How can we possibly survive?

The recent computer crash of the UK’s aircraft control system which downed scores of aircaft landings and takeoffs and which could have caused a disaster of huge proportons has been blamed on the faiure of one line of computer code. The authorities have given some very lame excuses why this should have happened, entirely ignoring the fact that this particular line of computer code has served the system well enough for 40 years despite the huge growth in aircraft traffic since then.

It is unlikely that the real reason will ever be willingly or fully revealed by the various enquiries that will now be undertaken because it might cause widespread panic all over the world, both among airlines and passengers. Almost certainly the reason why it failed is that a particular cosmic ray from outer space hit a particular transistor junction in the computer. Many of the circuits (on which the old computer codes worked) are still very simple ones. Thus the breakdown of one transistor could do a huge amount of damage — in this case striking at the total functioning of the many systems surrounding it. What you can be certain about is that the software people did not re-write that particular line of computer code — it is as good as ever — instead, the engineers replaced some of the physical computer elements.

Millions of cosmic rays from outer space rain down on earth every second of every hour and every day. They are sub-atomic in size but very powerful for all that. Cosmic rays do a tremendous amount of damage. Every second of every hour of every day, cosmic rays are penetrating life-forms on earth — and that means us also. We might also mention that, every second, highly damaging rays are also penetrating us from the natural radioactivity that is occurring in rock strata beneath our feet. (In some places — Cornwall for example — radiation from underground granite is quite high. The aircaft control system could also have been hit by such radiation — it will be impossible ever to know but cosmic radiation is more likely.)

As with computer circuits, the DNA in our bodies is being assaulted and damaged constantly. Every day each of us receives radiation which cause small explosions in our genes and potentially could completely disrupt the functioning of our bodies. How can we possibly survive? What’s more, how can some of our oldest genes remain just as perfect and useful today as they were billions of years ago when originally formed?

The answer is that our chromosomes (the 23 immensely long strings of DNA, each of which contains something like 1,000 genes) have what can only be called “gene repair ambulances” (more like hospitals!), constantly travelling up and down each chromosome at great speed. Whenever they reach a piece of damaged gene they compare it with its mirror-template on the opposite helical strand, thus knowing how the damaged gene should be restored, and repairing it. This happens thousands of times an hour in each of us, because our genes are infinitely more sensitive to radiation damage than, say, the damage to a computer transistor — which, in comparison, is a rare event. Nevertheless, the latter occur from time to time. Unlike us, however, computer circuits don’t have repair mechanisms.

Not being a computer techie I have no idea how aircraft control systems will be improved in future years all over the world. Whether they will have repair mechanisms virtually similar to nature’s own I don’t know. But I think we can take it that they will be as well instituted as man can devise. Airlines and passengers need not worry unduly about safety in future years.

However, we can take it that, because nature has had billions of years to devise its own safety methods, man’s systems will never be as good — at least not for hundreds or thousands of years to come. Our computers will always be prone to radiation damage, rare though the serious events may be. But there’s another intriguing aspect to all this. This is that some research biologists are already looking at the possibility of DNA, being self-repairable and thousands of times smaller than computer circuits, might be an infinitely better type of memory device than our present, relatively crude computer circuits. Combine this thought with the ever-increasing automatons being devised for manufacturing (and services) and we have the highly likely prospect of DNA-based machine tools, not in hundreds or thousands of years’ time, but fairly imminently (say, in 50 or 100 years?).  Not only this but we have the prospect of future production tools not only being able to make products of great sophistication but, by changing their DNA-code, are able to switch from making one product one day to a different one the next. This is not science-fiction with its time-travel worm-holes and other nonsenses but an almost certain development one day. Just a thought to leave you with.

Maybe Keynes was right after all?

It has to be said that we’re not great fans of macroeconomics around here. Not enough good data from enough different places to definitively answer most questions: and that’s before we get onto Hayek’s point about simply not being able to calculate the economy without using the economy itself to do so. However, this makes us think that Keynes might well have been right on one point:

It took far too long but Britain’s traumatic national pay cut is coming to an end. Even on the somewhat crude median earnings measure, pay is finally going up again, even after accounting for the effects of price rises. Wages are rising a little faster and inflation has collapsed, a golden combination for employees across the country.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the spread of capitalism, gradually rising wages have been the norm, apart from in wartime and during brief periods of extreme economic dislocation. The fact that this process went into partial reverse over the past few years despite the recovery came as a shock and helped to explain why so many people began to fall out of love with capitalism. It is therefore excellent news that normality is finally re-establishing itself.

One view of unemployment is simply that it happens when labour is more expensive than people are willing to pay for it. That’s obvious in that one sense of course. The question becomes then well, how quickly will the repricing happen if we do ever get to that stage? There are those who insist that it happens immediately and thus unemployment and recessions cannot happen. Not an entirely convincing view. There are also those who insist that it can take forever and this justifies all sorts of interventions. And then we’ve got the evidence of the past few years.

It could be argued that labour in the UK did become too expensive. We had just had the largest and longest peacetime expansion of the economy after all. So, a repricing was necessary. And this is where Keynes could be said to be correct. It takes time because nominal wages are sticky downwards. People really, really, don’t like lower numbers on their paycheques. They’ll grumble about their real wages falling if it’s disguised with a little bit of inflation but they’ll riot if the equivalent fall were at a steady price level.

We don’t say that the past few years prove it: only that what evidence we have is consistent with this explanation. And, given the paucity of our evidence base, that’s probably the best we can do.

Ease up on Assisted Reproductive Technologies to close the gender wage gap

Of course, there is debate over whether the gender wage-gap exists or not. I, for one, believe it does exist but that the answer does not lie in legislating protection for maternal (or even paternal) leave. Charlotte Bowyer wrote about how firms such as Apple and Facebook have begun to offer female employees the opportunity to freeze their eggs (so that they can delay pregnancy until later in their career).

