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Monsanto grabs Crispr, which could end the war on GMOs – Business Insider

“The next genetically modified food you eat probably won’t be a GMO.

At least not in the conventional sense of the term, which stands for genetically modified organism.

It will probably be made using Crispr, a new technique that lets scientists precisely tweak the DNA of produce so that it can do things like survive drought or avoid turning brown.

On Thursday, the agriculture giantMonsanto nabbed the licensing rights to the technology from the Broad Institute to use in its seed development. This is the first license the institute has issued to a company for use in agriculture. (The agriculture giant DuPont Pioneer, on the other hand, is collaborating with another science company, called Caribou Biosciences, to license its own Crispr crops, including corn.)

Using Crispr, an agriculture company can get around the restrictions on GMOs and, they hope, the opposition to them — because a crop altered using Crispr isn’t technically a GMO at all.

Harvard geneticist George Church thinks crops like these might be our best hope for ending the war against GMOs, which he and dozens of other experts call misguided, once and for all.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Church recently told Business Insider.

The US Department of Agriculture seems to agree, as does Monsanto. The USDA has already moved two crops made with Crispr — a type of mushroom and a type of corn — closer to grocery store shelves by opting not to regulate them like conventional GMOs. DuPont, the company making the corn, says it plans to see the crop in farmers’ fields in the next five years.

When a GMO is not a GMO

What makes these crops not GMOs, you might ask? It all comes down to the method that scientists use to tweak their genes. And Crispr is a far more precise method of modifying genes than scientists have had access to.

Instead of relying on the genetic engineering people are referring to when they talk about GMOs, which involves swapping a plant’s genes with chunks of DNA from another organism such as a bacterium, Crispr allows scientists to simply swap out a letter or two of the plant’s genetic code (composed of nucleotides denoted by the letters A, G, C, and T) and replace it with another one that, say, would prevent the crop from turning brown.

“Changing a G to an A is very different from bringing a gene from a bacteria into a plant,” Church said.

Grilled CornFlickr/zivkovic

At the center of the department’s decision not to subject the new crops to its rules is the fact that the Crispr-edited crops don’t contain any “introduced genetic material” or foreign DNA, which is what most GMOs are made with.

This could mean that everything we know about genetically modified food is about to change.

“DuPont views the USDA’s confirmation as an important first step toward clarifying the US regulatory landscape and the development of seed products with Crispr technology,” Neal Gutterson, DuPont Pioneer’s vice president of research and development, told Business Insider in an email.

A world of Crispr crops?

Teams of researchers across the globe are working on developing more crops made with Crispr, and experts say the USDA’s recent decision is a promising development.

“If USDA decides the first product does not require regulation, that would definitely be encouraging for the many people already using Crispr,” Joyce Van Eck, an assistant professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute, told the Genetic Expert News Service in April, shortly before the USDA made its decision.

Crispr was introduced in 2013 as a genome-editing tool in a couple of common laboratory plants, including a weed called arabidopsis and a tobacco plant. Since then researchers have experimented with it in a number of crops, including oranges, potatoes, wheat, rice, and tomatoes.

“By the end of 2014, a flood of research into agricultural uses for Crispr included a spectrum of applications, from boosting crop resistance to pests to reducing the toll of livestock disease,” Maywa Montenegro wrote in January in the science magazine Ensia.

Of course, Church would prefer that people embrace GMOs as they are now, since numerous scientists have determined they are safe. After all, he said, Americans have embraced GMOs in other things like clothing. (More than 80% of the cotton that goes into things like T-shirts is genetically modified.)

“I hope people wake up one day and realize, ‘Hey, almost everything is GM’ — it’s in the air, on our bodies, in our medicine. Maybe we can get over the GM foods controversy,” Church said.

Until then, we have Crispr.”

Source: Monsanto grabs Crispr, which could end the war on GMOs – Business Insider

Imagine Economics as an Evolutionary Science – Evonomics

“In 1898, the great American institutional economist Thorstein Veblen published an article entitled: “Why is economics not an evolutionary science?” By “evolutionary”, Veblen explained that he meant an economics that took full account of the impact of Darwinism on the social and behavioral sciences.

More than a century has passed, and since 1898 there has been a notable increase in the use of evolutionary ideas in economics. Important examples include the large literature inspired by Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter’s path-breaking 1982 book on An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change and the vibrant development of evolutionary game theory.

But what might the future development of an evolutionary perspective mean?

In my 2004 book entitled The Evolution of Institutional Economics, I outlined what I called “the principle of evolutionary explanation”. This is the idea that any behavioural assumption, including in the social sciences, must be capable of causal explanation in evolutionary terms, or at least be consistent with a scientific understanding of human evolution. This principle is found in Veblen’s work.

A number of economists and other social scientists have addressed evolutionary explanations. There is a large and valuable literature that considers how humans have evolved in groups and how human propensities for altruism and cooperation have emerged, alongside more selfish and competitive tendencies.

Evolution and the maximization of utility

But Veblen made an even more radical point, which is still difficult for many economists to swallow. He argued that the idea of the utility-maximizing individual is inconsistent with the principle of evolutionary explanation. This point remains pertinent, because the idea of a fixed utility function – even if it is one that has “social” or “altruistic” preferences – lacks a clear evolutionary and causal explanation of its origins. It is simply assumed.

Some economists have tried to show why humans evolved to maximize their utility. But these claims are rather empty, because all possible exhibited behavior can be made consistent with some utility function. Utility functions are summaries of observed behavior, rather than true causal explanations of it.

Fitting a utility function to data is not the same as providing an evolutionary and causal explanation. We need to explain the evolution of the particular traits and dispositions that make us human. Yet it is widely argued by economists that other species are utility maximizers as well.

Modern behavioral economics relaxes the assumption of strict utility maximization, in pursuit of a “more realistic” theory. Yet even here there is a tendency to treat claimed departures from utility-maximization as “errors” or “deviations”. Throughout mainstream economics, the utility-maximizing model retains its gravitational pull.

If he were alive today, Veblen would be unhappy with the enduring affection by economists for the utility-maximizing model of rational choice. Instead he pointed to developments in psychology that drew on Darwinian evolutionary theory, particularly the work of the pragmatist philosopher-psychologist William James. He tried to develop a more specific theory of human behavior.

Instincts and habits

Veblen took the view that humans were driven by habit. Habits are guided by both inherited propensities – called instincts – and existing institutions. A habit is a learned capacity to act or think in a particular way. Instead of beliefs being prime movers, they too are based on habits.

As the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey argued eloquently in his 1922 bookHuman Nature and Conduct, deliberate choices occur when our habitual propensities clash and we are forced to make a decision between them. Generally, habit drives reason and choice, rather than the other way round.

This way of putting instinct first, habit second, and reason third is consistent with our understanding of human evolution. The instinct-habit-reason ordering is consistent with the sequence in which these emerged long ago in the evolution of our species. It is also consistent with the way in which they develop in each human individual, from infanthood to adulthood.

This evolutionary perspective on human agency is very different from the mind-first, or beliefs-first, perspectives that still dominate economics and much of social science.

The evolution of morality

The evolutionary perspective on human agency is important for another reason, noted by Veblen, stressed by the dissident British economist John A. Hobson, and researched today by leading scholars such as Frans de Waal and Christopher Boehm.

Consistent with Darwin’s account in The Descent of Man, these writers argue that humans have developed propensities for moral judgement. Moral systems evolve in societies because they enhance group cohesion and survival. As I argue in my book From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities, this thesis is consistent with the rehabilitation of “group selection” arguments by Elliott Sober, David Sloan Wilson and others.

This does not mean that humans are unselfish. We are both selfish and capable of acquiring and heeding moral values. Sometimes these two come into conflict – we face dilemmas between self-interested behavior and morally “doing the right thing”.

Utility-maximizing models in mainstream economics have been adapted to take on “altruistic” behavior and “social preferences”. Sometimes morality is mentioned. But even if the individual is “altruistic” in these models, he or she is still maximizing his or her own utility. The individual is always “selfish” in that sense. As moral philosophers such as Richard Joyce argue, utility-maximizing models have difficulty accommodating genuine altruism or morality. Adam Smith also rejected a utilitarian perspective for this reason.

The evolution of institutions

Veblen saw a further extension of the evolutionary perspective in economics and the social sciences more generally. While there was competition and cooperation between individuals in the struggle for survival, there were also social processes that lead to some institutions being more successful than others: a “natural selection of institutions”.

This insight is important because it opens up the possibility of a dynamic theory of social change, involving both the selection and development of institutions, entailing human agency but never entirely by design. But as Thorbjørn Knudsen and I explain in our book Darwin’s Conjecture, this approach has taken some time to get off the ground.

The key point here is that the implications of evolutionary thinking for economics and the social sciences have only partially been explored. Economics, in particular, is not yet an evolutionary science.

To take economics forward would require a widening perspective, where ideas and approaches from several other disciplines were taken into account. The standard apparatus of utility maximization and rational choice would be regarded as an interim position, rather than an adequate, evolutionary explanation of human behavior.

We would be closer to the discursive economics of Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall and Thorstein Veblen, rather than the technique-driven concerns that dominate much of economics today. The words of John Maynard Keynes would once again be relevant:”

“the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher — in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of a man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard.”

