Saturday, October 31, 2009

Economics of Halloween

Or should I call it, Eekonomics:
Various fearsome characters will soon be chanting "trick or treat" at doors all over America. That peculiar threat would seem to be a long way from the dismal science, but actually, Halloween reflects economics' central precept that people choose by comparing the benefits and costs they expect to bear as a result.

Modern jack-o-lanterns are carved out of pumpkins because of economics, for example. They originated in Ireland as hollowed-out turnips, but pumpkins were more plentiful in America and made better lanterns, so immigrants carried on their tradition with pumpkins instead.

Dark houses and scary costumes originate from benefit-cost comparisons. In the fifth century B.C., Celts celebrated their New Year -- Samhain -- on October 31. According to legend, on that day the spirits of those who had died during the year searched for living bodies to possess as their only hope of an afterlife. Therefore, they made themselves unattractive "candidates." Houses were left dark, cold and undesirable, and people dressed ghoulishly to scare away the "shopping" spirits.

Trick-or-treating has economic roots. It originated with "souling" in ninth century Europe. On All Soul's Day, poor Christians would go door-to-door asking for "soul cakes"-- bread studded with currants. The more cakes they received, the more prayers they would say for the donor's dead relatives. This theological exchange of bread for prayers was viable because of the belief that prayers by the faithful could hasten their passage to heaven.

Current Halloween practices also reflect economics. Second only to Christmas as a shopping holiday, Halloween generates about $5 billion in sales, reflecting the three-fourths of Americans who mark the occasion in some way. It is the biggest payday for candy makers, who have turned when daylight savings time "falls back" into a major issue, in search of added sales from an extra hour of trick-or-treating.

Because Halloween is the biggest night for costume rentals and purchases and behind only New Year's and the Super Bowl for alcohol sales, sellers in these industries pray for a weekend Halloween so more adult parties will take place. The Halloween Association trade group even proposed permanently making Halloween the last Saturday in October, to get more economic bang out of the holiday.

Halloween is one of many children's first experiences with economic decision-making. How long should you continue to trick or treat? You stop when the costs in terms of tiredness and sore feet outweigh the benefits of the additional candy take. Is it really worth walking to the dentist's house to get a toothbrush? Which streets should you hit? That reflects costs (how far do I have to walk?) versus likely treat benefits. The number of lights on, the income level and number of kids in the neighborhood all enter this calculation, and children learn to ask others about a street's loot before heading down it. Some parents even drive their children to other neighborhoods to increase their trick-or-treat haul. When are you too old to trick or treat? When the cost of the hassles you get about it outweigh the benefits of the candy you expect. Children staying with friends Halloween night also learn how markets work, via candy exchange negotiations.

The economics of Halloween affects others as well. Homeowners learn why the trick-or-treater's dream -- a bowl of candy with a sign saying "take all you want" -- doesn't work very well. Primary school teachers are much more likely to call in sick after Halloween because the children are either still going to be on their sugar high or suffering from the low that follows, and what meager learning will take place doesn't justify the cost of containing the pandemonium.

Economics may be the dismal science. But it can shed real insight even on "non-economic" matters such as Halloween. And the fact that we extort treats with threats of tricks the same month that the federal fiscal year begins and just before major elections is also a useful analytical reminder.
Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Support for Winter Tanning

The news is full of flu reports and suggestions (wash your hands). But why is the flu more likely in the winter? My first reaction was because it's cold, which actually doesn't make any sense. The real reason is a little more rational:
Just as flu season gathers force here in the northern hemisphere, it’s petering out in the southern half of the globe. No matter where you are, you’re more susceptible to the flu in the winter months. Even if, let’s say, some research physicians expose you to live flu virus in the middle of summer, you’re still less likely to get sick than if the same doctors hit you with the same virus in the dead of winter. Why? One big risk factor for flu infection is a lack of vitamin D. We naturally produce vitamin D when we’re exposed to sunlight, and as the days shorten in the winter, we produce less and less of it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Best of 60-Second Sciences

I try to give updates to worthwhile blogs I've come across. The Scientific American has some great podcasts that give interesting science news in 60-seconds. Here's some good ones:
I'm subscribed to all three feeds.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

