21 June 2011

Plant biodiversity, Human biodiversity

The author of this blog today had the rare treat of hearing a talk given by a Nobel prize-winning economist.  The first such laureate, apparently, to be equipped with a uterus.  This anatomical oddity so excited our city fathers they invited her across the pond to shine her light on a conference hall full of Southern Frenchmen.  And women.

Policy was what she came to talk about, or as she put it, 'Community Organization of Common Pool Resources.'  Forest management, to be exact.

Who best to manage forests?

Surprise surprise, says Ostrom, government control is not the be-all end-all.  Local user groups can and have managed their forests just fine.  But not all users in all countries do it equally fine.  Some do it markedly less fine than others.


Ostrom has puzzled the question from every angle imaginable, looked at hundreds of variables, written dozens of papers and books on it.

She's looked at game theory, lab experiments with human guinea pigs playing games to show 'trust level,' 'willingness to cooperate,' 'long-term planning ability.'  All to figure out why The Tragedy of the Commons is so much more tragic for some peoples than for others.

Poking through her papers online, we were delighted to see her take into account 'gender' and 'age' in all these game theory lab tests. Turns out there is a 'statistically significant gender effect'!  But oh what cruel disappointment to see missing that one factor few dare to touch, even Nobel-fêted Elinor Ostrom.


She loves to quote lab studies on human behavior, often and with gusto, but there are some she won't touch with a ten-foot pole.  Apparently.   No matter their potential relevance to the knotty riddle of why some folks are so much better than others at tending to their trees.

She might, for example, have perused:

  • Bond, Michael Harris, and Peter B. Smith. "Cross-Cultural Social and Organizational Psychology." Annual Review of Psychology, (1996): 205+. 
  • Hsu, Francis L. K., ed. Psychological Anthropology: Approaches to Culture and Personality.  Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1961.
  • Lee, Yueh-Ting, Clark R. McCauley, and Juris G. Draguns, eds. Personality and Person Perception across Cultures.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.
  • Miller, William L., A. B. Grodeland, and T. Y. Koshechkina. A Culture of Corruption?  Coping with Government in Post-Communist Europe. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2001.
  • Salzman, Philip Carl, Culture and conflict in the Middle East, Amherst, Humanity Books, 2008.
  • Wang, Mei, Rieger, Marc Oliver and Hens, Thorsten, "How Time Preferences Differ: Evidence from 45 Countries", Swiss Finance Institute, Research Paper No. 09, 25 janvier 2010, p. 47

This last one (Wang et. al.) telling us, for example, that in a controlled behavioral experiment,

In general, the Germanic-Nordic group are far more likely to wait [defer gratification] (88% chose to wait) than other cultural clusters.  Anglo, Middle East, and East Asia are similar (around 66% to 70%), then followed by East Europe, Latin America and Latin Europe (around 52% to 59%). Africa has the lowest percentage of participants choosing to wait (34%).

Sensible policy, informed by HBD-awareness, is our goal.  The list of domains it touches is endless.  Would world forest management (subject of much worry as of late, 'Earth's lungs' and all that) be better if high human-capital folks in some countries took into account the limitations Mother Nature has placed on low human-capital folks in other countries?  Probably.

Sadly, it doesn't seem a question to which Nobel economist and forest management specialist Elinor Ostrom wants to find the answer.

And if you're wondering, dear reader, why your author didn't take the golden opportunity, sitting right there in the audience during 'Q&A' time, to ask her?

We did indeed, writing on the notecard in careful block print, 'Have your studies on trust, cooperation etc. taken into account the recent studies indicating that different ethnic groups might show different levels of these traits?' (in English, trying to be helpful).

Only to listen, disgusted but not surprised, as the Frenchman tasked with gathering up said questions and posing them to Mrs. Ostrom decided, microphone in hand, to change 'ethnic groups' to...

...'social groups.'

Her response, needless to say, was unhelpful.

And so it goes, and shall continue to go, in this brave new world where up is down, slavery is freedom, 'ethnic' is 'social,' and gene-based social science is heresy.

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