 

Source: Imagine Economics as an Evolutionary Science – Evonomics

Los aborígenes australianos son los humanos vivos más antiguos | Ciencia | EL PAÍS

“Hay poblaciones humanas que hasta ahora se han visto poco representadas en los estudios genómicos, como los primeros pobladores de Australia. Mal hecho, porque la primera lectura del genoma de 83 aborígenes de aquel continente, y otras 25 personas de Papúa-Nueva Guinea, ha resultado en un tesoro científico. Los aborígenes australianos difieren entre sí tanto como un español de Cádiz difiere de un chino de Pekín. Eso implica que los aborígenes han ocupado Australia desde hace mucho, mucho tiempo, tanto que son la población viva más antigua del planeta, y que salieron de África antes que el resto de la humanidad.

Saber cuántas veces salió la humanidad de África, cuándo ocurrieron esas migraciones y qué fue de ellas es una de las preguntas esenciales sobre el pasado de nuestra especie. Los científicos presentan ahora en cuatro investigaciones en Nature la mejor respuesta que permite el conocimiento actual. El jefe de uno de los trabajos, Eske Willerslev, de la Universidad de Copenhague, asegura que la investigación “ha sido fascinante, porque los aborígenes australianos son la población viva más antigua”.

Los aborígenes australianos difieren entre sí tanto como un español de Cádiz difiere de un chino de Pekín

La comparación de los genomas aborígenes con los del resto de la humanidad, incluidos sus vecinos asiáticos y oceánicos más próximos, muestra que “emigraron de África antes” que los demás humanos modernos, hace 60.000 años o más, cuando las actuales Australia y Papúa-Nueva Guinea estaban unidas en un solo continente. Muchos milenios después, cuando la crecida del nivel del mar aisló Guinea de Australia, los dos grupos interrumpieron su flujo genético –dejaron de tener sexo—, con el resultado de que su distancia genética es ahora similar a la que separa a europeos y asiáticos orientales.

Pero ni siquiera la de los aborígenes fue la primera migración de humanos modernos fuera de África. En otra investigación, Luca Pagani y sus colegas del Biocentro Estonio de Tartu muestran que los actuales habitantes de Papúa-Nueva Guinea portan en su genoma signos apreciables (más de un 2% del ADN) de una población humana más antigua aún, un grupo humano que se separó de los africanos antes de que lo hicieran los eurasiáticos.

Los científicos estonios deducen que esos fragmentos genómicos provienen del sexo que debió darse entre los ancestros de los papuanos y una migración que hizo el mismo recorrido mucho antes: una migración que había salido de África hace unos 120.000 años. Las cuatro investigaciones que se presentan en Nature van firmadas por equipos de investigación genómica de 35 países, incluida España. Revelan la creciente complicación que la genómica está imprimiendo a la historia del Homo sapiens, como ya había hecho previamente con nuestros ancestros los homínidos.

Sigamos con las grandes preguntas: ¿de dónde venimos? La respuesta es de África. Los primeros huesos iguales a los nuestros ya estaban allí hace 150.000 o 200.000 años. Pero entonces, ¿por qué no salimos de África hasta decenas de milenios después, quizá tanto como 100.000 años después? Eso es un montón de tiempo, mucho más que la totalidad de nuestra existencia fuera del continente que nos vio nacer. ¿Es que aquellos Homo sapiens originales solo se parecían a nosotros en las apariencias? ¿Tenía aún que evolucionar su cerebro hasta nuestros estándares? ¿Se extinguieron aquellos primeros humanos “anatómicamente modernos”, como se les suele llamar para subrayar que eran más tontos que nosotros?

Los humanos actuales empezamos a divergir hace 200.000 años

Parece que no. David Reich, de la Universidad de Harvard, y sus colegas presentan también en Nature los genomas de 300 personas de 142 poblaciones que, al igual que los aborígenes australianos, habían estado poco o nada representados en los estudios de la variedad humana. Su principal hallazgo es muy notable: demuestra que los humanos actuales empezamos a divergir hace 200.000 años. Eso cuadra a la perfección con la fecha de datación de los primeros cráneos iguales que los nuestros. Y confirma que nuestros primeros padres no se extinguieron, sino que siguen viviendo en nuestro genoma.

El equipo de Harvard –un clásico en la corta historia de la genómica humana— exhibe su sofisticación matemática con un dato asombroso: que la velocidad de mutación genética ha aumentado en un 5% desde que salimos de África. La explicación es bien curiosa: el tiempo entre generaciones ha disminuido desde entonces, es decir, que tenemos hijos cuando somos más jóvenes que nuestros ancestros africanos. Cuanto más se reproduce uno, más oportunidades de mutación le da a la descendencia. De ahí que los virus sean los maestros de la evolución en la Tierra.

LA ESPECIE QUE HUÍA DEL FRÍO

La teoría original out of Africa (fuera de África) postulaba que toda la humanidad actual que vive fuera de ese continente proviene de un pequeño grupo de Homo sapiens que salió de allí hace unos 50.000 años. Los científicos piensan ahora que no hubo una, sino cuatro migraciones fuera de África que ocurrieron a lo largo de los últimos 120.000 años. Y que las cuatro tuvieron relación con los cambios climáticos asociados a las variaciones de la órbita terrestre.

Según el modelo construido por Axel Timmermann y Tobias Friedich, de la Universidad de Hawai en Honolulu, las migraciones representan cuatro olas asociadas a las grandes glaciaciones de ese periodo, que abarcaron estos cuatro intervalos: 106.000-94.000, 89.000-73.000, 59.000-47.000 y 45.000-29.000 años atrás. Los resultados de su modelo cuadran muy bien con los datos paleontológicos y arqueológicos.

El destino de la humanidad parece así estar, después de todo, escrito en las estrellas, como diría un poeta antiguo. Porque esos ciclos helados vienen causados directamente por las alteraciones periódicas de la órbita terrestre. Otros cambios climáticos de menor escala se asocian a migraciones de población de un carácter más local.”

Source: Los aborígenes australianos son los humanos vivos más antiguos | Ciencia | EL PAÍS

Extreme Inequality Is Not Driven by Merit, but by Rent-Seeking and Luck – Evonomics

“Defenders of our deeply unequal global economic order had to put in a bit of overtime last month. They had to explain away the latest evidence — from the global charity Oxfam — on how concentrated our world’s wealth has become. A challenging task.

Back in 2010, Oxfam’s new stats show, the world’s 62 richest billionaires collectively held $1.1 trillion in wealth, far less than the $2.6 trillion that then belonged to humanity’s least affluent half.

Now the numbers have reversed. The world’s top 62 billionaires last year held $1.76 trillion in wealth, the bottom half of the world only $1.75 trillion.

“Far from trickling down,” Oxfam concludes, “income and wealth are instead being sucked upwards at an alarming rate.”

Flacks for grand fortune have a justification for this top-heavy state of affairs. We live, they assure us, in a meritocracy. Those with great wealth have made great contributions. They merit their “success.” If we want to encourage talent and hard work, we simply have to accept the inequality that meritocracy will inevitably produce.

Do our grandest fortunes really reflect merit? Oxfam economist Didier Jacobs last year set out to examine that question, and he has just published a paperthat offers a fresh new take on meritocracy and the rhetoric and reality behind it. Too Much editor Sam Pizzigati last month asked the Boston-based Jacobs to share the thinking that underlies his innovative new research.

Too Much: People who defend grand fortunes typically don’t defend all grand fortunes. They’ll readily acknowledge that some rich people haven’t done anything that makes their riches merited. But then they’ll argue that most of our wealthy do owe their wealth to personal talent and effort. What do modern philosophers like John Rawls have to say about this “meritocracy” defense of inequality?

Didier Jacobs: Many philosophers see talent as genetically or socially inherited. Even effort, Rawls contends, stands largely — if not completely — out of an individual’s control. Gifted people raised in supportive environments with access to great opportunities will find working hard to nurture their talents much easier than folks who lack a supportive environment.

Proponents of meritocracy don’t consider inherited wealth to be merited. So why should the wealth that comes from inherited talent be merited?

TM: But your research doesn’t rest on this philosophical critique of meritocracy. Your new paper essentially takes the notion of meritocracy at face value. You accept that some grand fortunes could reflect individual talent and effort and then you go on to examine how much true talent and effort specific sorts of fortunes involve. Why take this approach?

Jacobs: Because meritocracy rates as the number one argument that defenders of inequality invoke. It is easy to make an ethical case against extreme concentrations of wealth, drawing from the perspectives of Marxism, utilitarianism, or the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls. But going down that road requires people you’re trying to persuade to change their value systems, and that’s difficult.

Debunk the meritocratic argument on its own terms, by contrast, and all the defenders of inequality have left is libertarianism, a value system that has much less appeal among the American public than meritocracy.

TM: The concept of “rent” figures prominently in your analysis. But what economists mean by rent goes far beyond what the general public sees as rent. Can you explain what qualifies as “rent-seeking” behavior?

Jacobs: Put simply, economists define rent as the difference between what people are paid and what they would have to be paid to do the work anyway. In other words, a rent is excess income, income that does not generate any effort.

So if your farmland happens to be more fertile than surrounding farmland, you get more production out of it for the same effort, and that extra income you get is a rent. Rent-seeking entails getting hold of wealth produced by others. Lobbying government to obtain a subsidy is an example.

TM: Your paper explores the varied sources of extreme wealth. A few of these — like crime and cronyism — obviously rate as rent-seeking. No one could call them “meritocratic.” But other sources — like monopoly — could have redeeming social value. High-tech CEOs like the late Steve Jobs, some argue, fully merit their wealth because their contributions have been so spectacular. But you see in technology rent-seeking dynamics in high tech that wildly overcompensate execs like Jobs. What sort of dynamics?