See Me Do Comedy

I've mentioned before that I perform comedy improv at the Dirty South Improv Theater, so I figured I give the details in case you're ever in the mood. My profile page has breif history of my experience and a running feed of nights I'm preforming. I am currently on three teams:
  • Mister Diplomat: Features true stories told by a local celebrity to inspire a fully improvised two half show. This is a free ($0) show every Friday at 9:30.
  • Pound for Pound: Two person show with Paula Pazderka. From a single suggestion we create 25 minute series of scenes. Usually once a month on Saturday nights for $10.
  • The 708: This is a house team that specifically performs a Harold. We perform once a month on Friday nights for $10.
I'll be there every weekend at least once or twice. However, I won't be there this weekend because I'll be in Clemson, performing in my old college troupe's 24week Friday show for alumni. I will also be in Richmond, VA for the Richmond Improv Festival on November 7th. So if you're in the Southeast come check me out!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Most Art Isn't Worth It, But Some Is

For a while I've been wrestling with the idea that a majority of improv comedy isn't worth seeing. I say this not with any particular person, group, or theater in mind, but with my 5 years of experience performing and seeing thousands of scenes. In response an old improv friend, Jeremiah Jones, said that most art, not just improv, is not worth paying for. Bad music, paintings, books, etc. are just as common as bad improvisation. As pessimistic as that sounds, it has actually convinced me to continue my pursuit of live comedy. Maybe one day I can be the Beethoven, Picasso or J.K. Rowling of improv comedy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blog Posts I'd Like to Read

In celebration of this being my 300th blog post, here are some ideas I want to see discussed, and I can't find a good place that completely covers the issue. Feel free to respond in the comments, on your own blog, or just point me to someone who's done it already:
  1. Why I'm Not a libertarian - I am, but why aren't you (and most of America)?
  2. Compound Interest vs. Social Security - mathematically compare the future value
  3. How Our Grandkids Will Live - technology and culture changes, tell me how
  4. Problem with High School Teachers - describe what you remember wanting more/less of
  5. Why I Don't Blog - I do, but why don't you (and most of America)?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ignorance as a Placebo

Placebos are something that have always intrigued me. It seems our brain can make us feel better when it expects that it should. The Placebo Effect has even gotten more powerful as real drugs have gotten more effective. Not only that, but the improvement from fake pills can be different based on what the person thinks they are taking. If we feel better after taking a sugar pill that we think is real, then maybe we feel less sick if we don't know we're sick. Can ignorance itself be a placebo? If so, maybe this explains why so many people fear going to the doctor. Bad health news may actually create bad health. Anyone with a better understanding of science help me out?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Difference Between Humans and Animals

I've discussed before about my proof of the inherent value of animals. But if you were asked what differentiates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, what would you say? Intelligence? Language? Sacrifice? Hobbies? Controlling nature? Ability to use tools? To my knowledge, all of those aren't true. All animals have some level of intelligence, there's even a blog dedicated to it (funny example). If language is the expression of thoughts through sounds or gestures, many animals do that. Here's a Wikipedia list of animal altruism. Here's a story about orangutans knocking trees down just to play a near death game of dodging them. Don't tell beavers you don't think they subdue nature. And here's a link to several examples of animals using tools. Humans may be able to do these things better, but that doesn't seem to make us unique.

The one thing that I used to think humans did that animals didn't, was trade. Taxpayers pay me to teach their high school students and in return I use that money to buy food, clothes, etc. But it seems even this assumption was wrong:

They both use their labor and capital to work together for a mutually beneficial trade. The second half of that video even shows some animals have an understanding of fairness. So what is it that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom? Relationship. Intimate, long lasting, trusting, educational relationships. Human beings, using that long list of things we do better (language, sacrifice, hobbies, tools, etc), are able to create complex societies of cooperation. It is for this reason humans are able to have culture, art, and even religion. Here's one last experiment that will both show you what I mean (listen to the explanation at the end):

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Corporate Welfare vs. Business Friendly

One of the big North Carolina news stories recently has been the closing of the Dell plant in Winston-Salem. The controversy comes from the quarter million dollars in tax breaks given to Dell in 2004 so they would come to the area. Dell will have to give some of that money back, so it's not a total loss, but that doesn't change the impact this will have on the city. The main lesson to take away from this is how unpredictable corporate welfare is. Giving money to businesses to come to your area is not guaranteed to bring a net benefit. And even if it does bring a large employer, the chances of that business staying, or even existing, forever is small. When that large company goes away, so do the jobs it offered (at least in the short run). For a city to be so dependent on one company is risky, just ask Detroit. The real way to improve the local economy is to create a business friendly atmosphere (simple/low taxes, low crime, hard working/educated workforce). You don't need big business to thrive. After all, 99.9% of all companies have less than 500 employees. So why are these incentives so common? It may not help the local economy, but it does help the local politician.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Are Libertarians Bad for libertarianism?

