Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Marriage and happiness among young adults

On a show earlier this week, radio host Michael Savage asserted that young men today who delay marriage look back on their father's and grandfather's generations and think marrying and working like a dog at the bottom to support their families must have constituted a miserable existence.

I've only very recently even thought about marriage as a personal possibility in the next five years (made especially acute last weekend by a bachelor party), and I'm quite fortunate both financially and physically. The biggest sacrifice for me would be the devotion of time required. I perpetually feel strapped for time as it is--the plunge would be life-changing, and force me to abandon a lot of the pursuits that make me happy (at least while I'm engaged in them) that I throw myself into now. In short, I am one of those young men Savage is talking about.

The evidence that married people express higher levels of happiness than unmarried people do (especially among men, in contrast to the Game narrative) is pretty well established. But what about when the people in question are include only those in their late teens and twenties?

We could get into a discussion over what constitutes true happiness and field the legitimate criticism that self-reports set to a numerical scale are a shallow way to measure it. Also, I'm not controlling for other variables because trying to disentangle the marriage question from the social landscape surrounding it is fraught with an arbitrariness that allows for a range of preferred conclusions to be spun out. Present the datum as is, and the phrase "AE reports, you decide" applies. Yeah, I still like to intersperse a bit of my own commentary here and there, but it's not my starting point. I'm being entirely honest when I say that I cobble together most of a post before I even look at the data.

That said, the GSS reliably asks a simple question on self-perceptions of happiness levels. It is measured on a three point scale, inverted here so that higher scores indicate greater happiness. The following table shows average (mean) scores for men and women, by marital status, between the ages of 18-29 at the time of their participation in the survey. For contemporary relevance, only responses from 2000 onward are included (n = 2,305):

Aged 18-29
Married men
Married women
Unmarried men
Unmarried women

About one-quarter of Americans under the age of 30 are married, and despite the limitations it places on the individual, people who have made the plunge express higher levels of happiness than the unmarried majority does. One standard deviation is .62, so the differences in self-reported happiness between the married and unmarried are significant--it's half of a SD among men and nearly half of one among women.

My interpretation is that a family gives a person something to devote his life to in a way that must ultimately be more fulfilling than serial pleasure seeking (or novelty seeking, challenge seeking, glory seeking, etc) does. My aunt just sent me an old picture of my dad holding me as an infant in a rocking chair. He's almost exactly the same age in the photo as I am now. Looking at him, I can't help but feel he deserved to be happier at that age than I am today.

GSS variables used: MARITAL(1)(2-5), HAPPY, SEX, AGE, YEAR(2000-2010)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Shades of Simpson-Mazzoli

A cliched but legitimate argument made by restrictionists in opposition to any type of "comprehensive" immigration plan that purports to happily marry enforcement with amnesty is that the same false promise was made 25 years ago, when, numerically-speaking, the stakes were a lot lower. Fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice, shame on us.

Sharing that sentiment, I'd like to see HR 2164 smothered. The resolution is being pushed by Lamar Smith (R-TX). Smith is hardly a champion of the open borders cause. NumbersUSA gives him an A for the last two years, and an A+ for the entirety of his congressional career. But he's dining with the devil, Mephistopheles taking form as the US Chamber of Commerce in this case.

In essence, HR 2164 makes nationwide use of E-Verify mandatory for most private employers (with some egregious exceptions*) in exchange for amending federal law so that SCOTUS precedent set in the Whiting case--which holds that federal and state governments may work together to enforce immigration law--becomes irrelevant, and immigration enforcement solely becomes the domain of the federal government.

With impeccable timing, President Obama recentlyh issued an executive order that basically puts the DREAM Act, which has been repeatedly countered by the will of the people, directly into play. It does not inspire confidence that the federal government wants anything to do with enforcement:
The Obama administration memo from the John Morton, Director of I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) directs I.C.E. agents now to use prosecutorial discretion with regard to enforcing immigration laws.

Director Morton says that Obama Administration policy directs border patrol agents not to enforce immigration laws: “When ICE favorably exercises prosecutorial discretion, it essentially decides not to assert the full scope of the enforcement authority available to the agency.”