Jacobs: Apple’s business model relies heavily on two types of rents: intellectual property and “tying,” obliging customers to buy Apple hardware and software bundled together. And Apple, like most large tech companies, also benefits from another major source of rent: network externalities.

A network externality exists when consumers draw value from other consumers using the same product, such that the company that manages to get a critical mass of consumers tends to attract many more of them. A classic example would be Facebook. Most people use Facebook simply because all their friends use Facebook. A competing site might have a better user interface, but switching to that site would defeat the purpose of social networking.

This same phenomenon plays to the advantage of most if not all large IT companies. People look for drivers on Uber because they know that most drivers use Uber to offer their services.

Don’t get me wrong, Steve Jobs deserved to be rich. I have no doubt he made a considerable contribution to humanity through talent and hard work. But I argue that he did not deserve to be extremely rich because his wealth derived in large part from rents.

The IT industry essentially resembles the mining industry in one respect. Digging gold can be useful to society, and the mining company that wins a tender to dig a specific field will usually be better than its competitors. But that company did not create the gold, and that’s why governments usually charge royalties for the privilege to dig it out.

Similarly, IT companies create useful products, and the most proficient company will usually dominate the market of a specific product. But IT monopolies do not create network externalities. They take advantage of them.

It is these network externalities that create the extreme wealth concentration. I would say that these externalities belong to society, just like underground gold, and so the wealth they generate ought to be shared.

You don’t have to be particularly radical to take this perspective. Even a business magazine as rooted in mainstream economics as the Economistsuggests it.

TM: How does your research go about quantifying how much of the wealth of today’s billionaires can legitimately claim to be merited?

Jacobs: I use the Forbes billionaire list. Forbes identifies the billionaires who have inherited their wealth and also notes the countries and industries where each billionaire’s wealth originated. This information lets us quantify the proportion of the world’s billionaire wealth by different categories.

So we can calculate how much billionaire wealth comes from inheritance. We can also calculate how much may come from cronyism, which I define as wealth generated in both a corruption-prone country and a state-dependent industry. And we can calculate how much billionaire wealth may come from market failures such as monopoly, which I define as wealth derived from finance and IT.

Altogether, my research traces 65 percent of the world’s billionaire wealth to the rents of cronyism, inheritance, and monopoly.

TM: Your analysis leaves about 35 percent of current billionaire wealth “unaffected by cronyism, inheritance, or monopoly.” But that, your new paper relates, doesn’t make this 35 percent somehow merited, and you cite globalization as one key reason why. How does our globalized world economy
impact on the matter of merit?

Jacobs: An individual’s contribution to society depends on both the intrinsic usefulness of the contribution and the size of society. Take Johannes Gutenberg, for instance. He invented the printing press in 1439. Most of us would agree, I think, that the printing press amounts to an invention as least as important as Google. Yet Gutenberg did not become a billionaire.

Gutenberg didn’t get extremely rich because the world economy in the fifteenth century was simply too small and too fragmented to support any billionaire fortunes. They didn’t have a billion people all around the world back then with a dollar to spare toward printing equipment.

Every billionaire’s wealth today depends on having access to a large population that’s linked through a globalized economy. The more this global economy grows, the richer our billionaires get. This growth happens independently from any one individual’s effort and talent, so we can’t say that billionaires deserve the profits that go hand in hand with economic growth.

Indeed, billionaires do not deserve the large population that makes their fortunes possible. They were just born into it — and that raises the question of whether society should put a ceiling on wealth concentration.

If current public policy remains unchanged, we’ll almost certainly see a trillionaire one day, simply because the global population and economy is likely to continue growing.

This issue — the dependency of extreme wealth on the existence of a large, globalized society — rarely gets discussed. Neither does its corollary, the question of whether we need a ceiling on wealth. These both strike me as important societal questions.

TM: Where does luck fit into all this?

Jacobs: Meritocracy is about contributing to society through talent and effort, but also through risk taking. Every billionaire has made several big calculated bets — they knew they could lose it all. That brings us to my last critique of meritocracy: the inequity between the talented and hard-working people who take a bet and win and the equally talented and hard-working people who take a bet and lose.

Both winners and losers here rank as equally deserving. Yet the one can be thousands of times wealthier than the other only because of luck.

Our growing inequality reflects a society with more and more “winner-takes-all” markets, where many talented individuals compete for ever fewer top spots. In the end, the winners often owe their place to chance.

TM: So can a reasonable person argue that our deeply unequal world in any way amounts to a meritocracy?

Jacobs: The meritocracy notion may make sense for the middle of our income distribution: An outstanding nurse is likely to make more money than an average one and would deserve that extra income. But in no way can meritocracy justify extreme inequality.

I would like to depersonalize the inequality debate. Extreme inequality is not driven by the merit or vices and virtues of particular individuals, but by social, economic, and political forces. At Oxfam, we have an intimate knowledge of the “poverty traps” that keep people in poverty. My new paper is about the “wealth traps” that concentrate wealth in ever fewer hands.

Originally published here.”

Source: Extreme Inequality Is Not Driven by Merit, but by Rent-Seeking and Luck – Evonomics

El guardia del Inpec que se inventó la Cátedra de la Paz en las cárceles | Pacifista

“Más de 200 presos miran atentos hacia la tarima de un recinto grande y gris en la cárcel Modelo de Bogotá. Quien sube al escenario no es una estrella musical, no es una celebridad que los visita, no es un directivo que los regaña: es un dragoneante, un guarda de uniforme pixelado en escala de azules, un hombre que se ve igual a todos los otros que llevan su cargo en el Inpec: acuerpado, pelo corto y brillante, un bolillo colgando del cinturón. Ahí adentro lo conocen como “Sánchez”, a secas, aunque la etiqueta de su uniforme dice “John”.

Está allí parado, con 400 ojos encima, para presentar a un grupo de teatro y a varios grupos musicales. Sánchez es la mano creadora detrás de todo lo artístico en la Modelo. Con su supervisión, han nacido tras las rejas decenas de proyectos durante los últimos cuatro años. El último fue el lanzamiento de un disco, producido por el colectivo Mario Grande, que reunió a grupos de música popular, de rap y de vallenato para cantarle, según el dragoneante, “a la libertad”. También creó una emisora, un periódico y, hace pocas semanas, una Cátedra de Paz.

Pero toda su historia en el Inpec no fue así de próspera. Mucho menos así de sana. Desde que se graduó del colegio y prestó servicio militar, en esa misma institución, tuvo que aguantar tiempos difíciles. Le tocó una época negra del sistema penitenciario. Fue guarda en Cali y luego en Bogotá, y en ambas cárceles fue testigo de asesinatos de sus compañeros, fue víctima de amenazas y estuvo a punto de morir varias veces. Había guerras al interior de la prisión en las que él, hiciera lo que hiciera, era el enemigo. De la misma forma, para él todos los presos, sin importar el bando, eran sus enemigos.

Cree que no murió de milagro, pero aclara con firmeza que esa época ya pasó. Reconoce que el sistema sigue colapsado, que la misma Modelo tiene más del doble de presos que debería, pero asegura que “las condiciones son otras”. Es modesto, habla con el lenguaje pomposo que caracteriza a la Fuerza Pública y no reconoce directamente que si las condiciones en esa cárcel han mejorado quizás ha sido gracias a él. No tiene que decirlo: los presos lo quieren, los directivos lo quieren, sus colegas de otras cárceles lo llaman para pedirle asesoría.

Hablamos con él sobre la violencia de sus primeros años, sobre el cambio de mentalidad y sobre la idea de hacer la primera Cátedra de la Paz en una cárcel colombiana.

Actualmente la situación de las cárceles no es la mejor, pero está lejos de ser la de otras épocas. ¿Qué recuerda de esos años?

Uno llegaba, se levantaba y no sabía si iba a volver a la casa. En esa época había armas y muertos a todo momento. De un lado el mando lo tenía la guerrilla y del otro lado lo tenían las autodefensas. Nosotros éramos la parte del medio y no teníamos ese respaldo. Estábamos abandonados. Demasiadas personas fallecieron. Tocaba ver personas secuestradas dentro de la misma cárcel. Ver cómo extorsionaban y dejaban sin nada a las personas. Ver cómo a cambio de droga tenían que acceder a favores sexuales. Ver cómo degradaban la humanidad de las personas.

¿Nunca pensó en renunciar?

Varias veces. Una vez por allá en un motín que tuvimos en la cárcel de Picaleña, donde estuvimos dos días enfrentándonos con la guerrilla, que nos recibió a bala. Varios compañeros quedaron heridos. En ese momento quedamos atrapados y me tiraron una granada y casi pierdo la vida. Varias veces me secuestraron también. Me hicieron tres atentados para matarme.

La relación entre ustedes y los presos era imposible…

El solo hecho de tener este uniforme me convertía en un enemigo para ellos. Una vez descubrimos un túnel en la cárcel de Cali y por eso le colocaron una bomba a un sargento en la casa, mataron a unos compañeros y las otras personas que ayudamos a encontrar el túnel también quedamos amenazadas de muerte. Muchas veces decía yo: ¿qué hago aquí en esta vaina?

¿Qué fue lo que lo mantuvo en pie?

Yo sabía que esto en algún momento tenía que cambiar, que tenía que tener un buen rumbo. Gracias a Dios poco a poco se fue mejorando.

¿Cuándo notó que las cosas empezaban a cambiar?