Libertarianism, capital "L", describes someone who supports and votes for the Libertarian Party. In the last presidential election that was me. The other word, libertarianism is someone who wants to individual liberty. There are libertarians in both major political parties, but for the last couple of years it has been hard for me to compromise on either one. Historian and policy adviser Bruce Bartlett, may have changed my mind:
Theoretically, this is no barrier to third parties at the state and local level. But in practice, if a party cannot win at the presidential level, it is very unlikely to achieve success at lower levels of government. In short, the Electoral College imposes a two-party system on the country that makes it prohibitively difficult for third parties to compete.

Furthermore, to the extent third parties exist, they invariably hurt the party closest to them ideologically. When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 and 2004, for example, he didn't hurt George W. Bush, he hurt Al Gore and John Kerry. Maybe a few of Mr. Nader's voters wouldn't have voted at all if he hadn't run, but the vast bulk of his votes came from Mr. Gore's and Mr. Kerry's totals. Needless to say, Mr. Gore and Mr. Kerry are certainly closer to Mr. Nader generally than the man he helped elect.
Even worse than hurting their political allies, they hurt themselves. Too often libertarians avoid real avenues to affect government because of their fear of becoming impure. For the LP it seems to be more about the debate than about change:
They show the LP is essentially a high-school-level debating club where only one question is ever debated -- who is the purest libertarian and what is the purest libertarian position?
The fact is that the Republicans and Democrats are the government. Every libertarian in the Libertarian Party, is one less in the Republican or Democratic Party. So what's the solution?:
In place of the LP, there should arise a new libertarian interest group organized like the National Rifle Association or the various pro- and anti-abortion groups. This new group, whatever it is called, would hire lobbyists, run advertisements and make political contributions to candidates supporting libertarian ideas.
Here is my only rebuttal. History has shown that when minor parties gain popularity, major parties adopt their ideas to win back voters. It worked for the Populist Party in the late 1800's and it could work for Libertarians today. That said, I think activists who want a small government are going to be inherently less likely to join the bureaucracy to change it. But for now I'm going to agree with Bartlett, it seems the best way to effect government is to join and change it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Subsidize Interracial Marriage

In case you haven't heard, a Louisiana justice of the peace recently refused to marry an interracial couple because of his "concern is for the children." Granted his concern may be real, it seems to me that the we should subsidize, not restrict, interracial marriage. As I shared as a link before, Iraq actually pays Sunnis and Shiites $2,000 to marry each other. As a libertarian this seems like a better alternative than most failed and possibly unconstitutional government intervention to end racism (hate crime laws, workplace discrimination laws, and laws forcing the hand of businesses). Perhaps it would help to cancel out the social costs to these relationships that have huge positive externalities for all of us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reader Request: Effects of Photoshop

I asked for requests and some of you responded. Loyal reader Michael Costa asks what the impact of photoshopping is on the society. First, I admit my lack of expertise in the subject, but am intrigued by the question. Here's my go at it. I don't see it as all bad or good, but probably a mix of the two. It's also not a new problem. There has been controversy about picture editing since Abraham Lincoln. So let's divide it into two categories: editing for private use and editing for public use.

Editing for private use.

Imagine your just married and your professional photographs just arrived. But oh no, crazy uncle Dave took off his cummerbund too early and the balance of every shot is ruined. Lucky for you the photographer can photoshop the full suit in and save the day. No harm no foul. The picture is now a better representation of the reality of the moment during the ceremony.

Now imagine you're a high school student with class pictures coming up. You are given the option to edit out those unsightly blemishes for a small fee. Like a Cold War arms race, the increased use by photoshopping by your peers, compounds the pressure to do it yourself. You pay the money, the pictures come back and your less embarrassed than you would have been originally. No harm no foul. Or is there? What is the message this sends to students. Perfect skin isn't just for the magazine racks anymore, it's required in yearbooks across the country. It may decrease anxiety over picture day, but it could also increase insecurity in the days when you don't match the flawlessness of your picture. Twenty years later you look back on that picture and instead of being glad those pimply days are over, you are unrealistically nostalgic for the beauty of your youth.

Editing for public use.

