Evolutionary fitness of homosexuality

31/05/2012 § Leave a comment

Possibly out of the usual topic areas, but here goes. A preacher in North Carolina in the U.S. has been stirring up the usual anti-gay hatred. I grew up just one state north, so it is all depressingly familiar. I am fairly inured to intolerance because (a) there is so much of it and (b) picking fights with it only makes it stronger.

My first thought really is, haters gonna hate:

One of the arguments is that homosexuality is unnatural: because gays and lesbians won’t procreate, how could the gene be passed down? I built a toy model as an explanation. It didn’t quite work but let me explain the logic.

From an evolutionary perspective, genes want to reproduce themselves. Note that this isn’t about the longevity of an organism. It is about producing offspring who survive to produce offspring. Biologists know that this can be achieved with different strategies. One strategy is to protect and foster a few offspring. Another is to have lots of offspring and hope some survive.

Human genes have gone for the nurture-a-few strategy (in comparison to, say, 13-year cicadas). What if the genes could ensure not two adult guardians but three? That might give the offspring a larger chance of surviving. Maybe a set of genes could sort itself so that some offspring specialised in breeding and others specialised in providing material support for the next generation.

And that is why hereditary homosexuality can be ‘fit’ from an evolutionary perspective: it can provide extra aunts and uncles to protect the littlies. The genetic trick is to get the right proportion of breeders and non-breeders across the generations. That’s what I was working on modelling. I found that the ideal proportion of non-breeding adults was directly proportional to its impact on survival, a fairly trivial result.

So be glad for your gay relatives — they signal your own genetic fitness.

An accidental slumlord

30/05/2012 § 3 Comments

We’ve just had to deal with EQC. There’s clearly an electrical fault in our property in Christchurch. It has arisen since the earthquakes and been accepted as earthquake-related.  The fault is causing problems with the lights in the house. An electrical fault is also, of course, a fire hazard.

The tenants in the house would like it fixed.

EQC has said no. They will fix it when they get to it.

I realise that I am now an accidental slumlord, renting out a substandard house, a potential firetrap, in a market with few vacancies.

Who is responsible? EQC now knows about the problem, but it is choosing to follow its bureaucratic process rather than provide safe housing. I know about the problem and could pay a sparky to deal with it. The last time I paid out of pocket for earthquake work, it took nearly a year to get the invoice paid, and only after serious wrangling with EQC. I paid for my EQC cover — why should I have to foot the bill?

I wonder where my insurance company stands on this? If there’s a fire, am I covered? Or will they decline the claim on the basis that someone should have done something?

Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

Jobs for all sorts

30/05/2012 § Leave a comment

The Dominion Post published a list of the ‘top 10 jobs most in demand in New Zealand in 2012′ — these are vacancies needing to be filled. The list?

  1. Engineers
  2. Sales reps
  3. Skilled trades
  4. IT staff
  5. Technicians
  6. Accounting & finance
  7. Management/executives
  8. Chefs/cooks
  9. Marketing/PR/ communications
  10. Drivers

First, it is important to think about where the list comes from. ManPower did the research, but the perception of shortages came from firms. These are businesses working in the economy trying to produce goods and services, and finding that they are held back by staff shortages. One presumes that these businesses are actually seeing unfilled demand — work they could be doing, if only they had the staff. Unfilled demand is just jargon for ‘people want stuff but can’t get it’.

What kinds of skills are in short supply? Frankly, I don’t see any real pattern to this list. There are jobs for different skills levels, amounts of experience, interests, lifestyles. The only thing missing is something for unskilled workers, but a training programme could turn an unskilled worker into a candidate several of these jobs inside a year or so.

Why do I bring this up? Two reasons:

  • An economy has all sorts of jobs for all sorts of people. Shortages show up in all sorts of places. Government programmes that focus on specific jobs and specific qualifications often miss the bigger picture. I notice this most in the push for more tertiary-educated workers, particularly in the sciences. That’s not necessarily the binding constraint. From the article:

Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand president Graham Darlow said there were no real surprises in the survey. “The biggest shortage is in technicians and not professional engineers,” he said.

  • A high-tech economy depends on technology graduates, yes. But an economy has all sorts of other necessary skills — sales, finance/accounting, and management are crucial. Even amongst tertiary graduates, only a minority can be gainfully employed in science and tech. Businesses need all these other skills, too.

This list from ManPower is a good reminder: economies are big and complex, and they generate jobs for all sorts.

Angry youth take to the blogs

29/05/2012 § 6 Comments

Welly Gnome wasn’t happy with the Budget. Quoth the Gnome:

It is morally abominable that Billy Bunter and Don Key refuse to raise the retirement age from 65….Paying people who no longer produce anything when New Zealand is losing tens of thousands of productive people overseas every single year is demographic insanity.

I’m not convinced that we necessarily have to raise the retirement age. Earlier writers and economists speculated that all this machinery and technology accumulating around them could lead to more leisure and intellectual advancement. There’s a work-leisure trade-off, in the present, over one’s lifetime, and across members of society. We could all retire at 55, for example, but in smaller houses with fewer toys.

But I point to Welly Gnome because of the explicit recognition of the current inter-generational conflict. WG’s ‘About Me’ page says that the writer is 22 years old and believes that there aren’t enough Gen Y/Echo/Millennial voices on the Web. WG’s youth is central to the writer’s blogid(entity). And this youth is angry.