I have a lot more confidence in Maricopa County deputies than I do in John Morton. If you're of a like mind, consider calling or e-mailing your House representative to express your opinion on HR 2164. Easily find the necessary contact information here.

* For example, all people currently employed, irrespective of their residency status, would be exempted from an E-Verify check so long as they remain in their current positions. And if an employer has worked with an aspiring employee at some point in the past without incident, that potential employee is similarly exempted--an exception that opens the door for all kinds of abuses.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Inequality in intelligence distributions by political party

In the comments to the post on scientific literacy by political party, Harriet wrote:
It would be interesting to see a breakdown by educational level; D's attract more lower income voters.
That's enough of an impetus for me to quantify an aspect of something that probably comes as little surprise--the contemporary Democratic party is increasingly becoming the party of the bottom and the top, while the GOP solidifies the middle. Consequently, the educational and intelligence distributions (and presumably income as well, though the GSS does a sub-optimal job of measuring income in a comparatively useful way) of Democrats should be wider than they are among Republicans.

That is indeed the case. One standard deviation for wordsum scores among Democrats (limited to respondents surveyed from 2006 onward for contemporary relevance) is 2.03. For Republicans, it's 1.77. For educational attainment (measured in years), one standard deviation for Democrats is 3.11. For Republicans, it's 2.73.

Despite the fact that the Democratic party attracts more women and fewer men than the Republicans do, the GOP has the more feminine intelligence distribution!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

An admonition from Captain Obvious

For the last several years, I've been using Facebook as an effortless, free archival backup for TAE. I edited the privacy settings on my notes so that I was the only one able to view them. A few months ago, I happened to notice that the privacy settings for notes had disappeared, but I asked a couple of trusted people to scour my profile to see if they were able to view them. They were not. No harm, no foul. Then a few days ago I got a message from a friend saying he'd recently seen a couple of them in his newsfeed. Uh oh.

Apparently, the privacy setting for notes has been abolished and they are, by default, viewable by all friends, although each note now has an individual privacy setting. That left me with a couple of options, both of them awfully tedious. Either I delete my FB account, create a new one, and reconnect with 500 people (which would have at least come with the benefit of weeding out the undesirable ones), or discontinue the auto feed and go through and manually set each of the nearly 600 notes (blog posts) already there to be viewable only by me. I went with the latter.

I'm probably overly concerned about my identity being tied to TAE. For one, by default I assume people are paying a lot more attention to me than they actually are. There are obvious evolutionary reasons for this. To be pithy, it's better safe than sorry. As a hunter and gatherer, if I'm more wary than I need to be, at worst the vigilance costs me a little extra energy. If I'm not wary enough, it could lead to me being fatally ambushed or ostracized from the tribe. Secondly, there are more prominent guys like Randall Parker and Dennis Mangan who courageously refuse to hide behind a pseudonym, and the black helicopters haven't come for them, at least not yet.

Still, I'd prefer to maintain my anonymity. And, knock on wood, no one else has mentioned anything about the posts to me. They'll soon be buried deep in people's news feeds, so I should be able to keep that anonymity--as long as I get it through my thick head that nothing on FB or any other social networking site should ever be considered private. I could use that as a segue into a rant about how FB is immoral and despicable for having betrayed me, but The Simpsons reminds us of just how pretentious of me that would be:
Comic Book Guy: Last night's Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured that I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.

Bart: Hey, I know it wasn't great, but what right do you have to complain?

CBG: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

Bart: What? They've given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.

CBG: Worst episode ever.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Let me live here or I'll sue you!

At least it's not quite as audacious as the Mexican-led coalition of Latin American countries suing the state of Georgia for trying to enforce US immigration law that the federal government refuses to enforce:
Dozens of people who were mistakenly told they had won a spot to apply for a U.S. visa through the annual visa lottery system are suing the U.S. government.


Roughly 22,000 individuals were told in May they had been selected though
they would still have to pass background checks. Then immigration officials discovered the supposedly random selection was skewed due to a computer glitch. A new lottery is set for July 15.
Claiming what, that they have suffered emotional distress as a result and need compensation as a result? No, not yet, anyway. The plaintiffs are asking to be reinstated as lotter winners because upon hearing that they were selected, they'd started making appropriate plans. Given that they had only made it partway through the gauntlet, and still had to be among the 50,000 chosen from the nearly 100,000 that would get to the second round alongside them, it's unclear that their cases are compelling, even if the State Department was found to somehow owe these applicants something for getting their hopes.