When we are talking about editing reality, anything meant for the public is held to a different standard. The best example I could find is the Time magazine cover of O.J. Simpson. Compare it to the original mugshot in Newsweek and it is easy to see that journalists darkened the picture. I'm guessing to make to make him look more menacing by playing into racist notions of skin color. Editing reality in picture is the same as editing reality in printed word. Journalists are suppose to report the news, not influence it. Photoshopping models in magazines is reported enough to make those issues small. News editing images is a much bigger deal.


The way to differentiate between good and bad photoshopping is to ask why. Why are you doing it? Is the goal to deceive or to present reality better? But I'm not a Luddite and I embrace new technology's ability to improve our lives. We just need to question our motivation in altering the memory we are trying to save.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-October '09 Bookmarks

I've decided to combine my monthly links list and my Google shared items (Bookmarks). You can follow them live as I share them here or just wait until I post every 10 on the blog. Don't worry this blog won't become a link dump. This is just a chance for me to point to interesting things. If you also have a shared items feed that I'm not already following let me know (or start one, then let me know). Enjoy!
View More »

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Non-Economics of College

I once suggested to my wife that we simply promise our children $10,000 a year for the first four years after they get out of high school. They can choose to spend that money on a local public college, subsidize private/out-of-state college or, if they would like, buy whatever they want. The goal is to give them more personal responsibility and to force them to think about the cost (which are increasing) and benefits (which some say are decreasing) of going to college. My wife hates that idea. She, like me, loved her time at Clemson University for the non-economic benefits and she wants to pass that experience on to our children. Lucky for her, it seems recent economic research agrees:
This paper explores the many avenues by which schooling affects lifetime well-being. Experiences and skills acquired in school reverberate throughout life, not just through higher earnings. Schooling also affects the degree one enjoys work and the likelihood of being unemployed. It leads individuals to make better decisions about health, marriage, and parenting. It also improves patience, making individuals more goal-oriented and less likely to engage in risky behavior. Schooling improves trust and social interaction, and may offer substantial consumption value to some students. We discuss various mechanisms to explain how these relationships may occur independent of wealth effects, and present evidence that non-pecuniary returns to schooling are at least as large as pecuniary ones. Ironically, one explanation why some early school leavers miss out on these high returns is that they lack the very same decision making skills that more schooling would help improve.
Economics, you're supposed to be on my side!

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Here's an interesting video plug for the second installment of the book where "a rogue economist studies the hidden side of everything":

And here's the quiz at
Q 1: According to SuperFreakonomics, what has been most helpful in improving the lives of women in rural India?
A: Cable and satellite TV. Women with television were less willing to tolerate wife beating, less likely to admit to having a "son preference," and more likely to exercise personal autonomy. Plus, the men were perhaps too busy watching cricket.

Q 2: Among Chicago street prostitutes, which night of the week is the most profitable?
A: Saturday nights are the most profitable. While Friday nights are the busiest, the single greatest determinant of a prostitute's price is the specific trick she is hired to perform. And for whatever reason, Saturday customers purchase more expensive services.

Q 3: You land in an emergency room with a serious condition and your fate lies in the hands of the doctor you draw. Which characteristic doesn't seem to matter in terms of doctor skill?
A: One factor that doesn't seem to matter is whether a doctor is highly rated by his or her colleagues. Those named as best by their colleagues turned out to be no better than average at lowering death rates — although they did spend less money on treatments.

Q 4: Which cancer is chemotherapy more likely to be effective for?
A: Leukemia. Chemotherapy has proven effective on some cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, and testicular cancer, especially if these cancers are detected early. But in most cases, chemotherapy is remarkably ineffective, often showing zero discernible effect. That said, cancer drugs make up the second-largest category of pharmaceutical sales, with chemotherapy comprising the bulk.

Q 5: Half of the decline in deaths from heart disease is mainly attributable to:
A: Inexpensive drugs. Expensive medical procedures, while technologically dazzling, are responsible for a remarkably small share of the improvement in heart disease. Roughly half of the decline has come from reductions in risk factors like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, both of which are treated with relatively inexpensive drugs. And much of the remaining decline is thanks to ridiculously inexpensive treatments like aspirin, heparin, ACE inhibitors, and beta-blockers.

Q 6: True or False: Child car seats do a better job of protecting children over the age of 2 from auto fatalities than regular seat belts.
A: False. Based on extensive data analysis as well as crash tests paid for by the authors, old-fashioned seat belts do just as well as car seats.

