Welfare programs and black markets

There are lots of big questions about welfare programs and how to design them. I am not going to answer any of those questions here, but I am going to ask a few, specifically these two:

  1. Should receipt of welfare be means-tested for need (e.g. TANF) or universal (i.e. a minimum income for everyone)?
  2. Should receipt of welfare be conditional on employment?

The good arguments for means-testing usually boil down to maximizing impact. If we have a fixed amount of resources we can redistribute, then we can maximize the impact of those resources by directing them towards the people with the greatest need (rather than spreading it thinner across everyone). The good arguments against means-testing revolve around changing incentives at the margin. Even when designed with gradual phasing out as a person’s income rises, there remains the unavoidable reality that means-tested welfare reduces the value of every marginal dollar earned within the phase-out window.

The good arguments for requiring employment to receive a form of welfare are, again, incentives to work, this time at the extensive margin (i.e. how many people in the population choose to work at all). The good arguments against requiring employment are the obstacles that poverty places between people and finding work. It becomes a classic Catch-22 – you’re poor because you can’t find work, but you can’t find work because you are poor. Welfare unconditional of employment can help people get over the hump and into their next job.

None of these observations are new, and these very much remain hard questions. Yes, we should be concerned with incentives to work at the margin, but the fact remains resources are finite, and many people will, at some point in their lives, need a lot of help. The more we can give them the better. This pushes me towards means-testing. But then I remember that those marginal incentives to work at the intensive margin (how much to work) depend on phasing out of benefits with increasing visible income. For people living in poverty, there exist a number of viable earning options that are not visible to the institutions testing their means. A dollar earned in legal wages might reduce TANF benefits by $0.15, but a dollar earned in the black/gray market leaves those benefits untouched. Yes, illegal earnings come with risks, including future access to benefits, but the possibility remains that means-testing benefits could have the perverse effect of increasing the relative value of any and all “off-the-books” income, be it cash labor in the gray market or explicit criminal earnings.

Considering whether a source of welfare should be conditional on employment raises the question of wage subsidies versus cash welfare, but it’s really just the same question we were pondering previously, but with greater emphasis on incentives to work or not. These questions at the extensive margin, much like those at the intensive margin, become far more interesting when placed in the context of not just whether to work or not, but which market to work in. In a world of prohibitions scattered across a variety of extremely high demand (and high profit) markets, where licensing, educational norms, and discrimination all work to create a collage of cash opportunities outside of the well-lit protections of legal labor markets, there is no shortage of work that goes unseen. Welfare transfers conditional on legal labor can serve as incentive to pull people out of these market, and begin building a record of accomplishment that serve them going forward. This speaks in favor of conditioning welfare on employment, so long as everyone has access to employment.

This this thought experiment leaves me mostly where I started (no surprise, an hour’s reflection rarely changes my priors), namely that wage subsidies have a place in our welfare system, as does means-testing, but as welfare benefits rise, they should become more universal in their access across the income distribution, a lesson I expect we will learn in retrospect as we come out of “The Great Resignation”. A “universal basic income” need not be fully universal, but there are good reasons for it to reach well passed the median income. Or median voter, for that matter.

But maybe I repeat myself?

Dry turkey and mediocre side dishes are optimal

The Take Economy demands not just that you distinguish yourself with opinions that deviate from the median person, but that the manner in which your opinion deviates is immediately distinguishable from everyone else who is similarly deviating. This leaves us with a tendency to focus on what we don’t like – enjoying something is further evidence of the monoculture, while hate comes in a million shades of beige.

I bring this up because hating Thanksgiving foods, particularly turkey, oven-baked turkey, has been in vogue for years, and I’m sure stuffing is next. Everything is too dry, too bland, yada yada yada. It’s a boring take most often made by boring people. Not that such things usually matter to me, but in this case it does because Thanksgiving as a meal is not an epicurean holiday, it’s an attempt to solve a coordination game across families, friends, and geographies. When solving a coordination problem with so many players, with preferences and cost-constraints that make broadly amenable large-scale get-togethers increasingly difficult. Between navigating travel costs, sleeping arrangements, and the inevitable negative political externalities that some jackass in your family is going to pollute the familial air with, the last thing you have the resources to cope with is culinary coordination. So what do we do? We come up with a pseudo-national, heavily regional menu that we coordinate on, a$1.99 per pound Schelling point that’s a steal at thrice the price.