For good reason, I might add. There was a time in New Zealand when child healthcare was free, university was free, and houses were affordable. Now, not so much. The people who are now reaching retirement age and demanding their full pensions are the same people who introduced fees for child healthcare (now that they no longer need it) and university fees (now that they have their degrees), and support local land-use regulation that underpins high section prices in the major cities. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Boomers.

We have to be a bit careful, of course. Back in those days of free education, getting foreign exchange was something of a mission. Now, I pay my Amazon bill with my credit card and think nothing of it. Cars are easier to buy and more reliable. Many things are better now than they were then.

At one level, though, it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what the Millennials think. And some of them, like WG, think they are getting raw deal. As the world economic troubles make it harder to join the workforce (have you seen the unemployment stats for young adults?) and user-pays means they get charged for everything, they may look for ways to raise their take-home pay. What better way to do that than reduce transfers to the generation that got all that free stuff to begin with?

As Phyllis Diller said, always be nice to your children because they are the ones who will choose your rest home.

NZ incomes, according to the Green Party

28/05/2012 § 1 Comment

The Green Party responded to the Budget with this graphic:

I carry around in my head a vague sense of the income distribution of New Zealand. The Green’s figures did not match that distribution. So, I went looking for the numbers. Helpfully, the Party’s website had more information (pdf) about how these incomes were calculated.

  • Solo parent: ‘$333 a week DPB, student allowance and housing allowance of $125 per week, $80 working income, and $88 Family tax credit. This actual puts her in the middle of the 3nd decile – ie 20% of household [sic] have lower incomes.’ I can’t verify the income because I’m not familiar with these government programmes. The additional comment, that 20% of households have lower incomes, is misleading. According to the NZ Income Survey, 15% of households have one member so may not be poorer per person. Also, some of these payments are specifically aimed at lifting children out of the poorest deciles, which they appear to be doing.
  • The typical family: $71,500 seems high for the ‘typical family’. The Greens link to the NZ Income Survey, which reveals that the figure is indeed the median for a family of at least five (‘Couple with three or more dependent children’). They aren’t really ‘typical’ — they are only 5.7% of all households, and only 14.0% of households with dependent children (there are more solo parent households — 16.4% of households with dependent children).
  • The top 10% family: The additional information states that the $250,000 was ‘Estimated from Household Income Survey (Income) data’. I don’t know how they ‘estimated’ this figure, but it is a fairly high estimate of the top 10%. IRD income statistics make this clear. Only 1.4% of earners (in 2010) have an income of $150,000 or higher. Assuming that the part-time earner can only make $50,000, then the main earner needs to bring in $200,000; there are 0.7% such earners. So, this isn’t a top 10% family but a top 1%.
  • The top 1%: This is the average taxable income per earner for the top 1% of earners, using IRD figures. However, it isn’t a household figure (like the others are) and it isn’t a median (which would be a better representation of this distribution).

The IRD figures don’t tell us about families and households because they are only taxable incomes and include earners like students who are working part-time. But, they are a guide. More than half of earners make less than $25,000. The top 10% of earners make about $70,500 or more — the top 10% of ‘families’ will be higher.

What all this means is that the Green Party figures are skewed upwards. What they are presenting as ‘typical’ isn’t. Even when they talk about the ‘top 10%’, they overestimate the income. So, why?

I can make a few guesses:

  • It probably maximises the increases and decreases they calculate for the various families. So, the choices are political rather than economic.
  • They may be trying to emphasise the distance between the majority and the top 10%. However, they are simply wrong. People making over $100,000 are under 5% of earners, so there are still lots of the top 10% making under that.
  • They don’t know how lucky they are. Many of the people who brought you this analysis are themselves in the top 10%. But life is expensive — housing, kids, cars, insurance, etc. They don’t feel rich. They can’t quite believe that 90% of the country toughs it out on less — a lot less. So, they recalibrate their mental model of the income distribution with themselves in the upper middle instead of the top.

Taking our medicine

25/05/2012 § 4 Comments

Another budget, eh? Two surprises for me (but maybe I wasn’t paying attention):

  • the increase in RS&T spending
  • Kiwisaver information provisions.

I support both of these, although the devil will be in the detail. The first one is generally a public good (non-exclusive, non-rival), and the other overcomes an information asymmetry.

But what I really want to talk about is this: it’s another take-your-medicine-like-a-good-kid sort of budget. Haven’t we had this before? Over and over again? When does this prescription run out?

To show what I mean, here’s a timeline. This is the approximate mental model I carry around in my head of the economy over the last forty years:

  • 1970s – stagflation and oil shocks
  • early 1980s – recession
  • mid 1980s – not bad
  • late 1980s – stock market drop, Savings and Loan scandal
  • early 1990s – recession
  • mid to late 1990s – tech boom
  • early 2000s – tech bust
  • mid 2000s – not bad
  • late 2000s to now – recession, turmoil

(I did a graphic of this, but can’t get it out of Word into this post.)

Yeah, it’s totally non-scientific, just my personal perspective. It reflects where I’ve lived and what I’ve been doing. But other people look at the economy with their mental models – vague personal recollections connected in some sort of narrative. And what’s the story? About 5 to 10 good years when the economy was humming, maybe 10 to 15 years of moving sideways, and lots of difficult years.

So, when do we get to stop taking all this economic medicine?

When is the patient going to be healthy?

Soundtrack for the budget

24/05/2012 § 2 Comments

I’m traveling today, so no post of any substance. However, I found myself thinking about this song on the way to the airport. It seemed appropriate for another zero budget day. Oh, and mildly NSFW — I guess I’m losing my ‘G’ rating.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for May, 2012 at Groping towards Bethlehem.

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