Nathan H. Lents – Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes

Nathan H. Lents – Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes

A book that can be amusing, but also points out the limitations of design without a designer. That said, organisms as they are almost certainly far better off than if they were the products of design with a designer. Well worth a read for that reason, but mostly because it’s fun to know about bodily quirks and maladies we all share for no apparent reason. Part of reading this book is taking a bit of delight in our own misfortunes.

We humans are doomed to have bad knees and back problems because the human body is not fully adapted to bipedalism. Our lack of a protruding snout (facial prognathism), such as most other animals have, dooms us to endless colds and sinus infections. We have the same piping back there as other animals, but in us it is compressed and shifted around in ways no plumber would design. This evolutionary quirk is why we get sick so often, even as our household cats and dogs rarely do.

One minor, Seinfeld-esque example I found personally relevant is that some people have the ability to voluntarily control a small muscle near the ear drum, causing a low rumbling sound kind of like muffled thunder. I am one of those people. The weird part is because it’s just a small muscle flexing inside one’s head, nobody else can hear the rumbling, even though to the hearer it can be loud enough to drown out conversation. It also has an involuntary component, in my case triggered by yawning, sneezing, and bright lights–those mouth and eye movements also work the muscle in question. I’ve silently wondered since childhood what causes this; it’s apparently just a random mutation some people have. Other readers will likely have similar “oh, that’s what that is!” moments.


Amity Shlaes – The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

Amity Shlaes – The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

It’s in part about FDR’s presidency, but more about the country and the times than the man himself. William Graham Sumner first coined the term “The forgotten man” in 1876 to describe people who neither voted for nor benefited from spending programs, but paid for them anyway. FDR later used the term in a very different way, to describe people who were hurting during the Depression and not getting the help they needed. This sharp change in direction is a theme of the times, and of Shlaes’ book.

FDR wasn’t particularly ideological, and as a result many New Deal policies were scattershot and worked against each other, rather than with each other. The result was absurdities such as crops being plowed under to raise food prices for farmers, even as people were hungry and cash-poor.

Despite their contradictions, many New Deal policies have common themes. They tend to increase federal power relative to state and local power; they grow government on net far more often than they shrink it; and they emphasize top-down direction rather than bottom-up adaptation. This even led to officially sanctioned cartels, after forty years of antitrust policy enforcement intended to break them up. This cartel approach was openly acknowledged to have been inspired by Mussolini.

But there is far more to the story of the Depression than FDR. Just as he gets more praise than he deserves, so too does he get more criticism than he deserved. The single biggest cause of the Depression was a one-third contraction in the money supply during the 1920s. The resulting deflation led prices to change for reasons completely unrelated to supply and demand, and led to all kinds of mistaken financial decisions and investments. The 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs, passed shortly after the stock market crash, killed international trade and raised international tensions at the worst possible time. President Herbert Hoover, usually remembered as a free market supporter, doubled federal spending in real terms in just four years.

All this happened before FDR took office. He and his brain trust inherited an amazing mess, which might partially explain their general ethos of throwing spaghetti at the wall until something sticks. They had no precedent to work from, people were scared, and nobody knew what to do.

Politics also played a role, and in the usual negative way. For example, demographers knew from the start that the 1935 Social Security Act would create a program that was not sustainable in the long run.  The worker-to-retiree ratio would lower over time, and would cause massive structural deficits for future generations. FDR acknowledged this in writing, dismissing it for the same reason President Trump waves off deficit concerns today: he’ll be out of office by the time it becomes a problem.We are that future generation, and Social Security’s present value deficit is measured well into the tens of trillions of dollars—in part because a presidential election was coming up more than 80 years ago.

Herbert Spencer – Social Statics

Herbert Spencer – Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and The First of Them Developed

Spencer was only about 30 when he wrote this 1851 book. Frankly, it shows. His thoughts on land and property rights are a muddled mess, which was common in those days, though his system stands out even among that disappointing lot. Spencer’s overall thought is much better. In a nutshell, it is classical liberalism heavily influenced by the natural sciences and especially evolution. It is full of nuances and subtleties that are easy to miss or misinterpret—something many of his critics almost seem to have done intentionally.

At this early point in his career, Spencer didn’t quite have the full command of the implications of his own philosophy, nor had he developed the ability to phrase them tactfully. He also shared some sloppy intellectual tendencies common to Victorian Britain, for example thinking of many nationalities or races as groups rather than individuals. All Native Americans, for example, apparently have hot tempers, according to Spencer. Though he rightly complained about being misunderstood, there are places where Spencer dug his own grave.

