Wednesday, January 30

We get the risks wrong

Maia Szalavitz writes,
...ancient threats like spiders and snakes cause fear out of proportion to the real danger they pose, while experiences that should frighten us—like fast driving—don't. Dangers like speedy motorized vehicles are newcomers on the landscape of life. The instinctive response to being approached rapidly is to freeze. In the ancestral environment, this reduced a predator's ability to see you—but that doesn't help when what's speeding toward you is a car.

...catastrophes such as earthquakes, plane crashes, and terrorist incidents completely capture our attention. As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are... The effect is amplified by the fact that media tend to cover what's dramatic and exciting....

After 9/11, 1.4 million people changed their holiday travel plans to avoid flying. The vast majority chose to drive instead. But driving is far more dangerous than flying, and the decision to switch caused roughly 1,000 additional auto fatalities, according to two separate analyses comparing traffic patterns in late 2001 to those the year before. In other words, 1,000 people who chose to drive wouldn't have died had they flown instead.

Humans are ill-prepared to deal with risks that don't produce immediate negative consequences, like eating a cupcake or smoking cigarettes. As a result, we are less frightened of heart disease than we should be. Heart disease is the end result of actions that one at a time (one cigarette or one french fry) aren't especially dangerous.

If we feel we can control an outcome, or if we choose to take a risk voluntarily, it seems less dangerous....

The false calm a sense of control confers, and the tendency to worry about dangers we can't control, explains why when we see other drivers talking on cell phones we get nervous but we feel perfectly fine chatting away ourselves. Similarly, because homeowners themselves benefit if they kill off bugs that are destroying their lawns, people fear insecticide less if they are using it in their own backyard than if a neighbor uses the same chemical in the same concentration, equally close to them...

People have a preferred level of risk, and they modulate their behavior to keep risk at that constant level. Features designed to increase safety—four-wheel drive, Seat belts, or air bags—wind up making people drive faster. The safety features may reduce risks associated with weather, but they don't cut overall risk...

If the risks of smoking marijuana are coldly compared to those of playing high-school football, parents should be less concerned about pot smoking. Death by marijuana overdose has never been reported, while 13 teen players died of football-related injuries in 2006 alone. And marijuana impairs driving far less than the number one drug used by teens: alcohol. Alcohol and tobacco are also more likely to beget addiction, give rise to cancer, and lead to harder drug use.

If the comparison feels absurd, it's because judgments of risk are inseparable from value judgments. We value physical fitness and the lessons teens learn from sports, but disapprove of unearned pleasure from recreational drugs. So we're willing to accept the higher level of risk of socially preferred activities—and we mentally magnify risks associated with activities society rejects, which leads us to do things like arresting marijuana smokers...

...every day we're bathed in radiation that has killed many more people than nuclear reactors: sunlight. It's hard for us to grasp the danger because sunlight feels so familiar and natural... "We think of natural as benign and safe. But malaria's natural and so are deadly mushrooms."

Though the odds of dying in a terror attack like 9/11 or contracting Ebola are infinitesimal, the effects of chronic stress caused by constant fear are significant. Studies have found that the more people were exposed to media portrayals of the 2001 attacks, the more anxious and depressed they were. Chronically elevated stress harms our physiology

Then she offers us a quiz:

How good is your grasp of risk?

  1. What's more common in the United States, (a) suicide or (b) homicide?
  2. What's the more frequent cause of death in the United States, (a) pool drowning or (b) falling out of bed?
  3. What are the top five causes of accidental death in America, following motor-vehicle accidents, and which is the biggest one?
  4. Of the top two causes of nonaccidental death in America, (a) cancer and (b) heart disease, which kills more women?
  5. What are the next three causes of nonaccidental death in the United States?
  6. Which has killed more Americans, bird flu or mad cow disease?
  7. How many Americans die from AIDS every year, (a) 12,995, (b) 129,950, or (c) 1,299,500?
  8. How many Americans die from diabetes every year? (a) 72,820, (b) 728,200, or (c) 7,282,000?
  9. Which kills more Americans, (a) appendicitis or (b) salmonella?
  10. Which kills more Americans, (a) pregnancy and childbirth or (b) malnutrition?

Answers here.

