Friday, October 25, 2013

The International Space Station is Valuable, But Not For Scientific Research

Photo Credit: Popsci
Premier political science blog The Monkey Cage (now at the Washington Post) has a nice analysis of the research contributions of the International Space Station, showing a definite trend towards increasing scientific output. This bucks a set of conventional wisdom that sees the ISS as basically a massive waste of public funds. According to critics, manned space flight is an inefficient way of doing science in space--robots like the ones currently cruising around Mars are just as capable but at lower cost and risk. You know what? I agree. But that's not the point.

The history of space exploration has its origins in the timeless human virtues of competition, exploration, and greatness. Scientific research as its driving purpose came later, after the cold war, after easy appropriations and political clout dried up. The obvious link between the scientific community (necessary to build rockets and spacesuits) and space exploration made "research" an obvious marketing strategy to keep money flowing. But for the millions of kids and adult dreamers who are inspired by NASA and the story of humans pushing the last frontier, publishing statistically significant research results are at best a nice byproduct.

Space exploration is valuable for its own sake because it's one of the clearest examples of humanity flourishing on a global scale. With this in mind, the observation that ISS is producing more and more scientific research actually reveals a deeper accomplishment: we're getting better at keeping people alive in space. The true success of ISS is generating operational know-how about living in space. The less time ISS crew devotes to maintenance, repairs, upkeep etc., the more time they have to do other activities, like science. But who's to say that research is the best way to spend that space surplus? If robots can do the scientific stuff better, perhaps tourism or asteroid mining or competition for historical greatness is a better use of space-time.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Is Nutrition Science Undergoing a Paradigm Shift?

Robert Lustig made a splash a while back with his claim that sugar is toxic. Since then the pushback against the popular account of the causes of the obesity epidemic has grown larger and more vocal. This fantastic video is a nice reformulation of the basic critique:

It's all very compelling, and Lustig has put greater emphasis this time around on the epistemology and methodology of his claims, which is great. His focus at the end on health policy and decisionmaking under uncertainty is a more controversial step, explicitly making the leap from scientist to advocate.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Capitalism Will Soon Bring Artisanal Pumpkin Spiced Lattes to the Masses

Quartz this week has a shockingly in-depth look at the current state of automated coffee-brewing machines, and their prospects for disrupting Starbucks-model coffee chains. While it's a fascinating question where the savings might flow if cafes start ditching expensive paid workers in exchange for robot coffee kiosks (bigger stockholder dividends vs. comfier couches and faster wifi), the big social gains from these machines will probably be found in quirkier areas.

Starbucks did humanity a great service by making upscale customizable coffee relatively cheap and convenient. But its reach has always been limited by the demands of running physical locations with upkeep and staffing and supply chain constraints. Recent drops in the cost and size of capsule and automated coffee brewing systems (already common in nice restaurants and hotels) promise to fulfill the dream of making great coffee available everywhere. Soon every small town with insufficient demand to sustain a Starbucks-model cafe will have impressive coffee-brewing capability (in diners, gas stations, etc.).

The most obvious market opportunity for advanced coffee robots is the airline industry. Airplane coffee is notoriously weak and terrible, and efforts to establish brand relationships with major coffee companies are half-measures. The ability to order an extra-shot soy latte while hurdling through space in a metal tube would be an historic accomplishment, and likely a big money-maker. Budget fliers who are hesitant to plump for expensive food and and alcohol might see splurging on nice coffee as more acceptable.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Important Thing To Remember About Foreign Aid

In reviewing an important new book in the popular literature about foreign aid, political scientist Chris Blattman makes a great point:
"Aid isn't a uniform mass. Deaton knows this, and my guess is he's talking about a particular kind of aid. I don't think he means emergency relief for disaster and conflicts. I don't think he means the money behind peacekeeping forces and post-war assistance. He might exclude child sponsorship. I'm guessing he's not talking about money spent on vaccine research in the West. He might even exclude support for elections and party-building and other democratization."
This nuance often gets lost in the marketing scrum surrounding foreign aid commentary, but is an important insight that critically reduces the issue's partisanship. Less partisanship over foreign aid allows coalitions to form that cut across the noxious Republican-Democrat divide. Novel and easily-changed coalitions allow good policy to be tested and scaled up, and bad policy to be eliminated quickly. The more the "foreign aid" concept is put into a simplified, homogeneous box, the easier it is for political entrepreneurs to employ it as just another weapon in our partisan total war.

Foreign aid should be understood as merely a convenient shorthand for all manner of social, economic, and political transfers occurring between countries of varying levels of development. Under this conception, issues not typically considered "foreign aid" would benefit from its relatively nonpartisan identity and moral seriousness (immigration), and also classic mechanisms of foreign aid might be better exposed as merely tools used by established political and economic interests to pursue their private goals (food aid, geopolitics).