Despite these cringe-worthy moments, Spencer was a very much a liberal, especially by the stuffy standards of his time. He favored equal rights for all individuals of all races (even ones with hot tempers), and for all women. This consistent liberalism was as rare as it is consistent, even in the age of John Stuart Mill.

He opposed colonization and empire, was an ardent abolitionist, and believed deeply in poverty relief, even as he thought government incapable of handling the task competently or fairly. While Spencer distinguished between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, he still advocated helping even the people he tactlessly calls undeserving. They are individuals, and all individuals have the same rights. Spencer is nothing if not consistent and, in a weird and off-putting way, compassionate.

Despite his heavy reliance evolutionary thought, Spencer also opposed eugenics programs to improve the species. This means Spencer opposed the very thing he is most criticized for supporting. Eugenics would instead become popular among progressives a generation or so later. The idea would persist long enough that Gunnar Myrdal’s advocacy, for example, led to 60,000 of his fellow Swedes being sterilized, and he pushed for similar policies for African-Americans. Myrdal would co-win the economics Nobel—in 1974. Spencer’s reputation as a social Darwinist turns out to be untrue, something I was unsure of when I picked up the book, and was relieved to discover. Some of his ideological opponents turned out to be less innocent.

The confusion likely results in part from Spencer’s stated belief in evolutionary progress towards perfection, an idea that seems to me influenced by Condorcet’s exaggerated Enlightenment-style belief in progress leading inevitably to perfection, and a prefiguring of economic equilibrium theory along the lines of what Walras would popularize during Spencer’s lifetime. The fact that Social Statics pre-dates Darwin means that few people had a sophisticated understanding of how natural selection works, let alone the ability to apply it to social processes, such as customs and norms. Spencer would have greatly profited from having access to the works not just of Darwin and Huxley, but later thinkers such as Sagan, Dennett, or Dawkins.

Spencer also used the term “fitness” not as a positive or negative value judgment, but as a descriptor. An herbivore with flat teeth is more fit to its plant-based diet than one with sharp teeth. Regardless of one’s personal opinion on the matter, this will show in their survival rates. One type of business or person is not inherently better than another, according to Spencer. But a business with lower prices will attract more customers in world where that’s what customers prefer. A person who works hard is more fit to a society that rewards hard work, and poorly fitted to one that punishes it. This will be true regardless of whether one thinks this a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a little bit like how many people struggle to tell the difference between a fact an opinion.

Another is a confusion between thinking in terms of groups versus thinking in terms of individuals. Spencer does seem to have believed in inherent racial differences. Such groups share common characteristics. I do not share this belief, nor do most people today. Despite this group-thinking, Spencer’s entire system is based on individual rights. Regardless of what group a person comes from, an individual has the same rights as all other individuals, and deserves to have those rights respected. But even where Spencer is flat-out wrong in his group-thinking, he remains an individualist. Spencer could have avoided this trap by simply taking the modern view that every individual is different regardless of what socially constructed group they belong to. But at least he believed in everyone’s individual rights.

I’ve only read selections of Spencer’s later works. Time permitting, I look forward to finding out if his thought, ahem, evolved out of its immature aspects and Victorian conventions in Social Statics, or if I will continue to roll my eyes at some parts while being moved in others by his compassion and drive to make things better for as many people as possible, regardless of race or gender.

David Quammen – The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

David Quammen – The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

A book on evolution that is causing some waves. In standard Darwinian evolution, genetic traits and mutations are passed on to the next generation only if they affect gametes—sperm and eggs. This is called vertical evolution. A mutation in someone’s skin cells, for example, is non-heritable. Lamarckian evolution, long since disproved, posited that such things could, in fact, be passed on. Some Lamarckians even posited that things like memories or learned aversions could be genetically passed on from one organism to another.

This turned out not to be true. But as scientists are now discovering, there actually is a mechanism for genetic change during the same generation, and a way to pass genetic information horizontally from one cell or organism to another during the same generation, rather than vertically through the generations. This is not Lamarckian evolution in the old sense, but it is conceptually related.

The key to this horizontal evolution is in the large swathes of junk DNA in every organism’s genomes. These lengthy patches don’t activate any traits or seem to do anything. A few do, but most don’t. The new thinking, since 1980 or so and still being tested, is that much of our junk DNA, though not all of it, does not come from mutations. It comes from retroviruses that invade cells and merge with local DNA.

This happens all the time throughout the body. Such mergers are usually genetic gibberish and do nothing. But occasionally the additional code can accidentally cause new characteristics to emerge. But these aren’t passed on to descendants unless they happen to hit the lottery by merging not just with a gamete, but the rare gamete that ends up being fertilized. Despite odds of less than one-in-a-trillion-trillion, these lightning strikes have happened often enough that retroviral junk DNA makes up a sizable portion of every plant and every animal’s genetic code, though the process has taken about two billion years. It’s a good the odds of this happening are so small, otherwise our DNA would be almost endless by this point!