Tuesday, January 29

The Misguided Policy of "Trade Adjustment Assistance" | Cato's Center for Trade Policy Studies

...for every worker who is displaced because of competition from imports or "off-shoring," 30 others lose their jobs for other reasons such as changes in technology and tastes, and domestic competition. Studies have suggested that workers displaced because of import competition were equally successful at finding new jobs as other unemployed workers. Systemic changes that help workers adjust to new opportunities, such as increasing the portability of health insurance and retirement savings, and increasing labor market flexibility to create new jobs, would be more fitting policy prescriptions for a free society and a dynamic, service-oriented economy.
The difference is that with imports or "off-shoring", people see foreigners profiting, and don't like it.

Saturday, January 26

Foolish Republicans

Imagine an economic distortion so massive that its effects dwarf those of all existing tariffs, quotas, and subsidies. This distortion is relatively new and inarguably regressive; created by policy makers in wealthy countries such as the United States, Sweden, and Japan, it keeps people in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Guatemala earning fractions of what they otherwise might for the same work. Some of the poorest people in the world are hit hardest, and the policy further impoverishes the poor while reducing economic opportunities for the rich.

Here in the United States we call this distortion “border control.”
As Lant Pritchett says,
I’ve never understood a view of the world in which the place in which a person was born becomes the key factor in whether you care about them.

Foolish Democrats

True, Democrats do not flat-out oppose lower barriers to trade, or flat-out endorse explicitly protectionist measures. Instead, their views are usually couched in terms of environmental concerns and workers’ rights. Congressional Democrats, for instance, will claim that they are not against free trade; they just insist on provisos in free-trade agreements that no sovereign nation could possibly accept.

Would a Democratic President, were he or she to be elected, be willing to walk the walk of protectionism? That is a good question, and one that cannot be answered definitively in advance. It is certain, however, that any such President would be constrained by anti-free-trade campaign rhetoric, inhibited from advancing new free-trade proposals, and under pressure from constituent groups both to tighten the terms of old agreements and to take an increasingly tough line with America’s trading partners. If that should happen, the American position as an advocate of ever freer trade across national boundaries—an advocacy without which the extraordinary postwar increase in global trade would not have been possible—would be at risk of much graver and more perilous erosion.

That is why politicians who understand the overwhelming importance of free trade to our future as a nation must unceasingly make the case for its benefits, as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did. By the same token, because no one today has personal memories of what happened when a downturn in the American economy and the workings of politics-as-usual produced the Smoot-Hawley tariff, thereby helping to turn an ordinary recession into the Great Depression, politicians favoring free trade are under an obligation to remind us of this repeatedly and in no uncertain terms. While they are at it, they might also be mindful of the sound warning tendered by the 19th-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat: “Where goods do not cross frontiers, armies will.”

Fearing mercenaries

For UN peacekeeping, Western countries generally prefer to send money rather than troops and vital equipment....

For now, the UN makes up the shortfall by hiring private firms to provide helicopter transport. Such commercial aircraft are not insured to fly in combat zones, even to pick up wounded soldiers. But the UN is loth to hire attack helicopters privately; it would seem—horrors—like hiring mercenaries. Yet when 500 UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone were taken hostage in May 2000, it was not just the arrival of British paratroopers that turned back the advancing rebels; it was the unsung actions of a South African mercenary, strafing and rocketing the rebels from his Soviet-made Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopter.

Thursday, January 24

In the good old days

Because of marriage’s vital economic and political functions, few societies in history believed that individuals should freely choose their own marriage partners, especially on such fragile grounds as love. Indeed, for millennia, marriage was much more about regulating economic, political, and gender hierarchies than nourishing the well-being of adults and their children. Until the late 18th century, parents took for granted their right to arrange their children’s marriages and even, in many regions, to dissolve a marriage made without their permission.