That said, I wouldn't bet against a new provision hastily being added to the diversity visa lottery program this year that allows all 22,000 of these plus an additional 50,000 winnowed down from the second drawing on July 15th to ultimately be granted visas. Then again, that might then bring some sort of class action suit by all 15 million applicants against the State Department for corrupting the process in the first place.

But those are merely details accompanying the part of the story with much broader implications. I am repeatedly dismayed by public ignorance of the DVL. Very few people with whom I end up talking about it have any previous knowledge of its existence. The reasons I like to bring it up are twofold: 1) it's usually novel information, and 2) you don't have to be much of a restrictionist to quickly realize the program is inane.

Briefly, the DVL, in its present form, was created during Clinton's first term when the Democratic party controlled both houses of Congress. It is explicitly designed to increase the diversity of the immigrant population in the US by precluding countries with relatively high numbers of natives already present here from participating. Around 90,000 initial applicants are randomly selected each year. That number is then cut down by way of some very basic screening (aspiring visa holders need to have graduated from high school, for example) and attrition to arrive at 50,000 winners, who are then rewarded with permanent legal residency in the US. The actual number of people this allows into the country, however, is considerably higher, as winners are permitted to bring their spouses and any children under the age of 21 in with them. Applicants from Oceania and Africa have the best odds of winning.

So, we have 15 million people who would like to live here just from mostly small countries with relatively low numbers of nationals already in the US. This does not include people from countries like, oh, say Mexico, Haiti, China, India, and Canada (indeed, Canadians are forbidden, but Afghanis and Yemenis have a shot), who dwarf the countries these 15 million applicants are coming from. There are a lot of people--billions, probably--who want to come to the US, and part of our brilliant plan is to randomly wave tens of thousands of them on in and keep the others out.

Why not pick the cream of the crop through a merit immigration system along the lines of the one Canadians use, as a way of ensuring that residency is granted only to people who will improve the quality of life for current American citizens, the definition of improvement being decided by the people of the United States, as citizens of a sovereign nation?

This would've been a great question for the seven GOP presidential contenders to be asked in New Hampshire last week, but as John Derbyshire points out:
None of the candidates — nor, to be fair, any of the questions — addressed legal immigration. This is a big hole in current public-policy discussion here in the U.S.A. The only thing candidates ever say about legal immigration is that it's a wonderful thing, it made America great, and by Jiminy they're all for it!

In fact our legal immigration policy is an unsightly mess, with key decisions about the future demographics of our country being made not by citizens or their elected representatives, but by the United Nations, by ethnic-booster and cheap-labor lobby groups, by State Department bureaucrats, and most of all by immigrants themselves through chain migration of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, and adult children. It's a mess and we ought to talk about it; but we seem to have made a collective decision not to, so it's understandable the candidates don't want to bring it up.
Here's to hoping the suit against the State Department "raises awareness" of the DVL so that a "national dialogue" on this absurd program can take place. There are congressmen like Bob Goodlatte of Virginia who have repeatedly tried to end the program, but his efforts (which are not widely known, of course) have not been enough to kill the thing.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

IQ by religion

In the six years I've been digging around in the GSS, and the countless times I've converted group wordsum averages into IQ estimates, I've never applied the method to get an IQ figure for Jewish respondents. The question of Jewish identity (is it religious, ethnic, ancestral, or something else?) inevitably causes some amount of measurement dissatisfaction when a broad survey like the GSS is used. Also, Jews tend to do especially well on the verbal aspects of IQ testing (which is all the wordsum test captures), while giving a more mediocre performance on visuo-spatial reasoning. But if I made the perfect an enemy of the good, this blog wouldn't exist.