The turkey’s too dry? Drown it in gravy. The stuffing is too bland? Your aunt has hot sauce in her purse. Your cousin is explaining the vagaries of 18th century 2nd amendment judicial rulings? There’s a bottle of brown liquor quietly being shared on the porch this very minute that you can partake in for the price of nothing more than a pleading glance and keeping your politics to your self.

The food isn’t the point, but if you’re still feeling the pain of a sub-optimal meal, you can order Chinese with us later, and I’ll happily explain to you why you’re not just ordering the wrong dishes, you’re ordering off the wrong menu. Because I got food takes, just not when the meal isn’t about the food.

What kind of return do we want on our investment?

I had never spoken with someone so enthusiastic about what they could do with trash. A young, slender man from a city in India I was unfamiliar with explained to me how his machine transformed plastic refuse into an economically and environmentally superior substitute for concrete. This sort of techno-optimism fodder for “your daily reason to feel good” clickbait article provokes, but rarely maintains my optimism upon closer inspection. I listened, impressed by the person I was talking to, but unsure what to make of his elevator pitch.

Then he reached into his backpack and handed me a very real block of “Plascrete”. We’ve spent so much of the last 20 years inundated with ideas that were abstract software application propositions at best, and vaporware at worst, it was jarring to hold the physical manifestation of someone’s “big idea”. I spent the rest of the conversation, and a good chunk of my evening at the “unconference” being hosted by Emergent Ventures, thinking about the economic ramifications of Plascrete. What it could mean for developing countries to have a substitute for concrete that is 24 times stronger yet somehow 4 times cheaper – what it would mean for infrastructure and vertical housing construction. What the streets might look like picked clean of plastic bags and refuse. What happens to the lower tail of the wage distribution after the marginal product of trash-picking labor quintuples. How forecasted carbon emissions from developing countries might shift if the expected carbon footprint of construction were massively reduced.

But this post isn’t about Plascrete or the projected impact of any particular innovation. What I’m interested in this moment is the market for private venture capital.

The model of modern venture capital is built around the biggest of wins, those home run investments whose returns compensate for the more than 90% that largely fail. For the strategy to function, of course, means that every investment has to carry the possibility of prodigious returns, in the realm of 10 to 20-times investment, which limits the industries and technological categories under consideration. Tight profit margins are out. Factories, physical capital are out. Anything that might carry an inherent limitation to rapid scaling are out. What’s in are network consumer goods and zero marginal cost (e.g. software) products. So what does that leave out? Explicitly physical goods, such as inputs into shelter or food, things that require upfront investment in equipment where those costs increase with the scale of your output aspirations.

But that’s actually only the beginning of our problems. What about goods with enormous positive externalities, i.e. social benefits, that exist without the possibility of traditional property rights and monetization? Even if a private venture fund is culturally interested in such things, they are constrained by their model – any reduction in potential home run returns from their investment puts the short run solvency of their fund at risk, something unlikely to be tolerated by their investors. These problems are only compounded when considering positive externality generating technologies that are burdened with traditional physical capital needs and historically normal limits to scaling. Even if your product offers 100X social returns, that’s not going to keep the lights on for a series of high risk investments with private returns that top out at 5X.

Innovations whose adoption offers enormous positive externalities are, in theory, exactly why public support for general science exists (whether or not such things should fall within the domain of public funding agencies is a whole different question that I have no immediate interest in addressing). Let me simply say here that these hypothetical products require expertise in delivering a product to market and the capacity to appropriately take on risk. These are not the comparative advantages of large federal science funding agencies. Which leaves us with the dilemma motivating this entire rambling thought exercise. There seems to be an important gap in the market- and government-based institutions for funding innovation.

What I want to consider is the possibility of elevating the status and profile of private venture capital that goes towards profitable, self-sustaining technologies whose returns might only be considered prodigious if we include the broader positive externalities they have on human lives. The kinds of effects whose value may in fact scale exponentially as they diffuse through communities and networks, but will never be internalized into profits via property rights. I want to consider the reconstruction of the risk profile of an entire portfolio to optimize the ability of a fund to support these sorts of innovations in perpetuity. Earning returns sufficient to produce returns sufficient to self-sustain with a minimum of (if any) long run philanthropic subsidy.