Le voy a ser sincero: eso fue en el primer mandato de Álvaro Uribe. Ahí se retomó el control de nuevo. Se tomó la determinación de intervenir las cárceles, de sacar un montón de cosas, de trasladar gente, de cambiar el personal de guardia. Se empezó a tomar otro tipo de conciencia en la gente.

¿Cómo una retoma por la fuerza de la cárcel logra generar empatía entre usted y sus antiguos enemigos?

El chip que le meten a uno es que ellos son el enemigo. Nosotros teníamos acá un dicho: “preso es preso y su apellido es reja”. Pero para esa época hubo oportunidad de acercarse más y empecé a ver que detrás de ellos hay circunstancias, motivos por los que llegaron a la cárcel, que tienen familia, que muchos quieren cambiar, que la mayoría nunca fue escuchada.

¿En qué momento se dio cuenta de que usted los podía ayudar en vez de tratarlos como rivales?

Yo soy pianista y un día le dije a un subdirector que me diera la oportunidad de sacar un grupo musical. Él me dio la oportunidad de hacer casting para buscar personas que cantaran, que tocaran un instrumento, que supieran de poesía o de composición, de arte. Ahí vi que hay unos que realmente son muy buenos. Además por ellos hacer eso tienen una redención, un descuento.

¿Algo le sorprendió en ese primer acercamiento en buenos términos con los presos?

Se me empezaron a acercar personas y me decían cosas como “comandante Sánchez, le agradezco mucho, yo antes de coger un fusil o una pistola siempre quise tocar guitarra”. Y a muchas personas se les dio esa oportunidad y lo hicieron muy bien.

¿Cómo inició el proyecto de Cátedra de la Paz al interior de la cárcel?

De la dirección me mandaron a hacer un curso sobre la Cátedra de la Paz. Hice también un diplomado en derechos humanos. Y entonces vi que era muy chévere eso que me enseñaban y quise implementarlo acá en la Modelo, porque todo el mundo afuera decía que era la peor cárcel. Ahora tengo dentro de un recinto, reunidos, a guerrilleros, autodefensas, bacrim, delincuencia común. Y veo que se empiezan a dar cuenta de que la embarraron y quieren cambiar.

¿Cómo funciona la clase?

No es obligatoria sino que nace de la necesidad de esas personas de querer cambiar. Obviamente el espacio es reducido y no le puedo dar la Cátedra a los 5 mil. Pero me propuse iniciar con 100 personas y ya tenemos 300. Y todavía hoy quería inscribirse más gente pero por el momento no es posible. Estamos trabajando de 9 a 11 todos los días.

¿Cuáles son los temas que aborda?

Son muchos. Vamos distintos expositores y les enseñamos sobre leyes, sobre derechos humanos, les enseñamos historia, reformas agrarias, recursos naturales. Y también, pensando en que hay tantos guerrilleros, les enseñamos sobre los acuerdos de La Habana, porque muchos de ellos no entienden qué es lo que se ha negociado y cómo los afecta. También tenemos espacio para analizar lo que pasa afuera desde la perspectiva de la cárcel.

¿Usted cree que ese modelo serviría en el resto de cárceles?

Yo espero que lo de la Cátedra de la Paz se replique en todo lado. La gente ya está mamada de tanto problema. De tanta riña en los patios. De tantos líos de convivencia. Los grandes problemas son de tolerancia y con eso sí podemos ayudar.

Evidentemente hay gente que quiere cambiar, pero me imagino que siguen estando los que no dejan, los que se rehúsan y se vuelven un obstáculo. ¿Cómo lidia con eso?

Al principio era más difícil. Imagínese: si hay bullying afuera, ¡cómo será acá! Muchas veces se la montaban a los actores de las obras o a los cantantes. Que por maricas. Pero ya la gente va entendiendo que todo lo que se hace es muy profesional. Claro que todavía pasa, pero ya es mucho menor. Igual, la persona que quiere venir solo a aprender mañas, acá las tiene todas. Esta es la universidad del crimen: aquí llegas sabiendo de hurto y si quieres puedes salir con una maestría en traquetear. Pero el interno que quiere rehabilitarse tiene todo el apoyo y lo hace.

Usted le ha enseñado un montón a esta gente. ¿Qué siente que ellos le han enseñado a usted?

Uno aprende a valorar lo que tiene, a la familia. Y en todo este proceso también se aprende lo valioso que es el tiempo. Ellos decidieron ponerse a hacer algo para no desaprovecharlo y uno ve que eso es verdad, que el tiempo se va rápido. También aprendí que la gente puede cambiar si quiere hacerlo. Incluso nosotros cambiamos: antes siempre nos veíamos como los que andábamos con las armas y punto. Nunca pensé que esto fuera a trascender de esta forma. Pero en el camino muchos casos me marcaron y me hicieron cambiar.

¿Qué cree que le hace falta a las cárceles para hacer más viables propuestas como la suya?

El Gobierno hace políticas y leyes para encarcelar y nuevos códigos de policía para multar, pero no tenemos sitios para rehabilitar, para resocializar. No tenemos espacios para que la gente que la embarró sienta que sí se puede mejorar. Hay que cambiar la política criminal de este país.

¿Usted ve que el resto del personal del Inpec se mueve en la misma dirección que usted?

Pues esa es mi intención, tratar de cambiar el chip. La nueva generación de guardianes tienen que ver que esto ya cambió, que esto ya es otro cuento. Lo que vivimos nosotros ellos ya no lo tienen que volver a vivir.”

Source: El guardia del Inpec que se inventó la Cátedra de la Paz en las cárceles | Pacifista

Physicists Just Confirmed New Form Of Atomic Nuclei And It Could Ruin Time Travel Forever | Physics-Astronomy

“A new kind of atomic nuclei has been discovered by researchers in a new study issued in the journal Physical Review Letters. This newly confirmed pear-shaped, asymmetrical nuclei, was initially detected in 2013 by scientists from CERN in the isotope Radium-224. This is atomic nuclei was also detected in isotope Barium-144. This is a huge development because most essential theories in physics are grounded on symmetry. This new confirmation demonstrates that it is conceivable to hold a nuclei that has more mass on one side than the other.

“This violates the theory of mirror symmetry and relates to the violation shown in the distribution of matter and antimatter in our Universe,”Marcus Scheck of University of the West of Scotland, one of the authors of this recent study, said:

Until now, there were only three forms of nuclei — discus, spherical, and rugby ball. There is a precise mixture of protons and neutrons in a definite category of atom that edicts the shape molded by the scattering of charges within a nuclei. These all the three shapes are symmetric and approve the current theory known as the CP-symmetry, the grouping of charge and parity symmetry.

Now this recently confirmed asymmetrical nuclei could help us understand why our universe is the way that it is. As astrophysicist Brian Koberlein notes:

“It’s been proposed that a violation of CP symmetry could have produced more matter than antimatter, but the currently known violations are not sufficient to produce the amount of matter we see. If there are other avenues of CP violation hidden within pear-shaped nuclei, they could explain this mystery after all.”

This rough scattering of mass and charge in the nuclei sources the isotope to ‘point’ in a definite direction in space-time, and the team proposes that this could clarify why time appears to only go forward and not backward.

Marcus Scheck from the University of the West of Scotland told Kenneth MacDonald at BBC News:

“We’ve found these nuclei literally point towards a direction in space. This relates to a direction in time, proving there’s a well-defined direction in time and we will always travel from past to present,”

In the end, this recent discovery is again proves that the Universe might not be what we believed, which will ultimately push us to a new era of theoretical physics.”

Source: Physicists Just Confirmed New Form Of Atomic Nuclei And It Could Ruin Time Travel Forever | Physics-Astronomy

Elinor Ostrom: Fighting the Tragedy of the Commons – Books & ideas

“Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was born in California during the depths of the Great Depression. Her parents were artistically inclined—her father a set designer and her mother a musician—and neither had graduated from college. Ostrom attended Beverly Hills High as a “poor girl in the rich kids’ school” as she would later put it, and went on to major in Political Science at UCLA. She would subsequently get her doctorate there in the same field, after having been rejected for admission to the economics graduate program.

Her first academic job was a part-time teaching position at the University of Indiana, where she had moved to accompany her husband Vincent Ostrom. A tenure track position would eventually follow, and then a string of accolades: the Presidency of the American Political Science Association in 1996, election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2001, and the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2009. She was the first female president of the APSA, and remains the only woman—and the only Political Scientist—to have won the Economics Nobel.

Challenging the Tragedy of the Commons

Ostrom’s entire academic career was focused on a concept that plays a central role in economics but is seldom examined in much detail: the concept of property. Ronald Coase had already alerted the profession to the importance of clearly delineated property rights when one person’s actions affected the welfare of others. But Coase’s main concern was the boundary between the individual and the state in regulating such actions. Ostrom sought to explore that nebulous middle ground where communities rather than individuals or formal governments held property rights.

PROPERTY RIGHTS

Both Ronald Coase and Elinor Ostrom were concerned with the manner in which property rights affect the allocation of resources. To illustrate the differences in their approaches, consider the following simple example. An author who values peace and quiet lives in an apartment building. His neighbors are a group of young college students who enjoy parties with loud music. They own the rights to their apartment and the author owns the rights to his. But neither has a property right over the amount of noise that flows between the apartments. The level of tranquility that these two apartments share is a common good. In this situation, it is quite possible that the level of noise will reach levels that are inefficient, in the sense that a reduction in noise will benefit the author to a far greater degree than it will inconvenience the students. But how could such a reduction be brought about?

