Thursday, August 23, 2012

Neanderthal ancestors

It now seems pretty clear that about 50,000 years ago modern humans did interbreed with Neanderthals. As Matt Ridley points out, it has been known for some time that non-Africans share 1 to 4 per cent of their genomes with the extinct Neanderthals, but this could have been due to genetic differences between the various African populations from which modern humans arose. New research, however, seems to undermine the so-called 'population substructure' theory.

For, according to Dr. Svante Paabo and his colleagues, the last gene flow from Neanderthals into Europeans most likely occurred between 47 and 65 thousand years ago, too late for the substructure theory. And during this time there were periods when Neanderthal and modern human populations were living in the same areas (in what is now Israel, for example).

It's no big deal, I suppose, but it certainly changes the way one sees Neanderthals (no longer quite the lumbering losers or tragic victims - as the old stereotypes had it).

And it seems that mating between modern and pre-modern populations was a common occurrence.

For example, Ridley points out that there was almost certainly interbreeding between the modern people who populated South East Asia and Australia and the pre-modern Denisovans.

As he puts it, 'when modern people spread around the Indian Ocean, they too encountered a distantly related human species and dallied with them under the palms.'

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Gingerbread people

I recently noticed some gingerbread men for sale in the local supermarket labelled as 'gingerbread people'. It just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Sometimes it is appropriate, however, to change ways of speaking or product names to avoid giving offense. In the realm of children's treats, this brand of liquorice must surely take the prize for insensitivity. (They subsequently changed the brand name to 'Lucky Boy'.)

But engineered changes to the way we speak and write have gone too far, reflecting, I think, various radical agendas.

'People-first' language by some twisted logic sees it as unacceptable to use ordinary adjectival phrases when speaking about people and mandates unnatural-sounding, pretentious (and ultimately patronizing) locutions such as 'person (or people) of color'.

This insidious practice has been promoted by advocacy groups, especially in relation to health-related areas. So remember, you are supposed to say 'people with disabilities' not 'disabled people'.

Other absurdities, like the use of 'differently-abled' or the use of the word 'challenged' were generally seen as such and made fun of.

Since the word 'retarded' just means held back or delayed, it's interesting that it has become unacceptable whereas the use of the terms 'delayed development' or 'developmental delays' is perfectly okay. The problem with 'retarded' derives mainly from the unfortunate slang nominalization 'retard'.

Actually the terms 'disabled' and 'disability' are not too bad. At least they aren't patronizing like some of the terms they replaced (e.g. 'handicapped') and they don't have the offensive ring of many older popular terms.

More sinister than the politically-correct linguistic lobbying of advocates for disabled groups, women and minorities is the term 'social marketing' - and the assumptions and practices which go with it.

Social marketing involves using all the resources of social psychology and commercial marketing techniques to alter behaviors to conform to (usually) a government view of what are considered to be desirable (or healthy or 'sustainable') behaviors.

Never has the term 'soft totalitarianism' been so appropriate. Propaganda ministries in the old 20th-century totalitarian states were engaged in something very like what is now called social marketing. Only they weren't afraid to call it by an honest name.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

'Stimulus' spending

I continue to be amazed at the extent to which economists are driven by ideology. How else can you explain the diametrically-opposed views of conservative and Keynesian economists on the effects of government borrowing and spending? One side or the other are kidding themselves; and it's not easy for us non-economists to join - or even understand - the debate.

Clearly, values are involved here, but the question of whether specific policies work is an objective one.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur B. Laffer makes a case (based on figures from the IMF) that stimulus spending has actually been counterproductive, "more like a valium for lethargic economies than a stimulant."

Of the 34 OECD countries, those that 'stimulated' the most from 2007 to 2009 saw the least growth in subsequent GDP rates.

"Sorry, Keynesians. There was no discernible two or three dollar multiplier effect from every dollar the government spent and borrowed. In reality, every dollar of public-sector spending on stimulus simply wiped out a dollar of private investment and output, resulting in an overall decline in GDP. This is an even more astonishing result because government spending is counted in official GDP numbers."

It might be objected that an economic downturn will trigger increases in public spending, and so the appearance of a negative relationship between stimulus spending and economic growth. But Laffer focuses on changes in the rate of GDP growth to help isolate the effects of more spending.

"The evidence is extremely damaging to the case made by Obama and others that there is economic value to spending more money on infrastructure, education, unemployment insurance, food stamps, windmills and bailouts. Obama keeps saying that if only Congress would pass his second stimulus plan, unemployment would finally start to fall. That's an expensive leap of faith with no evidence to confirm it."

Monday, August 6, 2012

When will inflation strike?

Adam Creighton sounds a warning in a recent piece on the policies of the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank. Money creation would normally lead to inflation, but inflation has not yet kicked in.

'Actual inflation appears dormant for now, and big lenders appear content to buy bonds at very low interest rates. But bond holders were very wrong about future inflation in the 1970s, and as [Milton] Friedman wrote, "monetary policy action takes a longer time to affect the price level than to affect the monetary totals."

'The amount of money has risen by almost 40 per cent in the US since early 2008, while consumer prices have risen only 6 per cent. More money chasing the same amount of goods and services should ultimately prompt inflation.'

Creighton argues that money creation programs have taken the pressure off politicians to implement necessary changes; and cheap money has protected highly leveraged private banks and dulled incentives to clean up balance sheets.

What makes this particularly disturbing is that it is occurring in a context of extremely high levels of government debt.

And yet liberals routinely fail to be disturbed by the situation. They are generally critical of bank bailouts, of course, but they see government borrowing for fine and noble causes (such as welfare programs, hospitals, schools and infrastructure) as a fine and noble thing, no matter the budgetary position.