Q 7: What's the best thing a person can do personally to cut greenhouse gas emissions?
A: Shifting less than one day per week's worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse--gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food, according to a recent study by Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews, two Carnegie Mellon researchers. Every time a Prius or other hybrid owner drives to the grocery store, she may be cancelling out its emissions-reducing benefit, at least if she shops in the meat section. Emission from cows, as well as sheep and other ruminants, are 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by cars and humans.

Q 8: Which is most effective at stopping the greenhouse effect?
A: The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines discharged more than 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which acted like a layer of sunscreen, reducing the amount of solar radiation and cooling off the earth by an average of one degree F.

Q 9: In the 19th century, one of the gravest threats of childbearing was puerperal fever, which was often fatal to mother and child. Its cause was finally determined to be:
A: This was the dawning age of the autopsy, and doctors did not yet know the importance of washing their hands after leaving the autopsy room and entering the delivery room.

Q 10: Which of the following were not aftereffects of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks on September 11, 2001:
A: The psychological effect of the attacks caused people to increase their alcohol consumption, and traffic accidents increased as a result.
I bought the first one for my brother and was able to get halfway through before I gave it to him for his birthday. This one sounds just a good.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My BlogFather

Like most blogs, this one was started not knowing what it would become or how long it would last. As I was updating my comments from the old site (if you're a subscriber sorry about the flood) I noticed that from the beginning Justin Scott, more than anyone else, has kept me blogging. As a loyal reader, commenter, and sharer he encouraged me when I'm right and challenged me when I'm wrong. Here's a hat tip to a couple of his recent worthwhile posts:
Thanks to everyone who reads and comments. If you're feeling left out, go out there and start a blog. Not committed enough, at least share what you read.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"Acting White"

You may have already heard this, but I came across it again and it's still just as upsetting:
Among white teens, Fryer and Torelli found that better grades equaled greater popularity, with straight-A students having far more same-race friends than those who were B students, who in turn had more friends than C or D students. But among blacks and especially Hispanics who attend public schools with a mix of racial and ethnic groups, that pattern was reversed: The best and brightest academically were significantly less popular than classmates of their race or ethnic group with lower grade point averages.
What's most interesting is that this trend only seems to appear in schools where African Americans are the minority. I haven't seen much of this at my school and it meets that requirement. In my own teaching experience I've witnessed more students afraid of "acting ambitious" than "acting racially". Somewhere along the way kids realized that if they never really tried, then they could never really fail.. If I'm honest I see this same risk adverse lifestyle in myself. Perhaps if I can convince myself that failure is allowable, then I can pass that wisdom on to my students. I need to remind myself of the times in my life when I really took a risk (auditioning for an improv troupe when I didn't know what improv was, asking my best friend on a date, moving to NC) and how happy I was with the result.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fairness is Valuable

Economists often try to argue away fairness, because it is so hard to measure. What is fair from one person's perspective may not be fair from another's. I would normally agree, but I was recently reminded of a story I heard in graduate school that is used to prove that people are not always rational. It goes something like this. Two people are given a sum of money, say $100, but only one of them is allowed to divide the money up. The other person only has the choice to either accept the money given or deny the money for both people. Rational people should end up with a division of something like $99 for the divider and $1 for the acceptor. Both people are better off than they would be if the deal was denied. But, as you might imagine, the second person will often deny the money for both people if they feel it is unfair.

Many economists call this irrational. But I call it a demand for fairness. The second person assigns a value to the deal being fair, say $25. If they are offered only $1, they will deny it because it gives them -$24 of value. However if they are offered a split of $70 for divider and $30 for the acceptor, they will accept the gain of $5. Every person places a different value on fairness and some may be pretty close to zero. I'd be interested to see this experiment run with different types of people to see what characteristics of make someone desire fairness more or less.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Education Enhancing Drugs

The Freakonomics Blog recently pointed to research showing that 25% of college students are using drugs to improve their academic performance. Never having taken them myself, I'm unsure about the costs and benefits of the trend. That said, my initial reaction as an educator is to see how much it could help struggling students. I have witnessed motivated students wrestle with the "sit down and learn" method that has dominated schooling for years. I've often described success in middle school as attendence, success in high school as effort, and success in college as ability, but these drugs could remove the genetic lock to higher education. I support safely increasing the intellegence of our students, whether that is through tutoring or Ritalin. One could also complain that these drugs could muddle the signal to employers of good grades, but there's no reason to think these improvement wouldn't carry over to the workforce as well.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Most Profitable Way to Peace

