Category Archives: economist

Civilians do most of the dying in Iraq

Graph showing the types of people being killed in Iraq

The Economist has put up this graph showing who is doing the dying in Iraq. The graph is interesting not only for its content but also because of the data source.

Firstly, the graph shows that by far the biggest victims of the ongoing violence in Iraq are civilians. Especially around 2006 and 2007 far more civilians were dying than combatants.

The source of the data is also interesting. Wikileaks is a website dedicated to whistleblowing. They allow anonymous posting of any sensitive information. Somehow Wikileaks got hold of 400,000 reports from the US military.

The graph above comes from those reports. So this is the US military’s own data.

The last Micronesian navigator

Mau Piailug was the last of the great Micronesian ocean navigators

The Economist has a great obituary on the last of the great Micronesian ocean navigators – Mau Piailug.

Piailug grew up on a tiny (less than 3km long) island where survival required sailing far out to sea for deep water fishing. The inhabitants of the island were experts in navigation using stars, winds, birds and various other signs available before the advent of modern navigation.

Piailug began studying to be a master navigator with his grandfather at age 5 and was the last local to learn navigation in the traditional way. From the article:

“He could read how far he was from shore, and its direction, by the feel of the swell against the hull. He could detect shallower water by colour, and see the light of invisible lagoons reflected in the undersides of clouds. Sweeter-tasting fish meant rivers in the offing; groups of birds, homing in the evening, showed him where land lay.”

He became famous by successfully sailing a little double hulled canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti using no modern equipment at all. In an expedition reminiscent of the great Kon Tiki journey he did so to prove that it was possible for ancient navigators to do so.

In his later life Piailug taught others the ways of navigation, this time allowing them to make notes and record the ancient knowledge. If he hadn’t done so, this amazing knowledge would have been lost to us forever.

The Red Queen in Iraq

The Red Queen has to keep running just to stay in the same place

The Economist has a fascinating article on the arms race going on between American soldiers and bomb makers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A great example is something called “Darwin” patrols. Many early improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were triggered by remote controls for garage doors. The CIA quickly realized this and began driving around pressing their own garage openers. Any bomb makers nearby would be blown up.

Predictably, these easy wins didn’t last. By killing those bomb makers the CIA effectively improved bomb making. Only better IEDs and bomb makers survived – hence the name “Darwin” patrols.

As the coalition forces become better at detecting IEDs the bomb makers get better at making them. There are plenty more examples of innovation being met with innovation in the article.

Both sides must constantly keep improving just to keep up. This is common in evolutionary biology and is known as the Red Queen effect.

In Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice in Wonderland) the Red Queen tells Alice:

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

It’s a great name for this effect.

Wherever there is competition, from biology to the Iraq war to the office, the Red Queen effect arises. We have to keep moving, just to stay where we are.

The Psychology of Power and Corruption

The old anecdote says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Economist has a fascinating article describing experiments into this effect.

These experiments show that there is in fact a causal link between power and corruption. Even more interestingly, they may point to the reason for this link.

How the experiments work

The researchers used “priming” techniques to make test subjects feel either powerful or powerless.

Once primed, both high-power and low power subjects were asked to rate the morality of various situations. For example the researchers asked subjects to rate the morality of cheating on taxes or of taking an abandoned bicycle.

The results

The experiments showed a significant difference in the judgments of high-power and low power subjects:

  • High-power = Judge others more harshly than yourself
  • Low-power = Judge others more leniently and yourself more harshly

Power does indeed seem to cause people to judge themselves more leniently than others – they are moral hypocrites.

The entitlement hint

It seems that powerful people not only abuse the system, they also feel entitled to abuse it. This proved to be an important hint and the researchers did more experiments to explore this entitlement.

In these experiments the subjects were primed again, but this time entitlement was split from power:

  • High-power subjects who felt they deserved to be powerful
  • High-power subjects who felt they did not deserve the power
  • Low-power who deserved to be powerless
  • Low-power who did not deserve to be powerless

These subjects were also asked to rate moral actions of themselves and others.

Again the powerless judged others leniently and themselves harshly. This was true whether they legitimately powerless or not.

As expected, those who felt entitled to their power judged others very harshly and themselves very leniently.

The interesting result is for those who were powerful but felt the high-power position was undeserved. These subjects were lenient on others but very harsh on themselves.

This was the exact opposite of the normal result for high-power test subjects.

The reasons why

Why would undeserving powerful people be harsher on themselves than others? That is the opposite of the usual reaction to having power.

The answer to that question provides an elegant explanation for the whole set of results.

Humans evolved living in smallish groups with dominance hierarchies. In such hierarchies all of the experimental results make sense.

Powerful (dominant) members of the band can get away with bending the rules (judging themselves more leniently). They should also deal harshly with anyone lower in the hierarchy taking a chance (judging others more harshly).

Powerless group members should be submissive – they should judge others (normally more dominant) leniently and themselves harshly.

When people from low in the hierarchy find themselves temporarily in powerful positions they are in danger of attracting punishment from the true dominants.

So they act extra-submissively by judging themselves extra harshly and being extra lenient on others.

It all makes sense!

Economist on South Africa’s education results

The Economist has an article on education in South Africa. Some of the facts from the article:

  • South Africa spends about 5% of GDP on education – more than any other country in Africa
  • About 50% of students drop out before achieving a Matric
  • Only 15% of Matrics get marks good enough to enter university
  • The Matric pass rate has fallen from 73% in 2003 to 61% in 2009

The results are drastically different for white and black students. For example, matric mathematics results are enormously different between the two races.