The following table shows IQ estimates for the eight religious classifications that had a sample size of at least 40. The IQ scores are derived by setting the white mean wordsum score to correspond to an IQ of 100 with a standard deviation of 15. To avoid language fluency issues, only respondents born in the US are included:

Christian (non-denominational)

Not quite the one standard deviation advantage that Ashkenazi Jews are elsewhere found to have over white gentiles, but some of these Jews are Sephardic and other ancestrally Jewish but irreligious respondents presumably identified themselves as having no religion.

The high Buddhist score is not simply the result of well-off Asian practitioners. It is, as Christian Lander has identified, a favorite for "spiritual" SWPLs who recoil at the idea of adopting an occidental belief system. More than half of the self-described Buddhists are white.

Like we see in the case of conservatives and liberals versus moderates, non-denominational Christians score lower than Protestants or Catholics. Those who are more intellectually committed tend to be more intelligent than those who opt for the undefined, uncontroversial label.

* Interdenominationalism is a Christian/Jewish hybrid, similar to (although not necessarily synonymous with) messianic Judaism.

GSS variables used: RELIG, BORN(1), WORDSUM

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Multicult namingways

Ed Tom Kowalsky previously commented as follows:
Perhaps we could track the frequency of first names with the prefixes La, Sha, Ja, and Ty. My guess is these began appearing roughly the same time multi-culti struck.
The Baby Name Wizard is a great resource for tracking the popularity of American names extending back into the late 19th Century. Name popularity is amalgamated by decade up until 2003, at which point statistics for individual years are available.

Keep in mind that names are tracked by newborns receiving them, not the number of people in the US who shared the name at the time. There are hordes of toddlers named Mia and Brayden toddling around right now, but if you don't have small children of your own or have friends who do, you're probably unaware that these are the Susies and Johnnys of today.

Onomastics is a fun topic (and an overwhelming one--name lists seem to stretch out to infinity!) that I've previously dabbled around in, though my knowledge of the subject even in the US is certainly not academic or comprehensive. So the names included in the proceeding table are arbitrarily selected (with the aid of personal experience and online name lists).

The following table shows (a non-exhaustive list of) names that have one of Ed's prefixes and that have also been among the 1,000 most popular in the US at some point in the last 130 years, along with a brief description of their histories. For names with identical pronunciations but varied spellings, the most common variant is used. Asterisks indicate exceptions to Ed's observation, which appears to be the rule. For clarity and consistency, eloquent variation is not attempted:

Old as naming records (it's biblical, after all!), resurging in the 60s, reaching an all-time high in the 90s as the 5th most popular boy's name of that decade
On the map in the 70s, exploded in the 80s, peaked in 2004
Exploded in the 90s, peaked in 2007
Present in the 1890s and extant since then, but exploded in the 60s and peaked in the 70s
On the map in the 70s and up from there, with a lull in the 80s and 90s before exploding in the oughts, with its peak still in the future
Exploded onto the scene in the 70s, peaked in the 90s
Traces back to the 20s, but exploded in the 60s and peaked in the 80s
On the map in the 80s, gaining steadily in popularity for two decades, finally peaking in 2009
On the map in the 40s, topping out in the 60s, dead now for over a decade
Exploded onto the scene in the 90s, topped out in 2004
Exploded onto the scene in the 80s, topped out in the 90s
On the map in the 70s, exploded in the 80s, topped out in the 90s
As old as the Argonaut leader, but uncommon until the 50s, before a tremendous explosion in the 70s (becoming the 3rd most common male name of that decade), dropped off since then, down to the 69th male spot today
On the map in the 90s, exploding in the oughts and topping out in 2003
Exploded onto the scene in the 70s, topped out in the 80s
Old as naming records, reversed its decades-long decline in the 60s, peaked in the 80s
Exploded onto the scene in the 60s, hit a high in the 80s, declined a bit in the 90s, peaked in 2003
On the map in the 60s, peaked in the 70s
Exploded onto the scene in the 60s, peaked in the 80s
Around forever (ask Petrarch!), peaked in the 60s, having previously peaked in the 1880s
Barely existent in the 40s, picked up steam in the 60s, peaked in the 80s, and has dropped back to 70s-level popularity today
On the map in the 70s (thanks Eric!), exploded in the 90s with its peak still in the future
Exploded onto the scene in the 70s, peaked in the 80s
Exploded onto the scene in the 80s, peaked in the 90s
Exploded onto the scene in the 60s, peaked in the 70s
On the map in the 40s, exploded in the 60s and peaked in the 70s
Exploded onto the scene in the 80s, peaked in the 90s (just like Shaq!)
On the map in the 40s, peaked in the 70s
Exploded onto the scene in the 20s, peaked in the 50s
On the map in the 50s, exploded to a peak in the 70s, dropped precipitously since then
Exploded onto the scene in the 70s, finally peaking in then early oughts
In the top 1000 exclusively in the 90s, the 981st most popular girl's name of that decade
Barely on the map in the 50s, gained some prominence in the 60s, exploded in the 80s to peak as the 9th most popular boy's name of the 90s
Exploded onto the scene in the 80s, peaked in the 90s
On the map as far back as the 30s, steadily increasing from there until peaking in the 70s
Exploded onto the scene in the 70s, lulled a bit in the 80s before climbing again, with its peak still in the future