Like most people, I was surprised to hear that Barack Obama, the same man who increased the number of American soldiers in the war in Afghanistan while also fighting a war in Iraq (granted he didn't start it) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today. Not only has this president not decreased US military action, he has missed out on the most profitable way to peace, free trade. Despite common misconception, war is not good for the economy. World War II didn't get us out of the Great Depression and spending taxpayer money on bombs certainly isn't going to get us out of the Great Recession. What helped Americans get richer after World War II was the increase in global trade, something Obama has been criticizing and limiting. Nations with mutually beneficial trade don't fight. Make trade, not war.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

I'm a Special Interest

I usually don't support government subsidies, but this causes an internal struggle:
Lawmakers and businesses are calling for expansion of a tax credit for first-time home buyers that has helped spark home sales in an otherwise dismal real estate market.

With the tax credit scheduled to expire in fall, some business groups say the amount of the credit, now capped at $8,000, should be raised to $15,000 and applied to anyone who buys a home.
I must say I would love to have that fifteen grand to do something I was already planning on doing, but I can't shake the feeling that there might be some repercussions to subsidizing home loans.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Cost of Governmental Sub Prime

I've asked before if our government was upside-down in debt and concluded it was not. But what are the costs of that even being in question? I recently came across a site that gave the US government a FICO score of 620 (which puts it in the sub prime category). Just like a person with a lower credit score, this could increase the interest rate at which the government has to borrow. However, it doesn't look like that is currently the case. The US government has a triple-A rating, the best there is. As long as our borrowing starts to decrease, or at least increase less quickly, I won't be too worried about our government it's reputation as a reliable borrower, but it is on my list of things to watch out for.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Online Disinhibition Effect

Another blog recommendation, the Best of Wikipedia. Apparently there's a phrase for people acting differently online:
The core concept of the online disinhibition effect refers to a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet. Because of the loss of inhibition, some users may exhibit benign tendencies; people may become more affectionate, more willing to open up to others, less guarded about their emotions and may speak to others about what they are feeling in an attempt to achieve emotional catharsis.
And as any blogger would know, it can make people quite mean. Other worthwhile Best of Wikipedia posts are the Moon Treaty, Project Pigeon, and the Streisand Effect.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Economics of Nature

Friend Bryan Buckley once told me a great econ story about how plants are green because it's the hardest color to absorb. Plants work on the margin and absorb all colors except for green. Here's another great example of how even nature is subject to the same laws of economics (selfishness is good and trading partners have to be honest):
The congruence between the behavior of flowers and their pollinators has led students of pollination ecology to speak of the "harmony" between the two groups. But if such harmony exists it is purely of a self-serving sort. The bats are interested only in filling their stomachs, and it is no concern of theirs that they may be doing a favor for the plant. Indeed, a hungry bat may eat the flowers and large quantities of pollen. Some bats are reported to dine exclusively on pollen, and any plant that depends on these species for pollination is clearly willing to pay a steep price for gene dispersal. Selfishness is characteristic of other pollinators. Bees that happen across flowers whose nectaries are too deeply recessed to reach with their tongues will often crawl to the side of the blosson and chew their way to the nectar, depleting and damaging the flower without transferring any pollen. When hummingbirds set up a territory over a patch of the banana-like Heliconia plants that occupy light gaps in the rain forest, they pugnaciously evict other visitors and thereby may impede the plant's gene dispersal.

Animals are not the only selfish parties in pollination systems. The plants are equally self-serving. Some flowers attract their pollinators by deceit. Orchids are masters of this art. Some offer what appear to be nectaries but turn out to be just artful pigments. Others have hairs that resemble pollen-rich anthers but are really a ruse to lure bees where they can be dabbed with the orchid's pollen without being able to pack any away to take back to the nest. Some orchids lure bees into trap blossoms that force them against pollen-bearing structures and pollen receptors without offering any real rewards. Other orchids mimic nectar-bearing flowers, and some even play on the indiscriminate lust of male tachinid flies by mimicking females. When the male attempts to copulate with the pseudofemale, he actually pollinates the orchid. Other orchid flowers flutter in the breeze, producing a movement that male Gentris bees perceive as a territorial challenge. When they aggressively sally forth, plowing into the presumed intruder, they pick up the orchid's pollen. However, deceptive seductions like these are dependent to some extent on naive pollinators and may not work on an insect that has been duped often enough to learn to avoid the flowers. The majority of flowers, even orchids, must still offer significant rewards if they are to get dependable service.