Sympathy, empathy and scarce attention

Last night I attended a fascinating lecture by Sendil Mullainathan on his book with Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough. I haven’t read it yet but will certainly do so now.

The book has been widely reviewed so the main argument is probably well known: people who do not have enough money have their attention focused on immediate problems, to the detriment of thinking about the consequences of short-term actions. The future in general is outside the tunnel of what they have the capacity to pay attention to. “Cognitive bandwidth is a fixed resource.” A lot gets used up by attending to urgent, day-to-day financial problems and needs – about which, slightly paradoxically, the people in this situation are ultra-rational, and very focused on the most cost-efficient decision.

The scale of the effect of this attentional tunneling on the quality of other decisions is large – almost as big as not having slept at all at night. All the time. And the decisions adversely affected cover all aspects of life, not just financial choices like whether or not to take out that pay day loan: how to parent, whether to keep up a course of medicine, and so on.

There are other kinds of scarcity that create the same kind of tunnel vision – including time scarcity. Prof Mullainathan drew this analogy, saying he’d tried it on hedge fund managers to see if it helped them understand the psychology of poverty. Someone with no money opting for a payday loan is like someone with no time not having time to do a piece of paperwork and ending up spending more time sorting out the resulting hassle. However, he added: “Different forms of scarcity have different optionality. Poverty is relentless. I can’t decide to change my poverty-life balance.”

The next question of course is what conclusions to draw from the insight about scarcity (of money) gobbling up people’s cognitive bandwidth. One conclusion is that expecting people on low incomes to fill out long forms to get benefits – or do anything – is a regressive attentional tax. Just as the cockpit of a plane is designed and engineered to be as fault-tolerant as possible, we should do the same with any engagement between people and government (or businesses, or school…..). Another that occurs to me is whether it’s possible to design some simple financial planning aids or reminders.

Interestingly, Prof Mullainathan said: “People who care about poverty tend to feel sympathy. But sympathy is a distancing emotion. We need to feel empathy.” It reminded me of Julia Unwin’s excellent book Why Fight Poverty?, which is exactly about the emotional reaction we have to poverty and why that actually makes it harder for well-meaning policy people to do anything about it.



Time for the next techno-enviro-social paradigm?

On this week’s flights I read Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve by Ian Morris. I thoroughly enjoyed Morris’s big book, Why the West Rules (For Now), a grand sweep of economic and social history in the vein of (Guns Germs and Steel, Collapse) Jared Diamond. This new book is a series of essays based on his 2012 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, with comments/criticisms and a response. So it’s much shorter and less detailed than the previous one, although a very good and enjoyable read nonetheless.

Morris comes across here as a sort of Karl Marx meets Jared Diamond. In a nutshell, his argument is that humanity has grown better at using the prevailing energy technology to acquire more kilocalories of energy for use, up to a ceiling. At that ceiling, a new energy basis for society evolves, importantly affecting population density and the size of human social groups, and replaces the previous social/technical paradigm. Domestication of grains and animals enabled farming to replace foraging. The extraction of fossil fuels and their harnessing as steam power led to industrial societies in place of agrarian ones.

Each of these three paradigms involves a different kind of social relations: egalitarian in foraging societies because co-operation is necessary for hunting and gathering, and nobody has a lot of property; hierarchical ones in agrarian societies because some people accumulate property to be defended, and a biological division of labour between the sexes emerges too; and industrial ones more egalitarian with respect to politics and gender but tolerant of wealth inequality. There has been little if any biological evolution among humans – and through the millennia the same basic characteristics (or even values) such as the capacity for love, a sense of fairness etc, exist – but there has been cultural evolution. Specifically, values evolve, being shaped by interaction with the physical, social and intellectual environment. Is it acceptable to treat women as chattels or to have slaves? Do animals have the right to humane treatment? Does marital fidelity matter? These kinds of values have changed significantly.

Although it seems highly plausible that the material and technical basis of a society plays an important part in shaping its higher level values, and that population density and the size of social groups will be important, there is something that feels a bit deterministic about Morris’s argument. It may be that at this short length the arguments become caricatures, with less scope for nuance, because the four critiques of the argument aren’t all that convincing either.

The book has lots of facts, always appealing to me. For instance, did you know the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron had intercepted and freed 150,000 Africans being shipped across the Atlantic to the US between banning slave trading in 1807 and the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1865?

It ends rather gloomily, pointing out that the big transitions he identfies – from foraging to farming to fossil fuels – occurred when successful societies hit the “hard ceiling of what was possible given their stage of energy capture and found themselves taking part in a natural experiment….. More often than not, people failed to revolutionize their energy capture and suffered Malthusian collapses.”

Perhaps, he muses with unseemly cheer, that’s about to happen to us unless we can solve the climate change issues. So that’s our choice: a catastrophic collapse of civilization, or a new techno-enviro-social paradigm.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Why Are We Waiting: the logic, urgency and promise of tackling climate change is Nick Stern’s second book on this subject, the first being A Blueprint for a Safer Planet. In the new book he aims to combine fear and hope – fear of the consequences of not taking big steps now, and hope that the need to change is an opportunity for new technologies and growth.

The first part of the book, “A Planet Between Peril and Prosperity,” sets out these two elements. Stern is at the gloomy end of the range of views about the likely rise in mean global temperatures and the consequent economic and social risks. Unless the world acts within a decade or two, the window for limiting the temperature rise to a manageable 2 degrees C will be closed, he says, before proceeding to dangle hope with a chapter about the potential for a “new energy-industrial revolution.”