Just as "regulation" can't simply be added up--some areas have too much regulation (occupational licensing), others too little (environmental degradation)--foreign aid encompasses effective resource flows and ineffective ones, depending on the goal. Only by being clear about what we're talking about for a given aid program or policy can we make real progress towards achieving a sufficient level of development for everybody.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Quote of the Week

"There are no doubt some things available to the modern workman that Louis XIV himself would have been delighted to have--modern dentistry for instance. On the whole, however, a budget on that level had little that really mattered to gain from capitalist achievement. Even speed of traveling may be assumed to have been a minor consideration for so very dignified a gentleman. Electric lighting is no great boon to anyone who has enough money to buy a sufficient number of candles and to pay servants to attend to them. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort."
That's from Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter, page 67.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

5 Pointz is Being Demolished to Make Way For Condos, and That's Okay

Photo Credit:

In a long-awaited move, the owners of the iconic graffiti space 5 Pointz have finally cleared the last regulatory hurdles required to tear down the building. The land will be replaced with high-rise condos and some affordable housing units.

Undoubtedly some groups are upset. 5Pointz is an amazing example of skilled artists collaborating semi-spontaneously to create a beautiful amalgamation of art. But the disruptive logic and churn of urban evolution and growth is ultimately a greater boon to society, and I see this development as positive for New York, and the graffiti movement.

For one, the Long Island City neighborhood has seen tremendous gentrification and associated housing cost increases. LIC desperately needs new units to relieve this stress, and for all its amenity value, 5 Pointz is ultimately a fairly passive block of unused space. Additionally, dealmaking seems to have ensured that many individual surfaces will be preserved and displayed.

Rules that limit development, such as height caps and historic preservation designations, clearly have an important role in creating great cities. But often these powers are excessively utilized by incumbent residents and landowners to block changes, muddling the clarity of property rights. If a site like 5 Pointz is truly valued as an artistic work, artists and appreciators should "vote with their pocketbook" and pool their money to buy the land for preservation. If preservationists can't compete in an open bidding process, there's a strong prima facie case that preservation isn't the socially optimal use of the space. Market outcomes tend to allocate land efficiently, and overriding this useful mechanism should require exceptional social consensus.

On another note, excessive preservationism seems quite intellectually opposed to the essential character of graffiti culture. Part of what makes the graffiti enterprise subversive and exciting is its outsider perspective: artists critique the establishment by abusing written rules in adherence to deeper social norms about freedom and public acceptance. Aggressively employing institutional tools to preserve in amber artwork that revels in its own impermanence and material resourcefulness reeks of contradiction. Graffiti is about supplementing the artistic and public spirit in cities, which often gets undersupplied by capitalist land use and architecture. This works best on marginally productive surfaces, and once higher-value uses get identified and implemented, artists should gracefully step aside and move on.

Besides, I suspect the developers will face a massive onslaught of protest graffiti for some time as attached artists mourn 5 Pointz's destruction. Perhaps that's a healthy informal punishment for destroying such an impressive artistic site.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Studying the Economic Lives of Poor People is Important

This week's Economist has a fascinating article about the economic logic of owning cows in rural, poor India that everyone should check out. The findings are a great example of the continuing the trend, popularized by Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo in their book Poor Economics, of looking at the actual fine-grained details of the economic decisions poor people make every day, and how they differ from those of rich-world consumers. Often these findings are counter-intuitive, but have big implications for development and aid (such as the preference for fewer tastier calories over bags of cheap rice). This approach contrasts with the top-down "big push" idea (promoted by Jeffrey Sachs most notably), which has seen its popularity wane in the face of powerful critiques emphasizing "Big Aid's" planning and public choice problems.

While it's possible these small-scale studies (and associated policy recommendations) will someday aggregate into a larger theory, the epistemic humility is actually a strength--interventions are more assuredly useful, and unforeseen consequences have limited scope for causing damage.

Information Nexus

1. Excellent Analysis of Walmart's Wage Structure

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Happiness is a Side Effect, Not an Outcome to Pursue

Adbusters Magazine must be spinning in its grave vegan-powered washing machine. That was my first reaction when I saw that the tiny country of Bhutan is scrapping its emphasis on "gross national happiness" as an alternative to GDP. Bhutan has gained a strange notoriety in various leftist circles for fully embracing this weird and subjective measure, but it never quite lived up to its intellectual appeal.

The idea that GDP doesn't measure everything a country (and its citizens) cares about is self evident. Measures of environmental quality, capabilities, inequality, and the millennium development goals are all attempts correct for this basic fact. And clearly happiness is good and countries should want their citizens to be happy. But focusing on happiness is a bit like cheating: it ignores a lot of necessary complexity by trying to skip directly to the end of the game.

For one, making interpersonal comparisons of happiness is tricky. For example, the conventional wisdom that the richer people get the more leisure they enjoy is not always what we observe. As incomes go up, the opportunity cost of not working increases, making leisure more costly. Decisions individuals make about how best to pursue a good life are often idiosyncratic and counter-intuitive.

Most generally, actively pursuing end goals is often not the most effective way of achieving them. In situations with high causal density, simple intermediate goals inform decisions about process much better. A nice example might be the values caring parents try to instill in their children. Constantly emphasizing happiness or "doing what you love" is very likely less effective at promoting long-run flourishing than an intermediate process goal like "try your absolute hardest at whatever you do" or "never give up". Nobody would suggest that "grit" should be the goal of life, yet those who have it in spades invariably have better life outcomes.

Similarly, GDP seems to work pretty well as this sort of intermediate process goal for countries. Nobody truly believes GDP is an end in itself, but because it sits at a nexus of many causal factors, it's a natural concept for public policy to prioritize.