Private capital with such a focus would find a niche that modern venture funds are unmotivated to serve and public scientific agencies are ill-equipped to support. Private funds focused on innovations with externally scaling returns would, in my half-baked hypothesis, would take on a two-tier model. The first tier would be composed of small investments scattered across a large number of very small grants (which is essentially the entire model of Emergent Ventures – I’m essentially plagiarizing the model I saw evidence of through two days of conversations with their grant recipients). These grants would predominantly be interested in people. These human lottery tickets would pursue their initial ideas through the proof-of-concept stages. Some would succeed, most will not, but all will benefit from their first connection to the broad international network of technology talent and talent-seekers. The small number who do succeed in producing compelling evidence of technological advancement would then enter the second tier, where large investments would be sought for a prototype and eventual distribution. What’s important to remember is that this remains a private good that must still enter and pass the market test. What distinguishes it is not an inability to economically self-sustain, but rather it’s inability to create profits so grandiose that it can subsidize a portfolio of failed moonshots. It’s prospective profitability need only justify it’s own independent risk of failure. This is not to say the bar is actually lower than traditional venture capital. While the profitability bar is lower, it must exceed a second, in many ways more difficult bar – it must produce a direct and attributable positive externality, be it through health, safety, or environmental channels. Its consumption must improve lives of not just its consumers, but those entirely uninvolved in its production or purchase.

I’m not an expert in venture capital or speculative philanthropy, but after the last week I can’t shake the idea that Michael Kremer was even more right than we realized: more people => more ideas => more economic growth. There are billions lottery tickets lying on the ground all over the developed world. We need to invent newer and better ways of picking more of them up.

Presentation Today – “Firearms and Violence Under Jim Crow”

I’ll be giving a presentation today at 12pm ET over Zoom for the Ostrom Workshop Colloquium Series at Indiana University. It is my understanding that it is open to the public. The format is different than your typical economics seminar. I will give an introduction and brief summary of the paper for 20 minutes followed by questions.

https://ostromworkshop.indiana.edu/pdf/announcements/2021fall-colloq/11-08-makowsky.pdf

You can find the full working paper here.

Give someone you love the gift of two hours

The good people at EWED have asked me to recommend a gift for the upcoming holiday season. I know there’s no fewer than three economists that publicly recommend the gift of cash every year. This is ostensibly done in earnest, but really it’s for the LOLs. If we take a slightly more behavioral tact (but only slightly), the optimal gift to give is the thing that people are systematically biased against purchasing for themselves even though it offers a net benefit in exchange. Great. So what are people systematically biased against?

I’d like to suggest people are biased against purchasing things they are a little too good at producing themselves, a sort of “absolute advantage bias”. If you want to give someone a great gift, buy them something they typically produce themselves even though outsourcing it would cost-effectively save them two hours. If you can make manifest in an adult human life two hours of free time you are nothing short of a hero.

Buy them two hours of a cleaning service. Two hours of lawn care. Two hours of babysitting. Two hours of laundry pick up, folding, and drop-off. Two hours of cooking (i.e. a DoorDash gift card). Two hours of car cleaning. Two hours of document proofreading. Two hours of anything that if you recommended it to them they’d shrug their shoulders and sigh “I can’t pay for that when I can just do it myself”.

And it doesn’t matter what they do with the two hours, either – they’ll maximize that with ruthless efficiency. You ever take a two-hour nap on a Sunday afternoon? I defy you to think of anything you can buy an adult for $50 that is better than a two hour nap. I’m getting dreamy-eyed just thinking about it.

Buy the people you love some time for themselves this holiday season. It’s better than cash, it shows you are invested in their well-being, and I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t use it.

Go watch Dune

That’s the column this week. No ad hoc economic theory, no deep insight into the profession. No silly sports talk. Just a recommendation to watch a beautiful looking and sounding movie. Allow yourself to get invested in the world they are building. Reward their willingness to be sufficiently faithful to a masterpiece while also having the maturity to know that much of the intrigue, as designed in the book, wouldn’t translate to the screen.