Not unlike Taoism

Laurie Fendrich writes how she has her students read Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Letter to d'Alembert on the Theatre (1758), where he trashes education and reason, science and art, implying the pursuit of knowledge is actually motivated by vanity and ambition, which are fueled by the arts. The arts trigger a host of artificial desires and many of us are made worse by theater precisely because we're introduced to bad ideas we'd never thought of before. "The continual emotion that is felt in the theater excites us, enervates us, enfeebles us, and makes us less able to resist our passions. And the sterile interest taken in virtue serves only to satisfy our vanity without obliging us to practice it." Rousseau thinks they cause people to become restless and unhappy with their own lives because they make their lives seem, by comparison, boring. He also argues that nature gave women a weapon to protect themselves from more powerful males: modesty,
the means by which women fend off undesirable males and encourage only the ones they regard as potential mates. And once the appropriate male has been snared, Rousseau says, women employ another tool to keep their otherwise hit-and-run mates around for the long haul: love. "Love is the realm of women. It is they who necessarily give the law in it, because, according to the order of nature, resistance belongs to them, and men can conquer this resistance only at the expense of their liberty." ... He says that going to the theater destroys female modesty and replaces it with vanity (I always bring up the irrepressible female longing for a new dress for a party). When female modesty declines, Rousseau argues, men stop loving women because they no longer trust them. Who else, the husband asks himself, is my wife preening for? Such distrust, Rousseau says, in the end obliterates love.

Tuesday, January 22

Cheese Pizza

Cheese Pizza

Cheese Pizza [1]
From Martha Stewart [2]

4 cloves garlic, unpeeled
One (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, and crushed by hand
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
6 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
All-purpose flour, for dusting
Pizza Dough, recipe below
1 pound part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap garlic in a piece of parchment-lined foil. Roast until soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Let cool, and squeeze cloves to remove pulp.
  2. In a medium bowl, stir to combine roasted garlic, tomatoes, 1 tablespoon olive oil, oregano, and basil. Season with salt and pepper; set aside.
  3. On a pizza peel dusted with flour, place one-quarter of the dough. Using your fingers, begin to flatten and push dough evenly out from center until it measures about 12 inches in diameter. Crimp edges to form a rim. Sprinkle one-quarter of the mozzarella onto dough. Spoon 1/2 cup of the tomato mixture over mozzarella.
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over high heat. When very hot but not smoking, reduce heat to low. Lift pizza peel and, using a slight jerking motion, slide pizza about one inch back and forth on the peel to loosen it. Slightly tilt the peel, and slide the pizza off the peel, centering it in the skillet. Cover skillet, and cook until pizza is golden on the bottom, about 10 minutes. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

Makes four 12 inch pizzas.

Pizza Dough [3]

1 cup warm (110 degrees to 120 degrees) beer
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons coarse salt
1 1/2 ounces fresh yeast
2 3/4 to 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk to combine beer, 2 tablespoons olive oil, sugar, salt, and yeast. Fit bowl on electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix until incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add flour, and mix until dough is fairly stiff, about 10 minutes.
  2. On a lightly floured work surface, knead dough until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Brush the inside of a large bowl with remaining tablespoon olive oil; transfer dough to bowl, turning once to grease top. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place until dough has doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
  3. Punch down dough, and transfer to a clean surface. Using a bench scraper or sharp knife, divide dough into quarters; keep covered with plastic wrap.

Makes enough for four 12-inch pizzas.

Thursday, January 17

Rejoice in your liberation

Suppose, after years of buying shampoo at your local pharmacy, you discover you can order the same shampoo for less money on the Web. Do you have an obligation to compensate your pharmacist? If you move to a cheaper apartment, should you compensate your landlord? When you eat at McDonald’s, should you compensate the owners of the diner next door? Public policy should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives.

In what morally relevant way, then, might displaced workers differ from displaced pharmacists or displaced landlords?...

If you’re forced to pay $20 an hour to an American for goods you could have bought from a Mexican for $5 an hour, you’re being extorted. When a free trade agreement allows you to buy from the Mexican after all, rejoice in your liberation — even if Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney and the rest of the presidential candidates don’t want you to.

Saturday, January 5

Who To Vote For? often as not, what presidential candidates say to get elected has absolutely no predictive power about what they will actually do as president.

First, campaigns are inherently exercises in propaganda and posturing, the posing of melodramatic choices usually defined by candidates' contorted exercises against stereotypical versions of the opposition. The real-world choices facing a president seldom fit into these operatic campaign categories. So picking a president is a little like picking a long-distance runner exclusively on the basis of his (or her) talent at running wind sprints.

A corollary is that it is almost impossible to know who can make the transition from candidate to president brilliantly, let alone successfully...

Second, the world has a way of generating unforeseen predicaments that require unrehearsed choices. Even the broad issues that dominate a campaign are seldom synonymous with those a president must face.