Monday, February 1, 2021

Policymakers are not likely to repeal alcohol taxes: Too many experts testify to their necessity and too many special interest groups agree, all while receiving government grants

Taxing Alcohol. Michael Thom. In Taxing Sin, pp 55-86, December 1 2020.

Rolf Degen's take: Sobering theses on the alcohol tax.

Abstract: Alcohol is said to impose harms, including healthcare costs and impaired driving, that warrant an alcoholic beverage tax. However, research shows that light and moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial to health. Furthermore, the burden tied to heavy drinking are exaggerated and, when all costs and benefits are considered, may not exist. Research also suggests that alcohol taxes are self-defeating; those who are likely to drink less because of higher prices are the same light and moderate drinkers whose health improves after they drink. Heavy drinkers, by contrast, are not that responsive to higher prices. But policymakers are not likely to repeal alcohol taxes. Too many experts testify to their necessity and too many special interest groups agree, all while receiving government grants.

Keywords: Healthcare costs Impaired driving Alcohol taxes Special interest groups 

European regions with higher pre-industrial climatic variability display higher levels of trust today: Climatic risk favored the early adoption of inclusive institutions (which implies higher quality of local governments today)

Climate Risk, Cooperation, and the Co-Evolution of Culture and Institutions. Johannes C Buggle, Ruben Durante. The Economic Journal, ueaa127, January 20 2021,

Abstract: This paper examines the relationship between economic risk and the evolution of social cooperation. We hypothesize that trust developed in pre-industrial times as a result of experiences of cooperation aimed at coping with climatic risk. We document that European regions with higher pre-industrial climatic variability display higher levels of trust today. This effect is driven by variability in the growing season months and is more pronounced in agricultural regions. Regarding possible mechanisms, our results indicate that climatic risk favored inter-community exchange and the early adoption of inclusive political institutions which is associated with higher quality of local governments today.

JEL N53 - Europe: Pre-1913O11 - Macroeconomic Analyses of Economic DevelopmentO13 - Agriculture; Natural Resources; Energy; Environment; Other Primary ProductsQ54 - Climate; Natural Disasters; Global WarmingZ10 - General

Is partisan conflict driven by Republicans moving to the right, or have Democrats contributed too? Are the changes symmetric, occurring for both sides? They found that symmetric partisan changes have only occurred among whites

The Nature of Partisan Conflict in Public Opinion: Asymmetric or Symmetric? Maria Narayani Lasala Blanco, Robert Y. Shapiro, Joy Wilke. American Politics Research, October 8, 2020.

Abstract: What are the dynamics of partisan conflict in the mass public in the United States? Has this conflict been driven by Republicans moving to the right across a wide range of issues, or have Democrats contributed to this as well? Have these changes been symmetric, occurring for both sides, or asymmetric, occurring for just one side? Understanding how the partisan gaps have widened may shed light on potential prospects for reversing extreme political conflict in public opinion. This paper examines this question with an analysis of opinion trend data over the last 40 years. It includes an original analysis of these trends among racial and ethnic groups. We find that symmetric partisan changes have only occurred among whites. Overall partisan differences have been less for Blacks and Hispanics than for whites.

Keywords: partisan conflict, public opinion, polarization among Latinos and Blacks

Many of the participants with severe psychiatric conditions endorse high levels of subjective well-being; the professionals' & patients' ratings were negatively related or unrelated, showing a lack of mutual understanding of SWB

The perception of well-being: Do people with severe psychiatric conditions and their therapists put themselves in each other’s shoes? RocĂ­o Caballero,Carmen Valiente & Regina Espinosa. The Journal of Positive Psychology, Jan 31 2021.

Abstract: Subjective well-being (SWB) has been shown to be linked to better prognosis but research on it in people with severe psychiatric conditions (SCP) is sparse. The main purpose of this study was to investigate SWB among individuals with SPC in comparison with the general population using a wide range of well-being measures. Also, we assessed the degree of agreement between professionals’ and their corresponding patients’ assessments of well-being. A total of 237 people with SPC and 34 referring staff members participated in this study. People with SPC reported significantly lower levels of hedonic well-being but preserved eudaimonic well-being compared to the general population. However, a substantial proportion of participants with SPC had an average or above-average SWB. We also found discrepancies between the well-being ratings of professionals and patients that were either negatively related or unrelated. These findings reinforce the importance of a more positive psychiatry, attuned to the patients’ perception.

KEYWORDS: Severe psychiatric illnessesschizophreniawell-beinglife satisfactionhappinessempathy

Art through the evolutionary lens

Art through the evolutionary lens. Sonya Sammut. Times of Malta, January 31, 2021.