The second part of the book is an interesting challenge to climate change sceptics (of course) but also to some of the economists who are less pessimistic. Stern challenges the application of economic methods that assess the costs and benefits at the margin – inappropriate he rightly argues when you are discussing big changes. He has a chapter discussing the flaws in the conventional ‘integrated assessment models’ used in the literature. Stern argues: “They have assumed strong underlying growth, plus only modest damages from big increases in temperature, plus very limited risk.” If you disagree as he does with all three assumptions, the consensus forecasts look Panglossian. A final chapter in this section assesses the debate about ethical assumptions and how these are captured in the modeling, a debate first triggered by the Stern Review. His critics argue that he makes an extreme assumption about the right discount rate to use to assess future costs and benefits; but he has not changed his view.

The third and final part is about political economy – why the negotiations are so hard, how to get fast-growing developing economies to sign up to urgent action, why is everything so slow? The book argues that this is the result of the analytical errors he sets right in part 2, and psychological barriers to change, and a communication deficit. But surely it’s much simpler? Nobody – person or country – has an individual incentive to bear the short term cost of change, while the costs of climate change are uncertain, 20 years into the future, and a collective problem. It will take an extraordinary politician to solve the global collective action problem in advance, rather than reacting to events. So the book concludes, “Why are we waiting?” I am not sure the market is waiting – there seems to be a lot of energy innovation under way. As for policy, surely we need individual nation state governments to do what they can through carbon taxes, or plastic bag taxes, or policies to ‘green’ power generation – and not wait for an all-encompassing international agreement?

This is not to say Nick Stern is wrong to be so concerned. The outcome he fears clearly has a non-zero probability even if you don’t agree with him. So I’m all for action. Anybody who is interested in the economics and political economy of climate change policy will want to read this book.

Hope amid the gloom?

Anybody in the UK who is feeling gloomy about the General Election result could deepen their gloom by reading the new edition of Danny Dorling’s Injustice: why social inequality still persists. The book has quite an upbeat conclusion: “Slowly, collectively, with one step back for every two taken forward, we inch onwards to progress; we gradually undo the mistakes of the past, and recognise new forms of injustice arising out of what we once thought were solutions. … Everything it takes to defeat injustice lies in the mind. What matters most is how we think. And how we think is metamorphosing because – everywhere – there are signs of hope.”

Clearly this new and greatly revised edition of the book was written before the election. What’s more, everything that is new in it ought to make a campaigner for social justice even gloomier. The indicators collected in the book have at best improved only a little since the financial crisis – household indebtedness, income inequality, for instance. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the apparent absence of any change in the zeitgeist, or public philosophy. When the first edition was published in 2010, many commentators thought the scale of the crisis would lead to a significant swing in public opinion away from Big Finance, markets and greed. With the exception of popular disapproval of unseemly bonuses in the socially destructive banking industry, that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Or has it? Dorling presents some evidence – Janet Yellen calling extreme inequality ‘un-American’, international efforts to collect unpaid taxes from rich globocrats, popular dislike of elites. It’s not much, perhaps. One could add a few more examples, like today’s call from the OECD for tech companies to stop their “aggressive tax planning”. Is this enough to justify a belief that the social and economic order will change. Dorling writes, optimistically in the circumstances: “No-one can truly know what will be sufficient to change deeply held and institutionally transmitted beliefs.”

In a terrific book, Masters of the Universe, Daniel Stedman Jones described the long process of organising, campaigning, debating by many people that paved the way for the triumph of the individualist ‘free market’ philosophy from 1980 and is still our official public philosophy. Who knows how long it will take how many people who dislike this to pave the way for an alternative – but when a system change of this kind happens, it happens relatively quickly (over a decade at most) and is then dramatic.

Injustice replaces Beveridge’s original Five Giants with new ones: elitism, social exclusion, prejudice, greed and despair. The book links these in a vicious circle of social and economic inequality – exactly why single policy measures are drops in the ocean and a broader change is needed, Dorling argues, collecting all the evidence one could need to conclude this. I wouldn’t want to predict whether we’ll get it or not; that will depend on what we all do, and think, next.

The El Farol problem goes digital

I saw this tweet and it immediately reminded me of Brian Arthur’s El Farol equilibrium story.

Please develop an app that simulates Waze recommendations to assess which routes will open up based on everybody else follow Waze.
13/05/2015 07:12

For those who don’t know it, El Farol is a bar in Santa Fe, where Arthur is based. It has great Irish music but the problem is that it’s no fun if the bar gets too crowded. What is the outcome in this situation where people are trying to choose based on beliefs about what others will choose? There is no ‘deductively rational’ solution to this choice problem. In his paper, Arthur writes: “If all believe few will go, all will go. But this would invalidate that belief. Similarly, if all believe most will go, nobody will go, invalidating that belief. Expectations will be forced to differ.” Simulating behaviour of 100 agents repeatedly shows that mean attendance at El Farol quickly converges to 60, but with large swings from period to period, and changing identity of those attending – it isn’t always the same 40 with a varying number of extras. “while the population of active predictors splits into this 60/40 average ratio, it keeps changing in membership forever. This is something like a forest whose contours do not change, but whose individual trees do. These results appear throughout the experiments, robust to changes in types of predictors created and in numbers assigned.”

The Waze problem looks similar. If you see congestion on your planned route, you’ll switch to an alternative – perhaps – for you also have to predict how many other people will switch too, and whether the initial congestion will stay or vanish if there are enough other users of similar apps.

Later work on El Farol found one game theoretic solution: individual agents adopt a mixed strategy, whereby each has a fixed probablility of choosing either El Farol or an alternative bar. Another is that after a period of learning, agents sort themselves into groups, those who always go and those who always stay home. But I don’t think these work for Waze-style congestion problems which are not repeated.

Indeed, real-time apps are surely creating more of these kinds of co-ordinated decision problems.

Brian Arthur’s book Complexity and the Economy is a nice introduction to his work.