Graph comparing South African educational results for white vs. black students

The article goes on to speculate about the causes of these dismal results. Obviously the historical impact of Apartheid policies on black education is mentioned. The OBE initiative also cops some blame.

But why would results be getting worse even 15 years after Apartheid and despite affirmative action programs?

The Economist speculates that the appalling quality of teachers is also to blame. The article notes that teachers’ unions prevent teachers from being evaluated – a sure recipe for bad teachers. If someone isn’t evaluated on performance, then they aren’t going to perform.

Teachers really should be evaluated on their performance – just like the rest of us.

Another excellent obituary from The Economist

Charis Wilson nudeIf I were to pick a single article from each week’s Economist it would be the obituary. The last article in each edition, I often find the obituaries the most enjoyable to read.

Reading an obituary in The Economist is to be given a series of glimpses into a life, after which you have a feeling for the subject that mere story telling can’t provide.

Not every such article captures me, but some are certainly stunning and I always look forward to the final article in each edition.

This week the subject of the obituary is Charis Wilson, a model and writer who was prominent in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Initially the subject of beautiful photographs by Edward Weston she eventually wrote the articles for his books.

The article is a gem and I recommend it – good returns for a single page of reading.

Why red wine doesn’t go with seafood

One of the first things that I learned when I was a waiter in a seafood restaurant is that red wine doesn’t go with fish.

Why that was, I had no idea. It turns out that nobody else did either.

The Economist has this article detailing how some researchers were able to find the answer.

In an experiment the researchers analyzed wines tasted with seafood and found that wines with high iron content left an unpleasant taste. Generally red wines have a higher iron content and therefore don’t taste good with seafood.

In order to test the hypothesis the researchers changed the iron content in various wines and repeated the test. Sure enough iron content was strongly correlated with a foul taste.

Science is awesome. I must be honest though – I don’t mind red wine with seafood. Apparently the combination tastes very fishy and I like that taste.

Being dirty makes you more ethical

The Economist has this article about a recent study showing that washing makes people view unethical activities as more acceptable. In other words being physically clean makes you more morally relaxed!

Judging moral strictness
The ‘moral strictness’ of the test subjects was tested by asking them to rate a series of acts on an ethical scale (from perfectly okay to very wrong). The activities being rated ranged from “taking money found in a lost wallet, via eating a family’s dead dog to avoid starvation, to using a kitten for sexual arousal.”

Experiment 1
In one experiment test subjects were given sentences to unscramble. Half were given neutral words only, and half were given words like “washed”, “clean” and “immaculate”.

Experiment 2
In the second experiment all test subjects were shown a 3 minute clip from Trainspotting to “incite feelings of disgust”. Half of the subjects were then told to wash their hands while half were not.

In both experiments the test subjects who were clean (or thinking about being clean) rated activities as more morally acceptable.

My theory
If you read my post on the truth about morality (it’s long but I highly recommend it) then you will know that humans have a group of ‘moral instincts’. Five moral areas that come instinctively to almost all humans across all cultures.

One of those moral instincts is purity (avoiding being dirty). So when the test subjects were dirty or thinking about being dirty the purity moral instinct was triggered thereby heightening activity in the moral centers of the brain.

So when the other moral instincts (like fairness) were tested during the rating phase of the experiments the moral centers of the brain were already active and the subjects were morally stricter.

Perhaps doping in sports should be allowed

With the Tour de France just over and the Olympics now underway, doping in sports is a topical issue. You don’t often hear the argument for doping, but this article from The Economist argues well that doping shouldn’t be cheating.

Why should doping be cheating? There are two arguments against allowing athletes to enhance their abilities by doping:

  1. Fairness. Athletes go to all sorts of lengths in the quest for a little extra performance – why is doping any more unfair than some of those measures? Why is doping cheating when complex nutritional compounds are not? Why isn’t the new Speedo swimwear that offers a significant advantage unfair? Modern athletes routinely go to great and unnatural lengths to excel – why should doping be any different?
  2. Safety. The far more compelling argument against allowing doping is on the grounds of safety. Many think that doping is unsafe and in many cases it may be. Unsafe doping should be banned, but if doping were opened up it could be better regulated. Athletes would be required to list exactly what substances are being used thus making regulation easier – and doping safer.

Doping should be allowed or not based on safeness – and there is a case to be made that opening up doping could make it safer for athletes. Interesting.

The Economist on the stupid American skilled immigration policy

The Economist has an article about how those silly Americans are shooting themselves in the foot by preventing talented immigrants from getting in. This is something that I have personally encountered and I have to agree with The Economist – it’s pretty dumb.

America is in the enviable position of being the goal destination for thousands of the world’s most talented people. That is a position that other countries would love to be in. Indeed America’s restrictive laws and the efforts of Europe, Canada, and Australia are starting to suck talent and companies out of America.

Each year only 85,000 H1B visas for highly skilled and company sponsored immigrants are allowed. This is so far below the demand that they are all gone on the first day. Remember that these are people who would really add to the American economy:

  • Almost 25% of American Nobel prize winners are immigrants
  • Great American companies like Google and Intel had immigrants among their founders
  • 40% of America’s science and engineering PhDs go to immigrants
  • Bill Gates (and several economists) have calculated that on average each foreigner who receives an H1B visa creates jobs for 5 Americans

So why do American politicians shoot their country in the foot like this? Because those politicians are elected by a largely ignorant and isolationist public. These guys think that allowing some of the most talented and skilled workers to add to their economy is a bad idea.