They’re building a world where a single commodity is so valuable, and it’s supply so inelastic, that it serves as the fulcrum for an entire galaxy. Worries about peak oil feel like fretting about a possible shortage of student selfies when compared to the economics of spice. The political economy is coming, don’t you worry. For the moment though, just take in a cool movie.

Go watch Dune.

La Dolce Vita Economica

I thought about writing about soccer (again). I thought about writing about time management and personal production functions. I considered writing about Lebron James or how I manage multiple research projects. I thought about writing about a classic, and entirely addictive to the point of career ruination, video game. They all seem a little redundant at the moment, though, because they are all the same basic story.

One soccer manager is over-exhausting their resources because of a confluence of bad contractual incentives while another team is witnessing a renaissance in a player they essentially forced to take 7 weeks off. While so many NBA careers of the 80s evaporated in a cloud of cocaine and clubbing, Lebron James’ entire life is built around managing the only two resources whose limits are salient to his life: his body and relationship with his family. Playing baseball growing up I watched pitchers blow out their arms before they finished puberty in service to Little League glory, while modern professional pitchers are (finally) on strictly managed pitch counts to maximize their expected output.

There are two manners in which I armchair quarterback the rest of the world. One is the things in which I have just enough knowledge to be frustrated by others decisions, but no so much as to actually know what I am talking about. These frustrations are ephemeral, they flatter myself to the point of mild embarrassment upon reflection, and, if I am being honest with myself, are fun.

The other manner is resource management. These are the times when armchair quarterbacking is less fun and more exasperating because they are the moments when outsiders, with inferior levels of narrowly-applicable expertise, are often actually right. Which is not to say the knowledge that resources are being poorly managed is uniquely held by outsiders. Insiders are more often than not quite aware of the suboptimal deployment and conservation of resources, but are unable to overcome the status quo institutions, incentives, or inertia of decision-making power loci. It’s obvious to lots of people that athletes, CEOs, doctors, and congressional representatives are over-extended. What’s not obvious is how to get out of these equilibria.

When I see most attempts at self-improvement, I am generally skeptical of anything that doesn’t start with the identification of a key resource that is salient to outcomes and the options available to better manage it. Maybe its calories and how to budget them. Maybe its time and how to better partition and conserve it. It could always be money, but in general I find that money is so immediately identifiable as a finite resource and entirely fungible that people who ostensibly are managing it poorly are, in actuality, failing at managing a different resource (time, emotional energy, vices, etc) that is intertwined with financial resources.

When I see successful firms, teams, and individuals, what I most often find myself admiring is not (just) a worldly talent, but a facility with managing resources that others haven’t yet adopted or mimicked. An appreciation for sleep, a protection of time blocked for creativity, an adeptness trading low opportunity competitive minutes for higher opportunity cost moments on the biggest stages. Or even just the ability to recognize that this is the moment to savor a 600 calorie dessert with a loved one because the emotional sustenance will make it easier to walk away from three vending machine Hostess pies during the high-stress moments in the week to come.

Once you learn to manage your donut-based caloric intake, the spreadsheet of your life will be revealed before you, an endless cascade of resources to be managed and optimized. A life with the right donuts at the right time. The dolce vita economica.

Soccer has become a Tragedy of the Commons

Players are breaking down breaking down, which may not be of any particular interest to you, but it seems odd considering that modern nutrition and sports medicine has NBA and NFL players competing at later ages than previously considered possible. I’ll go farther and suggest there is a growing sense in soccer that outfield players (i.e. not goalies) are peaking earlier, particularly in the physically demanding English Premier League. What is happening in soccer that isn’t happening in other sports?

A professional soccer players runs about 6 miles (10 km) a game. They do so in a series of sprints and stops, all while humans with deadly pistons for legs kick at them repeatedly. Even without getting into the costs of repeatedly of striking the ball (and sometimes other craniums) with your skull, it is hard to overstate the cumulative toll on soccer players and their bodies.

Over the course of the 2020-21 English Premier league season, Pierre Emil-Hojbjerg played 53 games for his club and 12 games for the Danish national team. Son Heung-Min has flown 140,000 miles over the past 3 years to play for his club and the South Korean national team. The most prominent coaches in the world are adamant that their players are being asked to do too much. So, if we know that the players are breaking down, some of the most prominent figures in the sport think they know why they are breaking down, and the players are highly compensated employees who are themselves highly valued assets for their contracting clubs, why hasn’t this problem already been fixed? In two words: property rights.