For Coase, the problem arose because of poorly defined property rights over the level of noise. If the judicial system were to clearly assign the right to one or other party, then efficient allocation would arise through negotiation. If the author had the right to choose the level of noise, the students would pay for permission to party, to the extent that their gains from doing so exceeded the costs imposed on the author. If the students had the right, the author would pay them to lower the noise level, to the extent that their losses from doing so were less than his gains. Coase pointed out that as far as resource allocation was concerned, it did not matter who was given the property right in such situations, provided that it was clearly defined and the costs of making transactions was negligible. This has come to be called the Coase Theorem.

Ostrom’s approach to such situations was quite different. She understood that in many environments the external imposition of usage rights was infeasible or undesirable. Yet, individuals with access to shared resources could reach tolerably efficient allocations through social norms backed by the implicit threat of decentralized sanctions. They could develop formal rules or rely on informal ones, thus engaging in what she called self-governance. The author and the students, for instance, could reach an agreement that was acceptable to both parties, guided by shared norms, and enforced by the possibility that other neighbors would punish violations. Attempts by an external authority to interfere with this process could result in a breakdown of local rules and norms, with counter-productive effects [1].

The conventional wisdom at the time was that such informal collective ownership of resources would lead to disaster. In an influential paper published in 1968, the American ecologist Garret Hardin argued that when multiple users had access to the same valuable resource, the result would be a “tragedy of the commons” to which no technological solution could be found. Using the example of grazing lands to illustrate, Hardin argued that each herder would keep adding cattle to his stock as long as it remained privately profitable, neglecting the costs of this activity on others sharing the commons. The consequence would be depletion and eventual destruction of the pasture. Only through division of the land into private lots, or regulation by the state could the tragedy be averted.

It is in large measure through the painstaking research of Elinor Ostrom that this is no longer a consensus view.

A first step in building her analytical framework was to make a clear distinction between resources held as common property and those subject to open access. Common property involves a well-defined community of users, and an associated set of rules and norms that allow them to regulate each other’s behavior. Those in the community act—either individually or in concert—to prevent outsiders from exploiting the resource, even if the formal laws of the larger political entity within which they are embedded expressly prohibit such exclusion. Examples include many inshore fisheries, grazing lands, and forest areas. Open access, by contrast, refers to resources from which exclusion is difficult or impossible without formal state action. Ocean fisheries and the global atmosphere as a carbon sink are examples.

Ostrom was not alone in stressing the importance of this distinction, but she was unique in the vast range of methods she drew upon to try and understand the circumstances under which the tragedy of the commons could be averted. These included historical and ethnographic case studies, statistical methods, game-theoretic models with unorthodox ingredients and laboratory experiments. The goal was to understand the problem and answer the key questions, no matter which tools had to be learned along the way, or which disciplinary boundaries had to be crossed in doing so.

One example of her willingness to immerse herself into the communities she studied comes from Chicago in the 1970s, where—in collaboration with Vincent Ostrom—she was interested in the effects of a proposed policy to combine smaller police departments into larger units with greater geographic jurisdiction. The goal of the policy was to increase professionalization and specialization in law enforcement, along with lower bureaucratic costs of management. Ostrom rode in patrol cars with officers on the night shift in order to observe first-hand the routines that were involved in the provision of public safety, in order to understand the trade-off between policemen that were closer to the communities they served, and the economies of scale of such metropolitan consolidation.

Along similar lines, she used innovative methods to gather data when investigating the provision of public goods such as road maintenance and street lighting. In collaboration with Roger Parks, she designed a portable device that allowed ordinary citizens to rate their perceptions of the quality of lighting on their streets, and compared these to actual measures of luminosity. She and Parks also placed sensors on cars—similar to those used on airport runways—to measure the bumpiness of roads in an effort to quantify the quality of maintenance by local authorities.

One of Ostrom’s greatest strengths was the creation of networks to collect and consolidate data collection by countless individuals scattered worldwide. In 1992 she founded the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) initiative through which a network of 14 Collaborative Research Centers around the world have been collecting data on thousands of forest plots in about 250 communities in 15 countries to understand the relationship between trees, people, and livelihoods. In these forests plots, local researchers in collaboration with forest users monitor several variables over long stretches of time to detect changes in ecological conditions as well as social, economic and institutional structures.

Ostrom felt that an adequate understanding of the behavioral and institutional determinants of local public good provision and common-pool resource use required access to data from a diverse set of sources. To accomplish this, she conducted fieldwork in communities whose survival depended on the effective management of shared resources, including some with centuries of experience in self-governance. For example, she visited small-scale irrigation systems in Nepal with her colleague and coauthor Ganesh Shivakoti, in order to better understand why farmer-managed systems were performing better than state-managed ones.

Ostrom believed firmly in the complementarity of distinct research methods. She examined topographical and other geographic data, using satellite images long before it was a common practice in the social sciences. And she conducted laboratory experiments meant to simulate the environments under study. All of these different methods were deployed, for instance, in a study with Harini Nagendra on forests, where she sought to determine which property regime—state, private or community—was best able to support sustainable resource use.

Based on her own research as well as the thousands of case studies that she carefully assembled and examined, Ostrom was led to the position that there was a great diversity of experience in the management of common property. Some communities were able to devise rules and draw upon social norms to enforce sustainable resource use, while others failed in their attempts to do so. She spent much of her career trying to identify the empirical determinants of success, and to understand the mechanisms through which success was attained.

The generalizable insights that she extracted from this mass of disparate evidence were collected together in her enormously influential 1990 bookGoverning the Commons. Here she proposed a set of principles that were associated with sustainable resource management—clear boundaries, explicit rules, effective monitoring, graduated sanctions for violators, mechanisms for conflict resolution, broad participation in governance, and relative autonomy from higher-level authorities. Successful governance typically required a nested hierarchy of procedures, with rules regulating routine actions at the base, collective choice procedures for altering these rules at a higher level, and mechanisms for constitutional choice at the top. These multilevel decision-making procedures she called polycentric games.

Ostrom and the Field of Economics

Ostrom’s approach may be contrasted with that of most economists, whose understanding of cooperation in groups is derived from an analysis of repeated games. A major result in this theory states that if interactions are repeated with sufficiently high likelihood, and individuals are sufficiently patient, then cooperative outcomes can be sustained in equilibrium even if all individuals care only for their own material interest.

To see the intuition behind this result, consider a simple situation in which each of two individuals can take a costly action that delivers a large benefit to the other person. If this situation arises just once, and both individuals care only about their own material interest, neither will take the action and both will be denied the benefit. But if the situation arises frequently, they may both adopt a tit-for-tat strategy under which each takes the action provided that the other has also done so in the past. Deviation from such a strategy involves a loss of material welfare if players place sufficient weight on future rewards, so cooperation can be sustained indefinitely.

But this was not a satisfying explanation for Ostrom, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, the repeated game model said that virtually any outcome could be an equilibrium: for example, sustainable extraction of a common resource was possible but so was rapid depletion, and the theory did not provide any guidance as to which outcome would arise. But there was a more important concern: Ostrom knew that sustainable use was enforced in practice by actions that appeared quite clearly to deviate from the hypothesis of material self-interest. In particular, individuals appeared to willingly bear considerable costs to punish violators of rules or norms. As Paul Romer put it in an appreciation of her work, she recognized very early on the need to “expand models of human preferences to include acontingent taste for punishing others.”

So she turned to developing simple game theoretic models in which individuals have unorthodox preferences, caring directly about trust and reciprocity. And she looked for the ways in which people faced with a social dilemma avoided playing out the logic of the tragedy, by changing the rules so that the strategic nature of the interaction was transformed.

She then took these theories to the laboratory, joining forces with economists to run a pioneering series of experiments. A turning point in the literature came with her 1994 book Rules, Games and Common-Pool Resources, co-authored with James Walker and Roy Gardner, where a comprehensive collection of field and laboratory evidence was compiled to explain how resource users could achieve collective action in a controlled laboratory setting. These confirmed the widespread use of costly punishment in response to excessive resource extraction, and also demonstrated the power of communication and the critical role of informal agreements in supporting cooperation. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) had asserted that agreements had to be enforced by governments: Covenants without a sword are but words, he wrote. Ostrom took issue with this. As she put in the title of an influential article, covenants—even without a sword—made self-governance possible.

Ostrom’s more recent work concerned two major and vexing issues of critical contemporary importance—climate change and the digital commons. The effectiveness of polycentric governance systems for local commons gave her hope that similar structures could be designed at a global scale, with transnational institutions regulating the behavior of component entities. And her most recent work—collaborative with Charlotte Hess—concerned the production and sharing of knowledge in the digital age. This too could be studied as a kind of common-pool resource, for which governance structures are essential to proper functioning.

When Ostrom was named a co-recipient—with Oliver Williamson—of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics the choice took many in the profession by surprise. After confessing that he had no knowledge of her work, and “no recollection of having ever seen or heard her name mentioned by an economist,” University of Chicago professor Steve Levitt predicted that “the economics profession is going to hate the prize going to Ostrom even more than Republicans hated the Peace prize going to Obama.”

But there were also some prominent defenders of the decision, including two former recipients of the award. The experimental economist Vernon Smith congratulated the Nobel Committee for recognizing Ostrom for her pioneering and original work, and applauded her “scientific common sense” and willingness to listen “carefully to data”. And Douglass North endorsed the selection on the grounds that she had enriched economics by bringing in insights from outside the discipline, in particular through her pioneering research on voluntary organizations for managing common-pool resources.