Looking at art through an evolutionary lens, which is what my good friend and art specialist Joseph Agius has asked me to do, opens up a big box of questions.

Firstly, we need to remind ourselves of the basics of the evolutionary view, where we look at the brain as an adapted organ and observe those psychological mechanisms that guide our behaviour as biological adaptations, as products of natural selection that have been evolving for millions of years.

An accident of evolution

Thinking along these lines, the first question is whether art shows the signs of a true adaptation. Canadian American cognitive psychologist and advocate of evolutionary psychology Stephen Pinker speculates that it does not. 

According to Pinker, like other cultural activities, art is one of those so-called non-adaptive by-products of evolution. In other words, although it is a product of the evolutionary process, rather than being an adaptation – a feature that helps solve problems of survival or reproduction, like the umbilical cord for example – it is a by-product, something that does not solve problems, does not have a functional design and is being carried along with the adaptations, in this case like the belly button.

Pinker is of the opinion that humans have invented art because they learned how to push the right buttons that activate certain inherited mechanisms that form part of our universal human nature, such as the colour vision that would have evolved for locating ripe fruits, and that, in essence, art mimics those very same stimuli – patterns, colours and shapes – that we as humans have been designed to perceive, respond to and take pleasure from. 

Art, in his view, is like cheesecake: a technology we make because we can, and for no other reason than our own satisfaction.

A true adaptation

American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller holds a rather different view.  Although he admits that, for evolutionists, art has always been difficult to explain through natural selection, he quickly reassures us that, through sexual selection, the evolution of art is much easier to understand. 

The story of the peacock’s tail, and how it is said that Charles Darwin became so obsessed with this metabolically costly object, serving as an advertisement for predators, that he said it made him feel sick, is a perfect example of how the peacock’s tail is actually a reproductive organ, a biological adaptation for sexual advantage, and a veritable work of art.

In his book The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, Miller expands on the classical Darwinian approach to show us that art is a true biological adaptation rather than an accident of evolution, with a number of biological functions. 

This means opening our perspective to the evolution and functions of two types of mental adaptations: those around producing art, and those around appreciating or judging art.

Miller takes us to meet the bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea, the birds who, with nothing but courtship on their minds, invest all the time, energy and skill they can to construct proportionately large, symmetrical and elaborately decorated nests. 

Not only do the male bowerbirds search for brilliantly coloured objects and arrange them carefully by colour, they also go as far as replacing the dried or faded fruits and flowers with fresh ones.

Some are even more competent, using regurgitated fruit residues and leaves or bark to paint the walls of their bowers.

Some display, others enjoy

These are all signs of a so-called biological signalling system, designed to display the fitness and superior skills of the owner for advantage.

It explains why many major works of art are created by young men (as opposed to women and older men), and helps us understand why even an apparently pragmatic tool such as the hand axes wielded by our ancestors Homo erectus may have evolved as works of art and displays of manual skills.

In discussing this topic, there is so much more we can be curious about, such as why we find beauty so compelling, why the artist’s virtuosity is fundamental to artistic beauty and why beauty conveys the truth about the artist’s skill and creativity. 

To answer these questions, we must not fear that the evolutionary standpoint will reduce the impact of what we find intriguing.  [...]


Economics Seminars: Women presenters are treated differently than their male counterparts, are asked more questions during a seminar & the questions asked of women presenters are more likely to be patronizing or hostile

Gender and the Dynamics of Economics Seminars. Pascaline Dupas, Alicia Sasser Modestino, Muriel Niederle, Justin Wolfers, and the Seminar Dynamics Collective. January 20, 2021.

Abstract: This paper reports the results of the first systematic attempt at quantitatively measuring the seminar culture within economics and testing whether it is gender neutral. We collected data on every interaction between presenters and their audience in hundreds of research seminars and job market talks across most leading economics departments, as well as during summer conferences. We find that women presenters are treated differently than their male counterparts. Women are asked more questions during a seminar and the questions asked of women presenters are more likely to be patronizing or hostile. These effects are not due to women presenting in different fields, different seminar series, or different topics, as our analysis controls for the institution, seminar series, and JEL codes associated with each presentation. Moreover, it appears that there are important differences by field and that these differences are not uniformly mitigated by more rigid seminar formats. Our findings add to an emerging literature documenting ways in which women economists are treated differently than men, and suggest yet another potential explanation for their under-representation at senior levels within the economics profession.

JEL Classifications: A1, C8, J4, J7.

Keywords: differential treatment, seminar culture, interruptions