Professional footballers have become a common pool resource. And if there is one thing we know about commons is that they often suffer a tragic outcome. See what I did there?


Long story short, the “Tragedy of the Commons” occurs when property rights to a good are either lacking entirely (i.e. fishing rights in the Atlantic Ocean) or incomplete (i.e. irrigation systems, professional soccer players). While it would be everyone’s interest to limit total usage to maintain the long-run sustainability of the resource in question, without property rights any individual has incentive to claim as large a portion of the resource as possible in the short run (i.e. catch as many fish as much as possible, use a player as much as possible), even if that means the resource in question is destroyed, preventing future use.

The English Football Association pays it’s national team players about 2,000 pounds per match played. When you consider that nearly all of it’s players earn in excess of 100k pounds per week from their club teams, it’s a pittance. How does the English FA get these players so cheap? Partly because they are paying the players in honor and prestige and glory and even more honor, partly because of the stigma and shame that would be levied against them if they refused the social obligation to play for their country. It’s a pretty amazing racket for FIFA (International) and UEFA (European) associations, through which 100s of millions of dollars/pounds are funneled while paying pennies to the players.

For a top player, each year is filled with final and qualifying matches for international tournaments (World Cup, European Championships, Confederations Cup, the League of Nations,…), two or three different league tournaments, and 38 games of regular league play. On top of this are the international “friendlies” that are played whenever the players might actually enjoy a break. As if designed to prove my point, FIFA has proposed having the World Cup every 2 years (instead of 4), which would only increase the load. If this sounds ridiculous, consider it from FIFA’s point of view. As far as they are concerned, player bodies are the lowest cost input in their enterprise. They don’t value the players because they don’t have to.

We shouldn’t let the clubs off the hook completely, either. Yes, they have contracts with the players, which makes them an resource that should be valued accordingly. But that assumes that the managers of a team’s resources have time horizon’s aligned with the team and it’s players, which is often very much not the case. Coaches last less than 3 years on average. Sporting Directors come and go. Even ownership can find itself looking to add short-term shine to a club so they can sell it today, even at the expense of it’s long term value. Don’t be shocked when a coach who needs to win this year to keep his or her job runs their players into the ground. What do they care about preserving their star forward’s rapidly decaying ankles if they can’t count on being around to benefit from their long term value? Hell, it’s more likely the coach will be playing against those ankles in 5 years!

At some point clubs will begin to push back – they simply have too much capital invested in these players, and international tournaments are imposing too much risk on them as franchises. But don’t expect this problem to be solved quickly or easily. The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic cliché for a reason, doubly so when one side stands to lose a lot from the (re) establishment of property rights. Fortunately in this case, there are two parties that stand to benefit from a better property rights: players and their employers. The only side that stands to lose are the wasteful grifters of FIFA and the individual national team associations, and all they have on their side is nationalist pride and populist indifference to professional athlete health….

Oh no.

Grade inflation is making our students too risk averse

Grade inflation in the US education system is a common observation, one that is, at least at the college level, largely undeniable. A couple recent interactions with students has brought it to the front of my mind again. When discussing their majors and what classes they were taking, there was considerable hesitation to take what were perceived as difficult classes. What I thought this called for, in the moment, was a bit of confidence building, for a professor such as myself to say “You can do it!”

It turns out confidence in their ability to learn the material was not the issue. What they were unsure of was their ability to get an A. No, to guaranteed get an A. It was the risk of a sub-A grade that concerned them (likely exacerbated by the fact that my university does not award + and – grades in undergraduate classes). So I went through my usual pitch:

You take 5 classes a semester for 8 semesters. That’s 40 classes. The cost of couple B’s or even a C will pale in comparison to the benefit acquiring more technical skills, which would pay out for a lifetime. A couple courses in computer science, econometrics and statistics, maybe real analysis for those thinking about a PhD in economics – these would all have huge payoffs. There was a problem with my logic, however, that quickly became apparent.