^ In my opinion the sexiest female name in existence

Monday, June 13, 2011

Trusting for fairness

The role of trust in understanding how societies and individuals function is a fascinating topic, and one I don't feel like I coherently understand. High-trust countries function better than low-trust countries do, and they're more desirable places to live.

What is a high-trust society? Trust for family members and trust for strangers are two distinct things, and may even be inversely correlated. It is the latter--trust for strangers--that is generally referred to when levels of societal trust are discussed or measured, however. In a post where Arnold Kling takes a stab at it, commenter Lars Smith pithily defines it for me:
A high trust society is one where vegetables can be sold unattended on the roadside, placed in boxes together with a price list, a pair of scales, and a cigar box for the money.
And of course this works fantastically if everyone plays by the rules--no need for the deadweight labor loss of guarding the vegetables, wrangling in court with those accused of trying to steal them, and ultimately punishing them for their theft. When the rules are breached though, it doesn't, and there is only so much we can expect a pro bono unassuming local guy to do.

Trustworthiness is a desirable trait at every societal level save for the individual one (at least in certain circumstances, including the obvious ones like being able to successfully steal merchandise from a retailer without being caught). Being trusting of others, however, is not necessarily so--naivete is not self-evidently desirable like trustworthiness is, and being overly trusting allows for free riders and cheats to gain more from their free riding and cheating, thus incentivizing them to do more of it in the future.

There is a chicken-and-egg question to ponder here, too. Are Scandinavians more trusting than Brazilians by natural disposition, or are they more trusting because other Scandinavians are more deserving of trust than other Brazilians are? Both reasons, probably. Is, ceteris paribus, it better to be a trusting person or one who is suspicious of others? Holding all other things equal when asking a question like that is virtually impossible to do.

That said, my working assumption is that a trusting society, irrespective of how trustworthy members of said society are, is preferable to one in which most people are suspicious of others. The US is usually considered a mid-to-high trust society, lower than Northwestern Europe but higher than South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Tapping the GSS, the following tables offer some insight into how relatively trusting various demographic groups are in the US.

The trust item employed here was introduced in 2010, so all the results have contemporary relevance. The question, set on a five-point scale, asks each respondent if he thinks most people try to be fair with him or try to take advantage of him when they get the chance. The higher the score, the more trusting of others the group is. The standard deviation for the entire respondent pool is 1.37.

By race:


By intelligence via wordsum vocabulary test scores, with respondents broken up into five categories; Really Smarts (wordsum score of 9-10, comprising 13% of the population), Pretty Smarts (7-8, 26%), Normals (6, 22%), Pretty Dumbs (4-5, 27%), and Really Dumbs (0-3, 12%):

Really smarts
Pretty smarts
Pretty dumbs
Really dumbs

By religious belief:

Uncertain believers
Firm believers

By partisan identification:


By political orientation:


By educational attainment:

< High school
High school grad
Some college
Bachelor's degree
Graduate degree

By age:


Educated, intelligent, white, Republican, older, and agnostic--these are the characteristics of a high-trust individual. Save for agnosticism, these are also all characteristics of the America of the past. Immigration-driven changes in the US' demography are ensuring that this country becomes a less trusting one in the future than it is today.