One reason for this strangely inconsistent response from the community of economists may have been the deeply eclectic nature of Ostrom’s work. The evidence she amassed was obtained using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods. The patchwork of models she developed were not nested in some grand and professionally accepted mathematical framework. She did not surrender to the illusion of precise knowledge that characterizes much work in economics, preferring not to conceal the vagueness and ambiguity that characterizes our current state of knowledge. It takes a certain kind of professional courage and self-belief to part from accepted academic practice in this manner. She was fearless in doing so, and leaves behind a great and inspiring legacy.”

Source: Elinor Ostrom: Fighting the Tragedy of the Commons – Books & ideas

BBC – Earth – The bizarre beasts living in Romania’s poison cave

“In the south-east of Romania, in Constanța county close to the Black Sea and the Bulgarian border, there lies a barren featureless plain. The desolate field is completely unremarkable, except for one thing.

Below it lies a cave that has remained isolated for 5.5 million years. While our ape-like ancestors were coming down from the trees and evolving into modern humans, the inhabitants of this cave were cut off from the rest of the planet.

Despite a complete absence of light and a poisonous atmosphere, the cave is crawling with life. There are unique spiders, scorpions, woodlice and centipedes, many never before seen by humans, and all of them owe their lives to a strange floating mat of bacteria.

The grassy plains of Constanța county, Romania (Credit: Oliver Andas/Alamy Stock Photo)

The grassy plains of Constanța county, Romania (Credit: Oliver Andas/Alamy Stock Photo)

In 1986, workers in communist Romania were testing the ground to see if it was suitable for a power plant, when they stumbled across the Movile Cave. Romanian scientist Cristian Lascu was the first to make the dangerous descent.

To enter, you must first be lowered by rope 20m down a narrow shaft dug into the ground

Since then the cave has remained sealed by the Romanian authorities. Fewer than 100 people have been allowed inside Movile, a number comparable to those who have been to the Moon.

This is partly because the journey into the cave is extremely hazardous.

To enter, you must first lower yourself by rope 20m down a narrow shaft dug into the ground. The only light is from your helmet, which bounces around the walls as you descend.

You must then climb down through narrow limestone tunnels coated in an ochre clay, in pitch darkness and temperatures of 25 °C.  These paths eventually open out into a central cavern containing a lake.

Cristian Lascu (left) explores Movile (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

Cristian Lascu (left) explores Movile (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

In 2010, microbiologist Rich Boden, who was then at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, became roughly the 29th person to see the cave.

In the lake room, the atmosphere is heavy with harmful gases

“It’s pretty warm, and very humid so it feels warmer than it is, and of course with a boiler suit and helmet on that doesn’t help,” says Boden, who is now at the University of Plymouth in the UK.

“The pool of warm, sulphidic water stinks of rotting eggs or burnt rubber when you disturb it as hydrogen sulphide is given off.”

An unidentified leech from Movile Cave (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

An unidentified leech from Movile Cave (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

In the lake room, the atmosphere is heavy with harmful gases, principally carbon dioxide as well as the hydrogen sulphide from the water.

The experience is said to be terrifying – and that’s even if you don’t have a problem with creepy-crawlies

What’s more, the air is low in oxygen: it contains just 10% oxygen rather than the usual 20%. Without breathing apparatus, you would soon develop a headache. Visitors can only stay down for 5 or 6 hours before their kidneys pack in.

To explore the rest of the cave, you must dive into the lake and navigate narrow underwater passageways, squeezing through tiny gaps in the rock before emerging into airspaces called air bells.

Doing this in complete darkness is the most dangerous part of exploring the cave. You are far from the surface, so getting stuck or losing your way in the maze of tunnels would be lethal. The experience is said to be terrifying – and that’s even if you don’t have a problem with creepy-crawlies.

A waterscorpion (Nepa sp.) attacks its crustacean prey (Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL)

A waterscorpion (Nepa sp.) attacks its crustacean prey (Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL)

Despite the dark and the dangerous gases, Movile Cave is crawling with life. So far 48 species have been identified, including 33 found nowhere else in the world.

The animals in Movile Cave seem to be without a source of food

There are all sorts of scuttling and slithering things. Snails and shrimps try to avoid the spiders and waterscorpions. In the air bells, leeches swim across the water and prey on earthworms.

Strangely, the worse the air gets the more animals there are. It’s not at all obvious why that should be, or how the animals survive at all.

On the surface, plants use sunlight to extract carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into organic compounds. They can then use these chemicals to grow leaves, roots and bulbs. Animals then feed on these plant tissues.

Without sunlight, the animals in Movile Cave seem to be without a source of food.

A pair of waterscorpions (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

A pair of waterscorpions (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

In most caves, animals get their food from the water dripping down from the surface. This water can often be seen in the form of stalactites and stalagmites.

However, Movile Cave has a thick layer of clay above it, which is impermeable to water. When Lascu first visited, he could not find any stalactites or stalagmites, or any other sign of water coming from the surface.

The water in Movile Cave comes from a deep underground reservoir

The mystery deepened when scientists analysed the water in the cave for radioactive caesium and strontium. The 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl had released lots of these metals, which had found their way into the soils and lakes surrounding Movile Cave. However, a 1996 study found no traces of them inside the cave.

That means the water isn’t coming from above, so it must be coming from below. It now seems that the water in Movile Cave comes from spongy sandstones where it has lain for 25,000 years.

However, this still doesn’t explain how the animals in the cave survive. Tests have shown that the water flowing in does not contain any food particles.

Instead, the food comes from the strange frothy foam sitting on top of the water.

A cave woodlouse (Armadillium sp.) (Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL)

A cave woodlouse (Armadillium sp.) (Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL)

This floating film, which looks like wet tissue paper and can even be torn like paper, contains millions upon millions of bacteria known as “autotrophs”.

Sulphuric acid actually erodes the limestone, which is gradually making the cave bigger

“These bacteria get their carbon from carbon dioxide just like plants do,” says Boden. “The carbon dioxide level in the cave is about 100 times higher than normal air. But unlike plants, they obviously can’t use photosynthesis as there is no light.”

Rather than using light as an energy source, the Movile bacteria use a process known as chemosynthesis.

“They get the energy needed… from chemical reactions: the key ones being the oxidation of sulphide and similar sulphur ions into sulphuric acid, or the oxidation of ammonium found in the groundwaters to nitrate,” says Boden.

A waterscorpion (Nepa sp.) from Movile (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

A waterscorpion (Nepa sp.) from Movile (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

These chemosynthetic bacteria help explain why the cave is so large and the air is so thick with carbon dioxide.

Movile is the only cave whose ecosystem is known to be supported in this way

“Sulphuric acid actually erodes the limestone, which is gradually making the cave bigger,” says Boden. “The process releases carbon dioxide, which is why levels are so high.”

Another major group of bacteria get their energy and carbon from the methane gas that bubbles up through the waters of the cave. They are called methanotrophs.

Boden describes methanotrophs as “messy eaters” that “constantly leak metabolic intermediates like methanol and formate” into the surrounding water. In turn, these chemicals are food for other species of bacteria.

An unidentified pseudoscorpion (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

An unidentified pseudoscorpion (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

This may all sound very peculiar, and in some ways it is. Movile is the only cave whose ecosystem is known to be supported in this way, and the only such ecosystem on land.

The Movile bacteria are very similar to bacteria found elsewhere

But according to microbiologist J. Colin Murrell of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, the bacteria in Movile Cave are remarkably simple and not at all unusual.

“The bacteria get all of their carbon from just one source, be it methane or carbon dioxide,” says Murrell. “That means that all of the components of their cells, be it the DNA in their nucleus, the lipids in their cell membrane and the proteins in their enzymes, are made from the same simple ingredient.”

The Movile bacteria are also very similar to bacteria found elsewhere, despite having being trapped in the cave for over 5 million years.

“Methanotrophs are everywhere: the Roman Baths at Bath, the surface of seawater, the mouths of cattle and probably the human mouth and gut,” says Boden. “Autotrophic bacteria of the same types we found at Movile are found in almost all soils and on the surface of the skin.”

The same cannot be said for the animals of the cave. Millions of years of isolation has transformed them.

A centipede (Criptos anomalans) with extra-long antennae (Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL)

A centipede (Criptos anomalans) with extra-long antennae (Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL)

Many are born without eyes, which would be useless in the dark. Almost all are translucent as they have lost pigment in their skin. Many also have extra-long appendages such as antennae to help them feel their way around in the darkness.

One of the spiders was closely related to a spider found in the Canary Islands – which lie over 4000km to the west

There are no flies in Movile Cave, but the spiders still spin webs. Small insects called springtails bounce into the air and get caught in the webs.

In 1996, researchers categorised the animals in the cave. They included 3 species of spider, a centipede, 4 species of isopod (the group that includes woodlice), a leech never seen anywhere else in the world, and an unusual-looking insect called a waterscorpion.

Strangely, one of the spiders was closely related to a spider found in the Canary Islands – which lie over 4000km to the west, off the north-west coast of Africa.

That raises the question, how and why did the animals get into the cave?

Two woodlice (Armadillium sp.), which lack skin pigment (Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL)

Two woodlice (Armadillium sp.), which lack skin pigment (Credit: Patrick Landmann/SPL)

One theory is that back at the end of the Miocene Epoch, about 5.5 million years ago, the climate of the northern hemisphere changed. As Africa moved north it stopped the Atlantic from flowing into the Mediterranean Sea, drying it out.

It’s very likely that the bacteria have been there a lot longer than five million years

This could have forced the animals to seek refuge in the sulphurous underworld of Movile Cave. It would have been a haven, with thermal waters providing constant warmth, no competitors or predators, and a rich source of food.