This revelation, especially as concerns non-gamete cells, may someday have significant medical applications, from HIV treatment to cancer. The line between viral diseases and genetic diseases may be a blurry one. But it is too soon to tell, and Quammen could go a bit further in tamping down speculation. Lamarck isn’t vindicated, but he wasn’t entirely wrong, either.

Quammen explains, far better than I can, that this discovery has profound implications for our place in the tree of life, and even the very shape that tree takes. All life is even more deeply interconnected than we already thought. Quammen also tells the story of how this theory of horizontal evolution was thought to be quackery just a few years ago, but is rapidly becoming mainstream thinking among evolutionary biologists. Much of the research happened in Wisconsin, where I was born, and in Illinois, where I now live, which is a nice little coincidence.

Note, however, that horizontal evolution does not displace traditional natural selection over generations. It adds to it.

Unintended Consequences of Voting

From p. 92 of Randall Holcombe’s 2018 book Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained:

Voting is the best way, from the elite’s standpoint, for the masses to participate, because each individual vote has essentially no impact on the outcome of an election, so voters are provided with the illusion that their participation determines the election outcome, which reinforces the perceived legitimacy of government.

Voting has practically no impact on policy outcomes. Even small local elections rarely have one-vote margins where a given person’s vote would be decisive. It’s so rare that it makes the news when it does happen. Voting’s instrumental value requires many decimal places to accurately express. But voting does have significant expressive value.

People genuinely feel good about participating in democracy, and get value from signaling their participation to others. Some people also get value from shaming people who do not vote. There is nothing wrong with most of that. But most people would benefit from a more accurate understanding of how much a person’s vote impacts election and policy outcomes. As Holcombe points out, this would make people less easily mollified by reform agendas that end at lip service.

This Week in Ridiculous Regulations

The news cycle was more sizzle than steak last week. President Trump threatened to shut down the southern border and backed off almost immediately, so no harm was done except to the new NAFTA/USMCA’s hopes of passage. House Democrats also asked for a bunch of presidential documents, but Republicans said no. While all that was going on, rulemaking agencies issued more than 80 new regulations ranging from assaulting pornography to NASA penalties.

On to the data:

  • Last week, 83 new final regulations were published in the Federal Register, after 48 the previous week.
  • That’s the equivalent of a new regulation every two hours and two minutes.
  • Federal agencies have issued 637 final regulations in 2019. At that pace, there will be 2,413 new final regulations. Last year’s total was 3,367 regulations.
  • Last week, agencies published 533 notices, for a total of 5,322 in 2019. At that pace, there will be 10,160 new notices this year. Last year’s total was 22,205.
  • Last week, 1,745 new pages were added to the Federal Register, after 1,074 pages the previous week.
  • The 2019 Federal Register totals 13,794 pages. It is on pace for 52,250 pages. The 2018 total was 68,082 pages. The all-time record adjusted page count (which subtracts skips, jumps, and blank pages) is 96,994, set in 2016.
  • Rules are called “economically significant” if they have costs of $100 million or more in a given year. One such rule has been published this year. Six such rules were published in 2018.
  • The running compliance cost tally for 2019’s economically significant regulations currently ranges from $139.1 million to $175.8 million. The 2018 total ranges from $220.1 million to $2.54 billion, depending on discount rates and other assumptions.
  • Agencies have published 23 final rules meeting the broader definition of “significant” so far this year. 2018’s total was 108 significant final rules.
  • So far in 2019, 120 new rules affect small businesses; 9 of them are classified as significant. 2018’s totals were 660 rules affecting small businesses, with 29 of them significant.

Highlights from last week’s new final regulations:

For more data, see Ten Thousand Commandments and follow @10KC and @RegoftheDay on Twitter.

The Trouble with Bureaucracies Isn’t Recklessness

A brilliant observation from p. 359 of Frank Knight’s 1921 book Risk, Profit, and Uncertainty:

The real trouble with bureaucracies is not that they are rash, but the opposite. When not actually rotten with dishonesty and corruption they universally show a tendency to “play safe” and become hopelessly conservative. The great danger to be feared from a political control of economic life under ordinary conditions is not a reckless dissipation of the social resources so much as the arrest of progress and the vegetation of life.

The last century or so has proven Knight correct, on everything from the precautionary principle being applied to chemical and environmental regulations, to risk assessment of new products, to much of what OSHA and CPSC do, to government dietary guidelines, to the larger nanny state movement.