GSS variables used: FAIR5(1-5), RACECEN1(1)(2)(4-10)(15-16), AGE, EDUC(0-11)(12)(13-15)(16-17)(18-20), GOD(1)(2)(3-5)(6), POLVIEWS(1-3)(4)(5-7), PARTYID(0-1)(2-4)(5-6)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Scared of nuclear power, dummy?

Prior to the release of the 2010 GSS data set, finding questions on the perceived danger of nuclear power generation required going back as far as the early nineties. In response to a commenter, I attempted just that. Now, more contemporary responses are available, albeit still prior to the Japanese tsunami.

Responses are on a 5-point scale that has been inverted from the GSS for ease of viewing. A 1 indicates the belief that the perils of nuclear power are minimal, a 5 that nuclear power is extremely dangerous. Respondents are broken up into five categories; Really Smarts (wordsum score of 9-10, comprising 13% of the population), Pretty Smarts (7-8, 26%), Normals (6, 22%), Pretty Dumbs (4-5, 27%), and Really Dumbs (0-3, 12%). The average (mean) response for members of each group is shown. One standard deviation for the entire respondent pool is 1.14 (n = 1301):

IQ group
Really dumbs
Pretty dumbs
Pretty smarts
Really smarts

Although there is some perception that SWPLs-types oppose expanding nuclear power generation because of the environmental dangers it putatively imposes, catastrophic anthropogenic global warming concerns mitigate this. Nuclear power is the only way to viably produce power on a large scale without significant carbon dioxide emissions, so opposing nuclear power while simultaneously maintaining good standing in the Gaia church means putting modernity on the very weak backs of wind and solar, or simply looking like a luddite. So it comes as little surprise that more intelligent people are more supportive of nuclear power generation than less intelligent people are.

Parenthetically, over the 16 year interval since the nuclear question was posed in the GSS, the pretty smarts and really smarts have become even less fearful of nuclear power than they had been, while the sentiments of the other three groups have remained the same.

Will the Fukushima Daiichi evacuation and closure change that? Smarter people will more easily discern that had the emergency generators required to cool the reactors been on higher ground (they could handle 20-foot high waves, but needed to handle 50-foot high waves last March), no meltdown would've occurred--an unfortunate shortcoming, but an irrelevant one for most of Europe and the US. Germany has announced that it will close all of the country's nuclear power plants by 2022, but other European nations haven't followed suit (and if that remains the case, Germany will probably end up buying energy generated by nuclear power from places like France in the future).

GSS variables used: NUKEGEN, YEAR(2010), WORDSUM(0-3)(4-5)(6)(7-8)(9-10)

Like riding a bike

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The region

As a fairly regular listener to NPR, I'm perpetually annoyed by the network's utter lack of testosterone present in anyone behind a microphone, Car Talk excepted. I can't quite pin down why unctuous whispering is the default mode of communication exclusively on NPR and nowhere else in the universe (like the BBC, or at TED conferences, or on other leftist media outlets like MSNBC, let alone Fox News or talk radio), or articulate why it gets under my skin, but it is (Ira Glass and Michele Norris are among the worst offenders) and it does.

That's only tangentially related to this post, however. There are phrases that, like the eunuch's whisper, tend to raise my blood pressure when I hear them used by these same leftist media types. One of those phrases is "the region", which strikes me as a lazy, hazy way for a reporter or an anchor to describe a geographic location he is unable to to characterize in any detail because he doesn't have much of a clue what he's talking about. It may be because the phrase is often used in the context of the Middle East or the Muslim world (another one!) more broadly, but it seems to me that I hear it a lot more now than I remember hearing it in the past.

I get the sense that dabblers use "the region" a lot more than truly knowledgeable people do. I'd use the phrase to describe southern India, since I'd have no clue what I'm blathering about. Razib wouldn't, because he'd know what he's talking about.

To track this (never mind why I would actually want to), I compared usage of the phrase from 1960 to the present in the NYT and in all English-language books published in the US (via Google's Ngrams), under the assumption that the former would represent the dabblers and the latter the experts. The graphs show what percentage of NYT articles and published books, respectively, contained the phrase "the region" somewhere in them:

NYT usage has increased five-fold over the last half-century, but my claim of having detected it (prior to the "Arab Spring", anyway) looks to be illusory--it came in vogue during the late-seventies, presumably in the context of the Iranian hostage crisis and increased media focus on that region (!) of the world, and it has been steady state since then. Meanwhile, among actual authors, it's usage has remained steady (and much less frequent, especially considering how many more opportunities there are to squeeze it into a book than there are to put it in a newspaper article).

