I know who don’t have children.

I realize that when I was growing up my parents tended to hang out with other parents, and that most of my friends are still not married.  Also, I guess many people get married to raise a family, so I shouldn’t be surprised that those who do tie the knot also have children.  But there must be some people out there who marry, have the ability to have children, but choose not to, right?

I’ve had fertility on mind lately for obvious reasons.  I have been following the great WilkinsonCaplan debates, am part way through Better to Never Have Been by David Benatar, and am taking a family economics course.  I am on the fence about children.  Your thoughts?

A pleasant day on Mars

May 26, 2008

Lying Parents

May 26, 2008

All of them are.   Paul Graham considers some of the lies, why parents tell them, and their benefits/costs.  Here is an excerpt:

Some parents feel a strong adherence to an ethnic or religious group and want their kids to feel it too. This usually requires two different kinds of lying: the first is to tell the child that he or she is an X, and the second is whatever specific lies Xes differentiate themselves by believing…One reason this works so well is the second kind of lie involved. The truth is common property. You can’t distinguish your group by doing things that are rational, and believing things that are true. If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false. And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by “outsiders” on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? If they aren’t an X, why do all the non-Xes call them one?

The Turks I have known are always careful to add “Mashallah” or “Thank god” after giving a compliment to the old or young.  The idea is to prevent accidentally giving the object of the compliment the “evil eye”.  Americans take off their hats and put their hands over their hearts when they hear their national anthem.  Many Christians make a point of saying grace before every meal.  Taiwanese Buddhists refuse to eat garlic.  These are just some arbitrary customs, false beliefs give even stronger examples.

It seems plausible that if you have spent a minute saying grace before every meal for your entire life (or childhood), for you to renounce Christianity you would need to admit that you wasted all those minutes doing something useless and silly.  Therefore, it is likely that you will continue to be consider yourself Christian and keep saying grace.  Moreover, the longer one continues doing something, the higher the costs of admitting it is a silly behavior.  Have you ever noticed that the elderly can be set in their ways, even if there is an obvious way of doing things better?
The Graham article is interesting throughout, recommended reading.

Hat tip: Robin Hanson

Free != Free

May 19, 2008

What’s the difference between Gmail and Wikipedia? Both are very good free products, but Gmail is a for profit venture by a for profit firm. No one is making money off of Wikipedia, and yet its quality is similar to that of the best encyclopedias. Why are people putting out such high quality product for no (monetary) compensation?

Are Economists going to have to pick a new motto? Maybe we can talk about it over lunch.

Hat tip: Chris Anderson on Econtalk

Smell the supply and demand?

May 17, 2008

The New York Times says Japan is running out of engineers. My response:

The red line is the number of people who study engineering. The blue line is the number of engineers that Japanese industry demands at the given salary. If we are at the light blue line, firms want more engineers than Japanese universities produce. In this situation, firms will raise the salary they pay to engineers, more students will enter the now more lucrative field, and we will end at the market clearing yellow line.

My guess is that the equilibrium used to be a a higher number of engineers, and the government is worried. In an efficient market, labor will go where it is most socially useful. The New York Times seems to think that the migration of workers to the arts and service industries is a bad thing, but here in Taiwan Japanese art is everywhere, from the fashion on the streets to the J-Pop on the radio. If Japan is a cultural force here in Asia, why not let that part of the economy grow stronger?

One of the key early insights in Economics was that in any voluntary transaction, both parties are made better off. Markets aren’t zero-sum games. If Japanese are choosing to pursue non-engineering careers, it might change the composition of Japan’s economy, but that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, students’ choice of other careers is making the Japanese (as a whole) better off.

Why They are so Cute

May 16, 2008

Cute, aren't they?

Mencius, a Chinese contemporary of Aristotle, was fond of the following parable: No matter how evil a person is, the sight of a baby about to fall into a well will distress him. Mencius’ anecdote is meant to show that human beings are innately good, but it works just as well as an illustration of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. If there are some people who find babies cute, lovable, and precious, and some other people who are indifferent to the wellbeing of babies, which group is more likely to have surviving descendants? After a few generations, there wouldn’t be any indifferent people left.

In Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness there is an anecdote about love for children. Although most parents believe that having children made them happier, studies which periodically question parents show that marital satisfaction suffers while children are being reared, only to return to premarital levels after children leave the household. Once again, people who believe that children make a person happy are more likely to have descendants, so this belief is ingrained in our genes and/or culture.

Don’t roll your eyes at your host’s decision to display a flower pot baby coffee table book. The decision was entirely genetic.

Quality Time

May 15, 2008

Daniel Hamermesh wrote a blog yesterday about income elasticity and quality/quantity trade off.  Rich people don’t (necessarily) consume more than poor people, but they do consume better quality goods.  Hamermesh chalks this up to the fact that no matter how rich you are, there are only 24 hours in a day.  It takes at least twice as long to eat two Big Mac meals in place of one, but it takes the same amount of time to eat an arugula salad as it takes to eat one Big Mac meal.

Imagine if we could buy and sell time.  Would we have long lived rich and short lived poor?  Would an extra day of rich life be pricier than an extra day of poor life? Would the ultra rich live extremely long lives?

Wait, maybe that market already exists


May 15, 2008

The recent natural disasters in Burma and China not only destroyed the food stocks of the disaster areas, they also ruined many planted fields. On top of all this, there may be a famine looming in North Korea. Will these tragedies exacerbate already high food prices?

Why not ask the people who have money on the line? Check out this summary of Powershares DB Agriculture, an ETF tracking agricultural futures markets. On May 2 and May 12, the respective dates of the Burmese and Chinese disasters, the fund was flat. It looks like the disasters weren’t enough to buck the general downward trend over the last six months. Apparently farmers worldwide are expecting bumper crops, so agricultural products are expected to become cheaper after harvest this fall.

Interpreting Large Numbers — Sichuan Earthquake Edition

May 13, 2008

The New York Times is currently reporting at least 10,000 dead in the Sichuan earthquake yesterday. The Times article on the quake contains 7,500 characters (not counting spaces). Take a look, and imagine each of the letters representing a victim of the earthquake.

I lived in Sichuan for a couple of months years ago. I hope the people I knew then are alright.