One reason for the gender wage-gap is that women in modern society most often face the dilemma of having children earlier and potentially jeopardising career progress or having children much later and hopefully advancing their career. Each option has its pros and cons but neither is particularly appealing for many women. It’s a choice between probable fertility, children and significantly lower pay or probable infertility, childlessness and career success. Unsurprisingly, a sizeable proportion of women opt for the former and this means that the gender wage-gap persists (of course, econometricians can make it disappear using a bunch of control variables and certain methodologies).

Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) helps alleviate the situation for many women. Sure, they don’t provide what many might currentlyconsider a ‘natural’ conception, pregnancy or birth (as contemporary social perceptions depict them) but it does mean that there is an alternative to women being constrained one way or another.

Some Assisted Reproductive Technologies are completely unregulated, some are loosely regulated and some are definitely quite heavily regulated. For example, in certain jurisdictions where forms of ART is available, laws stipulate that only heterosexual couples (as opposed to say, a homosexual couple or a single person) can use these technologies. Such a restriction means that marriage is a pre-requisite for ART; again, however, this constrains her. We need to completely abolish restrictions like these (which exhibit a clear, conservative bias) in order for ART to be an effective means by which the biological causes of gender wage-gap persistence are overcome.

More importantly, we should ensure that the current freedom of access to ART is defended against misinformed, prejudiced zealots. This ensures not only that people have more freedom to choose but also partially addresses the social inequity and labour market outcome inequity arising from biological gender-inequality via the technological innovation that a relatively free market makes possible.

As we’ve been saying, there isn’t really a gender pay gap

But there is a motherhood pay gap. Interesting research:

Studies from countries with laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation suggest that gay and lesbian employees report more incidents of harassment and are more likely to report experiencing unfair treatment in the labor market than are heterosexual employees. Gay men are found to earn less than comparably skilled and experienced heterosexual men. For lesbians, the patterns are ambiguous: in some countries they have been found to earn less than their heterosexual counterparts, while in others they earn the same or more.

The results for the UK are that gay men earn less than hetero, lesbians more than hetero women. In fact, lesbians earn around what men do and gay men earn around what hetero women do.

We could, as this report does, speculate about societal standards, the idea that lesbian women have, in some manner, “male traits” which lead to that higher pay.

A much simpler observation of the evidence would be the influence of children. We know that fathers earn more than non-fathers among hetero men (yes, even after adjusting for age and education etc). Also that mothers earn less than non-mothers. Gay men tend not to be fathers (this is not being categorical of course, “tend”) as lesbians tend not to be mothers.

If the so-called gender pay gap were simply the influence of children upon earning patterns, as we largely think it is, then we would expect to see what we do see when looking at the earnings of non-hetero society. This does not prove we are correct of course, but it is supportive of our view.

‘Radical’ policy, electoral cycles, protests and term-length

Implementing ‘radical’ policy carries risks. Abolishing marriage law, scrapping the minimum wage or converting a central banking system into one of free banking carries the inherent risk of ‘shocking’ the population, to put it mildly. There are remedial measures that can be taken but rigid electoral conventions and the length of governments’ terms makes their implementation more difficult.

For example, suddenly abolishing the minimum wage would likely cause immediate harm to those on it (or being paid close to it) if it were done in an improper, ‘shocking’ manner – and that’s not even considering the long-term sociological impact of the resulting aversion to ‘free market’ ideas involving ‘liberalisation’ and ‘deregulation’. Putting aside the long-term individual, communal and intergenerational psychological impact of poorly managed liberalisation policies, the immediate harm is mainly caused by the fact that the affected individuals have little time to prepare for it and, therefore, any immediate harm can be mitigated if policy is announced well in advance.

On the 9th December 2010, the House of Commons voted to raise the tuition fees cap. By then, so many students had already applied to university and were due to start in 2011 (though, admittedly, the tuition fee rise would not be effective until 2012) and the students from the year below who had made plans based on previous estimates would feel the brunt of this. One and a half years is hardly enough for those students and their families to make suitable provisions for a 3 or 4-year, full-time course at Uni (which has increasingly become the preserve of the middle-class).

Furthermore, the sense of an impending tuition fee rise no doubt exacerbated the sentiments necessary for a strike. If, instead, they announced their plans at the start of the term but delayed actual implementation until mid-way or late into the term, any protests may actually be smaller since people would have had a longer time to lobby/reason with the government and, indeed, for the policy’s advocates to reason with and persuade the people.

Thus, when planning to implement such policy, an adequately advanced announcement ensures that those affected have time to make provisions and, therefore, significantly diminish any potential, immediate harm caused upon implementation.

The problem, however, is the phenomenon of behavioural changes during electoral cycles; politicians and governments behave differently before and after elections (think promises before and actions after elections as well as populist policies in the run-up to elections) – they want to win elections and, sometimes, expectations-stability when implementing radical policy is sacrificed.

One possible policy suggestion here is to allow the electorate to choose how long they would like the government’s term to be during the elections (by indicating a preferred term-length and then collating the results according to a collated ranking system or weighted average of some sort – of course, selecting the optimal social preference ordering methodology is controversial but that is beyond the scope of this blog post). If the electorate were to opt for a longer term-length, it would be a signal (quite possibly of confidence or of a desire for longer-lasting stability or simply a desire to delay future elections etc.) and this means that otherwise shocking policy can be implemented with less immediate harm. Conversely, shorter term-lengths will ensure that those governments with shaky mandates will be time-constrained in implementing their more extreme policy proposals.