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Logistics of disaster

As Joplin is only a two hour drive south of Kansas City, the local media have been filled with solicitations for donations of food, water, and other basic necessities to be sent to the devastated town. As a Joplin native, they certainly hit home for me.

Yet when these calls for things to be gathered inevitably follow a natural disaster of this magnitude, I can't help but think of the enormous deadweight loss that results as a consequence of the donation process.

First, the typical scenario: Sydney comes home from school telling mom and dad that the elementary will be collecting relief items in the cafeteria to be sent to Joplin over the weekend. The family buys a couple cases of water and some pillows to contribute. Sydney, who normally rides the bus, is taken the following day by her mom so she is able to bring the stuff to school. The janitorial staff clears out space in the cafeteria for all the items that are gathered along with local volunteers who help coordinate the drive and load and unload the stuff, and a few parents with F150s offer to either drive the stuff directly to Joplin (depending on proximity), or to a location in their city to be loaded on semi-trucks that will freight them overland to the Red Cross on-site makeshift disaster relief distribution center.

Now, an alternative scenario: Sydney comes home from school telling mom and dad that the elementary will be collecting WalMart and CVS gift cards to send to the people of Joplin tomorrow via airmail (or, even less expensively and more quickly, via e-cards). The family goes to the front of said retailer or to their home computer in the den to purchase the gift cards. The school secretary collects them the following morning and sends them off with the USPS that afternoon to the same Red Cross center in Joplin.

The typical scenario is slower (the stuff has to be gathered first at homes then at the school and then at some central location in the sending city before finally hauled off to the ravaged city), more costly (WalMart trucks are moving the stuff to Kansas City for it to be moved by others to Joplin, instead of just moving it to Joplin in the first place) far more time-intensive for the givers (the family has to do the actual shopping for things they assume the ultimate recipients need, and then get that stuff to the school) and provides less utility for the victims (who may get four cases of water but no toothpaste, etc) than the alternative scenario. In short, WalMart's logistical operation is far more efficient than a haphazard group of well-intentioned students, parents, and teachers are.

Yes, the WalMart on Rangeline road was completely destroyed, but a town of 50,000 supports more than one Supercenter, the other being on 7th street on the north side of town, which was spared by the EF-5. And if a catastrophe wipes out a town's entire retail establishment, the situation becomes one of evacuation, not of recovery and rebuilding--one where former residents are immediately being moved to nearby towns (that have WalMarts) anyway.

People involved in charitable operations will tell you, to varying degrees, that giving is as much about the giver as it is about the recipient (and if you're a parent who has footed Santa Claus' bill before, you are already aware of this). Humans aren't entirely rational creatures, and there is certainly some truth to the objection that the typical scenario makes the givers feel like they're volunteering more than the alternative scenario does. And, in terms of the personal sacrifices made, it's true. But the benefits from the extra cost and effort accrue entirely to the givers, not to the victims.

There is also the practical question of how to persuade people to favor the alternative scenario. It's not politically feasible for WalMart to encourage people to buy their gift cards and send them to Joplin, as they'll be accused of trying to profit from the devastation. Of course, the givers are buying the same items at their local WalMarts as the victims would be buying from the WalMart on 7th street, so in reality it's a wash, but that's not how it will be interpreted. Parenethetically, WalMart and Home Depot have each pledged over $1 million in donations for relief efforts, but publicizing as much is perceived as being in poor taste.

In fact, from WalMart's perspective, there is no incentive (nor disincentive) for the giftcard method. It's organizations like the Red Cross (in addition to those who donate, although their generosity is reflexive--they are not involved in relief efforts frequently to really think about the process in a systematic way) that have the greatest incentive to receive money and money substitutes instead of the physical items that money would buy. Indeed, that is what such organizations tend to emphasize, though perhaps not as vociferously as they should.