The problem with this theory is that it is difficult to prove.

“It’s very likely that the bacteria have been there a lot longer than five million years, but that the insects became trapped there around that time,” says Murrell. “They could have simply fallen in and become trapped when the limestone cast dropped, sealing the cave until it was discovered again in 1986.”

It may be that different animals arrived at different times. A 2008 study of Movile’s only snail suggested that it has been down there for just over 2 million years. When it entered the cave, the ice age was just beginning, and the snail may have escaped the cold by going underground.

Cristian Lascu (left) in Movile Cave (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

Cristian Lascu (left) in Movile Cave (Credit: Thierry Berrod, Mona Lisa Production/SPL)

However they got there, it seems that Movile’s inhabitants are now trapped for good. We could learn a lot from them.

It could be that the first living cells were similar to those found in Movile Cave

The bacteria’s ability to oxidise methane and carbon dioxide is of particular interest. These two greenhouse gases are the biggest culprits for global warming, so researchers are desperate to find efficient ways to remove them from the atmosphere.

The Movile Cave microbes could also offer hints about how the first life formed on Earth. They are genetically similar to those found in geothermal vents, which are also rich in carbon dioxide, sulphides and ammonia.

The conditions in both places may well be similar to the primordial Earth. In our world’s early years, the Sun’s light was obscured by an atmosphere thick with carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. It could be that the first living cells were similar to those found in Movile Cave.

Almost 30 years after its discovery, Movile Cave remains perhaps the most isolated ecosystem on the planet. It surely has many more secrets to give up. There are plenty more organisms buried in the cave’s sediments, waiting to be identified, and they could help us understand some of our deepest questions about the nature of life.”

Source: BBC – Earth – The bizarre beasts living in Romania’s poison cave

What is New Economic Thinking? – Evonomics

“The financial collapse of 2007/08 and the subsequent deep recession and sluggish recovery have left huge scars on the global economy. In the UK, the government is grappling with an unprecedented budget deficit and unemployment is over 1 million higher than it was before the recession. This is a crisis for the real economy and for economic policymakers, but it should also be seen as a crisis for the economics profession and for economic theory. Not only did mainstream neoclassical economics – which has been the overwhelmingly dominant strand in economic thinking for over a century – fail to predict the collapse and recession, its models do not even concede that such events could happen. In the future, there is bound to be more interest in economic theories that offer a better explanation of recent events; and this is where heterodox economics comes in.

Neoclassical Economics

The failure to predict or explain the financial collapse and recession has put neoclassical economic thinking in the dock, but such an interrogation is long overdue. Sharp fluctuations in economic growth are just one of the real-world phenomena that traditional economics is poor at understanding. From actual human behaviour through to constant innovation, there is much that traditional economic thinking struggles to explain.

Neoclassical economic theories describe a world in which rational agents act as optimal decision-makers. Guided by possession of a full set of information, self-interested agents maximise utility while firms maximise profits. As a result, the economy is said to behave in a static and linear manner and the system tends towards a state of equilibrium: supply equals demand and an optimal price is set. Macroeconomic patterns are simply the sum of microeconomic properties (Blanchard 2010).

In this model, economies are not necessarily always in equilibrium; exogenous shocks, such as the development of a new technology, can disrupt them. But these disruptions will be temporary and market mechanisms will work to push the economy back to equilibrium. From a neoclassical perspective, economic development occurs through cyclical patterns of equilibrium, shocks, destabilisation and restabilisation. In each cycle the content of the economy such as the goods and services it offers might change, but its very nature essentially remains the same.

This conventional model can be challenged on four fundamental fronts: the tendency to equilibrium, exogenous shocks, individual rationality and systemic consistency. In the real world, economies are not static and geared towards equilibrium; they are dynamic and in constant flux. This dynamism is endogenous; it originates within the system, not from exogenous shocks. Consumer preferences are not formed by individuals acting solely on their own but are the result of a complex process that includes observing and interacting with other consumers. Economic agents do not have a fixed set of preferences based on rational assessment; they are subject to whims and to mimicking the behaviour of other agents. As a result, the nature of the economic system transforms over time.

In reality, the economy is a complex ecology rather than a complicated machine. It does not respond in predictable ways. It is path-dependent, with each phase building on the previous one. A greater appreciation of this reality has led to the emergence of new schools of thought that are challenging the neoclassical world view and attempting to provide a more realistic understanding of the way economies develop and change.

Complexity, evolutionary and behavioural economics

Various schools of economic thought outside the neoclassical mainstream are often placed together under the banner heading of ‘heterodox economics’. This term is used to describe any innovative way of thinking about the economy, from those that represent complete breaks from the neoclassical approach to others seeking to undermine only some of its main ideas.

In this piece, three strands of heterodox economics are discussed in some detail: complexity, evolutionary and behavioural economics. Each offers different insights into economic analysis by seeking a more accurate representation of the economy, and in so doing opens up new possibilities for policymakers. This essay summarises their basic tenets – and discusses what they might mean for public policy.

Complexity economics challenges fundamental orthodox assumptions and seeks to move beyond market transactions, static equilibrium analysis and homo economicus (the perfectly rational, self interested individuals defined in orthodox economic models). Brian Arthur, Steven Durlauf and David Lane (1997) suggest complexity has six defining characteristics.

  1.  Dispersed interaction: Developments in the economy result from the interaction of heterogeneous agents, whose actions are determined by their environment and by the predicted actions of other agents.
  2. The absence of a global controller: The economy is characterised by competition and coordination between decision-makers and no single agent is able to exploit all opportunities in the economy.
  3. A cross-cutting hierarchical organisation: The economy is comprised of many levels of organisation and there are many intertwined interactions that span across all levels.
  4. Continual adaptation: Decision-makers or agents are continually learning and adapting to their environment, emergent patterns and interactions.
  5. Perpetual novelty in the system: New niches continually emerge out of new markets, new technologies, new behaviours and new institutions.
  6.  Out-of-equilibrium dynamics: The economy is typically operating far from any equilibrium or optimal output and there is constant improvement.

An alternative definition is based on the observed tendency of the economy to produce dynamic outcomes. Richard Day (1994) argues, for example, that ‘[an] economic system is dynamically complex if its deterministic endogenous processes do not lead it asymptotically to a fixed point, a limit cycle, or an explosion’. In other words, complex systems are non-linear, dynamic and involve continuous adaptation to patterns the economic system itself creates. As a result, these systems are, in contrast to the linear systems described by neoclassical economics, unlikely to rest at a given equilibrium point.

Complexity economics considers the economy to be a ‘complex adaptive system’ in which constant interaction plays a significant role. A complex adaptive system allows for a wide set of interactions between individuals and recognises that an economic actor’s preferences are diverse (Beinhocker 2007). Agents do not just respond to market signals, such as price; they also interact with other agents and this influences their subsequent choices and actions (Arthur 1999). The system is adaptive because agents learn from experience, and from the experience of others, and so gain knowledge they would otherwise have lacked. (In contrast, in traditional economic theory, the economy is populated by ‘representative agents’ or identical decision-makers operating in isolation.) If we accept the existence of these complex and overlapping interactions, this requires us to rethink the equilibrium outcomes that are at the centre of neoclassical assumptions.

In complexity economics, it is accepted that interactions between different actors at the micro level will lead to particular macroeconomic outcomes. Unlike in traditional economics however, the complexity view is that micro- and macroeconomics are not separate fields and macro patterns are not the simple aggregation of the micro decisions of uniform decision-makers (Fontanta 2008). Micro level interactions mean macro patterns cannot be reduced to individual level behaviour; these patterns can only be seen as a whole (Durlauf 2011). Thus, economic growth, for example, cannot be reduced to its individual properties or elements; rather it is a result of various interactions at the micro level (Metcalfe et al 2002).

Furthermore, once a macro pattern has been established, there is nonstop adaptation that leads to a generation of new patterns – emergent phenomena – arising from within the system. This process is referred to as endogenous evolution.

In a complex system, these interactions not only influence macro patterns but also create increasingly complex networks. Economic transactions take place across a range of networks, unlike in traditional models, which assume agents interact only through auctions or oneto-one negotiation (Beinhocker 2007). If agents have the ability to learn and adapt their behaviour accordingly, and alter their preferences and decision-making in an unpredictable manner, they can no longer be seen as rational entities operating with perfect information. In this respect, complexity economics has much in common with behavioural economics, while learning and adapting is central to evolutionary economics.

Evolutionary economics is closely related to complexity economics and, as its name suggests, sees the process of evolution as central to economic developments. Evolution involves endogenous change – a process of selection, adaptation and multiplication (Metcalfe et al 2002). As a result of experience and adaptation, some economic strategies and decisions work and some fail. Those that succeed are scaled up or multiplied; those that fail are cast aside. This process of continuous knowledge gathering and adaptation is driven by feedback mechanisms and the interactions between agents and their environment (Nelson and Winter 1982).

Innovation is central to evolutionary economics and is considered a marker of the capitalist economic system (Lent and Lockwood 2010). Indeed, innovation implies experimentation with new forms of physical technology, social technology and business techniques which – as history tells us – are core drivers of increases in efficiency and productivity, economic growth and the generation of wealth (Beinhocker 2007). This process of selection, adaptation and multiplication also takes place at the firm-level, where there is continual generation and selection of new products and services. The lack of narrative around innovation is one of conventional economic theory’s greatest flaws: indeed, by assuming that economies and firms are in or close to equilibrium, neoclassical models simply overlook the role of innovation in modern capitalism.