They weren’t sure what they wanted to do after their bachelors. They didn’t know what advanced degrees they might pursue, whether law or medical school was something they were interested in. What they did know, however, is that GPAs were really important. That students were applying to things they might be interested in, and doing so with 3.8 and 3.9’s. When they saw classes that regularly handed out C’s (not D’s or F’s mind you, just C’s), what they saw was pure downside risk. If they were great at something, no one would ever be able to tell. But if they weren’t, or if they had a bad day on a hard final exam, that it could close doors. What I inferred was that they were trying to maximize their expected outcomes, and in order to do so they had to minimize the number of hard classes in their portfolio. Each path had a handful of unavoidable hard classes, so to take a an additional hard class beyond the requirements of the path they chose was suboptimal.

I don’t know that they’re wrong.


I’ve told this story before. When I was considering getting a PhD in economics I planned on just going to my local school. I was visiting a friend on the opposite coast, though, and thought I’d stop in at a really good local school there. I met with the director of graduate studies in the economics department and was flatly informed that my application would not be read because my GPA (3.2, if you’re curious) was below their cutoff. I said thanks and left. It was some time later that it dawned on me that this was ludicrous. Did they simply never admit students from (the famously uninflated grades of) CalTech? Were they discriminating against math and engineering majors? Likely not. But this is deeper knowledge than that held by your typical undergraduate. All they know is the average admissions statistics and the implied (or in my case explicitly stated) cutoffs.

When we inflate grades and get rid of standardized tests, we put greater pressure on students to curate their education to expected grade outcomes and, more important, to minimize risk. There’s no upside to shining in a difficult class if the best 50% all get A’s. The signal value of success has been attenuated. The signal value of failure, however, has not just been left intact, it’s been heightened. There’s no positive variance to balance it out. There’s no way to be an excellent B+ student whose occasional C in risky classes are balanced out by some exemplary A’s. We’ve effectively raised the costs of taking challenging classes and in doing so discouraged students from acquiring the skills that are most rewarded in the marketplace.

The problem only becomes all the worse when we think about the cultural biases in the confidence we cultivate in different groups of students. If a deficiency in math and science has been low-key implied at every stage of your education, you’re that much less likely to incur the risk of “hard classes”. There’s much pearl-clutching over “everyone winning a trophy” and school being too easy from folks who walked to and from school through 12 months of snow, uphill both ways. Those arguments, which are often little more than a sort of grumpy money illusion, miss the real problem entirely. Undoing grade inflation to make school harder is like giving 7 points for every goal in soccer to make it more exciting.

The actual grades don’t matter. What matters is the the shape of the distribution of grades . If we bunch everyone in the A’s and then disproportionately select into institutions based on those grades, we’re incentivizing students to stay in the herd. To risk your GPA for the sake of hard classes is to risk being isolated. To risk being cutout by admissions committees trying to sort through 1000 applications, half of with have near-perfect GPA’s, and for whom the fastest way to make their workload manageable in an acceptable manner is cut out everyone with less than 3.7.

I’m not sure students are wrong in their grade-mongering. They got into college in many cases based on nothing but those GPAs. They’ll be able to go to grad school without taking the GRE. There will come a day, however, when the next step isn’t school, and after which no one will ever ask them their GPA again for the rest of their life. After which the only thing that will matter is what they know. And who will know more: the overconfident student of upper-middle class parents who graduated with a 2.8 BS in electrical engineering or the pragmatic student who curated courses to maximize their 3.7 GPA while preparing for the MCATS and medical school? I don’t know who will leave with more skills, but I also don’t worry about either. Who I worry about is the first-gen college student, the child of a working class household with a 4.0 BA and 4.0 MA in communications who, desperate to prove to others that they belonged in school, made sure to protect that perfect GPA at every turn. What have we done to ensure that they know enough when they enter the job market?

Evolutionary Science and Gresham’s Law of Ideas

So there’s a book that said something really dumb:

And by cursory inspection of excerpts and reviews, it is chock full of all kinds of silly ideas that experienced what I can only imagine to be a frictionless path from the authors’ minds to publication. I don’t really care about this book or the specific ways in which it is is bad. And I don’t really care about the authors, who appear to be mediocre self-styled evolutionary scientists whose major claims to fame appear to be favoring ivermectin over vaccines and supporting themselves financially by levying a lawsuit against Evergreen State College.