Like complex systems theory, evolutionary economics emphasises the crucial role of history in shaping the future. Past interactions and decisions have major impacts on the economy – a characteristic known as path dependence – and any initial small changes in an economy can produce drastic downstream effects, partially driven by networks and cross-cutting hierarchical organisation. Economic outcomes are determined not only by current conditions but also by previous decisions and initial conditions (Durlauf 1997).

If adaptation and innovation are central to the evolutionary economics critique of neoclassical economics, then the psychology of human beings is central to that of the behavioural economists. In short, behavioural science is a combination of psychology and economics that has led to a debunking of the traditional economic assumption of rational, self-interested individuals. This approach explores the limits to human rationality in decision-making. It argues that human agents do not possess the flawless ability to maximise utility or profits by weighing all available alternatives presented to them and that there are flaws and imperfections associated with decision-making (Lambert 2006).

Behavioural economists believe decision-makers exhibit what they call bounded rationality, bounded self-interest and bounded willpower (Jolls et al 1998). Bounded rationality recognises the limitations agents face when it comes to decision-making. Despite any prior intentions to be rational, limited information and other constraints prevent agents from making optimal decisions. In addition, agents are not always selfish, or self-interested: their self-interest is usually bounded by a sense of fairness. And bounded willpower acknowledges that agents at times find it difficult to make decisions that will benefit them in the long term.

Agents and firms rely on decision-making methods that differ from those described in neoclassical economics. Heuristics, framing and loss aversion shape their choices (Thaler and Sunstein 2008). When making decisions, economic agents cut corners. They use rules of thumb (heuristics) rather than gather all the relevant available information (an impossible task anyway); they reach different conclusions depending on how a problem is framed to them; and they avoid taking decisions that might lead to losses (Lambert 2006).

These behaviours characterise the actions of consumers. For example in a study commissioned by the Office of Fair Trading in the UK (2010), price framing was found to heavily influence outcomes. Consumers frequently miscalculated and achieved lower value when purchasing special offers compared to those offered at a simple unit price. They simply assumed that the special offer must be the best deal. Evidence of market inefficiencies like this shows people are not always rational decision-makers in their role as consumers.

Acknowledging the psychology of individuals in decision-making has led to more accurate representations of agents in economic models, thanks in part to behavioural science. These findings are shared by other heterodox economic schools. In models derived from a complexity or an evolutionary economics perspective, therefore, people are not assumed to be rational agents: they factor in the ability of agents to learn and adapt based on past experience and allow for trial and error and flexible behaviour (Nelson and Winter 1982).

To summarise then, complexity, evolutionary and behavioural thinking puts strong emphasis on dynamics, adaptation, psychology, disequilibrium and innovation. Modern economies are complex adaptive systems, rarely tending towards a steady state equilibrium in which supply equals demand and markets clear. Most change occurs endogenously, rather than as a result of exogenous shocks. Economies operate with constant fluctuation and multiple equilibria.

Policymakers operate in a neoclassical framework for the most part. They tend to evaluate various policy interventions by estimating the impact a given policy change might have on the economy and comparing this to what would happen in the absence of that policy being pursued.

Complexity economics on the other hand suggests that since the economy is a complex, adaptive and dynamic system, it is inherently difficult to predict outcomes and responses to particular policy changes (Ormerod 2010a). This presents immediate challenges for policymakers. Predicting future trends is problematic if markets and economies do not return to equilibrium, when agents are not always rational and when uncertainty is in-built into the system.

A deeper understanding of the relationship between macro outcomes and individual decisions is therefore needed for policy formulation. Solutions under complexity tend not to be based on deductive analysis or top-down approaches, but explore interaction and behaviour using a bottom-up approach. This inductive method makes use of empirical analyses such as agent-based modelling (Holt et al 2010) and tends to do away with conventional modelling techniques.

Indeed complexity economists believe emergent phenomena are better understood through computer simulations than through mathematical theorems (Rosser 1999). Computer simulations allow researchers to explore a wide range of possible outcomes (Arthur et al 1997) while agent-based modelling allows us to capture the key features of complex economic systems, in particular the interactions and networks between agents.

Given the above, Eric Beinhocker (2007) argues that the role of government should start from the premise of seeking to ‘shape the fitness environment’. This would allow free markets to assume their natural role of differentiating, selecting and amplifying successful economic behaviour. But by analysing and monitoring evolutionary processes within the market, policymakers can attempt to influence them so as to better respond to society’s needs. The aim of policymakers should, therefore, be to shape the environment in which plans or projects are more or less likely to succeed or fail according to their ability to meet society’s needs.

An example is the use of carbon taxes. One of the main purposes of a carbon tax is to shift the fitness landscape so that projects and technologies with low emissions have a better chance of succeeding. Here the market is still allowed to differentiate, select and amplify successful plans – but the environment in which the market operates is shaped by government. However, while they can be important in influencing behaviour and market outcomes, carbon taxes and other pricing instruments have their limitations. As Jim Watson argues, carbon pricing assumes that consumers and businesses will react rationally to the price signal. Since complexity economics suggests that this will not always be the case, additional measures may be needed to drive forward the low-carbon transition at a sufficient rate – particularly if the carbon price is set too low.

Policy can also draw from evolutionary economics, for example, by focusing on how selection mechanisms create desirable and socially optimal outcomes. Evolutionary economics sheds light on problems of long-term economic growth (Nelson 2005), environmental change (Faber and Frenken 2009) and regional policy (Boschma and Lambooy 1999), as well as new innovations and technologies, and the effects of technological and social change (Lent and Lockwood 2010).

In particular, evolutionary economics argues that the way to thrive in an evolving and changing economy is to innovate. Perhaps because neoclassical models overlook its role, innovation has rarely featured at the centre of economic policymaking in the UK. Historically, innovation has been patchily applied in the UK as part of growth strategies, and businesses and policymakers have been slow to respond to rapid business transformations. The evolutionary approach, however, suggests innovative business activity should be actively encouraged. Indeed, as Adam Lent and Matthew Lockwood (2010) argue, the UK’s growth strategy would greatly benefit from placing innovation at its core.

Methods from evolutionary economics have also been used to inform approaches to international development. Richard Nelson (2005) suggests moving away from the overly rigid neoclassical prescriptions of simply increasing investment in human and physical capital in developing countries and towards greater learning and innovation. This would involve learning how other countries have advanced their economy and gaining the knowledge of how modern technology can be used most effectively in achieving desired economic outcomes (Reinert 2006). In an earlier article with Sydney Winter (1982) Nelson argued that ‘flexibility, experimentation, and ability to change direction as a result of what is learned are placed high on the list of desiderata for proposed institutional regimes’.

Crucially, policymaking from an evolutionary economics perspective recognises that the state is limited by the same factors facing agents: it is not, and cannot be, in possession of a full set of information. Therefore, the state must be willing to learn from experience and adapt its approaches. Policymaking needs to be more flexible and willing to break with organisational routines.

While complexity and evolutionary economics have struggled to get a foothold in policymaking to date, many governments have begun to reflect on the analysis of behavioural economists when exploring policy interventions. In the UK, for example, the government set up in July 2010 a dedicated Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’), tasked with assessing potential policy interventions through the lens of behavioural thinking. In particular, it is seeking to use what is referred to as ‘choice architecture’ to evaluate the impact that framing details in different ways can have on how people make decisions. Choice architecture has already been applied and proved to be effective across a number of areas, including savings for pensions. While most people understand that pensions offer substantial rewards in the future for a relatively modest sacrifice made in the present, enrollment in voluntary schemes tends to be at a low level. Changing the rules so that workers must ‘opt out’ rather than ‘opt in’ to pension schemes has been found to significantly increase participation.

As the title of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s influential book (2008) implies, small changes of this sort can ‘nudge’ people to make better decisions about their health and financial wellbeing. Libertarian paternalism has the potential to create better outcomes, while retaining people’s right to choose. What is more, change can often be brought about at little to no cost; simply paying more attention to framing a particular choice may have a greater chance of achieving the desired outcome. As a result, behavioural concepts are being progressively incorporated into policies in many areas including environmental change, finance, international development, healthcare and competition policy. But, as Paul Ormerod has argued elsewhere (2010b), successful ‘nudges’ must also be grounded in an awareness of the network effects that influence an individual’s choices and behaviour and how this can change over time: without this understanding, nudges may fail in the same way as conventional command and control policies.

The neoclassical economic model is based on a series of simplifying assumptions that result in a poor representation of the real world. New schools of economic thought are emerging built on a more accurate analysis of the way economic agents behave and the way decisions are really made. These heterodox schools of economic thought dismiss notions of rational economic agents and profit-maximising firms in favour of a greater focus on psychology, interactions and history.

Complexity economics emphasises the power of networks, feedback mechanisms and the heterogeneity of individuals. Evolutionary economics is centred on the ideas of continuous adaptation and the creation of novelty; it recognises the key roles of innovation, selection and replication in the economy. And behavioural economics seeks to understand how and why individuals behave as they do, rather than assuming that they act like the robotic homo economicus of the neoclassical textbook.

Already these approaches are beginning to help us understand some of the economic anomalies that orthodox economics cannot explain. As they develop in the future and the appetite for new economic thought grows, our understanding of the economy – and our economic policymaking – can only be improved.

Excerpt from Complex New World: Translating new economic thinking into public policy, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).”

Source: What is New Economic Thinking? – Evonomics

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