What I care about is evolutionary biology and psychology as subfields. The core idea is that the evolutionary framework of persistent adoption and adaptation of traits under unrelenting selective pressures can be a useful modeling framework for generating theories of social, economic, biological, and psychological phenomena. Evolutionary selection is a good idea, one of the most powerful in intellectual history! But to me, an outsider economist with a long-ago acquired undergraduate degree in biology, the subfields seems to be suffocating under the weight of ad hoc theories generated in volume by marginal practitioners and non-scientists. Why? What’s wrong with evolutionary sciences? Here’s a couple thoughts.

1) There’s nothing wrong. Saying something is wrong with the subfields is like watching The Shining and thinking “There’s something wrong with axes”. This is just a bad book with bad ideas thought up by authors with minimal right to claim the mantle of evolutionary science.

That’s a totally reasonable response but I’m in no mood to leave well enough alone.

2) There’s a perverse selective pressure within evolutionary sciences where the worst ideas rise to the level of public dissemination. The culling forces of the popular press select along dimensions that are not merely orthogonal to good science, they are actively selecting against it. Put in the language of my own field, publishing bad ideas seems to be more profitable than publishing good ones.

That’s pretty big claim, and one for which I have no real proof, just tacit intuition and a small number of anecdotes. Sorting through the reviews of the Heying & Weinstein book, I thought of the brief phenomenon that was “Sex at Dawn” a decade ago. It, similarly, sold a breathless explanation of human behavior, specifically promiscuity. Emphasis on the world sold. “Sex at Dawn” proved that you could be scientifically hollow and still sell a boatload of copies. For those who are curious, here’s a review by an evolutionary psychologist that doesn’t hold nearly the grudge that I do. He politely sifts through the major claims, weaving through the silliness to find the handful of specific claims, and proceeds to debunk them. Other reviewers were considerably less kind (including those at Oxford Press, who rejected it for publication).

So why are these and similar books, so successful?

I’ve long suspected that there is a Gresham’s Law of Popular Science at work. Simply put, bad ideas are less costly to generate than good ones, so they are more plentiful. For the non-expert consumer of popular science, this raises the costs of search probability that a randomly encountered book is bunk. What I believe to be more problematic, though, is that bad ideas are often less costly to consume. Spoon-fed as common sense writ magnificent and powerful, pseudoscientific books get a foothold in our mind first through the scarcity of our time and attention only to then grow roots in our ego. Easily consumed during rare moments of relaxed reading, they then show us ideas that give us explanatory access to life, the universe, and everything. Why struggle through caveated niche explorations when someone else has distilled the complexity of a modern life well-lived to something that is as flexible in its flattery as a horoscope and often conveniently enumerated?

Does this happen within economics? Of course it does. It happens in every scientific field. But that is why scientific fields evolve intellectual immune systems, and often very aggressive ones at that. The entire field of “Statistics” essentially exists as the custodian of the scientific method. But there are little details that matter, too.

Take, for example, the core concept of “maximization” in economics. Sure, it gets abused, but at the end of the day it’s pretty tough to get very far with an ad hoc utility/profit/wealth maximizing model in economics that produces useful predictions. Why is that? Well, a big reason is that we’ve left out a very important word. Economists deal almost exclusively in constrained maximization. Absent constraints, nearly every maximizing model amounts to little more than a tautology. It’s requirement for maximization under constraints, both components transparently introduced, that gives a model it’s power. When I observe meritless pop evolutionary science books, mostly what I’m seeing is unconstrained just so stories that work backwards from a conclusion they believe there is a book-purchasing audience for. There are selective pressures, but where are the resource constraints? There are groups but where are the rivals they are competing with? There is this evolutionary path, but why not the other paths?

So what should evolutionary sciences do? Well, first of all, I don’t know. But if I had to guess, the answer is nothing. Nothing but do the thing a proper science always does. Do the work, push the good ideas, kill the bad ones, and trust that the custodians of the scientific method will do their jobs. And so will the editors. And the hiring committees. And the critics. Sure, a couple folks will pay a couple years mortgage, but a bit of financial and status injustice are a small price to pay while we keep the scientific mission moving forward. At least until we’re all crabs.